Friday, January 31, 2014

#1,264. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975)


Directed By: Chuck Jones

Starring: Orson Welles, June Foray, Les Tremayne




Quote: "The motto of the mongoose family is: run and find out"

Trivia: This animated special premiered on American television is January of 1975








Much like the Holiday-themed specials A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the 1975 animated made-for-TV film Rikki-Tikki-Tavi was an annual tradition in my house. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s short story, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi had it all: laughs, excitement, danger, and two of the most sinister villains ever to grace a children’s cartoon.

After being washed out of his burrow by a raging storm, the mongoose Rikki (voiced by Shepard Menken) takes up residence with a colonial British family, patrolling their vast garden and protecting them from the dangerous creatures that inhabit it. His most lethal foes are the cobras Nag (Orson Welles, who also narrates) and Nagaina (June Foray), who intend to kill Rikki’s new masters so that they can move into the house, where they’ll have plenty of room to raise their growing family. Aided by Darzee the Tailorbird (Lennie Weinrib) and his wife (Foray), as well as the cowardly muskrat Chuchundra (Welles again), Rikki tracks down the deadly cobras, intent on killing the pair before they can carry out their diabolical plan.

Written and directed by Chuck Jones, who a decade earlier brought Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas to life, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi starts out innocently enough, with Rikki, soaking wet and worn out by the storm, being discovered in the garden by young Teddy (Michael LeClair) and his father (Les Tremayne), who proceed to dry him off and give him something to eat. There’s humor in these early scenes as Rikki, trying to get acquainted with his new surroundings, sprints through the house and the outdoor garden, amazed by the beauty of it all. The story takes a dark turn, however, when Rikki meets up with Nag, who the night before devoured one of Darzee’s young chicks. Cowering at first when Nag spreads his hood and moves forward, Rikki soon finds his courage and begins chattering back, narrowly escaping death when Nagaina tries to sneak up behind him. For me, Nagaina was always the more threatening of the two cobras, and a late scene, where she’s about to strike Teddy’s leg as he sits at the breakfast table, is the most frightening moment in the entire picture. We root for Rikki throughout the movie, yet at the same time realize he’s facing a pair of very formidable foes.

As intense as it is beautiful, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi is a spirited retelling of Kipling’s classic tale, and despite its darker elements is a movie your kids are sure to enjoy.







Thursday, January 30, 2014

#1,263. The Night Child (1975)


Directed By: Massimo Dallamano

Starring: Richard Johnson, Joanna Cassidy, Ida Galli



Tag line: "Keep telling yourself : 'She's not just a child', 'She's not just a child'..."

Trivia: When it played on TV in the United States, this film's title was changed to THE CURSED MEDALLION







Filmmaker Michael Williams (Richard Johnson) is putting together a new documentary for the BBC that explores the use of demonic imagery in works of art. One particular piece, an Italian painting donated by the Countess Cappelli (Lila Kedrova) that depicts a demon watching over a young girl, catches Williams’ attention. His interest in the picture may be personal; a while back, Williams’ wife was killed in a fiery accident, an event witnessed by his only daughter, Emily (Nicoletta Elmi). Since then, Emily has been having terrible nightmares (which, on a number of occasions, have resulted in violent behavior). Neither Williams nor his live-in nanny, Jill (Ida Galli), know how to handle the situation, so on the advice of the family’s doctor (Edmund Purdum), he takes Emily and Jill along on his trip to Italy, where a portion of the documentary is going to be shot. Aided by his American production manager, Joanna Morgan (Joanna Cassidy), Williams tries to help his daughter forget the past, but a medallion the young girl wears around her neck, which used to belong to her beloved mother, may hold the key to determining why Emily has been acting out, and what evil force is behind it all.

