Tuesday, December 31, 2013

#1,233. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)


Directed By: Jim Sharman

Starring: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick




Tag line: "Give yourself over to absolute pleasure"

Trivia: Meat Loaf has no spoken words - all of his dialogue is sung








At first glance, 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show is… well, kinda creepy!

A criminologist (Charles Gray) narrates the bizarre story of Brad (Barry Bostwick) and Janet (Susan Sarandon), a newly engaged couple who, when their car breaks down in the rain, end up at the front door of a castle belonging to Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry), a transvestite / mad scientist / extrovert who, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, has discovered the secret to creating life. Shortly after awakening his “creation”, Rocky (Peter Hinwood), Dr. Frank-n-Furter has Brad and Janet shown to their rooms, where, during the night, he’ll introduce the naïve couple to an evening of passion unlike any they’ve experienced before.

Its weird premise aside, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is an absolute blast, a musical / comedy featuring one hell of a dynamic performance by Tim Curry. Decked out in, among other things, panties, garters, and stockings, Curry oozes charisma as the slightly odd Dr. Frank-n-Furter, leading Brad and Janet on a whirlwind tour of his house of horrors while, in the process, belting out a variety of upbeat tunes. With all the appearances of a moral degenerate (he manages, at separate times, to seduce both Janet and Brad, and even uses the same line to lure each of them into bed), Dr. Frank-n-Furter, and everyone within his house, actually exist outside the realm of normal reality. The spiritual leader of a peculiar group, which includes his butler Riff-Raff (Richard O’Brien), maid Magenta (Patricia Quinn), and a host of others, Dr. Frank-n-Furter alone sets the standards of right and wrong in this curious world, and Tim Curry seems to be having the time of his life as his character stretches the boundaries of good taste to their breaking point.

Another aspect of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that’s helped transform it into a cult classic is its music. From its opening scene, where a pair of detached lips sings “Science Fiction Double Feature” (a loving tribute to the sci-fi movies of old, including The Day The Earth Stood Still, King Kong, and even Doctor X), it’s clear that the film’s music will be every bit as unusual as its main character. For me, the two best numbers are “Time Warp”, where Riff-Raff and Magenta lead a collection of like-minded oddities in a boisterous dance (“but it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives them insane”), and “Sweet Transvestite”, which serves as our introduction to Dr. Frank-n-Furter. On-screen, these two songs come within moments of each other, making for what I consider to be one of the finest one-two punches in musical history.

Soon after its initial release, The Rocky Horror Picture Show became a midnight sensation. Fans of the film often “interact” with it, shouting back at the screen and reciting the dialogue, sometimes with costumed performers "acting out" the movie on-stage as it plays on the screen behind them (the main characters in The Perks of Being a Wallflower do this very thing). I’ve never had the pleasure of sitting in on one of these midnight showings, but it’s something I really want to do. Watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the privacy of my own home usually results in a riotous good time.  I can only imagine how much fun I’d have seeing it with a crowd.







Monday, December 30, 2013

#1,232. The Iceman (2012)


Directed By: Ariel Vromen

Starring: Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, Winona Ryder


Tag line: "Loving husband. Devoted father. Ruthless killer"

Trivia: While in prison, Richard Kuklinski claimed to be responsible along with four other men for the kidnap and murder of former Teamsters union boss Jimmy Hoffa on July 30 1975 in a restaurant parking lot in Detroit






In trying to describe 2012’s The Iceman, the story of real-life mob enforcer Richard Kuklinski, several adjectives leap to mind: “haunting” “harrowing” and “powerful”, just to name a few. Yet these words, no matter how appropriate, don’t convey the effect this film had on me. The Iceman is an excellent motion picture, a fascinating glimpse into the life of a psychopath who, despite allegedly killing over 100 people, was a model husband and father. But as good as the movie is, and as strongly as I recommend it, I can’t see myself revisiting it on a regular basis.  The Iceman is tremendous, and it also disturbed me deeply.

When we first meet Richard “Richie” Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), its 1964, and he’s on his first date with Deborah (Winona Ryder), the woman he would eventually marry. During that date, he lies to her, telling Deborah he dubs Disney cartoons for a living, when in reality he pirates pornographic films for mobster Roy Demeo (Ray Liotta). When Demeo shuts down the porno operation, he offers Richie a different job, one that essentially requires him to kill whoever Demeo says needs killing. Before long, the money comes pouring in, and Richie once again lies to Deborah, telling her he’s making a fortune trading foreign currencies. After years of faithful service, Demeo decides he no longer needs Richie, and orders him to retire. Instead, Richie hooks up with fellow contract killer, Robert Pronge (Chris Evans), and goes back to “work”, doing what he does best. Of course, when Demeo finds out Richie disobeyed him, he’s none too happy, and even threatens to hurt Deborah and the couple’s two daughters, Anabel (McKaley Miller) and Betsy (Megan Sherrill). Having spent years hiding his “profession” to protect his family, Richie must now work to ensure that Deborah and the girls are safe. In the process, he makes a few mistakes.

Exploring the differences between the “two” Richard Kuklinski’s: the killer and the family man, is The Iceman’s most intriguing aspect. One moment, Richie is shooting someone and tossing their body into a freezer (he got his nickname “The Iceman” for his tendency to freeze the bodies of those he’s murdered to make it impossible to determine an exact time of death). The next, we join him in his bedroom as he’s making love to Deborah, only to be interrupted by Anabel and Betsy, who ask if they can sleep in their parents’ room. It’s one of several quaint domestic scenes scattered throughout The iceman, most of which are immediately followed by moments of horror and brutality.

Which brings me back to the effect The iceman had on me personally. It’s not that I haven’t seen movies of this sort before; in fact, I’ve seen plenty, both gang-related (Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco) and those featuring real-life serial killers (Zodiac, Monster). Yet what I couldn’t understand was why The iceman made me sympathize with a man I should have abhorred. Well after it ended, I found myself turning the film over and over in my mind; why did I care about this guy? Did Michael Shannon play the character sympathetically? To a degree, perhaps, but not overly so (Richie was, in almost every scene, the most frightening person in the room). Ultimately, it came down to his motivations: everything Richie Kuklinski did (according to the movie, anyway) stemmed from a deep love for his wife and children, and his wanting to give them the best life he possibly could. Does this justify murder? Hell no! But from the brief glimpses we’re given of Kuklinski’s past: his prison meeting with his brother, Joey (played by Stephen Dorff), who recounts violent incidents from Richie’s childhood, and an early scene, where Richie cuts the throat of a guy who insulted Deborah, it’s clear that, before he hooked up with the mob, Richard Kuklinski was already a cold-blooded killer. That he loved three people, and channeled his murderous tendencies into a career that provided for them, made him seem more “human”, something Richard Kuklinski himself might have never thought possible.

I know how naïve I sound, and that none of the above can excuse Kuklinski’s actions. Yet this was my honest reaction to the film, and in the end titles, when we learn what happened to the real Richard Kuklinski following his 1986 arrest, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him.

