Monday, March 31, 2014

#1,323. Here Comes Peter Cottontail (1971)

Directed By: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.

Starring: Danny Kaye, Casey Kasem, Vincent Price

Line from the Movie: "You've never heard of Peter Cottontail? Great chattering chick-chicks!"

Trivia: Originally airing on ABC in the U.S., the special moved to CBS in the years that followed its premiere

Narrated by Seymour S. Sassafras (Danny Kaye), Here Comes Peter Cottontail, a 1971 stop-motion TV special produced by Rankin-Bass, relates the story of how Peter Cottontail (Casey Kasem) became the Easter Bunny. It all started when Col. Wellington Bunny (Kaye again), the head honcho of April Valley, announced his retirement. He immediately offered the position to Peter, an appointment that was challenged by Irontail (Vincent Price), an evil bunny with an iron rattle where his tail used to be (he lost his real one in an accident involving a child on roller skates). To settle this dispute, a contest is held to see which rabbit, Peter or Irontail, can give away the most eggs on Easter morning. Unfortunately, Peter, who was out late the night before, sleeps right through Easter (the fact that Irontail tampered with his alarm clock didn’t help matters either), and as a result, Irontail is declared the winner, making him the new Easter Bunny.

All is not lost, however, because Seymour Sassafras has in his possession a time machine, which he calls the “Yester-Morrowbile”. Piloted by Antoine (Kaye yet again), a caterpillar with a French accent, the Yester-Morrowbile will carry Peter back to Easter morning, giving him another chance to compete against Irontail. Naturally, Irontail, who’s been spying on Peter, has no intention of allowing this plan to succeed, and sends his pet spider off to sabotage the Yester-Morrowbile, thus ensuring Peter will never get his second chance.

Here Comes Peter Cottontail is easily the finest “Non-Christmas” special Rankin-Bass ever produced, with Danny Kaye doing a good job in three separate roles and even belting out a song or two along the way (my favorite being the very catchy "If I Could Get Back to Yesterday"). Vincent Price is at his devilish best as Irontail, providing the story with a villain you enjoy rooting against, and as a kid I loved the entire sequence in the Yester-Morrowbile, where Peter and Antoine lose control and find themselves crash-landing in pretty much every Holiday except Easter, including Mother’s Day, the 4th of July, and even Christmas. Refusing to quit, Peter tries disguising his eggs so that he can give them away in whichever Holiday he happened to be in; during the 4th of July, he paints them red, white, and blue and tells a couple of kids they’re actually firecrackers!

Doing for Easter what Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer did for Christmas, Here Comes Peter Cottontail is a whole mess of fun.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

#1,322. The Time Machine (1960)

Directed By: George Pal

Starring: Rod Taylor, Alan Young, Yvette Mimieux

Tag line: "You Will Orbit into the Fantastic Future!"

Trivia: The "lava" that hits downtown was actually oatmeal with orange & red food coloring, which was then spilled onto a platform of miniatures to give the effect that it was slowly moving forward

Any list of great sci-fi movies that omits George Pal’s 1960 adventure The Time Machine is incomplete. Based on a story by H.G. Wells, The Time Machine is - if you’ll pardon the pun - a timeless classic.

New Year’s Eve, 1899. While hosting a dinner party for his friends, George (Rod Taylor), an inventor, unveils his newest creation: a machine he claims can travel through time. That night, after his guests have gone, George tests his machine and is shuttled into the future, where he witnesses the effects of two world wars and a nuclear holocaust, finally coming to a stop in the far-off year of 802,701. 

There, he encounters the Eloi, a peaceful race living in what seems like paradise. He falls in love with the beautiful Weena (Yvette Mimieux), but soon after discovers the Eloi are actually slaves of an underground species known as the Morlocks, who are using the Eloi as a food supply!

Rod Taylor delivers what is arguably his best performance as our hero, George, whose unbridled enthusiasm for traveling through time eventually gives way to despair, brought on by the realization that mankind’s future is every bit as war-ravaged as its past. Even a leap of over 800,000 years can’t escape a world torn apart by conflict, with the Eloi preyed upon by the savage Morlocks. 

To make matters worse, when George attempts to learn more about the Eloi through their written history, he finds every book still in existence is hundreds of thousands of years old, some dating back to the 19th century, the era in which his journey originated. For the well-educated George, a man driven by a thirst for knowledge, this discovery is the most devastating of all. The Eloi, man’s direct descendants, not only face a questionable future, but have absolutely no past of their own. Taylor perfectly conveys his character’s many emotions, and is equally as strong when the role becomes physically demanding (his fight against the Morlocks is one of the film’s most exciting sequences).

What I found truly fascinating about George’s expedition, though, was that neither he nor his machine ever actually moved from the spot where his journey began; regardless of how far into the future he went, George's machine remained, at all times, in the space his house once occupied. We even learn what happened to his abode when he makes a brief stop in 1966. Wandering out to the street, he meets the elderly James Filby (Alan Young), son of his good friend David (also played by Young), who warns him the city is about to be destroyed by a nuclear blast. 

Sure enough, George witnesses the horrific event, which causes a freak volcanic eruption, sending lava flowing his way. Rushing back to his machine, he again moves forward through time, and within moments his house is destroyed. When the lava hardens, it traps George and his machine in a darkness that lasts for several millennia. 

All of this is brought to life by way of some remarkable stop-motion photography, which, in essence, “speeds up” the world around George, allowing him to view future events in quick succession as he races through the centuries.

With movies like 1951’s When Worlds Collide and '53s The War of the Worlds , George Pal left an indelible mark on the science fiction genre. Yet of all the films he either produced or directed, The Time Machine is, in my opinion, his single greatest achievement.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

#1,321. Step Brothers (2008)

Directed By: Adam McKay

Starring: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen

Tag line: "They grow up so fast"

Trivia: Director Adam McKay's original intention was to make this movie a family drama

When their single parents tie the knot, 38-year-old Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell) and 40-year-old Dale Doback (John C. Reilly), both of whom are unemployed and still living at home, suddenly become step brothers, which makes neither one very happy. In fact, from the moment Brennan and his mom, Nancy (Mary Steenburgen), move in with Dale and his dad, Robert (Richard Jenkins), the two new siblings are at each other’s throats. Tensions continue to run high until the night Brennan’s younger brother, Derek (Adam Scott), pays them a visit. In a fit of anger, Dale punches the obnoxious Derek square in the face, at which point he and Brennan (who despises Derek) become the best of friends. They even decide to start up a business of their own, but when this new venture causes the destruction of Robert’s beloved boat, it leads to some domestic turmoil that may spell the end of Robert and Nancy’s brief marriage.

