Sunday, March 31, 2013

#958. And Now For Something Completely Different (1971)


Directed By: Ian MacNaughton

Starring: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman





Trivia: The movie was intended to introduce American audiences to Python's comedy, but ironically, it did far better business in Britain, where viewers had already seen the movie's sketches






Before tossing their hat into the cinematic ring with 1974’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Python troupe made a name for itself by way of the UK sketch comedy television program, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which aired on the BBC from 1969 to 1974. 1971’s And Now For Something Completely Different is a compilation of the Python’s most popular skits from the series’ first two seasons, reshot on film and no longer performed in front of a live studio audience.

Directed by Ian MacNaughton (who oversaw the TV series as well), And Now For Something Completely Different presents such memorable Python routines as “The Funniest Joke in the World”, about a joke so uproariously funny that anyone who hears it dies laughing, and “Nudge, Nudge”, starring Eric Idle as a sexually frustrated bar patron who asks Terry Jones a string of inappropriate questions. Interspersed between the sketches are animated segments produced by Terry Gilliam, the best of which is “American Defense”, a U.S. propaganda film that, after vilifying the Chinese, turns into a commercial for toothpaste.

While it’s only sporadically entertaining to start (aside from the above, I also liked the “Fresh Fruit Self Defense” sequence, as well as the “Expedition to Mt Kilimanjaro” sketch, but the “Marriage Guidance Counselor” skit left me a bit cold), the final half of And Now For Something Completely Different is positively hilarious, kicking off with the Python’s most famous routine, “The Dead Parrot”, where John Cleese tries to return a deceased parrot he recently purchased at Michael Palin’s pet store, and wrapping up with the “Upper Class Twit of the Year” competition, in which Chapman, Cleese, Idle, Jones, and Palin play well-to-do imbeciles competing for the title of Upper Class Twit of the Year. These two skits, and all those in between them, are comedic gold.







Saturday, March 30, 2013

#957. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)


Directed By: William Cottrell, David Hand, et al

Starring: Adriana Caselotti, Harry Stockwell, Lucille La Verne





Tag line: "The one that started it all"

Trivia: 25 songs were written for the movie but only eight were used






Produced by Walt Disney, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first feature-length animated motion picture ever made.

The beautiful princess, Snow White (voiced by Adriana Caselotti), lives with her wicked stepmother, the Queen (Lucille La Verne), who, fearing the young girls beauty may someday surpass her own, forces Snow White to work as a lowly servant. Alas, the queen’s worst fears come true when her talking magic mirror (Moroni Olsen) announces that Snow White is the fairest in the land. In a fit of rage, the jealous queen hires a huntsman (Stuart Buchanan) to kill Snow White, yet he can’t bring himself to do it, and instead warns the girl that she must leave the kingdom and never return. With nowhere to go, the princess puts her faith in the animals of the forest, who guide her to a small cottage owned by seven dwarfs, all of whom spend their days working in the mines. Convinced their home is in dire need of a woman’s touch, the dwarfs ask Snow White to stay. But when the queen learns that her stepdaughter is still alive, she sets a new plan in motion to destroy Snow White once and for all.

Along with being the first of its kind, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is also considered one of the greatest animated movies of all-time, and after watching it again all these years later, I can certainly see why; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is as amusing and fresh as when it was first made. Aside from the wonderful animation, the movie boasts a number of delightful songs, including such time-honored classics as Some Day My Prince Will Come, Whistle While You Work and Heigh-Ho (all three of which were written by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey). The story itself is also excellent, and features several tense moments to keep viewers on their toes (the showdown between the Wicked Queen and the Dwarfs is a real nail-biter).

Audiences in 1937 fell in love with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, turning it into a box office sensation. Disney, who had re-mortgaged his house to finish the film, did more here than just make a movie; with Snow White, he launched the beginning of a whole new industry, one that continues to flourish to this day.







Friday, March 29, 2013

#956. Animal Crackers (1930)


Directed By: Victor Heerman

Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx




Tag line: "The maddest comics of them all!"

Trivia: During a rehearsal a test was made for a color movie process called Multicolor (a predecessor of Cinecolor) and the result was the first known footage of the Marx Brothers in color. The clip is silent and lasts only 15 seconds





Like their debut film, The Cocoanuts, The Marx Brothers’ second feature, 1930’s Animal Crackers, was based on one of their long-running vaudeville shows, and, to be sure, there are times when the movie feels a little too stage-bound. Luckily, this format also gave the brothers plenty of room to work their comedic magic, leading to a handful of hilarious bits.

The world-famous African explorer, Capt. Geoffrey T. Spaulding (Groucho Marx), who’s just returned from his latest adventure, attends a soiree thrown in his honor by the elegant Mrs. Rittenhouse (Margaret Dumont). Also in attendance is noted art dealer Roscoe W. Chandler (Louis Sorin), who plans to impress Mrs. Rittenhouse’s guests by unveiling a valuable painting at her party. But the picture is stolen before he has a chance to do so, and it falls to Capt. Spaulding, as well as a pair of bumbling musicians named Signor Ravelli (Chico Marx) and The Professor (Harpo Marx), to locate its whereabouts.

Aside from its general staginess, Animal Crackers spends far too much time on an insipid love story between Mrs. Rittenhouse’s daughter, Arabella (Lillian Roth) and her fiancé, John Parker (Hal Thompson). At one point, the two even perform a drowsy duet, which brings the movie to a dead stop. Fortunately, the brothers themselves are in top form. Groucho rattles off one-liners at an incredible clip, including his now-famous quip, uttered while Spaulding is discussing his recent jungle adventure: “One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know”. Along with the jokes, Groucho belts out a couple of songs that bring the house down (the funniest being Hello, I Must Be Going). As for Chico and Harpo, they team up to unleash their own brand of chaos, like when they cheat (rather blatantly) during a card game with Mrs. Rittenhouse and her high-society acquaintance, Mrs. Whitehead (Margaret Irving). Chico and Groucho have a few memorable moments of their own, one of which sees Signor Ravelli trying to explain to Spaulding and Mrs. Rittenhouse why he charges more for practicing than he does for actually performing.

As far as their cinematic output is concerned, Animal Crackers definitely ranks behind such beloved Marx Brothers classics as Duck Soup, A Night at the Opera, and their 1932 film, Horse Feathers. But don’t let that stop you from checking it out, because even a flawed Marx Brothers movie is funnier than most of the comedies out there.







Thursday, March 28, 2013

#955. Stake Land (2010)


Directed By: Jim Mickle

Starring: Connor Paolo, Nick Damici, Kelly McGillis





Tag line: "The Most Dangerous Thing Is To Be Alive"

Trivia: The football helmet that Martin puts on at the beginning is a Daniel Boone football helmet - a reference to directer Jim Mickle's high school






In Director Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, the world as we know it has fallen into the hands of vampires, who have slaughtered countless innocents and, in the process, transformed thousands into bloodthirsty creatures like themselves. Martin (Connor Paolo), a teenager whose family was butchered by a vampire, owes his life to Mister (Nick Damici), an experienced vampire hunter who rescued him. Together, Martin and Mister travel from town to town, looking for more survivors and taking out every undead monster they come across. Their destination is Canada, an area now referred to as “New Eden”, which is supposedly vampire-free. But on their journey, the two also manage to piss off a religious cult, which, led by an extremist named Jebedia Loven (Michael Cervaris), proves every bit as dangerous as any bloodsucker.