Yes… I felt sorry for a monster.







Sunday, December 29, 2013

#1,231. Massacre Time (1966)


Directed By: Lucio Fulci

Starring: Franco Nero, George Hilton, Linda Sini




Tag line: "THE MASSACRE MEN - They carry their hate in their holsters and a name on every bullet in their belts..."

Trivia: This film was also released as The Brute and the Beast






I’m always on the lookout for a good Spaghetti Western, and at first glance, 1966’s Massacre Time (aka The Brute and the Beast) had all the makings of a great one. Starring Franco Nero, fresh off his success in Sergio Corbucci’s Django, Massacre Time was also directed by Mr. Lucio Fulci, who, in later years, would leave his mark on the horror genre with classics like Zombie and The Beyond.

Nero stars as Tom Corbett, a gold prospector who receives a message from his old friend, Carradine (John Bartha), to return home at once. It seems Tom’s alcoholic brother, Jeff (George Hilton), who took control of the family farm after the death of their mother, sold the property to a man named Scott (Giuseppe Addobbati), who then proceeded to take over the entire town. What’s more, Scott’s son, Junior (Nino Castelnuovo), is a psychotic who enjoys bullying the locals, for no other reason than it tickles his fancy. While Tom is searching for answers, trying to figure out who the Scotts are, Jeff is busy getting into bar fights and drinking tequila by the gallon. But when the Corbett’s longtime maid, Mercedes (Rina Franchetti) is gunned down in cold blood, Jeff finally puts the bottle aside and helps his brother in his standoff against the Scotts.

Written by Fernando Di Leo (director of The Italian Connection), Massacre Time is a gritty, violent western, and we get an idea of just how violent its going to be in the opening scene, where Junior is hosting a hunt with one of the townsfolk as the prey (the poor victim is eventually mauled by a pack of dogs). Shortly after, we’re treated to a raucous barroom brawl, with Jeff facing off against some of Scott’s men. As bar fights go, this one gets pretty nasty, and plenty of blood is spilled (Jeff is nearly beaten to death before Tom finally steps in to help). Nero does a fine job as Tom, infusing the character with a quiet strength, but of the two Corbetts, its brother Jeff (boisterously portrayed by Hilton) who’s most handy with a gun (in full gallop, he takes out six of Scott’s men).

Quality-wise, I wouldn’t go so far as to rank Massacre Time alongside Django or Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy, but it’s definitely an entertaining western, with tons of action and even a bit of mystery thrown in (why are the Scotts so interested in Tom?) And while it’s not nearly as gory as some of Fulci’s later work, the movie has a high enough body count to keep the director’s fans happy.







Saturday, December 28, 2013

#1,230. Escape from L.A. (1996)


Directed By: John Carpenter

Starring: Kurt Russell, Steve Buscemi, Stacy Keach




Tag line: "Plan your escape this Summer"

Trivia: The movie was a failure on release, making around $25 million (just half its budget) at the US box office







Fifteen years after his Escape from New York, everyone’s favorite anti-hero, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), is back on the job, taking his talents to the West Coast to once again save the world from devastation.

The trouble began when Utopia (A.J. Langer), daughter of the ultra-conservative President of the United States (Cliff Robertson), stole the aiming device for “The Sword of Damocles”, a satellite weapon that, when triggered, emits an EMP pulse that kills all power (electrical and battery) in the target area. She then delivered the device to her boyfriend, a revolutionary named Cuervo Jones (Georges Corraface), who had been exiled to L.A. See, ever since the near-cataclysmic earthquake of 2000 broke it away from the mainland, Los Angeles has served as the world’s largest prison colony, where only the worst derelicts and lowlifes are sent. Enter Snake Plissken, who, after getting into a bit of trouble in Cleveland, has been sentenced to live out his remaining days in L.A. Remembering what he did in New York, the authorities offer Snake a deal: retrieve the aiming device, and he’ll be granted a full pardon. Of course, there’s a catch: to ensure he stays on task, Snake has been infected with a deadly virus that, in 10 hours, will shut down his entire system. When he returns with the device, he’ll be given the antidote. Can he get the job done in time, or is this the end of Snake Plissken?

Escape from L.A. is nothing new; it adheres fairly closely to the formula laid out in Escape from New York. What’s more, the special effects are dodgy at best (a late scene, where Snake “surfs” a tsunami, is particularly tough to watch). But if it’s high-octane thrills you’re after, then this is the movie for you. From the moment Snake lands in L.A., the action is non-stop, with plenty of shoot-outs and a handful of cool chase scenes (one of the more intense sequences actually takes place on a basketball court). Along with the excitement, Escape from L.A. has a pretty awesome cast, including Pam Grier (playing a man posing as a woman), Bruce Campbell (as a plastic surgeon from hell), Steve Buscemi (Map to the Stars Eddie), and Peter Fonda (as a surfer looking for the ultimate wave).

Then, of course, there’s Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken, the king of bad-asses. Watching the actor step back into the role that made him an action star is easily the film’s best feature, and he handles the part, physical demands and all, with the greatest of ease. Escape from L.A. is a solid enough action flick, but without Kurt Russell, it would have fallen flat on its face.







Friday, December 27, 2013

#1,229. Cold Prey (2006)


Directed By: Roar Uthaug

Starring: Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Rolf Kristian Larsen, Tomas Alf Larsen




Tag line: "You'll Catch Your Death"

Trivia: At the 2007 Grossmann film and wine festival, the film received the "Vicious Cat Award"







There’s nothing like a horror movie set in the snow to conjure up feelings of isolation, stronger than you’d find in any other setting on earth (as Ridley Scott proved in Alien, outer space has it beat). Cold Prey, director Roar Uthaug’s 2006 film, sees five friends go out of their way to find a ski slope off the beaten path, only to end up as targets for a deranged killer.

The problem arises when one of the five, Morten Tobias (Rolf Kristian Larsen), breaks his leg while snowboarding. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, the friends stumble upon an abandoned ski lodge and proceed to make themselves at home. It isn’t until later on that they discover someone else already lives there, and he’s none too happy to have them around.

Movies like John Carpenter’s The Thing, Kubrick’s The Shining, and even the recent Dead Snow have used wintry settings to spectacular effect, cutting their main characters off from the outside world. In Cold Prey, there’s an early scene where the five friends, having just arrived at the “perfect slope”, reach the top of the mountain and take a moment to marvel at the snowy landscape in front of them. Shot in the Scandinavian Mountains of Jotunheimen, Norway, the area is, indeed, beautiful, but we also get a sense of just how alone they are, something that hits home the moment Morten breaks his leg. When Jannicke (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) sets it back into place (the bone was protruding through the skin), Morten lets out a scream, at which point director Uthaug cuts to a quick montage of the surrounding area, allowing us to hear the echo rattling around the desolate hills until it finally dissipates. Throughout the film, Uthaug relies on shots of the landscape to drive home the point that these five are completely on their own, left to deal with a situation none of them anticipated.

