Friday, February 28, 2014

#1,292. The 2000 Year Old Man (1975)

Directed By: Leo Salkin

Starring: Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks

Trivia: This special was originally broadcast in January of 1975

The 2000 Year Old Man is a 1975 animated special based on a character created by Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Lifted directly from several recordings the duo made over the years, The 2000 Year Old Man plays out like an interview in which a reporter (voiced by Reiner) questions a man claiming to be 2,000 years old (Brooks). As you can imagine, the results are pretty hilarious.

A witness to many historical events, the 2,000 year old man regales us with stories from the past, going all the way back to when he lived in a cave, though, according to him, life wasn’t nearly as primitive then as we thought. In fact, every cave had their own National Anthem, and after all these years, the 2,000 Year Old Man still remembers his particular cave’s song (“Let them all go to Hell, except Cave 76!”). Throughout their 25-minute conversation, the two discuss everything from women (the cavemen he hung around with didn’t realize there were women until a guy named Bernie discovered them) to music, which apparently began as a side effect of fear. His stories go further into the future as well, including the startling discovery that Shakespeare wrote 38 plays, and not 37. The Bard supposedly penned a work titled Queen Alexandra and Murray. Needless to say, it wasn’t a hit (“It closed in Egypt”).

The animation style of The 2000 Year Old Man is pretty basic, but then it didn’t need to be anything special. The reason to watch this short movie is the banter between Reiner and Brooks, who play off each other perfectly. Both men would go on to direct movies (Reiner teamed with Steve Martin on a number of films in the ‘70s and ‘80s, including The Jerk and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, while Brooks turned out comedy classics like The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein), and with The 2000 Year Old Man, we get an opportunity to hear the two in their younger days, acting out one of the funniest comedy routines of all-time.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

#1,291. Attack the Block (2011) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Joe Cornish

Starring: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail

Tag line: "Inner City vs. Outer Space"

Trivia: Most of the teenage actors were found through their schools and online open audition calls

It’s Guy Fawkes Day in England, and as most of the city is celebrating, student nurse Samantha (Jodie Whittaker) is nervously walking home through the rough streets of her South London neighborhood. Before she reaches her destination, the young ladies' worst fears will become a reality: just down the block from her apartment building, she is accosted by a gang of teenage thugs, who steal her wallet, cell phone, and a ring that holds some sentimental value. 

Yet as frightening as this assault is, it pales in comparison to what happens next. As the juvenile delinquents are finishing up, a meteor falls from the sky and crashes into a car parked by the side of the road. Samantha runs off as Moses (John Boyega), the leader of the gang, pokes his head through the car’s shattered side window, thinking there might be something of value inside. Suddenly, he is attacked by a strange, ape-like creature that, after inflicting a nasty scratch on Moses’ face, quickly runs off. 

A bit pissed that this weird creature - which could only be from outer space - showed him up in front of his pals, Moses and the others follow it into a nearby park, where they corner the alien inside a small shack. Hell-bent on showing this visitor from another world how tough they are, the gang charges in…

It’s a set-up we’ve seen before: less-than-sympathetic characters, hopped up on adrenaline, rushing into a fight against a foe they know absolutely nothing about. Ninety-nine times out of 100, these punks would be alien chow.

So imagine my surprise when, after a brief scuffle, Moses emerges from the shack dragging the alien’s dead carcass behind him! In an interesting twist, these teen criminals don't become the obligatory sacrifice to the movie’s mysterious creature. In director Joe Cornish’s 2011 sci-fi monster flick, Attack the Block, Moses and his adolescent band of thieves happen to be the main characters!

Having saved the neighborhood from an alien invasion, our “heroes”: Moses, Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones), and Biggz (Simon Howard), make their way to the top-floor apartment of local drug dealer Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) for some celebratory weed. Impressed with his bravery, Hi-Hatz even offers Moses a position in his organization, but while the victorious teens are living it up, additional meteors (dozens, in fact) start falling from the sky, landing at various locations throughout the neighborhood. 

Anxious to kick some more alien ass, Moses and the others head back onto the streets. This time, however, the creatures are much bigger, and move a hell of a lot faster. Clearly outmatched and badly outnumbered, the frightened gang hides out in the apartment building where most of them live. But no matter where they go, these ferocious aliens always seem to track them down.

Attack the Block is a hugely entertaining motion picture with a number of well-staged action sequences to get your pulse pounding. One of the best scenes has Moses and his crew hopping on their bikes and riding along a walkway as the pursuing monsters close in on them. Another of the film’s strengths is the aliens themselves, which, with their razor-sharp teeth that glow in the dark, can be flat-out vicious; one even manages to put the bite on Pest’s leg, tearing it up pretty badly. What makes them even more menacing, however, is that wherever the teens hide, the monsters always find them. 

In a strange twist of fate, the group asks Samantha, the student nurse they mugged earlier in the evening (who lives in the same building they do) for help. Angry at first, the young woman has a change of heart when one of the creatures comes barreling through her front door. 

Along with the thrills, Attack the Block is also a very funny movie, and features Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) as Ron, a drug dealer with a decidedly laid-back attitude. Not even an alien invasion can rattle him!

Some viewers may find it hard to relate to characters who, at the outset, are street thugs (Moses gets rough while mugging Samantha, going so far as to pull a knife on her), but if you can look past that, I’m fairly certain you’ll have as much fun watching Attack the Block as I did.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

#1,290. Gravity (2013)

Directed By: Alfonso Cuarón

Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris

Tag line: "Don't Let Go"

Trivia: To prepare for shooting, Sandra Bullock spent six months in physical training

My favorite movie-going experience of 2013 was seeing Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity in 3-D. I was so utterly blown away by this motion picture that, the very next day, I went back to the theater, this time with my family in tow, to watch it again; the 3-D in Gravity was the best I’d ever seen, and something told me the best I would ever see, so I wanted my wife and kids to share in the experience. An emotional roller coaster that, at times, punches you square in the gut, Gravity was also one hell of a gorgeous movie, taking full advantage of 3-D technology to expose the vastness of space like few films had before.

When the Blu-Ray of Gravity arrived on my doorstep the other day, my excitement was tempered by a slight feeling of apprehension. I don’t own a 3-D television, and odds are I never will. So, right out of the gate, a key element of the film, and the one that impressed me the most, was removed from the equation. Also, as big as my TV is, it simply can’t compare to the giant screen at my local multiplex. Would Gravity in 2-D, playing at a much smaller “venue”, have the same impact?