One of the many strengths of Stake Land is its depiction of vampires as savage, almost zombie-like creatures that kill instinctively, a far cry from the “sophisticated” vampires we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. In a flashback scene, we’re shown the attack on Martin and his family, during which the invading vampire (played by James Godwin) kills Martin’s infant sibling, draining all the blood from the baby and discarding its lifeless body as if it were an empty soda can. But as we soon discover, the few remaining pockets of civilization are just as much a threat to Martin’s and Mister’s safety as any vampire. While making their way along a deserted road, our heroes come to the rescue of a nun (Kelly McGillis) who’s about to be raped by two members of Jebedia Loven’s cult. Mister kills the attackers, and, in so doing, incites Loven’s wrath. Clearly, there are many perils in the world of Stake Land, and you can never turn your back on anyone.

A grim and gritty motion picture with a convincing post-apocalyptic setting, well-realized characters, and a story that flows organically, Stake Land ranks up there with Let the Right One In, Shadow of the Vampire, and 30 Days of Night as one of the best vampire movies of the new millennium.







Wednesday, March 27, 2013

#954. Liberty Heights (1999)


Directed By: Barry Levinson

Starring: Adrien Brody, Bebe Neuwirth, Joe Mantegna




Tag line: "You're only young once, but you remember forever"

Trivia: According to Barry Levinson, this film came about as a result of a derogatory comment one critic made about Dustin Hoffman's character in Sphere





Seventeen years after his debut film, Diner, director Barry Levinson continued his exploration of Baltimore in the 1950s with Liberty Heights, an endearing drama about a suburban Jewish family forced to keep up with an ever-changing society.

Joe Mantegna is Nate Kurtzman, a good husband and loving father who runs a burlesque house and operates the local numbers racket. Despite his chosen profession, Nate is an honorable man, and he’s passed his values on to his sons, Van (Adrien Brody) and Ben (Ben Foster). Ben, whose school was recently integrated, has fallen for an African-American girl named Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), and neither his parents nor hers approve of their relationship. Van, on the other hand, is in love with the beautiful Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy), who happens to be the girlfriend of his new pal, Trey (Justin Chambers). 

As for Nate Kurtman’s "business", things get a bit tense when Little Melvin (Orlando Jones), a black drug dealer, hits the numbers for $100,000, a sum Nate’s unable to pay. This leads to a battle of wills between the two men, one that quickly escalates into a dangerous situation.

Set in the less tolerant 1950s, Liberty Heights addresses such hot-button topics as Anti-Semitism (Ben offends his family when he dresses up as Adolf Hitler for Halloween) and racial tensions (pushed to the forefront in both Ben’s relationship with Sylvia and Nate’s showdown with Little Melvin). Yet, surprisingly, the prejudice and small-mindedness these characters display over the course of the film never once detracts from our empathy for them. Sure, we may not agree with what they say or do, yet, regardless of how badly they behave, we always like them.

Liberty Heights was the 4th of Levinson’s “Baltimore” movies (in between this and Diner were 1987’s Tin Men, starring Danny DeVito and Richard Dreyfuss, and 1990’s Avalon, a movie set at the turn of the century). A native of Baltimore, Levinson clearly brings a bit of himself and his own experiences to each of these films, and while my favorite of the group is Diner, Liberty Heights does just as good a job recreating this specific time and place, and populating it with genuinely involving characters.







Tuesday, March 26, 2013

#953. Spaceballs (1987)


Directed By: Mel Brooks

Starring: Mel Brooks, John Candy, Rick Moranis





Tag line: "May the Schwartz Be With You"

Trivia: President Skroob's name is an anagram of Mel Brooks, the man who plays him







While I thoroughly enjoy Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, the director’s 1987 spoof of Star Wars and the science fiction genre, I also consider it the movie that marked the beginning of the end of his cinematic career, a mixed bag featuring moments of pure hilarity, and others that are dead on arrival.

To avoid an arranged marriage to the eternally sleepy Prince Valium (Jim J Bullock), Princess Vespa (Daphne Zuniga) of the planet Druidia jumps into a shuttlecraft with her robot maid, Dot Matrix (voiced by Joan Rivers), and hightails it to the dark recesses of space, where she becomes the unwitting pawn in an intergalactic showdown. It seems the planet Spaceballs is almost out of fresh air, and has ordered its massive flag ship, Spaceball 1, to capture the Princess and hold her prisoner until Druidia agrees to surrender its oxygen supply. Under the command of the evil Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis), Spaceball 1 traps the Princess’s ship in a tractor beam. Yet before they can drag her on-board, she and Dot are rescued by Lone Star (Bill Pullman) and his faithful companion, Barf (John Candy), two pirates who’ve agreed to save the princess in exchange for $1 million space bucks. But Dark Helmet isn’t about to give up his prize so easily, and vows to comb the galaxy in pursuit of Lone Star and the Princess.

Nearly all the laugh-out-loud scenes in Spaceballs feature Rick Moranis’ Dark Helmet, a not-so-thinly veiled take on Darth Vader, the arch-villain of Star Wars. From his ill-advised order that Spaceball 1 jump to Ludicrous Speed (which is faster even than Light Speed) to his inability to differentiate between the ship’s radar system and the coffee machine, Moranis does more than his part to keep the laughs flowing. Brooks himself plays two different characters in Spaceballs: Skroob, the shifty President of planet Spaceballs; and Yogurt, the tiny green alien who’s a master of the mysterious power known as the “Schwartz”, and a whiz when it comes to merchandising. Other highlights include John Candy’s likeably oafish Barf, Lone Star’s half-man, half-dog sidekick (“I’m my own best friend”), and a cameo by John Hurt, reprising his famous scene from Ridley Scott’s Alien, yet with a funnier payoff. The remainder of the movie is a bit uneven; Pullman and Zuniga are fine as the romantic leads, but I could have done without Joan Rivers’ Dot Matrix, who I found very annoying, and an appearance by Dom DeLuise as Pizza the Hut, the unscrupulous trader Lone Star owes money to, didn’t work at all.

Despite not measuring up to Brooks’ earlier outings like The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, the comedy in Spaceballs is still more hit than miss, and it was the last truly funny film the writer/director would ever make.







Monday, March 25, 2013

#952. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003)


Directed By: Kenneth Bowser

Starring: Martin Scorsese, Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich




Tag line: "How the Sex, Drugs, and Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood"

Trivia: Among those who declined to be interviewed in the documentary were George Lucas and William Friedkin






So there’s a sequence in 2003’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a documentary based on the controversial novel by Peter Biskind, where we’re watching clips from an 8mm home movie, shot in either the late ‘60s or early ‘70s. It was taken inside a California beachfront house that, at the time, was being rented by actresses Margot Kidder and Jennifer Salt, and shows a bunch of people sitting around and talking, pausing occasionally to mug for the camera. But these weren’t your everyday house guests; among the revelers were Brian De Palma, John Milius, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, and producers Michael & Julia Phillips. Also there, standing on the other side of a dining room table holding a camera of his own, was Steven Spielberg. In the coming years, this talented group of filmmakers would once again put Hollywood on the cinematic map, yet when this home movie was shot, they were, as Jennifer Salt put it, “Nerdy guys who wanted to hang around with each other and talk about movies”. Can you imagine being a fly on the wall, listening in on those conversations?

