Thursday, July 31, 2014

#1,445. The Toxic Avenger (1984)

Directed By: Michael Herz, Lloyd Kaufman

Starring: Andree Maranda, Mitch Cohen, Jennifer Babtist

Tag line: "He was 98 lbs. of solid nerd until he became..."

Trivia: Future Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei worked as an extra in this film (she's seen coming out of a shower)

Though founded by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz in 1974, it wasn’t until 10 years later that New York-based Troma Entertainment had their first smash hit. A horror / comedy produced on a shoestring budget, The Toxic Avenger wowed audiences during its run on the midnight circuit, and has since become a cult classic.

The setting is Tromaville, the "Toxic Waste Capital of the World". Melvin (Mark Torgl), a 98-pound nerd, works as a janitor at a local health club, where he’s continually picked on and ridiculed by the clientele. In an effort to humiliate him, club regulars Bozo (Gary Schnieder), Slug (Robert Prichard), Wanda (Jennifer Babbist) and Julie (Cindy Manion) go so far as to trick Melvin into kissing a sheep while wearing a pink tutu. To escape the embarrassment this caused him, Melvin leaps from a second story window, landing directly in a barrel of toxic waste. But instead of killing him, the waste transforms Melvin into a mutated muscleman with superhuman strength. Now known as the Toxic Avenger (Mitch Cohen), Melvin actually lands himself a girlfriend, a pretty blind gal named Sara (Andree Maranda). What’s more, Toxie (the name lovingly given to him by the locals) becomes the area’s first superhero, stamping out crime in his effort to make Tromaville a safer place to live. This doesn’t sit well with Mayor Belgoody (Pat Ryan Jr.), the town’s head honcho and a big-time drug dealer whose business has declined ever since The Toxic Avenger hit the scene. Can Toxie clean up Tromaville, or will the bad guys win out in the end?

Troma’s movies have never been known for their subtlety, and true to form, The Toxic Avenger is chock full of over-the-top sequences that feature plenty of gooey, greasy graphic violence. We learn early on just how psychopathic Bozo and his crew are when they hop into a car and make a game out of running down pedestrians, with each new kill worth a certain number of points (a la Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000). The first person they encounter is a teen riding a bike (played by D.J. Calvitto). When Bozo doesn’t kill him with the initial hit, he backs the car up and runs over the poor kid’s head, which is immediately flattened. Like its characters, The Toxic Avenger revels in the bloodshed, and thanks to some surprisingly good special effects, the violence is often stomach-churning (we actually see the biker’s brains squirt out onto the road).

While I’ll always be partial to Troma’s The Class of Nuke ‘em High, which was a cable favorite of mine back in the day, it was The Toxic Avenger that put the company on the map. If you’re looking to take a trip through Tromaville, The Toxic Avenger is where your journey should begin.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

#1,444. Night Key (1937)

Directed By: Lloyd Corrigan

Starring: Boris Karloff, Warren Hull, Jean Rogers

Trivia: Character actor Lloyd Corrigan, an inexperienced director, was hired to replace the previous director when he left the project

You wouldn’t think a movie about burglar alarms would be exciting, would you? Well, 1937’s Night Key certainly is. A suspenseful crime / drama centered on alarm systems it also gives star Boris Karloff a chance to play one of the more sympathetic characters of his career.

Inventor Dave Mallory (Karloff) has created a new burglar alarm, a wireless device that, if implemented, will revolutionize the entire industry. Fearing he may take this invention to a competitor, Steve Ranger (Samuel S. Hinds), owner of the Ranger Protection Service and Mallory’s former business partner, arranges to “buy” Mallory’s newest creation. Despite the fact Ranger swindled him out of a small fortune 20 years earlier (it was Mallory who designed Ranger’s current system, yet when the time came to patent the idea, Steve Ranger’s name was the only one listed on the paperwork), Mallory agrees to the deal, signing a contract that gives Ranger the exclusive rights to his wireless system. But when Ranger again tries to swindle him (he bought the device not to produce it, but to keep it from seeing the light of day), Mallory decides to take matters into his own hands. Using another invention of his, a contraption he calls the “Night Key”, Mallory is able to neutralize Ranger’s system, and with the help of career crook Petty Louie (Hobart Cavanaugh), proceeds to make a fool out of his former partner by easily breaking into buildings his company is protecting. Unfortunately, the Night Key works a little too well, and before long, the criminal underworld is after Mallory and his device, hoping it will help them rip off some of the biggest businesses in town.

With its smart script (penned by John C. Moffitt and Tristram Topper), Night Key brings some excitement to the world of burglar alarms, first by taking us inside an alarm company to show us how it all works (considering this was the late ‘30s, the technology involved was damn impressive), then by focusing on a man who’s found a way to bypass these alarms, who just so happens to be the guy that designed them in the first place! As Mallory, the great Karloff plays to his strengths, providing the movie with a likable lead we always root for, no matter what he’s mixed up in. Even when he’s using the Night Key to sneak into one business after another, we sympathize with Mallory, in part because he never once steals anything (though his accomplice, Petty Louie, does lift a few items along the way). Mallory’s sole purpose in committing these “crimes” is to embarrass Steve Ranger, who’s just as crooked as Petty Louie except that he hides his crimes in contracts and back-room deals, passing it all off as “good business”. Actor Samuel Hinds turns in a strong performance as the deplorable Steve Ranger, and I smiled every time Mallory and his Night Key made a fool out of him.

Yet as engaging as Night Key is early on, it becomes twice as thrilling the moment Karloff is abducted by a crime lord known as “The Kid” (Alan Baxter, turning in what is undoubtedly the film’s weakest performance), who forces him to use the Night Key device to commit actual crimes. And even though some of these later scenes adhere to the standard formulas, like when The Kid and his goons threaten Mallory’s daughter Joan (Jean Rogers) to get the inventor to cooperate, Night Key remains, at all times, a surprisingly intense motion picture.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

#1,443. The ChubbChubbs! (2002)

Directed By: Eric Armstrong

Starring: Bradford Simonsen, Mortonette Jenkins, Jeff Wolverton

Tag line: "Deciding to be a hero is the easy part..."

Trivia: Won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Short

Winner of the 2003 Academy Award for Best Animated Short, The ChubbChubbs is a sci-fi / comedy that squeezes at least a dozen references to classic science fiction movies into its sparse 6-minute run time.

In the middle of a remote planet lies a night club called the “Ale-E-Inn”. Meeper (voiced by Brad Simonsen) works as the facility’s janitor, but dreams of becoming a featured singer. When he accidentally electrocutes the on-stage performer, Meeper is fired and tossed out of the club, where he encounters an alien (one that looks a lot like Jar-Jar Binks) who warns him the ChubbChubbs are coming. Sure enough, he spots an alien army in the distance, running at top-speed in the direction of the club. Once alerted to the impending danger, the patrons inside the Ale-E-Inn take off for safety, leaving Meeper and a quartet of cute, cuddly creatures to fend for themselves.

