Thursday, January 31, 2013

#899. Princess Mononoke (1997)


Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki

Starring: Yôji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yûko Tanaka




Tag line: "The Fate Of The World Rests On The Courage Of One Warrior"

Trivia: Director Hayao Miyazaki personally corrected or redrew more than 80,000 of the film's 144,000 animation cels







Master animator Hayao Miyazaki has once again created a marvel. I would describe Princess Mononoke as mesmerizing, beautiful, and even inspiring, but I fear those adjectives wouldn’t do it justice.

Set several centuries in the past, Princess Mononoke opens with Prince Ashitaka defending his village, which is being attacked by a forest God, a powerful boar that has been transformed into a demon (the result of a piece of iron lodged in its body). The Prince is victorious, but during the fight he inadvertently touches the boar, and in so doing is inflicted with an illness that will eventually kill him. Ashitaka’s only hope is to leave his village and seek out a mighty forest spirit, which has the power to cure him. Along the way, he witnesses a battle between the wolf Goddess Moro and the mortal Lady Eboshi. As it turns out, Lady Eboshi runs an iron works that produces weapons to kill the Gods (it was an iron ball from her factory that changed the boar into a demon). One of Moro's followers is a human girl she adopted named San (Claire Danes), also known as the Princess Mononoke. Ashitaka spends time with both the Forest Gods and the humans in the iron forge, and decides to make it his mission to bring the two together so they can live in harmony. But Lady Eboshi has something much different in mind.

As with Spirited Away, Miyazaki's skills shine through in Princess Mononoke. The animation is spectacular, bringing life to this story of Gods and mortals, and the various action sequences, culminating in the battle between Eboshi’s forces and the Forest Spirits, are beyond amazing. Yet, in true Miyazaki fashion, the very surroundings are equally as remarkable. Every being that inhabits the world of Princess Mononoke, man and creature alike, is multi-dimensional, but then so is the forest all around them, which is as much a living, breathing entity as any character. There is magic in Miyazaki's world, a magic so enchanting that you’re sad to see this extraordinary motion picture come to an end.

An environmental morality tale that’s also a stunning work of art, Princess Mononoke is a great movie, one you will surely revisit over and over again.







Wednesday, January 30, 2013

#898. The Hours (2002)


Directed By: Stephen Daldry

Starring: Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore





Tag line: "The time to hide is over. The time to regret is gone. The time to live is now"

Trivia: Nicole Kidman read all of Virginia Woolf's personal letters, and found that they gave her greater access to her character than her novels





Inspired by the Virginia Woolf novel Mrs. Dalloway, The Hours is a moving film about three women across time, all sharing a certain bond and longing for more than they have.

We start in 1924, as Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) is beginning work on her newest book, Mrs. Dalloway. She resides in the country with her husband, publisher Leonard Woolf (Stephen Dillane). They left London behind so Virginia, who recently suffered a complete mental breakdown, could escape the hustle & bustle, but she’s convinced being away from the city is causing her to go mad. Following a visit from her sister, Vanessa Bell (Miranda Richardson), Virginia’s desire to return to London grows stronger than ever.

Our next stop is 1951. Housewife Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) has just started reading Mrs. Dalloway. She is married to the kind, somewhat dull Dan (John C. Reilly), has a son, Richie (Jack Rovello), and another child on the way. In spite of her seemingly perfect suburban existence, Laura feels trapped. She’s even contemplated suicide, but for the sake of her family, can’t bring herself to do it. Laura puts on a brave face, yet privately wishes her life were very different.

In 2001, Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) is preparing a party for Richard (Ed Harris), a poet and novelist who has contracted AIDS, and is dying. Both he and Clarissa lead an alternate lifestyle and have partners of their own, yet Clarissa can’t help but think back to a moment in time when she and Richard were young and spent an entire summer together, during which she fell in love with him. Now, she spends her days doting on her sickly, chronically unhappy friend, and both Clarissa’s daughter, Julia (Claire Danes), and partner, Sally (Allison Janney), try to convince Clarissa that Richard is manipulating her. Of course, Clarissa already knows this, and doesn't mind one bit. When she's with Richard, everything seems OK.

How do these stories tie together? I’ll leave that for you to discover, because the intricate puzzle that The Hours so wonderfully constructs around its characters is one of the movie’s many strengths.

What I found most captivating were the film’s three leads, Kidman, Streep, and Moore, near-flawless in their portrayals of women whose lives are spinning out of control. Kidman deservedly won the Academy Award as the year’s Best Actress, but the standout performance is delivered by Moore, the suburban wife and mother who feels the world is closing in on her. All of the supporting players hold their own, especially Harris as the dying Richard. And look for Jeff Daniels in a small role as Richard’s partner, Louis.

The Hours is a heartbreaking tale of women at a crossroads, each trying to deal with the realization that their lives are no longer their own. Expertly directed by Stephen Daldry, The Hours is an emotionally draining, yet wholly rewarding experience.






Tuesday, January 29, 2013

#897. In Hot Pursuit (1977)


Directed By: Jim West

Starring: Don Watson, Bobby Watson and Paul Benefield





Tag line: "Life In The Fast Lane"

Trivia: This fim was also released as POLK COUNTY POT PLANE






Also known as Polk County Pot Plane, In Hot Pursuit chronicles the adventures of Oosh (Don Watson) and Doosh (Bobby Watson), a pair of good ‘ole boys from Georgia who run drugs for a living, specializing in imported marijuana. Eventually, the authorities catch up to our heroes and lock them away, but with the prospect of long prison sentences hanging over their heads, the two stage a daring jail break. Unfortunately, they hop right from the frying pan into the fire when their bosses, angry because they lost an entire shipment when the cops picked them up, expect Oosh and Doosh to reimburse them, demanding the duo cough up $150,000 within the next few days! Their backs against the wall, the boys know the only way to come up with that kind of money is to steal it… and fast!

Despite its rather straightforward story, In Hot Pursuit is a film with multiple personalities, alternating between comedy, drama, action and romance, and often switching from one to the other within the same scene. Its chaotic tone is set in the movie’s opening sequence, as a trio of police cars barrel down the road, their sirens blaring, while carnival-like music fills the soundtrack. This frivolous ambiance quickly changes to one of high drama the moment a huge plane lands in a barren field, and a drug exchange goes down. When the exchange is finished, the cops, who were watching from a distance, rush in, resulting in an extended chase with a notably comedic flair. Along with this constant back and forth, In Hot Pursuit also features shootouts, car crashes, an action-packed (albeit improbable) jail break, and more than a few surprises. Once or twice, the picture even ventures into darker territory (like when a minor character is shot through the head), but overall, it’s just good fun.

All the actors appearing in the movie were amateurs (which is obvious from the get-go), and there are plot holes as big as the house that Oosh and Doosh destroy when they drive a truck through it (a pretty cool scene, actually). Yet, despite its limitations, In Hot Pursuit is a ‘70s drive-in flick that ranks high on the entertainment scale.






Monday, January 28, 2013

#896. El Cid (1961)


Directed By: Anthony Mann

Starring: Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Raf Vallone




Tag line: "The GREATEST ROMANCE and ADVENTURE in a THOUSAND YEARS!"

