Sunday, August 31, 2014

#1,476. The Specials (2000)

Directed By: Craig Mazin

Starring: Rob Lowe, Thomas Haden Church, Paget Brewster

Tag Line: "It doesn't take much to save the world"

Trivia: James Gunn wrote the screenplay in just two weeks

Superhero movies are all the rage right now, thanks mostly to Marvel’s emergence as a cinematic powerhouse. Movies like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and the mash-up spectacular that was 2012’s The Avengers have turned comic book heroes into a billion-dollar phenomenon, thrilling audiences with tons of action and stellar special effects. Produced well before this craze got underway, 2000’s The Specials (written by James Gunn, who directed one of 2014’s most entertaining films, Guardians of the Galaxy) may not feature the action and high-tech gadgetry of Marvel’s recent outings, but as superhero comedies go, this one’s got plenty to offer.

While not the most popular team of heroes, The Specials have nonetheless saved the world (well, parts of it, anyway) a number of times. Led by The Strobe (Thomas Haden-Church), who can shoot lasers out of his arms, The Specials normally face off against “low-priority” villains, and deal with the problems the “first-string” superheroes are too busy to tackle. This usually keeps The Specials out of the headlines, but it has earned them a small, very loyal cult following.

We join The Specials on a very important day. First, they’re welcoming a new hero into their ranks, a teenage girl who goes by the name “Nightbird” (Jordan Ladd), and supposedly has bird-like abilities. Having been a fan of The Specials for years, Nightbird can’t hide her excitement when she’s introduced to the other members of the team, including Ms. Indestructible (Paget Brewster), the second-in-command who’s also married to The Strobe; Weevil (Rob Lowe), the most popular member of the group; Amok (Jamie Kennedy), who was, at one time, a supervillain; Minuteman (pronounced “My-newt man” and played by writer James Gunn), The Strobe’s brother, who has the ability to shrink his body at will; Deadly Girl (Judy Greer), who can summon demons from hell to do her bidding; the friendly but somewhat dim strongman, U.S. Bill (Mike Schwartz); the inappropriately-named Mr. Smart (Jim Zulevik); and the overly-kind Power Chick (Kelly Coffield). Rounding out the group is Alien Orphan (Sean Gunn), an actual alien who gets into all sorts of trouble, and “Eight”, a single consciousness spread across eight different bodies (played by John Doe, Abdul Salaam El-Razzac, Lauren Cohen, Tom Dorfmiester, Chuti Tiu, Johann Stauf, Brian Gunn, and Samantha Cannon).

Along with the arrival of Nightbird, The Specials are being honored later that night with their own line of action figures. But all is not well at Specials HQ. For one, The Strobe and Ms. Indestructible haven’t been getting along, causing Ms. Indestructible to seek comfort in the arms of The Weevil, with whom she’s having an affair. Adding to the team’s woes is an overall drop in morale, which has brought petty jealousies to the surface, sparking a lot of in-fighting. Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that The Strobe (who’s being courted by a million-dollar plastics company in need of his laser abilities) announces at the unveiling of their action figures that he’s disbanding the team. Is this really the end of The Specials, or can they overcome their differences to once again be a force of good?

At times a pseudo-mockumentary (in some scenes, the characters address the camera as if they’re being interviewed), The Specials is unlike most superhero movies in that it puts the focus not on action-packed thrills, but the characters themselves, who, thanks to the work of its superior cast, manage to keep things flowing smoothly. Thomas Hayden-Church is near flawless as The Strobe, a self-centered buffoon who, despite his arrogance, wins us over with his sincerity (we can’t help but feel sorry for him when everything goes south), and Jamie Kennedy makes for a convincing “bad boy” (during the morning meeting, The Strobe chastises Amok and Weevil for allowing themselves to be photographed in a public toilet smoking cigarettes, thus setting a poor example for the youth of America). As for the heroes that make up The Specials, each one is interesting in their own right, yet my favorite is Demon Girl. The ability to summon demons from hell? Seriously… how cool is that? Of course, wielding such power over the minions of the underworld does have its disadvantages (at one point, Demon Girl relates the story of how she got drunk at a bar mitzvah and inadvertently called a demon, which proceeded to “eat a kid”).

A Superhero movie that never takes itself seriously, The Specials isn’t the sort of comedy that’ll make you laugh out loud, but it will definitely keep you smiling,

Saturday, August 30, 2014

#1,475. Crawl or Die (2014)

Directed By: Oklahoma Ward

Starring: Nicole Alonso, Torey Byrne, Tommy Ball

Tag Line: "The only thing more terrifying than being trapped is being hunted"

Trivia: In Japan, this film was released as Alien Crawl

Many movies claim to feature “wall-to-wall action”, but few live up to that promise. 2014’s Crawl or Die, an independent horror film directed by Oklahoma Ward, is a rare exception, a picture that grabs you by the throat in its opening scene and never, ever loosens its grip.

Crawl or Die is set in the not-too-distant future, when earth has been decimated by a crippling virus. Things have gotten so bad, in fact, that mankind has been forced to settle on another planet, aptly named “Earth Two”. 

To protect the world’s last fertile woman (Torey Byrne) as she journeys to Earth Two, an elite task force, including Tank (Nicole Alonso), Snoop (Wil Crown), and Mic (Tom Chamberlain), has been assembled. Their mission: to deliver the “package” at any cost. 

But the minute this band of warriors sets foot on Earth Two, they find themselves facing off against a deadly foe, a seemingly unstoppable alien creature with an appetite for human flesh. To escape this beast, the group makes its way underground, into an elaborate tunnel system. With no idea where they are going, and a monster hot on their trail, the task force pushes forward, knowing full well the next turn they take could be their last.

Aside from a brief bit of exposition, a flashback in which a General (David Zeliff) lays out the mission for Tank and the others, Crawl or Die never stops to take a breath. Kicking things off with a gunfight on Earth Two, the action then moves underground, where our heroes do everything they can to dodge a creature hellbent on destroying them. Shot with a hand-held camera and featuring rapid-style editing, these opening moments are jarring, made doubly so by the fact we the audience have no idea what’s going on (the exposition flashback mentioned above comes later in the movie). 

But the action is intense enough to keep our attention early on, and that intensity escalates as, one by one, characters fall by the wayside, victims of a monster that is relentless in its pursuit. In one of the film’s most nerve-racking sequences, a few members of the task force, hoping to get the jump on the creature, lay in wait for it at the end of a tunnel, only to fall asleep before it comes into view. As the weary warriors catch some much-needed rest, we spot the alien slowly crawling towards them, and hope it'll make a noise that will somehow awaken our heroes. It runs for only a minute or two, yet the tension in this scene is nearly unbearable.

With impressive creature effects (the monster bears a striking resemblance to the Xenomorph of the Alien franchise, which, coincidental or not, makes it all the more frightening), a solid cast (headed by Nicole Alonso, who is pitch-perfect as the lead bad-ass), and non-stop thrills, Crawl or Die pulls you in, shakes you up, and never gives you a chance to catch your breath.