Part of the fun of watching The ChubbChubbs is trying to identify the various sci-fi films it pays homage to, whether directly (early in the movie, we see the creature from Ridley Scott’s Alien sitting at the bar, enjoying a drink) or indirectly (as Meeper makes his way through the crowded lounge, we overhear a portion of a conversation, during which someone says “stay so low, Han”). Among the movie characters I recognized (along with those mentioned above) were Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet; Darth Vader and Yoda (who were arm-wrestling at one of the tables) from the Star Wars series; and the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still (though, admittedly, it took me a few viewings to find him). In addition, when everyone is fleeing the club, there are nods to War of the Worlds (a spaceship looks exactly like the ones used by the Martians in this film) and E.T The Extra Terrestrial (the famous “bike-flying” scene). Its movie references aside, The ChubbChubbs is also an amusing comedy with a little bit of music (Meeper sings his own special rendition of Aretha Franklin’s "Respect") and a twist that will catch you off-guard.

Film fans are sure to enjoy The ChubbChubbs, and will likely return to it numerous times to try and spot all of its cinematic Easter eggs. But even if you aren’t a sci-fi geek, odds are the movie’s innocent humor will, at the very least, bring a smile to your face.

Monday, July 28, 2014

#1,442. Scream 2 (1997)

Directed By: Wes Craven

Starring: Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, David Arquette

Tag line: "Someone has taken their love of sequels one step too far"

Trivia: The cast were not informed of the identity of the killer until the last day of principal photography

It’s been two years since the tragic Woodsboro murders, and Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is trying to move on with her life. Now in college, she and fellow survivor Randy (Jamie Kennedy) hope to put the past behind them. This is easier said than done, however, seeing as a new movie inspired by the killings and based on the best-selling novel by Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) has just hit theaters, and is a box-office hit. To make matters worse, a copycat killer (right down to the Ghostface mask) is on the loose, and has already murdered several students at the college. Worried about Sidney’s safety, Officer Dewey (David Arquette) turns up at the school, and, along with Sidney’s boyfriend Derek (Jerry O’Connell) does what he can to keep her safe. But as the body count rises, it becomes clear that, if Sidney is to survive this latest onslaught, she’ll have to take matters into her own hands.

Whereas Scream laid out the rules for surviving a horror film, Scream 2 reveals the standard practices of a sequel (and as you can imagine, the film adheres to them perfectly). According to Jaime Kennedy’s Randy, a successful horror sequel requires: 

1. A higher body count. While the opening sequence of the original Scream is certainly unforgettable, Scream 2 also opens in violent fashion, taking out college students Phil (Omar Epps) and Maureen (Jada Pinkett Smith) as they’re attending the premiere of the movie-within-a-movie (appropriately titled Stab). In fact, if you include what’s happening on the big screen when these murders take place, Scream 2 opens with three killings. From there, the bodies continue to pile up.

2. More elaborate death scenes, with more blood and gore – Along with the two kills at the movie theater, which have their fair share of blood (Phil’s death is particularly tough to watch), a later victim (one of Sidney’s sorority sisters) isn’t just stabbed; she’s thrown from a balcony!

3. Never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead – In what is easily the movie’s most intense scene, Sidney and her good friend Hallie (Elise Neal) are trapped in a police car with Ghostface, who, after crashing the vehicle, is lying unconscious in the driver’s seat. To escape, they have to crawl over the killer’s limp body. But is he dead, or just temporarily knocked out?

Its self-referential tendencies aside, Scream 2 features a number of fine performances, from both the returning cast and its new additions (Timothy Olyphant is superb as Mickey, Sidney’s movie-obsessed college chum, and Liev Schrieber’s Cotton Wehry, who was wrongly accused of murdering Sidney’s mother, has more screen time than he did in the first). With all of these key elements in place, Scream 2 proves itself an excellent sequel, and a movie that’s every bit as entertaining as the original

Sunday, July 27, 2014

#1,441. Kansas Pacific (1953)

Directed By: Ray Nazarro

Starring: Sterling Hayden, Eve Miller, Barton MacLane

Tag line: "Built by bullets, dynamite, and blood-stained spikes!"

Trivia: The movie was filmed at the Iverson Movie Ranch and the Sierra Railroad in what is now Railtown 1897 State Historic Park, Jamestown, California

Every now and again, I stumble across a movie I’ve never heard of before that proves to be a hidden gem, and 1953’s Kansas Pacific is surely one. Set in the days leading up to the U.S. Civil War, Kansas Pacific is a western that tells a good story while also offering its audience some rousing action scenes.

Construction on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, considered a vital transportation link for the United States military, has been disrupted time and again by those loyal to the Confederacy. Led by Bill Quantrill (Reed Hadley), the rebels have done everything from destroying the track to threatening workers, forcing them to quit. With the likelihood of a Civil War looming, the U.S. army sends Capt. John Nelson (Sterling Hayden) to assist with the railroad’s construction and ensure that it’s completed on time. Working as an assistant to the current boss, Cal Bruce (Barton MacLane), Nelson hires guards to protect the railroad and its workers, making it more difficult for Quantrill’s agents to sabotage the line. But as Nelson will soon discover Quantrill isn’t a man who gives up easily.

At times, Kansas Pacific looks as impressive as a John Ford western, taking full advantage of such historic locations as California’s Railtown 1897 State Historical Park, a functioning railway system that’s been around for well over a hundred years. Along with its sense of realism, the film benefits from a fine cast, led by the oft-underrated Sterling Hayden, who portrays Capt, Nelson as a heroic, yet very level-headed individual (when he first arrives in Kansas, Nelson jumps into a fight to protect, of all people, Bill Quantrill, mostly because the rebel leader is outnumbered three to one). The action sequences are also well-staged, and include everything from the standard (a chase on horseback, with Nelson trying to track down a trio of men who stole the railroad’s dynamite) to the extreme (one scene actually features an all-out cannon fight). Supporting the action at all times is the film’s tense atmosphere, with Nelson, Bruce and the others never quite sure when or where the rebels will strike (a few work to disrupt the construction from within, posing as railway workers). Not even the standard love story, which has Capt. Nelson falling head-over-heels for Cal Bruce’s daughter, Barbara (Eve Miller), can slow Kansas Pacific down.

Seeing as there were literally hundreds of Hollywood westerns produced in the ‘40s and ‘50s, odds are a few more hidden gems are out there just waiting to be discovered. And if they’re half as entertaining as Kansas Pacific, I can’t wait to find them!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

#1,440. Cult of the Cobra (1955)

Directed By: Francis D. Lyon

Starring: Faith Domergue, Richard Long, Marshall Thompson

Tag line: "Can a woman's beauty be changed to a thing of terror?"