Make no mistake: 2008's Step Brothers is a crude, occasionally mean-spirited comedy, but then what else would you expect from a movie about a couple of middle-aged guys who act like pre-teens? In one of the film’s most outlandish sequences, Dale accuses Brennan of touching his drum set, which he had warned him never to do. Brennan denies doing so (despite the fact he actually did), and in a moment of anger marches upstairs and rubs his ballsack on Dale’s drums, leading to a violent confrontation that eventually spills into the front yard. To their credit, Ferrell and Reilly, who had worked together previously in 2006’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, manage to breathe life into two self-centered, socially backward characters that do more damage as best friends than they ever did as bitter enemies (the scene where they attempt to turn their single beds into bunk-beds is absolutely hilarious). Along with its leads, Step Brothers also features strong performances by Jenkins and Steenburgen as the far-too-tolerant parents who, over time, differ on how best to deal with their annoying offspring (Nancy remains supportive throughout, offering the boys emotional support every step of the way, whereas Robert would sooner toss them out on their ears than look at them).

At times vulgar and even repellent (I had to turn away when a playground bully made Brennan lick dog shit), Step Brothers is, thanks to the chemistry between Ferrell and Reilly, also very, very funny.

Friday, March 28, 2014

#1,320. The North Avenue Irregulars (1979)

Directed By: Bruce Bilson

Starring: Edward Herrmann, Barbara Harris, Susan Clark

Tag line: "What these ladies do to the mob is highly irregular!"

Trivia: This movie was released as Hill's Angels in the UK

In the late ‘70s, Disney live-action movies were all the rage, and my friends and I spent a lot of time talking about our favorites. One friend was blown away by Return to Witch Mountain, the sequel to 1975’s Escape from Witch Mountain, while another sang the praises of The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (an entertaining flick) and Unidentified Flying Oddball. As for me, I loved both The Black Hole (a sci-fi / adventure that was also Disney’s attempt to cash in on the Star Wars craze) and this film, 1979’s The North Avenue Irregulars, a comedy about a group of church ladies who decide to take on the mob.

Rev. Michael Hill (Edward Herrmann), the newly-appointed minister of the North Avenue Presbyterian church, declares war on illegal gambling when Delaney (Douglas Fowley), one of his parishioners, bets (and loses) $1,200 of the church’s money on a horse race. Before long, Rev. Hill is approached by two U.S. Treasury Agents: Marv (Michael Constantine) and Tom (Steve Franken), who ask for his help in recruiting a few local men willing to gather evidence against the gamblers. Fearing reprisals, not a single guy signs up, so Rev. Hill instead turns to five parish women: Jane (Karen Valentine); Vickie (Barbara Harris); Claire (Cloris Leachman); Rose (Patsy Kelly); and Cleo (Virginia Capers), all of whom are only too happy to assist. Even the church’s longtime secretary Anne (Susan Clark), who initially advised Rev. Hill not to get involved, joins up when the mob starts fighting back.

What makes The North Avenue Irregulars such a fun movie is its cast of characters. When he’s not fighting crime, Edward Herrmann’s Rev. Hill is both a loving father to his two kids (played by Linda Lee Lyons and Damon Bradley Raskin) and a forward-thinking minister who recruits a rock group (the stereotypically 70’s band, Strawberry Shortcake) to accompany the choir during services. As for the “Irregulars”, the standouts are Cloris Leachman as the prim and proper Claire, a woman with very long fingernails who has a bit of a crush on Rev. Hill; and Barbara Harris’s Vickie, a ditzy housewife who brings her kids, as well as the family dog, along on stakeouts. Also quite funny is Michael Constantine’s Marv, the Treasury Agent whose frustration soon gets the better of him (Her first time out, Jane identifies one of the mob’s bag men and begins to follow him. Using a CB radio, Marv, who set up headquarters in a motel room, asks Jane what direction the bag man is traveling in, to which she replies “He’s heading towards that new boutique”).

Back in ‘79, my father took my brother and me to see The North Avenue Irregulars, and as I recall, the entire theater (which, by the way, was jam-packed) had a great time watching it. Goofy enough for kids and with plenty of action to satisfy adults, The North Avenue Irregulars offers a little something for everyone.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

#1,319. The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Directed By: Wes Craven

Starring: Suze Lanier-Bramlett, Robert Houston, John Steadman

Tag line: "They burned the father, killed the mother, and raped the sister!"

Trivia: In an interview with star Suze Lanier-Bramlett she said that her agent strongly opposed her taking a role in the film fearing that it could ruin her career opportunities

Five years after he made his directorial debut with the savage The Last House on the Left, director Wes Craven delivered yet another brutal classic, The Hills Have Eyes, in which a typical American family is terrorized by a pack of ruthless, inbred monsters.

While on their way to Los Angeles, the Carter family of Cleveland, Ohio, which includes patriarch Bob (Russ Grieve); Ethel (Virginia Vincent), his wife of 25 years; and their kids: teenagers Bobby (Robert Houston) and Brenda (Susan Lanier) and eldest daughter Lynne (Dee Wallace), whose married to Doug (Martin Speer) and has a baby of her own, stops to refuel at a rundown gas station in the middle of the California desert. The proprietor, a haggard old man (John Steadman), advises Bob to turn around, warning there are dangers on the road ahead. Ignoring his pleas, Bob presses on, only to crash his car in the middle of nowhere. Leaving young Bobby behind to look after the women, Bob and Doug head in opposite directions, hoping to find someone who might be able to help. Unbeknownst to them, a family of vicious cannibals, headed by Jupiter (James Whitworth), has been watching, and is about to turn their cross-country trip into a living nightmare.

Part of what makes The Hills Have Eyes such a hard-hitting motion picture is the family at the center of it all. The Carters are a close-knit group, protected by Bob, a retired policeman, and held together by his deeply religious wife, Ethel. Craven allows us to spend some time with the Carters prior to the chaos, and as a result we grow to like them. Soon after the accident, Craven reveals just how much danger the Carters are in by way of a few POV shots, where we’re looking in on them through the cannibal’s eyes, watching from a distance as Ethel leads the family in prayer and listening as Jupiter’s son, Mars (Lance Gordon) radios in to his brothers Pluto (Michael Berryman) and Mercury (Arthur King), telling them “They’re easy pickins now” once Bob and Doug leave the others behind. I found these scenes particularly disturbing, yet they pale in comparison to what happens when the sun goes down, at which point Jupiter and his clan descends upon the unsuspecting family, a sequence that feels like a punch to the gut mostly because Craven forces us to watch every single moment of the carnage.

Playing on our basic fear of isolation and featuring moments of brutality sure to turn your stomach, The Hills Have Eyes is every bit as essential to the genre as Craven’s mainstream masterworks, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, and is a film that all horror fans should experience at least once.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

#1,318. Gangs of New York (2002)

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Daniel Day-Lewis

Tag line: "America Was Born In The Streets"

Trivia: Martin Scorsese hired "The Magician", an Italian man famous for a 30-year career as a pickpocket, to teach Cameron Diaz about the art of picking pockets

Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is a hard-hitting period piece, an engaging look at New York during the days of the U.S. Civil War, one of the most tumultuous eras in the city’s history.

