Tuesday, September 30, 2014

#1,506. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

Directed By: Jared Hess

Starring: Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez, Jon Gries

Tag line: "It's Gonna Be a Dynamite Summer"

Trivia: A "Napoleon Dynamite" festival was held every year from 2004-08 in Preston, Idaho, the city where the movie was filmed

I first caught Napoleon Dynamite back in August of 2004, during its theatrical run. I remember it vividly; I had just attended an 8 pm. screening of Zach Braff’s Garden State, and, not being particularly tired, decided to check out another movie. 

Now, I had heard of Napoleon Dynamite, which was something of an indie hit, but hadn’t seen the trailer or read any reviews so I had no idea what to expect. It was a late-night showing, and there were only about a dozen of us in the theater (Interesting side note: I was in my mid-‘30s at the time, yet was still the oldest person there by at least a decade).

The movie started. I liked the opening credits sequence, in which the names of the film’s cast and crew were spelled out in ketchup on dinner plates, or plastered onto the label of a tube of Chapstick. 

Once the credits were over, the main character, teenager Napoleon Dynamite (John Heder) walked out the front door of his house and hopped onto a school bus. He made a beeline for the back seat, where another kid asked him what he’s going to do today. “Whatever I FEEL like I want to do, GOSH!” was Napoleon’s curt reply. 

He then grabbed a small toy out of his book bag, an action figure with a long string wrapped around it. Making sure the driver wasn’t looking, Napoleon held one end of the string, then tossed the figure out the window. It dragged along the ground, skipping over stones and kicking up dust as the bus continued on its journey.

That was the moment I realized Napoleon Dynamite was going to be one very strange motion picture. 

It also made me laugh. A lot.

Napoleon and his older brother Kip (Aaron Ruell), who spends his days talking with his on-line girlfriend in cyber chat rooms, live at home with their grandmother (Sandy Martin). While out with some friends one afternoon, Grandma accidentally breaks her coccyx, and has to spend a few days in the hospital. As a result, Napoleon's Uncle Rico (Jon Gries), a middle-aged former high-school quarterback who can’t let go of the past, moves in to watch over things. 

Hoping to raise enough money to buy a time machine (which he’ll use to travel back to 1982 so he can help his high school team with the championship game), Rico becomes a Tupperware salesman, and even talks Kip into helping him. 

Meanwhile, Napoleon (who is something of an outcast) befriends a new student named Pedro (Efren Ramirez) and falls for Deb (Tina Majorino), a shy girl with her own photography business. Napoleon even convinces Pedro to run for class president against the obnoxious Summer Wheatly (Haylie Duff), a cheerleader and one of the "popular" kids.

But this is just scratching the surface. In fact, some of the film’s funniest moments have nothing to do with the main story, like when a school bus pulls up in front of Napoleon’s house just in time to see the farmer across the street shoot his cow in the head; or when Kip (who, despite his slight frame, aspires to become a cage fighter) and Napoleon visit a martial arts fitness center run by the boisterous Rex (Diedrich Bader). 

Napoleon himself is also good for a few chuckles, spinning outrageous yarns designed to impress his classmates. In the locker room one afternoon, he tells Don (Trevor Snarr) and some others how he spent the summer in Alaska hunting wolverines. 

But of all the hilarious scenes, the one that cracked me up the most was when Napoleon and Kip tested Uncle Rico’s new time machine. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Produced for about $400k, Napoleon Dynamite is packed with a million dollars’ worth of laughs!

Monday, September 29, 2014

#1,505. Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)

Directed By: Don Taylor

Starring: Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, Bradford Dillman

Tag line: "A New Generation Of Incredible Apes In The Most Exciting Suspense Film Of Them All"

Trivia: One of the earlier scripts has the three ape-o-nauts viewing the dying Earth from their space capsule before going back in time

After exploring the Simian home world in Planet of the Apes, then destroying it in the sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the filmmakers had no choice but to switch things up a bit. So, for 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the setting is 20th century America, where the apes themselves are the outsiders, and man is the dominant species.

Moments before the earth was destroyed by a nuclear blast, ape scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter), along with Dr. Milo (Sal Mineo), hop into the spaceship that Taylor arrived in and head out into space. During their journey, the three are inexplicably thrown back in time to 20th century America, when man can speak and apes cannot. Not knowing what to make of their new visitors, the military sends the three new arrivals to the Los Angeles Zoo, where Drs. Lewis Dixon (Bradford Dillman) and Stephanie Branton (Natalie Trundy) conduct a series of experiments designed to test their intelligence. To the good Drs. surprise, the apes can speak, but before this information is released to the world, Dr. Milo is killed by a captive gorilla. Following a government hearing ordered by the President of the United States (William Windom), Cornelius and Zira become instant celebrities, and are treated as VIPs. But when Zira inadvertently reveals the truth about earth’s future, in which apes rule over man, Dr. Otto Hasslein (Eric Braeden) decides to take matters into his own hands, making it his personal mission to destroy the ape visitors and, in doing so, save mankind from its eventual demise.

Having taken the original story as far as they could in both Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes, this 3rd entry provided the filmmakers with an opportunity to move things in a very different, yet altogether exciting, direction. For one, Escape has plenty of humor, most of which revolves around Cornelius and Zira as they attempt to “blend in”, trying on the latest in ‘70s fashion and watching TV for the first time (when a news anchor wraps up his telecast by wishing everyone a good night, Zira, who’s watching on the television in her cage, responds by wishing him one as well). These early scenes of levity soon give way to something much more serious, pitting the two apes against a government that fears the unusual. In the first two entries, mankind was the victim. This time around, they’re the aggressors, and thus the film’s villains.

Tackling such hot-button topics as animal testing and government interference, Escape from the Planet of the Apes has plenty to say about the state of things in the 20th century, showing us our world through the eyes of two outsiders. And what we see is none too flattering.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

#1,504. Hangover Square (1945)

Directed By: John Brahm

Starring: Laird Cregar, Linda Darnell, George Sanders


Trivia: This film is cited by Stephen Sondheim as inspiration for writing "Sweeney Todd"

Having already teamed up for 1944’s The Lodger, director John Brahm and star Laird Cregar joined forces once again in 1945 for Hangover Street, a brilliant psychological thriller about a classical composer in turn-of-the-century London who suffers from bouts of amnesia. But it’s what he does during these lapses in his memory that’s caused Scotland Yard to sit up and take notice.

Encouraged by his neighbor Barbara Chapman (Faye Marlowe), musician George Henry Bone (Cregar) has been working on a new symphony, one that’s sure to be his masterpiece. But George also has a rare condition that strikes from time to time, causing him to wander about in a trance-like state, sometimes for hours, after which he remembers nothing of what transpired. His latest incident lasted for an entire day, leaving George to wonder if he was the party responsible for a murder committed in a nearby neighborhood. Frightened and confused, he visits Dr. Middleton (George Sanders) of Scotland Yard, who, after looking into the matter, says there’s no evidence to suggest George is a killer.