Trivia: All five of this movie's leading men later starred in at least one successful TV series

The year is 1946, and some American G.I.’s, only days before they head home, are touring a marketplace in Asia. While there, the six buddies: Tom (Marshall Thompson); Paul (Richard Long); Carl (Jack Kelly); Pete (William Reynolds); Rico (David Janssen); and Nick (James Dobson), encounter a snake charmer named Daru (Leonard Strong), who promises to sneak them into a religious ceremony no westerner has ever seen before, where a woman will supposedly transform herself into a cobra! Shortly after the ceremony begins, Nick snaps a picture, inadvertently exposing the fact that foreigners are attending this sacred event. As the pals fight their way out, the High Priest (John Halloran) puts a curse on them, promising the Snake Goddess will take her revenge by killing each of the intruders, one at a time. Sure enough, Nick dies the next morning, the victim of a snake bite. The remaining five head back to the States, returning to civilian life and forgetting all about the curse. That is, until Tom begins dating Lisa (Faith Domergue), who only recently moved to the U.S. All at once, the ex-G.I’s start dying under mysterious circumstances, and only Paul suspects the elusive Lisa might have something to do with it.

Released in 1955, Cult of the Cobra gets off to a good start, with its best scene being the religious ceremony, during which a woman, decked out in scales and moving like a snake, slithers out of a basket and attacks one of the faithful. It’s at this point Nick makes the fatal error of trying to take a picture (despite the warning Daru gave them earlier that cameras were not allowed). Their escape from the temple is also well handled, and the mystery surrounding Nick’s death keeps things interesting for a while (he was originally bitten right after the ceremony, and Tom saved his life by sucking the poison from the wound. Later that night, as an injured yet fully alert Nick lies in a hospital bed, he’s again bitten by a snake that crawled through the window, this time finishing the job). I even liked how the attacks were shown from the snake’s point of view, and Faith Domergue reminded me of Simone Simon in 1942’s Cat People, playing Lisa as a somewhat vulnerable woman who may or may not be hiding a terrible secret.

Unfortunately, Cult of the Cobra begins to lose steam at its halfway point, spending more time on the romantic entanglement that develops between Lisa and Tom than was necessary. Another issue is the attacks themselves, which become less effective as the film progresses (we never actually see a snake in any of them). Things pick up again in the final moments, but between its promising start and tense finale are about 40-45 minutes that bog the story down. While not a bad movie, Cult of the Cobra isn't all that it could have been.

Friday, July 25, 2014

#1,439. He Died with a Felafel in his Hand (2001)

Directed By: Richard Lowenstein

Starring: Noah Taylor, Emily Hamilton, Romane Bohringer

Tag line: "Some people will do anything to get out of paying the rent"

Trivia: This film is based on a novel by Australian author John Birmingham, first published in 1994

Some of you may already be familiar with an organization called Film Movement (located online at ), but for those of you who aren’t, Film Movement is, among other things, a DVD-of-the-month club that offers subscribers a chance to own independent movies from all over the world, films that might have otherwise never seen. I was fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor of this amazing service when it launched in 2003, and the movies released during the company’s first year are among the best they’ve put out. I’ve already covered a few of them (Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets, Inch’Allah Dimanche, and OT: Our Town), but before this challenge is over, I intend to re-watch every one of the 12 pictures that made up Film Movement’s debut year. He Died with a Felafel in his Hand, a 2001 Australian import, was the second movie the company ever released, and as dark comedies go, it’s a damn good one!

Danny (Noah Taylor), an aspiring writer, has lived in 49 shared-accommodation houses, each with its own set of bizarre roommates. He Died with a Felafel in his Hand covers the time he spent in three different dwellings. The first, a one-story building located in Brisbane, was also home to Sam (Emily Hamilton), a pretty English girl; Flip (Brett Stewart), Danny’s good friend and a drug addict; Anya (Romane Bohringer), a vegetarian who adheres to ancient Celtic traditions; and Satomi (Sanyuri Tanoue), a girl from Japan who speaks very little English. When the house is torn apart by skinheads, Danny packs up and moves to a place in Melbourne, where he listens to the constant ramblings of his socialist housemate, Iain (Ian Hughes). Before long, both Flip and Taylor (Alex Menglet), who were with Danny in Brisbane, also move in, as does Sam, whose failed romance with Anya has driven her to the brink of suicide. When Taylor steals Danny's credit card and uses it to run up an $8,000 casino bill, the poor guy is forced to relocate once again, landing in a Seaside flat in Sydney owned by high-strung actress Nina (Sophie Lee). His past catches up with him when both Anya and Sam turn up, joined soon after by Flip, fresh off his recent stint in a drug rehab. Worried that he’ll never become a professional writer, Danny falls into a deep depression, and locks himself away in his room for days at a time. It isn’t until Taylor makes a startling discovery while flipping through the pages of Penthouse magazine that Danny’s life finally begins to straighten itself out. But how long will his new-found happiness last?

He Died with a Felafel in his Hand feels a lot like a Wes Anderson film in that it creates a world resembling our own, then fills it with a string of peculiar characters. And as strange as things sometimes get in both Melbourne and Sydney, its Danny’s experiences in Brisbane that truly stand out. Among the unusual goings-on is Flip’s tendency to tan himself by moonlight and Taylor getting his frustrations out by driving toads into the side of the house with his golf clubs. The film’s most outlandish scene, however, occurs when Anya organizes a wiccan-like ceremony to usher in the next lunar cycle, during which she plans to carry out an actual human sacrifice! While the characters themselves are occasionally fascinating (especially Danny, played to perfection by Noah Taylor), it’s the chaos they stir up that makes He Died with a Felafel in his Hand so entertaining.

So do yourself a favor and check out some of the movies available over at the Film Movement website. Odds are you’ll find a new favorite among its featured titles, and even if He Died with a Felafel in his Hand doesn’t crack your personal top-10 list, it’s a quirky, well-acted, beautifully shot motion picture that brings a lot more to the table than your average comedy ever would.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

#1,438. Taken (2008)

Directed By: Pierre Morel

Starring: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen

Tag line: "His daughter was taken. He has 96 hours to get her back"

Trivia: According to Liam Neeson, he agreed to take this role because he believed that the film was going to be a straight-to-DVD release

The award-winning star of such movies as Schindler’s List, Rob Roy, and Kinsey, Liam Neeson kicked off a second career as an action hero in 2008’s Taken, a film about a former CIA agent named Bryan Mills (Neeson) who comes out of retirement to save his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who, while vacationing in Europe, is kidnapped by Albanian sex traffickers. With little information to go on, Mills makes his way to Paris, where he does everything in his power to track down those responsible and, in the process, inflict his own special brand of justice.

