Saturday, May 31, 2014

#1,384. The Expendables (2010)

Directed By: Sylvester Stallone

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li

Tag line: "Choose your weapon"

Trivia: Director and star Sylvester Stallone sustained 14 injuries making this movie including breaking a tooth, rupturing his ankle and getting a hairline fracture in his neck that required the surgical insertion of a metal plate

Sylvester Stallone. Jason Statham. Mickey Rourke. Jet Li. Steve Austin. Dolph Lundgren. Not to mention Bruce Willis and, in a brief cameo, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Did I get your attention? Well, when I first saw the trailer for The Expendables back in 2010, the fact that all these guys were going to appear together in one film sure as hell got mine!

After duking it out with some Somali pirates, The Expendables, a team of mercenaries led by Barney Ross (Stallone), are approached by the mysterious Mr. Church (Willis), who wants them to remove General Garza (David Zayas), a ruthless dictator on the small island of Vilena, from power. To scope out the situation, Ross and his second-in-command, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), fly, incognito, to Vilena, where, with the help of a local woman named Sandra (Giselle Itié), they discover Garza is merely a figurehead, and that the man actually pulling the strings is American James Munroe (Eric Roberts). Convinced Munroe is a former C.I.A. operative, Ross decides not to take the job, yet tells his team he’s going back to Vilena, alone, to save Sandra (who, it turns out, is Garza’s daughter). But as Ross soon learns, when one member of The Expendables puts themselves in harm’s way, the rest will be there to back him up, whether he wants them to or not.

The Expendables is an incredibly entertaining throwback to the action movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s, meaning it’s short on story and long on excitement. The film is wall-to-wall thrills, starting with the opening sequence in which the group faces off against Somali pirates, a showdown that escalates when the unpredictable Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) opens fire prematurely (Barney eventually tells Gunner, who has substance abuse issues, that his services are no longer required). Also getting in on the fun are Jet Li (as martial arts master Yin Yang), Terry Crews (portraying weapons specialist Hale Caesar), and Randy Couture (as demolitions expert Toll Road), but for my money, the film’s most electrifying scene comes when Barney and Lee Christmas, who’ve just made a hasty escape from Vilena, turn their plane around and attack Gen. Garza’s troops (a battle that ends with a huge explosion).

Yet as exhilarating as The Expendables can be, the movie isn’t without its quieter, dramatic moments. In one very poignant exchange, Ross’s old comrade, Tool (Rourke), tells him the story of how, when he was in Bosnia, he stood by and watched a woman commit suicide. His voice breaking, Tool says he still regrets not trying to save that woman’s life. Rourke does a phenomenal job in this scene, giving us a glimpse, however brief, into the soul of a warrior, something we seldom get in this sort of movie.

Not everyone was a fan; in its review, USA Today called The Expendablesa sadistic mess”. Was it messy? Well… perhaps, but who cares? The bread and butter of a picture like this is its adrenaline-fueled action, which The Expendables has in spades.

Friday, May 30, 2014

#1,383. Madame Tutli-Putli (2007)

Directed By: Chris Lavis, Maciek Szczerbowski

Starring: Laurie Maher

Trivia: This film won the 2008 Genie Award for Best Animated Short

Every year, the Academy nominates five films for Best Animated Short Subject, and every year the majority of people tuning in to the broadcast mentally tune out when it comes time to announce the winner. Not that I can blame them, really; with very few exceptions (such as the shorts that precede each new Pixar release), these movies aren’t readily available to the public, making it a chore (and, sometimes, an impossibility) to track them down. But thanks to a handful of DVD releases, including Image Entertainment’s 2010 offering Animation Express, we can now watch some of these fine shorts, and one of the best this particular collection has to offer is 2007’s Madame Tutli-Putli.

The work of filmmakers Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski, this 17-minute stop-motion short (produced with funds provided by the National Film Board of Canada) concerns a shy young woman, Madame Tutli-Putli, who, with the majority of her worldly possession in tow, boards a train (the destination of which is never revealed). Crowded into a cabin with her belongings as well as a few other passengers, Madame Tutli-Putli passes the time by reading a book. Later that night, though, when the train comes to an unscheduled stop, Madame Tutli-Putli (now all alone) must deal with a frightening situation, one that causes her to leave the safety of her cabin and search for help.

With its setting (a train) and period clothing, Madame Tutli-Putli reminded me of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, yet while the movie is somewhat mysterious (especially towards the end), the focus is placed more on the inner workings of its lead character’s mind, leaving us to wonder if what she’s experiencing is real or imaginary. There are moments of humor, like the scene where two men are playing chess (the train occasionally rocks and sways, causing the pieces to move around the board on their own, often landing in different spaces than the ones they occupied a second earlier. Instead of fixing the problem, the two play the pieces wherever they land), as well as an uncomfortable sequence in which a male passenger sitting across from Madame Tutli-Putli makes an inappropriately obscene pass at her. But the real strength of Madame Tutli-Putli isn’t its story; it’s the incredible animation. To accent the seamless stop-motion, Lavis and Szczerbowski superimposed images of actual human eyes over top of the puppet’s faces, bringing unexpected depth to the characters while making them appear both real and artificial at the same time.

Despite its gorgeous animation and engaging (if somewhat elusive) story, Madame Tutli-Putli did not win the 2007 Oscar for Best Animated Short (the award went to the Polish production of Peter and the Wolf, a 33-minute adaptation of the classic children’s story featuring the music of Sergei Prokofiev). But even though it lost the Oscar, Madame Tutli-Putli is an extraordinary movie, and has me wondering how many other exceptional animated shorts are out there for the taking.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

#1,382. The Transporter (2002)

Directed By: Cory Yuen

Starring: Jason Statham, Qi Shu, Matt Schulze

Tag line: "Rules are made to be broken"

Trivia:  Sound editor Vincent Tulli makes a cameo appearance in the film as a trash man

The Transporter, a 2002 action film directed by Cory Yuen, gets off to a great start. In the opening scene, we meet Frank Martin (Jason Statham), a professional driver who, for a fee, will deliver any package, no questions asked, to the destination of your choice. And when he says any package, he means it; his first job has him picking up a quartet of bank robbers, moments after they’ve committed the crime. This doesn’t sit well with Frank, though, because, according to their original agreement, he was to pick up three men, not four, and Frank’s first rule of business is that you never change the deal. Once this little crisis is resolved (one thief shoots another through the head and has his body thrown out of the car), we’re treated to a thrilling high-speed chase, with Frank using every trick up his sleeve to avoid the police, who are quickly closing in on them. After some “creative” driving, Frank delivers his cargo, on time, and heads for home.