During an evening at a local dance hall, George is introduced to singer Netta Longdon (Linda Darnell), for whom he writes a song. To Netta’s surprise, this song proves popular enough to earn her some much-needed cash. Hoping to convince him to continue writing for her, the manipulative Netta cozies up to George, pretending to be in love with him. Before long, George proposes to Netta, only to discover she’s already engaged to promoter Eddie Carstairs (Glenn Langan). This realization is too much for him to handle, and George slips into another of his trances. The next day, the newspaper headlines scream that Netta is missing, and presumed murdered. Did George have anything to do with Netta’s disappearance, and if so, why can’t he remember it?

Hangover Square is a tense motion picture, with director Brahm pulling out all the stops to tell the story in a visually spectacular manner. In the film’s opening scene, we witness the murder of a shop owner from the killer’s perspective, watching as the man, who struggles to break free, is stabbed repeatedly. A later sequence, which takes place on Guy Fawkes Day, is equally as impressive, following a character as he carries a corpse, dressed to resemble Guy Fawkes, through the streets of London before tossing his victim into a bonfire. Even the film’s finale, during which the camera move freely around the room as Stone’s symphony is being performed, succeeds in building a great deal of tension, leading to a climax as dramatic as anything that went before it.

Along with Brahm’s striking visual style, Hangover Square features a tremendous performance by Laird Cregar, who expertly conveys his character’s inner turmoil, often doing so without the use of dialogue. Tragically, this would be Cregar’s final film; he died of a heart attack in December of 1944 at the age of 31, two months before the premiere of Hangover Square. In both his films with John Brahm, The Lodger and Hangover Square, Cregar proved himself an actor of immense talent, leaving us to ponder what else he might have accomplished had he lived a full life.

To many film enthusiasts, the names John Brahm and Laird Cregar won’t mean anything. If that’s the case, do yourself a favor and watch both The Lodger and Hangover Square immediately. Odds are they’ll make as strong an impression on you as they did on me.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

#1,503. Octopussy (1983)

Directed By: John Glen

Starring: Roger Moore, Maud Adams, Louis Jourdan

Tag line: "Nobody does it better...thirteen times"

Trivia: James Brolin was almost given the role of James Bond when at the last minute, Roger Moore agreed to play Bond again

Comedy was a major component of Roger Moore’s 7-film tenure as James Bond, yet no movie during this period featured as much humor as 1983’s Octopussy, which relies so heavily on one-liners and witty asides that, at times, it’s a real distraction.

Working undercover at a circus in East Berlin, Secret Agent 009 (Andy Bradford), disguised as a clown, manages to steal an exact replica of an invaluable Fabergè egg, which he delivers to the British Embassy just before dying (he was stabbed in the back). After discovering that the real egg is about to go up for auction in London, MI6 sends its best man, James Bond (Moore), to root out whoever was responsible for the forgery (MI6 believes that, with their copy now gone, the person or persons behind it will want to re-acquire the original). After a brief bidding war at Sotheby's, the egg is won by the wealthy Prince, Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), who, along with his accomplice Madga (Kristin Wayborn), immediately hops on a plane and heads home to his palace in India. What they don’t know is that, during the auction, Bond replaced the real egg with the phony one. With the actual Fabergè in tow, 007 heads east to find out why such a powerful man was so interested in this priceless item. What he discovers is that Khan, who’s somehow linked to an all-female organization led by the mysterious Octopussy (Maud Adams), has been raising money for General Orlov (Steven Berkoff), a Soviet officer who’s preparing to launch an attack against the west, one he’s convinced will prove to the world the military might of the Soviet army. With the General’s plan already in motion, 007 must move quickly to prevent a catastrophe that, if carried out, will kill thousands of innocent people.

Despite the seriousness of its story (which involves nuclear weapons, a hot topic back in the 1980s), Octopussy is chock full of humor, with Moore’s Bond rattling off one-liners at a breakneck pace, and doing so throughout much of the film. While in India, Bond pays a visit to “Q” (Desmond Llewellyn), who’s testing his latest contraption: a remote controlled Indian rope trick, which, unfortunately, snaps in half before reaching the top. Without missing a beat, Bond quips “Having a hard time keeping it up, Q?” Even the action scenes have their share of jokes (during a street fight with Khan’s henchmen, Bond pulls a sword out of a sword swallowers mouth, then tosses one poor guy onto a bed of nails), and some of the humor is downright ridiculous, like when Bond is in the jungle, trying to escape from Khan and his men. Climbing a tree, he grabs hold of a vine and jumps, and as he swings through the air, the Tarzan yell fills the soundtrack!

That’s not to say Octopussy is devoid of those elements that make a good Bond picture. For one, the women are gorgeous, especially Wayborn’s Madga, who isn’t shy about using her body to get what she wants. Louis Jourdan, always a solid actor, does a fine job as this film’s villain, as does Berkoff, whose General Orlov is particularly deplorable. Partially shot in Rajasthan, the Indian locale is used to great effect, and series regulars Llewellyn and Lois Maxwell (as Moneypenny) also turn up (Llewellyn’s “Q”, who gets more screen time than usual, even takes part in the final battle). And while most of the movie features mediocre action, the entire finale, which begins with Bond trying to catch a train and ends with a traditional shoot-out, is absolutely exhilarating.

Unlike some, I don’t rank Octopussy among the worst Bond films; its thrilling climax manages to salvage much of the silliness that went before it. But with such a heavy emphasis on humor, it’s hard to deny that, at times, Octopussy comes across as one of the series’ minor efforts.

Friday, September 26, 2014

#1,502. Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Directed By: Howard Hawks

Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles

Tag line: "And so begins the hilarious adventure of Professor David Huxley and Miss Susan Vance, a flutter-brained vixen with love in her heart!"

Trivia: Christopher Reeve based his performance as Clark Kent in Superman (1978) on Cary Grant's performance as David Huxley in this film

Of all the screwball comedies to emerge from the ‘30s and ‘40s, Bringing Up Baby, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, is easily the screwiest, not to mention one of the funniest.

Things are looking up for Dr. David Huxley (Grant), a paleontologist working for a prestigious museum in New York City. He’s about to marry his longtime assistant Alice (Virginia Walker), and has just received word from an overseas expedition that they’ve uncovered a rare intercostal clavicle, the last bone needed to complete the brontosaurus skeleton he has been reconstructing for the past four years. What’s more, socialite Elizabeth Random (Mary Robson) is looking to donate a million dollars to a worthy organization, and the museum is at the top of her list! 

To seal the deal, Huxley heads to the local country club to play a round of golf with Ms. Random’s lawyer, Alexander Peabody (George Irving). While there, he has an unfortunate run-in with heiress Susan Vance (Hepburn), and all at once his life is turned upside-down. After ruining one of his shots on the golf course, Ms. Vance steals (albeit by mistake) Dr. Huxley’s car, causing the frustrated scientist to take off after her and leave poor Mr. Peabody alone on the links. 