Despite its somewhat simple premise, Taken is a top-notch action flick with a number of tense showdowns, yet the film’s most impressive aspect is its bad-ass hero. As portrayed by Neeson, Bryan Mills is a no-nonsense guy who focuses all of his energy on the task at hand. In what is arguably the film's most intense sequence, Mills is on the phone with his daughter when the kidnappers show up. Shortly after she’s been taken, one of the kidnappers picks up her cell phone, at which point Mills issues him a very specific warning: “If you are looking for ransom”, he says to the kidnapper, “I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you”. From that moment on, Mills is a one-man wrecking crew, relying first on his abilities as an investigator (he’s able to identify a key suspect by analyzing a digital picture and finding a miniscule image of the man’s reflection), and, later on, some of his other “skills” (in one exciting scene, he faces off against an entire room full of baddies, finishing them off before he can break a sweat). True to his word, Bryan Mills is, indeed, a nightmare for his enemies, and Neeson does an excellent job conveying his character’s single-mindedness.

Co-written by Luc Besson, who in recent years was also responsible for such high-energy motion pictures as The Transporter and 2005’s Unleashed (aka Danny the Dog), Taken features all sorts of great action, but it’s the film’s main character, as well as its star, that makes it an unforgettable experience.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

#1,437. Lick the Star (1998)

Directed By: Sofia Coppola

Starring: Christina Turley, Audrey Kelly, Julia Vanderham

Trivia: This short was shot in 16mm Black and White

Shot on 16mm in black and white, Sofia Coppola’s Lick the Star is a 14-minute short that shines a light on alienation, and does so in a very stylish manner.

After missing a few days with an injury, 7th grader Kate (Christina Turley) returns to school and is relieved to find that not much has changed during her absence. Chloe (Audrey Heaven) is still the “Queen” of the hallways, and the boys continue to be immature jerks. In fact, the only thing that’s different is the sudden appearance of a phrase: “Lick the Star”, which Chloe and a few other girls repeat over and over again. Inspired by a line from the V.C. Andrews novel Flowers in the Attic, “Lick the Star” is the code name for a secret plan the girls have been working on, where they’ll drop some rat poison into the food of several boys. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Chloe suddenly finds herself an outcast at school, a reality she’s ill-equipped to handle.

Even though it’s narrated by Kate, Chloe is the central character of Lick the Star. As the movie opens, Chloe is a total bitch, going out of her way to insult classmates while rallying her friends around a common cause: teaching the boys in their class a lesson. This all changes, however, when Chloe herself becomes an outsider, at which point the film takes a sharp dramatic turn. Isolation is a theme Coppola would return to in the future (both The Virgin Suicides and Marie Antoinette deal, at least in part, with characters who find themselves on the outside looking in), Yet what makes the movie so unique is the manner in which Coppola tells the story. By way of slow-motion and a catchy soundtrack, Sofia Coppola trumpets her arrival as a filmmaker with a singular vision, setting the stage for what would follow in the years to come. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

#1,436. Cloverfield (2008)

Directed By: Matt Reeves

Starring: Mike Vogel, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan

Tag line: "Some Thing Has Found Us"

Trivia: The rats used in the tunnel scene were specially-trained and colored with a dark, charcoal-like substance to give them the appearance of wild, dirty tunnel rats

I was blown away the first time I saw the trailer for Cloverfield. Clocking in at just over 90 seconds, it opens with home video of a party at an unspecified location in New York City. Suddenly, the ground shakes, and the lights flicker on and off. 

According to news reports, an earthquake just rocked the area, but when the revelers head up to the roof to survey the damage, they see a massive explosion in the distance, which sends debris hurtling through the air. 

Frightened and confused, the guests rush down the stairs and into the street, where hundreds more have already gathered. We then hear what sounds like a muffled roar, and watch as the severed head of the Statue of Liberty crashes through a building and lands directly in front of them. 

The trailer ends, never once mentioning the title of the film. But at that point, the title didn’t matter. This was a picture I had to see!

The party, it turns out, is for Rob (Michael Stahl-David), who recently accepted a position as Vice President of a major corporation headquartered in Japan. With Rob set to leave for Asia the next day, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and good friend Hud (T.J. Miller) invite some of Rob’s pals to an impromptu farewell bash. 

It’s while Hud is videotaping the guest’s farewell messages for Rob that the events in the trailer occur. With the camera still running, Hud (now on the street with everyone else) spots through the viewfinder what appears to be a giant creature in the distance, heading in their direction. 

Deciding it would be best to get the hell out of the city, Rob, Jason, and Hud, along with Jason's girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) and party guest Marlena (Lizzy Caplan), make their way through the crowded streets, dodging both the giant creature and the U.S. military, which is doing everything in its power to stop the colossal beast before it destroys New York. 

But when Rob receives a frantic call from former girlfriend Beth (Odette Annable), who is trapped in her apartment, the group heads back into the city to save her. 

Most giant monster films - from the classic Godzilla to the more recent Pacific Rim - put the emphasis squarely on the creatures themselves, giving little thought to the hundreds killed when a building is knocked over or a city block destroyed. With Cloverfield, producer J.J. Abrams and director Matt Reeves depart from the norm by focusing on the survivors, tagging along with them as they look for a way out. The result is a highly charged movie that relies more on characterization than it does special effects. 

Fortunately, the film’s cast was up to the challenge, delivering performances that made this far-fetched premise seem totally believable. One scene in particular, where a character calls home to break some tragic news to their family, is handled flawlessly. Still, even with its focus on the human element, Cloverfield does occasionally show us the monster, and it is an awesome sight!

It had the makings of a summer blockbuster, yet Cloverfield was released in the U.S. in January of 2008, historically a month reserved for movies in which the studios had little faith. Taking everyone by surprise, Cloverfield made over $40 million its opening weekend, which, at the time, was a record for the month of January. So, along with being a damn fine flick, Cloverfield was a wake-up call for Hollywood executives, showing them that, if a movie is intelligent and entertaining, it will make money no matter when you release it!

Monday, July 21, 2014

#1,435. Group Marriage (1973)

Directed By: Stephanie Rothman

Starring: Victoria Vetri, Aimée Eccles, Solomon Sturges

Tag line: "Mutual Mates - Carnal Companions - And the Possibilities Go On...And On...And On"

Trivia: Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto worked as an assistant cameraman on this film

A 1973 sex comedy directed by Stephanie Rothman, Group Marriage is a movie about six people (3 men and 3 women) who share everything. And I do mean everything!