The story goes something like this: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is in space for the very first time, having caught a ride on the shuttle Explorer to install a new tracking device (which she herself invented) in the Hubble Telescope. But before her work is completed, an urgent message from ground control in Houston (voiced by Ed Harris) warns Explorer that debris from a destroyed Russian satellite is heading straight towards them, moving as fast as a bullet. What’s more, the debris has caused a chain reaction, taking out other satellites along the way and creating a debris field that grows larger by the second. With only minutes to react, mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) orders Stone back into Explorer so they can get out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, the astronauts have less time than they thought. Within moments, Explorer is struck by the debris, sending Stone, who was unable to separate from the mechanical arm holding her in place, spinning out of control, heading further and further away from the damaged ship. Kowalski does eventually retrieve her, but when the two arrive back at Explorer, they find the shuttle beyond repair and the rest of the crew dead. With only 90 minutes before the debris field comes back around, Stone (who’s very low on oxygen) and Kowalski must make their way to the International Space Station, which if they’re lucky is still intact. But even if they get there, will they find a ship that can return them to earth?

Right out of the box, this most recent viewing of Gravity threw me a curve. The opening moments of the film, where Stone is working on the Hubble while Kowalski floats around in space, using the jets built into his new-fangled spacesuit to guide him, looked phenomenal in 3-D, setting the stage for everything that would follow. Watching it on my modest home theater, in 2-D no less, this scene wasn’t the awe-inspiring experience I remembered. That said, the more intense sequences: the debris field striking the Explorer; Stone tumbling through space; her and Kowalski’s arrival at the International Space Station, all maintained their effectiveness, and were just as thrilling in two dimensions as they were in three. So, while the movie did lose something along the way (a simple teardrop can be pretty powerful when it’s floating towards you in 3-D), there’s still enough there to make Gravity worth your time.

You can argue that Alfonso Cuarón has made better movies than Gravity (Children of Men leaps immediately to mind), yet the overall experience this film provided, and the outstanding achievement it was in 3-D, make it one I won’t soon forget. When the Oscars are announced in a few days, I’m betting Gravity won’t capture the top award for Best Picture, but it would definitely be #1 on my ballot.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

#1,289. The Secret of Kells (2009)

Directed By: Tomm Moore, Nora Twomey

Starring: Evan McGuire, Brendan Gleeson, Mick Lally

Trivia: Aisling, the fairy girl, is named after a 17th-century genre of Irish poetry. Aisling is Irish for "dream vision." In an Aisling poem, the poet would describe receiving a vision of the spirit of Ireland, who appeared to him in the form of a beautiful young woman

The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature is a fairly recent addition to the Oscar ceremony, premiering at the 74th Awards show (the winner that year by the way, was 2001’s Shrek). Since then, I’ve had something of a love/hate relationship with this category, in that I love how it occasionally nominates obscure films, yet hate the fact that, when the winner is finally announced, it’s usually a movie geared towards kids (I enjoyed Ratatouille, which won the Oscar in 2007, but the best animated feature that year was the much more challenging, and adult-themed, Persepolis). Things got so bad for a while there that, from ‘03 to ‘08, only three movies were nominated instead of the usual five, with Pixar claiming the majority of the wins during this run. In the notes I took following the 2006 ceremony, where Happy Feet was the big winner, I wondered if it was time to abandon this particular category, seeing as nobody at the Academy seemed to take it seriously (though, to be fair, I was probably more upset that the very innovative A Scanner Darkly wasn’t even nominated that year).

Then, in 2009, the category rebounded in a big way. Yes, the films were still kid-centric, but, aside from there once again being five nominees, all were solid entertainment. The winner was Up!, one of my favorite Pixar movies, which beat out Coraline (a picture very much like The Nightmare Before Christmas, presenting a children’s tale with a significantly darker edge); The Fantastic Mr, Fox (directed by Wes Anderson and based on a Roald Dahl story, it was an animated feature that, in every way, felt like a Wes Anderson film); The Princess and the Frog (a return of sorts to “classic” Disney), and The Secret of Kells, which, until recently, I’d never seen.

Now that I have, I can say, unequivocally, it deserved its nomination. The Secret of Kells is a magical movie.

Set in Ireland in the Middle Ages, The Secret of Kells introduces us to Brendan (voiced by Evan McGuire), a young monk in training who resides at the Abbey of Kells, where his uncle Cellach (Brendan Gleeson) is the Abbot. With many of the surrounding villages falling victim to Viking raiders, Abbot Cellach has decided to build a wall around Kells, which he’s convinced will protect his Abbey from the Northern marauders. At first, Brendan supports the precautions undertaken by his uncle, but has a change of heart when Brother Aiden (Mick Lally), a master Illuminator from Iona, arrives at Kells. The only survivor of a Viking raid, Brother Aiden is working on a book many believe will be the greatest ever created, one so powerful it will turn darkness into light. Brother Aiden tries to convince the Abbot his wall won’t keep the Vikings out, and that, should an attack occur, the best course of action would be to flee, thus preventing the book from falling into the wrong hands. The Abbot, however, disagrees, and as he toils away at his wall, Brendan works diligently with Brother Aiden, who is bound and determined to finish the book as quickly as possible.

At one point, Brother Aiden sends Brendan into the nearby woods to search for a specific berry, used to create a brilliant green ink. Though forbidden to venture beyond the wall by his uncle, Brendan does as requested, and, accompanied by Brother Aiden’s pet cat Pangur Bán heads into the deep, dark forest surrounding the Abbey. Once there, he encounters a fairy named Aisling (Christen Mooney), who helps him find the needed berries. Impressed by his tenacity, Brother Aiden asks Brendan to compose the book’s most significant page, but with the Vikings getting closer and closer to Kells, there’s a good chance this very important book will never be completed.

It’s the animation that makes The Secret of Kells so enchanting, with patterns and shapes of all kinds filling the screen on a regular basis. Even Abbot Cellach’s plans for the wall possess an intricate beauty, and Brendan’s encounter with a dark spirit in the woods is chock full of geometric designs. Along with its unique animation style, The Secret of Kells has a mystical quality I always find endearing. In a truly breathtaking scene, Aisling transforms Pangur Bán into a spirit so he can help Brendan escape the dungeon his uncle has banished him to, a punishment for traveling outside the wall. As Pangur Bán glides through the air, Aisling serenades him with a Celtic-like tune she created just for him. While the entire movie is filled with gorgeous imagery, this sequence is, in my opinion, the finest The Secret of Kells has to offer.

To be honest, I’m kinda glad I wasn’t one of the voters asked to choose which of the five animated films from 2009 was best of the bunch (there should have actually been a 6th nominee: Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful Ponyo was also released that year). Having now seen all the nominees, I’m not sure which I would have selected, but, at the very least, 2009 renewed my confidence in the Best Animated Feature category, giving us five exceptional motion pictures, The Secret of Kells included, that, if chosen, would have absolutely deserved the award.

Monday, February 24, 2014

#1,288. The Blob (1958)

Directed By: Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.

Starring: Steve McQueen, Aneta Corsaut, Earl Rowe

Tag line: "Indescribable... Indestructible! Nothing Can Stop It!"