As someone who loves movie, I’m finding it hard to imagine anything else!

Narrated by William H. Macy, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is a BBC-produced documentary that spells out, as the tagline put it, “How the Sex, Drug, and Rock & Roll Generation Saved Hollywood”. With the studio system in turmoil, it fell to a group of novice filmmakers to rescue American movies, which they did by reaching out to a younger generation of fans. With films like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Last Picture Show, this “new wave” brought Hollywood back from the brink of oblivion, and, in so doing, changed the face of American movies forever.

Through interviews and archival footage, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls takes us behind the scenes of many of these groundbreaking classics, relating a number of fascinating stories, like how studio chief Jack Warner couldn’t make heads or tails of Bonnie and Clyde, and why most of the major studios passed on distributing Martin Scorsese’s breakout movie, Mean Streets. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls is an excellent source for film fanatics, but there’s plenty of drama here as well for the more casual fans, including a few scandals (Peter Bogdanovich’s affair with Cybill Shepherd on the set of The Last Picture Show) and the odd tragedy (the murder of director Roman Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, one of several people carved up by Charles Manson and his followers in 1969).

As a movie addict, I wanted Easy Riders, Raging Bulls to run for 6 hours. But even clocking in at just two, this material makes for one entertaining, informative documentary.







Sunday, March 24, 2013

#951. Julius Caesar (1970)


Directed By: Stuart Burge

Starring: Charlton Heston, Jason Robards, John Gielgud




Tag line: "No grander Caesar... No greater cast!"

Trivia: This marked the second time Charlton Heston would play Mark Antony. He did so previously in a 1950 low-budget version of Julius Caesar and would do so again in 1972's Antony and Cleopatra, which he also directed




Director Stuart Burge brings William Shakespeare’s celebrated 16th century play to the big screen in the star-studded 1970 film, Julius Caesar. By defeating the sons of his enemy, Pompey, on the battlefield, Caesar (John Gielgud) has become the most powerful man in Rome. And though he is loved by many, there are some who fear Caesar’s power, and plot to assassinate him. Among the conspirators looking to remove Caesar are Cassius (Richard Johnson) and Casca (Robert Vaughn), both of whom convince Marcus Brutus (Jason Robards), a beloved friend of Caesar’s, to join their cause. On the Ides of March, Caesar is stabbed to death in the Senate, and while his assassins believe their actions were justified, Caesar’s closest ally, Marc Antony (Charlton Heston), rallies the people against the conspirators, plunging Rome into yet another civil war. 

To successfully translate Shakespeare for a modern audience, you need to have the right actors in place, and, fortunately, Julius Caesar features some good ones. John Gielgud is convincingly arrogant as the power-mad title character, and Diana Rigg brings enough life to the small part of Brutus’ wife, Portia, to make her presence known. Charlton Heston is also solid as Marc Antony, conjuring up all the anger and fury he can muster in the stirring “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech, and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, Robert Vaughn is very effective as the shifty Casca, the first conspirator to drive a dagger into Caesar. My favorite performance in Julius Caesar, though, is delivered by Richard Johnson. A former member of the Royal Shakespeare company, Johnson gives it his all as Cassius, the “less honorable” of the two main assassins, and is wonderful in the part. Unfortunately, not all of the casting choices pan out. Jason Robards was undoubtedly a fine actor, excelling in such movies as Once Upon a Time in the West, Melvin & Howard, and Magnolia, yet, in Julius Caesar, he’s as flat as flat can be, bringing no oomph whatsoever to the role of Brutus. It’s a fairly terrible performance. 

While the 1953 version of Julius Caesar, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Marlon Brando as Antony, Louis Calhern as Caesar and James Mason as Brutus, is still the definitive cinematic take on Shakespeare’s famous play, this Julius Caesar has enough going for it to at least warrant some attention.






Saturday, March 23, 2013

#950. Return of the Jedi (1983)


Directed By: Richard Marquand

Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher



Tag line: "Return To A Galaxy... Far, Far Away"

Trivia: According to the documentary "Empire of Dreams", Steven Spielberg was George Lucas's first choice to direct, but Spielberg had to decline because he is a member of the Directors' Guild (Lucas dropped his Guild membership over disagreements about The Empire Strikes Back





Like millions of kids who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, my friends and I were avid Star Wars fans. So, the release of Return of the Jedi in the summer of 1983 was a big event for us. The final chapter in the Star Wars saga, Return of the Jedi was the movie that promised to answer all our questions: Who was Luke’s father? What happened to Han? Would Luke finally become a full-fledged Jedi? So, when the big moment finally arrived, and the Star Wars logo flashed on that screen, we could hardly contain our glee. Surely, this was going to be one of the defining moments of our young lives.

When it was over, as we were waiting for our parents to pick us up, my friends were singing the film’s praises, calling it the best Star Wars movie ever. I only wished I could share their enthusiasm. I definitely liked Return of the Jedi, and there were parts of it I loved. But there was something about it that didn’t work for me, and, as it turns out, a good many fans felt the same way.

It was the Ewoks. After the dark drama that closed out The Empire Strikes Back, those cuddly little rodents felt out of place. It was kinda like following up 1976’s Grizzly with a viewing of The Care Bears Movie.

After rescuing Han Solo (Harrison Ford) from the clutches of Jabba the Hut, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) re-join the rebel army, which is about to launch an all-out assault on the Empire’s brand new Death Star station. On the forest moon of Endor, Han and Leia, with the help of an indigenous species known as the Ewoks, attempt to disable the station’s shield generator, while Luke, on-board the Death Star itself, is locked in a battle of wills with the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) as he tries to convince his father, Darth Vader (David Prowse, with the voice of James Earl Jones), to turn away from the Dark Side of the Force.

There are plenty of great scenes in Return of the Jedi, like the entire opening sequence set on Tatooine, and the dramatic showdown between Luke and the Emperor that occurs late in the film. Also, I’d rank the final aerial assault on the Death Star as the single most exciting battle in any Star Wars picture, and would even pit it against the CGI-heavy skirmishes featured in the “New” trilogy (which included 1999’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, 2002’s Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and 2005’s Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Take note: this is the last time you’ll hear me mention these three movies during the challenge).

And then, we have the Ewoks.

Yeah… the Ewoks.

Following the grim conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back, I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why its direct sequel had to “cute” things up so much. Those of us who had been with the series since its start in 1977 were, by the time Return of the Jedi came out, a full six years older, meaning we’d relegated our stuffed animals to the scrap heap long ago. We didn’t need a pack of Teddy Bears running around with spears to keep our attention focused on the screen.