Chris (Aimée Eccles) and her longtime boyfriend Sandor (Solomon Sturges) haven’t been getting along. So, when Chris meets Dennis (Jeff Pomerantz) one afternoon, she invites him home and, later that night, goes to bed with him. At first enraged that Chris had sex with another man, Sandor soon has a change of heart when Dennis asks his beautiful girlfriend, Jan (Victoria Vetri), to join them for dinner. Almost immediately, Sandor falls for Jan, and before long, the couples have become a foursome. But it doesn’t end there. Eventually, two more people enter the mix: professional lifeguard Phil (Zack Taylor) and attorney Elaine (Claudia Jennings). During their time together, these six experience plenty of ups and downs, yet their love for one another remains strong. So strong, in fact, that they contemplate doing something that’s never been done before: a group marriage!

Despite being billed as a sex comedy, Group Marriage isn’t the least bit funny. Not a single joke or insult hits the mark, and the gay neighbors Randy (John McMurtry) and Rodney (Bill Striglos), who keep a close watch on everything that’s going on next door, are flamboyantly over-the-top, which after a while is more distracting than anything. Along with its weak humor, Group Marriage also comes up short in the sex department. The nudity (what little there is) is brief, and a late scene, which shows Phil and Elaine in bed together, is awkward as hell (they spend the entire time massaging each other). Even the performances are bad (Claudia Jennings, who was terrific in Gator Bait and The Unholy Rollers, fails to deliver in this one).

The main characters in Group Marriage may be trying something new, but the movie itself is as ordinary as they come.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

#1,434. British Intelligence (1940)

Directed By: Terry Morse

Starring: Boris Karloff, Margaret Lindsay, Bruce Lester

Line from the film: "These sacrifices we are all making - do you think they will eventually mean something to mankind?"

Trivia: This movie is based on a play, produced by George M. Cohan, that premiered in 1918

Like Tower of London, 1940’s British Intelligence gave audiences a chance to see Boris Karloff in something other than a horror movie. The story of a German spy network operating in England during World War One, British Intelligence is a decent, if somewhat confusing, wartime thriller.

German spy Helene Von Lorbeer (Margaret Lindsey) is sent to England by her superiors, where, posing as a refugee, she becomes the house guest of Arthur Bennett (Holmes Herbert), a key official in the British government. Yet Helene isn’t the only spy in the Bennett estate; the family’s French butler, Valdar (Karloff), is also one, and claims to be an associate of Franz Strendler’s, the most notorious German agent in all of Britain. In an effort to quell the situation, Colonel Yates (Leonard Mudie) of British Intelligence contacts Bennett and lets him know his house is a hotbed of spy activity. But are these spies truly working for the enemy, or are they double agents planted by the British to help draw the elusive Strendler out of hiding?

It seems that just about everyone is a spy in British Intelligence. Aside from Helene and Valdar, the Germans have planted a number of other agents in England, from upper-class businessman Henry Thompson (Lester Matthews), who introduces Helene to the Bennetts; to the neighborhood milkman (Clarence Derwent). Even the secretary at Arthur Bennett’s law firm (played by Louise Brien) is a German spy. To make matters more complex, a few of these so-called spies are actually British double agents who report directly to Colonel Yates! British Intelligence is chock full of so many spies that you need a scorecard to keep track of them all.

Along with its intricate tale of espionage, British Intelligence also features some thrilling battle sequences (consisting primarily of stock footage). What’s more, the movie, made as the Second World War raged on, waves the flag in our faces on several occasions (Towards the end of the film, Bennett and Yates are talking about war, and during the course of their conversation Yeats laments the fact that there are “maniacs who lust for power” in the world, an obvious reference to Adolph Hitler).

A well-acted thriller, British Intelligence may not be the easiest film to follow, but it does keep you guessing to the very end.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

#1,433. Haunter (2013)

Directed By: Vincenzo Natali

Starring: Abigail Breslin, Peter Outerbridge, Michelle Nolden

Tag line: "Trapped by an evil from her past"

Trivia: This movie premiered at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival

By all appearances, Lisa Johnson (Abigail Breslin) is a normal teenage girl, living an average suburban life with her parents (Peter Outerbridge and Michelle Nolden) and younger brother (Peter DaCunha). But she knows it’s all a lie. In fact, Lisa has recently become aware that she and her family are re-living the same day over and over again, eating the same food, having the same conversations, and watching he same television shows. What Lisa doesn’t know is why this is happening, or how long it’s been going on. Has she lived this day a dozen times? A thousand? A million? She’s not even sure it’s still 1985.

Then, Lisa begins hearing voices, which are calling her by name. Frightened at first, she eventually tries to contact whoever it is that’s reaching out to her. It’s at this point she receives a visit from the Pale Man (Stephen McHattie), who warns Lisa not to tamper with what she doesn’t understand, and threatens to harm her family if she keeps looking for answers. Desperate to break the cycle, Lisa ignores these warnings and continues her search, contacting a young lady named Olivia (Eleanor Zichy), who is somehow living in the same house as Lisa and her family. But who is this mysterious girl, and what does she want? More importantly, how does the Pale Man figure into all of this?

As evident from the above synopsis, director Vincenzo Natali’s Haunter is as much a mystery as it is a horror film, and while we do learn a few key facts early on (like why Lisa’s family is re-living the same day), the movie is in no hurry to piece everything together, leaving us as perplexed as its main character and wondering how its seemingly elaborate tale (which involves many different people) is going to tie together in the end. Helping to move this engaging story along is the film’s excellent cast. Abigail Breslin, who, as Lisa, has to carry much of the movie on her own, is convincing as both an angst-ridden teen trying to come to terms with her life and a scared girl facing off against an evil she can’t possibly understand. Also strong is the reliable Stephen McHattie as the Pale Man, who, with his sinister smile and cock-sure attitude, appears to be in control of Lisa and her family. As we soon discover, his power extends even further than that.

From the word “go”, Haunter wraps you up in its story and refuses to loosen its grip until all has been revealed. A smart, edgy movie with an exemplary cast, Haunter is independent horror done right.

Friday, July 18, 2014

#1,432. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

Directed By: Mel Brooks

Starring: Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis, Roger Rees

Tag line: "The legend had it coming... "

Trivia: Hulk Hogan was offered the part of Little John but he turned it down

In my formative years, I spent a good deal of time watching the movies of Mel Brooks. I loved every single film he directed, from The Producers to History of the World, Part 1 and everything in between, movies that, no matter how often I saw them, never lost their ability to make me laugh. Then, in the late ‘80s, things started to change. Most of the cutting edge material that made Brooks’ early pictures so memorable slowly faded away, replaced by a more juvenile brand of comedy that put the focus squarely on slapstick and broad humor. I noticed this shift in style in 1987’s Spaceballs, a very funny movie that I enjoyed, but which sometimes aimed low, going for the obvious joke more often than Brooks ever had before. This trend continued in 1992, when the writer / director made Life Stinks, a comedy / romance that I absolutely detested. All at once, I found myself wondering if Mel Brooks had lost his edge.