Gangs of New York is also a very ambitious film. In fact, I’d argue it’s a bit too ambitious for it's own good.

We begin in 1846, when two opposing gangs: the Natives, under the command of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis); and the Dead Rabbits, led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), face off against one another in an area of the city known as the “Five Points”. The fight concludes when Bill, a bigoted nationalist whose ultimate goal is to keep immigrants from entering the United States, kills the Irish-born Vallon, an incident witnessed by Vallon’s young son, Amsterdam. 

Sixteen years pass, and a now-adult Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) leaves the orphanage where he was raised and returns to the Five Points, where he wins the favor of Bill the Butcher (who doesn’t recognize him) and falls in love with a pretty prostitute named Jenny (Cameron Diaz). 

Before long, Bill looks upon Amsterdam as if he were his own son. As for Amsterdam, he’s biding his time, waiting for the perfect moment to avenge his father and strike Bill down.

One of the major strengths of Gangs of New York is how it captures the look and feel of the city’s Five Points district in the mid-19th century, which, by all accounts, was a dirty, run-down slum where whores, pickpockets, and gang members gathered on a daily basis. Dante Feretti, who also worked with Scorsese on the sumptuously beautiful The Age of Innocence, handled the Production Design, aided by Costume Designer Sandy Powell (Rob Roy, Shakespeare in Love) and Set Designer Francesca Lo Schiavo (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Interview with the Vampire). Together, they and Scorsese recreate an area of New York that, prior to this movie, only existed in history books, bringing it to life in a most convincing way.

Equally as impressive is the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as William Cutting, aka Bill the Butcher, who rules the Five-Points with an iron fist. Preaching America for Americans, he and his gang of Natives often shout insults at the Irish and other minorities. What’s more, Bill is a cold-blooded killer, an expert with a knife who never backs down from a fight. Yet, despite his violent nature, Bill is also a man of honor, a warrior who adheres to the ancient code of combat. We get a glimpse of both sides of Bill in the opening battle against Priest Vallon, when he dispatches his opponent in brutal fashion, then cradles the injured man's head as he dies, promising Priest (whom he respects immensely) that his pain will soon be over. 

The entire cast is strong, especially DiCaprio (in his first of several collaborations with Scorsese) as the young man seeking vengeance, and Jim Broadbent, who portrays the corrupt Boss Tweed as a very likable crook. But the film’s energy level increases tenfold whenever Bill the Butcher is on-screen. A tremendous actor, Day-Lewis is one of the few three-time Academy-Award winners who probably deserves twice that number of Oscars.

Where Gangs of New York falters is its scope, trying to jam far too much into 168 minutes. There were thousands of stories floating around the city during the days of the Civil War, and Scorsese seems intent on telling all of them at once. Many of these tales: the formation of the gangs; the role of the Police and Fire departments in the Five Points district; the political corruption of Boss Tweed; the racial bigotry; the draft riots, are, indeed, fascinating. Any one of these topics would have made an excellent film in its own right. Thrown together in the same picture, none (or, to be fair, few) get the full attention they deserve.

The fact that Gangs of New York, in spite of over-reaching, comes so close to greatness is a testament to its director, as well as the cast and crew he gathered around him.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

#1,317. Diamonds are Forever (1971)

Directed By: Guy Hamilton

Starring: Sean Connery, Jill St. John, Charles Gray

Tag line: "The man who made 007 a household number"

Trivia: The original plot had Auric Goldfinger's twin as the villain, seeking revenge for the death of his brother

The last “official” Bond movie to star Sean Connery (he would return to the role of 007 in 1983’s Never Say Never Again, a remake of Thunderball released not by Eon Productions, but Warner Bros., setting it apart from the rest of the series), 1971’s Diamonds are Forever has a few interesting moments, yet is undermined by a complex plot, a lack of action, and a tone that borders on the silly.

After hunting down his arch-nemesis, Ernst Blofeld (Charles Gray), Britain’s top secret agent, James Bond (Connery), is assigned to investigate a diamond smuggling operation. Assuming the identity of Peter Franks, a known smuggler, Bond heads to Amsterdam where he meets up with Tiffany Case (Jill St. John), who has a large shipment of diamonds headed for California. Aided by his C.I.A. pal, Felix Leiter (Norman Burton), Bond successfully smuggles the diamond into America and immediately hides them. Following a run-in with a couple of hired assassins named Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover) and Mr. Kidd (Putter Smith), 007 makes his way to Las Vegas, where he hooks up with Tiffany Case, who helps him figure out the identity of the “interested party” attempting to buy the diamonds. To his surprise, Bond finds himself facing off against an old nemesis, with the fate of the world once again resting on his shoulders.

Despite the fact he looks noticeably older (even older than he did in You Only Live Twice), Connery is still excellent as Bond, handling the character’s now-familiar personality traits (suavely sophisticated one minute, ready for a fight the next) to perfection. Jill St. John does an adequate job as 007’s lady-of-the-moment, though her character’s flighty nature earns her a place as one of the series’ more forgettable Bond Girls (I found Tiffany’s ineffectiveness in the movie’s final scenes particularly frustrating). As for the villains, Charles Gray is fine as Blofeld, and unlike a good many people I didn’t have a problem with Wint and Kidd, Blofeld’s henchmen who are more than simply partners in crime (the various methods they use to eliminate a target, such as dropping a scorpion down the back of an intended victim, keeps things interesting). Country music singer (and sausage king) Jimmy Dean goes way over-the-top in his brief appearance as billionaire Willard Whyte, but I have to admit I got a kick out of his character, too.

What ultimately hurt Diamonds are Forever isn’t its characters, but the film’s overall story, which (at the outset, anyway) I had a hard time following. A lot of people are part of this diamond ring, and, admittedly, I couldn’t keep track of them all (seeing as a good number appear on-screen for about a minute, then turn up dead in the very next scene, I have no idea why the filmmakers included so many in the first place). Unlike the other movies in the series, Diamonds are Forever is also short on action, feeling more like a suspense/thriller about jewel thieves than a Bond picture. That’s not to say it’s devoid of thrills; the pre-title sequence, where 007 is hunting down Blofeld, gets the film off to a promising start, and the car chase through the streets of Las Vegas is a high point. I also enjoyed Bond’s battle against a couple of babes known only as Bambi (Lola Larson) and Thumper (Trina Parks), whose acrobatic moves made them tough to beat. But aside from these scenes and a handful of others (including the now-standard final attack on the villain’s lair), Diamonds are Forever is sorely lacking in the action department.