During his next assignment, however, Frank makes the mistake of breaking another of his golden rules: never look inside the package. Hired by a man named Bettencourt (Matt Schulze) to deliver this particular parcel to his estate, Frank’s curiosity is piqued when he notices the “package” (a huge duffel bag) is moving! Opening it up, he finds Lai (Shu Qi), a pretty Asian girl. Frank does eventually make his delivery, but when Bettencourt tries to double-cross him, Frank takes matters into his own hands, and, in the process, ends up rescuing Lai.

It’s at this point that The Transporter gets downright insane. And I loved every crazy minute of it!

After making his screen debut in Guy Ritchie’s crime / comedy Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Jason Statham went on to appear in a number of action films, with The Transporter giving him a chance to finally play the lead. An ex-military operative, Statham’s Frank is an expert at hand-to-hand combat, something he puts to the test time and again throughout the movie (his most exciting fight occurs in a bus depot, where Frank takes on a couple dozen of Bettencourt’s thugs), and when things really get tough, he has a small arsenal to fall back on! In what proved to be a physically demanding role, Statham (who did most of his own stunts) showed the world he had what it takes to be an action star.

And he hasn’t looked back since.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

#1,381. The Killer Shrews (1959)

Directed By: Ray Kellogg

Starring: James Best, Ingrid Goude, Ken Curtis

Tag line: "Your skin will crawl with fear at their nearness"

Trivia:  Close-ups of the giant shrews were filmed using hand puppets. The wider shots used dogs made up as the shrews

Ok, we’ll get this out of the way right up front: the title creatures in 1959’s The Killer Shrews aren’t the least bit convincing. Using dogs dressed up like rats to portray the over-sized beasts, the shrews will likely evoke more laughter than screams from an audience. Take them out of the equation, though, and The Killer Shrews isn’t a bad little movie.

While on his way to deliver food to a team of scientists on a remote island, Ship’s Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best) realizes a hurricane is bearing down on the area. Figuring the storm will make landfall later that night, he and his first mate, Griswold (Judge Henry Dupree), decide to wait it out before heading home. With Griswold staying behind to keep an eye on the boat, Capt. Sherman is invited to spend the night at the laboratory of noted scientist Dr. Marlowe Cragis (Baruch Lumet), who, along with his daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude), her fiancé Jerry (Ken Curtis), and research assistants Radford Baines (Gordon McClendon) and Mario (Alfred DeSoto), has been working on a way to end world hunger. Unfortunately, his experiments had one very unusual side effect: they’ve transformed the island’s shrew population into ravenous monsters!

James Best does an adequate job as the film’s heroic leading man, but what carries The Killer Shrews early on is the tension generated by Dr Cragis and his crew as they tell Capt. Sherman all about the horrible beasts they’ve inadvertently created. These Shrews even caused Ann to call off her engagement to Jerry (one night when they were being attacked, Jerry got so scared that he pushed Ann out of the way and ran for safety), and an attempt to poison them also failed miserably (the shrews took the poison, but instead of it killing them, it remained in their system, making their bite not only painful, but deadly as well).

Of course, the suspense fizzles out once we actually see the shrews (I have no idea how those costumes didn’t fall off when the dogs were running through the woods), leading me to wonder how much better the movie might have been if we never saw the damn things. For most fans of this sort of film, the thought of not seeing the monster probably isn’t an appealing one, but in the case of The Killer Shrews, it would've been a welcome alternative.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

#1,380. 5ive Girls (2006)

Directed By: Warren P. Sonoda

Starring: Ron Perlman, Jennifer Miller, Jordan Madley

Tag line: "5 girls vs. 2000 demons. You do the math"

Five years ago, while sitting in a third-floor classroom, Elizabeth (Krysta Carter), one of the most promising students at St. Mark’s Catholic school for girls, disappeared without a trace. As a result, the facility was forced to close its doors for good.

Until now.

Having transformed St. Mark’s into a school for wayward girls, the new headmistress, Miss Pearce (Amy LaLonde), welcomes five new pupils: Alex (Jennifer Miller); Mara (Jordan Madley); Cecilia (Terra Vnes); Leah (Barbara Mamabolo); and Connie (Tasha May), all of whom possess a unique ability. 

Soon after arriving at the school, Alex senses something evil is lurking in the halls of St. Mark’s, a premonition that soon spreads to her fellow students. With things getting stranger by the minute, Alex and the others start to believe they’ve been brought to St. Mark’s for a reason, yet have no idea what it might be.

5Ive Girls has a number of things going for it, beginning with its main characters. When we first meet them, the five girls attending St. Mark’s come across as standard clichés; one is a rebel, another keeps to herself, etc. But as the mystery unfolds, we learn that each one has a particular ability, adding a new dimension to their characters while, at the same time, taking the story in a direction I didn’t anticipate. I went into 5ive Girls expecting a movie about witchcraft.  What I got was something else entirely, and it proved a pleasant surprise. 

Early on, it is revealed that Alex is telekinetic. When she argues with her father (Richard Alan Campbell) as he’s dropping her off at the school, Alex’s anger causes the car to shake. Yet some of the other girls’ “powers” are revealed almost as an afterthought. Leah can pass through solid objects, an ability she first demonstrates when Alex, who has been hearing voices, startles her during class. Each of the girls' “talents” will come into play as the story unfolds, and usually when they need them the most.

5ive Girls does have its weaknesses, including an ending sequence that’s not nearly as frightening as what preceded it (the action-packed finale feels out of place). But thanks to the girls themselves, as well as the always interesting Ron Perlman as Father Drake, a devout, yet ultimately ineffective, priest, 5ive Girls is an independent horror movie that is a cut above the standard fare.

Monday, May 26, 2014

#1,379. Two-Minute Warning (1975)

Directed By: Larry Peerce

Starring: Charlton Heston, John Cassavetes, Martin Balsam

Tag line: "91,000 People. 33 Exit Gates. One Sniper..."

Trivia:  Universal Studios devised a gimmick where moviegoers were not allowed to enter the theater when the football game's two-minute warning began in the film.

The opening scene of 1976’s Two-Minute Warning scares the hell out of me. In it, an unknown gunman, sitting in a hotel room overlooking a neighborhood, peers through the scope of his rifle, resting the crosshairs on a couple of cyclists out for their morning exercise. Though the movie has just started, and we know nothing at all about the gunman or the cyclists, we sense this is a random act, one that turns deadly when the assassin finally pulls the trigger. The murder itself is bad enough (he shoots the male cyclist through the heart, killing him instantly), but it’s the randomness of it all that shook me; the thought that I could be walking in a park, or driving in my car, and someone I can’t see has a rifle trained on me, just waiting to take the shot, is more terrifying than any masked killer or demonic entity could ever be.