So it was with great trepidation that I approached 1993’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Brooks’ take on the legend of Robin Hood. Having missed the movie during its theatrical run, I rented the video from my local Blockbuster the day it was released, and sure enough, my worst fears were confirmed. Robin Hood: Men in Tights felt like "Mel Brooks lite", with jokes and situations that, more often than not, fell flat on their face. Full disclosure: I stopped the tape a half hour in, hopped into my car, and returned it to Blockbuster with the intention of never watching it again.

Still, as much as I disliked what I saw, I always felt a slight tinge of regret that I never finished the movie. So, today, I finally set things right, and to my surprise, Robin Hood: Men in Tights is funnier than I thought it would be. I didn’t love it, but I did like it.

While crusading in the Holy Land, Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes), aka Robin Hood, is captured by the enemy and placed in a Jerusalem prison. With the help of fellow inmate Asneeze (Isaac Hayes), Robin escapes and swims back to England, where he’s reunited with his blind servant Blinkin (Mark Blankfield). Unfortunately for Robin, he returned home just in time to see Loxley castle being repossessed by the bank for failure to pay back taxes. Vowing to regain his family’s belongings, Robin, along with his new friends Ah-Choo (Dave Chappelle), Little John (Eric Allan Kramer), and Will Scarlet O’Hara (Matthew Porretta), faces off against the tyrannical Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees), a faithful servant of Prince John’s (Richard Lewis). It’s during this time that Robin first meets Marian (Amy Yasbeck), a member of the king’s court, with whom he falls instantly in love. But is romance truly in the cards, or will Robin and his merry men be captured by the Sheriff and thrown in jail?

I still had problems with the opening moments of Robin Hood Men in Tights; aside from a rather dated rap sequence, Brooks throws in a brief scene spoofing the Home Alone movies that goes nowhere. On the plus side, Cary Elwes, so good as the swashbuckling hero in The Princess Bride, makes for a perfect Robin Hood, and many of the film’s musical numbers are well executed, including "Men in Tights", a tune written by Brooks himself. And while the humor does occasionally come across as juvenile (during an archery competition, Robin fires an arrow that defies the laws of both physics and gravity), there’s plenty here for adults to enjoy as well (Brooks’ cameo as Rabbi Tuckman is outshined only by Dom DeLuise's, who, in his brief appearance as Don Giovanni, does a Marlon Brando impression that’s positively hilarious).

In the end, I was glad I got to finish Robin Hood: Men on Tights, a movie that, despite its flaws, gave me a few good laughs.

But nothing…. Nothing… can get me to watch Dracula: Dead and Loving it. That’s where I draw the line!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

#1,431. Moonraker (1979)

Directed By: Lewis Gilbert

Starring: Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale

Tag line: "Outer space now belongs to 007"

Trivia: This movie marked the 1st time the modern space shuttle was featured in a motion picture

Moonraker was the first Bond movie I ever saw on the big screen, and to be honest it bored me to tears. Going into it expecting to see space battles galore (thanks, in part, to the film’s ambitious ad campaign), the movie proved a major disappointment for this nine-year-old. Watching it again today, I still think Moonraker falls short of the mark, but at least this time around it managed to hold my attention.

While on its way to England, A U.S. manufactured space shuttle is hijacked, then flown to an unknown location. In his effort to track it down, MI6’s James Bond (Roger Moore) travels to San Francisco, where he visits Drax Industries, the company that built the shuttle. When a talk with its owner, billionaire Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale), leaves 007 with more questions than answers, he delves into the matter a bit further, discovering along the way that a CIA operative named Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles), who’s posing as an astronaut in training, is also searching for the lost shuttle. With the help of Drax’s personal assistant, Corrine Dufour (Corrine Clery), Bond uncovers information that leads him first to Venice, and then Rio de Janeiro, where he learns that Drax, who was most certainly behind the hijacking, has a scheme that, if successful, could result in mass murder on a global scale.

As originally planned, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me was going to be followed by For Your Eyes Only. Hoping to capitalize on the Sci-Fi craze of the late ‘70s, producer Albert Broccoli instead switched things up by shoehorning Moonraker into the rotation, taking Bond someplace he’s never been before: Outer Space. Sure enough, the movie contains several nods to the era’s science fiction films, from laser rifles (a la Star Wars) to the keypad on a security door, which plays a tune anyone familiar with Close Encounters of the Third Kind will recognize immediately. In keeping with the spirit of these sci-fi offerings, Moonraker is effects heavy (a battle between dozens of U.S. astronauts and Drax’s cronies, set in the cold recesses of space, is well executed), and as set pieces go, Drax’s elaborate space station is among the best in the entire series.

Moonraker also boasts some impressive gadgetry, with “Q” (Desmond Llewellyn) giving Bond such nifty items as an explosives-laced watch and a safe-cracking device that employs X-ray technology to get the job done. Bond is even presented with not one, but two special-issue boats, each with its own set of features. The first, disguised as a Gondola, is the weakest of the pair (Bond uses this to run from assassins chasing him through the canals of Venice, finally escaping when he transforms the Gondola into a car and drives away). The second boat, however, which 007 has with him in Rio, is equipped with mines, torpedoes, and a built-in hang glider (which, at a key moment, comes in handy). Aside from the epic battle in space, this particular boat chase is the movie’s best action sequence.

Unfortunately, the film’s story plays second fiddle to the action and special effects. Bond’s investigation into Drax’s earth-bound activities seldom goes anywhere; while in Venice, 007 swings by a glass manufacturing plant (the name of which appeared on a blueprint in Drax’s office), only to do absolutely nothing once he gets there. The performances are also a problem. Marking his fourth turn as James Bond, Roger Moore was finally beginning to show his age (he was 51 when Moonraker was made) and as a result, the hand-to-hand fight scenes are flat and. at times, almost embarrassing to watch. Also lacking in energy are the two Bond girls: Holly Goodhead (the main squeeze) and Corrine Dufour (the sacrificial lamb), both of whom are pretty, but lifeless. Not even the villains are interesting. Michael Lonsdale seems bored as Drax, and his chief henchman in the first half of the film, a martial arts specialist named Chang (Toshirô Suga), feels like a leftover from You Only Live Twice. Only Richard Kiel’s Jaws, making his second appearance in a Bond picture (following The Spy Who Loved Me), comes across as truly menacing.