Trivia: Steve McQueen was offered $2,500 or 10% of the profits. He took the $2,500 because the film wasn't expected to make much. It ended up grossing over $4 million

I live in the same general area where 1958’s The Blob was filmed. Valley Forge is a stone’s throw from where I grew up (I spent a lot of time at the National Park there, and used to jog the 5-mile track that runs through a portion of it), and I occasionally drive past the Colonial Theater, which features prominently in the movie (Founded by Harry Brownback, the Colonial has been around since the very early days of the 20th century. Birth of a Nation played there in 1915, and two years later, Harry Houdini performed one of his patented death-defying escapes on the Colonial’s stage in front of an audience of 300 people). 

To see these places I recognize in a movie that’s well over 50 years old is... kinda awesome.  The fact it's a sci-fi classic that stars the great Steve McQueen makes it doubly so!

While smooching in the front seat of his car, teenager Steve Andrews (McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaunt) spot a meteor hurtling through the sky, which lands just over the next hill. Steve wants to check it out, but before he can get there, an elderly man (Olin Howard) stumbles upon the fragment of space debris and pokes it with a stick, releasing a gelatinous material that crawls up the stick and latches onto his arm. When Steve and Jane finally arrive, they find the old man in a panic, and agree to drive him to Doc Hallen's (Stephen Chase). 

After sticking around the Doc's office for a few minutes, Steve and Jane leave so they can investigate the meteor (sidetracked, temporarily, by a drag race with some of their pals). Meanwhile, the glob of goo on the old guy’s arm starts to envelop his entire body. What’s more, it also devours Doc Hallen’s nurse, Kate (Lee Payton), and eventually the doctor himself! Steve and Jane get back to Doc Hallen’s in time to witness his death, and rush off to inform the authorities. 

Naturally, when the two policemen (Earl Rowe and John Benson) arrive at Doc Hallen’s, neither the homicidal pile of goo nor its three victims are anywhere to be found. Chalking it up as a teenage prank, the cops take Steve and Jane to the precinct and call their parents to come pick them up. But with a deadly alien life form on the loose, the two young lovebirds remain determined to track it down, and enlist the help of their friends to continue the search for what can only be described as... “The Blob”!

For a 1958 low-budget picture, the effects in The Blob are decent, if not spectacular; the sequence at Doc Hallen’s office, when the blob strikes, is admittedly cheesy but in a cool way. The film also has its share of tense moments. Aside from the ending, which is batshit crazy, there’s a scene in which Steve and Jane encounter the Blob at a grocery store owned by Steve’s father. 

Of course, a lot of The Blob's appeal (for me, anyway) is seeing Steve McQueen in an early role, the last time in his career he would be billed as “Steven McQueen”. And while the movie itself does drag on occasion (despite the nail-biting climax, the film's first half is definitely more action-packed than the second), The Blob is, for the most part, an entertaining sci-fi / horror flick.

Every year since 2000, the nearby city of Phoenixville has hosted “Blobfest”, a weekend-long event in July the kicks off on Friday night with a screening of The Blob at the Colonial. This is immediately followed by a re-enactment of a key scene from the film, where audience members ran from the theater in a panic when the Blob attacked (I’ve yet to have the pleasure of attending Blobfest, but I know it’s something I’ll have to do at some point). 

In this small corner of Pennsylvania, The Blob isn’t just a motion picture. It’s a link to our past, and I can’t help but smile knowing its legacy will live on for years to come.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

#1,287. Black Friday (1940)

Directed By: Arthur Lubin

Starring: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Stanley Ridges

Tag line: "A Reign Of HORROR... a man-made monster on the loose!"

Trivia: This was the only one of the seven films featuring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in which the two stars have no scenes together

Black Friday is a 1940 film starring a pair of horror icons, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. But of all the movies the two made together (including The Black Cat and Son of Frankenstein), this one is unique in that both are outshined by a character actor who, throughout his career, was relegated to supporting roles. With Karloff and Lugosi receiving top billing, Black Friday was, on paper, yet another “supporting” role for Stanley Ridges, but make no mistake about it: he’s the star of the show!

Brain surgeon Dr. Ernest Sovac (Karloff) has developed a procedure that allows him to transplant a portion of brain from one living creature into another. Thus far, he’s experimented only on animals, but when his close friend, English professor George Kingsley (Ridges), is badly injured in a car crash, Sovac must rely on this new technique to save his life. The problem is, the brain he’s forced to use to perform the operation once belonged to New York gangster Red Cannon, who was driving the car that struck Kingsley. The procedure is a success, but with one very critical side effect: the docile Kingsley, on occasion, transforms into the vicious Red Cannon! Things get even more interesting when Sovac learns that Cannon, prior to the accident, had hidden half a million dollars somewhere in New York City. Hoping to use this money to build a research facility, Sovac invites Kinglsey to accompany him to New York, where, once back in familiar territory, the Red Cannon portion of his brain takes over. But as Sovac looks for a way to coax Cannon into recovering the money, the criminal is busy taking revenge on his former cohorts, who, led by Cannon’s old partner Eric Marnay (Lugosi), were responsible for the crash that killed him.

Of the film’s two top-billed “stars”, Karloff delivers the stronger performance, portraying Sovac as a kindly doctor whose greed eventually gets the better of him. As for Lugosi, he was badly miscast (a New York gangster with a Hungarian accent?), and the few times he appears on-screen (save his final scene) aren’t particularly memorable. But the real reason to check out Black Friday is to see Stanley Ridges, convincing as both a quiet, unassuming English professor and a hardened criminal. While the physical transformation from one persona to the other is minor (when Cannon takes control, Kinglsey’s grey hair becomes jet black), the difference in temperament is staggering; it’s quite a shock whenever the friendly Kinglsey changes into a brutal gangster, and the actor handles both aspects of his character’s complex personality to perfection.

Born in England in 1890, Ridges spent practically his entire film career in the background, playing minor roles in a few dozen movies, including Sergeant York and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (only once was he the lead, in a 1943 B-picture titled False Faces). After seeing him steal the spotlight from Karloff and Lugosi in Black Friday, it’s obvious Hollywood missed out on something special. Stanley Ridges should have been a star.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

#1,286. Scream (1996)

Directed By: Wes Craven

Starring: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette

Tag line: "Someone has taken their love of scary movies one step too far. Solving this mystery is going to be murder"

Trivia: Winner of the 1997 Mtv Movie Award for Best Picture

The phone rings, and teenager Casey Becker (Drew Barrymore), home all alone, answers it. The man on the other end has dialed the wrong number. He asks who he is talking to, but Casey won’t tell him. Ignoring his request to chat a while, Casey hangs up the receiver. 