Trivia: The part of Ben Yussuf was originally offered to Orson Welles







Who else but Charlton Heston could’ve starred in El Cid? Having already played such larger-than-life figures as Moses in The Ten Commandments and the title role in Ben-Hur, he seemed the natural choice to portray the 11th century Spanish knight Rodrigo de Bivar, also known as El Cid, a man whose courage and strength transformed him into a legend.

Set in 11th-century Spain, a land torn apart by warring kingdoms, El Cid follows the legendary Rodrigo (Heston), a nobleman of the city of Castille whose bravery has earned him the honorary title El Cid (which is Arabic for “The Lord”). Yet despite his exemplary service on the battlefield, El Cid finds himself at odds with many of his fellow countrymen. After defeating the Moors, he allows several of their leaders to go free, causing some in Castille to brand him a traitor, and leading to a duel between he and Count Gormaz (Andrew Cruickshank), the father of his bride-to-be, Jimena (Sophia Loren). El Cid even refuses to swear allegiance to his new King, Alfonso (John Fraser), because he believes he had a hand in the assassination of his own brother, Prince Sancho (Gary Raymond). In anger, Alfonso exiles Rodrigo, but when the ruler of the Moors, Ben Yussef (Herbert Lom), makes plans to invade, the King realizes the only man who can lead his army to victory is El Cid.

El Cid is a first-class Hollywood epic, a movie large in scope with beautiful imagery and, more importantly, a handful of spectacular action sequences. Early in the film, El Cid competes in a contest against Don Martin (Christopher Martin), the champion of the King of Aragon. It’s a lengthy showdown (starting as a joust on horseback and finishing up with hand-to-hand combat), yet never once does it lose an ounce of excitement. Anthony Mann’s steadfast direction aside, El Cid owes much of its success to Heston’s performance. From his very bearing to the way he handles the arduous battle scenes, Heston is every bit the warrior, a commanding presence whenever he’s serving king and country.

Unfortunately, El Cid stumbles when the action subsides. While convincing as a valiant knight, Heston’s scenes with Sophia Loren are flat. The two have zero chemistry (which may have something to do with the fact they couldn’t stand working together). This aside, El Cid is a thrilling account of Spain’s most famous knight, portrayed by an actor who was born to play a hero.






Sunday, January 27, 2013

#895. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)


Directed By: Ronald Neame

Starring: Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine, Shelley Winters




Tag line: "Who will survive-in one of the greatest escape adventures ever!"

Trivia: Shelley Winters trained with an Olympic swim coach so that her character, who is a former award-winning swimmer, would come across more realistically in the underwater scenes




When it comes to the disaster films of the 1970s, the one I’m most familiar with is 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure. As a kid, I was fascinated by its story of an upside-down ocean liner, and never missed an opportunity to watch the movie when it played on TV. For an impressionable youngster, The Poseidon Adventure was high drama done to perfection.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and everyone on board the S.S. Poseidon, a luxury liner on its final voyage, is having a great time. But the fun and frivolity comes to a sudden and tragic end when the Poseidon is hit by a massive tidal wave, one so powerful it flips the entire ship over. Among the survivors is Rev. Scott (Gene Hackman), a forward-thinking man of the cloth who believes God rewards those willing to fend for themselves. Realizing the Poseidon, which is now floating helplessly in the middle of the ocean, is quickly filling up with water, Rev. Scott convinces a handful of people to follow him as he makes his way to the bottom (now the top) of the ship to await rescue. Joining the good Reverend on his perilous journey are New York policeman Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his wife Linda (Stella Stevens); Mr. and Mrs Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters); lonely bachelor James Martin (Red Buttons); injured crewman Acres (Roddy McDowall); and a teenage girl named Susan (Pamela Sue Martin), who’s traveling alone with her younger brother, Robin (Eric Shea). Together, these few will brave the unknown, making their way through a maze of twisted metal and facing danger at every turn.

Despite the fact some of them are a bit rough around the edges, The Poseidon Adventure does manage to make us care about its collection of characters. As played by Hackman, Rev. Scott is a determined, sometimes gruff individual whose one and only goal is to lead this tiny group to safety. As the newlyweds, Borgnine and Stevens are easily the least likable of the bunch; their constant bickering, with each other as well as the remaining survivors, is grating at times. The film’s most unforgettable performance is delivered by Shelley Winters, playing the rotund grandmother, Mrs. Rosen, who, when the chips are down, proves she’s got courage to spare. Yet as much as I wanted to see these people escape, what I always remembered most about The Poseidon Adventure was its more thrilling moments, key among them the scene where the ship is first hit by the wave and turned upside-down, a chaotic sequence featuring lots of well-staged destruction. The characters are, indeed, memorable, but it’s the sheer adventure of it all that stays with you the longest.







Saturday, January 26, 2013

#894. Drums in the Deep South (1951)


Directed By: William Cameron Menzies

Starring: James Craig, Barbara Payton, Guy Madison





Trivia: The King Bros., who produced this film, borrowed James Craig from M-G-M for the production









By the time he directed 1951’s Drums in the Deep South, William Cameron Menzies was already an award-winning Production Designer, having lent his creative talents to a number of early films like The Thief of Bagdad in 1924 and D.W. Griffith’s 1930 biopic of Abraham Lincoln. So respected was his work that David O. Selznick hired him to design Gone with the Wind, going so far as to send a memo to his crew informing them that, in matters of set decoration, “Menzies is the final word”. Unlike Selznick’s extravagant 1939 film, Drums in the Deep South was made on a limited budget, but with Menzies at the helm, the picture ends up feeling a lot bigger than it actually is.

The movie opens in 1861, on the eve of the U.S. Civil War. Braxton Summers (Craig Stevens) returns to his vast Atlanta plantation to tell his wife, Kathy (Barbara Payton), that he’s invited two of his former West Point classmates, Clay Clayburn (James Craig) and Will Denning (Guy Madison), over for dinner (knowing full well Kathy and Clay were once in love with each other). But their meal is cut short when Kathy’s uncle, Albert (Taylor Holmes), rushes in to announce that war has broken out. Jumping ahead several years to 1864, we learn that Clay and Will, who were the best of friends, are now fighting on opposite sides, with Clay a Major in the Confederate Army and Will an officer for the Union. Unbeknownst to the two, their paths are about to cross once again.

In an effort to slow down Sherman’s march through Georgia, Clay is ordered to lead a platoon to the top of Devil’s Mountain, which overlooks a railroad track the North has been using to shuttle supplies to Sherman’s army. Aided by several cannons, Clay’s men manage to destroy a Union train, and in response, his old pal Will is sent in to prevent any further damage. As it stands, neither Clay nor Will realize they’re facing off against one another. Will they learn the truth before it’s too late?

As mentioned above, Drums in the Deep South wasn’t nearly as large as Gone with the Wind, yet director Menzies pulls out all the stops, making it feel every bit as ambitious as its famous predecessor. Acting as the film's Production Designer as well, Menzies’ eye for detail is present in every lavish set and period costume, and he even employs a number of matte paintings (including the wide shots of Devil’s Mountain) to help enlarge the picture’s scope. Dmitri Tiomkin’s grandiose score is another of the movie’s strength, using traditional tunes like Dixie and Battle Hymn of the Republic to accentuate the more dramatic sequences.