What made it worse were all the sugary-sweet moments with these things, like when C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is telling a gathering of Ewoks the story of Luke, Leia and Han’s adventures thus far, and we’re shown their faces as they “Ooh” and “Ahh” at every twist in the tale. It’s as if they were being treated like pets, which made it even harder to accept the later sequences when they were duking it out with the Empire. Perhaps it’s because I knew the Ewoks were there to pander to very young Star Wars fans (much younger than myself), or maybe it had something to do with the fact that, when we were in the theater back in ’83, one of my friends kept cooing “awww” every time the damn things did something clever. Whatever the reason, I was praying for Ewoks to be slaughtered by the dozen.

In many respects, Return of the Jedi is an excellent fantasy / adventure film, and the perfect ending to what is arguably the most outstanding trilogy in the cinema’s long history. I still highly recommend it (though who I’m recommending it to, I’ve no idea. Odds are, most of you reading this have already seen it).

It’s just…. those Ewoks….

*sigh*

Yeah, those damn Ewoks…







Friday, March 22, 2013

#949. Troma's War (1988)


Directed By: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman

Starring: Carolyn Beauchamp, Sean Bowen, Rick Washburn





Tag line: "NOT a true story but who cares!"

Trivia: The leader of the AIDS brigade is named Senor Sida. "Sida" is the Spanish word for AIDS







Founded by Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufman in 1974, Troma Entertainment is a New-York based production and distribution company that, for over 30 years, has turned out B-grade films featuring gobs of nudity and a whole lot of over-the-top violence and gore. Back in the day, a local Philadelphia cable channel would broadcast their movies late at night, and I got to see some of the studio’s more popular pictures, like The Class of Nuke ‘em High, The Toxic Avenger, and Surf Nazis Must Die, which, in spite of their overall cheesiness (or maybe because of it), I enjoyed. I had never seen Troma’s War before, but from the title alone, I kinda knew what to expect. Sure enough, Troma’s War didn’t let me down.

A plane carrying a number of ordinary citizens from the fictional town of Tromaville crash-lands on a remote island that’s home to a renegade terrorist cell, which is planning to infiltrate the United States. Mistaking them for a rival gang of mercenaries, the terrorists attack the passengers, killing some and taking an unfortunate few as prisoner. In an effort to defend themselves, the remaining passengers steal some weapons and band together, forming their own commando squad. Led by Taylor (Sean Bowen), the survivors put up one hell of a fight. But will it be enough to defeat an entire terrorist army?

One of the things I really liked about Troma’s War was its characters. Among those who survived the plane crash are Parker (Rick Washburn), a gung-ho former marine; a British secret agent named Marshall (Steven Crossley);a punk rock band; a priest (Dan Snow) who gets his tongue yanked out, and an assortment of others. The terrorists themselves are more bizarre. The head mercenary is Jennings (Rick Collins), a guy whose nose looks exactly like a pig’s snout (he actually snorts from time to time), and the power-hungry bastards funding the entire operation are a pair of Siamese twins (Burt Wright and Michael Locascio) joined at the face! Even by Troma’s standards, these are some strange people.

And when it comes to the “shocking” content Troma is known for, Troma’s War doesn’t disappoint. During one particular gunfight, Parker manages to gun down about a dozen or so guys with his trusty assault rifle, and later on, we see him wearing a necklace made out of human ears, souvenirs from the bodies of those he killed. There are even a few stomach-churning scenes that have nothing to do with the war, like when punk rocker Sean (Alex Cserhart) and his girlfriend, Susan (Susan Bachli), go into the woods to make out, and are pelted by maggots dropping from a corpse in the tree above.

There’s no denying this movie is gross, offensive, and outrageous, but then, so are most Troma films. And as far as I’m concerned, Troma’s War is one of the studio’s best offerings.







Thursday, March 21, 2013

#948. Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann (1982)


Directed By: William Dear

Starring: Fred Ward, Belinda Bauer, Peter Coyote




Tag line: "Lyle Swann is a champion off-road racer. But to the people of 1877, he's something very, very different..."

Trivia: Andrew Stevens was seriously considered for the role of Lyle Swann






When compared to some of the ‘80s more popular time travel films, like the Back to the Future series or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (God, I love that movie), 1982’s Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann comes up a bit short. But that doesn’t mean it's without its charms.

Motorbike champion Lyle Swann (Fred Ward) is the odds-on favorite to win the Baja 1,000 desert race. That is, until he accidentally interrupts a scientific experiment and is thrown 105 years into the past. Unaware of his leap through time, Swann simply assumes he’s lost his bearings, and looks for someone to steer him back on course so he can finish the race. But when the dangerous western outlaw, Reeves (Peter Coyote), and his two henchmen, the Dorsett brothers (Richard Masur and Tracey Walter), spot him riding along on his “machine”, they decide to steal Swann’s bike, even if it means killing Swann to get it. With only the lovely Claire (Belinda Bauer), a local villager, to help him, Swann tries desperately to avoid capture, realizing full well his life depends on it.

Written and produced by former Monkees band member Michael Nesmith, Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann gets off to a very slow start, with one too many POV shots of Swann’s bike barreling through the desert. Even after the time jump, it takes a while for the movie to pick up steam, and at no point in the film does the action ever reach a fever pitch. What I liked about Timerider, though, was how it spun the whole “culture shock” angle of its story, something that comes standard with just about every time travel picture yet is presented here from a different perspective, focusing less on how Lyle Swann is dealing with life in 1877, and more on 1877’s reaction to Lyle Swann. In fact, I'm not convinced Swann even realized he was no longer in 1982; late in the movie, he’s still asking if anyone has a radio he can use. But as far as the film’s 19th century characters are concerned, Lyle Swann and his “machine” are beyond fascinating. The first really good sequence in Timerider has Swann riding his bike up to an old guy (Ernie Quintana) sitting by a campfire, who immediately drops to his knees and starts praying, convinced he’s experiencing a religious visitation. Everyday products like power bars and glow sticks cause people to stand around gawking, and there are enough moments like these to keep things interesting. Timerider then wraps up with a nice little twist regarding Swann’s lineage (sure, you see it coming from a mile away, but it worked all the same).

If it’s non-stop thrills you’re after, then Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann will surely be a disappointment. Yet what the movie lacks in excitement, it makes up for with its unique spin on the “fish out of water” story.







Wednesday, March 20, 2013

#947. [REC] (2007)


Directed By: Jaume Balagueró, Paco Plaza

Starring: Manuela Velasco, Ferran Terraza, Jorge-Yamam Serrano





Tag line: "Just One Witness.... A Video Camera"

Trivia: Made and shot in real locations. No sets were built to make this movie






Reporter Angela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman, Pablo (Pablo Rossa, who’s never seen), are on assignment at a Barcelona fire station, where they hope to capture footage of the brave firefighters in action. The two ride along on an emergency call from a tenement complex, where an elderly woman is supposedly trapped in her apartment. But what they find once they get there is a situation far more dangerous. It seems the woman, Mrs. Izquierdo (Martha Carbonell), is also acting violently, and, in the confusion, mauls a police officer. What’s more, when the firemen attempt to transport the injured cop to the hospital, they find they’ve been locked inside the building, with a military unit stationed outside to ensure nobody leaves the premises. As everyone, including the tenants, tries to figure out what’s going on, the wounded policeman suddenly attacks, acting every bit as crazy as the old lady. As it turns out, a deadly virus, which transforms normal people into ravenous killers, is loose in the building, and by locking everything down, the authorities hope to prevent its spread. One by one, the unfortunate few trapped inside succumb to the illness, and if Angela, Pablo and the others don’t find a way out soon, odds are they won’t survive much longer.