As it was with my recent viewing of The Man with the Golden Gun, a second watch of Moonraker proved more entertaining than the first, but not quite entertaining enough to mask its flaws. Like Golden Gun, Moonraker ranks as one of the weaker films in the series.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

#1,430. Horror Island (1941)

Directed By: George Waggner

Starring: Dick Foran, Leo Carrillo, Peggy Moran

Line from the movie: "Don't be frightened, folks. It's just Morgan's ghost. He resents our coming here"

Trivia: Universal released this film on March 28, 1941, only 25 days after shooting began (on March 3rd)

On the run from his creditors, ship’s captain Bill Martin (Dick Foran) is desperately searching for a get-rich-quick scheme to solve his financial woes. Enter Tobias Clump (Leo Carrillo), a peg-legged sailor who’s found a treasure map, one suggesting there’s buried treasure on Morgan’s Island, a small parcel of land Martin owns. With his faithful sidekick, Stuff Oliver (Fuzzy Knight), in tow, Martin drags Tobias to the office of Professor Quinley (Hubart Cavanaugh), an expert at topography, to determine if the map is genuine. Alas, the Professor tells the trio the map is a forgery, but that doesn’t prevent Martin from trying to cash in by launching his very own “Treasure Hunt” business, charging people $50 to search for riches on Morgan’s Island while, at the same time, giving them a tour of what he claims is an authentic haunted mansion. Several people sign up for the adventure, including socialite Wendy Creighton (Peggy Moran); Martin’s cousin George (John Eldredge); and a variety of others, all hoping to find a treasure that will make them wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. But to the group’s dismay, a mysterious cloaked figure, known only as “The Phantom” (Foy Van Dolsen), has also come to Morgan’s Island, and is willing to do whatever it takes to frighten them away.

Despite the fact it has the word “horror” in its title, and features a house that’s supposedly haunted, Horror Island is a much better mystery than it is a fright flick. The first night Martin and the others are on the island, one of the guests, a gangster named Rod (Ralf Harolde), is gunned down, presumably by the Phantom. But then, several scenes later, something happens that causes you to wonder if it really was the Phantom who committed this heinous crime, or someone else entirety. Horror Island even tosses a few plot twists into the mix, just to keep you on your toes (the final reveal took me completely by surprise).

So even if it isn't a very good horror film, Horror Island is nonetheless a fun mystery / thriller that will have you guessing to the end.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

#1,429. All-American Co-Ed (1941)

Directed By: LeRoy Prinz

Starring: Frances Langford, Johnny Downs, Marjorie Woodworth


Trivia: This film marked the first credited screen performance of actor Alan Hale, Jr.

As a publicity stunt, the all-girls Agricultural College Mar Brynn, on the advice of their press agent (Harry Langdon), decides to offer scholarships to a dozen beautiful women, all of whom will then participate in a musical pageant. What they don’t know is that the fraternity of a rival school plans to disrupt the proceedings by dressing one of their members (Johnny Downs) up as a woman and entering him for consideration of one of the scholarships. Sure enough, this imposter is chosen, but before carrying out his diabolical plan, he falls in love with Virginia (Frances Langford), the pretty niece of Mar Brynn’s President (Esther Dale).

All-American Co-Ed is a fairly unspectacular film, with musical numbers that aren’t particularly memorable and a story that isn’t all that funny. In fact, the best thing about the movie is its cast and crew. Director LeRoy Prinz previously worked as a choreographer, and was nominated three times for an Academy Award for Best Dance Direction (including two nominations in 1936 for All the King’s Horses and The Big Broadcast of 1936). In addition, Hal Roach, Jr., whose father was responsible for bringing comedians like Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy to the big screen, helped write the story; while prolific composer Edward Ward handled the film’s score (and received an Academy award nomination for his troubles). Not to be outdone, the cast of All-American Co-Ed also has a few recognizable names, including silent comedian Harry Langdon (in one of his last roles) and Alan Hale Jr., future Captain of the S.S. Minnow in ‘60s television show Gilligan’s Island, in what would be his first credited screen appearance. Aside from these two, All-American Co-Ed features Kent Rogers, who, up to that point, had worked primarily in cartoons, providing the voices for such well-known characters as Woody Woodpecker and Looney Tunes’ Beaky Buzzard. Rogers even got to show off his vocal talents in this movie, impersonating a number of celebrities (though, in my opinion, his Gary Cooper left something to be desired).

So even if All-American Co-Ed falls short as a musical / comedy, its prolific cast and crew make it, at the very least, a cinematic curiosity.

Monday, July 14, 2014

#1,428. Lake Placid (1999)

Directed By: Steve Miner

Starring: Bridget Fonda, Bill Pullman, Oliver Platt

Tag line: "You'll never know what bit you"

Trivia: This film was a financial success at the box office and was followed by three made-for-television sequels

1999’s Lake Placid, a horror / comedy directed by Steve Miner, has some of the most obnoxious characters I’ve ever come across. I’m talking really obnoxious, to the point that I actually wished them bodily harm. It’s a shame, too, because, at its heart, Lake Placid is a decent monster movie (in this case, the “monster” is a humongous crocodile), and at times is a fairly entertaining watch.

Black Lake, a picturesque body of water situated in the wilds of Maine, is a normally peaceful spot where campers and hikers gather for a little rest and relaxation. That all changes, however, when a game warden tasked with tagging beavers is bitten in half by an unknown creature, lurking just beneath the water’s surface. To try and determine what it was that killed him, Sheriff Keough (Brendan Gleeson) teams up with Jack Wells (Bill Pullman), a Ranger with the Fish and Game Department. Unfortunately, their investigation is hampered by a pair of researchers, both of whom insist on tagging along: Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda), a paleontologist working for a museum in New York who’s sent by her boss (Adam Arkin) to check out a large tooth removed from the dead man’s carcass; and Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt), a mythology professor / millionaire who has dedicated his life to studying crocodiles. Neither Wells nor Sheriff Keough believe a Crocodile was responsible for the attack, mostly because the reptile would have had to swim thousands of miles to get there (they aren’t native to this area of the world). Despite their protests, however, Cyr remains convinced that a crocodile has settled in Black Lake, and is willing to do just about anything to prove it.

The collection of so-called “professionals” gathered together to look into the mystery of Black Lake (the locals wanted to name the body of water “Lake Placid”, but were told that name was taken) are grating to a fault. As played by Fonda, Kelly is a stuck-up bitch who’s only there because her boss, with whom she was having a romantic relationship, recently dumped her, and wanted her out of the office for a while to give her time to cool down. So, as you can imagine, she had a bad attitude to start with, and it only gets worse when she’s forced to camp in the woods (she hates bugs, worms, and pretty much everything else that lives in the wilderness). Kelly is also sarcastic (when Wells points out that she’s obviously never been to Maine before, Kelly responds “I have good hygiene. I’m not welcome”), but isn’t half as abrasive as Oliver Platt’s Hector Cyr, the spoiled rich brat who seldom utters a line without insulting someone, his main target being the dim-witted Sheriff Keough (While on the lake looking for the Crocodile, Cyr says to the portly Keough “You know, sheriff, when friends or family say certain things, they tend not to register, so it helps to hear it from a complete stranger... you're fat”). Yet as bad as Kelly and Hector are, the most cynical character in Lake Placid is the aptly named Mrs. Bickerman, a little old lady (and the lake’s only full-time resident) played by none other than Betty White, whose constant sarcasm is peppered with plenty of foul language. The problems I had with these characters were in no way the fault of the performers; Fonda, Platt, and White do the best they can with the material they’re given. The fault lies with screenwriter David E. Kelley, who in trying to bring a little comic relief to his film instead created a trio of characters I would never want to meet in real life.