Still, there’s no getting around the fact that Drums in the Deep South was a small motion picture; there are more scenes of men preparing for battle then there are of actual combat. That Menzies managed to make the film seem as big as he did was a clear sign of his talent, leaving me to wonder what Drums in the Deep South might’ve been had he had the deep pockets of David O. Selznick behind him.






Friday, January 25, 2013

#893. Glory (1989)


Directed By: Edward Zwick

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes





Tag line: "Their innocence. Their heritage. Their lives. Nothing would be spared in the fight for their freedom."

Trivia: Matthew Broderick is believed to be a distant relative of Robert Gould Shaw, the character he plays





Edward Zwick’s 1989 film, Glory, tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first all-black infantry regiments raised during the Civil War, following it from its inception in March 1863 to the day it led an assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold in Charleston, South Carolina.

Under the command of Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), the 54th stands ready to prove that black soldiers are every bit as talented as their white counterparts. Yet before they’re given an opportunity to fight the Rebels, Shaw and his men find themselves squaring off against the bigotry in their own Army, which denies them necessary equipment and even pays them at a reduced wage (as a form of protest, both the troops and officers of the 54th refuse their pay packets). After spending much of their time performing manual labor, the 54th is finally ordered to lead the charge on Fort Wagner, setting the stage for what would become the regiment’s costliest, and most heroic, battle.

First and foremost, Glory contains a number of strong performances. Having spent the majority of the ‘80s appearing in comedies (including the title character in the wildly popular Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Broderick rounded out the decade with a very convincing dramatic turn as Shaw, the officer determined to show what his men are capable of, regardless of the cost. Cary Elwes plays Shaw’s good friend and second-in-command, Maj. Forbes, and is equally as impressive, sharing Shaw’s determination while occasionally acting as his conscience, reeling the Colonel in when his zeal gets the better of him. As for the soldiers who make up the bulk of the 54th, the standouts are Andre Braugher as Thomas Searles, a black man raised in white society who has a hard time fitting in; Morgan Freeman as Rawlins, the former gravedigger awarded the rank of Sergeant for his exemplary service; and Denzel Washington as Pvt. Trip, the angry soldier who sees no future for himself or his people, regardless of which side wins the war. For his performance, Washington won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, an honor he certainly deserved.

But this quintet of fine actors isn’t the only thing Glory has going for it; the score, written by James Horner and featuring the Boys Choir of Harlem, is just about perfect, and the final assault on Fort Wagner is among the most inspiring battle sequences ever committed to film. Each of these elements, combined with the extraordinary camerawork of Freddie Francis, does its part to make Glory one of the finest Civil War-era motion pictures that Hollywood has to offer.







Thursday, January 24, 2013

#892. The Chiefs (2004)


Directed By: Jason Gileno

Starring: Brady Austin, Mike Bajurny, Robert Berger




Tag line: "Men fighting to remain boys"

Trivia: Won the Canadian Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Documentary at the 2004 Atlantic Film Festival







In the hilarious 1977 comedy, Slap Shot, Paul Newman plays Reggie Dunlop, player-coach of the amateur hockey team, the Charlestown Chiefs. Over the course of the movie, the Chiefs go from perennial losers to the most successful, not to mention most hated, team in the league. And what brought about this dramatic turnaround? It was the addition of three brothers, Jeff (Jeff Carlson), Steve (Steve Carlson) and Jack Hanson (David Hanson), to the roster, a trio of goons ready to drop their gloves at the slightest provocation and beat the hell out of the opposing players. The Hansons were an intimidating force on the ice, and thanks to their no-holds-barred mentality, the Charlestown Chiefs went from zeroes to champions.

The Chiefs, a 2004 documentary, gives us yet another team named The Chiefs, which also has its share of fighters. Only in the case of this movie, the violence is 100% real.

Directed by Jason Gileno, The Chiefs follows the Lavel Chiefs, considered by many the toughest team in the QSPHL (Quebec Semi-Pro Hockey League). Several of the players, including Mike Bajurny, Brady Austin and Cory Holland, never leave the arena; they reside in a dormitory that management built under the bleachers, a place affectionately referred to as “The Rat’s Nest”. Along with teammates Mike Henderson and Tim Leveque, these three are ready to do whatever it takes to help the Chiefs win, even if it means spending most of the game in the penalty box.

At one point in The Chiefs, Mike Bajurny (whose brother, David, produced the film) compares playing in the QSPHL to “trench warfare”, and from the looks of it, his observation is spot-on. Throughout the documentary, we see plenty of swinging sticks, flying fists, and the odd player jumping into the stands to take his frustrations out on a spectator. One particularly funny scene involves a bench-clearing brawl, shown in slow-motion and set to ballet music, as if the combatants were dancers on a stage. Naturally, being a hockey goon has its ups and downs; Bajurny tells of how he once took a high stick to the face that resulted in 40 stitches. On the flip-side, it also wins you the admiration of hundreds of fans. As the movie opens, we meet Chiefs devotee Pierre Landry, hard at work making a championship belt with the team’s insignia on it. Of course, not everybody likes a good fight. Mike’s mother, Nancy, can’t understand why people enjoy watching players beat each other to a pulp. “They say it’s all part of the game”, she says, “but I’ve seen the Olympics, and I think that’s good hockey, and they don’t have to do that”. Sure, die-hards love the fights, but for the family members, they aren't much fun.

With the QSPHL being a semi pro league, the game footage shown in The Chiefs isn’t of the highest quality (many times, it looks like only a single camera was recording the event, and from quite a distance away). The film also devotes a great deal of time to chatting with the players, and occasionally is a bit too talky for its own good. Yet by getting to know these guys so intimately, director Gileno also brings emotional weight to their story, and in so doing, transforms The Chiefs into something more than goons slugging it out in the middle of an ice rink.







Wednesday, January 23, 2013

#891. 2069: A Sex Odyssey (1974)


Directed By: Georg Tressler

Starring: Nina Frederik, Catharina Conti, Heidrun Hankammer




Tag line: "Interplanetary Women Looking For What Only Earth Men Can Give..."

Trivia: In the French-speaking areas of Canada, this film was released as AMAZONS OF VENUS






A German import, 2069: A Sex Odyssey is a soft-core comedy featuring plenty of nudity, smatterings of sex, and a whole lot of jokes that fall flat.

Five scientists from Venus, a planet populated entirely by women, drop in on the citizens of a small German town. Led by Commander 666 (Nina Frederik), these stunningly attractive aliens have been sent to earth to collect sperm from its male inhabitants, specifically, enough sperm to help in the repopulation of Venus for the next 10,000 years! Naturally, the men in town, who mistake the five for members of the French ski team, are more than happy to oblige, that is until they get a gander at the complex machinery designed to “extract” their sperm. When the men protest, the Venusians find they must rely on more “traditional” methods to complete their mission.