What’s more, Diamonds are Forever is, at times, damn goofy. Trying to track down the stolen diamonds, Bond masquerades as a scientist in one of Willard Whyte’s laboratories (where he’s convinced the jewels are being held). Once his cover is blown, he attempts to escape by way of a mock lunar module, which he finds on a sound stage where a phony moon landing is being filmed. The sight of 007 busting through a wall in this strange vehicle is bad enough, but he looks even more ridiculous when, later in the scene, he hops aboard a 3-wheel dune buggy and speeds off into the desert. Sequences like this would become commonplace in Roger Moore’s Bond adventures, which favored a lighter, humorous tone, but to see Connery driving around in these clumsy vehicles was, to put it bluntly, a total embarrassment.

After a string of excellent films (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball), Sean Connery ended his run as James Bond in less-than-stellar fashion with You Only Live Twice and this movie. The time had come for another actor to tackle the role (aside from George Lazenby, who, after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, gracefully walked away from the part), and that actor was Roger Moore.

… To be continued next month, when James Bond returns in Live and Let Die.

Monday, March 24, 2014

#1,316. Family Guy Presents It's a Trap (2010)

Directed By: Peter Shin

Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein, Seth Green

Line from the Movie: "I know that laugh. It's the 7-Up guy!"

Trivia: Yoda's death scene, in which he continually says "Luke" to tell him more and more sage advice, is a direct send-up of a scene from Sharky's Machine

Seth MacFarlane and company bring their take on the Star Wars saga to a close with It’s a Trap, a spoof of 1983’s Return of the Jedi.

Those familiar with Blue Harvest and Something Something Something Dark Side, the first two chapters in the trilogy, will know the set-up: The Griffin family, along with other characters from The Family Guy, assume the roles of Luke (portrayed by Chris Griffin), Leia (Lois), Han (Peter), Chewbacca (Brian the Dog), Darth Vader (Stewie), and the rest of the Star Wars gang. After freeing Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hut (played by the Griffin’s neighbor, Joe), our heroes set to work trying to destroy the new Death Star, which is still under construction. What’s more, they discover the Emperor himself (Lois’ father, Carter Pewterschmidt) is on-board, inspecting the enormous station. While Han and Lois attempt to disable the station’s force field on the nearby Moon of Endor, Luke heads to the Death Star to confront his father, Darth Vader, and the Emperor, both of whom try to convince the young Jedi to join the Dark Side, all as an armada of rebel ships, under the command of Lando Calrissian (Mort), prepare to attack. Also along for the ride are a few characters from MacFarlane’s other animated series: American Dad (Roger the Alien as Moff Jerjerrod, Klaus the Fish as Admiral Ackbar) and The Cleveland Show (Tim the Bear plays an Ewok, while Rollo is a rebel pilot).

As with the first two entries, It’s a Trap looks damn good, recreating many images from Return of the Jedi to perfection, right down to the unfinished Death Star. That said, this final chapter isn’t nearly as funny as its predecessors. In fact, I only laughed a handful of times. The problem, I think, is the writers weren’t big fans of Return of the Jedi, and unlike Blue Harvest and Something Something Something Dark Side, which paid homage to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, respectively, as they were spoofing them, It’s a Trap is short on love for the original film. In the very first sequence, when the lights go out while the Griffins are watching TV, Stewie inquires “We’re doing Jedi now, aren’t we?” at which point Peter sighs and says ”Let’s just get through this”. Then, during the opening scroll, as we’re being updated on the story thus far, we read the following: “Okay, you know what, we don't care. We were thinking of not even doing this one. Fox made us do it.” Throughout the entirety of It’s a Trap, you get the distinct feeling its creators just didn’t have their hearts in it.

The movie isn’t a total wash-out; again, it looks great, and a few scenes, like when the Emperor electrocutes a couple of kids as he's floating in a pool, are pretty funny. But It’s a Trap is definitely missing the love, and as a result is the least entertaining of the trilogy.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

#1,315. House of 1000 Corpses (2003)

Directed By: Rob Zombie

Starring: Sid Haig, Karen Black, Bill Moseley, Sheri Moon Zombie

Tag line: "True Horror Is Back!"

Trivia: Filmed in 2000, but wasn't released until three years later

For about seven years now, House of 1000 Corpses and its sequel The Devil’s Rejects have been my “Halloween” films, the movies I watch when the big day finally arrives (technically, I suppose House of 1000 Corpses is my “Halloween Eve” tradition, seeing as I watch it on the 30th. Then, once the trick-or-treaters have stopped ringing my doorbell on Halloween night, I pop in The Devil’s Rejects to close out the evening). 

Released in 2003 (though shot in 2000), House of 1000 Corpses was Rob Zombie’s first feature-length directorial effort, a movie that pays homage to the films of the ‘70s and does so with a style that’s as unique as it is engaging.

The date is October 30, 1977. Jerry (Chris Hardwick) and Bill (Rainn Wilson) are on a road trip, seeking out unusual roadside attractions for a new book they’re working on. Joined by their girlfriends, Denise (Erin Daniels) and Mary (Jennifer Jostyn), the pals eventually pull into a gas station / “Museum of Monsters and Madmen” owned and operated by a guy in clown make-up named Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig). 

While there, Jerry and Bill learn about a local legend, that of a surgeon nicknamed “Dr. Satan” who was hanged for conducting a series of illegal - and often brutal - experiments on his patients. While searching for the spot where Dr. Satan was supposedly executed, the four pick up Baby (Sherri Moon-Zombie), a beautiful hitch-hiker. 

Thus begins a night of terror in which Jerry, Bill, Denise, and Mary are abducted and tortured by Baby’s “family”, a collection of very strange, very dangerous individuals, the most lethal of whom is Otis Driftwood (Bill Moseley), a struggling “artist” who specializes in pain.

Simply put, House of 1000 Corpses messed with my head, which I’m guessing is exactly the effect it had on the executives at Universal; after viewing the film, the studio, which had initially financed House of 1000 Corpses, feared it would receive an NC-17 rating from the MPAA and refused to release it (Zombie eventually bought the movie back from them, and then sold it to Lions Gate Entertainment). 

Part of what I love about House of 1000 Corpses is its unpredictability, something it has in common with Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. After opening with a great scene in which Sid Haig’s Captain Spaulding thwarts a couple of would-be thieves (Chad Bannon and David Reynolds), our twenty-something protagonists are treated to a carnival-like ride through a bizarre serial-killer “museum”.  From there, the four meet up with Sherri Moon-Zombie’s Baby, who takes them home with her. 

It’s at this point that House of 1000 Corpses spirals into pure insanity, culminating in a final sequence that is, quite frankly, too disturbing for words. 

The movie’s constantly twisting story is enhanced by Zombie’s distinctive visual style, with split-screens, flash cuts, a bit of slow-motion, and a number of brief asides giving the film an energy that is positively exhilarating.

While 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects is, on a technical level, the better of the two (and is a tremendous film in its own right), I find I actually prefer House of 1000 Corpses. A wild, highly-stylized descent into madness, House of 1000 Corpses grabbed hold of me in its very first scene, and lingered in my mind for days afterwards.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

#1,314. Pufnstuf (1970)

Directed By: Hollingsworth Morse

Starring: Jack Wild, Billie Hayes, Martha Raye

Tag line: "A Wizard of Oz-like Fantasy!"