Of course, it’s nothing compared to what’s waiting for them once they find shelter, at which point Cold Prey switches gears and becomes a standard slasher flick, placing its characters in a remote location where they’re stalked by an unknown killer. He even has a pretty nasty weapon, a pick-axe, and the ability to sneak up on you when you least expect it. Sure, the formula is nothing new; it’s been used before in hundreds of movies. But there’s a reason for that: it works! And in the case of Cold Prey, the winter setting adds to the tension, making the elements as much an adversary as the killer.

Norway has turned out a number of fine horror films in recent years, including 2009’s Dead Snow and Thale in 2012. Cold Prey is definitely one to add to that list. Do yourself a favor and check it out.







Thursday, December 26, 2013

#1,228. Saboteur (1942)


Directed By: Alfred Hitchcock

Starring: Priscilla Lane, Robert Cummings, Otto Kruger




Tag line: "3000 miles of terror!"

Trivia: According to the Australian videocassette sleeve notes, this was Alfred Hitchcock's first movie with an all-American cast







Of all the gifts I received for Christmas 2013, my favorite is the Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection, a Blu-Ray set featuring 15 of the master’s films, including classics like Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, Psycho, and Frenzy. After showing my son a few of the more intense scenes from The Birds, I closed out my Christmas night with a fresh viewing of 1942’s Saboteur, a movie I hadn’t seen in about 25 years. Filled with intrigue and excitement, Saboteur is a whole mess of fun.

Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) is an innocent man accused of burning down the California aircraft plant he works for, an act of sabotage that also claimed the life of his best friend, Ken Mason (Virgil Summers). After eluding the police, Kane begins a frantic search for the real saboteur, a man he knows only as Fry (Norman Lloyd). His pursuit will lead him to one Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), a well-respected businessman who, in reality, is part of a spy network trying to disrupt the U.S. war effort. With the help of Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane), a young woman he meets along the way, Kane heads to New York City to prevent yet another act of sabotage, and ends up in a fight for his life at the top of the Statue of Liberty!

Produced while World War II was raging overseas, Saboteur has a handful of overly-patriotic moments (at one point, Kane says “The world is choosing up sides, and I know which side I’m on”), yet never once does it get bogged down by its own propaganda. At times a funny film (early in his search, Kane visits the circus, where he encounters conjoined twins who aren’t on speaking terms with one another), Saboteur also has its share of electrifying scenes, like the shootout at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and the grand finale at the Statue of Liberty, to keep you poised on the edge of your seat.

In many ways a precursor to North by Northwest (a man caught in the middle of a politically charged situation travels cross-country to prove his innocence), Saboteur is a highly entertaining motion picture that, after 70 years, still packs one hell of a wallop.







Wednesday, December 25, 2013

#1,227. Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988)


Directed By: Richard Boden

Starring: Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Miranda Richardson





Trivia: This special was first broadcast in the UK on BBC One, on December 23rd, 1988








I’ve saved the best for last!

I’m a big fan of Blackadder, a half-hour television comedy that aired on the BBC from 1983 to ‘89 (a total of 24 episodes, plus a few specials, were produced over that 6-year span). Broken into four separate series, each set in a different historical period (ranging from 1485 to World War I), Blackadder followed the exploits of its title character, Edmund Blackadder (played by Rowan Atkinson), who, regardless of whether he was a nobleman in the Court of Elizabeth I (the 2nd series) or a lowly 18th century butler, serving the dim-witted Prince Regent (the 3rd series), was an absolute cad; a liar and a thief who’d stop at nothing to get ahead in life. Joining him throughout history was his servant, Baldrick (Tony Robinson), who Blackadder degraded and abused every chance he got. Featuring an all-star cast that included Brian Blessed, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, and Tim McInnerney, Blackadder was a laugh-riot.

First broadcast in 1988, Blackadder’s Christmas Carol was produced between the show’s 3rd and 4th seasons, and added a funny twist to the classic Dickens tale (not to mention the entire Blackadder universe) by telling the story of Ebenezer Blackadder, the “kindest man in all England”. Yes, unlike every other Blackadder in history, Ebenezer, who owns and operates a mustache shop in Victorian London, is a nice guy, a warm, generous individual who donates tons of money to the poor. So much money, in fact, that by the time Christmas rolls around, he’s flat broke! Something of a pushover, Ebenezer goes to bed on Christmas Eve with no cash, no presents... not even a Christmas tree!

But fortune will shine upon him this particular night in the form of the Spirit of Christmas (Robbie Coltrane), who visits Ebenezer to congratulate him on being such a kind-hearted person. During their conversation, Ebenezer learns his ancestors were much different than he is, that they were, as the Spirit puts it, “Bastards to a man”. The Spirit even shows Ebenezer a few snippets from the past, where his illustrious ancestors, despite being totally obnoxious and mean, usually won out in the end. All at once, Ebenezer comes to an important realization: “Bad guys have all the fun”. Needless to say, by the time Christmas morning rolls around, he’s a changed man.

Crisp, clever dialogue had always been a staple of Blackadder, and Blackadder’s Christmas Carol was no exception. The give-and-take between Blackadder and Baldrick at the beginning of the special is positively hilarious; when Baldrick laments the fact that the baby chosen to play Jesus in the local Christmas pageant “up and died”, Blackadder responds, quite matter-of-factly, “Oh, dear. This high infant mortality rate is a real devil when it comes to staging quality children’s theater”. It’s one of many great lines that Blackadder, flawlessly portrayed by Rowan Atkinson, delivers throughout the special. Other highlights include the “flashback” sequences, where Ebenezer catches a glimpse of his ancestors in action, and the scenes involving Queen Victoria (Miriam Margoyles) and her husband, Prince Albert (Jim Broadbent), who, disguised as common citizens, set off into the streets of London to reward the virtuous and the pure (their Christmas morning run-in with Ebenezer is one of the show’s best moments).

If you’ve not seen it, definitely check out Blackadder’s Christmas Carol. And while you’re at it, go back and watch the 24 episodes that make up the entire Blackadder series. It is, in my humble opinion, the funniest half-hour show in television’s long and storied history.







Tuesday, December 24, 2013

#1,226. A Christmas Story (1983)


Directed By: Bob Clark

Starring: Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin



Tag line: "Peace. Harmony. Comfort and Joy... Maybe Next Year"

Trivia: In November 2012, A Christmas Story: The Musical, based on the film, opened on Broadway







Bob Clark’s 1983 film, A Christmas Story, gets regular play on U.S. cable channels throughout the Holiday season (Turner Broadcasting even repeats the movie, non-stop, for 24 hours straight beginning on Christmas Eve). As a result, some people have grown tired of it. Yet, in spite of the onslaught of repeat showings, A Christmas Story stands with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer as one of the absolute best Christmas stories ever told.