On the whole, 1975’s The Night Child is a well-made film, ably directed by Massimo Dallamano, who, in a few scenes, allows his camera to roam free. When the family first arrives in Italy, Dallamano mounts the camera on top of their car, watching with Emily (who’s standing, looking out of the sun roof) as the vehicle speeds through the narrow Italian roads. Not all of the director’s experiments work (on two occasions, when he shows a character falling, Dallamano relies on a technique that even in the ‘70s wasn’t convincing), but by taking chances, he ensures his movie is, at the very least, visually exciting. As for the performances, Richard Johnson, no stranger to the Italian horror genre (having already starred in Beyond the Door a year earlier), is quite good as the concerned father, and Nicoletta Elmi strikes the perfect balance between cute little girl and near-crazed hell child.

That said, The Night Child may prove a frustrating experience for some horror fans, especially those who like their films more visceral than psychological. By putting the focus squarely on young Emily’s behavior, and how it relates to both the medallion and the Countess’ painting, Dallamano creates an ominous mood that grows gloomier as the story progresses, and even if The Night Child isn’t the sort of movie that’ll give you nightmares, odds are it will cause you to nervously look over your shoulder a couple times.







Wednesday, January 29, 2014

#1,262. Cinderella 2000 (1977)


Directed By: Al Adamson

Starring: Catharine Erhardt, Jay B. Larson, Vaughn Armstrong




Tag line: "Tomorrow's Sexiest Comedy..... Today!"

Trivia: One of this film's alternate titles was Civilization 2047







Director Al Adamson’s Cinderella 2000 is a rare breed, a sci-fi / musical / comedy with a dash of erotica tossed in for flavor. Of course, the fact that it’s a bad sci-fi / musical / comedy is probably the reason many of you have never heard of it before.

The year is 2047, and the world is ruled by a totalitarian government which, under the leadership of The Controller (Erwin Fuller), has banned sexual intercourse. As a result, Cindy (the stunning Catharine Erhardt), who lives with her evil stepmother (Renee Harmon) and two step-sisters; Bella (Bhurni Cowans) and Stella (Adina Ross), has never made love before. But a visit from her Fairy Godfather (Jay B. Larson) changes all that, and before she knows what’s hit her, Cindy is on her way to the ball, where she’ll fall in love with Tom Prince (Vaughn Armstrong), a personal favorite of The Controller and one of the few people permitted to have sex. Her evening with Tom is an unforgettable one, ending abruptly when the clock strikes midnight, causing Cindy to rush out of the ballroom before she returns to normal. With the Controller’s blessing, Tom initiates a search for the woman who captured his heart, and is ready to sleep with every beautiful woman in the city in order to find her!

For a supposed sex comedy, the humor in Cinderella 2000 is extremely juvenile; the Controller’s no-sex regulation is enforced by a slapstick happy robot (Eddie Garetti) whose voice is so choppy that I could barely understand what he was saying. Even worse than the comedy are the film’s musical interludes, most of which are shockingly awful (“Doin’ Without”, a song about sexual frustration performed by Cindy’s stepmother and step-sisters, is as entertaining as nails scraping along a chalkboard). Catharine Erhardt looks great as Cindy (especially in the later scenes, where she’s all dolled up for the ball), but aside from her, Cinderella 2000 has absolutely nothing to offer.

From what I've heard, the European cut of Cinderella 2000 features more nudity and sex than the U.S. version, but to be honest, I don’t think any amount of T & A could have saved this dismal production. Do yourself a favor and steer clear of this one.







Tuesday, January 28, 2014

#1,261. Dark Star (1974)


Directed By: John Carpenter

Starring: Dan O'Bannon, Dre Pahich, Brian Narelle



Tag line: "Bombed out in space with a spaced-out bomb!"