A 2007 Spanish horror film, [REC] was shot as if it were a documentary, with the entire story unfolding in front of Pablo’s camera. This brings a level of realism to the movie, thus heightening the anxiety as more and more people become raving lunatics. In one scene, a young girl named Jennifer (Claudia Font), who, when interviewed by Angela, said she wasn’t feeling well, unexpectedly lashes out, attacking her mother (Maria Lanau) before running upstairs and disappearing into the darkness. Like others who’ve become infected, Jennifer is now hiding somewhere in the building, which only intensifies the suspense as the remaining few, who are not yet sick, search for an exit, realizing danger might be waiting for them around every corner.

[REC] isn’t overly bloody, but the violence it does feature is effective, mostly because it happens so abruptly and catches us off-guard (some of the infected “turn” more quickly than others). A fast-paced film with an almost unbearably tense final sequence, [REC] is a terrific horror movie.







Tuesday, March 19, 2013

#946. SuicideGirls: Guide to Living (2009)


Directed By: Mike Marshall

Starring: Rambo Suicide, Chloe Suicide, Radeo Suicide






Trivia: The SuicideGirls website features various photo spreads of nude and semi-nude models, most of whom are goth, punk, Metal, or indie-styled young women





According to their website, the Suicide Girls is an online community that “celebrates alternative beauty and alternative culture from all over the world”. Founded in 2001, the site features hundreds of models, many nude or semi-nude, who challenge the mainstream definition of beauty. As The Cincinnati Enquirer put it, The Suicide Girls are “for those who like their beauty queens with body piercings, tattoos, and a bit of attitude”.

Released in 2009, SuicideGirls: Guide to Living has a number of the group’s more popular models presenting a series of 13 “Essential Life Lessons”, short videos in which they teach us everything from "How to Cast a Love Spell" to "How to Do a Striptease". In between each segment, we spend a little one-on-one time with a different Suicide Girl, who tells us a bit about herself (most talk about their tattoos).

Ultimately, though, SuicideGirls: Guide to Living is a 90-minute commercial for the Suicide Girls themselves, and, to be honest, I didn’t have a problem with that. I had no idea who the Suicide Girls were prior to watching this, and I enjoyed learning about their organization. Sure, the so-called “life lessons” are just an excuse to get some naked girls together for a photo shoot, but with segments like “How to Win a Pillow Fight” and “How to Do the Sun Salutation” (nude, of course), what more would you expect? As for the models, they’re drop-dead gorgeous. The main host is Rambo Suicide (once they become a member, each model gets to choose her new Suicide Girls name), who also appears in a number of the videos, and goes solo in the “How to Ditch Your Wedding” segment. Like many of the girls, Rambo is beautiful, and knows how to work the camera to her advantage, as does the stunning Radeo Suicide, a brunette with some great tattoos who takes part in the above-mentioned pillow fight. Things wrap up perfectly with the last lesson, in which all of the models go skinny-dipping, giving us one final look at them in (*cough*) all their glory. Along with the ladies, SuicideGirls: Guide to Living also features some excellent music (my favorite tune is the over-the-top, violent ditty, “Lend Me Your Face”, performed by Fight like Apes).

If this is the first you’re hearing of the Suicide Girls, then definitely check out Guide to Living. I think most will like what the organization stands for, and a good many will love what they see!







Monday, March 18, 2013

#945. The Simpsons Movie (2007)


Directed By: David Silverman

Starring: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright





Tag line: "For years, lines have been drawn...and then colored in yellow"

Trivia: Work on the script began in 2003. 158 drafts were written





My love affair with The Simpsons stretches back to January of 1990, when my friend and I caught the first season episode, "There’s No Disgrace Like Home", where Homer takes his family to the company picnic, only to realize they’re in dire need of some therapy. We both laughed our asses off as we watched it, and were especially impressed with Homer’s evil boss, Mr. Burns (voiced by Harry Shearer), the proprietor of the town’s nuclear power plant who, over the years, would become our favorite character.

For those who aren’t familiar with the show, The Simpsons is an animated TV comedy about a family of misfits living in the generic American town of Springfield. Dim-witted yet lovable Homer [voiced by Dan Castellaneta] is the patriarch. He's married to the sensible Marge (Julie Kavner), and together, they have three children: the fun-loving juvenile delinquent, Bart (Nancy Cartwright); the brainy Lisa (Yeardley Smith); and baby Maggie, who spends most of her day sucking on a pacifier. Their various adventures have been broadcast on the Fox Network for over 23 years now, during which time the characters haven’t aged a day (Lisa, who’s still in grade school, should have graduated from college about a decade ago). In 2007, Homer and the gang brought their shenanigans to the big screen in the aptly titled feature film, The Simpsons Movie, a motion picture that proved every bit as funny as the series’ finest episodes.

Springfield has just been declared the most polluted place on the planet, a condition that only gets worse when Homer dumps a silo filled with pig poop into Lake Springfield (he adopted a pet pig at the start of the movie). As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency, headed by Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks), convinces U.S. President Arnold Schwarzenegger (Harry Shearer again) to construct an enormous glass dome around Springfield, trapping the pollution, as well as its entire population, inside it. Many blame Homer for this tragic turn of events, and, in angry mob form, march on the Simpsons’ home to exact some revenge. Fortunately, Homer and the rest of the family are able to escape the dome by way of a sinkhole, and set off for Alaska to start a new life. But when they learn the government intends to level Springfield to make way for a National Park, Marge and the kids head back to town to warn their former neighbors, while Homer, still bitter about how he was treated, remains behind. Will Homer have a change of heart and try to save Springfield, or is he destined to live out his days all alone?

This is the basic story, but like the show, there are plenty of little asides in The Simpsons Movie that keep the jokes flowing. In one hilarious scene towards the beginning of the film, Homer dares Bart to ride a skateboard through town wearing nothing but his birthday suit (which, as you can imagine, doesn’t end well), and I laughed out loud when Russ Cargill presented President Schwarzenegger with five envelopes, each containing a different plan to deal with Springfield, and told him to choose one (only to manipulate him into picking envelope #3). There are some funny lines as well, like when Homer makes the announcement “We have a great life here in Alaska, and we’re never going back to America again!” The film also follows the show’s lead in that it features a number of celebrity cameos, including Tom Hanks (as a spokesman for an infomercial) and the members of the band Green Day (all of whom are killed off early on). The Simpsons Movie is, in many ways, an extended episode of the TV series, and captures all the humor and charm that’s made it the longest running prime-time animated program in television history.

The film was released when The Simpsons was heading into its 19th season, by which time most diehard fans felt it had lost its edge. But as The Simpsons Movie showed us, there are still plenty of laughs to be found in the small town of Springfield.







Sunday, March 17, 2013

#944. Salem's Lot (1979)


Directed By: Tobe Hooper

Starring: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin





Tag line: "The ultimate in terror!"

