Monday, September 30, 2013

#1,141. 42nd Street Forever, Vol. 3: Exploitation Explosion (2008)


Directed By: Various

Starring: Various





Trivia: This is Volume 3 in a series of 5 DVD releases









Aka Exploitation Explosion, I saw 42nd Street Forever Vol. 3 before watching either Vol. 1 or Vol. 2, and for a time, it was my favorite of the series. Seeing it again now, I feel Vol. 3, while still entertaining, comes up a bit short when compared to the first two releases.

Yet another assortment of grindhouse-era trailers, Vol. 3 led me to a number of movies I’d never seen before, including Beyond the Door, an Italian Exorcist rip-off that, while far from perfect (parts of it were pretty boring, actually), had a few interesting moments. Then there are films like Patrick (an Ozploitation classic about a comatose patient with telepathic abilities) and Devil Times Five (a horror film featuring a quintet of murderous children, one of whom was played by a young Leif Garrett), which proved a whole lot of fun. Unfortunately, there are some I still have to check out, chief among them Survive!, a 1976 Mexican disaster movie supposedly based on a true story, where a plane crash-lands in the Andes mountains. The trailer for this one really impressed me, and I’m looking forward to seeing it soon.

And yet, 42nd Street Forever: Volume 3 feels a little undercooked to me; it just doesn’t offer the variety presented in either Vol. 1 or Vol. 2. Along with the above, there’s a handful of action films (Five Fingers of Death, Telefon), some horror (Demonoid, The Night Child), and a smattering of sex (Cheerleaders Wild Weekend, Summer School Teachers), which leaves several other sub-genres out in the cold (including Blaxploitation). I would definitely recommend Volume 3; the trailers it does have are pretty damn awesome. But if you’re looking for a little more diversity, then either of the first two volumes will give you what you’re after.












Sunday, September 29, 2013

#1,140. The Three Stooges: The Curly Years (1932 - 1946)


Directed By: Various

Starring: Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Curly Howard




Trivia: There was a 6-year age difference between Moe Howard and his real-life younger brother, Curly





I’ve been a fan of The Three Stooges ever since I was a kid (back then, their short films played on a local Philadelphia station five days a week), and have wanted to include them in this challenge of mine for a while now. The question, though, was how would I do it? Would I attempt a retrospective covering the trio’s entire history (which would have been a gargantuan undertaking), or simply choose a single short movie to write about (which always struck me as woefully inadequate). In the end, I decided to break my coverage of the group’s cinematic output into two sections: The Curly Years (1932 to 1946, when Jerome “Curly” Howard was part of the trio) and The Shemp Years (1946 to 1955, when Shemp Howard, who was one of the original stooges during their vaudeville days, rejoined the group when Curly became too ill to continue). For the time being, I have no plans to expand this coverage to include Joe Besser or Curly Joe DeRita, whose contributions were far more limited.

Like many fans, Curly was always my favorite Stooge. From his odd ticks and bizarre noises to the way he usually made a bad situation even worse, Curly was the most likable of the group, a dim-wit who was regularly abused (cinematically speaking, of course) by older brother Moe Howard. Joining the Stooges in 1932, Curly would appear, along with Moe and Larry Fine, in over 100 short films. For the sake of brevity, I’ve decided to look at three of them: 1936’s Disorder in the Court, where the boys make a mockery of the U.S Judicial system while trying to help singer Gail Tempest (Suzanne Kaaren) beat a murder rap; Violent is the Word for Curly (1938), in which the Stooges pose as a trio of college professors; and another case of mistaken identity, A Plumbing We Will Go (1940), where Moe, Larry, and Curly pretend to be plumbers, with disastrous results.

There’s plenty of physical humor in all three of these films, with Moe taking his frustrations out on Larry and Curly by way of the occasional slap to the face, or the odd eye poke (in Moe Howard’s autobiography, he claims that, in all the years they were making movies, he never once actually poked a co-star in the eye). Yet not all of the humor centers on violence; in Disorder in the Court, there’s a scene where Curly, sitting on the witness stand, tries to explain what really happened on the night in question, using plenty of slang as he does so (“We were tearin' up some hot swing music in the York Esther”). The Defense Attorney (Bud Jamison) tells Curly to speak plain English, and “drop the vernacular”. With no idea what he's talking about, Curly looks down at his hat, which is sitting in his lap, and says, “Vernacular? That’s a derby!Violent is the Word for Curly even features a musical number in which the boys try to teach the alphabet to a class of college students, and in one of the trio’s most famous routines, Curly accidentally traps himself in a maze of pipes while attempting to fix a leak in A Plumbing We Will Go (according to Sam Raimi, a scene from this short, where a light bulb fills up with water, inspired a similar sequence in his 1981 classic, The Evil Dead). Sure, violence was always a key element in their humor, but the Stooges could do plenty more besides.

The "Curly Era" officially ended in May of 1946, when Jerome Howard suffered a major stroke on the set of Half-Wits Holiday (going back once again to Moe Howard’s autobiography, he claims he walked into Curly’s dressing room to find his younger brother slouched over, unable to speak). And while he would make the occasional effort to return to the group (he had a cameo in 1947’s Hold That Lion, making it the only short to feature all three Howard brothers), his health continued to deteriorate until his untimely death in 1952 at the age of 48. It was a sad end for the most popular Stooge, but not the Stooges themselves, who would press on for years to come.

More on that later...











Saturday, September 28, 2013

#1,139. The Return of the Vampire (1944)


Directed By: Lew Landers

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Frieda Inescort, Nina Foch



Tag line: "The Vampire's Prey... a Beautiful Girl! Compelled to follow his commands! The blood of her fiancé on his hands! How can she escape the vampire?"

Trivia: Lugosi was paid $3,500 for his four weeks of work






The Return of the Vampire, a 1944 film directed by Lew Landers, marked the first time Bela Lugosi donned a vampire’s cape in over 10 years, and while it’s not a Universal picture [Because the studio had copyrighted the term “Dracula”, Lugosi’s character is instead named Armand Tesla], the movie is every bit as atmospheric as its classic counterparts.

In 1918, two of London’s most renowned scientists; Professor Saunders (Gilbert Emery) and Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescourt), faced off against the vampire Armand Tesla (Lugosi), driving a spike through his heart, and then burying him in an unmarked grave. Years later, following the outbreak of World War II, Tesla’s grave is unearthed when, during an air raid, an errant bomb hits the cemetery. Two volunteers (Billy Bevan and Harold De Becker), who are trying to clean up the damage, find Tesla’s body, and, believing the spike was a result of the bombing, promptly remove it from his chest, allowing the vampire to rejoin the ranks of the living. With the help of his werewolf assistant, Andreas (Matt Willis), Tesla sets his sights on Nicki (Nina Foch), daughter of the now-deceased Professor Saunders and the fiancé of Lady Jane’s son, John (Roland Varno). Hoping to once again stop the vampire’s reign of terror, Lady Jane teams up with the local authorities, who must work quickly to prevent young Nicki from falling under the monster’s spell.