Trivia: The movie was financed by Universal Pictures and Kellogg's Cereal, the latter of which was a sponsor of the television show it was based on

Ah, Sid and Mart Krofft! In my opinion, these two brothers were the kings of ‘70s children’s television. Seeing as I was the perfect age when they first aired, I rarely missed an opportunity to watch one of their many series, which included Sigmund the Sea Monster, Land of the Lost, and the one that inspired this film, H.R. Pufnstuf.

Released in 1970 (a year after H.R. Pufnstuf debuted), Pufnstuf is an extended origin story, going back to the beginning to show us, in greater detail, how a boy named Jimmy (Jack Wild) found his way to Living Island, a place populated by dragons, witches, and other such oddities. Shortly after he’s thrown out of his school’ band, Jimmy discovers that his beloved flute can talk (voiced by Joan Gerber). Together, Jimmy and his flute, named “Freddy”, hop on a magical boat that whisks them away to Living Island. What they don’t know is the boat actually belongs to the evil witch, Witchipoo (Billie Hayes), who wants to steal Freddy the Flute from Jimmy. Rescued by H.R Pufnstuf (Roberto Gamonet), a dragon who also happens to be the mayor of Living Island, Jimmy makes his way to the center of town, where he’s befriended by a variety of creatures, all of whom work together to keep Freddy from falling into Witchipoo’s hands. But with the Boss Witch (Martha Raye) promising her the title “Witch of the Year” if she captures Freddy, Witchipoo devises a diabolical plan that, if successful, will put Jimmy, H.R., and all of Living Island in the greatest of danger.

A few years ago, I picked up a DVD set that contains one episode from each of the Krofft brother’s various series, and as I was watching H.R. Pufnstuf with my kids, my oldest son asked me a question that would have never dawned on me when I was his age: “Were they high when they made this thing?” Considering the time period in which it was produced, and taking into account the bizarre shit that usually went down on Living Island, I didn’t have to think long before answering, “Yeah, they probably were”. Like some of the Krofft’s other shows, including The Bugaloos (starring four teens as a group of singing mosquitoes) and Lidsville (in which a teenage Butch Patrick, aka Eddie Munster from The Munsters, ends up in a strange world where he’s regularly attacked by the evil Charles Nelson Reilly, who glides through the air in an overgrown top hat), H.R. Pufnstuf played out like an acid trip, a sensation that carried over to the movie as well. Instead of a broom, Witchipoo flies around on a “Vroom Broom”, complete with an outboard motor, steering wheel, and sidecar in the shape of a bathtub. Pufnstuf also features a number of musical sequences, with Freddy and H.R. belting out tunes like “Pufnstuf” and “If I Could” while backed up a living grandfather clock; a family of walking, talking trees; and a slew of others. To add to the insanity, Cass Elliott of the Mamas and the Papas makes an appearance as Witch Hazel, an adversary of Witchipoo’s (Mama Cass even gets to sing a song, titled “Different”).

Were the writers high? What do you think?

In all honesty, I was never a big a fan of H.R. Pufnstuf (the flute’s squeaky voice used to get on my nerves). My two favorites Krofft shows, aside from Land of the Lost (which everyone seemed to love), were The Far Out Space Nuts, with Bob Denver (Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island) and comedian Chuck McCann as janitors who, while cleaning a NASA-style rocket ship, accidentally blast off into space; and The Lost Saucer, starring Jim Nabors and Ruth Buzzi as a couple of interstellar androids who, joined by a young boy (Jarrod Johnson) and his babysitter (Alice Playten), get into all sorts of mischief. That said, I’m familiar enough with H.R. Pufnstuf to have gotten a real kick out of this movie.

A reminder of a simpler time, when some drugs were still in their experimental phase, Pufnstuf is like a hallucinogenic-fueled walk down memory lane.

Friday, March 21, 2014

#1,313. The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (1977)

Directed By: Michael Pressman

Starring: William Devane, Jackie Earle Haley, Clifton James

Tag line: "The Bad News Bears are one year older and one year wilder"

Trivia: Brett Marx, who plays Jimmy, is the grandson of Gummo Marx, a brother of the Marx Brothers

Walter Matthau is out. So is Tatum O’Neal. With the two main stars of The Bad News Bears, Michael Ritchie’s 1976 box-office hit, failing to return for the sequel, 1977’s The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training instead throws the spotlight on the team itself, with decidedly mixed results.

Thanks to their championship run the year before, the Bears, the pride of the North Valley Little League, are invited to play an exhibition game at the Houston Astrodome, where they’ll face off against the undefeated local team, the Toros. The winner will then travel to Japan for yet another big game, but before the Bears can even think about getting their passports in order, they have to find a new coach. Having driven away Buttermaker’s replacement, the hard-nosed Coach Manning (Dolph Sweet), the kids turns to their star player, Kelly Leak (Jackie Earle-Haley), for advice. After recruiting a new pitcher, Carmen Ronzonni (Jimmy Baio), Kelly “borrows” a van and personally drives the team from California to Texas. Once in Houston, Kelly pays a visit to his estranged father, Mike (William Devane), who he hasn’t seen in eight years. With the Bears still in need of a coach, he convinces his dad to take the position, but can Kelly put aside the anger he feels towards his old man long enough to win the big game?

Most of the young actors from The Bad News Bears are back for the sequel, with only the role of the portly catcher, Englebert, being re-cast (Supposedly, Gary Lee Cavagnaro, who played Englebert in The Bad News Bears, lost a bunch of weight right after making that film, leaving the producers with no choice but to recruit a new young actor, Jeffrey Louis Starr, for the part). Some of the kids get a chance to expand their characters this time around. The foul-mouthed Tanner (Chris Barnes) has become good friends with Timmy Lupus (Quinn Smith), the awkward teammate who made a game-saving catch in the championship against the Yankees. Because Lupus has a broken leg, he can’t make the trip to Houston, so Tanner keeps him informed of what’s going on with a steady stream of postcards from the road (after seeing Knute Rockne All American one night on TV, Tanner also decides to dedicate the Houston game to the injured Lupus, who he starts calling “The Big Looper”). As the new pitcher, Jimmy Baio’s Carmen has plenty of personality (even if his baseball skills are somewhat suspect), and once in Houston, we learn a little more about Kelly’s past when he goes to meet his father, who, after almost a decade, doesn’t recognize him.