A minute or so later, as she’s preparing some Jiffy-Pop popcorn, the phone rings again. It’s the same guy, wondering why she doesn’t want to talk. Casey still refuses to tell this mysterious caller her name, yet is intrigued by his persistence, and flirts with him a little. 

Eventually, she reveals that she’s getting ready to watch “a scary movie”. He asks what her favorite scary movie is, and after a slight hesitation, she says it’s Halloween, the “one with the guy in the white mask who walks around and stalks babysitters”. The two flirt some more, and the caller, once again, asks for her name.

Why do you want to know my name?” Casey inquires, playfully.

Because I want to know who I’m looking at” is his chilling reply.

And with that, one of the best opening sequences in modern horror kicks into high gear.

Yes, a killer is on the loose in the small California town of Woodsboro, and his main target appears to be Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), a teen whose mother was murdered exactly one year earlier. The man accused of killing Sidney’s mom, Cotton Weary (Liev Schrieber), is locked away in prison, but there are those who believe Cotton is innocent, including news reporter Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox). 

It isn't long before the killer (wearing a ghost mask and a black cloak) catches up with Sidney, and the frightened teen is forced to run for her life.  With her father out of town on business, she is invited to stay with her friend Tatum (Rose McGowan), whose brother Dewey (David Arquette) is a deputy policeman. As Sidney continues to receive threatening phone calls, her high school classmates, including boyfriend Billy (Skeet Ulrich); Billy’s best friend Stu (Matthew Lillard); and local movie geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy), tap their vast knowledge of horror films to try and determine the killer’s true identity. 

But as Randy points out, one of the “rules” of a good horror movie is that everyone is a suspect, leaving Sidney to wonder who she can trust... if anyone.

Along with its incredible opening scene, Wes Craven's Scream endears itself to horror fans by providing characters who are equally as enthusiastic about the genre. Fully in tune with the clichés and formulas that go hand-in-hand with most slasher films, Jamie Kennedy’s Randy lays out the four essential “rules” for surviving a horror movie, which are:

1. You can never have sex (“Sex=Death”)
2. You can never drink or do drugs (The “sin factor”, an extension of Rule #1)
3. Never under any circumstances say “I’ll be right back (because you won’t be)
4. Everyone is a suspect

Of course, we’re treated to a number of scenes in which both Sidney and her friends break these rules, or do something every bit as stupid as your typical slasher victim. One of the films funniest (and most intense) sequences begins with Sidney talking to the killer on the phone. She tells him she can't stand horror movies because they’re all the same. “Some stupid killer", Sidney says, "stalking some big-breasted girl who can’t act who’s always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door”. Moments later, when the killer breaks into her house, Sidney tries to give him the slip... by running upstairs!

Self-referential humor aside, Scream is also an edgy, frightening slasher film that doesn’t shy away from violence (“Ghostface”, as the killer has come to be known, wields a butcher’s knife, and isn’t afraid to use it). In addition, the film features a finale that is just as intense as the opening, and there's a sweet romance that develops between Gale Weathers and policeman Dewey (like their characters, Cox and Arquette fell in love while making this movie, and would marry in real life). 

For many horror fans, Wes Craven will always be the guy who gave us A Nightmare on Elm Street, but with all due respect to Freddy Krueger, I consider Scream to be his masterpiece.

Friday, February 21, 2014

#1,285. On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

Directed By: Peter Hunt

Starring: George Lazenby, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas

Tag line: "Far up! Far out! Far more! James Bond 007 is back!"

Trivia: This is the only Bond movie to be directed by Peter Hunt, who served as an editor and 2nd unit director on the previous films in the series

The general consensus is that 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been the best Bond film had Sean Connery been the star. After You Only Live Twice, Connery decided he’d had enough, and refused to return. Personally, I think this is a bit unfair, because while Connery absolutely set the standard for the character, Australian-born George Lazenby does a fine job stepping into his shoes.

Having thwarted the suicide attempt of the Countess Tracy Vicenzo (Diana Rigg), James Bond (Lazenby) finds himself in the good graces of her father, renowned criminal Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti). Hoping to tame his daughter’s wild ways, Draco offers Bond a deal: in exchange for marrying Tracy, he will provide Bond with information on the whereabouts of Ernst Blofeld (Telly Savalas), the top man at SPECTRE.

After spending time with Tracy, and falling in love with her, Bond heads to Switzerland, where Blofeld has been operating an allergy research center high atop the tallest mountain of the Swiss Alps. Posing as Genealogy expert Sir Hilary Bray, Bond gains access to Blofeld’s headquarters, where he uncovers a fiendish plot that, if successful, could lead to the total destruction of the world’s food supply!

To ease the transition from Connery to Lazenby, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service opens not with Bond, but with series regulars Bernard Lee (as “M), Desmond Llewellyn (“Q”) and Lois Maxwell (“Moneypenny”) carrying on business as usual at MI6 Headquarters. This is followed by an action-packed sequence that introduces us to the “new Bond”. Once he has subdued the bad guys, Lazenby looks directly into the camera and, with tongue firmly in cheek, says “This never happened to the other guy”.

From there, we enter familiar territory, with a visually impressive opening credits sequence that features clips from the first five Bond pictures (minus Connery, obviously). As fun as this nod to the past is, the film’s best homage occurs when Bond, who has threatened to resign, is cleaning out his desk and comes across souvenirs from his previous adventures: the knife & belt from Dr. No, the breathing device from Thunderball, etc., with the theme music from each movie playing as he admires the trinkets.

Along with its introduction of a new James Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is also a return of sorts to the franchise’s roots, with 007 relying more on his fists (a la Dr. No) than on gadgets and gizmos. In fact, “Q” doesn’t provide Bond with a single piece of equipment this time out. As for the ladies (yet another staple of the series), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has plenty. Most are patients at Blofeld’s Swiss-based allergy clinic, including a young Joanna Lumley in her first credited big-screen appearance. As far as “official” Bond girls are concerned, however, there’s only one: Countess Tracy Vicenzo, who would become the single most important woman that 007 ever encountered, and the girl who finally captured his heart. The love scenes between Lazenby and Rigg are considerably more intimate than any we had seen in the previous films.

Of course, it wouldn’t be Bond without action, and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service has plenty of it. Lazenby displays his prowess at hand-to-hand combat, doing so several times throughout the movie, but the real thrills occur in the film’s second half, which is practically wall-to-wall action. Along with a couple of tense moments on skis, Bond and Tracy are involved in a high-speed pursuit that ultimately crashes - both literally and figuratively - a stock car race. The final confrontation, a siege that leads to an electrifying bobsled chase, is also a highlight.