Wasting no time whatsoever, The Return of the Vampire opens in a fog-covered graveyard, setting up the film’s gloomy tone right from the get-go. It’s during this scene that we’re introduced to Andreas, Tesla’s werewolf assistant. In keeping with the trend established in movies like Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man, The Return of the Vampire gives us not one, but two monsters, and even though its werewolf acts more human than animal (after his transformation, Andreas can still talk), his addition was definitely a nice touch. Along with its impressive production design and multiple monsters, The Return of the Vampire features several fine performances. Nina Foch is effectively understated as Nicki, Tesla’s intended victim, while Frieda Inescourt brings an inner strength to Lady Jane, a part that amounts to this film’s version of Professor Van Helsing. As far as the title character is concerned, Lugosi delivers his dialogue with his usual flair, and slips smoothly into the role he himself made famous over a decade earlier.

Aside from this film and 1931’s Dracula, Lugosi would appear as a vampire only one other time, in 1948’s Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, and because he played the part so infrequently, The Return of the Vampire is a movie that should be treasured.







Friday, September 27, 2013

#1,138. Batman Returns (1992)


Directed By: Tim Burton

Starring: Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer





Tag line: "The Bat, the Cat, the Penguin"

Trivia: The Batman costume weighed 55 lbs








A sequel to his runaway 1989 hit, Batman, director Tim Burton once again returns to the dark world of Gotham City, which, in this movie, seems slightly darker than before.

It’s Christmas in Gotham, where the nights are anything but silent. Having subdued the Joker, Batman (Michael Keaton) now has to contend with two arch-criminals. First on the list is Oswald Cobblepot, better known to the world as The Penguin (Danny DeVito). Born with a deformity, he was discarded by his parents (Diane Salinger and Paul Reubens), who tossed him into the sewers when he was an infant, where, instead of meeting his doom, he was raised by a flock of Penguins. Ready to rejoin “normal” society after decades underground, he turns to corrupt millionaire Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) for guidance, and before long, the Penguin is well on his way to respectability. In fact, he even decides to run for Mayor!

Next up is Selina Kyle (Michelle Pfieffer), the meek secretary who, after being pushed out a window by Shreck and falling several stories into an alley, changes her entire persona. Donning a homemade costume, she becomes Catwoman, and plots her revenge against Shreck. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when she falls in love with Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne.

The Gotham of Batman Returns is every bit as dark as that of Batman (the opening sequence, where we flash back to Oswald’s birth and eventual abandonment, is appropriately disturbing). But while the look and feel of the city remains the same, the set pieces this time around are more elaborate, with larger buildings and a sprawling sewer system to give the characters room to spread out. As for the villains, DeVito disappears behind his grotesque make-up, bringing an animal-like intensity to the Penguin that makes him completely unpredictable (in one scene, he bites the nose of an assistant hired to work on his campaign for Mayor). Pfieffer is deliciously seductive as Catwoman, slinking around in tight black leather, while Walken’s shifty performance as Max Shreck (gotta love the name!) adds another effective baddie to the ranks. Keaton is again strong as Batman, but like in the initial film, the caped crusader takes a back seat to his adversaries, who are the real stars of the show.

Burton would leave the series after Batman Returns, turning the reins over to Joel Schumacher, with mixed results (1995’s Batman Forever, while not up to the standard of the first two movies, has its charms, but Batman & Robin is damn near unwatchable). Yet, despite what followed, Batman and Batman Returns are still solid films, and just as entertaining as when they were first released.







Thursday, September 26, 2013

#1,137. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)


Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Starring: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston




Tag line: "Get ready to Laugh, to Sing, to Shout! ...For here comes Uncle Sam's Star Spangled Yankee Doodle Dandy!"

Trivia: James Cagney won his first and only Oscar for this movie







My introduction to James Cagney came courtesy of my father, when he recorded a trio of the actor's films off a local UHF station. In all three of these pictures: White Heat, The Fighting 69th, and Angels With Dirty Faces, Cagney played tough-as-nails characters who never backed down from a fight. Fascinated with his persona, I checked out a few more of his films, including The Roaring Twenties and The Public Enemy, which were every bit as gritty and unflinching as the other three. So, imagine my surprise when, a few years later, I saw Yankee Doodle Dandy. A far cry from his street-wise gangster movies, Yankee Doodle Dandy has Cagney portraying legendary song and dance man, George M. Cohan, an entertainer who wrote such patriotic tunes as “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, “Over There”, and, of course, “The Yankee Doodle Boy”. 

George M. Cohan (Cagney) has been summoned to the Oval Office to meet with U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and once there, tells the President the story of his life, starting with his early days when he joined his family’s vaudeville act. Billed as the Four Cohans, George, along with his father (Walter Huston), mother (Rosemary DeCamp) and sister (Jeanne Cagney), toured the country, and were a hit everywhere they played. But when George’s cocky attitude proved too much for some promoters to handle, he left the Four Cohans and struck out on his own. With the help of his new partner, Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) and the support of his loving wife, Mary (Joan Leslie), Cohan soon took Broadway by storm, churning out one hit show after another on his way to becoming the most popular performer of his time. 

Released at the height of World War II, Yankee Doodle Dandy is, in many respects, a propaganda film, glorifying America at a time when the country needed something to feel good about. But even today, this movie casts a spell over its audience, and James Cagney is the reason why. The actor gives it his all in each and every one of the film’s musical routines, energetically belting out the three songs mentioned above, as well as “Give My Regards to Broadway”, “Harrigan”, and the very entertaining “Off the Record”, a humorous tune in which Cohan poses as President Roosevelt. The film displays some genuine warmth as well (the scene where Cohan visits his dying father will surely bring a tear to your eye), but its Cagney’s spirited song and dance numbers that make Yankee Doodle Dandy such a fun movie. 

Over the course of his career, Cagney would often return to the tough-guy roles that made him a star, yet as he shows us in Yankee Doodle Dandy, he could do a whole lot more than just throw a punch








Wednesday, September 25, 2013

#1,136. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)


Directed By: Adam McKay

Starring: Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Steve Carell




Tag line: "They bring you the news so you don't have to get it yourself"

Trivia: The zoo scenes take place at the old Los Angeles Zoo that closed in 1965






There was a time when I considered 2004’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy one of the funniest movies I’d ever seen. I’m talking a “Top 10”-level comedy here, ranking alongside such greats as The Big Lebowski and Airplane! But after watching this movie a half dozen times, it’s dropped a few notches on my list. Anchorman is still funny (it would easily make my "Top 20"); it's just not as hilarious as I first thought.

It’s the mid-‘70s, and Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) anchors the top-rated news program in all of San Diego. With his trusty Channel 4 news team at his side, including beat reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd), Champ Kind (David Koechner) on sports, and weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell), Burgundy regularly trounces the competition in the ratings, and is one of the city’s most beloved personalities. But a change is coming that will rock the news room to its very foundation. At a daily meeting, station manager Ed Harken (Fred Willard) announces Channel 4 has hired its first female reporter: the feisty, ambitious Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate). While his team is none too pleased about the sudden addition of a woman to their ranks, Ron Burgundy is immediately smitten with his new colleague, and before long, he and Veronica are a hot item. That changes, however, when, thanks to a personal dilemma, Ron fails to show up one night to report the news, opening the door for Veronica to stand in as Anchor. For her, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime, but for Ron Burgundy, it’s a betrayal he will never forget.

