Saturday, August 31, 2013

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


Directed By: Peter Jackson

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Orlando Bloom




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

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






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

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

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

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

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

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







Friday, August 30, 2013

#1,110. Frenzy (1972)


Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Jon Finch, Barry Foster, Alec McCowen




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

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






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

A modern-day Jack the Ripper is on the loose, raping pretty young women, then strangling them to death with a necktie. The police, led by Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen), are baffled, but when Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt), a professional matchmaker, turns up dead, the authorities begin to suspect her ex-husband, Richard (Jon Finch), is the elusive killer. Before long, Richard, who’s completely innocent, is arrested and charged with murder. Locked behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit, Richard soon figures out who the real killer is and makes plans for a daring prison break, hoping to track the maniac down so he can take his revenge.

Hitchcock keeps the tension running high throughout Frenzy, even after he reveals the murderer’s identity. In the film’s most visually impressive scene, we tag along with the killer as he accompanies his next unsuspecting victim up a flight of stairs. When the two reach the top, they disappear behind a closed door, at which point the camera slowly pulls back, making its way down the stairs and coming to a rest outside the building, far enough away so that we can’t hear the girl’s screams. But the suspense doesn’t end there; in the very next scene, the killer, shortly after stuffing his victim’s body into a sack of potatoes sitting in back of a vegetable truck, realizes she’s still holding his monogrammed tiepin in her clenched fist, which, if found, can easily be traced back to him. As the truck makes its way down the dark London streets, the killer feverishly works to pry the girl’s hand open and retrieve his pin before anyone sees him.

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







Thursday, August 29, 2013

#1,109. Seven Up! (1964)


Directed By: Paul Almond

Starring: Douglas Keay, Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett





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







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

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

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







Wednesday, August 28, 2013

#1,108. The Incredible Hulk (2008)


Directed By: Louis Leterrier

Starring: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth




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

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








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

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

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

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







Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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


Directed By: Philip Kaufman

Starring: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum




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

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






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

Spores from a distant planet have landed in San Francisco, attaching themselves to plants and trees and blooming into beautiful flowers. Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), who works for the city’s Health Department, picks one of these flowers on her way home and shows it to her boyfriend, Geoffrey (Art Hindle). The next morning, Elizabeth senses there’s something different about Geoffrey, who’s more subdued, more emotionally distant than he was the night before. Concerned, she goes to her boss, Matthew (Donald Sutherland), for advice, and he suggests she talk to renowned psychiatrist Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy), who he knows personally. David tells them he’s been receiving similar complaints from many of his patients, husbands and wives who claim their spouses have suddenly changed, and are not the same people they married. He chalks the whole thing up to mass hysteria, but Matthew and Elizabeth slowly realize something more sinister is at play. Aided by good friends Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) and his wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright), they search for answers, hoping to uncover the reason why so many people are changing. But is there anyone left they can really trust?

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

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

With its excellent cast and the stylish direction of Philip Kaufman, 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a rarity: a successful update of a classic film that feels like a completely original motion picture.







Monday, August 26, 2013

#1,106. Night and Fog (1955)


Directed By: Alain Resnais


Starring: Michel Bouquet, Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler





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







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

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

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







Sunday, August 25, 2013

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


Directed By: Alexander Witt

Starring: Milla Jovovich, Sienna Guillory, Eric Mabius





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

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







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

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

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

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

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







Saturday, August 24, 2013

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


Directed By: Ted Post

Starring: James Franciscus, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans



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

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





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

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

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

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







Friday, August 23, 2013

#1,103. The Jungle Book (1967)


Directed By: Wolfgang Reitherman

Starring: Phil Harris, Sebastian Cabot, Louis Prima





Tag line: "The Jungle is JUMPIN'!"

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





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

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

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

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







Thursday, August 22, 2013

#1,102. Beetlejuice (1988)


Directed By: Tim Burton

Starring: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton




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

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






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

Adam and Barbara Maitland (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) have just died, the victims of a freak car accident, and their spirits take up residence in what had been their beloved home. But as the two are coming to terms with their new “lives” as ghosts, their house is sold to Charles Deetz (Jeffrey Jones), who immediately moves in with his wife Delia (Catherine O’Hara) and daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). When all attempts to frghten off their new "house guests" fail, Adam and Barbara turn to Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), an over-excited “bio-exorcist”, for help. But as they’ll soon learn, once the erratic Betelgeuse is on the job, he intends to hang around forever!