Trivia: After the mini-series aired on CBS with excellent ratings there was talk of continuing it as a regular television series






Salem’s Lot, a 1979 television mini-series based on a novel by Stephen King, is the epitome of the word “creepy”. It’s also one hell of a vampire film, a picture guaranteed to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing at attention.

Evil has come to the small New England community of Salem’s Lot, and Ben Mears (David Soul), a writer and former resident who’s recently arrived in town, is determined to find its source. Ben’s convinced his feelings of impending doom have something to do with the big, spooky mansion perched on top of a hill, which, he discovers, was just purchased by a man named Straker (James Mason), the co-proprietor of a newly-opened antique store (his partner, Barlow, is inexplicably absent). As it turns out, Straker’s arrival in town coincides with a string of mysterious deaths, in which the deceased are drained of all their blood. But when the dead start rising from their graves, Ben realizes he’s dealing with a vampire, and, with the help of teenager Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin), sets out to destroy the monster before it transforms all of Salem’s Lot into an army of the undead.

I first saw Salem’s Lot over 30 years ago on cable TV, in a truncated version (the mini-series was given a theatrical release in 1980, with an hour cut from its running time), and it gave me nightmares for a week. First off, the vampire, Barlow (Reggie Nalder), looks a lot like Max Schreck’s title character in the silent classic, Nosferatu, which makes him much more of a monster than the “traditional” vampire, a la Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. What’s more, Salem’s Lot is filled to the breaking point with intensely frightening moments, like when Ralphie Glick (Ronnie Scribner), a young boy who has recently died, returns as a vampire to “visit” his brother, Danny (Brad Savage), hovering in the mist just outside the bedroom window, or when Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis), who’s joined the ranks of the undead, drops in on his former teacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres). Salem’s Lot also has one of the most effective jump scares ever, a scene set in a jail cell that gets me every single time.

These sequences, and more besides, do their part to make Salem’s Lot one of the scariest vampire movies ever committed to film.







Saturday, March 16, 2013

#943. Baran (2001)


Directed By: Majid Majidi

Starring: Hossein Abedini, Zahra Bahrami, Mohammad Amir Naji






Trivia: Selected as Iran's submission in the Best Foreign Film category for the 2001 Oscars







To escape the oppressive Taliban regime, millions of Afghanis fled their homeland and crossed the border into Iran. Najaf (Gholam Ali Bakhshi) is an Afghani immigrant working at an Iranian construction site, where he reports to Memar (Mohammed Amir Naji), who runs the place. When Najaf falls and breaks his leg, he has no alternative but to send his daughter Baran (Zahra Bahrami), who he disguises as a boy, to work in his place. Under the assumed name of Rahmat, Baran becomes a fixture at the construction site, much to the annoyance of Lateef (Hossein Abedini), an Iranian teenager who feels his own job is now in jeopardy. But when Lateef inadvertently discovers that Baran is a girl, he finds himself falling in love with her. Eventually, the local authorities learn about the site's foreign workers (it’s illegal for Afghanis to hold certain positions), and force Memar to lay them all off. In an effort to remain close to Baran, Lateef takes it upon himself to watch over her family in their time of crisis, helping out whenever he can.

With Baran, writer / director Majid Majidi weaves a wonderful, warm-hearted tale of infatuation that blooms under very difficult circumstances. At the outset, Lateef shares the same opinion as many Iranians, who resent the Afghanis for taking up residence in their country and stealing their jobs. Lateef’s eventual relationship with Baran causes him to re-think his position, and before long, he’s not only accepted her and her family, but is doing whatever he can to help them out. Though it touches upon the plight of foreigners in Iran, Baran is not a political movie; it’s a human one, relating a story of love and respect that transcends cultural barriers.

In the U.S., we’ve been conditioned to view Iran as the enemy, and its citizens as extremists who wish only to destroy our way of life. What makes Baran such a fascinating film is that it offers a glimpse into the lives of those who, despite being citizens of a so-called “evil” country, are, like most people around the world, just doing their best to survive. In much the same way Lateef learns an “enemy” can sometimes become a friend, Baran provides Americans with a fresh perspective. A subtle, beautiful motion picture, Baran is also an eye-opening experience.







Friday, March 15, 2013

#942. Dead Season (2012)


Directed By: Adam Deyoe

Starring: Scott Peat, Marissa Merrill, James C. Burns





Tag line: "On This Island, Survival is No Game"

Trivia: The warehouse sequence was filmed in a metal recycling warehouse in Compton, California







Zombie films are more popular nowadays than ever. In the past 5-6 years alone, a few hundred living dead-themed movies hit the scene, everything from the serious (2010’s The Dead and the French flick, The Horde) to the funny (Zombieland and Doghouse) to the out-and-out silly (Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, Zombie Strippers). There have been big-budget Hollywood productions (Warm Bodies and the upcoming World War Z) and a slew of independent releases (like The Rage and the very creative Colin). As is to be expected with such a variety, some are good, while others downright suck. Well, 2012’s Dead Season falls somewhere in-between; there were things about it I really enjoyed, and some that simply didn’t work at all.

Dead Season opens after the zombie apocalypse has already taken place. Two survivors, Elvis (Scott Peat) and Tweeter (Marissa Merrill), team up and head to a tropical island, which they’ve been led to believe is a safe haven. Unfortunately, the island is infested with zombies, and is also home to a small collection of survivalists who, led by Kurt (James C. Burns), have built a compound to keep them safe from the hungry hordes. Both Elvis and Tweeter are accepted into their fold, but soon realize there’s a lot more going on in this commune than mere survival.

On the plus side, I liked the tropical setting where much of Dead Season takes place (part of it was shot in Vieques, Puerto Rico), and the story features a couple of interesting twists, including the reason Elvis and Tweeter were told to go to the island in the first place. There are also a handful of effectively bloody scenes later in the film, and Scott Peat does a solid job as Elvis. Alas, I can’t say the same for his co-star, Marissa Merrill, who has flashes of competence as Tweeter (especially late in the movie), but, for the most part, delivers a flat performance. The most troubling characteristic of Dead Season, though, is the inconsistency of its zombies. As Elvis and Tweeter are making their way to the boat that’s gonna carry them to the island, they face off against a whole warehouse full of “walkers”, most of which let them pass without any problems. But once they’re on the island, the zombies are every bit as carnivorous, and just as dangerous, as they are in most films. Sometimes, characters can stroll for miles, carrying on a normal conversation, without drawing the attention of a single zombie, while, at other times, the snapping of a twig will cause the living dead to swarm. The zombies in Dead Season don’t seem to follow any set rules, which made them feel more like plot devises, popping up and acting scary when the story required it, than actual movie monsters.

Yet, in spite of its various flaws, I do think Dead Season is worth a watch. If nothing else, it’s a fairly well-made entry in what’s become a very crowded sub-genre.