Anchorman is definitely funny. Ferrell’s portrayal of the arrogant, somewhat dim title character remains a high point for me. In fact, it’s my favorite of the actor’s performances. To some, that may seem like faint praise, but I enjoyed his fish-out-of-water character in Elf, and am a fan of a number of his other films, including Old School, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers, and The Campaign. The scenes where Burgundy insists on showing his ignorance are hysterical. While giving Veronica a tour of the town, he can’t remember what “San Diego” translates to in English. “I don't think anyone knows what it means anymore”, he says. “Scholars maintain that the translation was lost hundreds of years ago” (when Veronica points out that it means “Saint Diego”, Ron insists it doesn’t). The movie also features some great scenes (I love it when Brian Fantana, to impress Veronica, dips into Black Panther, his most expensive cologne. “I'm gonna be honest with you”, Ron says to Brian as he’s applying the scent, “that smells like pure gasoline”) and a number of fun cameos (the best of which has Jack Black as a biker who, in a single action, shatters Ron Burgundy’s world).

So, why don’t I find Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy as funny now as I did a few viewings ago? Familiarity, perhaps? For the most part, jokes are never as good when you hear them repeated. But then, I’ve seen Blazing Saddles, Life of Brian, Duck Soup, Bringing Up Baby, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, even Kingpin more often than I have Anchorman, and those movies still crack me up. Ultimately, I think the problem is that, mixed in with its best scenes, Anchorman has a number of goofy moments that, on an initial viewing, are wacky enough to make you laugh, but don’t hold up over time. When I first saw the “rumble” sequence, where the Channel 4 crew dukes it out with every other news team in town, I thought it was hilarious (especially when Brick killed a rival newsman with a trident). Watching it again today, the whole thing just seemed silly.

Don’t get me wrong: Anchorman has a lot going for it, and if you’ve never seen this film before, you will laugh (probably quite a bit). It’s only on repeat viewings that the movie loses some of its steam.







Tuesday, September 24, 2013

#1,135. Un Chien Andalou (1929)


Directed By: Luis Buñuel

Starring: Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil, Luis Buñuel







Trivia: David Bowie began every concert in his 1976 "Station to Station" tour by showing this film








Give me two hours a day of activity, and I’ll take the other twenty-two in dreams

The above quote has been attributed to director Luis Buñuel, who may have been thinking of his 1929 short, Un Chien Andalou (which translates to An Andalusian Dog) when he said it. Made in collaboration with Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou has been hailed as a surrealist masterpiece, and is one of the silent era’s most bizarre films.

With a running time of only 16 minutes, Un Chien Andalou abandons narrative in favor of imagery that will both shock and amaze. Its most famous scene is undoubtedly the one where a woman’s eyeball is sliced open with a straight razor (according to Buñuel, the eye of a dead calf stood in for the human one), but there are other memorable moments as well. In an early sequence, a bicycle courier (Pierre Batcheff), who had fallen and was helped by a young woman (Simone Mareuil), is looking at a hole in the palm of his hand, from which dozens of ants are pouring out. The action then switches to a busy sidewalk, where a crowd gathers around a severed hand that’s lying in the street. The hand is placed into a box by a policeman and given to a young lady, who stands in the middle of the road, staring at it, until she’s struck and killed by a car. With scenes featuring everything from female nudity to grand pianos that have dead donkeys laying on top of them, Un Chien Andalou lives up to its reputation as an incredibly strange motion picture.

Dream... nightmare… genius… insanity; these words, and more besides, have been used to describe Un Chien Andalou. Over the years, many have tried to decipher its meaning, with themes ranging from religion to love, even life and death itself, offered as possible explanations. But one thing remains certain: anyone who’s seen Un Chien Andalou will never forget it.







Monday, September 23, 2013

#1,134. Hitchcock (2012)


Directed By: Sacha Gervasi

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson



Tag line: "Behind every Psycho is a great woman"

Trivia: Anthony Hopkins actually met Alfred Hitchcock when he was younger. Hopkins was accompanied by his agent who introduced him to Hitchcock in a restaurant






Fresh off the success of North by Northwest, renowned director Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) starts searching for his next project. Looking for something different, he decides to adapt Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, a tale of horror loosely based on the life of serial killer Ed Gein (Michael Wincott). Still reeling from the box-office failure of Vertigo a few years earlier, Paramount refuses to finance such a risky film. What’s more, the MPAA, under the guidance of Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith), has hinted that, due to the subject matter, it won’t issue Psycho its seal of approval. Undaunted, Hitchcock, with the support of his wife Alma (Helen Mirren), agrees to pay for the movie himself. After casting Janet Leigh (Scarlett Johansson) and Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) as his two leads, Hitchcock begins production on Psycho, knowing full well that if the movie fails, he’ll end up in the poor house. To add to his worries, he suspects Alma is having an affair with family friend Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston). Fueled by his jealousy and fear, Hitchcock pours everything he has into Psycho, but the question remains: how will audiences react to it?

From its very first scene, Hitchcock had me smiling ear to ear. We open in 1944, with Ed Gein working in a field alongside his brother Henry (Frank Collison). Henry announces he’s planning to leave home, to which Ed responds by beating him to death with a shovel. At that point, the camera pans slightly to the right. Standing there, looking straight ahead, is Hitchcock, who, after taking a sip from a cup of tea, says “Brother has been killing brother since Cain and Abel, yet even I didn’t see that coming. I was as blindsided as poor old Henry down there”. The entire sequence plays like an homage to those great trailers Hitchcock used to churn out, where he would talk to the audience about his upcoming picture. Hitchcock even tackles some of the director’s supposed idiosyncrasies, including his penchant for beautiful blondes (at the premiere of North by Northwest, while being questioned by the press, Hitchcock walks over to a pretty young woman seeking an autograph, asking her if she has any questions for him. Blushing, she smiles and says no. “Pity”, he replies).

I admit I had some reservations when I heard Anthony Hopkins had been cast as the lead in Hitchcock. But at the same time, I couldn’t think of a better actor for the part. Sure, he’s impersonating Hitchcock to a degree, yet his performance is so much more than that, capturing the director’s personality (at least how I’ve always pictured him) to a T. Helen Mirren is predictably excellent as Alma, the occasionally put-upon wife of a genius. I couldn’t help but laugh at the scene when Hitchcock hands her Bloch’s book, and, after having her read the shower scene, she says, quite sarcastically, “Charming. Doris Day should do it as a musical”. Alma tells her husband the book is “low-budget, horror movie claptrap”, yet supports him completely in his decision to turn it into a film, even when it threatens their livelihood. The real Alma Reville always stayed in the background, the “woman behind the man”, so to speak, and to see her portrayed with such charisma on-screen was truly a treat. The remainder of the cast is also strong, especially James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins, and, in a small role, Michael Wincott as Ed Gein (the scenes where Hitchcock imagines himself talking with the serial killer bring a touch of the macabre to the picture, something the real Hitchcock would certainly have enjoyed).

But it's Hitchcock’s creative process I find most intriguing, from his arranging to buy up every copy of Bloch’s book in order to protect its secrets to meticulously shooting the famous shower sequence. From start to finish, Hitchcock is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a classic motion picture, and for a fan of the director’s, that alone makes it cinematic gold.







Sunday, September 22, 2013

#1,133. Flash Gordon (1980)


Directed By: Mike Hodges

Starring: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max Von Sydow




Tag line: "Pathetic Earhtlings...Who Can Save You Now?"