Yet as disturbing as this sequence is, it's simply a warm-up for the gunman, a trial run to make sure his sights are calibrated. After breaking his rifle down and hiding it in the lining of a trench coat, he walks out the front door of the hotel and heads to his ultimate destination: the championship football game between Baltimore and L.A., which is set to begin in a couple of hours at the Los Angeles Coliseum. After turning in his ticket, the gunman breaks into a small storage room and climbs to the top of an archway overlooking the entire facility. He then re-assembles his rifle and again looks through the scope, moving from one end of the coliseum to the other, making sure he can see everybody.

What he doesn’t know is that others can see him as well. Mike Ramsay (Beau Bridges), an out-of-work father who brought his wife and kids to the game, spots the killer through a pair of binoculars. What’s more, the crew of the Goodyear Blimp (which is circling overhead) notice him as they're attempting to focus one of their cameras. The TV control room, located inside the stadium, picks up the feed from the blimp and alerts Sam McKeever (Martin Balsam), who handles the coliseum’s day-to-day operations. Realizing how potentially dangerous this situation is, a visibly shaken McKeever puts a call in to police Capt. Peter Holly (Charlton Heston), who, after arriving on the scene, decides the best course of action is to have a SWAT team standing by. So, he contacts Sgt. Chris Button (John Cassavetes), who assembles his team in the parking lot. To prevent a panic from breaking out, Sgt. Button has his men dress in maintenance overalls, then positions them at several key locations throughout the stadium.

But the question remains: who is the gunman’s target? Among the 91,000 fans in attendance are two Governors, the Mayor of L.A., and rumor has it the President of the United States himself plans to make an appearance around halftime. Is his motive political assassination, or is he after somebody else? Maybe he’s a scorned lover, hoping to kill the guy who stole his girl; or is looking to take out his frustrations on a former boss that fired him. Perhaps he bet all his money on the game and now wants to affect the outcome by shooting some key players on the opposing team. Or, most troubling of all, he’s a psychotic whose sole aim is to murder a few strangers. Whatever his motive, Capt, Holly and Sgt. Button know their time is limited; before the game is over, the gunman is going to open fire, and they must do everything they can to stop that from happening.

While essentially a thriller, Two-Minute Warning has the look and feel of a ‘70s disaster film, right down to its impressively large cast. Aside from Bridges, Balsam, Heston, and Cassavetes, there’s David Janssen and Gena Rowlands as a couple from Baltimore who simply don’t get along; Jack Klugman as a degenerate gambler in danger of being knocked off if he doesn’t pay his bookie soon; Walter Pidgeon as an elderly pickpocket hoping to swipe as many wallets as he can; and Brock Peters as the Coliseum’s handyman, who, despite the accusations of Sam McKeever, is certain he locked the door behind him, and has no idea how the gunman gained access to the archway. There are even cameo appearances by sportscasters Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford (playing themselves), as well as ‘70s talk show host Merv Griffin, who, prior to the game, sings the National Anthem. Throughout the movie, we get to know some of these characters quite well, and though they don’t realize the danger they’re in, we can’t help but worry about them.

Yet as intense as the film can be, nothing that came before it will prepare you for its final moments. More than likely, you’ll remember a good deal about Two-Minute Warning, which, for the bulk of its running time, is an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but I guarantee you won’t soon forget the ending.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

#1,378. Doomsday (2008) - The Films of Neil Marshall

Directed By: Neil Marshall

Starring: Rhona Mitra, Bob Hoskins, Alexander Siddig

Tag line: "Mankind has an expiration date"

Trivia: Scottish Screen contributed 300,000 pounds towards the film's budget

Drawing influence from such movies as Mad Max and Escape from New York, director Neil Marshall’s 2008 film Doomsday is an action extravaganza.

A deadly new virus, nicknamed the “Reaper”, is spreading like wildfire through Scotland, leaving tens of thousands dead in its wake. Hoping to contain the virus, England constructs a huge wall that essentially cuts the island in half, ensuring nobody, whether infected or not, will ever leave Scotland again.

Flash forward 27 years; everyone north of the wall is believed dead, while those in the south suffer from overcrowding and a higher-than-normal unemployment rate. To make matters worse, a police raid in the Whitechapel District of London turns up evidence that the Reaper virus is back!  It’s at this point the Prime Minister of England (Alexander Siddig) and his second-in-command, Canaris (David O’Hara), share some startling information with security chief Bill Nelson (Bob Hoskins): For the past 3 years, satellite photos taken in the north have revealed that not everyone on the other side of the wall is dead. Hoping to give their political careers a much-needed boost, the Prime Minister and Canaris ask Nelson to send his best operative into Scotland to look for a doctor named Kane (Malcolm McDowell), who they believe has developed a cure for the virus. For this difficult mission, Nelson selects Maj. Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), who, as a young girl, was saved when her mother, a Scot, arranged for her safe passage to England. With only 48 hours to find Kane, Maj. Sinclair leads a squad of mercenaries into the north, but as she and her team will soon discover, those who’ve managed to survive aren’t going to welcome them with open arms.

Doomsday is a balls-to-the-wall action movie that gets crazier (and more intense) with each passing scene. Initially unsure of how many survivors there are, or that they'd even be able to find one, Sinclair and her team, while searching the hospital where Kane was headquartered, are taken by surprise and captured by the followers of a madman named Sol (Caig Conway), who gets a kick out of torturing people (Sol burns a member of Sinclair’s squad to death, then has him carved up and served for dinner). With the help of fellow prisoner Cally (MyAnna Buring), who happens to be Sol’s sister, Sinclair and a few others manage to escape. Eventually, they do find Dr. Kane, only to discover he’s every bit as crazy as Sol (he and his minions reside in an ancient castle, living as if it were still the Middle Ages. In one exciting scene, Knox, who's set himself up as a king, forces Sinclair to do battle with a knight in shining armor). There’s even a car chase towards the end of the film that looks like it was lifted straight out of The Road Warrior!

At times, Doomsday is so over-the-top that it feels more like a parody than an homage, but don’t let that fool you: this picture is deadly serious, and, with its plethora of high-octane scenes, is a film that’s sure to satisfy most genre fans.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

#1,377. Thirteen Days (2000)

Directed By: Roger Donaldson

Starring: Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, Shawn Driscoll

Tag line: "You'll Never Believe How Close We Came"

Trivia: This was the fFirst film to be screened at the White House by newly-elected President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, a screening also attended by several members of the Kennedy family.

Years ago, I read an excellent book titled Robert Kennedy: In His Own Words, which featured a series of interviews with the former Attorney General in which he talked, frankly, about everything from his tense relationship with FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover to the events of Nov. 22, 1963, when his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Intended as an oral history of the Kennedy Administration, RFK also discussed, at length, the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-dsy standoff that began when a U.S. spy plane detected several Soviet nuclear missile sites under construction on the nearby island of Cuba. Thirteen Days, a 2000 movie directed by Roger Donaldson, takes a closer look at this crisis, and in so doing reveals just how close we came to an all-out nuclear war.

Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), a longtime friend and confidant of Pres. John F. Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) and Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Steven Culp), works as a special Secretary to the President, a position that gives him access to many top-level meetings. In October of 1962, President Kennedy and his cabinet, along with the country’s top military leaders, learn that the Soviet Union is building several short-range nuclear missile sites in Cuba, which, when operational, will give them the ability to attack almost anywhere in the Continental United States. Agreeing they cannot allow these bases to exist so close to U.S. soil, Kennedy and his advisors discuss several options. The military, led by Army Gen. Maxwell Taylor (Bill Smitrovich) and Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay (Kevin Conway), recommend invading Cuba, while others in the organization favor more diplomatic solutions, including a naval blockade of the island, which would prevent all future shipments of weapons. But with time running out before the missiles are fully operational, President Kennedy must quickly decide on a course of action, or risk exposing the United States to the possibility of nuclear annihilation.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Thirteen Days is its ability to build suspense around a well-known historical event. Throughout the film, we sit in on a number of key conversations between the Kennedy brothers and O’Donnell, during which they try to come up with a way to get the missiles out of Cuba without resorting to an all-out invasion, which the military is pushing for (the Generals even try to manipulate the situation by flying missions over Cuba, believing that, if a U.S. plane were shot down, the President would have no alternative but to issue the invasion order). Despite the fact a good portion of the movie takes place in conference rooms, Thirteen Days generates quite a bit of tension, a real accomplishment when you consider that almost everyone in the audience knows beforehand how it’s going to end.

Though it suffers a little in the authenticity department (Costner’s Massachusetts accent definitely leaves something to be desired) and may not be the most accurate account of what transpired (several people, including former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera, have stated that Kenny O’Donnell was nothing more than a personal secretary, and had no role whatsoever in the decision-making process), Thirteen Days, thanks to its marvelous performances and smart, well-written script, is a tremendously engaging historical drama.

Friday, May 23, 2014

#1,376. Calypso Countdown: Rigging for the Amazon (1982)

Directed By: Jacques Ertaud

Starring: Jacques Cousteau

Trivia: This was the 1st part of a 7-episode TV series co-produced with Turner Boradcasting

Ever since I first saw Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which starred Bill Murray as an oceanographer / film documentarian based on real-life adventurer Jacques Cousteau, I’ve wanted to check out one of Cousteau’s films. If nothing else, I wanted to see if they looked anything like the mock documentaries Anderson created for his movie (in The Life Aquatic, Zissou is trying to raise money to finish his opus on the Tiger Shark, a never-before-seen creature that killed his mentor and best friend), which I found strangely appealing. Well, after watching 1982’s Calypso Countdown: Rigging for the Amazon, I’m happy to report that, while Anderson’s take on a Jacques Cousteau film was far quirkier than the real deal, he did remain loyal to the spirit of the movies that inspired him.

Released as the first part of a seven-episode television series, Calypso Countdown Rigging for the Amazon (narrated by Joseph Campanella) has Cousteau and his team preparing for an extended trip up the Amazon River, a journey that would last almost two years. Yet, while the film did teach me a little something about the Amazon (I was surprised to learn the river houses more species of fish than the entire Atlantic Ocean), and featured footage of Cousteau and his associates getting ready for their long journey, the bulk of this movie was dedicated to the history of the Calypso, a former World War II British minesweeper that Cousteau transformed into a science vessel (the movie also features John Denver’s 1975 song, Calypso, which he wrote in honor of the ship).

So, even though I didn’t get to see much along the lines of a “Cousteau Adventure”, Calypso Countdown: Rigging for the Amazon was, at the very least, a great introduction to the famed oceanographers work.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

#1,375. Dr. Renault's Secret (1942)

Directed By: Harry Lachman

Starring: J. Carrol Naish, Shepperd Strudwick, Lynne Roberts

Tag line: "His animal instinct cannot be tamed!"

Trivia: The screenplay was inspired by that of the now-lost 1927 film, The Wizard

Larry Forbes (Shepperd Strudwick), a young American doctor, has just arrived in France to meet up with his fiancé, Madelon (Lynne Roberts), the niece of noted researcher Dr. Renault (George Zucco). During his stay at a nearby Inn, a man, who accidentally fell asleep in Dr. Forbes’ room, is murdered. Convinced the killer was actually after Dr. Forbes, police inspector Duvall (Arthur Shields) launches an investigation into the matter. But who committed this heinous crime? Was it Rogell (Mike Mazurki), an abrasive, wise-cracking ex-convict working for Dr. Renault, or Noel (J. Carrol Naish), Renault’s dim-witted manservant, who has himself fallen in love with Madelon?

As you can gather from the above, a fair portion of 1942’s Dr. Renault’s Secret plays out like a mystery, with the inspector, as well as everybody else, trying to determine who’s after Dr. Forbes, and why. As it turns out, both of the main suspects have motive: Noel loves Madelon, the only person who treats him kindly, and doesn’t want her to leave; while Rogell is drawn to the sizable amount of cash Dr. Forbes brought with him from America, which Rogell discusses at length with Renault’s butler, Marcel (Charles La Torre). The film keeps the killer’s identity a secret for some time, casting the light of suspicion back and forth between Noel and Rogell until the end.

But I’m not recommending Dr. Renault’s Secret because of its central mystery (which is only so-so, and not particularly engaging). The reason to see this movie is the performance of J. Carrol Naish, whose Noel is as strong as he is simple-minded. Truth be told, Noel is a poor excuse for a manservant: Sent into town to meet Dr. Forbes, he forgets to pick up Madelon’s shoes, which she wants to wear to the upcoming Bastille Day celebration. Yet, at the Inn the night before, he nearly strangles the man that would eventually be murdered, believing an innocent remark he made was meant as an insult directed towards Madelon. It’s clear from the outset that there’s something very different about Noel (while driving Dr. Forbes to the Renault estate, Noel abruptly stops the car to avoid hitting a dog, despite the fact he couldn’t see the animal, which was around the corner at the time), and the questions surrounding his character’s origins prove much more interesting than the film’s murder mystery.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

#1,374. The Boys in Company C (1978)

Directed By: Sidney J. Furie

Starring: Stan Shaw, Andrew Stevens, James Canning

Tag line: "To keep their sanity in an insane war, they had to be crazy"

Trivia: The original script was written by Rick Natkin for a film class at Yale University in 1973

I first saw The Boys in Company C when I was in high school, a viewing that came courtesy of my favorite video rental store (the very one that also introduced me to Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets). 

At that time, Vietnam-themed movies were all the rage; Platoon had just won Best Picture, while films like Hamburger Hill, Full Metal Jacket, and even Good Morning Vietnam kept the war in the forefront, revealing - in often disturbing detail - the brutality and chaos of this particular conflict. 