This movie is fun with a capital “F”!

Friday, August 29, 2014

#1,474. The Amazing Transparent Man (1960)

Directed By: Edgar G. Ulmer

Starring: Marguerite Chapman, Douglas Kennedy, James Griffith

Tag Line: "A nation at his mercy!"

Trivia: This was shot back-to-back with 1960's Beyond the Time Barrier. Combined, both movies were shot in only two weeks

From the title alone, you would think Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Amazing Transparent Man was a sci fi-heavy motion picture. But in reality, the movie has more in common with the film noirs of the ’40s and ‘50s, filling its story with less-than-admirable characters who would sooner stab each other in the back than work together.

The movie kicks off with a jail break. Joey Faust (Douglas Kennedy), a convicted bank robber, scales the walls of his prison and, once on the other side, meets up with Laura Matson (Margeurite Chapman), who’s waiting in a nearby car. Though happy to be a free man, Faust can’t help but wonder who it was that arranged his escape. His curiosity is satisfied when Ms. Matson drives him to a secluded farmhouse, where he’s introduced to Major Krenner (James Griffith), a former military man who, for years, has been working on a device that will make any living creature invisible to the naked eye. Built by German scientist Paul Ulof (Ivan Triesault) against his will (Krenner secured Ulof’s help by kidnapping the scientist’s daughter), the device has been successfully tested on animals, and now Krenner believes it’s ready for a human subject, which is where Joey Faust fits into the picture (who better to experiment on than an escaped convict with nowhere else to go?). Sure enough, the process is a success, and an invisible Faust is sent to steal radioactive material from the U.S. Army, which can then be used to perfect the invisibility machine. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Faust decides to return to his old ways, using his new-found advantage to knock off a bank instead.

Like a film noir, the majority of the characters in The Amazing Transparent Man have a dark edge to them. Even the scientist Ulof, who comes across as the movie’s most sympathetic character, admits to having conducted human experiments during World War 2, at which time he was stationed at a concentration camp. Throughout much of the film, we watch these people try to gain the upper hand on one another (originally promised $1,000 for every canister of radioactive material he swipes, Faust strong arms Krenner, demanding $25,000 per trip instead), and even Laura Matson, who at first we think is Krenner’s partner, attempts to swing a deal with Faust, only to be slapped around when Krenner catches wind of it.

While The Amazing Transparent Man isn’t devoid of sci-fi, the scenes featuring it are among the weakest in the film, with special effects that are shoddy at best. But even though the movie falls well short of a science fiction masterpiece, its noirish elements are well-handled, making The Amazing Transparent Man, at the very least, a mildly diverting crime thriller.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

#1,473. The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Directed By: Ludwig Berger, Michael Powell, et al

Starring: Conrad Veidt, Sabu, June Duprez

Tag line: "Three brave hearts, adventuring in a wonder world!"

Trivia: Filming began in Britain, but because of World War II and the Blitz, the production relocated to Hollywood

As much as I enjoyed Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s 1924 film of the same name, 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad is, without question, the finest cinematic take on this classic story.

Ahmad (John Justin) was once the king of Bagdad. That is, until his most trusted advisor, Jaffar (Conrad Veidt), turned against him, stealing the crown for himself. Yet, despite the fact he’s lost everything, Ahmad has never been happier, and, teaming up with a young thief named Abu (Sabu), sets off to experience all that life has to offer. Ahmad's grand adventure takes an unexpected turn, however, when he meets a beautiful Princess (June Duprez), daughter of the Sultan of Basra (Miles Malleson), with whom he falls instantly in love. Unfortunately, the Princess has also caught the eye of the evil Jaffar, who, after striking a deal with the Sultan, drags her back to Bagdad, where he intends to marry her. With the help of his wily friend Abu, Ahmad travels far and wide in an effort to reclaim the Princess, encountering a variety of unusual creatures along the way.

Produced by Alexander Korda and directed by, among others, Michael Powell, William Cameron Menzies, and Korda’s own brother, Zoltan, The Thief of Bagdad has imagination to spare, and boasts a number of elaborate scenes. At one point, Ahmad and Abu find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island. While strolling the beach looking for Ahmad (who’s nowhere to be found), Abu notices an ancient bottle that, once uncorked, releases a 2,000-year-old Djinn (Rex Ingram). Standing as tall as a building, the Djinn threatens to squash Abu, but is eventually forced to grant him three wishes. After polishing off some delicious sausages (his first wish), Abu says he wants to find his friend Ahmad, at which point the Djinn flies the young thief to a temple resting high atop the world’s largest mountain, where, following a battle with a giant spider, Abu retrieves an enormous gem that also serves as a magical eye, one which allows him to see anywhere in the world. He uses this strange jewel to determine the whereabouts of the lost Ahmad, and the two are soon reunited. In a movie chock full of extravagant sequences, this is, by far, the most amazing.

Alexander Korda’s answer to The Wizard of Oz (which was released the previous year), The Thief of Bagdad is, simply put, one of the greatest fantasy adventures ever made.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

#1,472. Ninja Assassin (2009)

Directed By: James McTeigue

Starring: Rain, Rick Yune, Naomie Harris

Tag line: "Fear not the weapon but the hand that wields it"

Trivia: The Wachowski brothers were so impressed by Rain's performance in Speed Racer that they were inspired to create this project for him

Raizo (Korean pop star Rain) is a ninja, trained in the art of killing ever since he was a boy. In fact, he was such a promising student that his master, Lord Ozunu (Sho Kusugi), had hoped to make Raizo his successor. That all changed when Raizo fell in love with Kiriko (Kylie Goldstein), a fellow Ozunu ninja. Having grown weary of the lifestyle, Kiriko decided to abandon the Ozunu, and ran away. She was caught, branded a traitor, and killed by Raizu’s elder ninja “brother”, Takashi (Rick Yune). Unable to forget what the Ozunu did to Kiriko, Raizo himself eventually rebelled against Lord Ozunu, thus making him a fugitive from his own clan.

Meanwhile, agent Mika Coretti (Naomie Harris) of Europol, convinced that Ninjas are alive and well and carrying out assassinations, has been looking into several politically motivated killings, which she believes were the work of the Ozunu and other clans. Of course, proving this is going to be difficult, seeing as no one in the agency, including her supervisor Ryan Maslow (Ben Miles), officially acknowledges that Ninjas still exist. After stealing some top-secret files from the agency, Mika is able to track down Raizo, offering to protect him if he’ll assist with her investigation. Impressed with Mika’s tenacity, Raizo agrees, yet deep down he knows that nobody, not even the heavily-armed agents of Europol, can hide him from his former clan.