Thursday, March 14, 2013

#941. The Innkeepers (2011)


Directed By: Ti West

Starring: Sara Paxton, Pat Healy, Kelly McGillis





Tag line: "Come stay at the Yankee Pedlar ... For a night you WILL NEVER FORGET"

Trivia: The movie was shot at the actual Yankee Pedlar Inn in Torrington, Connecticut






The Yankee Pedler Inn, which has been in business for over a century, is closing its doors for good. The Inn’s two remaining employees, desk clerks Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy), who on Monday morning will be out of a job, decide to spend the entire weekend at the hotel, determined to prove once and for all that the place is haunted. With only a couple of other guests checked in, including former television star (and current spiritualist) Leane Rease Jones (Kelly McGillis), Claire and Luke should have plenty of time to track down the ghost of Madeline O’Malley, who, many years earlier, supposedly died after being locked away in the basement. Armed with the latest paranormal equipment, Claire, who’s working the night shift, wanders through the dimly-lit hallways and large, empty rooms of the hotel, waiting for Madeline’s ghost to contact her. As it turns out, she doesn’t have to wait very long.

Once, during an interview, director Ti West said “I make regular movies that turn into horror movies”, and this is exactly how he approaches his 2011 film The Innkeepers, completely fleshing out his main characters before pitting them against the hotel’s unearthly forces. Claire, we learn, is an energetic, outgoing young lady who, despite being a bit flighty at times, worries about her future, especially since she never finished college, and it’s fairly obvious Luke is smitten with Claire, and is using the paranormal investigation as an excuse to get closer to her. By meticulously building the relationships and motivations of his protagonists, West ensures that, when Claire does have a ghostly encounter, it’s as shocking for us as it is for her.

Many die-hard horror fans will undoubtedly be turned off by West’s careful pacing at the outset, but rest assured: the second half of the movie is filled with a sense of dread that rarely lets up. It may take a while to get there, but once The Innkeepers finally delves into the supernatural, it’ll have you on the edge of your seat.







Wednesday, March 13, 2013

#940. Rob Roy (1995)


Directed By: Michael Caton-Jones

Starring: Liam Neeson, Jessica Lange, John Hurt




Tag line: "Honor made him a man. Courage made him a hero. History made him a Legend"

Trivia: Jason Flemyng took the part of an extra in the film in direct opposition to the wishes of his agent. Flemyng was determined to be in the film as it gave him a chance to act alongside Tim Roth, one of his idols




Rob Roy had the misfortune of being released the same year as another Scottish epic, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which went on to win 5 Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Director). And while it may lack the ambitious sweep of Gibson’s movie, Rob Roy is still a solid, well-acted film.

Liam Neeson stars as Rob Roy MacGregor, leader of an 18th Century Scottish clan, who solicits a loan from the British aristocrat, the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt). Papers for the transaction are drawn up and signed, yet through the deception of Montrose's aides, Killearn (Brian Cox) and Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth), the money is stolen before it reaches MacGregor, leaving the clan leader broke and owing a debt to the powerful, corrupt Marquis. When Montrose offers him more money if he speaks out against the Duke of Argyll (Andrew Keir), MacGregor refuses, and sets off into the Highlands to prove he’s been cheated. Unable to get to MacGregor, Montrose and his men take their frustrations out on his family instead. MacGregor's wife, Mary (a wonderful performance by Jessica Lange), is raped by Cunningham, then forced to watch as the Marquis' army burns their house to the ground. Pushed to his breaking point, MacGregor comes out of hiding to exact his revenge, and, with the Duke of Argyll’s support, challenges Cunningham to a duel.

Rob Roy is filled with strong characters, some honorable, others downright evil. John Hurt is at his diabolical best as the shifty Montrose, but its Tim Roth’s Cunningham you’ll truly despise, a wretched excuse for a nobleman with no integrity whatsoever (the smile on his face as he’s raping Mary Macgregor will have you seething) On the other side of the coin is Rob Roy MacGregor, a man of loyalty and principle excellently portrayed by Liam Neeson. The real show-stopper, however, is Jessica Lange as Mary MacGregor, a strong-willed woman deeply in love with her husband who, for the good of her family, remains quiet about the indignities she’s forced to endure. It’s yet another black eye for the Academy that Lange didn’t receive so much as a nomination for her work here. Shot in the gorgeous Highlands of Scotland, Rob Roy is also a beautiful motion picture, and, to top it off, contains one of the greatest swordfights in recent memory.

Braveheart may have been the Best Picture of 1995, but, in my opinion, this “other” Scottish film wasn’t too far behind it.







Tuesday, March 12, 2013

#939. Alphaville (1965)


Directed By: Jean-Luc Godard

Starring: Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Akim Tamiroff




Tag line: "Suddenly the word is Alphaville... and a secret agent is in a breathless race against the Masters of the Future"

Trivia: Professor von Braun's real name, Leonard Nosferatu, is a tribute to F.W. Murnau's silent film, Nosferatu





This 1965 Jean Luc Godard film, set in a nightmarish city of the future, stars Eddie Constantine as Lemmy Caution, a spy from the Outlands sent to the high-tech society of Alphaville to assassinate its founder, Dr. Von Braun (Howard Vernon), and destroy the Alpha 60 computer, an advanced system that controls the entire town. Together, Dr. Von Braun and the Alpha 60 have eliminated all free thought and expression in Alphaville. In fact, to display emotion of any kind is forbidden, and those caught doing so are immediately arrested and put to death. In an attempt to gain access to his targets, Caution cozies up to Von Braun’s daughter, Natacha (Anna Karina), but somewhere along the line, falls in love with her as well. This, of course, sets the Alpha 60 in motion, trying to track down the source of these "illegal" feelings. With both his life and Natacha’s in danger, Caution must now concentrate his efforts on stopping the Alpha 60 before it's too late.

Aside from the Alpha 60 (which, truth be told, isn’t the most impressive-looking computer system), there's nothing even remotely futuristic about Alphaville; the movie was shot on the streets of Paris, and has zero special effects. What it does have, however, is a distinctly film-noir vibe, what with its stark black and white photography and a lead character who, in his hat and trench coat, could just as easily have leapt off the pages of a Mickey Spillane novel. Yet while the look and feel of Alphaville won’t draw any comparisons to the Star Trek Universe, its central theme, the suppression of ideas and emotions in a dystopian society, fits the sci-fi genre perfectly, and was even explored by fellow New Wave director Francois Truffaut in his 1966 movie, Fahrenheit 451.

Taking place in the future, yet looking every bit like a 1940’s detective movie, Alphaville is the kind of sci-fi story that only Jean-Luc Godard could tell.







Monday, March 11, 2013

#938. The Core (2003)


Directed By: Jon Amiel

Starring: Aaron Eckhart, Hilary Swank, Delroy Lindo





Tag line: "This Spring, Mankind's Greatest Threat Is Earth Itself"

Trivia: Originally slated for release on 1 November 2002, the film was pushed back five months to give the visual effects crew more time to perfect the CGI scenes





2003’s The Core is a throwback to the sci-fi films of yesteryear, movies like First Men in the Moon and Fantastic Voyage, where probability and scientific fact took a back seat to entertainment.