If you like monster movies, and think you can put up with these three pain-in-the-asses for 90 minutes, then I do recommend Lake Placid. The crocodile itself is damn cool (brought to life by special effects wizard Stan Winston and his crew), as are the scenes where we get to see the creature in action (along with a nifty sequence in which a deputy’s head is bitten off, there’s a later scene involving a huge bear that you won’t soon forget). 

But if you do take a trip to Lake Placid, don’t be surprised if you find yourself rooting for the croc.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

#1,427. Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)

Directed By: Jonathan Demme

Starring: Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Pegi Young

Tag line: "From the director of one of the greatest music movies ever - The Talking Heads' STOP MAKING SENSE"

Trivia: This movie won the Audience Award at the 2006 NatFilm Festival

I wouldn’t call myself the biggest Neil Young fan, but I do enjoy his music (along with his striking score for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which fit that movie perfectly, Young’s 1972 album Harvest gets regular play on my iPod). Directed by Jonathan Demme, Neil Young: Heart of Gold is a concert film shot over two nights at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, during which Young debuted music from his latest LP, Prairie Wind.

Following a series of interviews conducted with Young and the members of his band (including backup singer Emmylou Harris), Heart of Gold takes us to opening night, with Young kicking things off with “The Painter”, the first in a series of tunes lifted from Prairie Wind. This is complemented by the singer performing a number of his classics, including “Heart of Gold”, “Old Man”, and “The Needle and the Damage Done”.

But Neil Young: Heart of Gold is more than just a concert: it’s the chronicle of an artist presenting some of the most personal work of his career. According to his wife, Pegi, Prairie Wind was written at a time when Young was undergoing treatment for a brain aneurysm. As a result, he took a very sentimental approach to the album, giving many of the songs a nostalgic feel. This is further enhanced by Young himself, who, on several occasions, regales the audience with stories from his past (just before “Far From Home”, he talks of his early life on a chicken farm, and how, at the age of seven, his father gave him an Arthur Godfrey ukulele). As Pegi Young put it, Prairie Wind was, in many respects, a link to the singer’s past (“like his life flashing before his eyes”, she says at one point), and throughout Neil Young: Heart of Gold, we sense how important this music is to him.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

#1,426. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Directed By: Don Siegel

Starring: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates

Tag line: "The original nightmare that threatened the world"

Trivia: Sam Peckinpah, who has a small role in the film as a meter reader, also worked on the movie as a dialogue coach

Whether or not it’s an allegory for McCarthy-era politics (a hot topic when it was released in 1956), one thing is certain: Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a masterpiece of paranoia, with its lead character slowly realizing there may not be anyone left in the world he can fully trust.

After a brief vacation, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns home to find a very different town than the one he left, with people from every corner complaining that their loved ones have somehow changed, and are not the person they once were. At first perplexed by this strange occurrence, Miles soon realizes he is dealing with more than a case of mass hysteria. 

Aided by his former girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) as well as his good friends Jack and Theodora “Teddy” Belicec (King Donovan and Carolyn Jones), Miles uncovers evidence that the citizens of his community are being replaced by duplicates, the first step in what very well could be an invasion from outer space!

The pods themselves, in which the duplicates are "grown", are effectively creepy, but its the shadows and sharp angles director Don Siegel employs throughout the film that conjure up feelings of paranoia and confusion, as if the entire world were closing in on his main characters. Shortly after making his startling discovery, Miles tries to call the federal authorities, only to be told by the operator that all lines are busy. Under normal circumstances, a call failing to go through wouldn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. In this particular case, however, it intensifies Miles’ distrust of those around him, casting the light of suspicion on the operator herself. Maybe the lines really were busy. Or maybe… just maybe… they weren’t.

While the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a more effective horror film (in that movie, the “duplicates” don’t always worry about blending in), the ‘56 version is every bit as thrilling. Exploring the themes of individual identity and mass conformity while, at the same time, playing on our basic fear of being alone, Invasion of the Body Snatchers Is a motion picture that will always be relevant.

Friday, July 11, 2014

#1,425. Spare Change (2008)

Directed By: Ryan Larkin, Laurie Gordon

Starring: Ryan Larkin, Krassy Halatchev, Laurie Gordon

Trivia: Animator / Director Ryan Larkin passed away before finishing this film

Chris Landreth’s 2004 short Ryan threw the spotlight once again on Canadian animator Ryan Larkin, an artist whose short movies Walking (1969) and Street Musique (1972) were nominated for Academy Awards. Considered by many the golden boy of Canadian animation, Ryan’s life soon took a disastrous detour. Addicted to drugs and alcohol, he abruptly lost everything, and by the late ‘70s was living on the streets of Montreal, begging for change. Thanks to Landreth’s film, Ryan Larkin was given a second chance to create his art, the result of which is 2008’s Spare Change, his first animated short in over 30 years. Tragically, it would also be his last; Ryan Larkin died of lung cancer in 2007 before completing Spare Change (it was finished by his co-producer, musician Laurie Gordon).

Spare Change begins with various scenes detailing Ryan’s experiences on the streets, including a run-in with some obnoxious teens and a journey to the pearly gates, where he comes face-to-face with St. Peter himself (who orders Ryan to beg for change in hell). Shortly after this, Spare Change shifts gears, becoming a music video of sorts for Laurie Gordon’s band, Chiwawa, featuring their song "Do It for Me", which plays over snippets of Larkin’s earlier animations and drawings.

The opening moments of Spare Change are absolutely electrifying, with Larkin himself appearing as the main character. At one point, he's approached by an acquaintance of his, a street person who asks to borrow $5 (Ryan chastises the man for hitting a fellow “bum” up for money). The animation in this sequence, and indeed through much of the film, is simplistic, yet at the same time bursting with character. Alas, the same cannot be said for the Chiwawa song that dominates the movie’s second half, an uninspired tune that’s a poor compliment to Larkin’s unique vision.

Still, I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Considering what Ryan Larkin went through, the fact that Spare Change exists at all is something of a minor miracle.