Burton’s unique take on the weird and unusual is on full display in Beetlejuice, starting with the look of the film and extending through to its characters (when Adam and Barbara try to scare the Deetzes away, they instead pique their curiosity, leading Charles, Delia, and family friend Otho, played by Glenn Shadix, to ask the two spirits to perform more “tricks” for them). Despite the fact her parents look upon the ghostly couple as if they were a carnival sideshow, Lydia forms a bond with the Maitlands, an often touching relationship that gives Beetlejuice its backbone. Stealing the show, however, is Michael Keaton as the often insane, occasionally gross Betelgeuse, a ghost for hire with a few hundred disgusting tricks up his sleeve. Spending his days trapped inside the scale model of the town that Adam built in the attic, Betelgeuse is called into action whenever someone repeats his name three times, which happens more than once in the movie (and always with hilarious consequences). Keaton lets his comedic side bubble over in this film, giving us a character that’s fairly unhinged, and very unpredictable. His manic performance is definitely a highlight of the movie (as are the two “musical” sequences, which feature a couple of classic tunes by Harry Belafonte).

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







Wednesday, August 21, 2013

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


Directed By: Various

Starring: Various





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








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

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

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










Tuesday, August 20, 2013

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


Directed By: John Huston

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt





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

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






Despite the fact that Studio Chief Jack Warner was against the idea, John Huston shot the bulk of his 1948 film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, on-location in Mexico, a country the director had once called home (Huston lived there for two years, during which time he rode with the Mexican Cavalry). Moving the production south of the border proved a stroke of genius, the first of many that would help make The Treasure of the Sierra Madre a full-fledged Hollywood classic.

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

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has it all. First and foremost, it’s a rousing adventure, with the three main characters facing a number of dangers in their quest for riches, including Mexican bandits (during a face-off with one particular group, the gang’s leader, played by Alfonso Bedoya, tries to fool Dobbs and the others by claiming he and his men are part of the Mexican Mounted Police force. Dobbs then asks to see their badges, leading to the film’s most famous line: “Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges!”). Huston’s direction is also top-notch, building plenty of suspense as Dobbs, convinced that his partners are out to steal his share of the gold, slowly loses his mind, and the picturesque, occasionally treacherous Mexican landscape adds a sense of gritty realism. As for the cast, Huston’s decision to have his father, Walter, play the aging prospector was spot-on, with the elder Huston’s boisterous performance earning him his only Academy Award (for Best Supporting Actor). As for Bogart, he’s sensational as Dobbs, taking what had been a somewhat likable vagrant and transforming him into a ruthless killer.

Part adventure movie and part morality tale (effectively warning about the corrosive effect of greed), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre certainly ranks as one of the best films to emerge from Hollywood in the 1940s, and, arguably, is also one of the greatest ever made.







Monday, August 19, 2013

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


Directed By: Brandon Christopher

Starring: Carlos Larkin





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








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

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

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

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







Sunday, August 18, 2013

#1,098. How Green Was My Valley (1941)


Directed By: John Ford

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




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

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






John Ford, that prolific director of such classic westerns as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, won a whopping four Academy Awards for Best Director, not a single one of which was for his work on a western. Along with The Informer in 1935 and The Quiet Man in 1952, he was awarded back-to-back directing honors for The Grapes of Wrath (in 1940) and How Green Was My Valley (in 1941). Based on Richard LLewellyn’s popular novel of the same name, How Green Was My Valley tells the story of the Morgan family, and how changes in their community threatened to tear them apart.

Now a man, Huw Morgan (Irving Pichel) looks back on his childhood in the small Welsh mining town where he was born. Told mostly in flashback, we meet a young Huw (Roddy McDowall) at a time when his father Gwilym (Donald Crisp) and his elder brothers all worked in the coal mines, earning enough to support their large family. Huw’s mother, Beth (Sara Allgood), with the help of his sister Anghaard (Maureen O’Hara), always kept food on the table, and times were generally good. That is, until the mining company reduced their wages. Unwilling to accept the pay cut, the workers go on strike (Gwilym doesn’t believe in unions, while his sons, who support the strike, stand against their father). Meanwhile, Anghaard, who’s developed feelings for the new preacher, Mr. Gruffydd (Walter Pidgeon), is being courted by Lestyn Evans (Marten Lamont), the mine owner’s son, and a man she doesn’t love.