The year is 1940, and Christmas is just a few weeks away. The only gift that young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) wants is a Red Ryder BB gun. Unfortunately, his mother (Melinda Dillon) refuses to buy it for him, fearing he’d “shoot his eye out” with it. But Ralphie won’t give up without a fight, and over the course of the next several weeks, he’ll write a school report for his teacher, Miss Shields (Tedde Moore), praising the Red Ryder, and even ask Santa Claus (Jeff Gillen) to bring him one. Will Ralphie get the Holy Grail of Christmas presents, or is this particular Holiday season destined to be a disappointment for him?

This is the basic premise of A Christmas Story, but Ralphie’s quest to land a Red Ryder air rifle is just one of literally dozens of stories, most of which are funny as hell; like when Ralphie’s father (Darren McGavin) wins a “major award” that turns out to be a lamp in the shape of a woman’s leg, or when Ralphie’s friend, Schwartz (R.D. Robb) dares their other friend, Flick (Scott Schwartz), to put his tongue on a frozen lamppost. From the Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring to the “Life Buoy Soap” fiasco, A Christmas Story is chock full of hilarious sequences. Among my personal favorites are the “Scut Farkas (Zack Ward) affair”, which deals with a “yellow-eyed” bully who torments Ralphie and his friends; and the visit to Santa Claus, where Ralphie’s hopes and dreams are once again dashed.

Narrated by humorist and long-time radio host Jean Shepherd, whose novel In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash inspired the movie, A Christmas Story is more than a Holiday film; it’s a tradition, one that (if cable TV has its way) will undoubtedly continue for many years to come.







Monday, December 23, 2013

#1,225. Saint Nick (2010)


Directed By: Dick Maas

Starring: Egbert Jan Weeber, Bert Luppes, Caro Lenssen





Trivia: On January 4th 2011 this movie's poster was awarded the 2010 TV Krant Filmposter Award, the annual Dutch award for 'best cinema poster of the year'






For those who like their holiday films with a dark edge, there’s 2010’s Saint Nick, a movie from the Netherlands in which the title character, as opposed to delivering toys to all the good children of the world, kidnaps bad kids and drags them onto his ship, often killing their mommies and daddies in the process.

Saint Nick concerns the legend of Saint Nicholas (played by Huub Stapel), who, according to folklore, rises from the dead whenever there's a full moon on Dec. 5th and goes on a murderous rampage, killing hundreds while abducting dozens of children. With the help of his followers, the Black Peters, Saint Nick rides through the streets of Amsterdam, unleashing otherworldly horrors on an unsuspecting public. Only Goert (Bert Luppes), a policeman whose family was slaughtered the last time Saint Nick struck (back in 1968), is prepared to face the evil head-on. Armed with a boatload of explosives, he teams up with Frank (Egbert Jan Weeber), a teenager who barely escaped the Black Peters, and begins searching for Saint Nick’s ship, believing that, if he destroys it, he can end the carnage once and for all.

Saint Nick opens with two well-executed flashbacks, the first of which takes us to Dec. 5, 1492, when a small village, no longer willing to sit back and allow Nick and his Black Peters to take their children, burn his ship and him along with it. Of course, a little fire can’t keep a good Saint down, as we see in the 2nd flashback: Dec. 5, 1968, where a young Goert (played as a boy by Niels van den Berg) loses his entire family to Saint Nick and his hellish followers. Having established that the title character is a pretty nasty dude, Saint Nick next switches to modern-day, where innocent townsfolk go about their business, unaware of the horror that awaits them once the sun goes down. And while I would have liked to see a few more scenes featuring Saint Nick (the Black Peters are on-screen more than he is), those moments when he does appear are incredibly cool (in the movie’s best sequence, the police are chasing Saint Nick as he rides his white steed, in full gallop, along the city’s rooftops).

A stylish horror film with a dark sense of humor, Saint Nick may not fill you with Christmas cheer, but it will definitely bring a smile to your face.







Sunday, December 22, 2013

#1,224. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)


Directed By: Nicholas Webster

Starring: John Call, Leonard Hicks, Vincent Beck




Tag line: "Santa Claus saves Christmas for the Children of the World!"

Trivia: The Martian guns are actually painted Whamm-O Air Blasters







Not all Holiday films give you the warm and fuzzies. Some might even give you the dry heaves, like 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, a saccharine-sweet schlockfest that ranks as one of the worst motion pictures ever made.

The children of Mars are walking around in a funk, and Martian leader Kimar (Leonard Hicks) wants to do something about it. After consulting with an 800-year-old soothsayer (Carl Don), Kimar decides the best course of action is to hop in a rocket, travel to earth, and kidnap Santa Claus (John Call), who will then spread Christmas cheer by delivering presents to all the good Martian boys and girls. Of course, not everyone thinks this is a good idea; Voldar (Vincent Beck), Kimar’s chief political rival, believes the children of Mars are becoming too soft, and the last thing they need is a fat guy in a red suit giving them a bunch of useless toys. Despite Voldar’s protests, Kimar makes the long journey to earth and grabs Santa, loading him into the spaceship along with a couple of earth kids (Victor Stiles and Donna Conforti) before heading back to Mars. Things seem to go well for a while, and Kimar’s own kids (one of whom is played by a very young Pia Zadora, in her first film role) light up whenever Santa is in the room. But Voldar refuses to back down, and hatches a scheme to end Christmas on Mars before it ever has a chance to start.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is geared entirely towards children, and was designed to be a harmless bit of Holiday fun that the whole family can enjoy. In fact, the only thing preventing it from becoming a Christmas classic is it’s an absolutely terrible movie, with an awful storyline and horrible make-up and costumes (the Martians wear green tights and have some sort of metallic paint smeared all over their faces). Even the stock footage, some of which was on-loan from the U.S. military, makes no sense (following a report that an alien ship is in orbit around earth, there are clips of pilots leaping into state-of-the-art airplanes and taking off. What exactly was a plane going to do to a ship still in outer space? Well, that’s never really explained). Perhaps the only kind thing I can say about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is that John Call makes for a convincing Saint Nick, playing him as a jolly old man who takes everything in stride. As for the film’s other characters, they’re either: a. One-dimensional, b. poorly portrayed, or c. All of the above. Most annoying of all is Dropo, Kimar’s bumbling assistant. As played by Bill McCutcheon, Dropo is supposed to be the comic relief, though, personally, I was hoping someone would vaporize him with a ray gun!

Like Plan 9 from Outer Space, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians has, over the years, become something of a cult favorite, an example of a picture so horrendous it’s now an unintentional comedy classic. And while the movie certainly fails as holiday entertainment, I guarantee you’ll find plenty to laugh about if you watch it. Be warned, though: it may take a few days for you to get that damn title song out of your head (“S-A-N-T-A… C-L-A-U-S… Hooray for Santy Claus!”).







Saturday, December 21, 2013

#1,223. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (1970)


Directed By: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.

Starring: Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, Keenan Wynn





Trivia: This special is based in part on the hit Christmas song of the same name, which was introduced on radio by Eddie Cantor in 1934







Rounding out the Rankin / Bass Holiday triumvirate (along with Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Year Without a Santa Claus) is the 1970 animated Christmas special, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, a musical adventure hosted by Fred Astaire that details the history of Santa Claus, while also revealing the origins of some of our most time-honored Christmas traditions.