Trivia: Kurt Russell auditioned for the part of Flash Gordon, but ultimately turned the part down






When I was 12 years old, I watched Flash Gordon just about every time it played on cable TV, and even then I knew it was one of the cheesiest films I’d ever seen.

But what can I say? I love it!

Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), ruler of all Mongo, has decided to pass a little time by destroying the earth, causing everything from tidal waves to hail storms in his attempt to wipe out the planet. While the citizens of earth are busy dealing with every natural disaster known to man, Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) has taken matters into his own hands, building a rocket ship to carry him to Mongo so he can stop Ming and save the earth. The problem is, he needs help piloting it. So, when football star Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) and his traveling companion Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) inadvertently crash their small plane into his laboratory, Zarkov takes advantage of the situation and, at gunpoint, orders the two to take a seat inside the rocket. The blast-off is successful, and upon their arrival in Mongo, all three are taken prisoner. Flash, who dukes it out with a few guards and is therefore sentenced to death, catches the eye of the Emperor’s oversexed daughter, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), while Ming takes a fancy to Dale, and decides to make her his concubine. Meanwhile, the rulers of the various worlds of Mongo secretly plot to overthrow Ming and his tyrannical henchmen, Klytus (Peter Wyngarde). The only thing they need is a leader to guide them, and that leader is Flash Gordon!

What is it that makes Flash Gordon such an incredibly entertaining motion picture? Well, aside from Queen’s awesome title song (“Flash! AHH-AAHHH! He’s a miracle!”), I love the different worlds that make up Ming’s Empire. Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) is the leader of Arboria, a jungle-like planet where everyone dresses like Robin Hood, and courage is tested by way of a tree stump, which houses a deadly mound of goo with a scorpion’s tail. Even Ming’s palace is spectacular, featuring orbs that float through the air and emit a freeze ray, and cyborg-like workers who wear high tech sunglasses. As Ming, Max Von Sydow is deliciously evil, while Ornella Muti, who plays Ming’s daughter, is drop-dead sexy (back in the day, she set my 12-year-old mind to spinning). Yet nothing… nothing… tops the Hawk men, a species living high above the clouds that’s led by the bombastic Prince Vultan, played by the incomparable Brian Blessed. It’s Blessed who gets the film’s most memorable lines, delivering them as loudly as possible (“Hawk Men! DIVE!”).

Sure, Sam Jones isn’t exactly stellar in the title role (in fact, he’s pretty wooden), and the movie is awash in gaudy, over-the-top sets and costumes (I’m still trying to figure out the tiny race of brightly-colored creatures, all wearing bicycle helmets and square capes, that are one of the many groups paying homage to Ming in his palace. To me, they look like distant cousins of the Oompa-Loompas from 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). On top of that, some scenes don’t make a lick of sense (If, at the beginning of the movie, Ming had never heard of Planet Earth before, why did his “big board of catastrophes” have a button marked “Earthquake”?) But even the film’s most ridiculous characters, its tackiest moments, its worst special effects work in its favor, all doing their part to transform Flash Gordon into a bona-fide ‘80s classic.







Saturday, September 21, 2013

#1,132. Tommy (1975)


Directed By: Ken Russell

Starring: Roger Daltrey, Ann-Margret, Oliver Reed



Tag line: "Your senses will never be the same"

Trivia: Roger Daltrey is less than three years younger than his screen mother Ann-Margret and just over four years younger than his screen step-father Oliver Reed








When I was in 6th grade, a classmate of mine turned me on to The Who, and they’ve been one of my favorite rock groups ever since. I enjoy all their music, from early hits like “I Can’t Explain” and “A Legal Matter” to such later songs as “Sister Disco” and “You Better You Bet”. And while I consider Who’s Next to be their finest LP ("Baba O’Reilly" alone makes it a classic), the group’s rock opera, Tommy, is a very close second.

When told that her husband, Capt. Walker (Robert Powell), was killed in battle during WWII, a heartbroken Nora (Ann-Margret) tries to get on with her life, doing all she can to raise their son, Tommy (Barry Winch), on her own. After a while, she meets Frank (Oliver Reed), and the two fall instantly in love. But when Capt. Walker, who was very much alive, surprises them one night, Frank mistakes him for a burglar and kills him. Young Tommy witnesses this horrific event, and is told by both his mother and Frank to forget everything he’s seen. This causes Tommy to have a full mental breakdown, making him suddenly deaf, dumb and blind. Nora and Frank do all they can to cure Tommy of his condition, but to no avail. Things finally start to improve when Tommy reaches adulthood (played by The Who’s lead singer, Roger Daltry). Despite his handicaps, he becomes a champion pinball player, which makes him an instant celebrity. Soon after, Tommy even regains his senses, and in so doing inspires millions of people (there are those who believe he’s a Messiah, and worship him like a God).

In Tommy, director Ken Russell brings The Who’s hit album vibrantly to life. The sequence featuring “Pinball Wizard”, the album’s most popular tune, is incredible, with Elton John giving it everything he’s got as Tommy’s chief rival, and Tina Turner’s rendition of “The Acid Queen” is equally as strong. But what really impressed me about Tommy was the way it presented some of the album’s lesser-known songs. The Prologue covers the romance between Tommy’s real father and Nora, and sets the film up nicely. This is followed shortly after by “1951” (originally “1921” on the album), by which point Nora has already hooked up with Frank. It’s an optimistic little number, with Nora and Frank anticipating their future together, one last bit of happiness before tragedy strikes. These tunes are handled perfectly, as are a couple of my personal favorites: “Cousin Kevin”, in which Tommy is physically abused by his bully cousin (played by Paul Nicholas); and a later song, “Sally Simpson”, where we follow young Sally (Victoria Russell), one of Tommy’s many followers, as she tries in vain to meet him at one of his concerts.

From beginning to end, Russell and his superb cast give it their all, and in the process transform Tommy into one hell of a rock and roll movie.







Friday, September 20, 2013

#1,131. Aliens of the Deep (2005)


Directed By: James Cameron, Steven Quale

Starring: James Cameron, Anatoly M. Sagalevitch, Genya Chernaiev




Tag line: "The search for life beyond begins below"

Trivia: This movie was originally filmed in the IMAX 3D format







Having already explored the remains of the Titanic in Ghosts of the Abyss, filmmaker James Cameron once again leads us on a journey of deep-water discovery, this time focusing his attention on the various creatures that live thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface, where the light of the sun hasn’t been seen for millions of years.

Originally an IMAX 3-D release, 2005’s Aliens of the Deep follows Cameron and a crew of scientists who, with the help of NASA, survey the dark recesses of both the Atlantic and the Pacific, revealing a strange world where life is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Along with the deep-sea expeditions, the film also draws a comparison between these animals and the possibility of life on distant planets. Needless to say, some of what we’re shown in Aliens of the Deep is beyond amazing.

Take, for instance, the first oddity the researchers encounter, a creature with long, flowing sheets of clear jelly surrounding it, looking almost like a ghost floating through the water. Of course, not every sighting is as beautiful as this; a fish resembling a squished mound of flesh swims by at one point, with fins that look exactly like human feet! Along with the various life forms, the explorers also come face-to-face with a few geological wonders, including “vents” in the ocean floor, where lava that reaches the surface is quickly cooled. The resulting pillars of black smoke, which come bellowing out of the earth, are as majestic as any living creature.