There are some wonderful scenes in How Green Was My Valley, from simple moments, like when Huw, reflecting on happier times, recalls, in great detail, what happened when his father and brothers came home from work in the evenings (one of their rituals was to go into the back yard and scrub the coal dust off their bodies), and when his brother Ivor (Patric Knowles) married the beautiful Bronwyn (Anna Lee), a wedding that brought the entire town together. Each of these moments (and more besides) reveals the intricacies of life in a small, working class town, giving depth to both the characters and the community. But How Green Was My Valley also explores the differences between parents and their children, and how one generation’s beliefs aren’t always passed on to the next. When his sons talk about joining a union to fight for fair wages, Gwilym, who considers unions “Socialist nonsense”, stubbornly refuses to discuss it with them.

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







Saturday, August 17, 2013

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


Directed By: Lee Sholem


Starring: George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jeff Corey




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

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





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

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

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

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







Friday, August 16, 2013

#1,096. House Hunting (2013)


Directed By: Eric Hurt

Starring: Marc Singer, Art LaFleur, Hayley DuMond





Tag line: "The American Nightmare"

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






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

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

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







Thursday, August 15, 2013

#1,095. Evil Dead (2013)


Directed By: Fede Alvarez

Starring: Jane Levy, Shiloh Fernandez, Lou Taylor Pucci




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

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






OK, its confession time: unlike a good many fans of the genre, I have no problem with the recent trend of horror remakes. Sure, John Carpenter’s Halloween is a classic. It’s the movie that kicked off the ‘80s slasher craze, setting the standard for the entire sub-genre, but I also enjoyed Rob Zombie’s take on the story. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is on my all-time Top 10 list, yet I thought the 2004 Zack Snyder version was entertaining as well. Hell, I even liked the recent remakes (or “re-imaginings”, or “updates”, or whatever you want to call them) of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. But that said, 2013’s Evil Dead, based on Sam Raimi’s unforgettable 1981 movie, is easily my favorite of the bunch.

Trying to kick her drug habit, Mia (Jane Levy) travels to a run-down cabin in the middle of the woods, where she plans to go an entire weekend without getting high. Her friends Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Olivia (Jessica Lucas) accompany her for moral support, yet the big surprise comes when Mia’s estranged brother David (Shiloh Fernandez) turns up with his girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore). Hoping to make things right with his sister, David promises Mia that he’ll stay by her side. Things take a bizarre turn, however, when the group stumbles upon a book, one that’s bound in human skin and written in blood. Unable to control his curiosity, Eric opens the book and starts reading it, and in so doing awakens a few evil spirits, who proceed to turn the friend’s weekend getaway into an all-out battle for survival.

Produced by both Raimi and Bruce Campbell (who played Ash in the original), 2013’s Evil Dead is a gore-filled re-telling of the ‘81 indie classic. And when I say “gore filled”, I’m talking tons of gore, with blood spilling by the gallon. For most of the movie, we’re bombarded with shootings, stabbings, dismemberments and self-mutilations (one character even licks the edge of a knife, splitting her tongue in half). But, fortunately, Evil Dead is more than a simple gorefest; the film has some genuinely creepy moments as well. In the opening sequence, we witness a ceremony designed to rid a young girl (Phoenix Connolly) of the demon living inside her, a crazy, violent showdown that gets things off to a bone-chilling start. However, the film’s most tension-filled scene comes when Mia, realizing the evil is with them in the cabin, is cowering in her room, attempting to warn David of the danger they’re all in. Naturally, David, believing his sister is having an hallucination as a result of her self-imposed rehab, refuses to help, and once he leaves the room, we see just how real Mia’s so-called “hallucinations” are.

1981’s The Evil Dead will always be one of my favorite films. Nothing will change that. But I have to say I really enjoyed this new Evil Dead, and when I’m in the mood for a bloody good time, chances are I'll watch this one again.