While Lazenby may have lacked Connery’s charisma, he did manage to make the role his own in this brief stint as 007. Sadly, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service marked the only time he would play the part. Perhaps it’s true that, had Connery continued, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have been one of the best, if not the best, in the series. But as it stands, with Lazenby, it’s a damn fine entry all the same.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

#1,284. Way of the Vampire (2005)

Directed By: Sarah Nean Bruce, Eduardo Durão

Starring: Rhett Giles, Andreas Beckett, Paul Logan

Tag line: "The battle between good and evil ends tonight"

Trivia: In Venezuela, the title of this film was changed to Van Helsing vs. Dracula

Abraham Van Helsing (Rhett Giles), 19th century vampire hunter, is about to face his most difficult challenge. Leaving his beloved wife Yvonne (Alix Henning) in the care of Sebastian (Andreas Beckett), one of the monks in his service, Van Helsing leads his band of warriors against the evil Count Dracula (Paul Logan), who’s holed up in a castle along with the rest of his brood. Though ultimately victorious, Van Helsing soon discovers Sebastian is, in fact, a vampire prince, and he quickly puts the bite on the helpless Mrs. Van Helsing. Hoping to avenge his wife, Van Helsing makes a deal with the Holy Templars of the Catholic Church which, in essence, grants him eternal youth, and will allow him to remain in this world until he defeats every last vampire prince. Posing as a doctor in modern-day Los Angeles, Van Helsing continues the fight, only to learn his arch-rival Sebastian (who, as luck would have it, is also in the city) and his loyal disciple Arianna (Denise Bouette) are about to lead their brood out of hiding, threatening to unleash a new reign of terror only Van Helsing can prevent.

Sounds pretty cool, right? Alas, it isn’t. Produced by The Asylum, Way of the Vampire is a dreadful movie that never once lives up to the potential of its story. The opening scene, set in the 19th century, has Van Helsing and his small army of monks going up against Dracula and his brides. Featuring very little dialogue, this "battle" consists mostly of brief snippets, presented in black and white, in which Van Helsing’s men put up a feeble fight, quickly falling victim to the bloodsuckers they were trying to destroy. Like all of the action scenes in Way of the Vampire, this beginning sequence is a total non-event. Performance-wise, Giles is mediocre at best as Van Helsing, while Beckett’s turn as Sebastian is, at times, way over-the-top (a speech he delivers towards the start of the film is almost laughable). Only Denise Bouette, seductively beautiful as Arianna, escapes with her dignity intact.

Released straight to video in 2005, Way of the Vampire was clearly intended to cash in on Stephen Sommers’ 2004 big-budget spectacular, Van Helsing, which in itself isn’t a particularly memorable film. Compared to this stinker, though, Van Helsing looks like one of the Universal classics it was trying to emulate. A poorly acted, horribly paced mess of a movie, Way of the Vampire is one to avoid.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

#1,283. Teenagers from Outer Space (1959)

Directed By: Tom Graeff

Starring: David Love, Dawn Bender, Bryan Grant

Tag line: "Before - A Beautiful Girl. One Moment Later - A Skeleton!"

Trivia: The filmmaker was on such a tight budget that the film's ultimate weapon, the "focusing disintegrator", was actually a Hubley's Atomic Disintegrator toy cap gun, bought for a dime, with a flashbulb added as a beam.

Teenagers from Outer Space is an odd little film from 1959 about a kindhearted alien named Derek (David Love) who comes to earth with his colleagues looking for a planet to house the Gargons, a giant, lobster-like race that’s also the aliens’ chief source of food. Because of their size and the fact they multiply at an alarming rate, the Gargon have a tendency to take over as the dominant species on whatever world they occupy, and from the looks of it, earth is a suitable habitat for the creature. Even still, Derek, fearing for the safety of the planet’s current inhabitants, tries to convince his fellow aliens to continue the search in another part of the galaxy. This doesn’t sit well with the others, and before he knows what’s hit him, Derek is being chased away by Thor (Bryan Grant), the most violent of the group, who, with his trusty ray gun, is sent to track Derek down and, if necessary, kill him to protect the security of their mission.

While on the run, Derek meets Betty Morgan (Dawn Anderson), a pretty teen living with her grandfather (Harvey B. Dunn). Luckily, Betty and her grandpa have a room available, and are more than happy to rent it to Derek (despite the fact he doesn’t have a cent to his name). While Derek is getting to know his new human friends, Thor continues to search for him, leaving a trail of skeletons in his wake (the ray gun Thor wields is so powerful that it vaporizes its victim’s flesh, leaving only the bones behind). While eluding Thor, Derek also tries to warn Betty and the others that, unless they do something about the Gargons, their world will soon come to an end.

Bottom line, Teenagers from Outer Space is not a good movie. For one, Derek and his compatriots have an unusual way of talking, using very few contractions when they speak, which makes for some clumsy dialogue (shortly after they arrive on earth, Thor shoots Betty’s dog with his ray gun, which doesn’t sit well with Derek. “It had life”, he tells Thor, “And that life you had to take to satisfy your endless hunger for killing“). This, of course, is just the beginning; the film also features poor special effects (aside from the scenes where Thor reduces his victims to skeletons, which is a cool concept, the effects are practically non-existent, especially when it comes to the giant Gargon, which we only see as a shadow on the wall), and the performance of Harvey Dunn as Grandpa has to be seen to be believed (he’s arguably the goofiest senior citizen ever to inhabit a sci-fi film).

Yet, even with its many deficiencies (or, more than likely because of them), I had fun watching Teenagers from Outer Space. The story itself, about an alien race looking for a planet to house its food supply, is a clever one, and the scenes with Thor had a definite energy to them (did I mention how awesome it was that he could turn people into skeletons?). There’s no denying Teenagers from Outer Space is a bad film, but, in my opinion, it fits neatly into the “so bad, it’s good” category.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

#1,282. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) - The Films of Wes Anderson

Directed By: Wes Anderson

Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Anjelica Huston

Tag line: "The deeper you go, the weirder life gets"

Trivia: A 50-year-old minesweeper vessel bought and towed from South Africa served as the Belafonte

As I mentioned in my write-ups of Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, one of the things I love about Wes Anderson's films is how they create an alternate reality that looks identical to our world, yet is slightly off-kilter. With 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, he crafted what was, to that point, his most elaborate motion picture, giving us a place where fish glow in the dark and dolphins aren’t nearly as smart as we think.

Oceanographer and award-winning filmmaker Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) has just debuted his newest documentary, which chronicles the tragic death of his longtime associate and closest friend, Esteban du Plantier (Seymour Cassel). Estaban, it seems, was devoured by a large, shark-like creature that had never been seen before.

As his agent Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon) frantically searches for the funds to shoot the second part of the documentary (where Zissou will hunt and kill the creature responsible for Esteban’s death), Zissou himself is coming to terms with the sudden appearance of Ned Plympton (Owen Wilson), an airline pilot who, by all accounts, is his biological son. Having never met before, Zissou tries to bond with Ned, asking the young man to join “Team Zissou” and accompany them on their newest adventure. That invitation doesn’t sit well with Steve’s second-in-command, Klaus (Willem Dafoe), but Zissou himself is elated when Ned accepts.