Doling out equal doses of comedy and tragedy, 1978’s The Boys in Company C is one of the earliest - and most entertaining - movies to address the chaos of the Vietnam War.

It’s August of 1967, and five young men - Tyrone Washington (Stan Shaw) from Chicago, Illinois; Billy Ray Pike (Andrew Stevens) from Galveston, Texas; Vinnie Fazio (Michael Lembeck) from Brooklyn, New York; Alvin Foster (James Canning) from Emporia, Kansas; and Dave Bisbee (Craig Wasson) from Seattle, Washington - are being inducted into the United States Marine Corps (two volunteered, two were drafted, and one, Bisbee, a peace-loving pacifist, chose the military over prison). 

With Alvin, an aspiring writer, acting as narrator, we follow these five through boot camp and experience the hell they face in the jungles of Vietnam, where their incompetent commanding officer, Captain Collins (Scott Hylands), leads them from one ill-advised melee to the next. 

Though not a particularly good soldier, there’s one thing Captain Collins does know: soccer! 

With Billy Ray as his star player, Collins puts together a soccer team, promising his men that, if they win, they’ll never have to fight again. But when their first match against the Vietnamese champs turns into a fiasco, these five must decide if the possibility of sitting out the war is more valuable than their dignity.

The Boys in Company C is at times hilarious, especially when its leads are going through basic training. Upon their arrival at the base, each and every one is berated by Sgt. Aquilla (Santos Morales), a short Hispanic drill instructor (he gives Bisbee the nickname “Jesus Christ”, due to his long hair and beard). Soon after, Fazio, who believes he can charm his way out of going to Vietnam, notices that the base has a golf course. Figuring all the big wigs hang out there, he leaves his squad behind (essentially going AWOL) and makes his way to the links, hoping to cozy up to a General or two. The next time we see him, he’s been picked up the M.P’s, accused of making an inappropriate pass at a General’s daughter. 

As a side note, R. Lee Ermey makes his screen debut in these early scenes, playing Drill Instructor Sgt. Loyce. But unlike his turn in Full Metal jacket, where he spewed insults at the rate of 20 per minute, his character in The Boys in Company C takes a more personal interest in the development of his men (it’s he who convinces Washington he has the potential to be a great leader).

While the opening scenes of The Boys in Company C are more light-hearted, the film’s tone becomes much darker once its five leads arrive in Vietnam, at which point the movie begins to tackle more serious issues (drug abuse, torture, friendly fire) while also providing a glimpse into the daily routine of a marine infantryman in Vietnam, where one bad decision could lead to disaster (While out on patrol, Captain Collins orders his troops to cross a bridge. Ignoring the advice of his second-in-command, Lt. Archer, played by James Whitmore, Jr., who believes its best to send only two men across at a time, Collins orders them all to cross at once, which proves to be a costly mistake). 

Things do lighten up a bit when the action shifts from the battlefield to the soccer field, but only temporarily (as we soon see, not even a crowded sports stadium is safe from the fighting).

Two other movies dealing with the Vietnam War, also released in 1978, would sweep that year’s Academy Awards: The Deer Hunter took home Best Supporting Actor (for Christopher Walken), Best Director (Michael Cimino) and Best Picture, while Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (a film about the difficulties some men had adapting to life after the war) won Best Actor (Jon Voight), Best Actress (Jane Fonda), and Best Original Screenplay. 

Lost in the excitement was The Boys in Company C, which never attained the level of popularity as either The Deer Hunter or Coming Home. But don’t let that deter you. Boasting a number of excellent performances (especially Stan Shaw, who is magnificent as Washington; and Andrew Stevens, who was nominated for a Golden Globe) and featuring one of the most unusual (not to mention heartbreaking) finales I’ve ever experienced, The Boys in Company C may just be the finest war film you’ve never seen.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

#1,373. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) - The Films of John Ford

Directed By: John Ford

Starring: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar

Tag line: "Wayne's greatest role as an Indian fighting Captain !"

Trivia: The exterior shots of Capt. Brittles' quarters and the building where Maj. Mac Allshard, Commanding Officer Fort Starke, has his HQ are still standing in Monument Valley

Director John Ford’s eye for action, coupled with a breathtaking Monument Valley setting, did its part to make 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon an unforgettable motion picture. But it was John Wayne’s poignant, heartfelt portrayal of an aging Cavalry officer that made it a great one.

Following the Battle of Little Big Horn, U.S. Cavalry troops stationed at Fort Starke have been put on alert, and Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles (Wayne) is assigned to quell any potential uprising by the local Native Americans. A few short days from retirement, Capt. Britlles leads his men, including old friend and comrade Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaglen); his eventual successor 1st Lt. Flint Cohill (John Agar); experienced scout Sgt. Tyrell (Ben Johnson); and 2nd Lt. Ross Pinnell (Harry Carey, Jr), on what will undoubtedly be a very dangerous mission. 

Also along for the ride are Abby Allshard (Mildred Natwick), wife of Capt. Brittles’ commanding officer, Major Mac Allshard (George O’Brien); as well as Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), a pretty young woman who has caught the eye of both Cohill and Pinnell. Against his better judgment, Capt. Brittles has been asked to accompany the women to the nearest town, where they’ll catch the next stagecoach heading east. 

But with everything from hostile natives to gun runners standing in their way, it’s looking like Capt. Brittles final mission will be the most difficult of his career.

When it came to staging action scenes, few directors were as effective as John Ford. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, we get a handful of exciting sequences, most of which center on the Cavalry’s run-ins with the Native Americans. And while Ford would shoot several films in Utah’s picturesque Monument Valley, including Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, and The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon makes the best use of this stunning locale. Ford and his cinematographer, William Hoch, who won an Oscar for his work here, feature it in just about every scene. 

As for John Wayne, he’s damn near perfect as Capt. Nathan Brittles, a proud officer and a brilliant leader of men who must deal with the fact that he has reached the end of a prestigious 40-year military career. The movie’s most touching scene has Capt. Brittles receiving a watch from the entire company, a gift in honor of his service. The watch was clearly a surprise to him, but it’s the sentiment etched into it, “Lest we forget”, that almost moves him to tears. Only 42 when he appeared in this film, Wayne, aided by some fine make-up, does more than just look the part of a much older man; he embodies it.

There are other strong performances as well, including John Agar’s (who would go on to star in such ‘50s B-movies as Tarantula and The Mole People) and future Oscar Winner Ben Johnson’s (in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Johnson plays Sgt. Tyrell, a Cavalry soldier who, a few years earlier, was fighting on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War). Yet, despite their superior work, it’s John Wayne who steals the show.

I always felt that Wayne deserved an Oscar for his turn as the bigoted Ethan Edwards in Ford’s The Searchers. After re-watching She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, I now think he should have won two.