Directed by James McTeague, who also helmed the extraordinary V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin is an ultra-violent action-fest that rarely stops to take a breath. In the opening scene, a gang of Yakuza are sitting around at a tattoo parlor when one of them receives an envelope containing black sand. The tattoo artist (Randall Duk Kim) immediately recognizes this as the Ninja’s calling card, a warning that death has come knocking on their door. At first, the Yakuza laugh at the notion they’re being hunted by the ancient order, but quickly change their attitudes when one poor guy suddenly loses his head, which is severed at the mouth by a sword stroke. Hiding in the shadows, the Ninjas decimate the Yakuza, slicing and dicing them into little bits. The violence in this scene is off the wall, but it’s the action, as well as the mystery surrounding the Ninja (they move like lightning, so fast that we never see them strike), that sets the stage for what is to follow.

Story-wise, Ninja Assassin is nothing new, boasting a premise so basic that it never outshines the action or bloodshed. In most movies, this would be a weakness, but Ninja Assassin is so wild, so incredibly frantic, and so gloriously gory that little things like story and plot would have only gotten in the way. Ninja Assassin certainly won’t give your mind a workout, but your senses will have a hell of a good time.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

#1,471. The Lost Patrol (1934)

Directed By: John Ford

Starring: Victor McLaglen, Boris Karloff, Wallace Ford


Trivia: Composer Max Steiner re-used the main title music he wrote for this film for the main title music for Casablanca

Five years before he redefined the American Western with Stagecoach, John Ford directed this World War One-era adventure about a British patrol pinned down by snipers in the Mesopotamian desert.

The trouble starts when the patrol’s commanding officer (Neville Clark) is shot dead while riding across the barren terrain. His second-in-command, the Sergeant (Victor McLaglen), takes control, and, while leading his men to rejoin their brigade, stumbles upon a desert oasis, where they find plenty of water. With no idea where they are or how far away their brigade is, the Sergeant decides that he and the 11 men in his patrol will spend the night at the oasis, then make a fresh start of it the following day. But when the platoon awakens the next morning, they find their sentry dead and their horses missing. Thus begins a desperate stand-off as, one-by-one, the men in the Sergeant’s patrol are shot by Arab snipers hiding behind the nearby dunes. With their numbers dwindling and their options limited, the Sergeant and his troops, including Sanders (Boris Karloff) and Morelli (Wallace Ford), search for a way out of what appears to be a hopeless predicament.

While Victor McLaglen makes for a strong lead, convincingly portraying a man doing his best to deal with a dangerous situation, many of the other performances in The Lost Patrol come up short. Surprisingly, one of the worst is delivered by Boris Karloff, who never seems comfortable in the role of Sanders, a religious zealot who, believing he and the others are doomed, takes it upon himself to save his comrades’ souls. Still, in spite of its sub-par acting, The Lost Patrol managed to pull me in to its story, building up plenty of tension as the men attempt to outwit an enemy they can’t see (but who can clearly see them, firing off shots each and every time a member of the patrol is out in the open). The fact that the Arab shooters remain concealed throughout the film only heightens the suspense, putting the audience as much on edge as the Sergeant and his men, who have no idea where the enemy is hiding, or even how many of them are out there watching.

The year after he made The Lost Patrol, John Ford won the first of his four Academy Awards for 1935’s The Informer (another movie starring Victor McLaglen). And while The Lost Patrol may be a “minor” john Ford picture, it’s an entertaining diversion nonetheless, featuring a fair share of nail-biting moments and more than one surprise.

Monday, August 25, 2014

#1,470. Heart of Glass (1976)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Josef Bierbichler, Stefan Güttler, Clemens Scheitz

Trivia: The main character "Hias" is based on the legendary Bavarian prophet Mühlhiasl

Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass was shot under very unusual circumstances. The tale of a town plunged into chaos, it featured a cast that, with one or two exceptions, performed the entire movie under hypnosis! I first saw the film over 10 years ago, and though I found the premise, as well as the execution, utterly fascinating, I did have one slight problem: Heart of Glass kept putting me to sleep! It wasn’t that it moved too slowly (I knew going in Herzog wasn’t a director who specialized in fast-paced films), or that I thought the story was boring. The issue was the performances, specifically the way the actors slogged through the movie in a trance-like state (which makes sense, I guess, seeing as they were in one). Watching them wobbling back and forth when they're supposed to be standing still and reciting their lines with all the passion of a paper doll was more than I could bear. In a month’s time, I’d tried to watch Heart of Glass on 3 different occasions, and in every instance, I was in La-La Land by the half hour mark.

Set in Bavaria in the 18th century, Heart of Glass focuses on a small community thrown into turmoil when the man who runs their glassblowing factory abruptly dies, taking with him the formula for making the beautiful ruby glass the town has become famous for. With his village on the brink of financial ruin, the local Baron (Stefan Güttler) does everything he can to duplicate the process, even going so far as to contact Hias (Josef Bierbichler), a mountain man with extra-sensory perception, who he hopes can help him figure out the formula for the ruby glass. But all Hias can see is the town’s ultimate demise, going so far as to predict the glassworks factory will burn to the ground before the evening is out.

Like almost every Herzog film, the imagery in Heart of Glass is stunning, with the director finding a way to blend even the most sensational scenes into the narrative. As the movie opens, Hias is describing a dream he’s had, and as he does so, Herzog inserts some breathtaking shots of a waterfall, supported by Popol Vue’s often poignant, yet occasionally jovial score. This sequence, as well as many others, gives the picture an almost dream-like quality, a trait that extends to the characters as well. As mentioned above, the cast (aside from Bierbichler and the extras working at the glassblowing factory) was hypnotized, which, as you can imagine, resulted in a few very bizarre performances, with even the simplest things (like walking across the floor or carrying on a conversation) requiring intense concentration on the part of the actors. According to Herzog, the hypnotism was used to give the townsfolk the appearance that, due to the imminent death of their village, they were sleepwalking through life. While he does accomplish this to a degree, there are also moments when the performers allow their trances to get the better of them (at one point, the camera closes in on Clemens Scheitz, who plays the Baron’s elderly assistant, doing so just in time to catch the actor’s eyes rolling into the back of his head).

A hauntingly gorgeous motion picture, Heart of Glass also provides viewers with a unique experience that, while not perfect, is intriguing enough to warrant attention.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

#1,469. Slime City (1988)

Directed By: Greg Lamberson

Starring: Robert C. Sabin, Mary Huner, T.J. Merrick

Tag line: "A horror film with guts!"

Trivia: When released on video in the UK, this film's title was simply The Slime

You’d think a movie titled Slime City would, at the very least, be a gooey mess of a film, a total gross-out that tries its best to turn your stomach with each new, sickening scene. If you watch the trailer for Slime City, that’s the exact impression it leaves you with, but alas, the movie is only fitfully repulsive. The rest of the time, it’s just confusing as hell.