Also joining the expedition are Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), a very pregnant reporter assigned to do a cover story on Zissou for her magazine; and Bill Ubell (Bud Cort), who works for the bond company that has agreed to finance the film. But as the calamities mount (including a rather violent run-in with Filipino pirates), the crew of Zissou’s ship, the Belafonte, threatens to mutiny, a move that would likely bring the film, as well as Zissou’s already faltering career, to an abrupt end.

Wes Anderson has a knack for creating fascinating characters, and the various oddballs that populate The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, as portrayed by its very talented cast, are no exception. Owen Wilson’s Ned, the son anxious to get to know his father, is polite and amiable, while Cate Blanchett’s Jane has a strength that makes her a good foil for the domineering Zissou.&

Rounding out the cast are Angelica Huston as Eleanor, Zissou’s estranged wife who never beats around the bush (at one point, she tells Steve that his favorite cat has died. When he asks what happened, she bluntly replies “It was bitten on the neck by a rattlesnake”); Jeff Goldblum as Alistair Hennessey, a former classmate and current rival of Zissou’s; and Willem Dafoe as Klaus, the second-in-command of the Belafonte who can’t hide his jealousy when Ned joins the crew.

Of course, the most interesting of the bunch is Steve Zissou, a sad sack whose best days are behind him. To put it bluntly, Zissou isn’t particularly good at his job. When thousands of glowing jellyfish wash up on the beach, he tells Ned they’re Electric Jellyfish, only to be shown up by Jane, who correctly identifies them as Vietcong Man-of-Wars. Once the Belafonte is at sea, Zissou makes one bad decision after another and puts his entire crew in jeopardy, from breaking into Hennessey’s research facility and stealing equipment to piloting the ship into unprotected waters, where it’s attacked by pirates.

Despite being the title character, Steve Zissou is not a likeable guy. When Jane asks some pointed, unflattering, questions for her article, Zissou starts referring to her in private as a “bull dyke”. But as played by Murray, he does have a certain charm that is hard to ignore; his attempts to bond with Ned are actually quite endearing. An adventurer who occasionally wallows in self-pity, Steve Zissou is a complex individual, and it took an actor of Bill Murray’s stature to bring him convincingly to life.

With so many quirky elements (the soundtrack consists primarily of David Bowie songs performed in Portuguese), it’s easy to see why some critics never warmed up to The Life Aquatic. When reviewing the movie on the TV program he co-hosted with Roger Ebert, Richard Roeper called it “one of the most irritating, self-conscious and smug films of the year”. For me, however, the skewed reality of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou feels all the more believable thanks to the work of its excellent cast, giving us some of the most memorable characters in Anderson’s entire canon.

Monday, February 17, 2014

#1,281. Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)

Directed By: Mario Bava

Starring: Stephen Forsyth, Dagmar Lassander, Laura Betti

Trivia: The Harrington's bed was originally used as a set piece in an earlier Bava film, 1963's Black Sabbath

Directed by Mario Bava, Hatchet for the Honeymoon begins in grand fashion, with a scene, set aboard a train, in which a well-dressed gentleman murders a new bride (Montserrat Riva), still in her wedding dress, as she and her groom are sharing an intimate moment. Soon after, we’re introduced to the film’s main character, John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth), who, in an interesting twist, is the killer from the opening sequence!

For years, Harrington has been living a double life. The proprietor of a high-fashion bridal boutique, he shares a beautiful villa just outside Paris with his estranged wife, Mildred (Laura Betti). Behind the scenes, Harrington’s a serial killer, slaughtering young women who are either customers or models hired to work at his boutique. Believing his connection to the victims is more than a coincidence, police inspector Russell (Jesús Puente) hounds Harrington on a regular basis. Harrington, however, is a careful man, and never leaves any evidence behind, but when he commits a crime of passion, it kicks off a chain of events that may ultimately bring about his downfall.

With Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Bava delves into the warped mind of a serial killer, a premise I found utterly fascinating, especially after the impressive opening sequence aboard the train. The very next scene, where we meet Harrington, is just as strong. By way of narration, he invites us into his dark, secret world (“The truth is I am completely mad”, he says, “A realization which annoyed me at first, but is now amusing to me”). Forsyth is excellent as the killer, bringing an air of sophistication to a psychotic haunted by visions from his past. As we soon learn, Harrington commits these murders because each time he does so, he comes closer to uncovering a traumatic event from his childhood, when he witnessed the death of his beloved mother (which his subconscious has blocked from his memory). Yet as promising as this set-up is, the first half of Hatchet for the Honeymoon proves to be rather dull, and the few murders we witness aren’t nearly as effective as the one that opened the film.

Then, at about the halfway point, Bava switches things up by throwing a supernatural element into the mix. To discuss it any further would take us into spoiler territory, but what I can tell you is the spirit in question behaves differently than most. While its ultimate goal is to make our lead character’s life a living hell, this particular ghost shows itself not to Harrington, but to everyone else around him! It’s an intriguing development, and Bava handles it brilliantly, taking what had been a dreary Giallo and transforming it into a nifty ghost story, a plot twist that, in essence, brings the entire movie back to life.

While nowhere near as good as his earlier classics (like Black Sunday and Black Sabbath), Hatchet for the Honeymoon at least showed us that Mario Bava still had a few tricks left up his sleeve.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

#1,280. F For Fake (1973)

Directed By: Orson Welles

Starring: Orson Welles, Oja Kodar, Joseph Cotten

Trivia:  An excerpt of Welles' 1930 radio broadcast of WAR OF THE WORLDS is recreated for a scene in this film

On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater troupe performed a radio play inspired by H.G. Wells’ classic novel, War of the Worlds. During the first portion of the hour-long program, several actors posed as professional newsmen, delivering what sounded like actual reports of an invasion from Mars currently underway. There was a disclaimer at the beginning, of course, saying it was all made up, but for those listeners who tuned in a few minutes late, this “radio play” was all too real, leading to widespread panic in a few areas of the country. Seemingly surprised by the chaos his radio show had stirred up, Welles sheepishly apologized for the trouble he caused. Yet, in the end, I’m sure he smiled a little at how easy it was to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.

That’s precisely the subject of his 1973 documentary F for Fake. As Welles himself says, this is “a film about trickery and fraud. About lies”. Throughout the movie, we’re introduced to people who’ve made a career out of lying, including Clifford Irving, a writer who once penned a fake biography of billionaire Howard Hughes, and Elmyr de Hory, a neighbor of Irving’s (both men, at the height of their notoriety, lived on the Spanish island of Ibiza) who many consider to be the greatest art forger of the 20th century. In fact, his copies of the works of Matisse and van Dongen (among others) were so convincing that they even fooled a few experts. At the time F for Fake was produced, Elmyr was still selling his forgeries to many “respectable” art dealers, who made more money off of them than he himself did.