Monday, May 19, 2014

#1,372. Jaws 2 (1978)

Directed By: Jeannot Szwarc

Starring: Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton

Tag line: "Coming sooner than you think"

Trivia: The picture was the all time highest-grossing sequel ever in history until Rocky II was released the following year in 1979

When I covered 1977’s Rollercoaster, I mentioned how that movie played as the second bill of a double feature, which my family and I caught at our local drive-in back in 1978. Well, the main feature that night was Jaws 2, and seeing as I was around 8 or so at the time, I found the movie positively terrifying.

Several years have passed since Amity Island was terrorized by a great white, leaving Chief Brody (Roy Schieder) with nothing to do but deal with the occasional neighborhood conflict and attend government-sponsored functions. That all changes when the carcass of a killer whale, with some pretty big bites taken out of it, washes up on shore. Fearing a repeat of what happened last time, Brody tells Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) and local official Len Peterson (Joseph Mascolo) that he believes another shark has moved into the area. Naturally, the Mayor and the town council refuse to listen to him, and even go so far as to fire Brody when he causes a panic on the beach, mistaking a school of bluefish for a great white. But when a group of teens, including Brody’s sons Mike (Mark Gruner) and Sean (Marc Gilpin), is attacked while out sailing, the former Chief, aided by his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary), must move quickly to save them before they all become the shark’s next meal.

It’s entirely possible that nostalgia plays a key role in my enjoyment of Jaws 2 (it was, after all, the first film I ever saw at a drive-in), but I think there’s more to it than that. For one, the movie features yet another fine performance by Roy Schieder, who brings the same amount of gusto to the role of Chief Brody that he did in the original (Hoping it’ll give him an advantage over the creature, Brody even goes so far as to fill the tips of his bullets with cyanide). What’s more, the film's various shark attacks keep us poised on the edge of our seats (especially later on, when it’s hounding Brody’s sons and their friends), and there are some frightening moments to boot (the scene where Brody inspects debris that washed up on shore, only to make a grisly discovery, scared the living shit out of me in 1978, and continues to be effective to this day).

Even if it does get a bit far-fetched at times (like the now-famous, and admittedly entertaining, helicopter sequence), Jaws 2 is an action-packed, tension-filled sequel, and I had fun watching it again.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

#1,371. How Hitler Lost the War (1989)

Directed By: Robert Denny, David Hoffman

Starring: Norman Rose, Adolf Galland, Hans Adolf Jakobson

Tag line: "Told from veterans on both sides of the War"

Trivia: This documentary was narrated by Norman Rose

For years, I’ve heard that Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany came close to winning World War II, yet I had no idea how close until watching this documentary. Several times over the course of the war, the Germans were poised on the threshold of victory, only to have it snatched away by the one man who assured them they would prevail.

Narrated by Norman Rose, 1989’s How Hitler Lost the War features plenty of archival footage, some of which is quite disturbing (along with the image of dozens of murdered Ukrainian peasants, hanged for their resistance to the German occupation, there’s a brief clip showing the Allied invasion of Normandy in which a soldier running across the beach is gunned down). Yet it’s the interviews with former German soldiers that offer the greatest insight. One of the men interviewed, Johannes Steinhoff, was a member of the Luftwaffe and among the most decorated German fighter pilots of the war. With his face badly deformed (in 1945, a plane he was piloting crashed on take-off, resulting in burns so severe they landed him in the hospital for 2 years), he tells of how well respected Hitler was at the beginning, and, ultimately, how he failed as a leader (Steinhoff played a role in what became known as the Fighters Pilot Conspiracy, when several high-ranking Luftwaffe officials, believing Hitler’s decisions were costing them the war, staged a protest against the Nazi High Command).

Aside from its analysis of strategies and key battles, How Hitler Lost the War also delves into the early life of Hitler himself, how he was a poor student, and, according to those that knew him, a lazy young man who often slept ‘til noon (a trait that stayed with him throughout his life; during the D-Day invasion, Germany was slow in moving its troops closer to the action because Hitler was asleep and left strict instructions that he was not to be disturbed). It wasn’t until after World War I, when he joined the little-known Socialist movement, that Hitler found his true talent: public speaking. Delivering speeches all over the country, he railed support for what was to become the Nazi party, and eventually rose to the position of Chancellor of Germany, and then, shortly after, Dictator.

Despite his meteoric rise, Hitler proved himself a poor military strategist, and How Hitler Lost the War shows us just how bad he was at it. Many are aware of his most critical mistake: fighting on two separate fronts; one in the West (against the allies), the other in the East (after he broke his treaty with Russia and invaded that country). Yet even here, the film tells us Hitler might have conquered Russia had he not purged the Ukraine (its citizenry despised Stalin, and initially greeted their German invaders with open arms. If Hitler had taken a different approach there, the Ukrainians may have joined with him in fighting the Communists). But while his actions were often ill-advised, it was Hitler’s inaction that ultimately lost World War II for Germany, chief among them his decision to shelve a major technological advancement in aerial combat, one that could have easily changed the course of the entire war.

Admittedly, I’m not well-versed in the history of World War II, so the information presented in How Hitler Lost the War was an eye-opener for me. But I’m convinced even those who’ve studied the conflict will find something to their liking in this well-produced, informative documentary.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

#1,370. Chandu the Magician (1932)

Directed By: William Cameron Menzies, Marcel Varnel

Starring: Edmund Lowe, Irene Ware, Bela Lugosi

Trivia: Nigel De Brulier's yogi was the model for the sorcerer in Disney's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence from Fantasia

For the second time in a couple weeks, I got a chance to watch a Bela Lugosi movie I’ve never seen before. But unlike You’ll Find Out, 1932’s Chandu the Magician, a film based on a popular radio serial, was produced when Lugosi’s popularity was at its zenith (aside from his iconic performance in Dracula a year earlier, Chandu the Magician was released within months of Island of Lost Souls and Murders in the Rue Morgue). This time out, the actor portrays Roxor, an arch villain determined to conquer the world.

Having completed his mystical training, Frank Chandler (Edmund Lowe) is made a Yogi by his Hindu masters and given the honorary name “Chandu”. His first assignment as a Yogi takes him to Egypt, where he must help his brother-in-law, Professor Robert Regent (Henry B Walthall), who, shortly after completing work on his powerful death ray, was kidnapped by the sinister Roxor (Lugosi), a madman intent on using the ray to destroy some of the world’s biggest cities (including London and New York). Along with trying to save mankind, Chandu attempts to rekindle his romance with Nadji (Irene Ware), a beautiful Egyptian Princess with whom he’s madly in love.