2069: A Sex Odyssey starts slowly, but once the lovely alien visitors get down to business, they take their jobs very seriously, learning all they can about the ways of love from the town’s horny males. One even “demonstrates” what she’s learned on Commander 666, who finds herself enjoying the experience quite a bit. Like their otherworldly counterparts, the earth women are just as willing to take their clothes off; in fact, the first tryst we see involves a pair of locals getting friendly in a barn. As for the humor, it’s more “miss” than “hit”. I did chuckle a little when Commander 666 praised a subordinate, telling her she was selected for this mission because she’s a “cunning linguist”. But there’s more physical comedy in 2069 than anything, which doesn’t fit the film at all. Along with a few chases, some of which are sped up for comic effect, one poor guy named Karl (played by Leopold Gmeinwieser) has a pitchfork stuck in his ass. As you might imagine, the pairing of slapstick with soft-core sex is not a winning combination.

So, yeah, the comedy in 2069: A Sex Odyssey is lame. But the girls are gorgeous, and aren’t shy about showing off their healthy Venusian figures. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’d gladly sacrifice a few guffaws in favor of that any day of the week!







Tuesday, January 22, 2013

#890. Brain of Blood (1971)


Directed By: Al Adamson

Starring: Grant Williams, Kent Taylor, John Bloom




Tag line: "A Blood-dripping Brain Transplant turns a Maniac into a Monster..."

Trivia: The local butcher provided some of the offal required for the brain operation scene






Director Al Adamson’s Brain of Blood has a lot of common with his low-budget monster mash-up, Dracula vs. Frankenstein, which was released a year earlier. Like that film, Brain of Blood features weak production values and less-than-stellar performances, but what the movie lacks in technical savvy, it more than makes up for in sheer strangeness.

Amir (Reed Hadley), the beloved leader of a middle-eastern country, is dying. Fearing his demise will plunge their society into chaos, two of Amir’s closest advisors; Bob (Grant Williams) and Mohammed (Zandor Vorkov), seek the help of American scientist, Dr. Lloyd Trenton (Kent Taylor), who believes he’s perfected a medical procedure that will allow him to transplant Amir’s brain into another man’s body. Aided by his dwarf assistant, Dorro (Angelo Rossitto), Dr. Trenton successfully removes Amir’s brain, but when the body his deformed servant, Gor (John Bloom), returns with proves an unsuitable host, Dr. Trenton decides to take matters into his own hands.

The movie’s first few scenes, where Amir’s body is brought to Dr. Trenton’s lab, tell us everything we need to know about the type of film Brain of Blood is going to be. To start with, the picture was done on the cheap, which is obvious the moment we realize Amir’s henchemn have “preserved’ his body by wrapping it in aluminum foil! To coincide with the overall shoddiness of the production, Adamson occasionally positions his camera in such a way that we have no idea what’s going on (in one ill-advised move, he swings it behind some glass beakers resting on a table in Trenton’s lab, turning what had, moments earlier, been a clear image into a distorted mess). Yet, thanks to the bizarre twists its story took, I was able to overlook many of these faults. For example, the dwarf, Dorro, has to stand on what looks like a dining room chair to see the operating table, and Dr. Trenton keeps two women chained up in his basement, solely to serve as his own personal blood donors. And that's just the start of it; this movie gets more peculiar with each passing minute!

In short, Brain of Blood may not look all that great, but it’s certainly weird enough to grab your attention.







Monday, January 21, 2013

#889. Gone with the Wind (1939)


Directed By: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood

Starring: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Thomas Mitchell




Tag line: "For the thousands who remember its unparalleled drama, action and romance!"

Trivia: The movie's line "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." was voted as the #1 movie quote by the American Film Institute






Gone with the Wind continues to rank as one of the most beloved motion pictures of all time, and while the film’s rather pedestrian approach to slavery may cause modern viewers to raise an eyebrow or two, the movie has lost none of its power to entertain.

Based on the best-selling novel by Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind is set against the backdrop of the U.S. Civil War, and details the trials and tribulations of Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Leigh), a southern belle willing to do whatever it takes to survive in a land torn apart by conflict. Left heartbroken years earlier when the man of her dreams, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), married the saintly Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), Scarlett now uses her feminine wiles to entice men, marrying (and being widowed) several times, and becoming a wealthy woman in the process. Through it all, one man was determined to win her heart: the handsome Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), whose attentions she continually brushed aside. Eventually, Scarlett does agree to marry Rhett, yet her love for Ashley is as strong as ever, causing a rift between husband and wife and forcing Rhett to make some difficult decisions.

As the ill-fated lovers, Gable and Leigh are beyond superb, and the supporting cast is equally impressive, especially Olivia de Havilland as Melanie, whose virtue is a constant thorn in the side of the scheming Scarlett. The film also has its share of unforgettable images, like when Scarlett, walking the streets of Atlanta, becomes lost in the crowd as the camera slowly pulls back, revealing hundreds of wounded soldiers lying all around her. From the way it handles the on-again / off-again romance of its two leads (a love affair as tragic as any Shakespeare ever conjured up) to its remarkable costumes and larger-than-life set pieces, Gone with the Wind is a textbook example of epic filmmaking at its finest.

Naturally, as one would expect from a motion picture glorifying the south in the days preceding, and immediately after, the Civil War, Gone with the Wind isn’t the most socially conscious work to emerge from Hollywood’s Golden Era. Were it remade today, I imagine the issue of slavery would, at the very least, be addressed, and not glossed over like it is in this film (I assume Ms. Mitchell’s novel comes up short in this area as well). Clearly, the American South was a wonderful place for some, but it was also a hellish nightmare for thousands of others, and it’s strange, in this day and age, to watch a movie that seems oblivious to this fact.

Though lacking in social commentary, there’s no denying Gone with the Wind is still every bit as grand, every bit as heartbreaking, and every bit as awe-inspiring as it was in 1939. It is the granddaddy of screen romances, and more than likely will remain so for generations to come.







Sunday, January 20, 2013

#888. Nashville (1975)


Directed By: Robert Altman

Starring: Keith Carradine, Henry Gibson, Ronee Blakley





Tag line: "The Home of Country Music"

Trivia: All the band musicians used in the film were real musicians working in Nashville at the time





Along with directing a number of great films, including MASH, The Player and Short Cuts, Robert Altman also turned out two masterpieces. The first is McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a very unique western and one of my all-time favorite films. The second is 1975’s Nashville, a picture that shies away from story and plot to instead focus on its huge cast of characters.

Set in the country music capital of the world, Nashville brings together 24 people over the course of several days. John Triplette (Michael Murphy) has just arrived in town to organize a political rally for independent Presidential candidate Hal Philip Walker. With the help of local lawyer Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), Triplette hopes to coax some of country music’s biggest stars into appearing at the event, including egotistical superstar Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), and the frail and sickly Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley), who’s managed by her husband, Barnett (Allen Garfield). Also in town is a famous folk trio, whose front man (Keith Carradine) is a sexually obsessed Casanova hoping to add another notch to his bedpost in the form of gospel singer Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin), Delbert’s wife. Along with the musicians, Nashville gives us the wannabes, like the talentless Sueleen (Gwen Welles) who dreams of being a singer, and the pushy Albuquerque (Barbara Harris), always on the lookout for someone who’ll give her a shot at the big time. Then there are the newcomers to Nashville, such as L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall), in town to visit her uncle (Keenan Wynn), and Opal (Geraldine Chaplin), who’s just flown in from England to produce a documentary for the BBC. Each of these individuals, and more besides, will turn up at Hal Philip Walker's rally, setting the stage for a finale as shocking as it is dramatic.