College Student Alex (Robert C. Sabin) has found what he believes to be the perfect apartment, which, unlike the dorm room he shares with good pal Jerry (T.J. Merrick),is only a few minutes’ walk from both his girlfriend, Lori’s (Mary Huner) place  and his job at the video store. What’s more, there’s a smoking hot brunette (also played by May Huner) living just across the hall from him. It isn’t long after Alex moves in, however, that he notices something very strange is going on. It all begins when he allows his neighbor, Roman (Dennis Embry), to cook a meal for him, which consists of nothing more than a green, mucous-like pudding and a glass of wine. Not ordinary wine, mind you, but one bottled by a former resident, a cult leader who, years earlier, convinced his followers to commit suicide in the building’s basement. That night, following a bizarre dream, Alex realizes he’s oozing a slimy clear substance from every pore in his body, a condition that gets worse with each passing minute. In fact, the only thing that will prevent Alex from melting into a puddle of goo is murder; after killing a local bum (T. Clay Dickinson), Alex returns to normal, at least for the time being. But what’s causing this terrifying transformation, and more to the point, what is Alex changing into?

Normally, when writing about an obscure movie like Slime City, I’d go to great lengths not to reveal any of its surprises. But in the case of this film I don’t have to worry about spoilers because its trailer already features clips from every single gory, slime-soaked scene it has to offer. In fact, I’d say between 80 – 90% of the movie’s best moments are in the trailer, and taking into account said trailer is under two minutes in length, you can pretty much guess how unspectacular the majority of the film is. For a good portion of Slime City, we’re watching as Alex pokes around in basements and breaks into other people’s apartments, where he does little more than stare at wine bottles. What’s more, Slime City is pieced together so haphazardly that entire sequences don’t make any sense. One minute, Alex is having dinner with Lori and her parents (Gary Stein and Susan McCallum) when he begins to ooze slime. He excuses himself, and the scene ends. Moments later, he’s completely wrapped in bandages and leading a prostitute (Eva Lee) into his apartment. How much time passed between these two events? How did Alex get from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’? I haven’t a clue.

To the filmmakers' credit, Slime City does contain a handful of nauseating images, most of which are so revolting that not even shoddy special effects can ruin them (a scene where Alex tucks his intestines back in after Lori slashes his stomach doesn’t look the least bit realistic, but is disgusting all the same). Save yourself some time, however, and watch the trailer for Slime City instead. It’ll show you everything you want to see, and allows you to skip the parts that go nowhere. Which, unfortunately, is most of the film.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

#1,468. Cold Turkey (1971)

Directed By: Norman Lear

Starring: Dick Van Dyke, Pippa Scott, Tom Poston

Tag line: "What happens when an evil tobacco company offers $25,000,000 to an entire town to stop smoking for thirty days? What happens when 4,006 heavy smokers from Eagle Rock, Iowa take up the challenge?"

Trivia: The bulk of the film was shot in Greenfield, Iowa, with many of the actual residents playing extras in some scenes

In the 1970s, Normal Lear was the king of television comedy, writing, producing, and directing such classic programs as All in the Family, Maude, and Sanford and Son. His big-screen output, on the other hand, was much more limited; during his 50+ year career, Lear directed only a single motion picture: 1971’s Cold Turkey, a darkly satirical film about a small town in Iowa that attempts to quit smoking for 30 days.

It all began as a public relations stunt for the Valiant Tobacco Company. Advertising exec Merwin Wren (Bob Newhart), hired by Valiant to improve its image, convinces the company’s founder, the elderly Hiram Grayson (Edward Everett Horton), to offer $25 million dollars to the first American town that can quit smoking for an entire month. Valiant’s Board of Directors chastises Wren for coming up with such a potentially dangerous gimmick (if one town can quit, others might be inspired to try it as well), but the confident Wren reassures them that no community in America, regardless of how small it is, will be able to give up smoking for such an extended period of time.

But then, Merwin Wren has never been to Eagle Rock, Iowa.

With only 4,000 residents, Eagle Rock is dying a slow death. Many of its businesses have closed their doors for good, and families are moving away on an almost daily basis. Realizing what $25 million would mean for his town, mayor Quincy Wappler (Vincent Gardenia) turns to Eagle Rock’s most respected religious leader, Rev. Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke), for help. Before long, Rev. Brooks has launched a campaign to get Eagle Rock to agree to give up cigars, cigarettes, and pipes for 30 days. Of course, not everyone is eager to participate. Dr. Proctor (Barnard Hughes), who runs the hospital, smokes a cigarette before every operation to soothe his nerves, and fears he’ll have a breakdown without his daily nicotine fix. Using his skills as an orator, Rev. Brooks convinces the entire community to voluntarily quit smoking. But as all of Eagle Rock braces for the difficult days ahead, the tobacco industry issues Merwin Wren an ultimatum: get a citizen of this dinky town to light up before the contest ends, or face the consequences.

First and foremost, Cold Turkey has an excellent cast, many of whom would go on to appear in some of Lear’s TV projects, including Jean Stapleton (Edith Bunker in All in the Family) as the Mayor’s wife, and Paul Benedict (Bentley in The Jeffersons) as a new-age guru who uses the power of suggestion to help the townsfolk battle their cravings. Dick Van Dyke delivers a strong comedic performance as the man of the cloth who inspires a whole town, yet never allows his own wife Natalie (Pippa Scott) to get a word in edgewise, while Tom Poston has a brief but memorable role as Mr. Stopworth, a chain-smoking alcoholic who, instead of turning over his cigarettes, agrees to leave town for the contest’s duration. Cold Turkey is also notable for being one of the first movies that singer / composer Randy Newman ever worked on (his soulful song “He Gives Us All His Love” plays during the film’s clever opening title sequence, where the camera follows a dog walking down the middle of a street in Eagle Rock, passing signs advertising businesses that have long since packed it in).

As he’d do time and again with his various TV shows, Lear uses the comedy in Cold Turkey to shine a light on such social issues as commercialism and the corruptive power of big business. Yet while his television programs would occasionally preach at you, the writer / director never allows Cold Turkey’s message to interfere with the fun.

Friday, August 22, 2014

#1,467. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: George Miller, George Ogilvie

Starring: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner, Bruce Spence

Tag line: "Two men enter. One man leaves"

Trivia: The sandstorm at the end of the film was real, and a camera plane actually did fly into it for some shots"

The third entry in the Mad Max series (after Mad Max and The Road Warrior), 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome feels like two movies in one: the first good, and the second…

Well, not “bad”, really. Just… strange!

When his camel-train is hijacked by pilot Jedediah (Bruce Spence, who played the Gyro Captain in The Road Warrior) and his son, Jedediah Jr., (Adam Cockburn), Max (Mel Gibson) is forced to wander the desert.

Eventually, he arrives at the settlement of Bartertown, a community that specializes in commerce. While there, Max is approached by Aunty Entity (Tina Turner), the self-appointed ruler of Bartertown, who wants Max to help her eliminate “Master-Blaster”, a highly intelligent little person (“Master”, played by Angelo Rossitto) and his hulking brute of a servant (“Blaster”, portrayed by Paul Larsson), both of whom have become far too cocky.