Trivia: The space helmets used as props in the film were part of Ideal Toys' "S.T.A.R. Team" line (they don't fit very well because they were sized for children)







John Carpenter’s debut feature, Dark Star, started life as a student project in the early 1970’s, when the director was still enrolled at USC. Based on a script he co-wrote with classmate Dan O’Bannon (who, in later years, would pen the screenplay for Alien), Dark Star is an ultra-low budget sci-fi comedy, pieced together, bit by bit, over the course of several years. The first time I saw the movie was in 2008, at which point I wasn’t all that impressed by it. But I have to say that, after a few more viewings, Dark Star has started to grow on me.

After spending years together in the farthest reaches of space, the crew of the spaceship Dark Star: Doolittle (Brian Narelle), Boiler (Cal Kuniholm), Pinback (O’Bannon), and Talby (Dre Pahich) are going stir crazy. The only thing keeping them sane is their job: blowing up unstable planets (thus clearing the way for the colonization of surrounding worlds). Throw in an overly-playful alien, bombs that think for themselves, and a mainframe computer that’s more a hindrance than a help, and you have a disaster just waiting to happen.

The special effects in Dark Star, while certainly on the feeble side, are much better than I would have expected, especially when you consider it’s a student film (Jack H. Harris, who produced, among other things, 1958’s The Blob, did kick in some money to help). Even more interesting are the story elements that eventually made their way into co-writer O‘Bannon’s script for Alien; aside from the fact both movies are about space travel as commerce, with crew members who view wandering the cosmos as nothing more than their job, there’s a scene where Pinback is chasing the alien, who the crew treats as if it were a pet, through the ship. Though played mostly for laughs, this sequence did remind me a little of when Ripley and her shipmates were carrying out a similar hunt in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi / horror classic.

Dark Star definitely has its rough spots (Pinback’s chase goes on a bit too long, especially the scene where he gets stuck while crawling through a hatch in the floor of an elevator), yet the movie has such an odd energy to it that you can’t help but smile at the absurdity of it all (the alien Pinback is after is little more than a beach ball with feet taped to the bottom of it). Carpenter and O’Bannon would both go on to make better films, but with Dark Star, you get to see where they got their start, and that alone makes it essential viewing.








Monday, January 27, 2014

#1,260. Captain Phillips (2013)


Directed By: Paul Greengrass

Starring: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman




Tag line: "Out here survival is everything"

Trivia: Filming took place off the coast of Malta in the Mediterranean Sea







Every year when the Academy Award nominations are announced, there are usually a few surprises, both in who was nominated and who was passed over. This year, there were two omissions in particular that caught my attention, each relating to the fact-based drama Captain Phillips: Paul Greengrass failing to score a Best Director nod, and star Tom Hanks missing out on his 6th Oscar nomination for Best Actor. As he did in films like Bloody Sunday and United 93, both of which were also inspired by real-life events, Greengrass relied heavily on handheld cameras throughout Captain Phillips to bring a sense of realism to the story. Even more amazing, though, was Tom Hanks as the titular ship’s Captain, delivering what is easily his best performance in over a decade, and arguably his finest ever.

Based on an actual incident that occurred in April of 2009, Captain Phillips tells the story of Richard Phillips (Hanks), a ship’s captain commanding the Maersk Alabama, a commercial container vessel departing from a port city in Oman. While traveling along the African coast, the Maersk Alabama is boarded by four Somali pirates, who, under the leadership of Muse (Academy Award nominee Barkhad Abdi), take control of the ship. When the crew manages to subdue one of the attackers, a standoff ensues, during which Captain Phillips, hoping to get the bandits off his boat before they have a chance to kill anyone, agrees to be the pirate’s prisoner as they escape in the Maersk Alabama’s main lifeboat. After setting a course for Somalia, the lifeboat is intercepted by several U.S. Navy destroyers, which are under strict orders from the President himself to ensure that neither the pirates nor Captain Phillips ever reach Africa.