Following a number of global disasters, ranging from communication blackouts to the sun’s deadly radiation slipping through the atmosphere, geologist Dr. Joshua Keyes (Aaron Eckhart) is called in to investigate, and what he finds is the world is dying. More specifically, the earth’s core has stopped spinning, which will result in the total annihilation of our planet in precisely one year’s time. Not willing to sit back and allow this to happen, Keyes teams up with Dr. Edward Brazzleton (Delroy Lindo), who has been working on a special ship that can drill down into the earth. The plan is to burrow all the way to the planet’s core and, with the help of a few nuclear bombs, get it rotating again. Piloted by Commander Robert Iverson (Brice Greenwood) and Maj. Rebecca Childs (Hilary Swank), the ship, nicknamed Virgil, sets off on what most believe is both a suicide mission, and the only hope there is of saving the world.

This synopsis tells you all you need to know about the ‘science’ behind The Core, which is clearly ludicrous (even Dr. Keyes says at one point that the core of the earth is the size of Mars, which has me wondering how nuclear bombs, regardless of how many there are, could have any effect on it whatsoever). But then, I didn’t go into The Core expecting a science lesson; I was looking for a fun movie. Sure, the characters are pretty standard (there’s even a self-serving official, played by Stanley Tucci, who functions as the film’s heavy), but the various scenes of destruction, which included everything from the sun’s red-hot rays melting San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to an electrical storm so powerful it destroys the Coliseum in Rome, more than made up for the movie’s shortcomings. It’s these moments that make The Core worth seeing, and help us forget the fact that, scientifically speaking, it doesn’t know what the hell it's talking about.

The late ‘90s and early ‘00s saw the release of a number of far-fetched sci-fi disaster films, from Armageddon and Volcano to The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Yet even by their standards, The Core is fairly outlandish. And that’s why I had such a blast watching it!







Sunday, March 10, 2013

#937. The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)


Directed By: Stephen Chbosky

Starring: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller





Tag line: "We are infinite"

Trivia: Though not explicitly shown on screen or mentioned, the film is set during the 1991-92 school year, just as it was in the book





Of all the films released in 2012, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is, hands-down, my favorite, and if it hadn’t been for the Movie Podcast Weekly, I probably would have never seen it.

The Movie Podcast Weekly is just that: an audio podcast that reviews a new theatrical release every week. A while back, co-host Karl Huddleston was singing the praises of a recent picture titled The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which he was calling one of 2012’s best offerings. Now, I’d heard of this film prior to Karl’s recommendation, but had zero interest in seeing it (the title alone made it sound like a sappy pre-teen flick, along the lines of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). Then, a few weeks later, the show’s main host (and a good friend of mine), Jason Pyles, also spoke highly of the movie, so I decided to check it out.

Needless to say, I’m glad I did.

Based on a novel he himself penned, director Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower details the trials and tribulations of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a high-school freshman who desperately wants to fit in. By chance, he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller), an outgoing senior who introduces Charlie to his bubbly stepsister, Sam (Emma Watson), and before long, Charlie is accepted into Patrick and Sam’s inner circle, which includes the pushy Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman) and the shy Alice (Erin Wilhelmi). Yet, in spite of all his new-found happiness, Charlie continues to be haunted by a secret from his past that, if left unchecked, might just tear his world apart.

Despite the fact it occasionally delves into some pretty dark territory, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is, at its heart, an upbeat, energetic motion picture, which has everything to do with its tremendous cast. Lerman is convincingly awkward as Charlie, and Ezra Miller brings tons of personality to the part of Patrick, but the true standout is Emma Watson as Sam, Patrick’s beautiful, kind-hearted stepsister who takes Charlie under her wing. Many of the film’s best scenes, like the three of them dancing to the ‘80s hit, “Come on Eileen” or Sam “flying” through the tunnel as David Bowie’s “Heroes” plays on the radio, work because we truly believe these characters are the closest of friends, and we enjoy spending time with them. Thanks in large part to these young actors, The Perks of Being Wallflower is much more than a movie; it’s a life-affirming experience.

Every week, whether by way of the social networks I frequent or the various podcasts I listen to, I learn about dozens of films, some of which I never heard of before, that prove to be hidden gems. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is one such movie. So, my sincere thanks go out to Karl Huddleston and The Movie Podcast Weekly. You guys turned me on to a fabulous film here.







Saturday, March 9, 2013

#936. From Russia With Love (1963)


Directed By: Terence Young

Starring: Sean Connery, Robert Shaw, Lotte Lenya




Tag line: "The world's masters of murder pull out all the stops to destroy Agent 007!"

Trivia: The brutal fight in the train compartment between James Bond and Red Grant lasts only a few minutes on screen and took three weeks to film






After the box-office success of Dr. No, it was a foregone conclusion that producers Harry Saltzman and Albert “Cubby” Broccoli would once again bring author Ian Fleming’s super spy James Bond, Agent 007, to the big screen. Working with a larger budget than they had before, the creative minds behind From Russia with Love, the second Bond offering, managed to up the ante on the first, making it bigger and more elaborate while, at the same time, continuing to tap into the near-flawless marriage of action and style that made Dr. No a worldwide phenomenon.

The criminal organization SPECTRE is looking to obtain a Russian decoding device. To that end, two of their best operatives, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and Kronsteen (Vladek Sheybal) devise a plan to lure Britain’s #1 spy, James Bond (Sean Connery) to Istanbul, wait for him to acquire the machine, and then kill him once he’s got it. Knowing his weakness for gorgeous women, SPECTRE sends an unsuspecting Russian beauty named Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) to steer 007 in the right direction, but from the start, Bond is fully aware he’s walking into a trap. Aided by section chief Ali Kerim Bay (Pedro Armendáriz), Bond intends to turn the decoder over to MI6 instead, leading to a violent confrontation between him and Red Grant (Robert Shaw), SPECTRE’s top assassin.

The action sequences this time around are, without a doubt, more spectacular than they were in Dr. No; aside from a well-staged gunfight at a Gypsy encampment and the thrilling chase towards the end of the movie, the showdown between 007 and Red Grant is one of the most exciting fights in Bond’s long history. From Russia with Love was also the film that introduced actor Desmond Llewelyn to the series, better known to Bond aficionados as ‘Q’ (here credited as Boothroyd, head of the ‘Q’ Branch), the HMSS operative who, for many years, provided the ultra-cool spy equipment that helped 007 get out of some tight spots. And while the gadgets and gizmos in From Russia with Love weren’t the most intricate (a briefcase equipped with a sniper rifle, ammunition, and a teargas canister), it was nice to see another familiar face join the ranks (Llewelyn would reprise the role of ‘Q’ sixteen more times before finally handing the reins to John Cleese in 2002’s Die Another Day). Along with the addition of new allies, this film also marked the initial appearance of Bond’s arch-nemesis, Ernst Blofeld (played here by Anthony Dawson), the SPECTRE mastermind who would next turn up in Thunderball. And even though 007 is decidedly more subdued than he was in Dr. No, Connery continues to shine in the part, striking the perfect balance between strength and refinement and further solidifying his position as the quintessential James Bond.

Yet another tradition was launched at the very end of From Russia with Love when, during the closing credits, it's revealed that “James Bond will return” in another cinematic adventure. And since it seemed to work well for the 007 franchise, I figured I’d borrow this little announcement for myself. So stay tuned: in the next few weeks, I’ll be moving on to 1964’s Goldfinger, which I consider the best movie in the series.