The problem, though, is that the first half of The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, when the team is driving to Texas, is far too unfocused, and without an adult to play off of, many of the jokes fall flat. The movie also seems to forget that, by the end of The Bad News Bears, the Bears were actually playing well. During a stop-over in New Mexico, the team is challenged to a sandlot scrimmage, where they commit dozens of errors, as if they all suddenly forgot how to play baseball. Sure, most of the problem is with Carmen, who can’t find the plate, but that doesn’t explain why Tanner, Ahmad (Erin Blunt) and Toby (David Stambaugh) can’t catch a ball to save their lives.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training does improve with the addition of William Devane, who’s convincing as both the team’s new coach, giving the kids valuable pointers to improve their play, and the imperfect father that abandoned his family years ago, leaving 5-year-old Kelly with nothing but a blue bike to remember him. Devane’s understated performance, combined with the film’s best sequence: the big game in the Astrodome, snatches The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training from the jaws of mediocrity, and does so without a moment to spare.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

#1,312. Deck Dogz (2005) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Steve Pasvolsky

Starring: Sean Kennedy, Richard Wilson, Ho Thi Lu

Tag line: "Make your own reality"

Trivia: This movie grossed $286,708 at the box office in its native Australia

Here’s a movie that took me completely by surprise!

Three skateboarding friends: Spasm (Sean Kennedy), Poker (Richard Wilson), and Blue Flame (Ho Thi Lu) - who call themselves the “Deck Dogz” - have a knack for getting into trouble. The day after they’re arrested for skateboarding on public property (for which they have to come up with $10,000 to pay for the damages), the trio is expelled from school for causing a disturbance. As a result, Spasm’s dad (Anthony Cogin), a single father, forbids his son to hang around with his two best pals.

But with the Beach Bowl skate competition only a few days away, an event that’s going to be officiated by skateboard legend Tony Hawk (playing himself), Spasm, who’s been working on a new move that could land him a sponsorship, joins up with Poker and Blue Flame, and the three skate all the way to Sydney.

With the law a few short steps behind, the friends try to stay out of sight. But Despite their best efforts, trouble always seems to track them down.

I picked up Deck Dogz, a 2005 Australian import, a week ago for my youngest son, and didn’t hold out much hope that I would enjoy the film. He usually asks me to watch these sports flicks with him, and sometimes they're a real chore to sit through. I’m a fan of Lords of Dogtown, but there’s more to that movie than skateboarding.

As it turns out, there’s more to Deck Dogz as well. In fact, the film’s three lead characters are its strongest element. All are portrayed with gusto by the young stars. I was especially impressed with Richard Wilson’s performance as Poker, the leader of the group and the one who usually gets them into hot water. They do occasionally break the law; one night, Poker and Blue Flame break into school to steal back Spasm’s skateboard, which their principle had confiscated, and in the process accidentally start a fire that destroys half the building. Yet I still found myself rooting for these kids, who always have each others' backs.

Stylishly directed by Steven Pasvolsky, Deck Dogz features quick cuts, a hard rocking soundtrack, some cool animated sequences, and a handful of quirky elements (whenever Poker loses his temper, an alarm sounds and a red “F” button starts blinking in the middle of his forehead), all of which lift the film to another level. And seeing as my son absolutely loved it, I’m guessing Deck Dogz is gonna become a fixture around these parts!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

#1,311. Night of the Ghouls (1959)

Directed By: Edward D. Wood Jr.

Starring: Kenne Duncan, Duke Moore, Tor Johnson

Trivia: Tor Johnson reprises his "Lobo" role from Wood's 1955 film, Bride Of The Monster

For me, discovering an Ed Wood movie I’ve never seen before is like finding a cool prize at the bottom of a cereal box: you know it’s not going to be a quality product, but it makes you smile all the same. Well, that’s the exact feeling I had watching Wood’s 1959 opus, Night of the Ghouls. The story goes that, because Wood was unable to pay the processing fee, the lab that worked on Night of the Ghouls held it for ransom until 1984, when film archivist Wade Williams finally paid the bill and became the movie’s new owner. I’m awfully glad he did, too, because Night of the Ghouls is just as terrible, and therefore just as entertaining, as the other classically bad movies in Wood’s filmography.

While out driving one evening, an elderly farmer (Harvey B. Dunn) and his wife (Margaret Mason) have a run-in with a mysterious woman in white (Valda Hansen), who’s wandering in the woods near the old Varnoff house (Dr. Varnoff was Bela Lugosi’s character in Bride of the Monster, making Night of the Ghouls a sequel of sorts to that film). Convinced they’ve seen a ghost, the couple rushes off to the police station to report it, and because he was involved in the Varnoff incident a few years back, Lt. Bradford (Duke Moore) is assigned to the case. Accompanied by the reluctant Officer Kelton (Paul Marco), Bradford heads out to the old Varnoff house, which is now owned by a psychic named Dr. Acula (Kenne Duncan), who cons rich widows out of their inheritance. Yet, despite the fact Dr. Acula (get it…. DR. ACULA!) is a fraud, Bradford does encounter a few real-life horrors during his investigation, including Varnoff’s now-deformed assistant, Lobo (Tor Johnson), and an actual ghost in the form of a woman in black (Jeannie Stevens).

Night of the Ghouls has everything that makes an Ed Wood picture such a fun watch, and even references some of his earlier works. The movie is introduced and narrated by Criswell, who served the same function in Plan 9 from Outer Space, and his dialogue here is every bit as hyperbolic as it was in that film (“Monsters to be pitied! Monsters to be despised!”). Another Wood regular, Tor Johnson, plays Lobo, the same character he portrayed in Bride of the Monster (this time around, his face is deformed, and to my surprise, the make-up job they did on him was pretty impressive). Wood’s penchant for ridiculously over-dramatic dialogue, a staple of each and every one of his movies, runs rampant in Night of the Ghouls; when the elderly couple is at the police station reporting the ghost, the husband suddenly blurts out “It was a nightmare of horror!” And if you thought the cockpit of the plane in Plan 9 from Outer Space represented the low point of set design in an Ed Wood picture, just wait until you get a load of this film’s police station, which looks like a basement rec room save a single picture on the wall with the word “WANTED” stapled to the top of it (the picture they used is actually a publicity still of director Ed Wood).

But then, the police in this movie don’t deserve much better. In fact, aside from Criswell and Lobo, the most recognizable character in Night of the Ghouls is Officer Kelton, portrayed by longtime Wood associate Paul Marco, who played the same role in both Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space (Wood allegedly referred to the three movies as his “Kelton Trilogy”). A whiny little bitch, Kelton is arguably the worst cop ever depicted on film, a sniveling coward whose sole purpose is to add a bit of comic relief. But with material as hilarious as this film’s séance sequence (perhaps the strangest séance in cinematic history), Officer Kelton’s antics fall way short of the mark.

When it comes to director Ed Wood, the term “So Bad It’s Good” isn’t so much a description as it is its own genre. In films like Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and Night of the Ghouls, Wood’s complete lack of talent was rivaled only by his unbridled enthusiasm for making movies. I’m sure there are some who think Ed Wood should have never been allowed near a film set, and based on the quality of his work it’s hard to argue with them. Personally, his pictures have given me hours of enjoyment, and I’m holding out hope that, at some point during my lifetime, a “Lost” Ed Wood film will be discovered.