Despite a valiant effort by Lowe, not to mention a very cool opening scene (in which he puts his powers to the test), Chandu is, regrettably, the least interesting character in his own movie, spending half his time staring at his enemies (his power is in his eyes) and the other wooing Princess Nadji. Faring much better is the work of co-director William Cameron Menzies, whose excellent sets (most looking like they were lifted straight out of ancient Egypt) are matched only by the movie’s special effects, which Menzies undoubtedly helped design (one of the films best scenes has Chandu turning the tables on three of Roxor’s cronies by transforming their rifles into poisonous snakes). What’s more, the cinematographer on the film was none other than James Wong Howe, who was nominated for 9 Oscars over the course of his career, winning twice (for The Rose Tattoo in 1955 and 1964’s Hud).

Then, of course, there’s Bela, so deliciously menacing as Roxor. Decked out in black, his Roxor is evil personified, a man whose sole ambition is to reduce the civilized world to rubble, then set himself up as a God to rule over what remains. From start to finish, Lugosi does a masterful job, giving the film a villain that, despite being three times more interesting than its hero, is a man we want to see destroyed.

Lugosi’s flamboyant portrayal, coupled with Menzies’ eye for detail and Howe’s fluid camera movements, make Chandu the Magician a very entertaining watch.

Friday, May 16, 2014

#1,369. House on Bare Mountain (1962)

Directed By: R.L. Frost

Starring: Bob Cresse, Laine Carlin, Leticia Cooper

Tag line: "See Frankenstein do the twist with Miss Hollywood!"

Trivia: In France, this film was released as Erotic Vampire

For those who’ve been searching for a movie that combines classic monsters (a la Dracula, The Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s Monster) with nude women, look no further: 1962’s House on Bare Mountain fits the bill to a “T”.

Granny Good (Bob Cresse, in drag) is the proprietor of GGSFG, otherwise known as “Granny Good’s School for Girls”, a facility of higher learning that teaches everything from physical exercise to studying the dictionary. Yet the school itself is only a front for Granny’s real business: illegal moonshine, which, with the help of her employee / werewolf, Krakow (Hugh Cannon), she manufactures in the facility’s basement. Little does Granny know that the police are on to her, and have sent one of their own, the voluptuous Prudence (Laura Eden), to work undercover, posing as the school’s newest student so she can gather enough evidence to put Granny Good away for… well… good! Things finally come to a head on the night of the costume ball, with Granny doing everything she can to get out of town before the cops throw her in jail.

In case the above synopsis didn’t clue you in, House on Bare Mountain is played 100% for laughs, and surprisingly, there are some to be had (an early sequence featuring Granny and a makeshift intercom made me chuckle). Though blatantly ripping off Jonathan Winters’ Maude Frickert character, Bob Cresse does a decent job as Granny Good, delivering plenty of one-liners as the camera focuses its attention elsewhere; in one scene, we watch Sally (Ann Perry) lathering herself up in the shower, at which point Granny, acting as narrator, says “Sally’s mind was so clean, it was bleached, just like her hair”. Throughout the course of House on Bare Mountain, we spend a lot of time in the shower, as well as the girl’s rooms, watching as they “undress” for bed. We even sit in on the morning calisthenics, complete with jumping ropes and beach balls, which the girls undergo on a daily basis (because it’s so hot out, they usually shed their T-shirts before they start). None of the dozen or so young ladies enrolled at Granny’s school stays dressed for very long, and director Frost lets his camera linger over their bouncing breasts and bare asses (in some instances, he doesn’t even bother showing their face).

While the nudity is ample, the film’s so-called “monsters” consist of Krakow the werewolf (who only leaves the basement to howl at the moon), and two guys at the costume ball, dressed as Dracula (Jeffrey Smithers) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Warren Ames), neither of whom interacts much with the girls (though both find time to spike the punch). But even if House on Bare Mountain comes up short in the creature department, trust me when I tell you… there’s still plenty to see!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

#1,368. Ghost Story (1981)

Directed By: John Irvin

Starring: Craig Wasson, Alice Krige, Fred Astaire

Tag line: "The time has come to tell the tale"

Trivia: Interiors were constructed inside the abandoned Union Station, the former New York Central Railroad's passenger train station on Broadway in Albany, NY and included a two story set

Based on a Peter Straub novel of the same name, 1981’s Ghost Story introduces us to the Chowder Society, an exclusive club that, for the last 50 years, has been meeting in the sleepy New England town of Milburn to exchange scary stories. The members of the club: Sears James (John Houseman), Ricky Hawthorne (Fred Astaire), Dr. John Jaffrey (Melvyn Douglas) and Milburn’s Mayor Edward Wanderley (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr), assemble once a week to frighten the pants off each other, yet there’s one story they refuse to tell: what happened to Eva Galli, a girl they all hung around with back in the ‘30s? For the better part of 5 decades, the quartet have kept the fate of this pretty young girl a secret, but when the four begin to have nightmares, each featuring, in one way or another, Eva Galli, they realize their past has come back to haunt them. When Edward Wanderley's son, David (Craig Wasson), inexplicably falls through the window of his New York penthouse and plummets hundreds of feet to his death, the elderly Mayor contacts his other son, Donald (Also played by Wasson), who returns home just in time to become embroiled in the mystery, which he feels is also connected to Alma Mobley (Alice Krige), an enigmatic beauty from his own past.

By the time they appeared in Ghost Story, the film’s four elder statesmen (Houseman, Astaire, Douglas, and Fairbanks) had 200-plus years of Hollywood experience between them, and sure enough, all four deliver solid performances. Also coming up strong (in a dual role) is Craig Wasson, an actor I’ve admired since his work in De Palma’s Body Double (he also appeared in one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a 4th season entry titled Hard Time). Outshining them all, however, is Alice Krige, both sexy and frightening as Alma, a woman whose burning desire masks a deep, dark secret. If nothing else, the cast of Ghost Story is enough to make it an interesting watch.

Which is definitely a good thing, seeing as the movie has little else to offer. For one, the film’s story meanders, taking far too long to guide us from point “A” to point “B” (a flashback sequence, where Donald is telling the Chowder Society about his experience with Alma, could have accomplished what it set out to do in half the time). The movie also features characters that bring absolutely nothing to the table (the worst offenders being a pair of escapees from a mental institution, played by Miguel Fernandez and Lance Holcomb, who are helping the vengeful spirit). Yet the most unforgivable flaw in Ghost Story is its simplistic mystery, which I’d already figured out by the film’s halfway point (As you can imagine, this made the last third of the movie something of an anti-climax).