As he did with Ghosts of the Abyss, James Cameron once again shines a light on an area normally shrouded in darkness, revealing that, even in the remote corners of the globe, there are wonders you simply have to see to believe.







Thursday, September 19, 2013

#1,130. The Mummy's Curse (1944)


Directed By: Leslie Goodwins

Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Peter Coe, Virginia Christine



Tag line: "OUT OF A TRAP OF 1000 TERRORS, COMES PARALIZING HORROR"

Trivia: The flashback sequence features footage of Boris Karloff and Tom Tyler from earlier films, meaning Kharis is actually played by three different actors in this movie






Produced in 1944, The Mummy’s Curse is, in many respects, a lot like the other entries in Universal’s Mummy series, yet manages to distinguish itself by giving its main characters not one, but two ancient Egyptians to contend with.

Set 25 years after The Mummy’s Ghost, The Mummy’s Curse takes us back to the same Louisiana swamp where Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr.) and his beloved Ananka disappeared. Dr. Halsey (Dennis Moore) works for the local museum, and is anxious to locate the remains of the two mummies before the swamp, which is being excavated by Pat Walsh (Addison Richards) and his construction crew, is completely drained. What Halsey doesn’t know is that his assistant, Dr. Illzor Zandaab (Peter Coe) is actually an Egyptian High Priest. With the help of some Tana leaves, Dr. Illzor raises both Kharis and Ananka from the dead. Ananka, who’s transformed into a beautiful young woman (Virginia Christine), has no memory of who she is. Rescued by both Dr. Halsey and Walsh’s niece, Betty (Kay Harding), Ananka is taken to Halsey’s campsite for safe keeping, causing Kharis, under the control of Dr. Illzor, to embark on a killing spree as he tries to reclaim his ancient Princess.

With the addition of a living, breathing Ananka, The Mummy’s Curse brings an interesting twist to what otherwise would have been a humdrum motion picture (the shot of Ananka rising form the swamp is wonderfully executed by director Leslie Goodwins, and is easily the film’s best scene). Even the flashback sequence, which seems to come standard with every entry in the series, is well-handled. Several of the movie’s other aspects, such as the introduction of yet another High Priest and his attempts to control Kharis, fall a bit flat (which may have something to do with Peter Coe’s lackluster performance as Dr. Illzor), but the film’s strengths help it to overcome these more predictable elements of its story, making The Mummy’s Curse an engaging final chapter in the Mummy series.







Wednesday, September 18, 2013

#1,129. The Woman in Black (2012)


Directed By: James Watkins

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Janet McTeer, Ciarán Hinds




Tag line: "What did they see?"

Trivia: The boy who plays Daniel Radcliffe's son is his real godson, a casting idea made by Radcliffe himself







I’ve never seen the 1989 made-for-TV version of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, which, from what I understand, is the definitive take on the story. But as it turns out, this most recent telling (co-produced by Hammer Studios) is a damn creepy ghost tale that, despite a few minor issues, is sure to give you nightmares.

The setting is England, in the early days of the 20th Century. For years, lawyer Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) has been mourning the death of his beloved wife (Sophie Stuckey), who died in childbirth while delivering their son, Joseph (Misha Handley). Hoping to get his career back on track, Arthur travels to the small village of Crythin Grifford, where he must arrange the sale of the Eel Marsh House, a decrepit mansion on the outskirts of town that’s been vacant ever since its owner passed away. Against the wishes of the local population, Arthur heads out to Eel Marsh House to review a mound of paperwork. But the appearance of a ghostly woman in black, which has been blamed for the sudden deaths of many children in town, transforms Arthur’s night of research into a terrifying encounter with the supernatural.

One of the first things I noticed while watching The Woman in Black was how far Daniel Radcliffe has come since his decade-long stint as boy-wizard Harry Potter. Perfectly convincing as a man in despair, Radcliffe shows some genuine range in the role, going from grieving widower to determined investigator without missing a beat. The mystery surrounding this small village is also quite intriguing, leaving us to wonder why so many of the town’s children have died violently [the movie opens with three young girls leaping to their deaths from an attic window]. And like the classic Hammer films of yesteryear, the period look and feel of The Woman in Black is exceptional. The house itself, a vine-covered mansion situated in the middle of nowhere, is eerie as hell, and the scenes in which Arthur is exploring it are incredibly tense.

One area where this recent The Woman in Black proved a disappointment was its over-reliance on jump scares, a few of which worked [as Arthur is touring the house, some of what he experiences is positively terrifying], while others fell short of the mark (a crow, letting out a loud “caw”, darts out of nowhere, not once, but twice). With its chilling tale of the supernatural, The Woman in Black didn’t even need these jump scares; simply put, the film was frightening enough without them!







Tuesday, September 17, 2013

#1,128. Gigi (1958)


Directed By: Vincente Minnelli

Starring: Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan



Tag line: "The First Lerner-Loewe Musical Since 'My Fair Lady'"

Trivia: While shooting, the cast had to mouth the songs because the production was moving so swiftly that the score hadn't yet been recorded






Director Vincente Minnelli worked in a number of different genres throughout his career, including comedy (Father of the Bride, Father's Little Dividend), drama (The Bad and the Beautiful, Some Came Running), and even the odd biopic (Lust for Life). Yet the one he made the biggest impact on was the musical, thanks to films like Meet Me In St. Louis, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, and, of course, 1958’s Gigi, the movie that netted him his first (and only) Academy Award.

The setting is Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Gigi (Leslie Caron) is a pretty Parisian girl being raised by her grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold) and great Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) to become a rich man’s courtesan. But all Gigi can think about is accompanying family friend Gaston (Louis Jourdan), himself a wealthy playboy, on his vacation to the seaside town of Trouville. After losing to her in a game of chance, Gaston agrees to take the precocious Gigi, as well as Madame Alvarez, along with him. Once there, Gaston spends quite a bit of time with Gigi, and upon their return to Paris, he realizes the young girl he’s always looked upon as a little sister is turning into a beautiful woman. In fact, he might even be falling in love with her!

Along with its colorful set pieces and excellent period costumes, Gigi boasts a handful of exquisite musical numbers. My favorite of the bunch is The Night They Invented Champagne, where Gigi, overjoyed that Gaston has agreed to take her to Trouville, jubilantly extolls the virtues of living the good life. Aside from this enchanting tune, the movie features two memorable songs performed by Maurice Chevalier, who plays Honoré Lachaille, Gaston’s uncle and a former lover of Madame Alvarez’s. The romantic I Remember It Well, during which Honoré and Madame Alvarez recall (with some confusion) the details of their past relationship, is wonderful, but it’s Chevalier’s rendition of Thank Heaven for Little Girls that truly stands out (it would become his trademark song).

By the mid to late ‘60s, musicals had run their course with American audiences, and big-budget productions like Hello, Dolly and Paint Your Wagon proved to be box-office disasters. Gigi is a reminder of a time when the Hollywood musical was king, directed by a man as familiar with the genre as anyone. Wildly entertaining, Gigi is an absolute delight.