The basic premise of Nashville, organizing a political rally, is simply an excuse to bring these characters together. We get to know most of them quite intimately, and a few even manage to surprise us along the way. Take Haven Hamilton, for instance, who, when we first meet him, is in studio, recording a patriotic ditty titled Two Hundred Years. Complaining the piano player is off-key, Haven stops the session several times, finally walking out in disgust before the song is finished. In this scene, and through much of the film, Haven comes across as an overbearing blowhard with a mighty high opinion of himself. Then, all at once, when something terrible happens, we’re shown another side of Haven Hamilton. It’s not as if he’s undergone any substantial personality change; this is a strength Haven always possessed, concealed behind his pomposity and pride, and suddenly, we find ourselves admiring him in spite of his faults.

Like a number of the individuals we’re introduced to in Nashville, there’s more to Haven Hamilton than meets the eye, and it’s the gradual revelation of its characters' many layers that makes this movie such a rewarding experience.







Saturday, January 19, 2013

#887. Sextette (1978)


Directed By: Ken Hughes

Starring: Mae West, Timothy Dalton, Dom DeLuise




Tag line: "The Sin-Sational Mae West"

Trivia: Alice Cooper has claimed on numerous occasions that Mae West sexually propositioned him and each of the film's other leading men







Mae West, star of stage and screen, was approaching 85 years of age when she made Sextette, which was based on a play she herself wrote. Decked out in a blonde wig to make her look younger (it doesn’t), Ms. West delivers a slew of unforgettable lines, such as “It’s not the men in my life, but the life in my men”, and “is that a gun in your pocket, or are you glad to see me?” If the thought of a senior citizen wearing skin-tight dresses and uttering sexual innuendo turns you on, then you won’t want to miss this film. If, on the other hand, just reading the above has given you the nervous shakes, consider this fair warning; Sextette is easily one of the most uncomfortable motion pictures I’ve ever had to sit through.

West plays world-famous movie star Marlo Manners, who’s just tied the knot with husband #6, British aristocrat Sir Michael Barrington (Timothy Dalton, over half a century younger than his leading lady). As it turns out, the London hotel where the happy couple’s honeymooning is, at the same time, hosting an important U.N. Summit. In fact, the Russian delegate, Alexei Karansky (Tony Curtis), is Marlo’s ex-husband, and when his “no” vote stalls the proceedings, the U.S. representative asks Marlo to intercede. Unfortunately for the newlyweds, Alexei won’t be the last of Marlo’s exes to turn up. While all this is going on, Marlo’s pushy agent, Dan Turner (Dom DeLuise), is preparing his client for her next big movie role. No matter how hard they try, Marlo and Michael can’t get a moment’s peace; they’re even hounded by gossip columnist Rona Barrett (playing herself)!

Sextette is positively littered with painful sequences, far too many for me to list here. So, let me touch on a few “highlights”. When Marlo and Michael first arrive at the hotel to begin their honeymoon, they’re treated to an impromptu rendition of “Hooray for Hollywood”, during which Miss West prances around rather gingerly, as if she were afraid she might fracture a hip. When the lovebirds are alone in their suite, they once again break into song, this time a duet of “Love Will Keep Us Together” (I nearly swallowed my tongue when Michael serenades Marlo with the line “Young and Beautiful, someday your looks will be gone”). But of all the awkward scenes in Sextette, nothing quite compares to those moments when Mae West is acting sexy, and coming on to every guy she meets. She even pays a visit to the US Athletic team, which is training in the hotel’s gym. Making her rounds, she slinks over to one of the athletes and says, “I’d sure like to see your Javelin”. Honestly, it’s like watching your grandmother talk dirty!

The tragedy of it all is that Sextette features a number of interesting supporting players, including Ringo Starr as an eccentric film director (who also happens to be husband #4); Keith Moon, the late drummer of The Who, as a dressmaker; Regis Philben, as himself; and Alice Cooper (that’s right, Alice freakin’ Cooper) as a waiter (and a singing one at that). A few of these cameos managed to bring a smile to my face, and if this were any other movie, I’d say they made it worth checking out. But after spending 90 minutes with an 80+ year old in heat, the only recommendation I can offer is this: if you do decide to watch Sextette, proceed with extreme caution: this film could put you in therapy.







Friday, January 18, 2013

#886. Contact (1997)


Directed By: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Skerritt



Tag line: "A message from deep space. Who will be the first to go? A journey to the heart of the universe"

Trivia: William Fichtner's character in the film, a blind astrophysicist with enhanced hearing as a result of his condition, is named Kent Clark, a play on the name of Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent





As a young girl, Ellie Arroway would spend hours broadcasting on her short wave radio, and gazing at the stars with her father (David Morse), wondering what marvels the universe holds. Now that she's all grown up, not much has changed; Ellie (Jodie Foster) is a scientist, and works for the SETI program, a tiny organization dedicated to monitoring radio waves in an attempt to find evidence of extraterrestrial life. Thus far, she hasn’t had much success, leading her boss, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), to shut SETI down. Faced with the possibility she won’t be able to continue her life’s work, Ellie fights to save SETI, finally obtaining the necessary funding from billionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt) to resume her research. Her tenacity pays off when, four years later, Ellie and her team make a remarkable discovery; a signal, emanating from the star Vega, is received, transmitting a series of prime numbers. Once the message is decoded, it’s found to contain a detailed schematic, an alien blueprint of sorts for a ship that will allow man to travel through the cosmos. But as an international crew prepares to build this ship, several religious and political groups chime in with their own opinions, arguing over whether or not we should try to contact the life forms on Vega, and, if we do, who should act as the earth’s representative for such a historic meeting?

We spend the first part of Robert Zemeckis’ Contact getting to know its main character, Ellie, from flashbacks of her childhood (played as a young girl by Jena Malone) to her struggle to keep the SETI project alive. Right at the outset, we identify with this strong-willed woman, who also happens to be a dreamer. So, when the radio transmission from Vega is initially detected, we’re as swept up in the excitement of it all as she is. The world may be stunned by the news of a signal from outer space, but for Ellie, it's an affirmation of something she’s known all along: that life is out there, just waiting to be found.

Then, Contact switches gears to show us humanity’s response to the revelation that we are not alone in the universe. There are debates on the religious significance of such a discovery, from theologian Palmer Joss’ (Matthew McConaughey) gentle observations to all-out attacks launched by extremists, who feel the very notion of visiting another planet is blasphemy. Political leaders also join the fracas, with a panel, made up of world dignitaries, chosen to select the perfect candidate to represent earth on this monumental voyage. Ellie seems the ideal choice, yet some believe her lack of a religious upbringing should disqualify her from consideration. Having answered the question of whether or not there’s life on other planets with a resounding “yes”, Contact then shows us mankind’s very human reaction to the news, including how some exploit it to further their own agenda.