But when Max has a change of heart, Aunty banishes him to the desert, where, after roaming for days, he is miraculously rescued by a group of children, the last survivors of a plane crash that occurred years earlier. These kids believe Max is the “savior” they have been waiting for, and want him to lead them all to the fabled “Tomorrow-Morrow Land”, aka civilization.

Seeing as he’s the only one who knows what the world outside is really like, Max refuses. But some of the kids won’t take “no” for an answer.

The opening scene of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, where Max’s caravan is stolen, gets the movie off to a great start. I also enjoyed the early sequences set in Bartertown, a place filled with the kind of crooks and lowlifes you would expect to find in dystopian society. Tina Turner is solid as Aunty, but the most interesting character is Rossitto's Master, a little person and an engineering genius. Arrogant at first because he’s the only one who knows how to keep the town’s power flowing (he designed a system by which pig shit is converted into electricity), Master is eventually put in his place, at which point he starts becoming a much more sympathetic character.

Throw in a kick-ass fight between Max and Master’s friend Blaster, set in a caged arena known as the “Thunderdome”, and you have a first half brimming with promise.

That promise fades a bit when Max, back on the move, finds himself surrounded by dozens of kids, living on their own in a tropical oasis. Ignoring for a moment the obvious questions (like "What happened to all the adults?"), this entire sequence comes across as too “cutesy”. Along with asking Max to lead them to “Tomorrow-morrow land”, the children refer to their own oral history as the “Tell”. Now, these scenes are beautifully shot, and the paradise these kids call home makes for a nice change from all that went before, in pretty much the entire series up to that point.  But the whole thing is just so damn... bizarre!

Later, when the obligatory showdown between Max (who, while tracking some kids that went looking for “Tomorrow-Morrow land” on their own, ends up back at Bartertown) and Aunty occurs, the children are tucked neatly into the background, rarely offering Max and his pals any assistance. So, aside from being goofy, the kids, despite having survived on their own in the wild, are also useless when the chips are down. It had me wondering, especially in a Mad Max film, why they were even necessary.

This movie is worth checking out. There are great action scenes and fascinating characters. But when ranked against the series’ first two films, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome finishes a distant third.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

#1,466. Wolf Creek (2005) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Greg Mclean

Starring: Nathan Phillips, Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi

Tag line: "The Thrill Is In The Hunt"

Trivia: Portions of this movie were set at the site of an actual meteor strike, which crashed to earth thousands of years ago

During its opening credits, Wolf Creek, a 2005 horror import from Australia, claims to be based on true events. After looking into it further, it appears the film actually draws from several real-life cases: the notorious “Backpack Murders” of the 1990s as well as a more recent episode in which a British tourist and his girlfriend were kidnapped in the Northern Territory. 

Truth be told, I was kind of happy to learn that no single incident inspired this movie. The thought of a guy like Mick Taylor being out there, roaming the Australian Outback, is enough to keep you awake at night.

In the small beachside resort of Broome, British pals Liz (Cassandra Magrath) and Kristy (Kestie Morassi) meet local boy Ben (Nathan Phillips), who agrees to drive them to Queensland. Along the way, the three decide to stop off at a remote tourist site known as Wolf Creek, where, tens of thousands of years ago, a giant meteor crashed to earth, leaving behind one hell of a crater. 

After taking in the sights, the trio returns to their car, only to find that it won’t start. Afraid they might have to spend the night in the middle of nowhere, they are relieved when Mick Taylor (John Jarrett) shows up and agrees to tow their vehicle back to his place, where he has the necessary parts to fix it. 

But as the friends will soon discover, Mick is no ordinary mechanic, and his motives are much more sinister than they could have possibly imagined.

While the claim that it's "based on true events" may be a bit suspect, there really is a place in Western Australia called Wolf Creek (though it’s spelled “Wolfe Creek”), a National Park that is, indeed, home to one of the largest meteor craters in the world. The filmmakers took full advantage of this natural wonder, which is as imposing as it is picturesque. Yet, impressive though it may be, the crater isn’t what you’re going to remember when thinking back on Wolf Creek. What stays with you is the character of Mick Taylor, the boisterous Aussie with a "thing" for torture. 

Those moments when Mick, expertly portrayed by Jarrett, is doing what he does best are gruesome, to say the least (the “head on a stick” scene always makes me cringe). Yet what makes Mick truly horrifying is how friendly and affable he seemed at the outset, when he offered to tow the friends' car and fix it for free. Whenever I watch this sequence, I can’t help but put myself in the three eventual victim's shoes, and every single time I come to the same conclusion: I, too, would have gone with Mick Taylor. I’d have gladly let him tow my car, and thanked him when he offered me a drink of water once we got to his place. Which, of course, means I would have been in a hell of a pickle a few hours later.

This is what makes Wolf Creek such an effective horror film. Over the years, movies have made us think twice before doing many things, including going into the water (Jaws), picking up hitchhikers (The Hitcher), or strolling into an unfamiliar house (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). 

The lesson in Wolf Creek? You can't always trust a Good Samaritan. But what if you're in a fix and a Good Samaritan is exactly what you need? 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

#1,465. Pennies from Heaven (1981)

Directed By: Herbert Ross

Starring: Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Jessica Harper

Tag line: "There's a world on both sides of the rainbow where songs come true and every time it rains, it rains..."

Trivia: During principal photography, actor Steve Martin refused to grant media interviews as he was too absorbed in the part he was playing

Pennies from Heaven, a 1981 movie directed by Herbert Ross, is a very unusual musical in that none of the actors actually sing. Set in the Depression, the film utilizes the music of the 1930s (period recordings are used, with the actors lip-synching to make it look as if they’re belting out the tunes). What’s more, the music in Pennies from Heaven serves a very specific purpose, reflecting the hopes and dreams of its main characters while also offering them an escape of sorts from the crushing reality of their everyday lives.

The year is 1934. Arthur Parker (Steve Martin) is a Chicago-based salesman specializing in sheet music. Unfortunately, like most suffering through the Great Depression, Arthur is having trouble making ends meet. His wife, Joan (Jessica Harper), is supportive but cold, and the bank refuses to give him a loan to expand his business. Not to worry, though, because when things don’t go his way, Arthur simply escapes into his fantasies, all of which resemble a big-budget Hollywood musical number. While on the road trying to stir up some business, Arthur meets Eileen (Bernadette Peters), a shy, withdrawn schoolteacher with whom he has an affair. Juggling two women while, at the same time, opening his own record store, Arthur‘s life becomes more difficult than ever, yet through it all, he has his music, and his imagination, to carry him through.