Ghost Story does have a few scenes that’ll get your pulse pounding, as well as some effective jump scares, but aside from this and the performances of its superior cast, there’s not much here worth recommending.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

#1,367. A Film Unfinished (2010)

Directed By: Yael Hersonski

Starring: Alexander Beyer, Rüdiger Vogler, Hanna Avrutzki

Tag line: "In 1942 The Nazi Propaganda Machine Was Hard at Work. 70 Years Later, The Deceit is Finally Unmasked"

Trivia: The black & white footage was shot during May 1942

From the moment they ascended to power in the early ‘30s, the Nazi’s propaganda machine was spinning in full force, turning out information designed to generate support for their new policies. Along with their efforts in both print and radio, the Nazis produced hundreds of motion pictures, the most notable of which is Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a film that chronicled the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. Among the many movies they made was one that was never finished: The Ghetto, a documentary-style picture shot within the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. Designed to show how callous the Ghetto’s “wealthy” Jews were towards their poverty-stricken brethren (accomplished with scenes that were clearly staged), The Ghetto also captured a number of heartbreaking images, including hundreds of starving men, women, and children wandering the streets in search of something to eat. In 2010’s A Film Unfinished, director Yael Hersonski investigates the making of The Ghetto, while at the same time showing us the horrors endured by its main subjects, most of whom would be dead before the war was over.

Aided by diary entries and eyewitness testimony, A Film Unfinished attempts to solve the mystery surrounding The Ghetto, from the unknown cameramen who shot the movie to the reasons why it was never completed. Yet as fascinating as this investigation is, it’s the images lifted from The Ghetto that will hit you the hardest. There’s footage of a woman carrying her baby up and down the street, calling out to anyone who would listen to her (one of the survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto, who was invited to view the film, says she remembers that woman, and that all she wanted was a piece of bread for her child), and glimpses of starving children so emaciated they can’t even sit up in bed. Most disturbing of all, though, are the dead bodies that lined the sidewalks, placed there by relatives who no longer had the room to house them. In a particularly moving scene, one of the ghetto survivors averts her eyes when footage of a mass grave is shown. Yet, despite how distressing she finds this sequence, she says she’s happy it now affects her so. While in the Warsaw Ghetto, she grew accustomed to seeing death. The fact that she can no longer bear to watch such things proves her humanity has returned. What was once commonplace has suddenly become grotesque.

As gripping as it is unsettling, A Film Unfinished is every bit as effective a documentary as The Last Days, recounting a time in history that we don’t dare forget.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

#1,366. The Geek (1971)

Starring: Lynn Holmes, Nora Wieternik

Trivia: This 14-minute short was edited down from a 50-minute XXX porn film

OK, long story short: this is not the movie I was going to write about today. I had another film lined up, but knew I’d have to put that one on the back-burner the moment I finished watching a 14-minute crap-fest from 1971 known as The Geek.

Following a bit of opening narration (I swear the narrator sounds like William Daniels, the voice of K.I.T.T. in the ‘80s television show Knight Rider), three couples drive up in a VW Minibus, grab their sleeping bags and equipment from out of the back, and head into the woods, determined to track down the elusive monster known as Bigfoot. After walking for some time, the couples discover an enormous footprint in the dirt, and decide to set up their cameras on a hill just across the way, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary creature. As luck would have it, Bigfoot does make an appearance, and to show the monster they mean it no harm, the group sends one of the girls (played by Nora Wieternik) to greet him. What happens next is…. Well, pretty damn bizarre. In a nutshell, Bigfoot rapes her!

From what I can gather, the version of The Geek that I saw (it was a special feature on Something Weird Video’s DVD of Godmonster of Indian Flats) was heavily edited. The original cut of The Geek is over 50 minutes long, and is, believe it or not, a Bigfoot-themed porn film! Along with a few hardcore sex scenes between the actors (only two of whom are listed in the credits on IMDb: Ms. Wieternik, playing “Girl in Black Shorts”; and Lynn Holmes, in the pivotal role of “Girl in White Shorts”), the movie takes things a step further when Bigfoot gets in on the act and rapes a couple of the girls. In my version, the hardcore sex was gone, as was one of the two rapes.

So, what did that leave me with? Well, for at least 7 or 8 of the 14 minutes, I watched the three couples walk…. and walk…. and walk. They walked up a hill, across a ridge, through a field, and down a dirt path before something finally happened (they found the footprint). To make matters worse, the film’s Bigfoot is absolutely terrible, looking more like a vagrant who hadn’t shaved in a few months than a wonder of nature. Before the big guy appeared, The Geek was positively boring (I’m talking as dull as the opening sequence of Manos, The Hands of Fate). So, imagine my surprise when, all of a sudden, Bigfoot pulls the clothes off “Girl in Black Shorts” and has his way with her. All at once, what had been a slow, mundane motion picture became a very dark, kinda icky one.

For those brave souls whose curiosity I’ve piqued, proceed with caution: through most of The Geek, you’ll wish you had a pillow. By the time it’s over, you’ll probably feel like you need a bath.

Monday, May 12, 2014

#1,365. Europa Report (2013)

Directed By: Sebastián Cordero

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Christian Camargo

Tag line: "Fear. Sacrifice. Contact"

Trivia: The crew used as inspiration real footage from the International Space Station and space walks from the space shuttle

2013’s Europa Report is a low-budget found footage-style sci-fi / adventure that packs quite a wallop.

Sent on a privately-funded 18-month mission to investigate the possibility of life on Europa (the largest of Jupiter’s moons), the spaceship Europa One and it’s international crew, including ship’s captain William Xu (Daniel Wu), pilot Rosa Dasque (Anamaria Marinca), chief engineer Andrei Blok (Michael Nykvist), marine biologist Dr. Katya Petrovna (Karolina Wydra), assistant engineer James Corrigan (Sharlto Copley) and science office Daniel Luxembourg (Christian Camargo) encounter a number of problems during their journey, and at one point even lose contact with Mission Control. Yet what happens to them on the way is nothing compared to the terror they experience once they reach their destination.

In order for found footage to work, you have to believe what you’re watching is, at the very least, something that could have happened, and thanks to the excellent performances of its entire cast, Europa Report manages to pull this off. From the early scenes, where the crew is getting to know one another (playfully mugging for the cameras that have been placed throughout the ship), to the first sign of trouble (a solar storm knocks out communications), I believed I was watching real people dealing with real situations. Their conversations, while somewhat tech-heavy, felt genuine, as did the manner in which they reacted to each new wrinkle, gathering together to discuss and debate the best course of action. And while this did make Europa Report dialogue-heavy at times, the movie certainly has its share of excitement as well (shortly after the ship loses contact with earth, Corrigan and Blok venture outside to try and repair the damage, leading to what I believe is the film’s most dramatic sequence). The film does begin to fall apart by the time the final act rolls around, at which point Europa Report transforms itself into a sci-fi / horror hybrid, yet even these later scenes have their moments (an attempt to quickly take off from the moon’s surface doesn’t go according to plan).

Produced for less than 10 million dollars, Europa Report is proof positive that, to make a smart, edgy sci fi film, you don't always need a big budget. Sometimes, all it takes is a good idea, and the right cast to bring it to life.