Wednesday, August 14, 2013

#1,094. Goldfinger (1964)


Directed By: Guy Hamilton

Starring: Sean Connery, Honor Blackman, Gert Fröbe



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

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







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

James Bond (Sean Connery), Agent 007, is back. His assignment this time is to keep an eye on millionaire Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), a jewel expert who has been illegally smuggling gold into other countries. After an unfortunate run-in with Goldfinger in Miami Beach, Bond follows him to Vienna, Switzerland, where he overhears the millionaire talking about something called “Operation Grand Slam”. As 007 soon discovers, Operation Grand Slam is the code name for a plan to “neutralize” the American gold supply at Fort Knox. With time running out, Bond, who’s been captured by Goldfinger’s henchman, Oddjob (Harold Sakata) and is being held prisoner, attempts to warn the U.S. Government about the impending attack, while, at the same time, doing everything he can to stay alive. 

The 3rd Bond film (after Dr. No and From Russia with Love), Goldfinger set the standard for the entire series, giving us an action-packed pre-title sequence (which features an explosion, a rendezvous with a beautiful woman, and an electrocution), a great title song (performed by Shirley Bassey), and some cool gadgets (Bond’s patented Aston Martin makes its debut in this movie, and has, among other things, bulletproof windows, a built-in radar, machine guns in the front, an oil slick released from the back, and a passenger ejector seat). By the time he made Goldfinger, Connery had settled into the role of Bond, delivering his usual suave performance, with just a hint of brutality (in the pre-title sequence, he shields himself with a woman, who he was making out with only moments earlier, to avoid getting clubbed on the head). We also get two awesome Bond girls in Goldfinger: Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton), who meets an untimely, and unusual, end; and Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), perhaps the most memorable of Bond’s many women. Both start off working for Goldfinger, but are soon won over by 007’s charms. 

Along with the ladies, Goldfinger also gives us two outstanding adversaries, arguably the most interesting villains in the series. What I like about Auric Goldfinger is that he’s both a criminal mastermind and a petty thief (when we first meet him, he’s cheating at cards and bilking his unsuspecting opponent out of thousands of dollars). Whether stealing on a small-scale, or a large one (and it doesn’t get much bigger than Fort Knox), Goldfinger is a man who hates to lose, and isn’t above resorting to violence if anyone stands in his way. His sidekick, a mute Korean named Oddjob, is incredibly strong (at one point, he crushes a golf ball with his bare hand) and has a pretty nifty weapon as well: a blade hidden in the brim of his hat that’s so sharp it slices the head off a marble statue! Together, Goldfinger and Oddjob make for a pair of formidable foes, giving Bond a real run for his money. 

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







Tuesday, August 13, 2013

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


Directed By: Enzo Barboni

Starring: Terence Hill, Bud Spencer, Steffen Zacharias



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

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






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

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

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

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








Monday, August 12, 2013

#1,092. Seven Psychopaths (2012)


Directed By: Martin McDonagh

Starring: Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Christopher Walken




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

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







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

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

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

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







Sunday, August 11, 2013

#1,091. Harlow (1965)


Directed By: Gordon Douglas

Starring: Carroll Baker, Red Buttons, Raf Vallone




Tag line: "What was Harlow really like? She was the star who didn't know when to stop!"

Trivia: Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote two songs for the picture, "Harlow" and "Say Goodbye," but they weren't used






An actress who appeared in over 40 films prior to her untimely death at the age of 26, Jean Harlow’s brief but chaotic life had all the makings of a great biopic. Unfortunately, director Gordon Douglas’s 1965 movie, Harlow, ain’t it.

As the story opens, Jean Harlow (Carroll Baker) is a struggling extra, taking any role she can to help support her loving mother (Angela Lansbury) and her lazy step-father (Raf Vallone). Not willing to sleep around to get the lucrative parts, Jean’s career flounders until she hooks up with Arthur Landau (Red Buttons), an agent who believes she’s destined to become a star. But as Jean will soon discover, the road to stardom isn’t an easy one, and achieving fame and fortune doesn’t mean your troubles are over.

Harlow isn’t a bad film; Baker is both beautiful and convincing in the title role, and the supporting cast is also strong, especially Vallone as her slimy stepfather and Red Buttons as the kindly agent who takes the actress under his wing. There are some memorable scenes as well; I loved the opening sequence, where we watch hundreds of extras suiting up for the day. As a fan of movies, this glimpse into Hollywood’s past was certainly a thrill. Another strength is the look of the film, which owes a lot to the crisp cinematography of Joseph Ruttenberg and the period costumes designed by the legendary Edith Head. The pieces were in place to make Harlow a truly remarkable biopic. So, what happened?