Monday, September 16, 2013

#1,127. Deathtrap (1982)


Directed By: Sidney Lumet

Starring: Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, Dyan Cannon



Tag line: "Join us for an evening of lively fun...and deadly games"

Trivia: The exteriors of the beautiful home of Sidney and Myra Bruhl in the film was portrayed by a lavish mansion on Long Island complete with its own old-world windmill






Sidney Lumet’s 1982 film Deathtrap is an incredibly enjoyable mystery, a movie that twists and turns in a bunch of different directions, offering one shocking revelation after another.

Based on a play by Ira Levin (with 1,793 performances, it holds the record for the longest running comedy-thriller on Broadway), Deathtrap stars Michael Caine as Sidney Bruhl, a playwright who hasn’t had a hit show in years. To add insult to injury, he’s just reviewed a manuscript written by Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve), a former pupil of his, that’s among the best he’s ever read. Desperate to turn his career around, Sidney tells his wife, Myra (Dyan Cannon), that he’s thinking about killing Clifford in order to steal his script. Tensions run high when Clifford spends an evening at the Bruhl house, with Myra doing everything she can to dissuade Sidney from carrying out his murderous scheme. But the question remains: just how far is Sidney Bruhl willing to go for a hit play?

That’s as much as I’m going to reveal here; anything more could ruin some nifty surprises. What I can tell you about Deathtrap is that its cast is extraordinary. Michael Caine is at his unhinged best as Sidney, the playwright who’s lost his touch. Enter Christopher Reeve, a friendly, naïve young writer who has written an incredible play, one so good that Sidney may be willing to kill for it. Dyan Cannon is hilarious as Sidney’s uber-nervous wife, Myra, and Irene Worth appears in the small but important role of Helga Ten Dorp, a psychic who’s a lot better at seeing the future than even she realizes. Along with the actors, the film’s set pieces are also pretty cool, especially Sidney’s study, which has a variety of weapons, from crossbows and Chinese stars to handguns, lining its walls. This, combined with a great cast, helped transform Deathtrap from an award–winning play into a slick, entertaining motion picture.

Believe me, I wish I could tell you more about Deathtrap; I’m dying to delve into this movie a bit further. But then, I run the risk of spoiling something special. With a labyrinthine plot that features a number of genuine surprises, Deathtrap is an absolute treat.







Sunday, September 15, 2013

#1,126. Jamaica Inn (1939)


Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Maureen O'Hara, Robert Newton, Charles Laughton




Trivia: Laughton was originally cast as the uncle, but he cast himself in the role of the villain, which was originally a hypocritical preacher but was rewritten because unsympathetic portrayals of the clergy were forbidden by the Hollywood Production Code






Jamaica Inn marked the end of an era for Alfred Hitchcock, who, shortly after making this British film, headed off to Hollywood, where, over the next four decades, he would turn out some of the finest films ever made. With its tale of pirates and plundered ships, Jamaica Inn isn’t your typical Hitchcock movie, but what makes it even more unusual is that the film’s cast overshadows the famous director.

Based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier (whose works would inspire two of Hitchcock’s later films, Rebecca and The Birds), Jamaica Inn transports us to the English seaside town of Cornwall in the early days of the 19th century. Mary (Maureen O’Hara) has come to Cornwall to visit her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney), who runs the Jamaica Inn with her husband, Joss (Leslie Banks). What Mary doesn’t know is that the Jamaica Inn also serves as a hideout for pirates, who lure unsuspecting ships to shore so they can steal their cargo. Soon after her arrival, Mary saves the life of Traherne (Robert Newton), a police officer posing as a pirate, forcing the two of them to flee for their lives. Seeking refuge, they pay a visit to the local magistrate, Sir Humphrey Pengallon (Charles Laughton) with the hopes that he’ll offer them protection. But can Sir Humphrey be trusted?

There are moments when Jamaica Inn has the look and feel of a Hitchcock film; the opening scene, where a ship is drawn to shore as a storm rages on, is exciting (in fact it’s one of the film’s only action-oriented scenes). Yet what makes Jamaica Inn such an interesting film is its impressive cast. Charles Laughton delivers a bombastic performance as Sir Humphrey, bringing his usual flair to the role, and even though O’Hara was only 18 when she made Jamaica Inn, the actress handles the part of Mary like a seasoned professional.

With strong supporting turns by Robert Newton, Marie Ney, and Leslie Banks, Jamaica Inn is far from your typical Hitchcock film in that the actors take center stage, while its director remains neatly tucked away in the background.







Saturday, September 14, 2013

#1,125. 42nd Street Forever, Vol. 2: The Deuce (2006)


Directed By: Various

Starring: Various





Trivia: This is Volume 2. in a series of 5 DVD releases









42nd Street Forever, Vol. 2: The Deuce picks up where Vol. 1 left off, featuring 55 trailers from a variety of exploitation films, covering the ‘60s to the ‘80s and a wide range of sub-genres, including biker flicks (Born Losers, The Hellcats), sexploitation (The Curious Female, Helga) and even a few monster movies (The Giant Gila Monster, The Monster of Piedras Blancas).

Some of the trailers in Vol. 2: The Deuce are from old favorites, such as Rolling Thunder, Sugar Hill, Shogun Assassin, The Evil, and, in my opinion, the greatest horror film of all-time, Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (as it turns out, the trailer is as awesome as the movie). A few others are from films I haven’t seen in years, like Hell’s Angels on Wheels (with Jack Nicholson, two years before his breakout role in Easy Rider). But what I love most about the 42nd Street Forever series is learning about movies I’ve never seen before. Whenever I watch one of these volumes for the first time, I keep a paper and pencil handy, so I can write down the titles of those films that, based on their trailers, I want to check out. And Vol. 2: The Deuce has plenty of them, including Savage!, a 1973 flick about a black revolutionary; When Women had Tails, an Italian comedy from 1970 about a bunch of cavemen and one drop-dead gorgeous cavegirl (played by Senta Berger) who happens to have a tail; Mr. Billion, another Italian comedy from ’77 about a guy (Terence Hill, of They Call Me Trinity fame) who inherits a billion dollars from his uncle; and Skatetown U.S.A., which looks every bit as cheesy as Roller Boogie, only with a very young Patrick Swayze in the cast (it was his screen debut).

It’s discoveries like these that make the whole 42nd Street Forever series worthwhile!











Friday, September 13, 2013

#1,124. An American Hippie in Israel (1972)


Directed By: Amos Sefer

Starring: Asher Tzarfati, Shmuel Wolf, Lily Avidan




Tag line: "Right-On!"

Trivia: Has been a "Midnight Movie Sensation" in Tel Aviv since its rediscovery in 2007, and has played there once a month since then






The other day, I got the brand-new, limited edition Blu-ray of 1972’s An American Hippie in Israel in the mail. According to the description on the back cover, this “long-lost psychedelic classic” featured “machine-gun wielding mimes, robots, bloodthirsty sharks, free loving debauchery and poignant antiwar monologues by raving mad hippies”.

Two minutes later, I was popping it into my Blu-ray player.