Hoping to explain what happened, Huxley makes arrangements to meet Peabody at the club restaurant later that evening, only to once again run into Susan Vance, resulting in yet another disaster (both Huxley and Susan tear their clothes and are forced to make a hasty exit). 

From that moment on, Huxley finds he’s unable to shake the flighty heiress, who has taken a fancy to him. He eventually winds up in Susan's car, which is headed to Connecticut to drop off a pet leopard named Baby, a gift from Susan's brother (sent from Brazil) for their aunt. 

As crazy as the above may seem, it’s nothing compared to what happens once the mismatched couple finally reaches Connecticut!

The performances in Bringing Up Baby are superb. Cary Grant is pitch-perfect as Dr. David Huxley, the once-stable scientist who becomes an unwitting accomplice to Susan Huxley’s flights of fancy, and as a result slowly begins to unravel. Along with Grant’s controlled hysterics, Bringing up Baby gives us Katherine Hepburn as we’ve never seen her before, playing a ditzy, love struck girl who can’t stay out of trouble. While driving to Connecticut with Dr. Huxley and Baby the Leopard, Susan crashes into a truck hauling chickens and ducks. As the birds flutter around on the road, a hungry Baby licks its lips and jumps out the back of the car. When the smoke clears, several chickens and ducks are missing, leaving poor Dr. Huxley to pay for the damages. Yet as good as Grant and Hepburn are, what really makes Bringing Up Baby an unforgettable experience are the insane situations its two main characters get themselves into, a few of of which amount to petty crimes (after accidentally stealing a purse at the club restaurant, Susan purposely swipes a car on the road to Connecticut).  

With its strong cast, some fast-paced overlapping dialogue, and enough anarchy to make the Marx Brothers beam with pride, Bringing up Baby is cinematic insanity of the highest order, a cauldron of craziness that gets loonier with each passing minute. 

It is also one of the greatest screen comedies ever made.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

#1,501. Sullivan's Travels (1941)

Directed By: Preston Sturges

Starring: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick

Tag line: "A Happy-Go Lucky Hitch-Hiker on the Highway to happiness! He wanted to see the world . . . but wound up in Lover's Lane!"

Trivia: Veronica Lake was six months pregnant at the beginning of production, a fact she didn't tell Sturges until filming began. Sturges was so furious when he learned that, according to Lake, he had to be physically restrained

Preston Sturges’ 1941 comedy with a conscience, Sullivan’s Travels stars Joel McCrea as movie director John Lloyd Sullivan, whose films (such as Ants in Your Plants of 1939) are among the most popular in the country. 

Yet despite his success, Sullivan longs to make a movie that’s socially relevant, reflecting the poverty and despair currently gripping the nation. To research his latest project, a human drama titled O Brother, Where art Thou, Sullivan poses as a hobo, and with only $0.10 in his pocket he sets out to experience what it means to be hungry and out of work. 

Along the way, he meets a would-be actress (Veronica Lake) who joins Sullivan on his grand adventure. Together, the two spend time among the poor and destitute, sleeping on mission floors and eating in soup kitchens. 

Convinced he’s now ready to tackle O Brother, Where Art Thou, Sullivan returns to the Hollywood fold. But when he attempts to reward the needy who aided his research, he finally learns what true suffering is.

Joel McCrae is utterly believable as the well-meaning yet naïve title character, and the early scenes depicting his journey to poverty row are played almost entirely for laughs. After ditching the “land yacht”, a large bus hired by the studio to follow closely behind and make sure he doesn’t get into trouble, Sullivan visits a farm owned and operated by an elderly widow (Almira Sessions) and her sister (Esther Howard), who offer him room and board in exchange for his services (chopping wood, etc). When the widow takes a liking to him, Sullivan sneaks out in the middle of the night and hitches a ride, only to end up back in Hollywood! 

Even his budding relationship with the struggling actress (Lake’s character is never given a name), who, disguised as a boy, accompanies him on his journey, plays out like a romantic comedy (in one very funny scene, the two learn that leaping from a moving train is twice as difficult as hopping onto one).

Then, at about the halfway mark, director Sturges throws his audience a curve by changing the entire tone of the picture, taking what had been a lively comedy and transforming it into a drama ripe with social commentary. The trouble begins when Sullivan, feeling he’s completed his mission, again visits the poor, this time to hand out $5 bills as a “thank you” for opening his eyes to their plight. Before he can do so, however, he’s jumped by a vagrant and knocked unconscious. Dragging Sullivan’s limp body into an abandoned railway car and stealing his shoes, the vagrant then runs off, only to be struck and killed by a passing train. 

This kicks off a chain of events that takes Sullivan's Travels in a very dark direction. After giving us plenty to laugh about early on, Sturges, with these later scenes, stirs our emotions in a much different, yet equally satisfying way.

Wonderfully acted and expertly directed, Sullivan’s Travels is a marvelous motion picture.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

#1,500. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Directed By: Tommy Lee Wallace

Starring: Tom Atkins, Stacey Nelkin, Dan O'Herlihy

Tag line: "Witchcraft enters the computer age, and a different terror begins"

Trivia: A milk factory was used for the setting of the Silver Shamrock factory

Many fans of Halloween and Halloween II never warmed up to 1982’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch. The reason, of course, is that, unlike the previous films, soulless killer Michael Myers is nowhere to be found. With Halloween III: Season of the Witch, executive producers John Carpenter and Debra Hill were hoping to launch what would have become an anthology of sorts, with a new Halloween movie, each telling a different story, released every year around the holiday. It was a great concept, and I kinda wish they’d had a chance to expand upon it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.

Several days before Halloween, Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) is pulled into a bizarre mystery when an elderly patient, who was brought into the hospital clutching a Halloween mask, is murdered while still under his care. Joined by the dead man’s daughter, Ellie (Stacey Nelkin), Dr. Challis heads to the small California town of Santa Mira, the headquarters of the Silver Shamrock Company, producers of the hottest Halloween mask on the planet. Thanks to their intensive marketing campaign (which includes a jingle you won’t soon forget), Silver Shamrock has sold millions of masks all across the United States. What’s more, they’re telling kids to tune in to a special Halloween night program, which they should watch while still in costume. But as Dr. Challis and Ellie probe deeper into the matter, they discover the CEO of Silver Shamrock, Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), is plotting something that, if successful, will result in the deaths of thousands, possibly even millions, of innocent people.

Aside from a few brief scenes where the original Halloween is playing on TV, Halloween III has no tie-in whatsoever with Michael Myers, Dr. Loomis, Laurie Strode or Haddonfield, Illinois. Yet, despite its differences from the first two entries, Halloween III is a fun film in its own right. Sure, it’s not perfect (there’s a link to Stonehenge that doesn’t make much sense), but the movie boasts a handful of noteworthy scenes, the best of which is a sequence where Cochran tests his devious plan on the family of Buddy Kupfer (Ralph Strait), a salesman who, because he sold so many masks, was given a V.I.P. tour of the plant. After being placed in a small room, Buddy’s son Little Buddy (Brad Schacter) puts on his Silver Shamrock mask and watches the program scheduled to air on Halloween night. Needless to say, things get a bit out of hand, and the resulting carnage is something you won’t soon forget. Also memorable is Conal Cochran’s history lesson of sorts, where he discusses the true origin of Halloween (flawlessly delivered by O’Herlihy, it proves a fascinating monologue).