The problem lies in the fact that the movie intentionally simplifies Harlow’s life, going so far as change the names of certain famous people (I’m pretty sure producer Richard Manley, played by Leslie Nielson, was a stand-in for millionaire Howard Hughes, who gave Harlow a part in his WWI drama Hell’s Angels after signing her to a 5-year contract in 1929). Even more frustrating is how Harlow fictionalizes elements of the actress’s movie career, like when she attends the premiere of The Allegheny Trail, which is a film she never made (and, for that matter, never even existed). There are posters and marquees for other pictures as well, like Yukon Fever, Wild Journey, and Luscious Lady… all phony.

Some details remain intact: Paul Bern (played by Peter Lawford) was, indeed, one of Harlow’s husbands, yet even here, the story is watered down. The real Paul Bern, who worked as a producer in Hollywood, was found dead of a gunshot wound at their home in 1932, and though his death was eventually ruled a suicide, there were those who believed Harlow herself shot him. I’ve read about this scandal before, and was anxious to see how the movie would handle it. But it makes no mention of any possible wrongdoings, presenting it as a straight-up suicide and draining as much melodrama from the event as they can (showing Harlow as the inconsolable widow). I’m not saying Harlow should have been the motion picture equivalent of a gossip rag, complete with every rumor and innuendo that plagued the actress over the course of her career, but give us something to remind us why hers was a life worthy of our attention.

I’m certainly not the world’s foremost expert on Jean Harlow, but I have seen a few of her movies. She was pretty darn awful in The Public Enemy, delivering a ridiculously wooden performance as Cagney’s favorite girl, but she lit up the screen in the controversial Red-Headed Woman, and held her own with the likes of Marie Dressler and the Barrymore brothers in 1933’s Dinner at Eight, where she showed some skill as a comedienne. At the time of her death, Harlow was one of the most popular stars in Hollywood. Nicknamed the “Blonde Bombshell”, she had been romantically linked to heavyweight boxing champion Max Baer, and, towards the end of her life, was involved in a loving relationship with fellow MGM star William Powell. She died quite suddenly of renal failure in 1937, which struck while she was in the midst of making Saratoga with Clark Gable.

Interesting stuff, isn’t it? Why Harlow ignored most of it, giving us instead a saccharine, by-the-book account of the actress’s “life”, is really a mystery.








Saturday, August 10, 2013

#1,090. Vincent (1982)


Directed By: Tim Burton

Starring: Vincent Price





Trivia: The Saturn Sandworm seen later in Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas first appears in this short film







Since I started this challenge back in August, 2010, I've covered only a handful of short films. In Feb. of 2012, I watched 3 Dead Girls, a collection of three horror shorts directed by Christopher Alan Broadstone, and recently I saw D.W Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley, which offered a chance to explore a historically significant picture (it was the first gangster movie ever made). But, today, I wanted to mix things up a bit by taking a look at a very short film: Tim Burton’s Vincent, a 6-minute stop-motion animated movie about a young boy with an unusual appetite for the macabre.

Narrated by Vincent Price, Vincent introduces us 7-year-old Vincent Malloy, who lives in a nice suburban home with his family and his faithful dog, Abercrombie. But Vincent isn’t like most children his age. “While other kids read books like ‘Go Jane Go’”, Price informs us, “Vincent’s favorite author is Edgar Allan Poe”. Preferring to think of himself as a tortured mad scientist, Vincent imagines experimenting on his dog, which he hopes to turn into a “horrible zombie”, and dipping his Aunt in wax to put her on display in his museum. His mother tells him to spend more time outside, but seeing as he’s such a tormented soul, Vincent would rather be alone, pining for the beloved wife he accidentally buried alive!

Produced in 1982, Vincent was one of Burton’s earliest works, and set the stage for many of his subsequent films. An obvious influence on The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride, and Frankenweenie (which were also stop motion); you can see traces of Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands in Vincent as well, merging elements of the macabre with a family-friendly tale. Featuring poetic narration (written by Burton himself, in the same style as Poe’s The Raven) and stark black and white photography, Vincent is an absolute delight.

You can watch Vincent in its entirety below, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.