An Israeli counter-culture film directed by Amos Sefer, An American Hippie in Israel stars Asher Tzarfati as Mike, the titular American hippie who’s come to Israel (which is referred to only as “the country” in the movie) to escape his horrible memories of the Vietnam War (Having served in the U.S. military, he personally killed a number of enemy soldiers). Shortly after his arrival, Mike meets Elizabeth (Lily Avidan), an actress-in-training who shares his desire to break free from the world. Soon, the two hook up with another couple (Shmuel Wolf and Tzila Karney), and the four of them head to a deserted island, where they hope to spend the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, things don’t go according to plan. Realizing their boat has mysteriously disappeared, the couples search for some food, but find none. What’s more, there are two men in black suits and white make-up who’ve been following Mike for months, and Mike is convinced they want him dead.

It goes without saying that An American Hippie in Israel is very dated; along with the flower power-era music that occasionally fills the soundtrack, there’s the overall tone of the film, the anti-war, anti-establishment philosophy writer/director Amos Sefer continually shoves down our throats (it starts before the opening credits are even over, when a field full of beautiful flowers is inexplicably flattened by a steamroller, signifying man’s encroachment on nature, as the sound of machine-gun fire slowly drowns out the music). As far as the acting goes, Asher Tzarfati does occasionally come across as genuine, but then maybe that’s because the actors surrounding him are piss-poor (Lily Avidan sounds as if she’s simply reading her lines off a cue card). The dialogue isn’t anything to write home about, either. Shortly after picking him up on the side of the road, Elizabeth asks Mike where he’s from, and he tells her he’s an American from New York. “I hear it’s quite a place”, she says. “It sure is” replies Mike. Seriously riveting stuff, isn’t it?

Here’s the kicker, though: I loved An American Hippie in Israel! Loved it! This movie is so wild, so goofy, and so ridiculously self-important that you can’t help but admire it. I laughed out loud when Mike walked out of the airport and the camera pulled back to reveal he had been barefoot the entire time, one of many surreal images An American Hippie in Israel has to offer. Take, for instance, Mike’s first on-screen encounter with the so-called mimes that have been following him. As Mike and Elizabeth are driving down the road, a black car darts in front of them. Mike yells for Elizabeth to stop, then gets out to confront the occupants, who happen to be the two mimes, now standing, side by side, next to their vehicle. They silently stare at Mike as he asks them a few pointed questions, and don’t react at all when he angrily calls them “scum of the earth” and “shitheads”. It’s a hell of a bizarre scene, but is only the first of many (I can’t even begin to describe Mike’s dream sequence).

If the opportunity ever presents itself, I would definitely recommend you check out An American Hippie in Israel. Take it from me: you won’t believe your eyes!







Thursday, September 12, 2013

#1,123. The Long, Hot Summer (1958)


Directed By: Martin Ritt

Starring: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Orson Welles





Tag line: "A story of the Modern South!"

Trivia: This film marks Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman's first cinematic collaboration







Directed by Martin Ritt, The Long, Hot Summer marked the first Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward appeared in a film together (they would marry a few months before its premiere, then spend the next 50 years together). Fortunately, their off-screen romance resulted in plenty of on-screen chemistry, with the star-crossed lovers delivering powerhouse performances.

Ben Quick (Newman) has been run out of a few towns over the years, all stemming from the accusation that he likes to burn down barns. Looking for a new place to call home, he hitches a ride with schoolteacher Clara Varner (Joanne Woodward) and her sister-in-law Eula (Lee Remick), who are on their way to the small Mississippi town of Frenchman’s Bend. As it turns out, Clara’s father, Will Varner (Orson Welles), owns just about every business in Frenchman’s Bend, and at first is none too happy that a suspected arsonist has taken up residence there. But it isn’t long before Ben wins the old man’s respect, much to the chagrin of Varner’s son, Jody (Anthony Franciosa), who the elder Varner believes is too weak to carry on his legacy. Priming Ben to be his heir, Varner tries to arrange a marriage between Ben and Clara, despite the fact she’s already set her sights on local mama’s boy, Alan Stewart (Richard Anderson). Tension mounts and tempers flare as this family drama plays itself out, leading Ben to wonder whether he’s found a new home in Frenchmen’s Bend or not.

Based on the William Faulkner novel The Hamlet, The Long, Hot Summer is bristling with excitement, due in large part to the tumultuous relationship that develops between Ben and Clara. One night, on her way home from school, Clara looks in on the Varner General Store, where Ben is still hard at work. While the two are talking, Clara says she has a headache, and asks Ben for an aspirin. As he’s getting it for her, Ben comments that he never has headaches, mostly because he doesn’t have “any problems”. “Or scruples”, Clara adds, trying to get under Ben’s skin. Undeterred, he makes a pass at her. She slaps him, but before long the two are locked in a long kiss. The emotions the two convey in this scene, ranging from anger to desire, are as real as it gets.

The remainder of the cast is equally as impressive (Orson Welles effectively huffs and puffs his way through the film as the tempestuous Will Varner), and the sharp dialogue has the feel of a Tennessee Williams play (one night at dinner, the elder Varner mercilessly questions Alan Stewart as to why he’s waiting so long to propose to Clara), yet it’s Newman and Woodward who steal the show. The two would go on to make ten more movies together, but The Long, Hot Summer features the husband-wife team at their passionate best.







Wednesday, September 11, 2013

#1,122. The House by the Cemetery (1981)


Directed By: Lucio Fulci

Starring: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Pieronin




Tag line: "Past and present collide in a vortex of fear!"

Trivia: This movie was shot on the Ellis Estate in Scituate, MA, where another Italian horror film, Ghosthouse, was filmed






The House by the Cemetery closes out Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy, and while it’s not as strong as either City of the Living Dead or The Beyond, it does capture the foreboding atmosphere of those movies, while also giving us plenty of that "Fulci gore" to keep our stomachs churning.

Professor Norman Boyle (Paolo Malco) is moving his family to New England, where he’ll continue the research started by a colleague of his, who inexplicably went mad, killing his mistress before taking his own life. In fact, Dr. Boyle, along with his wife Lucy (Katherine MacColl) and son Bob (Giovanni Frezza), is moving into the very house where the murder / suicide took place! This might not bother the adult members of the Boyle family, but Bob has been having visions of a young girl (Silvia Collatina), who warns him to steer clear of the place. Once the family settles in, a woman named Ann (Ania Pieronin) suddenly turns up, claiming she was hired by the real estate agent, Mrs. Gittelson (Dagmar Lassander) to look after Bob. As if this wasn’t strange enough, Lucy also finds a headstone hidden under the carpet in the front room, which marks the grave of a Dr. Freudstien. As a result of this discovery, Norman heads down into the basement to check things out, and in so doing awakens an evil force that threatens not only his life, but his family’s as well.

A more appropriate title for this film would have been "The House In the Cemetery", because the headstones from the nearby graveyard surround the entire area, with some only a few feet from the house’s front porch. This alone adds a level of creepiness that works in the movie’s favor. The House by the Cemetery also has a great pre-title sequence, where a teenage girl (Daniela Doria), sitting in the front room of the abandoned house, calls out to her boyfriend, Steve (Ranieri Ferrara), who doesn’t answer her. While searching for him, she comes across his bloodied corpse hanging from a door. The girl screams, but is quickly silenced by a knife to the back of the head, which penetrates all the way through to her mouth. As opening scenes go, this one is pretty grisly. Fulci even adds some mystery to the film in the form of the young girl, named Mae, who warns Bob not to go near the house. Clearly, there’s more to this little girl than meets the eye, and Fulci takes his time in revealing her story.