Admittedly, I’m a fan of the Halloween series, including the movies that followed Halloween III, all of which once again featured Michael Myers (Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers and Halloween V: The Revenge of Michel Myers are both solid horror films). That said, I can’t help but wonder what stories might have been told had Carpenter and Hill had a chance to continue their initial plan for the series. I don’t blame the fans, really, for not embracing Halloween III: Season of the Witch. For me, the fault lies with whoever decided to add the number “3” to this film (which led people to believe it was yet another sequel to the classic original). It’s all water under the bridge now, of course, but the fact that I enjoyed Halloween III: Season of the Witch makes the failure of Carpenter and Hill’s concept a little harder to bear.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

#1,499. Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Directed By: Rich Moore

Starring: John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch

Tag line: "This holiday season comes a story for everyone who ever needed a restart on life"

Trivia: Jennifer Lee, one of the film's two screenwriters, became the first woman to write a screenplay for a full-length Disney animated feature film since Noni White for 1999's Tarzan

Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph does for video games what Toy Story did for toys; creating a world filled with wonder, where the characters and games we grew up with are given a life of their own.

For 30 years, Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) has been the villain in the popular arcade game “Fix-It Felix”, spending every waking minute destroying an apartment building that the “hero”, Felix (Jack McBrayer), then repairs. Even at the end of the day, when the players have gone home and the arcade shuts its doors, poor Ralph can’t get any respect (he isn’t invited to the game’s 30th Anniversary celebration, watching it instead from the garbage dump he calls home). Hoping to change his luck, Ralph leaves his own game and ventures into the high-tech, battle-oriented world of “Hero’s Duty”, where he joins an elite team of warriors led by the beautiful but tough Calhoun (Jane Lynch). Joining the fight against thousands of alien bugs, Ralph hopes to win the coveted medal awarded at the end of the game, which he believes will prove, once and for all, that he can be a “good guy”, too.

Ralph does win his medal, but a mishap with an escape pod launches him (as well as a killer bug) out of “Hero’s Duty” and into “Sugar Rush”, a race cart game in which the entire world is made of candy. It’s here that he meets Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a bratty little girl who, because she’s considered a programming “glitch”, has been shunned by her peers. Hoping to show she isn’t just a “glitch”, Vanellope steals Ralph’s medal and uses it to pay the entry fee for an upcoming race. At first upset with Vanellope, Ralph (who understands what it’s like to be an outcast) eventually agrees to help her, angering the King of “Sugar Rush” (Alan Tudyk), who insists there’s no place for a “Glitch” in his kingdom. Meanwhile, Fix-It Felix (who, without Ralph, has nothing to fix) has teamed up with Calhoun to try and locate both Ralph and, even more importantly, the bug from “Hero’s Duty”, which, if loose in “Sugar Rush”, will destroy everything in its path.

Right off the bat, I was blown away by the world the filmmakers created for Wreck-It Ralph, where characters from one game can travel by tram car through the wiring and into another (in the opening scene, Ralph is attending a villain’s support group hosted by one of the ghosts from “Pac-Man”). What’s more, the surge protectors act as a sort of train station, complete with a Customs Officer who checks to make sure you aren’t bringing fruits and vegetables from one game into another. While some of the games in this particular arcade are fictitious, and used to represent actual ones (“Fix-It Felix” is clearly “Donkey Kong”, and “Sugar Rush” has a lot in common with “Mario Kart”), others are the real deal (along with “Pac-Man”, Ralph has a run-in with Q-Bert, who’s homeless now because his game was disconnected). As someone who spent a good deal of his youth hanging around arcades, I immediately fell in love with this incredibly detailed world.

But like Toy Story, there’s more to Wreck-It Ralph than mere spectacle. In fact, one of the film’s major strengths is its characters. A big, lumbering oaf who only wants to fit in, Ralph is someone most people can identify with, and John C. Reilly (who doesn’t bother disguising his voice) brings just the right mix of pathos and determination to the character, making him sympathetic, but strong. I also liked Vanellope, who, despite being an obnoxious brat early on, wins us over with her enthusiasm (the scene where she and Ralph break into the car factory is a lot of fun). In a nice twist, the filmmakers even portrayed Felix, Ralph’s in-game foe, in a positive light, giving him an “Aw Shucks” personality yet still allowing him to be more than your typical game hero (in a brilliantly bizarre romantic subplot, Felix falls in love with Calhoun).

Like many of Disney’s best films, you’ll adore the visual splendor of Wreck-It Ralph, but it’s the characters that will stay with you.

Monday, September 22, 2014

#1,498. The Thin Man (1934)

Directed By: W.S. Van Dyke

Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan

Tag line: "A laugh tops every thrilling moment!"

Trivia: Skippy, who played Asta the dog, bit Myrna Loy during filming

Take a murder mystery, add a dash of screwball comedy, then top it off with a couple of charming alcoholics, and you have 1934’s The Thin Man, a hilarious whodunit that keeps you guessing (and laughing) until the very end.

Nick Charles (William Powell), a retired private eye who now spends his days in a constant state of inebriation, is vacationing in New York City with his wealthy wife Nora (Myrna Loy) and their faithful dog Asta when he learns that his old friend Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis) has gone missing. 

Soon after, Wynant’s former flame, Julia Wolf (Natalie Moorhead), is found murdered in her apartment, with all the evidence suggesting Wynant himself is the killer. Convinced of her father’s innocence, Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O’Sullivan) asks Nick to come out of retirement and look into the matter. Nick agrees to do so, but the deeper he delves into this mystery, the more suspects he uncovers.

William Powell is flawless as the wise-cracking, hard drinking former detective who, even when he’s drunk, is the smartest guy in the room. After agreeing to work on the case, he tags along with police detective John Guild (Nat Pendleton) to question Joe Morelli (Edward Brophy), one of the last people to see Julia Wolf alive. During the interrogation, Morelli claims to have an alibi for the night of the murder, and walks into a back room to retrieve the evidence proving he's innocent. 

As Guild waits for Morelli to return, Nick picks up a telephone and puts a call in to police headquarters, requesting they follow Morelli to see where he’s going. At that point, a surprised Guild rushes into the back room, only to find that Morelli has, indeed, climbed out a window, just as Nick predicted. 

When not on the case, Nick spends his time hanging around a swanky New York hotel, getting drunk and trading witticisms with his wife Nora, one of the few people who can drink him under the table. Like Powell, Loy is wonderful in the film, and their scenes together are pure gold. Upon meeting Nick at a local bar, Nora asks how many drinks he’s had, to which Nick replies “six martinis”. So, in order to catch up, Nora has the waiter bring her five more martinis, all at once, and line them up in a row! 