Narrated by deliveryman S.D. Kluger (Astaire), Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town takes us all the way back to when Santa, aka Kris Kringle, was a baby, left on the doorstep of the mean-spirited Mayor of Sombertown, Burgermeister Meisterburger (Paul Frees), who immediately ships the infant off to a family of toy-making elves named the Kringles. Once a man, Kris (Mickey Rooney) sets to work delivering the toys that his adopted family makes to the children of the world, only to come up against Burgermeister Meisterburger, who immediately outlaws all toys. With the ban in place, Kris becomes a wanted man, and does his best to avoid capture, all the while steering clear of the evil Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn), who guards the path through the mountains.

Ever wondered why Santa wears a red suit? Why he flies around with 8 reindeer? Then you’ll want to check out Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, which provides answers to these questions, and more besides. As the voice of Kris Kringle, Mickey Rooney does a fine job (he’d reprise the role four years later, in The Year without a Santa Claus), facing off against not one, but two adversaries (I used to be scared to death of the Winter Warlock, but as it turns out, Santa’s real nemesis is the Burgermeister Meisterburger). Along with presenting Santa’s origin story, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town features several entertaining musical numbers, like the title song (performed by Astaire) and “Put One Foot in Front of the Other”, in which Kris Kringle, having shown the Winter Warlock the true meaning of Christmas, helps the creature become one of the good guys.

While I definitely prefer Rudolph and Year Without, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is an entertaining Christmas special, and yet another Holiday classic from the creative minds of Arthur Rankin Jr. and Saul Bass.







Friday, December 20, 2013

#1,222. The Dead Hate the Living! (2000)


Directed By: Dave Parker

Starring: Eric Clawson, Jamie Donahue, Brett Beardslee





Trivia: The hospital set at the beginning of the film is re-used from End of Days








Produced by Charles Band’s Full Moon Pictures, the company that gave us Demonic Toys and The Puppetmaster series, The Dead Hate the Living! is a decidedly low-budget affair, and as such suffers from some of the usual weaknesses that go hand-in-hand with indie filmmaking. Mind you, it’s not a total waste of time, but as zombie movies go, it’s far from the cream of the crop.

Wannabe film director David Poe (Eric Clawson) is shooting his newest picture, a zombie movie starring his lovely sister Shelly (Wendy Speake), his bitchy sister Nina (Kimberly Pullis), his buddy Marcus (Rick Irwin), and Eric (Benjamin P. Morris), who dreams of becoming a professional actor. Along with his best friend, make-up artist Paul (Brett Beardslee), and the pretty Topaz (Jamie Donahue), who handles the props, David drags the group to an abandoned hospital, which will provide the perfect backdrop for his undead opus. What they don’t know is that the last person to use this hospital was mad doctor Eibon (Matt Stephens), a scientist who, prior to his untimely demise, found a way to actually bring the dead back to life. After accidentally stumbling upon Dr. Eibon’s laboratory, David decides to shoot a key scene there. But when they fire up the dusty lab equipment, the troupe find themselves facing off against some real-life zombies!

The biggest problem I had with The Dead Hate the Living! was its characters, almost all of whom are far too broad to be believable (especially Nina, the nasty sister who, because she’s financing David’s movie, is playing the starring role). Produced only a few years after Wes Craven’s Scream, The Dead Hate the Living! also takes a page out of that film’s book by throwing in a slew of genre references, some of which are beyond obscure; at one point, David and Paul tell their lead actor, Eric, that he’s destined to become “the next David Warbeck”, a good performer who appeared in Lucio Fulci’s 1981 movie, The Beyond, but a name only die-hard horror fans will recognize.

The Dead Hate the Living! does have some good scenes: the opening “movie within a movie” sequence, where Shelly plays a mortician examining a dead body (Eric), is effective, while the zombie assault that fills the 2nd half of the film has its moments, and features an appearance by actor Matthew McGrory, a few years prior to his role as the deformed brother, Tiny, in Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. In the end, though, The Dead Hate the Living! is a movie that won’t linger long in your memory.







Thursday, December 19, 2013

#1,221. Under the Sea (2009)


Directed By: Howard Hall

Starring: Jim Carrey





Tag line: "A world beyond imagination"

Trivia: In Brazil, the title was changed to A Sea Adventure








Cinematographer Howard Hall, who also took on directorial duties for 2009’s Under the Sea, is no stranger to underwater photography, having worked on such projects as the documentary shorts Island of the Sharks (in 1999) and Deep Sea (in 2006), as well as a number of TV series stretching as far back as the ‘60s program The American Sportsman. For Under the Sea, Hall explored the waters of New Guinea, Australia, and Indonesia, and in so doing presents some of the most breathtaking underwater imagery ever captured on film.

Narrated by Jim Carrey, Under the Sea was originally presented in IMAX-3D, which, considering how incredible it looked on my meager set-up at home, must have made for a stunning experience. Taking his cameras to the ocean floor, Hall (who shot the entire film himself) observes the creatures that inhabit this strange and wonderful locale, a place thousands of species call home. Over the course of the movie, we experience the bizarre (looking for protection, a carrier crab picks up a jellyfish and proceeds to carry it on its back), the amazing (male reef squid stand guard over translucent egg cases, which illuminate the entire area), and the beautiful (there are hundreds of multi-colored coral formations, each one more exquisite than the last).

As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, I’m a sucker for underwater expeditions (Ghosts of the Abyss, Aliens of the Deep), and Howard Hall’s Under the Sea ranks as one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen.







Wednesday, December 18, 2013

#1,220. Lethal Weapon (1987)


Directed By: Richard Donner

Starring: Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Gary Busey



Tag line: "If these two can learn to stand each other... the bad guys don't stand a chance"

Trivia: Legendary stuntman Dar Robinson was killed in a motorcycle accident shortly after principal photography was finished. Director Richard Donner dedicated the film to him.






Set in the days leading up to Christmas, director Richard Donner’s 1987 action film Lethal Weapon at least partially qualifies as a Holiday movie (the song that plays over the opening credits is Jingle Bell Rock). But at its heart, Lethal Weapon is the quintessential “buddy cop” flick, and one hell of an action movie.

Police detective Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover), who’s just celebrated his 50th birthday, likes to play it safe. His new partner, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is reckless, and, if the precinct’s psychiatrist is to be believed, also suffers from suicidal tendencies, which have plagued him since his beloved wife died in a car crash years earlier. The two are assigned to investigate the death of a prostitute (Jackie Swanson), who just happens to be the daughter of Murtaugh’s old army buddy, Michael Hunsicker (Tom Atkins). As they piece together the clues, the new partners find the trail leads to a crack military unit under the command of former General Pete McAllister (Mitch Ryan), who, with the help of his right-hand man, Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey), is planning to smuggle a large shipment of heroin into the United States.