Jodie Foster gives a stirring performance as Ellie, the woman who sees all her dreams come true, and then is forced to watch as they’re slowly picked apart by diplomats, who don’t share her optimistic view of the universe. Throughout Contact, we remain firmly in Ellie’s camp, hoping she’ll win out in the end and be chosen to make this journey. She is, after all, the only character in the film who comprehends just how magnificent an opportunity it truly is.







Thursday, January 17, 2013

#885. Seven Samurai (1954)


Directed By: Akira Kurosawa

Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima



Tag line: "The Mighty Warriors Who Became the Seven National Heroes of a Small Town"

Trivia: Akira Kurosawa's original idea for the film was to make it about a day in the life of a samurai, beginning with him rising from bed and ending with him making some mistake that required him to kill himself to save face




Of all the marvelous films that director Akira Kurosawa made, including such classics as Rashomon, Yojimbo,and Ran, Seven Samurai is my favorite. A thrilling adventure inspired by the westerns of John Ford (who Kurosawa was a great admirer of), Seven Samurai would itself be re-imagined in 1960 as a pretty entertaining American western, John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven.

Set in the 16th century, Seven Samurai tells the tale of a small Japanese farming village that, once a year, is raided by a roving gang of bandits. Unable to defend themselves, they ask Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a samurai living in a nearby town, for help. Though the villagers cannot pay Kambei for his services, the professional warrior is moved by their situation, and promises to recruit additional samurai to assist in their struggle. In all, Kambei convinces six more, including the brash Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), to join him, and together, these seven teach the villagers how to fight, and stand with them as they face off against the enemy, who outnumber the samurai by more than four to one.

The story is simple enough, yet the manner in which Kurosawa presents it is anything but; throughout Seven Samurai, the great director employs a number of cinematic tricks that, while quite innovative at the time, have since become commonplace (like his use of slow-motion in the ending battle). Along with its impressive style, the movie also delves into the relationship between the samurai and the people they’ve agreed to help, many of whom don’t fully trust their "guests" (some even hide their daughters, out of fear the samurai will try to rape them). It’s an interesting contrast: the skilled warriors and the humble farmers, and Kurosawa examines this unusual dichotomy to its fullest. The film’s best sequence, however, is the final battle, a stirring confrontation that takes place in a driving rainstorm, during which the samurai and the villagers, fighting side by side, do everything they can to hold off, then defeat, their common foe.

This climactic conflict is among the most exciting action sequences ever committed to film, and Seven Samurai is, in turn, one of the cinema’s most enduring masterpieces.






Wednesday, January 16, 2013

#884. Nightmares in Red, White and Blue (2009)


Directed By: Andrew Monument

Starring: Lance Henriksen, Larry Cohen, Joe Dante




Tag line: "The Evolution of the American Horror Film"

Trivia: Among the festivals that featured this movie were The Irish Film Institute Horrorthon and the Another Hole in the Head Film Festival







Narrated by Lance Henriksen, Nightmares in Red, White and Blue is a comprehensive documentary on the history of American horror films, starting as far back as 1912, when Thomas Edison produced the very first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, all the way to the 2000s, when pictures such as Saw and Hostel helped define the genre for a new generation of fans. With clips from some 100 movies, as well as interviews featuring many of horror’s most influential personalities, like Roger Corman, Joe Dante and George Romero, Nightmares in Red, White and Blue leads us on a whirlwind tour of a century of American horror films, and the role our changing society had in determining what it was that scared us over the years.

The film’s initial focus takes us back to my favorite era, the Universal monsters of the ‘30s and ‘40s, a period sandwiched between two World Wars (which proved every bit as horrific as anything the cinema had to offer). Nightmares in Red, White and Blue then walks us through the remainder of the 20th century, one step at a time, from the nuclear fears that gripped the ‘50s, displayed in movies like Them! and The Day The World Ended, to terrors from outer space (Invaders from Mars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The ‘60s saw yet another shift in the genre, launched at the start of the decade with Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, and the introduction of gore by way of Herschel Gordon Lewis' Blood Feast. The late ‘60s and ‘70s reflected the horrors of Vietnam, in both mainstream Hollywood (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, Jaws) and the growing Independent scene (Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left). A large chunk of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue is dedicated to the ‘80s, arguably the genre’s most prodigious era, including the slasher phenomenon (Halloween, Friday the 13th), the works of Stephen King (The Shining, Christine, Cujo) and the decade’s re-imagining of the classic monsters (The Howling, The Lost Boys). Serial killers seemed all the rage in the ‘90s (Silence of the Lambs, Candyman, Se7en), while the new millennium was steered by the tragedy of 9/11, an event which changed the country’s perception of the world and, with it, the movies that gave us nightmares, from torture (the Saw series) to remakes that upped the level of violence (2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead). Nightmares in Red, White and Blue covers all this, and a whole lot more besides.

You would think the history of American horror movies offered enough material to fill an entire miniseries, yet, somehow, this documentary does the genre justice in only 96 minutes. If you’re a fan of horror, Nightmares in Red, White and Blue is one film you can’t afford to miss.







Tuesday, January 15, 2013

#883. Lovely & Amazing (2001)


Directed By: Nicole Holofcener

Starring: Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer, Brenda Blethyn





Tag line: "If you're hoping for the perfect family don't hold your breath"

Trivia: Debuted at the 2001 Telluride Film Festival







Directed by Nicole Holofcener, 2001’s Lovely and Amazing is a finely woven, often funny tale of three women, a mother and two daughters, and the loneliness and insecurity they endure on an almost daily basis.

Michelle Marks (Catherine Keener) is a former homecoming queen turned struggling artist. Her husband, Bill (Clark Gregg), is less than supportive of her career choice, and the two bicker constantly. What’s more, Bill is having an affair with Michelle’s best friend, and Michelle knows it. Her sister, Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), is an actress who’s just lost out on a small part in an independent film. Her boyfriend Paul (James LeGros) is a lot like Michelle’s husband in that he’s not always there for her, and seems bored with their relationship. This doesn’t sit well with Elizabeth, who lacks confidence and takes every criticism to heart. Jane (Brenda Blethyn), Michelle’s and Elizabeth’s mother, is obsessed with her weight, and is preparing to undergo liposuction to “correct” it. Along with her two daughters, Jane has also adopted a young African-American girl named Annie (Raven Goodwin), whose real mother was a drug addict. Annie is overweight, hates that her skin is a different color than the rest of the family’s, and tries drawing attention to herself by playing practical jokes, like pretending to be drowned in the family pool.

All four of these ladies struggle through life, dealing with one appalling break after another. Director Holofcener successfully spins the complicated web of her character’s lives, allowing us to experience, on a personal level, every bad decision they make. Adding to her troubles, Michelle takes a job at a one-hour photo booth and has an affair with her 17 year-old boss, Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), which doesn’t end well, and Elizabeth brings stray dogs home, never expending a whole lot of energy looking for their owners. As for Jane, she develops a nasty infection as a result of her ill-advised surgery. Yet, in spite of their misfortunes, these characters find solace in one another, so much so that their various difficulties seem to just melt away.