Director Greengrass’s free-flowing style proved the perfect fit for Captain Phillips, and helped magnify the tension in certain scenes (especially when the pirates first board the ship and are making their way to the bridge). But it was Hanks who had the biggest impact on the picture. It’s not often a performer of his stature can disappear into a role, yet that’s exactly what happens in this film. From his first moments on board the Maersk Alabama, when a tour of the ship turns up a few safety issues, to his captivity on the lifeboat, Tom Hanks is at his tip-top best, and I’d put his performance in the movie’s final ten minutes up against anything he’s done before. For those who think the actor might have lost a step or two over the years, watch the ending of Captain Phillips and I guarantee you’ll change your mind.

As it turned out, 2013 was a pretty good year for lead actors, and, to be honest, I’m not sure who I’d drop from the current list of nominees to make room for Hanks. Christian Bale was brilliant in American Hustle, as was Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, and DiCaprio continued to impress in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. The remaining nominees, Bruce Dern (Nebraska) and Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), were also superb. Personally, if I had anything to do with it, I would’ve expanded the number of Best Actor nods this year to six, thus clearing the way for Hanks’ turn in Captain Phillips to join the already impressive list above. I mean, if there can be nine Best Picture nominees (Captain Phillips included), why should the acting categories be limited to five slots?

As it stands now, my vote (if I had one) would go to DiCaprio, who lit up the screen with his bravado performance as tycoon Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. Had Hanks made the cut, however, he would have been my hands-down choice for the year’s Best Actor. With Greengrass at the helm, Captain Phillips already had the makings of a very good movie. It was Hanks who turned it into an excellent one.







Sunday, January 26, 2014

#1,259. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)


Directed By: Woody Allen

Starring: Mia Farrow, Jeff Daniels, Danny Aiello




Tag line: "She's finally met the man of her dreams. He's not real but you can't have everything"

Trivia: The production shoot for this film began in November 1983 whilst the picture did not debut until March 1985, sixteen months later






When it comes to those who’ve left their mark on the fantasy genre, a few names jump to mind, including Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts), Walt Disney (Alice in Wonderland), George Pal (The Time Machine), and, more recently, Steven Spielberg (E.T. The Extra Terrestrial), Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits), and Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings trilogy). One filmmaker who seldom receives the recognition he deserves is Woody Allen. With movies like 1983’s Zelig and 2011’s Midnight in Paris, Mr. Allen has shown a penchant for creating fantastic worlds and populating them with everyday characters audiences can relate to. Arguably, his finest fantasy film to date is 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, a comedy / romance in which the cinema itself collides head-on with reality.

The setting is New Jersey during the Great Depression, and, like most people, Cecelia (Mia Farrow) is struggling to stay afloat. Her husband, Monk (Danny Aiello), lost his job a few years ago (and from the looks of it, he isn’t in a hurry to find a new one), meaning Cecelia, aside from working as a waitress, has to take the odd babysitting gig just to make ends meet. To forget her troubles, Cecelia goes to the movies as often as she can. In fact, she’s seen the newest picture, The Purple Rose of Cairo, at least half a dozen times. Her favorite character in the movie is Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), a mild-mannered African explorer who’s invited by some socialites to accompany them to New York. But during one particular screening of The Purple Rose of Cairo, something amazing happens. In the middle of a scene, Tom Baxter, who’s noticed Cecelia sitting in the audience, stops reciting his lines and steps off the screen, joining her in the real world! Claiming he’s in love with her, Tom tells Cecelia they’ll be together forever, but is she ready to throw it all away and spend the rest of her life with a fictional character?

In The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen addresses the subject of escapism by taking it to its extreme, creating a world in which not only film audiences seek an escape from the humdrum of their everyday lives, but the characters up on the screen do as well. For Cecelia, movies are her only solace. Trapped in a loveless marriage to an unemployed slob, she needs the movies to help her maintain her sanity, and relishes the time she spends basking in the flickering glow of high society that her newest favorite, The Purple Rose of Cairo, offers her.