F for Fake, which would prove to be Welles last feature film, is a rapidly paced, light-hearted, often witty pseudo-documentary about charlatanism, and the director, who also acts as narrator and host, clearly had a great time making it. Joined on occasion by his girlfriend, the uber-sexy Oja Kodar (approximately 25 years his junior), Welles blissfully takes us on a fascinating journey of discovery, the lesson of which seems to be you can’t always believe what you hear, even if the people talking are so-called “experts” (several handwriting specialists clamed a signature Irving had on a contract was, indeed, that of Howard Hughes. It wasn’t, of course). Welles himself gets in on the act, opening the movie with a magic trick he performs to amuse a young boy at a Paris train station, then pulling back to show the film crew capturing it all, an admission of sorts that the entire scene was staged. Much like art and literature, movies are an illusion, and even a documentary isn’t above telling a lie every now and again. As proof, Welles, at one point, regales us with an intriguing, and supposedly true, story, only to reveal at the end it was a complete and total fabrication.

Don’t worry… I won’t say which story it is. That would spoil the fun. And F for Fake is definitely a lot of fun.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

#1,279. Black Sunday (1960)

Directed By: Mario Bava

Starring: Barbara Steele, John Richardson, Andrea Checchi

Tag line: "Once every 100 years the undead of hell terrorize the world in an orgy of stark horror"

Trivia: Barbara Steele didn't see the script in advance. She would be given pages daily

Directed by Mario Bava, 1960’s Black Sunday (also released in the U.S. as The Mask of Satan) opens in 17th century Moldavia. Asa (Barbara Steele), a member of the aristocratic Vajda family, and her faithful assistant Javutich (Aturo Domnici) stand accused of practicing witchcraft. 

Sentenced to death for their crimes, the two are dragged into a field, where Asa’s own brother oversees their execution. Just before she dies, Asa puts a curse on her brother and all of his descendants, promising that they will “never escape” her vengeance, or that of Satan. 

When the deed is finally done, Javutich is buried in a nearby cemetery, while Asa’s body is placed in a chapel adjacent to the Vajda estate. Fearing the power of her black magic, the locals put a cross on Asa’s crypt, which they're convinced will prevent her from ever returning.

Two centuries later, a pair of doctors - Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and Gorobec (John Richardson) - are on their way to a medical conference when their coach breaks down. As the driver is busy making repairs, the two men go for a stroll and end up in the very chapel where Asa’s body was laid to rest. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, Kruvajan is attacked by a bat, and in his attempts to kill the creature he accidentally shatters the cross sitting atop Asa’s crypt. 

With the cross gone, Asa is now free to return to the ranks of the living, and once back, sets her sights on draining the life force from Katia Vajda (also portrayed by Steele), one of her brother’s descendants. Hoping to destroy this evil before it spreads, young Dr. Gorobec, who has fallen in love with Katia, tries to save the day. But is he strong enough to defeat such a formidable foe?

From the opening sequence, where we witness Asa’s execution (which also features the film’s most graphic image: the Mask of Satan, with several long spikes attached to the backside of it, being hammered onto the poor girl’s face), it’s easy to see why Black Sunday is considered a classic of the horror genre. What impressed me most was the overall atmosphere; from the get-go, Bava establishes a dark, foreboding tone that he manages to maintain through much of the picture. Black Sunday is also stylishly shot. Prior to sitting in the director’s chair, Bava worked as a cinematographer, and his penchant for moving the camera in new and interesting ways results in some fascinating scenes. What’s more, the set pieces are gorgeous, and Bava ensures that we the audience get a good look at all of them; when Kuvajan and Gorobec first enter Asa's dilapidated chapel, the camera spins 360 degrees, revealing every nook and cranny of this terrifying locale. 

All this, combined with Barbara Steele’s superb performance as the evil Asa (arguably the sexiest witch in cinematic history), helped transform Black Sunday into one of the most influential horror films ever made.

Simply put, Mario Bava’s Black Sunday is a gothic masterpiece, and I loved every minute of it!

Friday, February 14, 2014

#1,278. The Savage Bees (1976)

Directed By: Bruce Geller

Starring: Ben Johnson, Michael Parks, Paul Hecht

Trivia: The bees in this movie were real, and still had their stingers. They were kept under control with the help of both smoke and highly attractive synthetic bee pheromones

Man, this movie scared the shit out of me when I was a kid! I must have been 6 or 7 when I first saw it on TV, and I was convinced those bees were on their way north, and were coming straight for me. Watching The Savage Bees proved to be a fairly traumatic experience, and it definitely contributed to a fear of bees that plagued me for at least a decade.

Arriving in the U.S. by way of a Brazilian freighter, a swarm of African killer bees descends on the New Orleans area just in time to disrupt Mardi Gras. The first sign of trouble occurs 20 miles away, where Sheriff Donald McKew (Ben Johnson) finds his beloved dog dead. Assuming it was poisoned, he drives the carcass into New Orleans so that tests can be run on it. Following an autopsy performed by Assistant Medical Director Jeff DuRand (Michael Parks), it’s determined the dog was killed not by poison, but by bees (dozens are found in the poor thing’s stomach). With the help of Entomology expert Jeannie Devereaux (Gretchen Corbett), Jeff learns that the bees originated in South Africa, and are a particularly violent species of insect. While Sheriff McKew is dealing with more attacks in his small town, Jeff and Jeannie are trying to convince the authorities in New Orleans that the annual Mardi Gras parade should be cancelled. Through it all, the bees continue to attack, leaving a number of dead bodies in their wake.

Considering it had been about 38 years since I last saw The Savage Bees, I was surprised how much of it I remembered. In one scene, a young girl is walking through a field, only to be attacked by a swarm of bees (it’s a well-shot sequence, too, with director Bruce Geller giving us a “bees-eye” view of the action, starting high above the field and descending quickly towards the unsuspecting victim). A later attack, involving a young couple in costume on their way to Mardi Gras, also stuck with me (the guy was dressed as a pirate, and was swinging his sword wildly to prevent the bees from stinging him. Even when I was a kid, I knew this wasn’t the best way to stop a swarm of bees), and I never forgot the final sequence, which takes place in the Louisiana Superdome. I’m no longer afraid of bees, but watching these scenes again still made me a little uneasy.

As made-for-TV movies go, The Savage Bees has its moments, but it has its weaknesses as well. Chief among them is the wooden performance of Ben Johnson, a usually dependable actor who, only a few short years before making this film, won an Academy Award for his turn in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Having seen him in that movie, as well as Dillinger, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, and, of course, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, I knew he favored a more laid-back approach (you could never accuse him of over-acting), but as the sheriff caught in the middle of a dangerous situation, Johnson is positively lifeless. In the end, though, it doesn’t detract from the film’s effectiveness. With a fair number of vicious bee attacks, shown in surprisingly graphic detail, The Savage Bees may just burn itself into your memory the same way it did mine.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

#1,277. Groundhog Day (1993)

Directed By: Harold Ramis

Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott

Tag line: "He's having the worst day of his life... over, and over..."