Lovely and Amazing is a wonderfully acted, touching, humorous motion picture, and while it’s not always uplifting, the film is a passionate account of a family traversing the path of life, and how they maneuver the wrong turns they sometimes make along the way.







Monday, January 14, 2013

#882. West Side Story (1961)


Directed By: Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise

Starring: Natalie Wood, George Chakiris, Richard Beymer




Tag line: "Unlike other musicals West Side Story grows younger!"

Trivia: The actors in the rival gangs were instructed to play pranks on each other off the set to keep tensions high





A 20th century take on Shakespeare’s 16th century stage play Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story is a dynamic musical that’s just as vibrant and alive today as it was in 1961.

Two rival New York street gangs, The Jets (whites) and The Sharks (Puerto Ricans), are preparing to face off against each other. Riff (Russ Tamblyn), leader of the Jets, recruits his best friend (and former Jet) Tony (Richard Beymer) to help in the upcoming rumble. The problem is, Tony has fallen in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of Bernardo (George Chakiris), leader of the Sharks. Hoping to prevent the two gangs from fighting, Tony is instead drawn into a confrontation that takes a disastrous turn, threatening to destroy his budding romance before it ever gets off the ground. Yet Tony and Maria can’t ignore their love for one another, and, despite the opposition of those closest to them, search desperately for a way to be together.

Shot, in part, on the streets of New York, West Side Story convincingly updates Shakespeare’s classic tragedy for a modern audience. Some of the performances are strong, including Tamblyn, Chakiris (who won an Oscar for his work here) and Rita Moreno, who plays Bernardo’s fiery girlfriend, Anita, yet what makes West Side Story a remarkable motion picture is its music. Written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, many of the songs in West Side Story are unforgettable. The opening of the movie, a lively introduction to both gangs, is magnificently choreographed, as is “America”, a rooftop sequence featuring Moreno and Chakiris that’s positively electric. There are other great tunes as well, such as the romantic “Maria” and the whimsical “Gee, Officer Krupke”, but, for me, “America” is the film’s best musical number. Its energy is second to none.

Those familiar with Romeo and Juliet will know going in that West Side Story isn’t gonna end well, but that doesn’t detract one bit from the movie’s entertainment value. Much like 2001’s Moulin Rouge, which told a similarly downbeat tale of love, the fun of West Side Story is in the journey, and it’s certainly a spirited ride.







Sunday, January 13, 2013

#881. Bride of the Monster (1955)


Directed By: Ed Wood

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Tony McCoy




Tag line: "More horrifying than "DRACULA"..."FRANKENSTEIN""

Trivia: The prop octopus was stolen from Republic Studios and was constructed for the John Wayne film Wake of the Red Witch







One of the funnier sequences in Tim Burton’s 1994 film, Ed Wood, a comic look at the life and works of “the world’s worst director”, Edward D. Wood, Jr., involved the making of Wood's 1955 sci-fi / horror flick, Bride of the Monster, from the various financial issues that plagued it right down to the scene where star Bela Lugosi (expertly played by Martin Landau) flounders around in a makeshift pond, locked in a life and death struggle with a rubber octopus.

But what about the actual Bride of the Monster? Setting aside Burton's hilarious take on its production woes, how does the movie itself hold up?

Well, it is an Ed Wood picture. That should give you a clue!

After being booted out of his own country by the scientific community, Dr. Eric Varnoff (Lugosi) sets up shop in America, moving into an abandoned building right next door to a swamp. Aided by his trusty sidekick, Lobo (Tor Johnson), Varnoff has been conducting experiments on anyone foolish enough to wander onto his property, attempting to transform these trespassers into atomic supermen who will help him conquer the world. But when pesky newspaper reporter Janet Lawton (Loretta King) and her policeman fiancé (Tony McCoy) start nosing around, Varnoff is forced to take certain measures to keep his dreams alive.

Like many of Wood’s movies, Bride of the Monster features poorly realized set pieces (Varnoff’s lab looks like it was constructed in a dank basement), bad actors, laughable dialogue, and a whole lot of stock footage that makes no sense (though rumor has it the most bizarre insertion of all, the nuclear explosion that caps the movie off, wasn’t Woods' doing, but the work of the film’s chief financier). Yet one thing Bride of the Monster does have is Bela Lugosi, a long ways away from the performances he gave in the ‘30s and ‘40s but doing the best he can with the material. When visited by fellow countryman Professor Strowski (George Becwar), Lugosi’s Varnoff even gets to deliver a heartfelt speech. “Here, in this forsaken jungle hell”, he says, “I have proven that I am all right”. This monologue is admittedly one of the few highlights in an otherwise weak film, but who would have guessed the word “highlight” would crop up when describing a scene from an Ed Wood picture? This alone makes Bride of the Monster something of a triumph.

Bride of the Monster is, indeed, Ed Wood’s finest movie, which is not to say it's any good; on the contrary, it sorta sucks. When viewed alongside other turkeys, however, like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster fares quite well. It’s competently put together, and does feature an earnest performance by Bela Lugosi, who was at a low point in his life both personally (it was around this time his drug addiction took a turn for the worse) and professionally (he was working with Ed Wood… need I say more?), yet still managed to give it his all.

So, no… Bride of the Monster is not a good movie, but it’s the best one Ed Wood ever made. Take that for what it’s worth.







Saturday, January 12, 2013

#880. Walkabout (1971)


Directed By: Nicolas Roeg

Starring: Jenny Agutter, David Gulpilil, Luc Roeg




Tag line: "A boy and girl face the challenge of the world's last frontier. Dangers they had never known before... A people they had never seen before..."

Trivia: In the USA, this film was originally rated R by the MPAA due to nudity, but was reduced to PG on appeal





Shot on location in Australia, Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout is a study in cultural differences, focusing on the difficulties that sometimes arise when two people are unable to communicate with one another.

A teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her young brother (Luc Roeg) accompany their father (John Meillon) on a trek to the Australian outback. But when dear old dad pulls a gun on them, the children run for cover, only to be left stranded in the middle of nowhere when he torches the car and shoots himself through the head. Hopelessly lost, the siblings eventually meet an aboriginal boy (David Gulpilil) who helps them find food and water. Even though they don’t speak his language, the girl and her brother tag along with their new friend on his Walkabout, a rite of passage during which young aborigine males prove their worth by surviving in the great outdoors. But will this boy ultimately lead them to safety, or are the children doomed to perish in the cruel Australian wilderness?

In stunning fashion, Walkabout explores the dual nature of the Australian Outback, a place every bit as perilous as it is magnificent. The aborigine first encounters the girl and her brother at a watering hole, a gorgeous locale smack dab in the middle of a desert. Unfortunately, neither of the two siblings is in much of a position to appreciate the area’s natural beauty. Having spent the day walking in the hot sun, their hopes of finding water at this little oasis were dashed when they discovered it was all dried up. This initial meeting also yields the first instance of the main character’s failure to communicate. Eager for something to drink, the girl asks the aborigine if he knows where there’s some water. “Water”, she repeats over and over, adding, as she grows exasperated, “you must understand. Anyone can understand that. We want to drink”. Unable to comprehend a world beyond her own, the girl becomes increasingly annoyed when the aborigine doesn’t grasp her most basic of questions. Fortunately, her brother adapts more quickly to the situation, and, motioning to his open mouth, makes a drinking sound, at which point the aborigine finally understands. This clashing of cultures remains a prevalent theme throughout Walkabout, and will eventually lead to a tragic set of circumstances.