There are moments when Pennies from Heaven comes across as humorous; the first time Steve Martin’s Arthur opens his mouth to “sing”, he does so with a woman’s voice (Connee Boswell’s, to be precise. The song is 1932’s “I’ll Never Have to Dream Again”), but make no mistake: this is a straight-up drama, often delving into serious, even dark territory (a minor character, a blind girl played by Eliska Krupka, is raped and killed, a murder that will come back to haunt Arthur later in the film). In fact, Pennies from Heaven can best be described as having a split personality. At times dealing with such real-life issues as deception, rejection, infidelity, and failure, the movie also features sequences of unbridled enthusiasm, musical numbers that emphasize the positive, where all is right with the world. In an early scene, Arthur is trying to secure a bank loan, yet has no collateral. The Bank Officer (Jay Garner) naturally denies his application, at which point the film bursts into song, a wild and flashy fantasy sequence featuring The Carlyle Cousin’s 1931 tune “Yes, Yes!” in which Arthur imagines that his request for capital has been approved.

In the 1930’s, when the Great Depression was in full swing, people turned to popular culture, the cinema included, to take their minds off their troubles, and one of the more popular film genres at the time was the musical. Movies like 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, and Top Hat whisked audiences to wonderful new places where, for an hour or two, they could forget their worries. While paying tribute to this era’s musical films (there are a handful of stylized dance sequences that would have impressed Busby Berkeley himself), Pennies from Heaven is also an homage to the escapism these movies offered, creating a world where happiness is but a pleasant thought away. Equal parts ecstasy and despair, Pennies from Heaven is a wild ride, and when all is said and done, you’ll be happy you climbed on board.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

#1,464. Geri's Game (1997)

Directed By: Jan Pinkava

Starring: Bob Peterson

Trivia: This short film took roughly one and a half years to make

In its early days, Pixar turned out a number of short subjects, each of which helped them not only perfect their animation style, but also learn how to tell a good story. Even Now, the studio continues to produce short subjects, some of which play just before their feature films, and the one they showcased prior to 1998’s A Bug’s Life, an ingenious little gem titled Geri’s Game, remains my favorite of the bunch.

It’s a beautiful autumn afternoon, and an elderly man named Geri (voiced by Bob Peterson) is in the park, preparing to play a game of chess. The only thing he's missing is an opponent, but that won’t be a problem for Geri because he’s perfectly happy manipulating both sides of the chess board. Moving from one side of the table to the other, Geri plays a rousing game, and in the end snatches victory from the jaws of defeat by making a very clever, yet highly illegal move.

Geri’s Game marked the first time Pixar attempted a film, short or otherwise, that featured a human character, and the animation is superb. Geri’s movements at the start of the short are methodical; he walks, ever so slowly, from chair to chair, sometimes leaning on the table for support. To make it appear as if he’s two different people, Geri even removes his glasses after making the first move, then puts them on again whenever he’s back in that particular chair. Before long, the editing tightens up, and instead of watching Geri shuffle around the table, we see only his chess moves, giving the impression that he really is two different people.

Story-wise, Geri’s Game is as simple as it gets. What makes it unique are the intricacies Pixar brings to the table (such as giving Geri two distinct personalities), taking the film to a whole new level. Movies like Toy Story and Monsters, Inc showed the world Pixar’s uncanny ability to weave a fascinating tale, and as Geri’s Game proves, the studio doesn’t need 90 minutes to do so.

In fact, they can sometimes get the job done in less than five!

Monday, August 18, 2014

#1,463. The World's End (2013)

Directed By: Edgar Wright

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman

Tag line: "One Night. Six Friends. Twelve Pubs. Total Annihilation"

Trivia: The movie began as a screenplay titled Crawl about a group of teenagers on a pub crawl (Edgar Wright wrote it when he was 21 years old)

The final chapter in director Edgar Wright’s unofficial “Blood and Ice Cream” trilogy (following 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz), The World’s End closes out the "series" in spectacular fashion.

It was June of 1990, the last day of school, when a teenage Gary King and his four best friends tried to tackle Newton Haven’s “Golden Mile”, drinking 12 pints of beer in 12 different pubs before the sun came up the next morning. Despite having had the time of their lives, the pals never made it as far as the final pub, “The World’s End”. Over twenty years have passed since that fateful night, and Gary King (played as an adult by Simon Pegg) hasn’t forgotten that they failed to complete their mission. To put everything right, Gary pays a visit to his former buddies Steven (Paddy Considine), Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter (Eddie Marsan), and Andy (Nick Frost) to convince them to once again attempt to conquer the Golden Mile. Despite the fact they’ve all moved on with their lives, the four agree to tag along, and set out to finish what they started so many years ago. But as the evening drags on, the five pals can’t shake the feeling that something very strange is happening in their old hometown. It isn’t until they hit the fourth pub, however, that they realize just how “different” things are. All at once, finishing their pub crawl means more than simply completing their journey; it’s become a matter of life and death!

The World’s End changes things up a bit by making Simon Pegg’s character, Gary King, the loud, obnoxious loser, while Nick Frost, who played a lovable buffoon in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, is a well-respected lawyer, a professional who, unlike his childhood best friend, has left the past behind him. It’s to the credit of both actors that they make this role reversal as seamless and believable as it is (Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi tried the same thing in 1981’s Neighbors, with less-than-stellar results). On top of this, the movie also features strong performers in key supporting roles. Freeman (who appeared in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit series as Bilbo Baggins), Considine (among many other fine performances, he shined in director Jim Sheridan’s 2003 drama In America), and Marsan (every time I see him, I’m reminded of his extraordinary turn in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky) have a great rapport with each other, as well as with Pegg and Frost, giving us characters so well-rounded that any one of them could be the lead in their own film. Rosamond Pike, who plays Oliver’s sister Sam, shows up halfway through, yet still makes her presence known, and ex-Bond Pierce Brosnan has a small but memorable role as the pals’ former teacher, Mr. Shepherd. I so enjoyed watching these characters interact at the start of the movie that, for a while, I completely forgot The World’s End is also a sci-fi / action flick!

My reminder came by way of an awesome scene set in a barroom lavatory, where the five face off against a particularly bizarre gang of youths, a sequence so unusual that it leaves us as stunned and confused as Gary and his compatriots. It isn’t long before we realize the citizens of Newton Haven aren’t exactly “normal”, and that many of them are intently watching the friends as they make their way around town. To avoid drawing attention to themselves, Gary and the others decide to continue their pub crawl, during which they (and we) figure out just how dire the situation has become in Newton Haven. Watching these five buddies try to deal with it all is a hell of a lot of fun (the laughs come even quicker later on, at which point the majority of them are stinking drunk). The special effects in The World’s End are solid, but never once overpower the story (unlike most movies released in the summer months, this one remains character driven at all times), and there are moments when the “people” following the boys around look pretty damn creepy. Topping it all off is a grand finale that, while certainly not upbeat, is entirely satisfying.

Being a big fan of both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, I was glad to see Wright and Pegg (who, as with the previous two movies, also co-wrote the script) close the trilogy out with a film that’s every bit as entertaining as its predecessors.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

#1,462. Dumbo (1941)

Directed By: Samuel Armstrong, Norman Ferguson, et al

Starring: Sterling Holloway, Edward Brophy, James Baskett

Tag line: "Walt Disney's Latest . . . Most Lovable . . . Funable Characters !"