Trivia: Since this film's release, both Bill Murray and Harold Ramis have been honorary grand marshals for the Groundhog Day celebrations in Punxsutawney, PA

If I were to compile a list of Bill Murray’s best movies, Groundhog Day would be right near the top of it. 

Directed by Harold Ramis, this 1993 comedy / fantasy has Murray playing Phil, an arrogant, self-centered TV weatherman who has been sent to Punxsutawney, PA to cover the Groundhog Day festivities (which occur every year on Feb 2nd). 

Clearly, Phil believes this assignment is beneath his talents, and to make matters worse, a freak snowstorm rolls in, forcing him and his pretty producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell) to spend the night in Punxsutawney. 

Yet as bad as this day has been, things are about to get a whole lot messier for Phil, because when he wakes up the next morning, he discovers that it’s Groundhog Day once again! 

Trapped in some sort of time vortex, Phil finds himself continually re-living Groundhog Day, repeating the same experiences, meeting the same people, over and over again. He tries everything he can to break the cycle (even suicide), but to no avail. 

Convinced he’ll spend eternity in Punxsutawney on Feb. 2nd, Phil begins to despair. But is fate actually giving him a chance to become a better person, forcing him re-live Groundhog Day until he finally gets it right?

A comedy / fantasy with a fascinating premise, Groundhog Day invites its audience to ask themselves, “What would I do if I were living the same day over and over again?” 

Personally, if I found myself in that situation, I’d probably handle it in much the same way as Murray’s character. At first, Phil tries to make the best of his bizarre predicament. Sensing an opportunity, he approaches a pretty local girl (Marita Geraghty), asking her things like her name, what high school she went to, and who her 12th grade English teacher was. 

The next time he runs into the girl, she has no memory of this exchange, allowing Phil to use what he’s learned to pretend to be a former classmate, convincing her they’ve known each other for years. Before long, the two have hooked up for the evening. 

One of my favorite scenes in Groundhog Day has Phil walking off with several bags of money he’s just stolen from the back of an armored truck, doing so in the split second the guards are looking the other way (obviously, he’s been observing them for a while, allowing him to time his theft perfectly). 

Phil does eventually put his selfish nature aside to start helping others; another fun sequence has him rushing across town, first rescuing a boy who has fallen out of a tree and then performing the Heimlich maneuver to save Buster (Brian Doyle-Murray) when he’s choking on his dinner.

With Groundhog Day, Murray delivers one hell of a performance, flawlessly conveying the emotional ups and downs that go hand-in-hand with such an unusual chain of events. I can’t think of another actor who could have pulled it off as well. 

As good as he was in Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day features Bill Murray at his comedic best.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

#1,276. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Directed By: Mel Stuart

Starring: Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum

Tag line: "It's everybody's non-pollutionary, anti-institutionary, pro-confectionery factory of fun!"

Trivia: The chocolate river was made of real chocolate, water, and cream. It spoiled fairly quickly and left a foul smell

I count myself among those who prefer Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to Tim Burton’s 2005 “reimagining”, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Sure, Burton’s film may have been more faithful to Roald Dahl’s original story, but one thing it didn’t have was Gene Wilder, who in this ‘70s masterpiece delivers a tour-de-force performance as the incredibly odd title character.

Each and every day, young Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum) walks past the Wonka Chocolate Factory, which, despite being closed to the public for decades, is still producing delicious candy. According to Charlie’s Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson), the factory’s owner, Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder), grew tired of competitors trying to steal his top-secret recipes. As a result, he fired all of his employees and, to this day, refuses to let anyone inside. 

But that’s about to change. 

In a surprising move, the reclusive Willy Wonka announces he has hidden a golden ticket inside five of his world-famous Wonka chocolate bars, and those lucky enough to find one will be given a grand tour of his facility. 

The first four tickets are found by Augustus Gloop (Michael Bollner), a portly boy from Germany who loves to eat; American Violet Beauregard (Denise Nickerson), a wise-cracking pre-teen addicted to chewing gum; spoiled brat Veruca Salt (Julie Dawn Cole), whose rich father (Roy Kinnear) bought thousands of cases of Wonka bars to secure her a ticket; and Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen), who rarely looks away from his family’s television set. 

After some confusion due to a false claim, the 5th and final ticket is eventually uncovered by none other than Charlie Bucket, who, accompanied by his Grandpa Joe, joins the others as they make history, being the first people allowed inside the Wonka Chocolate factory in many, many years.

And what a magical place it is! 

Featuring everything from a chocolate river to geese that lay candy eggs, the Wonka factory is a veritable wonderland of sweets. What’s more, the entire facility is run by a race of green-skinned, orange-haired little people known as the Oompa-Loompas, who have a knack for breaking into song, making up clever lyrics on the spot. During the tour, some of the kids get into a bit of trouble (at one point, Augustus falls into the chocolate river and is sucked up by an enormous vacuum tube), after which the Oompa-Loompas belt out a tune, each with its own moral. When Veruca, after angrily demanding that Wonka turn over one of his geese that lay chocolate eggs, falls down a garbage chute, the Oompa-Loompas sing:

Who do you blame when your kid is a brat?
Pampered and spoiled like a Siamese cat?
Blaming the kids is a lie and a shame
You know exactly who's to blame…

The mother and the father

Director Mel Stuart and his team did a masterful job bringing Wonka's factory to life, and damn near every sequence features exciting visuals to spark your imagination. Tying it all together, though, is Gene Wilder’s near-perfect turn as the bizarre Willy Wonka, who at times is aloof, not to mention callous when it comes to the safety of his guests. When Veruca falls down the garbage chute, her father asks Wonka where it leads. “The furnace”, Wonka replies, matter-of-factly. Naturally, the distraught Mr. Salt panics, worried that his little girl is about to be burned to a crisp.  No, not necessarily", Wonka reassures him, "she could be stuck just inside the tube”. 

There’s a subtle sarcasm in nearly every line of dialogue Wilder utters, and he occasionally blurs the line between genius and madness, perfectly displayed in the famous Ferryboat sequence (which creeped me out when I was a kid). From the moment he first appears, walking deceptively slow out the factory’s front door, to the movie’s very dramatic finale, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory belongs to Gene Wilder, and he does wonders with it.

Admittedly, there are a few scenes in Burton’s 2005 version that I did enjoy; unlike the ’71 film, we get to see the kids after their unfortunate “accidents” as they leave the factory. But in the end, this most recent take on the story can’t hold a candle to the original. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a classic in every sense of the word.