An often beautiful, occasionally harsh cinematic masterpiece, Walkabout is a film destined to stay with you for a long, long time.







Friday, January 11, 2013

#879. Spartacus (1960)


Directed By: Stanley Kubrick

Starring: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons



Tag line: "They trained him to kill for their pleasure. . .but they trained him a little too well. . ."

Trivia: Sir Peter Ustinov joked about his daughter, born at the beginning of production, being in kindergarten by the time the film was finished. When asked what her father did for a living she would answer, "Spartacus"





A thrilling historical epic, 1960's Spartacus also tells the very personal tale of a slave who dreamt of freedom, then took on the world’s mightiest power to attain it.

Shortly after he's condemned to death for attacking a guard, the Roman slave Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is purchased by Batiatus (Peter Ustinov, who would win an Academy Award for his performance), owner of a training facility for gladiators. Over the course of the next several months, Spartacus is instructed in the fine art of killing for profit, yet also finds himself falling in love with Varinia (Jean Simmons), one of Lentulus’ house slaves. After being forced to take part in a brutal fight to the death, Spartacus persuades his fellow gladiators to rise up against their cruel masters, and before long, he’s not only taken control of Lentulus’ school, but the surrounding area as well, building an army of slaves from the ones he himself set free. While most of Italy panics at the prospect of a slave uprising, Roman Senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton) uses this rebellion to advance the career of his young apprentice, Julius Caesar (John Gavin), and to destroy the reputation of his chief foe, Crassus (Laurence Olivier), a military leader and one of the most powerful men in Rome. With the ruling class at each others throats, Spartacus takes advantage of the extra time allotted him and marches his troops in the direction of the sea, where he hopes to hire a fleet of ships that will carry him and his ragtag army as far away from Rome as possible.

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, who took over when Anthony Mann was fired a week into production, Spartacus is both a sprawling epic and a heartfelt drama, its moments of spectacle interspersed with an intimate tale of a people fighting to be free. The film’s various battle scenes, some of which boast thousands of extras splashed across the screen, are spectacular; the final confrontation between Spartacus’ slave army and Crassus’ troops is as exciting as it gets. But the quieter sequences are just as effective, like the touching relationship between Spartacus and Varinia, and the battle of wills that sees Crassus and Gracchus butting heads on the floor of the Roman Senate. Spartacus does, indeed, tell a grand story, yet never loses sight of the deeply personal one that drives it.







Thursday, January 10, 2013

#878. Chronos (1985)


Directed By: Ron Fricke






Tag line: "A Visual and Musical Journey through Time"

Trivia: The title of this film comes from the Ancient Greek word for "Time"







Filled with stunning imagery, Chronos, a 1985 film produced exclusively for IMAX theaters, must have been a sight to behold in its original large-screen format. But I gotta tell you, it looks pretty damn impressive on a small screen, too.

Directed by Ron Fricke, whose time-lapse photography was one of the highlights of 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, Chronos takes us on a spectacular world tour, revealing the wonders of nature (such as Utah’s Monument Valley) as well as the majesty of some of man’s finest accomplishments (everything from the Great Pyramids to the Statue of Liberty). With music composed by Michael Stearns, who would also contribute to 1992’s Baraka, Chronos is a visual feast from start to finish.

There’s no plot to speak of in Chronos, nor is there dialogue of any kind, yet crammed into its abbreviated 43-minute run time are visions of our world that tell a thrilling story all their own. The initial scenes take us to such picturesque locales as Lake Powell in Arizona and the Grand Canyon, showing us the earth as it’s looked for millions of years. Then, all at once, we’re shuttled off to England, where we’re treated to a magnificent view of the clouds flying over Stonehenge. Each and every sequences presented in Chronos is breathtaking, yet my favorite is set inside the Vatican, where beams of light, stretching from the ceiling all the way down to the floor, slowly make their way from one side of the structure to the other.

While films like Chronos can sometimes leave me cold (I liked both Koyaanisqatsi and its sequel, Powaqqatsi, yet wasn’t particularly moved by either), the many incredible images on display in this motion picture had me positively awe-struck. I’ll admit that, as I was watching the movie, I felt a bit envious of those who got to view it in its original IMAX format, but no matter; Chronos is a film worth seeing on any size screen.







Wednesday, January 9, 2013

#877. Dracula: Spanish Version (1931)


Directed By: George Melford

Starring: Carlos Villarías, Lupita Tovar, Barry Norton





Trivia: This Spanish-language version runs nearly a half-hour longer than the English-language version of Dracula that was being shot during the day






The Spanish version of Dracula was shot at the same time as Tod Browning’s classic 1931 film, and on the exact same sets. Yet, despite this, the movie still finds a way to distinguish itself from its more famous counterpart.

The stories are practically identical. After receiving a visit from a property agent named Renfield (Pablo Alvarez Rubio), Count Dracula (Carlos Villarias), a vampire, leaves his castle in Transylvania and sails for England, taking up residence next door to a sanitarium owned and operated by Dr. Seward (José Soriano Viosca). Shortly after his arrival, Dracula meets Seward’s pretty daughter, Eva (Lupita Tovar), who’s engaged to be married to Juan Harker (Barry Norton). Secretly visiting her bedroom several nights in a row, Dracula slowly transforms Eva into a vampire. His fiendish plot is discovered, however, by Dr. Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena), a scientist who specializes in the supernatural. After realizing the Count is one of the undead, Van Helsing immediately sets to work trying to destroy Dracula and, if possible, save Eva in the process.

As mentioned above, the Spanish language Dracula features all of the set pieces seen in the English version (once Lugosi and company were finished for the day, director Melford and his crew moved in, shooting straight through the night). Yet even though Browning and Melford were working from the same script, they each managed to bring a unique quality to their respective adaptations. While Browning chose to keep the camera motionless throughout much of Dracula, Melford allowed his to move a bit more freely. When we’re first introduced to Dracula, he’s standing at the top of his castle stairs, just like he is in the English-language picture. However, in this film, the camera tracks in, getting closer and closer to the Count. This makes for a more dramatic entrance, and is one of several times Melford adds some visual flair to the movie.

While the style of the picture may feel like an improvement over Browning’s film, the same cannot be said for the performances. Clearly, Carlos Villarias was at a slight disadvantage, playing a role Bela Lugosi would make his own, but even still, Villarias’ Count comes across as far too friendly, never once matching the menace or dread that Lugosi brought to the part. And while Pablo Alvarez Rubio’s Renfield was interesting, what with his maniacal laughter and extreme mood shifts, the remainder of the cast is sub-par at best.

The Spanish Dracula is somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 minutes longer than the English Dracula, with extended scenes that feature a lot more dialogue (most of which was unnecessary). Yet even with its faults, the Spanish Dracula does make for a fascinating companion piece to the Universal classic.