Lethal Weapon set the standard for every buddy cop film that followed it; from its pairing pf two police officers with nothing in common to its various comedic scenes, which are tossed into the mix early on (the funniest involves Riggs’ attempt to talk a potential jumper off the ledge of a tall building). Glover is superb as Murtaugh, the grizzled veteran who no longer takes risks, but its Gibson’s performance as the near-insane Riggs that stands out (the scene where he puts the barrel of a loaded gun into his mouth is arguably the film’s most poignant). Topping it all off is a final act that features one thrill after another, including a showdown in the desert, and a high-speed pursuit, during which Riggs chases down a speeding vehicle on foot!

These elements, coupled with Gary Busey’s bad-ass albino hit man, make Lethal Weapon one of the ‘80s most exciting films.







Tuesday, December 17, 2013

#1,219. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)


Directed By: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.

Starring: Shirley Booth, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn





Trivia: This is the 2nd Rankin/Bass Christmas special where Mickey Rooney voiced Santa Claus








Following the success of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, its producers, Arthur Rankin Jr. and Charles Bass, turned out a number of stop-motion animated specials, for both Christmas (1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town) and other holidays (I always liked ‘71s Here Comes Peter Cottontail, an Easter-themed show, mostly because Vincent Price is the voice of the evil bunny, Irontail). Of them all, 1974’s The Year Without a Santa Claus is my favorite. Based on a children’s novel by author Phyllis McGinley, The Year Without a Santa Claus features some interesting characters, and a handful of toe-tapping songs.

As the story opens, Santa Claus (voiced by Mickey Rooney) is thinking about canceling Christmas, in part because he’s not feeling well (he has a cold), but mostly due to a severe lack of Christmas spirit the world over. Hoping to prove there are still those who love Christmas, Mrs. Claus (Shirley Booth), who also serves as the story’s narrator, recruits elves Jingle (Bob McFadden) and Jangle (Bradley Bolke) to go out into the world and find someone... anyone... who loves Santa and Christmas

Along the way, the two get sidetracked and end up stranded in the very warm metropolis of Southtown, U.S.A., where they meet a young boy named Ignatius (Colin Duffy), called “Iggy” for short. At first, Iggy doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, but after receiving a visit from the big guy himself (who’s gone looking for his two wayward elves), the boy has a change of heart, and decides to help Jingle, Jangle, and Mrs. Claus in their quest to find some Christmas spirit.

The Year Without a Santa Claus marks the second time Mickey Rooney provided the voice of Santa, having done so four years prior in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (an origin story of sorts where we learn Santa’s history). This time around, though, he’s reduced to a minor character, with Shirley Booth taking the lead as the determined Mrs. Claus (her rendition of the song “I Could be Santa Claus”, where she contemplates standing in for her famous husband on Christmas Eve, is one of the film’s best musical numbers). 

But of all the characters in The Year Without a Santa Claus, the most memorable are the feuding brothers who control the seasons, Snow Miser (Dick Shawn) and Heat Miser (George S. Irving), both sons of Mother Nature (Rhoda Mann). At one point, Mrs. Claus tries to get the siblings, who can’t stand the sight of each other, to reach a compromise: Heat Miser will allow it to snow in Southtown, where not a flake has fallen in many years, and Snow Miser will relinquish control of The North pole for one day. 

As expected, neither brother is willing to budge, forcing Mrs. Claus to take the matter up with their mother. The look of these two characters (Snow Miser is decked out in blue and has icicles hanging from his nose, while the much shorter Heat Miser sports fire-red hair) is itself enough to make them memorable, but it’s their respective theme songs (“I’m Mister White Christmas, I’m Mister Snow. I’m Mister Icicle, I’m Mister 10 below”) that seals their fate as the movie’s most intriguing characters.

While not as well-known as Rudolph, A Charlie Brown Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Year Without a Santa Claus is a very entertaining Holiday special, and one of the coolest that Rankin / Bass ever created.










Monday, December 16, 2013

#1,218. The Beastmaster (1982)


Directed By: Don Coscarelli

Starring: Marc Singer, Tanya Roberts, Rip Torn



Tag line: "Born with the courage of an eagle, the strength of a black tiger, and the power of a God"

Trivia: The eagle often refused to fly on cue so in order to shoot footage of it in the air it was dropped through a trapdoor in a hot air balloon







Anyone who was a kid in the ‘80s has likely heard of director Don Coscarelli’s 1982 film, The Beastmaster, and probably even saw the movie during one of the hundreds of times it played on cable TV. With swords and action aplenty, The Beastmaster is a fantasy lover’s delight.

Upon learning of the prophecy that he will die at the hands of King Zed’s (Rod Loomis) unborn son, the Sorcerer Maax (Rip Torn) arranges to have the child destroyed. His efforts fail, however, and the boy, named Dar, is taken in by a peasant (Ben Hammer), who raises him as his own son. After growing to manhood, Dar (Marc Singer), who has the ability to communicate with animals, vows revenge against Maax and his evil army, the Jun Horde, when they attack his village and kill his adopted father. Joining forces with an eagle, a black tiger and a pair of ferrets, Dar sets out for the city, where Maax has imprisoned the King and taken control of the entire area. Along the way, he falls in love with Kiri (Tanya Roberts), one of Maax’s slaves, and meets up with Tal (Josh Milrad), the king’s son, and his bodyguard Seth (John Amos). Together, they attempt to free the king and return him to the throne, all while avoiding the black magic that Maax and his minions have unleashed upon the world.

I was a Marc Singer fan back in the day, having seen him in the 1982 drama If You Could See What I Hear, a biopic of blind musician Tom Sullivan, as well as the 1983 mini-series V and its 1984 follow-up, V: The Final Battle. In The Beastmaster, Singer does an adequate, if unspectacular job as Dar, but to be fair, the role wasn’t exactly a demanding one; aside from looking heroic, all it required was that he know how to run (Dar does a lot of running in this movie) and swing a sword. Also present are the stunning Tanya Roberts (who’s given even less to do than Singer) and the always enjoyable John Amos, an actor I’ve been a fan of since his stint on the ‘70s sitcom Good Times. Standing above them all, though, is Rip Torn, going way over the top as the diabolical Maax, the sorcerer with a falcon’s beak for a nose.

But what makes The Beastmaster so entertaining is its story, and it’s unique twist on the “good vs. evil” plotline. There are a few unusual moments (like when one of Maax’s three witches, sent to kill Zed’s unborn child, “transfers” the baby from the womb of its mother into that of a cow) and a handful of horrific sequences (as a kid, the bat-like creatures Dar encounters inside the cave scared the hell out of me), but for the most part, the film is just good, wholesome fun.

Modern audiences may find The Beastmaster more comical than exciting, and will likely laugh at some of the film’s cheesier elements (of which there are plenty). But for those of us who grew up on movies like Conan the Barbarian and Clash of the Titans (the originals, mind you, not the recent, inferior remakes), The Beastmaster will always hold a special place in our hearts.