In addition to the laughs, The Thin Man features a nifty murder mystery, culminating in a final sequence where Nick invites all the suspects to a dinner party, knowing full well that one of them is the killer.

A comedy that doubles as a serious whodunit, The Thin Man is a whole mess of fun crammed into 91 minutes!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

#1,497. Old School (2003)

Directed By: Todd Phillips

Starring: Luke Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell

Tag line: "All the fun of college, none of the education"

Trivia: Director Todd Phillips's dog has a cameo in the movie as Garry, the oral sex instructor's dog

The premise of Todd Phillips’ 2003 comedy Old School may be preposterous, but thanks to the combined efforts of its three leads, it still managed to make me laugh.

When he returns home early from a business trip, Mitch (Luke Wilson) receives the shock of a lifetime when he finds his live-in girlfriend Heidi (Juliette Lewis) preparing to have sex with a married couple! Looking to start over, Mitch rents a house near a local University, only to be informed by the school’s Dean (Jeremy Piven), a former acquaintance of his, that the entire area has been re-zoned. As a result, his house now lies in a part of town that falls under the University’s jurisdiction, meaning Mitch will have to vacate the premises by the end of the month.

Fortunately, his good friend Beanie (Vince Vaughn) has a plan that may help Mitch keep his home. Why not turn the building into a frat house?! With the help of their newly-married pal Frank (Will Ferrell), Mitch and Beanie start up their own “civilian fraternity”, which, according to the college’s by-laws, will allow them to continue to live there, though they'll have to share the house with about a dozen pledges, some of whom aren’t even students!

As Mitch, Beanie, and Frank enjoy all the privileges of college life, the Dean continues to look for a way to shut their new "fraternity" down.

The idea of three thirtysomething pals starting up their own college fraternity is ludicrous, and the movie doesn’t waste a single moment trying to justify it. We hear that Mitch and his pals have found a loophole in the college’s by-laws, though we're never told what that “loophole” might be. What saves the premise from sinking altogether are its three stars. Wilson, Vaughn, and Ferrell are funny guys, and their various antics lead to a few good laughs. After promising his new wife Marissa (Perrey Reeves) that he will stay away from alcohol, Frank, whose college nickname was “Frank the Tank”, gets drunk the very first night, takes off his clothes, and announces he’s going to streak through the park (where he runs into his wife and her friends).

That is a funny sequence, but my favorite scene has Mitch and the others jumping into a van and driving, at top speed, through town, kidnapping potential pledges and forcing them to take part in a very strange hazing ritual (which, without going into detail, involved a cinder block and a rope tied to their penises). The pledges themselves also generate some laughs; one would-be fraternity brother, lovingly nicknamed “Blue” (Patrick Crashaw), is 89 years old!

Not all of the jokes work. One scene in particular, which features Andy Dick as an oral sex specialist, was more creepy than funny. But thanks to its trio of stars, all playing characters similar to ones they’ve portrayed before, Old School manages to overcome both its weaker moments and its outlandish premise, and in the process becomes a pretty entertaining comedy.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

#1,496. Stark Fear (1962)

Directed By: Ned Hockman

Starring: Beverly Garland, Skip Homeier, Kenneth Tobey

Tag line: "I ain't gonna hurt you... I just want company..."

Trivia: Beverly Garland says this is her least favorite of all the movies she's made

1962’s Stark Fear may think it’s a psychological drama, but don’t let it fool you; with its story of an abused wife who’s ogled and grabbed by almost every guy she meets, this movie is pure, unadulterated exploitation.

To help make ends meet, housewife Ellen Winslow (Beverly Garland) accepts a job as the personal secretary of Cliff Kane (Kenneth Tobey). Unbeknownst to Ellen, Kane and her husband Gerry (Skip Homeier) are business rivals, and there’s a history of bad blood between the two. When Ellen returns home from her first day at work, she finds an angry Gerry waiting for her. Accusing her of stabbing him in the back, he threatens to divorce her if she keeps the job. Not willing to risk her marriage, Ellen quits, but not even this can calm Gerry down. He storms out of the house, and doesn’t return.

A few days later, Ellen pays a visit to Gerry’s boss and is told that Gerry has abruptly taken a 4-week leave of absence, which, because he didn’t clear it first, is grounds for dismissal. With his job hanging in the balance, Ellen sets out to locate her husband, and after speaking to family friend Ruth Rogers (Hannah Stone), discovers he’s been leading a secret life. In fact, Gerry’s not even from Pennsylvania, as he claims; he was actually born and raised in the small town of Quehada, Oklahoma. Hoping to find him there, Ellen visits Quehada, where she meets Gerry’s lecherous old pal, Harvey Suggett, who, after making a pass at her, fills Ellen in on the details of Gerry’s checkered past (which includes a mother, also named Ellen, who treated him badly). While still in Quehada, Ellen runs into Gerry, who accuses her of spying on him. Fearing what he might do to her, Ellen runs away, only to be cornered by Harvey, who rapes her. Her life in a shambles, Ellen tries to pick up the pieces by once again going to work for Cliff Kane. But when she makes one last ditch effort to save her marriage, it results in a tragedy that threatens to destroy what little self-respect she has left.

While it certainly has all the makings of a searing family drama, Stark Fear comes up short in the character department, which ultimately prevents it from developing into a serious take on relationships. The chief problem is the husband, Gerry, who from the word “go” is a total jerk, treating his wife like dirt in their very first scene together (in a fit of anger, he destroys a portrait of Ellen that was hanging on the wall). As a result, Gerry is never anything more than an absolute prick, leaving us to wonder why Ellen wants to save their marriage in the first place. In fact, Ellen doesn’t have a normal relationship with any of the men in this picture. Whether holding a conversation with one or simply passing them in the street, every single male character Ellen encounters undresses her with their eyes, with some (like Harvey Suggett) allowing their infatuation to get the better of them. Even her “professional” association with Cliff Kane eventually develops into a romance. But while it fails as a drama, Stark Fear offers up just enough sex and violence to make it a solid exploitation flick, and on that level it works fairly well.

With an intense performance by Beverly Garland (who looks a little like Janet Leigh in this film) and more sleaze than you can shake a stick at, Stark Fear won’t teach you anything about the nature of relationships, but it will hold your attention.

Friday, September 19, 2014

#1,495. Dinner at Eight (1933)

Directed By: George Cukor

Starring: Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery

Line from the film: "I never could understand why is has to be just even, male and female. They're invited for dinner, not for mating"

Trivia: Both Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler died within four years of the film's release: Dressler in 1934 at age 65, and Harlow in 1937, at age 26

Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke), the wife of shipping magnate Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore), is throwing a dinner party in honor of a British lord and his wife, who are visiting America. As Millicent (called “Millie” for short) dedicates the majority of her time to planning the shindig, her husband Oliver wrestles with the fact that his company, which has been in his family for generations, is going under. To make matters worse, someone is buying up the company’s stock with the intention of taking it over, and Oliver has no idea who it is. 