Ed Wood should have never directed movies”? Hell, I wish he made more!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

#1,310. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007)

Directed By: Yves Simoneau

Starring: Aidan Quinn, Adam Beach, August Schellenberg

Tag line: "The Epic Fall of the American Indian"

Trivia: This movie was nominated for 17 Primetime Emmy Awards, winning six of them

Based on the book by Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a 2007 Made-for-TV movie, chronicles the downfall of the American Indian, beginning with the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 and concluding in 1890 with the Massacre at Wounded Knee, one of darkest days in U.S. History.

As the movie opens, the Battle of Little Bighorn is in full swing, yet despite their eventual victory over Gen George Armstrong Custer and his men, many Sioux realize their way of life is coming to an end. Chief Red Cloud (Gordon Tootoosis) and his people surrender their weapons and agree to live on the Dakota reservation, while fellow Chief Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg), who refuses to give up, instead takes his tribe north to Canada. But as the harsh winter sets in, many of Sitting Bull’s followers express a desire to return home. Reluctantly, the great Chief leads them back to America, where he finds life on the reservation near intolerable.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee also follows the story of a young Sioux named Ohiyesa (Chevez Ezaneh), who, after the Battle of Little Bighorn, was taken from his tribe by his father, a recent convert to Christianity. Forced to attend a white school, the boy had to give up his Sioux name in exchange for a Christian one, and after some resistance chose to be called “Charles Eastman”. After completing medical school, Eastman (played as an adult by Adam Beach) assists Massachusetts Senator Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn) in his attempt to pass a bill designed to help the American Indian adjust to life on the reservation. But when his close friend Elaine Goodale (Anna Paquin), a teacher working with the Sioux, informs him that disease and starvation are running rampant, Eastman heads west, opening up a medical practice on the Dakota reservation. Shortly after his arrival, Eastman begins to wonder if Sen. Dawes’ legislation truly had the American Indian’s best interests in mind.

Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee recreates the tragedy of the Native American experience by focusing on its two main characters. As played by August Schellenberg, Sitting Bull is a proud, occasionally stubborn Chief, a man who held out as long as he could before taking his place on the reservation (when turning over his rifle, he makes it a point to say that he was the last Sioux chief to do so). Because he’s so revered by his people, Sitting Bull poses a threat to the authority of the local Government official, James McLaughlin (J.K. Simmons), who does everything he can to put the popular Chief in his place. Through it all, Sitting Bull continues to speak his mind, and quickly learns that the U.S. Government doesn’t tolerate “troublemakers” for very long.

On the other side of the coin is Ohiyesa / Charles Eastman, the Sioux child raised among whites. After helping Sen. Dawes, he witnesses, first-hand, the effect this legislation has on the Sioux people, and regrets the role he played in getting it passed. Yet, despite the empathy he feels for them, Eastman has a hard time relating to his fellow American Indians, most of whom consider him more a white man than one of their own. Having experienced the two worlds, Charles Eastman ultimately finds himself a stranger in both.

A reminder of a terrible period in this country’s history, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, while beautifully shot and expertly acted, is nonetheless a very difficult film to watch.

Monday, March 17, 2014

#1,309. I, Madman (1989)

Directed By: Tibor Takacs

Starring: Jenny Wright, Clayton Rohner, Randall William Cook

Tag line: "Lose Yourself in a Good Book"

Trivia: Jenny Wright was nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Actress for ther turn in this movie

Normally, by the time a movie is over, I have a fairly good idea of whether it worked for me or not, but when the final credits rolled on 1989’s I, Madman, I admit I was stumped; there were things I definitely liked about the movie, yet some elements were so bad that I couldn’t possibly justify them. So, after turning it over and over in my head, I came to the following conclusion: I’m not sorry I watched I, Madman, but I can’t, in good conscience, recommend it to others.

Virginia (Jenny Wright), a part-time actress who works at a second-hand bookstore, loves reading horror novels, and has been trying to track down a copy of I, Madman, a book written by her new favorite author, Malcolm Brand. One evening, she finds the book sitting at the front door of her apartment, though she has no idea who left it there. Her boyfriend, Richard (Clayton Rphner), a police detective, tries to get Virginia (who scares very easily) to stop reading these “trashy” novels, yet despite his warnings, she can’t put I, Madman down, and carries it with her everywhere she goes. But when a mysterious killer with a deformed face (Randall William Cook), who bears a strong resemblance to a character in I, Madman, mistakes Virginia for his estranged lover, it leads to a murder spree that baffles the police, and has Virginia running for her life.

I had several issues with I, Madman, starting with a rather unfortunate bit of stop-motion animation, which is featured in the opening sequence. I won’t get into specifics, because this scene has its moments, but I was taken out of it completely the second the stop-motion came into play. Still, this is a minor quibble (and, to be honest, the animation, while not good, wasn’t the worst I’d ever seen). The film’s portrayal of a police precinct, populated by detectives who barely look the part, is yet another of I, Madman’s failings, but the movie’s biggest problem, and the one that ultimately dooms it to mediocrity, is the performance of Jenny Wright, who’s incredibly bland and lifeless as the heroine, Virginia. There wasn’t a single scene in I, Madman where I was convinced she was scared, and she’s even less believable later in the film when her character is in full detective mode, trying to figure out where the killer will strike next. Personally, I don’t think Ms. Wright was leading lady material; she had very minor roles in Pink Floyd the Wall and The World According to Garp, and did a fine job in both those movies. As the focal point of I, Madman, Ms. Wright gives off a distinct “deer in the headlights” vibe, as if she knew she was in way over her head.

It’s a shame, too, when you consider how strong Randall William Cook is as the movie’s villain. Hidden behind layers of make-up (which also looks pretty damn good), Cook gives you the creeps every time he sneaks out of the shadows, whether he reveals his hideous deformity or not, and even though I found his character somewhat repulsive (which was obviously the point), the movie’s energy level spikes whenever he’s on-screen. It was Cook’s performance, as well as his character’s back story (he sliced his face to shreds, and is using the body parts of his victims to try and reconstruct it), that impressed me the most. Unfortunately, Mr. Cook isn’t around nearly as much as Ms. Wright, and as a result, I, Madman never reaches the heights it might have had another actress played the lead.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

#1,308. Fighting the War (1916)

Directed By: Donald C. Thompson

Trivia: This film features actual World War I footage, shot during the Battle of Verdun

The other day, I was looking through the DVD racks in my office when I came across one I had completely forgotten about titled World War I Films of the Silent Era. I’d picked this up, real cheap, a while back at a local church flea market, but never got around to watching it. On the back cover, it lists the DVDs contents, with a quick description of each of the films, and the moment I read what it had to say about Fighting the War, a 1916 documentary short photographed by American Donald C. Thompson, I knew I had to see it immediately.