Trivia: In December 1941, Time magazine planned to have Dumbo (1941) on its cover to commemorate its success, an idea that was dropped due to the attack on Pearl Harbor

Strangely enough, my first experience with Disney’s Dumbo came courtesy of Steven Spielberg’s 1979 World War 2-era comedy, 1941. Set in Los Angeles a short time after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when many southern Californians were convinced Japan would be attacking them next, 1941 featured an impressive cast, including Robert Stack as Major General Stillwell of the U.S. Army. In a late scene, Gen. Stillwell decides to take in a movie, and the film he and several of his aides check out is Dumbo. He cries when Dumbo and his mother reunite after she’s been locked away, and smiles when Jim Crow (voiced by Cliff Edwards) and his buddies make fun of the little elephant with their song “When I See an Elephant Fly”. Though played entirely for laughs, this sequence made me want to see Dumbo, and when I finally had the chance to do so, it quickly became one of my favorite Disney offerings.

The film opens with a stork (Sterling Holloway) delivering a little bundle of joy to Jumbo (Verna Felton), a circus elephant. But when the other elephants catch a glimpse of her new baby son, they can’t help but laugh at his enormous ears, leading them to give the youngster the rather cruel nickname “Dumbo”. When a group of kids also taunt poor Dumbo, Jumbo intervenes, and as a result is placed in a cage, separating her from her new son. Now all alone, Dumbo is quickly befriended by Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy), who tries his best to cheer the little tyke up. But it isn’t until the two have an unfortunate run-in with a bucket of water (which, unbeknownst to them, had been laced with champagne) that Timothy discovers Dumbo’s true talent, a gift so wonderful that it could make Dumbo the star of the entire circus!

Part of the magic of Dumbo is its simplicity, from the story itself (an outcast who discovers he has something to offer the world) right down to the title character. Throughout the entire film, Dumbo never utters a word, relying instead on facial expressions and gestures to convey his emotions, and thanks to the wonderful work of the animators, we know, at all times, how the little elephant is feeling. We see the hurt in his eyes when the other elephants ridicule his big ears, and we cry right along with him when he and his mother, who’s been chained inside a cage, interlock trunks, the only way she can show her young son that she’s still there for him.

Other aspects of the film stand out as well, including the music (the above-mentioned “When I See an Elephant Fly” is very entertaining, as is the opening number “Look Out for Mr. Stork”) and a few key scenes (the most memorable being the dreamlike “Pink Elephants on Parade”), but in the end, it’s the movie’s ability to stir our emotions that makes Dumbo a time-honored classic.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

#1,461. Wanderlust (2006)

Directed By: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

Starring: Allison Anders, Jeanine Basinger, Robert Benton

Tag line: "On the Road with American Road Movies"

Trivia: This documentary was produced for IFC, the Independent Film Channel

Produced in 2006 for the Independent Film Channel, Wanderlust is yet another of those documentaries that I love, a cinema-centric motion picture that focuses its attention on a specific aspect of film. In the case of Wanderlust, the topic is the American road movie.

From as far back as the 1930s, Hollywood has had a love affair with the vast expanse of the American landscape as seen from the country’s roads and highways. In movies like Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, characters hit the open road, sometimes with hilarious results. But it wasn’t all fun and games; as John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath showed us, some people had no alternative but to drive, hoping to reach paradise just over the next horizon, yet finding only more heartache, more lost souls seeking the same relief. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, film noir classics such as Detour and Gun Crazy cast a shadow over the American road movie, giving us characters that, instead of searching for something, were on the run, trying to evade both the law and their own turbulent pasts. Then, in the late ‘60s, a revolution took hold of the American film industry, forcing the old guard (the studio system) from its comfortable perch and turning out pictures aimed at a younger audience. Yet even here, the road played an integral part, especially in two of the era’s seminal works: Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. Through the ‘70s (Two-Lane Blacktop, Badlands, Smokey and the Bandit), ‘80s (The Cannonball Run, Paris Texas, Something Wild) and ‘90s (Thelma and Louise, Natural Born Killers, The Straight Story), movies continued to evolve, reflecting the values of each new generation, and through it all, the American road remained as vital as ever.

While its presentation of the above material is definitely familiar (talking head interviews, film clips, etc), the topic explored gives Wanderlust an almost epic feel, taking us from one end of this country to the other as it examines the cinema’s fascination with cars and driving, whether feeding a desire for speed (a key component in practically every movie directed by Hal Needham) or a quest to find comfort, both at home (Planes, Trains and Automobiles) and someplace new (Spike Lee’s underrated 1996 film Get on the Bus centers on a group of guys traveling to the Million Man March in Washington D.C.). In addition, the filmmakers include several excerpts lifted from the works of such authors as Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, read by the likes of Matt Dillon, Gary Sinese, and Lily Taylor. Aside from linking the documentary’s segments together, these brief bits of narration also give the movie a mystical quality, as if the road was as much a religion to some as it was a route for transportation.

Even if you’ve already seen most of the movies that Wanderlust covers, you haven’t experienced them the way they’re presented here, and odds are, the next time you sit down to watch them, you’ll see these films in an entirely different light.

Friday, August 15, 2014

#1,460. The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

Directed By: Norman Tokar

Starring: Bill Bixby, Susan Clark, Don Knotts

Tag line: "Wanted: For chicanery, skulduggery, tomfoolery and habitual bungling!"

Trivia: This movie marked the final time Bill Bixby would appear in a theatrically-released film (for the remainder of his career, he was on TV only)

Disney churned out a fair number of live-action family films in the ‘60s and ‘70s, some good (The North Avenue Irregulars) and some bad (Superdad). Set in the rough and tumble days of the Wild West, 1975’s The Apple Dumpling Gang is one of the studio’s absolute best.

On his way to New Orleans, gambler Russell Donovan (Bill Bixby) makes a pit stop in Quake City, California, so named because the entire town was built on a fault line, making it susceptible to earthquakes. While playing cards in the local saloon, Donovan is approached by John Wintle (Don Knight), a former acquaintance who is heading out of town. In need of a favor, Wintle pays the gambler $5 to look after a package that is arriving by stagecoach the following day.

To Donovan’s shock and dismay, Wintle’s “package” turns out to be a trio of orphans: Bobby (Clay O'Brien), Clovis (Brad Savage), and Celia (Stacy Manning). Realizing the shady Wintle duped him, Donovan goes door-to-door trying to unload the three urchins on any family willing to take them. As he's doing so, the kids give Donovan the slip and head straight to a gold mine that belonged to their deceased father. After a sudden tremor, they three find an enormous nugget of gold, valued at almost a hundred thousand dollars

As a result of their new-found wealth, many of the families that initially refused to take the tykes in are now anxious to adopt them, causing Sheriff McCoy (Harry Morgan), who doubles as the town’s Judge, to recommend to Donovan that he get married, which would allow him to retain custody of the children. Wanting only what’s best for the little scamps, Donovan proposes to Magnolia Clydesdale, aka “Dusty” (Susan Clark), the stagecoach driver who already has a great rapport with the kids.