For help, he turns to self-made millionaire Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), who has connections in Washington D.C. To get in his good graces, Oliver asks Millie to invite Packard and his wife Kitty (Jean Harlow) to the party. A rather common girl, Kitty is thrilled by the prospect of attending such a swanky event, though her husband isn’t too keen on the idea. Not willing to let his stubbornness get in the way of her social climbing, Kitty issues Dan an ultimatum: either take her to the dinner, or she’ll spill the beans that he is the one trying to take over Oliver Jordan's company!

Other guests include renowned actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), an old flame of Oliver’s who has fallen on hard times; and Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe), a general physician and womanizer who is having an affair with Kitty Packard. Also invited is Larry Renault (John Barrymore), an aging actor whose best days are behind him. Unbeknownst to the Jordan’s, Renault has been secretly dating their daughter Paula (Madge Evans), despite the fact the young girl is already engaged to someone else. What’s more, Renault is an alcoholic, and his drunken escapades have ruined his chances of starring in a new Broadway show. 

With such an impressive guest list, Millie is certain her party will be the social event of the season, but Oliver’s failing health and a last-minute cancellation threaten to ruin the dinner before it’s even been served!

Released one year after the star-studded Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight reunited all three of that film’s leading men. Lionel Barrymore’s Oliver Jordan is a friendly, gentle soul who, in spite of having the weight of the world on his shoulders, always has time to smile or say a kind word. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Dan Packard, the greedy businessman so wonderfully played by Wallace Beery. After agreeing to help Oliver save his company, Packard makes arrangements to take it over himself. Both men played similar characters in Grand Hotel, while the third lead, John Barrymore, portrays an alcoholic has-been who still considers himself a big star. It’s a tremendously poignant part (made doubly so by the fact the actor himself was an alcoholic at the time), and John Barrymore plays it to perfection.

That said, the ladies are the ones who steal the show, with Maria Dressler leading the way as the outspoken Carlotta, who generates most of the film’s laughs. When Oliver’s secretary says she’s been a fan of hers since she was a little girl, the perturbed Carlotta, none too happy to be reminded how old she is, sarcastically shoots back “You know, we must have a long talk about the Civil War sometime. Just you and I”. 

Jean Harlow is also strong as Kitty, the wannabe socialite willing to step over anyone, including her husband, to get where she wants to go. Topping it off is Billie Burke (aka Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz) as the hyper Millie, too busy concentrating on her party to notice her husband’s world is falling apart. In one very funny scene, Millie learns, on the day of the dinner, that her chauffeur and butler just got into a fight, landing one in jail and the other in the hospital. Needless to say, it pushes her to the breaking point. Based on a hit play, Dinner at Eight is clearly an actor’s film, but it's the women who shine brightest.

Simultaneously witty and moving, Dinner at Eight is, like Grand Hotel before it, a fabulous motion picture featuring some of Hollywood’s best, at the absolute top of their game.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

#1,494. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Directed By: Frank Capra

Starring: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey

Tag line: "She's just discovered his favorite aunts have poisoned their 13th gentleman friend !"

Trivia: Capra actually filmed the movie in 1941 because of star Cary Grant's availability, but it was not released until 1944, after the original stage version had finished its run on Broadway

Arsenic and Old Lace, Frank Capra’s 1944 dark comedy, introduces us to, among others, a pair of elderly sisters who aren’t nearly as sweet as they appear.

Despite having written several books condemning the institution of marriage, drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) secretly weds Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the girl who lives next door to his Aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair). 

While delivering the good news to his aunts, Mortimer makes a startling discovery: there's a dead body hidden inside a window seat in their house! Adding to the confusion is the fact that Abby and Martha already know about the deceased... because they’re the ones who put him there! To Mortimer’s horror, Aunts Abby and Martha are serial killers, murdering elderly men who respond to a classified ad they've placed in the paper. 

Toss into the mix Mortimer’s brother, Teddy (John Alexander), who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, and his other brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), a dangerous lunatic who claims to have killed a few people himself, and you have a time bomb just waiting to explode.

The Brewsters sure are a crazy bunch, and Capra and company do a fine job bringing their insanity to the big screen (the story is based on a 1939 stage play written by Joseph Kesselring). Cary Grant is in his element as Mortimer, the most "sensible" of the Brewsters, rattling off his lines at a fever pitch as he tries to make sense of what’s going on around him. Along with his penchant for snappy dialogue, Grant also proves himself a master of physical comedy, contorting his face and gesturing wildly with each new development. Late in the film, Mortimer is gagged and tied to a chair, yet even here Grant manages to make us chuckle with his facial expressions. 

As for the rest of the Brewster brood, they’re quite a collection of characters. John Alexander generates some laughs as Teddy, the brother who is convinced he’s Theodore Roosevelt. Shouting “Charge!” whenever he runs up the stairs (as if he was storming San Juan Hill), Teddy also annoys the neighbors when he blows his bugle in the middle of the night (which usually brings the police around). 

At first glance, Mortimer’s two aunts, Abby and Martha, are kindly old gals, serving tea to the local minister (Grant Mitchell) and donating toys for the area’s underprivileged children. Their pleasant nature never wavers, not even when discussing the 12 murders they’ve committed. As far as Abby and Martha are concerned, there’s no reason to be ashamed of what they have done. All of their victims were old and alone, with no family to look after them. Using a blend of poisons (“I take one teaspoon full of arsenic, then add half a teaspoon full of strychnine, and then just a pinch of cyanide”, Martha tells a befuddled Mortimer), they send the gentlemen off to the great beyond, then have Teddy dig a grave in the basement (by convincing him he’s actually working on the Panama Canal) and hold a service to lay the deceased to rest.

In spite of their sometimes alarming behavior, Teddy and the two aunts come across as likable characters, and we laugh at their hijinks. The same cannot be said for Jonathan, Mortimer’s long lost brother who abruptly returns home with both a new face (many comment that he now looks like Boris Karloff, something of an in-joke seeing as, in the stage production, this character was actually played by Karloff) and a nervous companion, Dr. Einstein, superbly portrayed by the great Peter Lorre. An obvious psychotic, Jonathan talks of the people he’s killed. When he discovers his Aunts have murdered 12 men, Jonathan proudly fires back that he’s taken out 13. “You can’t count the one in South Bend”, Dr. Einstein says to Jonathan, “He died of pneumonia”, to which Jonathan proudly points out, “He wouldn't have died of pneumonia if I hadn't shot him!”. With his icy demeanor and determined gaze, Massey brings a real menace to the role of Jonathan, making him the lone Brewster we don’t like being around.

Jonathan’s behavior aside, Arsenic and Old Lace is a laugh-riot, a comedy full of charm and wit that, like a fine wine or a classic car, only gets better with age.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

#1,493. Horror Business (2005)

Directed By: Christopher P. Garetano

Starring: Ray Adell, Mark Borchardt, Ron Atkins

Tag line: "Moviemaking is no way to spend a life"

Trivia: It took 2 years to complete this film

It’s two percent movie making and ninety-eight percent hustling. It’s no way to spend a life.