Sunday, December 15, 2013

#1,217. She Freak (1967)


Directed By: Byron Mabe

Starring: Claire Brennen, Lee Raymond, Lynn Courtney



Tag line: "Behind the Tents and Tinsel of a Monster Midway Something Barbaric Occurs on the ALLEY OF NIGHTMARES"

Trivia: At one point, this film was recut and re-released under the title Asylum of the Insane







Shot against the backdrop of an actual traveling carnival, 1967’s She Freak was billed as a remake of Freaks, Tod Browning’s classic ‘30s horror film.

So much for truth in advertising!

While working as a waitress at a greasy diner, Jade Cochran (Claire Brennen) learns that a carnival is coming to town. Hoping to find a rich guy who’ll take care of her, Jade figures the carnival is as good a place as any to start looking for a man, and soon lands a job there. Before long, she’s embroiled in a heated affair with Blackie (Lee Raymond), a known womanizer who operates the Ferris wheel, while at the same time dating the wealthy Steve St. John (Bill McKinney), owner of the carnival’s freak show. Despite the fact she can’t stand the so-called “freaks” he calls his friends, Jade eventually agrees to marry Steve, yet continues to see Blackie on the side. Has Jade finally found the secret to happiness, or will her deceitful ways lead her down the path of ruin?

She Freak, which clocks in at just under an hour and a half, drags terribly, slogging along at a snail’s pace through much of the movie (an early scene in which Jade is working at the diner seems to go on forever). The real problem I had with the film, though, was its total lack of freaks! Whereas Browning’s movie was chock full of the odd and unusual, the most She Freak can muster up is a sword swallower, a snake charmer, and Shorty (Felix Silla), a little person who works as Steve’s assistant. The grand finale, which features the film’s sole ghastly freak, does pack a wallop, but by that point it’s too little too late.

These issues aside, She Freak does provide an interesting glimpse into the behind-the-scenes workings of a traveling carnival (numerous montages show employees setting up and dismantling the various attractions), and is a fine example of ‘60s low-budget filmmaking (its producer, David S. Friedman, had previously teamed with director Herschell Gordon Lewis on such groundbreaking horror films as Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs). So, as a curiosity, She Freak has something to offer. On any other level, the movie fails to deliver.







Saturday, December 14, 2013

#1,216. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)


Directed By: Chuck Jones, Ben Washam

Starring: Boris Karloff, Thurl Ravenscroft, June Foray






Trivia: Dr. Seuss himself wrote the lyrics to all the songs







The Grinch, a green-haired hermit living high atop Mount Crumpet, hates Christmas. Enraged by the music and laughter emanating from the nearby town of Whoville, the Grinch, with the help of his trusty canine Max, dresses up like Santa Claus, and, once all the Whos are tucked safely into bed, descends upon Whoville to swipe every Christmas decoration, every present, every tree. He takes it all, right down to the Roast Beast, the Whos’ traditional Christmas supper! Hoping the loss of these items will end the festivities, the Grinch instead learns that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t keep Christmas from coming!

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was a perfect storm of creativity, merging the talents of its director (Chuck Jones, who, for years, brought Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck to life for Warner Brothers), narrator (the great Boris Karloff, mixing gentle sophistication with a touch of madness), and, of course, Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, whose penchant for nonsensical rhymes has entertained children for generations (as a kid, my favorite Dr. Seuss book was Green Eggs and Ham, but I also loved the chaos of The Cat in the Hat). Through their combined efforts, a Holiday masterpiece was created, featuring a central character every bit as nasty as Ebenezer Scrooge. The scenes that always stand out for me are the ones where the Grinch is carrying out his diabolical plan, an evil grin affixed to his face as he fills sack after sack with the Whos’ Christmas cheer, all as the song You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch, sung by Thurl Ravenscroft, fills the soundtrack. These sequences are wonderful, and are rivaled only by the film’s incredibly moving finale (as upbeat endings go, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! has one of the finest ever conceived).

The mid-’60s was a magical time for Holiday-themed animation, with Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), A Charlie Brown Christmas (’65), and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (in ’66) all released within three years of each other. Clearly, this was the “Golden Age” of Christmas shows, and over the years, very few specials have come close to matching this trio’s popularity. They are, quite simply, the best of the bunch.







Friday, December 13, 2013

#1,215. Now You See Me (2013)


Directed By: Louis Leterrier

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo



Tag line: "Come in close, because the more you think you see, the easier it'll be to fool you"

Trivia: Amanda Seyfried was considered for the role of Henley Reeves, but a deal couldn't be reached, so Isla Fisher was cast instead






Now You See Me, director Louis Leterrier’s 2013 movie about a team of magicians who act like modern-day Robin Hoods, stealing from large banks and corporations and then turning the money over to the masses, has all the makings of a film that should’ve annoyed the hell out of me. So why did I have such a great time watching it?

Four magicians: sleight-of-hand expert Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg); mentalist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson); escape artist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher); and street hustler Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), are brought together by an unknown entity. Jump ahead one year later: billing themselves as the “Four Horsemen”, they’re performing in front of a full house at one of Las Vegas’ largest casinos. To close out the show, they select a random member of the audience (José Garcia) and recruit him to help them rob a real-life bank. The catch is: the bank they’re hitting is thousands of miles away, in downtown Paris! After pulling off this incredible feat (and turning the $3 million Euros they swiped over to the audience), the Horsemen are brought in for questioning by the FBI, but with no concrete evidence to prove they actually committed a crime, Agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) has no choice but to let them go. Convinced the Horsemen will strike again, Rhodes joins forces with INTERPOL agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) and ex-magician Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who now makes millions exposing other magicians as frauds, to figure out how they accomplished this amazing trick, and, if possible, prevent them from stealing again. The real question though, is who are the Four Horsemen working for?

Now You See Me is a flawed motion picture. To start with, director Leterrier relies far too heavily on quick cuts and even quicker camera movements; there’s a fight sequence late in the movie, set inside a cramped New York apartment, that’s pieced together so frantically I could barely make out what was going on. Adding to the troubles is the fact we never really understand the motivations of the four main characters (for instance, why did they decide to team up in the first place? When we first meet them, each one is a loner, relying on their particular skills to carve out a living for themselves. One year later, they’re the Four Horsemen? How did they get to that point?). Finally, Now You See Me has so many twists and turns, so many misdirections and slights of hand that you know early on the movie is building towards a surprise ending. Yet the mere fact that we expect this surprise somehow lessens its impact once it’s revealed. In short, the filmmakers went to great lengths to prepare us for any eventuality, so when the big twist finally arrives, it’s something of an anti-climax.

And yet, damn it all, I was intrigued every step of the way! After they robbed that bank (and Thaddeus Bradley revealed how they pulled it off), I was hooked, and couldn’t wait to see what else the filmmakers had up their sleeves. Sure, the vast majority of Now You See Me is outlandish and incredibly far-fetched, but thanks to its strong cast, coupled with a genuine interest in what new and exciting feats were lurking around the next corner, I was more than happy to just sit back and enjoy the ride.