So, imagine her surprise when Tom Baxter, the handsome explorer who’s traveled the globe, tires of his artificial existence and leaps off the screen. As expected, when Tom crosses that invisible boundary between fantasy and reality, it has a ripple effect on both worlds. Without him, the movie’s story cannot continue, causing the film’s remaining characters to sit around discussing what they should do next. And, of course, when Hollywood learns one of their fictional characters is running around the streets of New Jersey, it sends shock waves throughout the industry, threatening both the studio (who fear Tom may be breaking the law, which could lead to an influx of lawsuits) and Gil Shepherd (Daniels again), the actor who portrayed Tom (aside from the negative impact this will have on his career, Gil shares the studio’s fears, especially since he and Tom have the exact same fingerprints). As for Tom himself, he’s ill-equipped to handle life on the outside (one night, he takes Cecelia out for a fancy dinner, only to discover the restaurant doesn’t accept stage money), and a brief sequence in which Cecelia enters the world of the movie also proves unfulfilling. With The Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen shows us there’s a big difference between leaving your problems behind for a few hours and trying to walk away from them for good, a lesson his two lead characters, Tom and Cecelia, learn the hard way.

As philosophical as this all sounds, The Purple Rose of Cairo is, in reality, a lighthearted affair, filled with clever dialogue and a number of very funny scenes (my favorite is when Tom and his real-life counterpart, Gil Shepherd, are standing in the theater talking things over, and both react angrily when a character still on the screen refers to Tom as a “minor” element of the story). Yes, The Purple Rose of Cairo gives you something to think about, but only in hindsight; the truth is that, during the movie, you’re having too much fun to do anything but laugh.







Saturday, January 25, 2014

#1,258. Buck Privates (1941)


Directed By: Arthur Lubin

Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Lee Bowman






Trivia: This film marks the first time that Lou Costello's brother, Pat Costello, served as Lou's stunt double. He earned $31 a day for his work







1941’s Buck Privates was only the second film to feature both Bud Abbott and Lou Costello (the duo made their screen debut a year earlier, in One Night in the Tropics). Unfortunately, throughout this movie, the comedians are often pushed to the side to make room for a romantic subplot, one that’s not nearly as much fun as Bud and Lou’s various antics.

The two play Slicker Smith (Abbott) and Herbie Brown (Costello), a couple of unlicensed street peddlers on the run from a persistent cop (Nat Pendleton). Ducking into what they believe is a movie theater, the boys actually find themselves at an army recruitment center, and before they know what’s hit them, they’ve enlisted in the United States Army. Also at the recruitment center is draftee Randolph Parker III (Lee Bowman), the son of a high-ranking government official. Convinced his father will pull some strings to get him out the army, Parker spends most of his time trying to woo Judy Gray (Jane Frazee), a volunteer hostess who just happens to be dating his former valet, Bob Martin (Alan Curtis), causing what was already a strained relationship between the two men to get even dicier.

As mentioned above, the rivalry between Parker and Martin is given a fair amount of screen time, and while the actors involved in this side story are competent enough, my guess is nobody paying to see Buck Privates back in 1941 cared much about these characters or their predicament. They were there to see Abbott and Costello. But aside from a handful of funny sequences, including the now-classic drill routine, where Bud, posing as a drill instructor, confuses Lou with his seemingly conflicting orders, Buck Privates comes up short in the comedy department as well. One area where the film excels is its music, most of which is provided by the Andrew Sisters (aka Patty, Maxine, and Laverne), whose patriotic lyrics would catapult them to the top of the charts when the United States entered World War II. In fact, my favorite sequence in Buck Privates is the “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” musical number. And keep an eye out for future stooge Shemp Howard, who makes a brief appearance as an army cook.

With its flag-waving bravado and overly-patriotic sentiment (the film was made just prior to the U.S.’s involvement in World War II), Buck Privates is definitely dated. And as far as their screen comedies go, Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein is ten times funnier than this movie. But if you’re looking to familiarize yourself with the duo’s cinematic output, Buck Privates is as good a place as any to start.