As this is happening, two bumbling crooks, aka Theodore (Don Knotts) and Amos (Tim Conway), are trying (and repeatedly failing) to steal the children’s gold, and as the good citizens of Quake City will soon discover, these two buffoons aren’t the only bandits in town!

Just about everything clicks in this movie, from the realistic western setting to its catchy theme song (performed by Randy Sparks and The Back Porch Majority). The cast is also excellent. Bill Bixby delivers a solid performance as the card shark who unwittingly becomes guardian to three kids, and Susan Clark is very believable as the tomboy that enters into a “business arrangement” with Donovan, agreeing to marry him because it will allow her to look after the children.

Of course, the real stars of The Apple Dumpling Gang are Don Knotts and Tim Conway, playing a pair of thieves who can’t seem to do anything right. One scene in particular, where Theodore and Amos sneak into a firehouse to swipe a ladder, moving quietly so as not to wake a sleeping fireman (Owen Bush), is a masterwork of physical comedy.

There are aspects of the film that haven’t aged well, notably its use of rear-projection to simulate movement, a process that, even back in the day, was rarely convincing. Yet despite its few shortcomings, The Apple Dumpling Gang remains an entertaining motion picture, and one of the finest live-action movies Disney ever produced.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

#1,459. The Last Farm (2004)

Directed By: Rúnar Rúnarsson

Starring: Ólafía Hrönn Jónsdóttir, Jón Sigurbjörnsson, Sigurður Skúlason

Trivia: This movie won the award for Best Film at the 2005 Tehran Short Film Festival

An Academy Award-nominated short film from Iceland, writer / director Rúnar Rúnarsson ‘s The Last Farm is a dark yet beautiful movie about an elderly farmer who chooses love over life.

Now in the twilight of his years, Hrafn (Jón Sigurbjörnsson) tells his adult daughter Lilja (Ólafía Hrönn Jónsdóttir) that he and her mother, his wife Gróa (Kristjana Vagnsdottir), are ready to leave their remote farmhouse and settle down in a retirement community. Unbeknownst to Lilja, her mother has already died, and Hrafn, unable to cope with the loss of his wife, has no intention of continuing on without her. After telling Lilja not to come visit him until the weekend is over, Hrafn sets in motion a plan to ensure he and Gróa will be together… forever.

Shot at an abandoned farmhouse in the picturesque Westfjords of Iceland, The Last Farm contains very little dialogue; aside from a phone conversation with Lilja and a visit from Jons (Sigurður Skúlason), the local delivery man, most of the movie plays out in silence. Yet in that quiet, Sigurbjörnsson gives a remarkably deep performance, capturing in equal parts his characters determination (more than half the film is dedicated to Hrafn working diligently on his farm, preparing for what’s to come and exerting himself to such a degree that, at one point, he nearly passes out) and his loneliness (at night, he lies next to his deceased wife, who is still in their bed, and in his eyes we see the grief that is consuming him). Playing a man who doesn’t easily express his emotions (during the phone call with Lilja, Hrafn asks to speak to his granddaughter for what is possibly the last time, showing no disappointment whatsoever when he learns she’s not at home), Sigurbjörnsson manages to convey, ever so subtly, his character’s fears, as well as the love that now controls his every waking moment.

A bleak motion picture, The Last Farm is certainly not a pick-me-up, nor is it particularly original (there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before). What it is, though, is a well-acted film telling a simple but poignant story, and even if it doesn’t make you smile at the end, I believe you’ll be happy you saw it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

#1,458. For Your Eyes Only (1981)

Directed By: John Glen

Starring: Roger Moore, Carole Bouquet, Topol

Tag line: "My name is Bond - James Bond"

Trivia: Deborah Harry, lead singer of Blondie, recorded a theme song for this film that was rejected by the producers. It appears on the 1982 album "The Hunter."

Like most James Bond films, 1981’s For Your Eyes Only opens with a pre-credit sequence. And man, is it a doozy! After visiting the grave of his wife, Teresa (who was murdered at the end of 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Bond (Roger Moore) is approached by a Vicar (Fred Bryant), who informs him that MI6 is in desperate need of his services, and is sending a helicopter to pick him up. Unfortunately for Bond, the helicopter actually belongs to his arch-rival, Ernst Blofeld (John Hollis), who is guiding the aircraft via remote control. After toying with 007 for a while, Blofeld tries to finish Bond off by crashing the helicopter, but before he can do so, Bond gains control of it, swoops down, and… well, I won’t spoil it for you. It’s an opening that features plenty of humor (a characteristic it shares with every other Roger Moore-era Bond flick), yet the scene is also memorable because it pays homage to the series’ previous films, setting the stage for a movie that, like some of those earlier entries, takes the emphasis off high-tech gadgetry to instead focus on pulse-pounding action, which For Your Eyes Only has in abundance.

While patrolling in the Ionian Sea, Britain’s undercover surveillance ship St. Georges strikes a mine, destroying the vessel and killing everyone on board. What has Sir Frederick Gray (Geoffrey Keen), the UK’s Minister of Defense, so worried is that the St. Georges was equipped with an Automatic Targeting Attack Communicator (ATAC for short), an instrument that coordinates the whereabouts of the country’s nuclear submarines. If the ATAC falls into the wrong hands, it could be used to order the subs to attack Britain itself. In an effort to recover the device, Agent James Bond turns to Greek businessman Aris Kristatos (Julian Glover) for help. A former freedom fighter with connections in the underworld, Kristatos tells Bond a smuggler named Columbo (Topol) is trying to salvage the ATAC so he can sell it to the highest bidder. Aided by the lovely Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), who’s seeking revenge for the recent murder of her parents, Bond closes in on Columbo, but is he truly 007’s enemy, or is the real culprit someone else entirely?

Unlike Moonraker, where he was looking far too old for the part, Moore is in fine form in For Your Eyes Only, handling both the action and romance with the greatest of ease. Also strong are Julian Glover and Topol as Bond’s allies / adversaries, with the filmmakers keeping us guessing as to which one is which. Then we have Carole Bouquet as Melina, whose beauty is as awe-inspiring as her skills with a crossbow, a talent that makes her a very effective partner for 007. The settings are also exquisite (it was shot on-location in Greece, Italy, and the UK), and Sheena Easton’s excellent title song perfectly complements the movie’s flashy, elegant opening credits sequence.

More than anything, though, For Your Eyes Only is wall-to-wall action, with car chases (as well as a few involving motorcycles); a death-defying showdown on a ski slope (perhaps the most exciting scene in the movie); an underwater salvage operation (which leads to a yet another run-in with an enemy agent); and a whole lot of fisticuffs. At one point, Bond even gets to scale a mountain, setting up what I consider to be the film’s most intense sequence. After the disappointing Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only was the shot in the arm the series needed, and for me ranks just below The Spy Who Loved Me and just above Live and Let Die, making it one of the finest of Roger Moore’s Bond outings.