These are the words of the great Orson Welles, who, for decades, fought tooth and nail to make the kind of movies he wanted to make. In the 2005 documentary Horror Business, we meet a handful of filmmakers who are trying to do the same.

Directed by Christopher Garetano, Horror Business takes us into the world of independent horror, following several directors as they work diligently to complete their latest projects. Wisconsinite Mark Borchardt, who in 1999 was the subject of the hit documentary American Movie, has gathered family, friends, and a collection of extras together for his newest opus, Scare Me. New York’s David Stagnari puts the finishing touches on his black and white short Catharsis, while Las Vegas’ own Ron Atkins shoots scenes for his next film, The Sins of Government. We join these three (and a few others as well) on the sets of their respective movies, watching them deal with the sometimes frustrating process of making a motion picture, and listening intently as they try to explain why they love it so.

Along with the above, Horror Business delves into other aspects of the horror genre, showing clips from a number of classics (Nosferatu, 1931’s Dracula, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Zombie) while also speaking with such noted celebrities as Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast), Lloyd Kaufman (The Toxic Avenger), and cable TV host Joe Bob Briggs, who offer advice to all the would-be directors in the audience. Horror Business even swings by a convention, where Sid Haig (Spider Baby, House of 1000 Corpses) interacts with fans; and we take a stroll down memory lane by visiting New York’s Warwick Drive-in, where David Stagnari spent a good portion of his youth. As much a tribute to the genre’s illustrious past as it is a glimpse into its future, Horror Business leaves no stone unturned.

A flashy, engaging documentary that approaches its topic with the utmost respect, Horror Business is an incredibly satisfying journey into the heart of independent horror, showing us there are still people out there making films not for the money, but because they love them. Horror may indeed be a business to some, but to a select few, it’s an all-consuming passion.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

#1,492. Zeta One (1969)

Directed By: Michael Cort

Starring: James Robertson Justice, Charles Hawtrey, Robin Hawdon

Tag line: "A bedroom romp through the fifth dimension!"

Trivia: This movie was also released as The Love Factor

There are some fine looking women in the 1969 British sci-fi sex comedy Zeta One, all of whom walk around in skimpy outfits (when they’re actually dressed, that is). Like most sex comedies from this period, the movie favors nudity over laughs, but if lots of skin doesn’t do it for you, Zeta One has enough late ‘60s charm to at least make it an interesting watch.

British superspy James Word (Robin Hawdon), who’s just returned home from his latest mission, finds his superior’s pretty secretary, Ann (Yutte Stensgaard), waiting for him in his apartment. Under the pretense of cooking him dinner, Ann tries to get Word to talk about his most recent assignment. After they’ve had a roll in the hay, Word fills Ann in on all the juicy details. He tells her about the Angvians, a group of superwomen led by Zeta (Dawn Addams), whose home world is devoid of men (the Angvians are either aliens from another planet or exist in a different dimension here on earth. We’re never quite sure which). To increase their numbers, they simply abduct earth girls, who are quickly indoctrinated into Angvian society. Among the ladies they’ve set their sights on is Edwina Strain (Wendy Lingham), an exotic dancer. Unfortunately for Zeta, someone else has also been watching Edwina, namely Maj. Bourdon (James Robertson Justice), the villainous leader of a criminal organization intent on destroying the Angvians. Thus far, his attempts to do so have failed, but with Edwina working undercover for him, Bourdon may finally discover the whereabouts of Zeta’s headquarters, clearing the way for him to launch an all-out attack.

It's clear early on that Zeta One was intended to be a James Bond-style spoof, but falls short of the mark mostly because its spy, James Word, doesn’t really figure into the action. Aside from the opening scene in his apartment (the highlight of which is a rousing game of strip poker between him and Ann) and a few other sporadic appearances (including a run-in with a talking elevator, the only sequence in the movie that made me laugh), Word is absent through much of the picture. He doesn’t even take part in the final battle between Bourdon’s henchmen and Zeta’s pasties-wearing hit squad, who, despite their lack of attire, still manage to kick some butt. Yet the film’s various action scenes aren’t its most memorable trait. What stays with you, apart from its collection of scantily-clad females (did I mention they were gorgeous?), is its psychedelic ‘60s vibe. The Angvian headquarters is a sharply angular place lit by multi-colored spotlights, and when the newly-arrived Edwina is “processed”, she’s put through a machine that makes it look as if she’s swimming naked in a lava lamp!

While not much of a spy story, and even less of a comedy, Zeta One is, at the very least, a time capsule of the late ‘60s that, as an added bonus, houses a bevy of buxom, beautiful babes.

Monday, September 15, 2014

#1,491. R2-D2: Beneath the Dome (2001)

Directed By: Don Bies, Spencer Susser

Starring: Bob Hesse, Robbie Edwards, Bitsie Tulloch

Tag line: "Hero. Legend. Hardware"

Trivia: This movie was broadcast in three weekly installments on Fox TV in the U.S.

RD-D2: Beneath the Dome is a mockumentary that delves into the "life" of R2-D2, the little droid who shot to superstardom in George Lucas’ Star Wars series. Born in the small town of Bollux, England, R2-D2 (whose real name is apparently Reginald Dillingham) left home at an early age, when the friction between him and his father (a mounted policeman) became too much for the young droid to bear. Hanging out in London in the ‘60s, R2-D2 (whose close friends call him “Artoo”) hung out with a number of rock stars, including The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix, before trying his hand at acting. Following a brief stint in the theatre (he portrayed Tiny Tim in a London production of A Christmas Carol), Artoo started receiving offers from Hollywood, finally accepting a role in George Lucas’ 1977 blockbuster, Star Wars. But like other actors from that series, Artoo found himself typecast. Spiraling into a depression, he was out of work for years, and during this time battled drug and alcohol addictions. For a short time, he even lived on the streets. His luck changed for the better when his old buddy, George Lucas, once again cast him in a key role in 1999’s Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, yet despite his good fortune, Artoo remained a very troubled droid, and only a brush with death would snap him out of his funk.

As you can tell from the above synopsis, R2-D2: Beneath the Dome is played entirely for laughs. Narrated by Bob Hesse, the movie (which was originally broadcast in 3 parts on Fox Television) features several big-name personalities, including Francis Ford-Coppola (who talks of how he wanted Artoo to play Michael Corleone in The Godfather), Samuel L. Jackson (a good friend of the droid’s from way back) and Steven Spielberg (the first time he met Artoo, Spielberg thought he was a trash can). Of course, not everyone was Artoo’s pal; he and Richard Dreyfuss had a falling out years ago, a feud that continues to this day. Along with the interviews, R2-D2: Beneath the Dome presents a number of hilarious stills (one was doctored to make it look like Artoo was dancing behind John Travolta on the set of Saturday Night Fever), and follows Artoo as he attempts a dangerous stunt that, in the end, just might kill him.