Thursday, December 12, 2013

#1,214. Coney Island (1917)


Directed By: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle

Starring: Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Joe Bordeaux





Trivia: The film was shot on location at Coney Island, and prominently features many contemporary rides and attractions as venues for the slapstick action






Already an established star thanks to the films he made for Mack Sennett, silent comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle teamed up with Buster Keaton, a veteran of the Vaudeville stage but a newcomer to the movies, in 1917 for a series of short films, kicking off a partnership (and friendship) that would last for years. One of their first outings together was Coney Island, a two-reel comedy shot on-location at the famous New York amusement park.

After ditching his wife (Agnes Neilson), Fatty (Arbuckle) heads to Coney Island for a fun-filled afternoon, only to find himself vying for the attentions of a pretty young girl (Alice Mann), whose already got two guys (Keaton and Al St. John) fawning over her. To further complicate matters, Fatty’s wife has come looking for him, causing the nervous husband to try everything he can to escape her wrath, including dressing up as a girl!

Directed by Arbuckle, Coney Island is a funny film; when we first see Fatty, he’s sitting on the beach, in a suit and tie, playing in the sand. More than this, though, the movie shows us something most audiences of the day rarely saw: an emotional Buster Keaton! At various times throughout the movie, the actor smiles (while watching a parade), cries (when he loses the girl), and even gets angry. Having not yet settled into the “Stone Face” persona he’d perfect over the years, Keaton shows a wide range of emotions in Coney Island, and seeing him do so was more than a little strange.

After working together for a few years, Arbuckle and Keaton went their separate ways in 1920. Keaton, of course, established himself as one of silent cinema’s biggest stars, turning out such classics as Steamboat Bill, Jr. and The General. As for Arbuckle, his career all but ended in 1921 when he was accused of raping and killing a young starlet named Virginia Rapp. He was eventually cleared of the charges, but the damage to his reputation was irreparable. Under the pseudonym William Goodrich, he directed several films over the next decade before dying of a heart attack in 1933 at the age of 46. It was a sad end to a once-great career, and the fine work he did in movies like Coney Island gives you a sense of just how talented Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle truly was.







Wednesday, December 11, 2013

#1,213. Zombies on Broadway (1945)


Directed By: Gordon Douglas

Starring: Wally Brown, Alan Carney, Bela Lugosi



Tag line: "They're STALKING WALKING DEAD MEN... and it's a SCREAM!"

Trivia: This movie turned a profit for RKO, which encouraged the studio to re-unite Brown, Carney, Anne Jeffreys and Bela Lugosi one year later for Genius at Work







Press agents Jerry and Mike (Wally Brown and Alan Carney) have been hired by gangster-turned businessman Ace Miller (Sheldon Leonard) to help promote his new nightclub, The Zombie Hut. In fact, the two have come up with a pretty cool campaign, promising a real-life zombie will appear at the club’s grand opening. The only catch, of course, is that now they have to dig one up! On the recommendation of Professor Hopkins (Ian Wolfe), the curator of the local museum, the two set out for the island of San Sebastian, where Dr. Paul Renault (Bela Lugosi) has been trying to create his own race of zombies. Teaming up with a pretty singer named Jean (Anne Jeffreys), they make their way to Renault’s island lair, only to become unwilling participants in the good doctor’s latest round of experiments.

Zombies on Broadway will be of minor interest to fans of classic horror; aside from Lugosi’s turn as a mad scientist, the movie features Darby Jones in a supporting role as the zombie, Kalaga, a part similar to the one he played in Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie. Primarily, though, Zombies on Broadway is a showcase for Brown and Carney, who fancied themselves a comedy duo. The first half sees the two of them bumbling around both New York and San Sebastian, putting on one ho-hum comic routine after another (in one scene, Carney dons black face to fit in at a native ritual. Yeah, it’s that level of comedy we’re talking about here). The movie picks up a little when the action shifts to Renault’s mansion, at which point the mood becomes much darker. Yet, even here, Brown’s and Carney’s lackluster attempt at humor sometimes spoils things.

I’m an unapologetic Bela Lugosi fan, and it was his name in the credits that drew me to this film in the first place. Hell, I figured if I could sit through Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda and Bride of the Monster, both of which also featured Lugosi, how bad could Zombies on Broadway be? And to be fair, this is a much better movie than those two, but that’s not to say it’s one of Bela’s stronger outings. On the contrary, Zombies on Broadway suffers because Lugosi is hardly in it at all (Darby Jones gets twice the screen time he does).

As I said, Zombies on Broadway isn’t a terrible film; just a so-so one, with some decent atmosphere and a few good scenes saving it from being a total waste of time. Still, I’d only recommend it for Lugosi or zombie completists. All others will want to steer clear.







Tuesday, December 10, 2013

#1,212. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)


Directed By: Bill Melendez

Starring: Peter Robbins, Chris Shea, Tracy Stratford



Tag line: "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown!"

Trivia: A version with a laugh track was produced but later discarded after the success of the broadcast version






Seeing as I’m on a roll with these Holiday films, I figured it was as good a time as any to look at another beloved Christmas classic, 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, which, after Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, is the 2nd-longest-running television special of its kind.

Charlie Brown (voiced by Peter Robbins) is having a hard time getting into the spirit of the Christmas season. In an attempt to break out of his funk, he agrees to serve as the director of the annual Holiday pageant, and one of his key responsibilities is to select the Christmas tree that will adorn the stage during the production. Refusing to buy an aluminum tree (which are all the rage), he instead chooses a real one, and is immediately mocked by the others for doing so. But as Linus (Chris Shea) will remind everyone, there’s more to Christmas than pageants and trees.

Produced in a matter of weeks on a very small budget, A Charlie Brown Christmas was poorly received by network executives, who objected to, among other things, the show’s religious theme and the fact its makers opted not to include a laugh track. What’s more, the animation is uneven at best (there are times when colors change in mid-scene), and the use of actual children, as opposed to professional actors posing as kids, resulted in some less-than-stellar line deliveries (Kathy Steinberg, who provided the voice for Charlie Brown’s sister, Sally, was so young that she couldn’t even read, and had to be fed her dialogue one word at a time during the recording session). With so many issues, both Coca-Cola (who sponsored the show) and CBS (the network that signed on to broadcast it) were sure they had a flop on their hands.

So, why is A Charlie Brown Christmas still considered one of the finest Holiday specials ever made? Well, for starters, the music is outstanding; along with Vince Guaraldi’s piano score, the producers brought in the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Raphael, California, to provide the vocals for “Christmas Time is Here” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. What’s more, the use of real kids instead of voice actors gives it a feeling of authenticity, and, regardless of your religious beliefs, there’s no denying that Linus’ Gospel recital towards the end is the single most poignant scene in the entire show.

A Charlie Brown Christmas is yet another staple from my childhood; I was so enamored with it that, in the days before we had a VCR, I recorded the show’s audio onto cassette tape just so I could play it back throughout the year. In spite of its technical deficiencies (or perhaps because of them), A Charlie Brown Christmas is, and will likely always remain, a true Holiday classic.