Shot between February and June of 1916, Fighting the War contains actual footage of World War I, following the French Army as it marches in formation, deals with life in the trenches, and fights against the Germans (at the time, the French were on the Western Front, engaged in the Battle of Verdun). Along with the ground war, the movie also takes to the skies, providing an aerial view of the battlefield and concluding with a dogfight between German and French planes, which Thompson shot, close-up, while in an aircraft of his own!

More an archive of moving images than an actual documentary, Fighting the War is comprised of clips, some fairly brief, of everything from artillery opening fire to men shuttling equipment through conquered German trenches. For the most part, the film chronicles the French Army performing everyday mundane tasks (marching long distances, preparing for battle), though some clips do serve as a reminder of how horrific this particular war was (one chapter is titled “Clearing Gas from Trenches”, in which troops in gasmasks work in an area that, just prior, had been bombarded with poison gas).

Not much information exists on Donald C. Thompson, credited as both the director and cinematographer of Fighting the War. According to a magazine article I found on the Kansas Historical Society’s web site (Thompson was born in Topeka around 1884), he was a photographer / correspondent throughout most of WWI, and was also in Russia for the October Revolution of 1917 (because of the war, traveling through Europe was difficult, so Thompson reportedly sailed to China and crossed the vast Russian landscape via the Trans-Siberian railroad, arriving in Petrograd just in time to witness history). An adventurer who was fascinated by war (years later, he was in Ethiopia when Mussolini’s army invaded), Thompson spent the majority of WWI among the troops, in the process capturing hundreds of photographs and thousands of feet of film. I have no idea how much of his footage remains, but even if the 23 minutes of Fighting the War are all we have left, it’s still an invaluable look at a dark period of history that occurred nearly 100 years ago.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

#1,307. All is Lost (2013)

Directed By: J.C. Chandor

Starring: Robert Redford

Tag line: "Never Give Up "

Trivia: This movie screened out of competition at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival

With a cast of one and very little dialogue, All is Lost, a 2013 action / drama written and directed by J.C. Chandor, is a singularly unique viewing experience.

While out at sea, a man (Robert Redford) is awakened one morning by the sound of a loud crash, after which his small boat starts filling up with water. Upon investigation, he finds his vessel struck a shipping container floating in the middle of the sea. The man eventually makes repairs, but is unable to save either his radio or navigation equipment, which were soaked as a result of the accident. As he’s dealing with the after-effects of this mishap, a violent storm comes rolling in, sending humongous waves crashing into the side of his ship. With his boat nearly destroyed, the man must take his chances aboard a life raft, hoping that a passing vessel might spot him. But as the days drag on, his will to survive slowly gives way to despair.

All is Lost is a very focused film, featuring a single character forced to deal with an escalating situation. We know nothing of where this man came from (there’s no backstory whatsoever) or where he’s going (for all we know, he planned to live the rest of his life at sea), and it’s to Redford’s credit that, despite this character being something of an enigma, he still manages to capture our attention, and manipulate our emotions, so completely. Aside from a brief narrated message at the start of the film (an explanation, as well as an apology, to a person or persons unknown), Redford isn’t given much dialogue to convey what he’s feeling. Instead, he does so with his face; every grimace, every long stare speaking to us loud and clear. We see his frustration when the radio refuses to work, and the gears turning in his mind as he relies on ancient seafaring equipment to determine his whereabouts. The movie’s most poignant moment occurs when our anonymous hero finally bids adieu to his beloved boat, pausing to take one last look around, and then occasionally glancing backwards as the life raft carries him away. From these quiet moments, we sense the love he felt for that ship, peppered with a hint of shame because he wasn’t able to save her.

In my write-up of Captain Phillips, I said how I thought this year’s Academy Awards should have featured six nominees for Best Actor instead of the usual five (allowing Tom Hanks, who gave one of the finest performances of his career in Captain Phillips, to be recognized without sacrificing any of the other nominees, who were equally as brilliant). Having now seen All is Lost, I’m thinking it should have been expanded to seven. For an actor of Redford’s stature to deliver a performance like this and not even be nominated is a damn pity.

If the films of 2013 taught us anything, it’s that, some years, five is not a magic number.

Friday, March 14, 2014

#1,306. All Hallows' Eve (2013)

Directed By: Damien Leone

Starring: Katie Maguire, Mike Giannelli, Catherine A. Callahan

Tag line: "Come Out and Play"

Trivia: This film, an anthology, features a trio of shorts its director made over the course of several years

In my review of 2012’s Stitches, a horror / comedy from Ireland about a killer clown, I mentioned that those who are normally afraid of clowns will still probably enjoy the movie. When it comes to 2013’s All Hallows’ Eve, the exact opposite is true: If you don’t like clowns, you’ll want to steer clear of this one.

In fact, even if they don’t scare you, odds are they will by the time the movie’s over!

The fun begins when two young siblings, Tia (Sydney Friehofer) and Timmy (Cole Mathewson), return home from a night of trick or treating. While looking through his bag of candy, Timmy discovers a videotape, with no markings, that someone dropped into his bag. Despite the protests of the kid’s babysitter, Sarah (Katie Maguire), Timmy pops the tape into the VCR and finds it contains a trio of short horror films, all featuring, in one way or another, a mute, sadistic clown (Mike Giannelli). In the first movie, a girl (Kayla Lian) sitting in a train station is drugged and taken to an underground facility, where she encounters a bizarre satanic cult. The second short deals with an alien abduction, in which Caroline (Catherine A. Callahan), who’s home all alone, is trying to evade an aggressive alien being (Brandon deSpain) that’s made its way into her house. In the third and final movie, the clown (lovingly nicknamed “Art the Clown”) takes center stage, brutally murdering a gas station attendant (Michael Chmiel) before stalking a young woman (Marie Maser) who inadvertently witnessed the crime. But when the tape finally reaches its end, Sarah and the kids discover their evening of terror is, in fact, just beginning.

With segments shot as far back as 2008, All Hallows’ Eve is both a horror anthology and a showcase for the work of writer / director Damien Leone. Of the three shorts found on the video, the first, released in 2008 and titled The 9th Circle, resembles Rosemary’s Baby in more ways than one, and, while definitely the least memorable of the trio, does feature a few authentic scares. Film #2, the alien abduction, is the most recently produced; a nifty blend of sci-fi and horror with a solid performance by Catherine Callahan and an alien creature that’s pretty damn menacing. The third short, a 2011 entry titled Terrifier, is positively gruesome, a straight-up slasher with lots of gore and a killer you won’t soon forget. In a nice twist, the framing story is every bit as intriguing as the three main flicks, with all sorts of tension setting in once the kids scurry off to bed.

With hundreds, if not thousands, of independent horror films produced over the last 10-15 years, it’s a real challenge to find the ones that are worthy of your time. Well, All Hallows’ Eve is absolutely worthy. It ranks up there with Stitches and Stake Land as one of the most entertaining indie offerings I’ve seen in a while, and based on his work here, I’m looking forward to what Damien Leone comes up with next.