By all appearances a serious documentary, R2-D2: Beneath the Dome is in reality a very funny movie. Even those who aren’t fans of Star Wars will appreciate it (the humor is spot-on in almost every scene). But if you’re a Star Wars aficionado, R2-D2: Beneath the Dome is an absolute must-see.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

#1,490. Hauntings (1997)

Directed By: Stacy Twilley

Starring: Loyd Auerbach, Robert Baker, Bernyce Barlow

Trivia: Was originally broadcast on The History Channel as an episode of their The Unexplained TV series

Over a year ago, while at a church flea market, I came across the DVD for a TV program titled Hauntings, and ever since then it’s been sitting on a bookshelf in my office, tempting me to pop it into the player. Well, today I finally gave in.

An episode of The Unexplained, a series broadcast on A&E’s The History Channel between 1996 and 2000, Hauntings features three supposedly authentic supernatural events. The very night that Tom and Linda Brown moved into a small home in East Peoria, IL, they started hearing noises in the basement, as if someone was down there throwing boxes to the ground. Tom went to investigate, yet found nothing unusual. Things grew stranger as the weeks wore on, with doors slamming shut and phantom footsteps making their way across the kitchen floor at night. When Tom spoke with a neighbor of theirs, whose parents built the house, he learned the woman’s father, Stuart Walls, killed himself in the closet of one of the rooms and died before he could utter his final words. According to Rob Conover, a paranormal investigator the Browns called in, Stuart never did leave that house.

Even more terrifying is what happened to Beth Batzel, who, after remarrying, relocated to a home in New Jersey with her husband and 3-year-old-daughter from a previous marriage. Once there, she was tormented by an unknown entity (during a séance, the spirit identified himself as George Baxter, who bought the house in 1872 and wants to be left alone, telling the Batzels “It’s my land, and you get out”). After 4 years of hell, which included threats written on the wall in red lipstick, the Batzels moved to an apartment in Clinton, NJ. Only the haunting didn’t stop. From 1972 to 1985, the family moved 11 times, and in every instance they were plagued by ghosts. Before long, Beth Batzel came to the horrifying conclusion that she was a “magnet”, drawing spirits to her from the other side. Many hauntings revolve around a building, but in her case, she was the one who was haunted.

These two tales, as well as the story of Steve Lee, a single father of three boys whose log cabin may have been built over top of a portal to the spirit world, make up the bulk of Hauntings, which offers authentic photographs and, in a few instances, actual audio and video recordings some believe are proof positive these events were supernatural in nature. To the filmmaker’s credit, they also include expert analysis from those who support the claims of ghostly presences, and those who refute them. Leon Lederman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, doesn’t think spirits are real, calling them the delusions of either “gullible people or dishonest people” and adding, quite emphatically, that “science has no room for ghosts”. Not true, says psychologist Karl Schlotterbeck, who worked with Beth Batzel and came to believe her story. He’s absolutely convinced Beth was attracting malevolent spirits (though he concurs science can’t actually prove this theory). By including testimony from both sides, Hauntings does more than just tell a few good ghost tales; it gives us something to think about.

In the end, there’s nothing in Hauntings we haven’t seen before, and odds are it won’t change anyone’s mind. Believers will walk away still believing, and skeptics will continue to doubt. As for me, I believe, but only because I experienced my own brush with the supernatural in a house my wife and I lived in for six years. Mind you, I never actually saw a ghost, yet every now and again, someone or something would make its presence known, as if to tell us it was there... watching….

But that’s a story for another day.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

#1,489. It Happened One Night (1934)

Directed By: Frank Capra

Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly

Tag line: "Two great lovers of the screen in the grandest of romantic comedies"

Trivia: Clark Gable gave his Oscar for It Happened One Night (1934) to a child who admired it, telling him it was the winning of the statue that had mattered, not owning it. The child returned the Oscar to the Gable family after Clark's death

A few days ago, I was watching a video interview with Frank Capra Jr., during which he discussed his father’s 1934 film, It Happened One NightAccording to Capra Jr, leading lady Claudette Colbert was less than enthusiastic about the movie, and even told her friends that she thought it was the worst picture she had ever made. 

Obviously, the Academy disagreed with her. 

Not only did It Happened One Night capture the Oscar for Best Picture, but it also won awards for its director (Capra), lead actor (Clark Gable), writer (Robert Riskin), and, yes, Ms. Colbert, who took home the Oscar as that year’s Best Actress. 

In fact, It Happened One Night was the first movie to win all five of the Academy’s top honors, a feat that would not be duplicated until 40+ years later (by 1975’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest). Watching it today, I can see why the voters fell in love with it; It Happened One Night is a charmingly whimsical romance.

As the story begins, wealthy heiress Ellie Andrews (Colbert) is being held captive aboard a yacht by her father (Walter Connolly), who objects to her recent marriage to famous aviator Westley (Jameson Thomas), and is doing everything he can to keep the newlyweds apart. Determined to see her betrothed, Ellie escapes and heads to the nearest bus station, hopping aboard a bus bound for New York. 

It’s during this trip that she meets Peter Warne (Gable), a no-nonsense reporter who, in a drunken stupor, quit his job with a big city newspaper. Hoping he can still get it back, Peter agrees to accompany Ellie in exchange for an exclusive on her story. 

But as their trip drags on, these two traveling companions, despite having nothing in common, begin to fall in love with each other.

If Claudette Colbert did indeed have doubts about It Happened One Night, she didn’t let them affect her performance. Her character’s transition from naïve rich girl to love-struck young woman comes across as 100% genuine, and Colbert (who wears the same outfit through much of the movie, yet looks radiant) is the reason why. 

Her co-star Clark Gable also shines as Peter, the thick-skinned newspaperman who knows how the world works. It’s his fast-thinking that keeps them a step ahead of the detectives hired to find Ellie, and some of his streetwise wisdom even manages to rub off on his pretty companion. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Peter is teaching Ellie the art of hitching a ride, yet fails to wave a single vehicle down. So, Ellie gives it a try, but instead of holding out her thumb, she lifts her skirt and shows a little leg, at which point a car screeches to a halt.

As for Capra, he injects enough warmth and humanity into these characters to turn what might have been a predictable story into something much more appealing. My favorite scene takes place on the bus, and has Peter and Ellie (as well as the other passengers) being entertained by a small musical group, which - to pass the time - is belting out an impromptu version of “The Flying Trapeze”. Eventually, other passengers join in, each singing a different verse. 

It’s a boisterous bit of fun, but just as the scene draws to a close, Capra tosses some drama into the mix by introducing a young boy who starts to cry when his mother passes out. Peter, who rushes over to help, learns that neither the boy nor his mother have eaten anything in days (they spent all their money on bus fare). This subtle combination of frivolity and pathos would become a Capra trademark, with many of his best films tickling our funny bones as they also tug at our heartstrings.

Along with its sweep of the Academy Awards, the National Board of Review selected It Happened One Night as the best movie of 1934, and it continues to wow audiences even today (in 2006, the Online Film & Television Society voted it into its Hall of Fame, an honor it shared with Nashville, Rashomon, The Rules of the Game and The Third Man). A smart comedy with plenty of heart, It Happened One Night deserved every award it won, and probably more.