Where The House by the Cemetery falters is in its structure, which has never been one of Fulci’s strong points to begin with. As awesome as the opening sequence is, it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the movie, and a later scene involving storefront mannequins is way, way out there, as is Fulci’s attempt to tie it in with everything else (in fact, it’s almost laughable). Even the babysitter, Ann, seems more like an afterthought than an integral part of the movie. This aside, though, The House by the Cemetery is definitely an eerie film, and an entertaining final chapter to Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy.







Tuesday, September 10, 2013

#1,121. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)


Directed By: Charles Reisner

Starring: Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence



Tag line: "The Laugh Special of the Age. See It"

Trivia: This movie was used as a model for Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse's first cartoon with sound







1926’s The General is considered by many to be Buster Keaton’s finest film (and for good reason: the movie is a bona-fide classic), but the truth of the matter is that ol' "Stone Face”, as he came to be known, turned out dozens of excellent pictures, all showcasing his distinctive blend of action and comedy. Steamboat Bill, Jr. is a prime example of the silent comedian doing what he does best, with plenty of sight gags and some impressive stunt work to boot.

Keaton stars as William (Bill) Canfield Jr., son of Bill Canfield Sr. (Ernest Torrence), captain of a decrepit old steamboat named the Stonewall Jackson, which patrols the waters of the Mississippi. Having not seen his son since he was a baby, Bill Sr. is convinced the boy will be every bit as tough and rugged as his is. Unfortunately, Bill Jr. is frail and slight of frame, a far cry from what Bill Sr. was expecting, which is a shame because the elder Canfield is in dire need of some extra muscle. A new, state-of-the-art steamboat, owned and operated by tycoon John King (Tom McGuire), is driving poor Bill out of business, but instead of helping his father reclaim the river, Bill Jr. falls in love with Kitty (Marion Byron), King’s daughter, which neither Bill Sr. nor his rival are happy about. But when tragedy strikes, young Bill proves to everyone he has what it takes to be a hero.

Considered (along with Chaplin) one of silent cinema's greatest comics, Keaton was also a master of precision. The scene where he first steps on board the Stonewall Jackson, all decked out in a Captain’s uniform, has a number of funny moments (when he accidentally knocks the ship’s life preserver into the water, it sinks like a stone), but the real excitement comes towards the end of the film, when Bill Jr. is battling hurricane-strength winds to save both Kitty and his father. It’s here that Keaton truly shines, allowing himself to be tossed around like a rag doll by the raging cyclone as he narrowly dodges peril at every turn. An exciting, nail biting sequence, it also features what is arguably Keaton's most famous scene, when a huge wall comes crashing down around him (the actor was in very real peril while this was being shot; if he missed his mark by so much as a foot, he would have been killed).

An action-packed movie with plenty of laughs, Steamboat Bill Jr was the perfect showcase for Keaton’s unique talents, featuring the comedian at his death-defying best.







Monday, September 9, 2013

#1,120. 7 Plus Seven (1970)


Directed By: Michael Apted


Starring: Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield





Trivia: This made-for-TV movie was first broadcast on Dec. 15, 1970 in the UK







7 Plus Seven is the sequel to Seven Up, the 1964 made-for-TV movie in which filmmakers brought a handful of British school children together, all seven years old, to get their views on certain aspects of life. Sitting down with them once again at the age of 14, director Michael Apted sought to determine how much the previous seven years had influenced their opinion of the world around them.

All fourteen kids from Seven Up are back for this second installment, some going so far as to “correct” what they said in the original film. Andrew, for instance, who, along with his schoolmates Charles and John, talked about everything from stocks and bonds to The Beatles in Seven Up, had said in 1964 that, when he was old enough, he was going apply to “Trinity Hall”, when what he meant to say was “Trinity College” (a slight error, but apparently his father was none too pleased about it). A few of the kids who discussed their dreams and ambitions in Seven Up were well on their way to fulfilling them in 7 Plus Seven; Tony had expressed interest in becoming a professional jockey, and was now taking riding lessons. Others have changed not only their goals in life, but their addresses as well. In the 7 years since the original movie was first broadcast, Paul, who had been living in a London children’s home, moved to Australia, while Suzy made her way north to her father’s estate in Scotland. But for most of the kids, the years haven’t changed them all that much. Nicholas, who in Seven Up refused to answer a question about whether or not he had a girlfriend, still doesn’t have much to say on the matter.

As anyone can tell you, 14 is a very awkward age. Many of these kids, who were so outgoing in Seven Up, are much quieter, less self-confident in 7 Plus Seven, which leads to a few uncomfortable moments (when discussing his absentee father, Simon tries to blow it off, but the topic obviously makes him a little sad). Yet this doesn’t weaken the film’s impact in the least. A fascinating character study, 7 Plus Seven proves just as interesting, just as revealing, and just as vital as its predecessor.







Sunday, September 8, 2013

#1,119. Stir of Echoes (1999)


Directed By: David Koepp

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kathryn Erbe, Illeana Douglas



Tag line: "In every mind there is a door that has never been opened"

Trivia: Jake Witzky watches The Mummy's Shroud on TV when his mother tells him to turn it off. Night of the Living Dead then appears on every channel as he attempts to turn off the TV





Stir of Echoes scared the shit out of me the first time I saw it. A creepy supernatural thriller, it has everything you’re looking for in a ghost movie, and then some.

One night, after having a few drinks at a neighborhood party, working-class stiff Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) convinces his sister-in-law, Lisa (Illeana Douglas), a self-proclaimed therapist, to hypnotize him. Much to everyone’s surprise, Tom actually goes under for a short while, but when he wakes up, he’s not the same man he was a few minutes earlier. As a result of being hypnotized, Tom begins experiencing hallucinations, quick flashes of a violent crime, with no idea what any of it means. Things take an even stranger turn when he comes face-to-face with the ghost of 17-year-old Samantha Kozec (Jennifer Morrison), who’s been missing for 6 months. Tom’s wife, Maggie (Kathryn Erbe), is supportive, yet has a hard time dealing with her husband's increasingly strange behavior, which only intensifies as he gets closer to solving this horrific mystery.

Stir of Echoes features a handful of terrifying moments, as well as an unsettling tone that director David Koepp maintains through much of the film. The jump scares are incredibly effective; after being hypnotized, Tom isn’t able to fall asleep (he can’t even concentrate while making love to his wife). Troubled by a stream of incoherent images, he goes downstairs to clear his mind, only to find he’s not entirely alone. But even when you aren’t jumping out of your seat, Stir of Echoes will have you poised on the edge of it with its tense, ominous mood, which Koepp establishes from the get-go (in the opening scene, Tom’s son, Jake, played by Zachary Taylor Cope, is taking a bath. When Tom leaves the room, Jake, who, as far as we can tell, is completely alone, turns to an empty corner and asks “Does it hurt to be dead?”). As the movie progresses and the central mystery unfolds, Tom finds he has to deal not only with Samantha’s ghost, but the reality of a crime that’s never been solved, including what it means to the community at large (some of his neighbors obviously know more than others, and a few pay a very steep price to protect their secret).

While not as well-known as The Sixth Sense or The Ring, Stir of Echoes is every bit as good as those movies, and better than most others. Dark and unnerving, it’s one hell of a ghost story.