Friday, January 24, 2014

#1,257. The White Diamond (2004)


Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Werner Herzog, Graham Dorrington, Dieter Plage





Trivia: Features music composed by Ernst Reijseger, which Herzog would re-use in his 2005 film The Wild Blue Yonder








Werner Herzog’s 2004 documentary The White Diamond introduces us to Graham Dorrington, a London-based aeronautical engineer who’s designed an airship that, if successful, can be used to study rainforest canopies, an area that, thus far, has been relatively unexplored. To test his ship, nicknamed The White Diamond, Dorrington travels to Guyana, South America, setting up camp next to the picturesque Kaieuter Falls (which, at over 700 feet, are four times as high as Niagara Falls). Yet as excited as he is at the prospect of exploring the rainforest canopy, Dorrington is also trying to come to terms with a tragedy that occurred eleven years earlier, when wildlife cinematographer Dieter Plage was killed while testing one of the engineer’s previous airships.

This is the central story that makes up The White Diamond, but in no way is it the film’s sole focus. Using Dorrington’s airship as a starting point, Herzog then branches off in several different directions, showing us everything from the white-tipped swifts, a breed of bird living in a cave behind the falls, to a diamond mining operation, where we get to see an authentic white diamond. Along with this, the director spends quite a bit of time talking with Marc Anthony Yhap, a Guyana local who waxes poetic about the beauty of flight and speaks openly of his desire to visit his mother in Spain. In one of the movie’s most interesting sequences, Herzog even provides archival footage of Dieter Plage, including some harrowing material the late cinematographer shot while living among the gorillas of Africa.

Whereas some viewers may take issue with Herzog’s perceived lack of focus, I found The White Diamond to be a fascinating experience, and I applaud the director for allowing the film to grow organically, traveling well beyond the borders of his original story. While Dorrington’s ship remains an integral part of The White Diamond, it’s but one of several intriguing elements the movie presents over the course of its ninety minutes.







Thursday, January 23, 2014

#1,256. Flatliners (1990)


Directed By: Joel Schumacher

Starring: Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts





Tag line: "Some lines shouldn't be crossed"

Trivia: Hope Davis's film debut







Doctor-in-training Nelson Wright (Kiefer Sutherland) is about to answer the age-old question of whether or not there’s life after death. How is he going to do this? By stopping his heart for 60 seconds, at which point he’ll be legally dead. Once a minute has elapsed, his colleagues: David Lobraccio (Kevin Bacon), Rachel Mannis (Julia Roberts), Joe Hurley (William Baldwin) and Steckley (Oliver Platt), will then revive him. Sure enough, the experiment is a success, and Nelson has a near-death experience that changes his entire outlook on life. It isn’t long before the others start clamoring to take their turn, each willing to “stay dead” longer than the person who went before them. But what Nelson didn’t tell his friends is someone, or something, followed him back from the afterlife, and is now haunting him on a daily basis. Will the same thing happen to the others?

Directed by Joel Schumacher, Flatliners is both a journey of discovery and a straight-up tale of horror. By way of a series of rapid-fire montages, we follow each of the participants on their trip into the unknown, and while the majority of what they see on the “other side” is quite beautiful (flying high above meadows and snow-swept mountains), they also encounter a few things that aren’t so appealing. Nelson’s out-of-body experience concludes with him meeting a young boy (Joshua Rudoy), who, as it turns out, was someone from his past. A day or so after the experiment, this boy shows up again, only this time he’s plenty pissed off, beating the hell out of Nelson before finally disappearing. From there on out, Nelson does everything he can to avoid his unwanted visitor, yet continues to encounter him, and usually when he least expects it. The others have similar experiences following their flirtations with death, yet none are as violent as Nelson’s.

In the end, Flatliners is more a horror film than a philosophical piece, stopping short of answering the question of what happens when we die to instead try and frighten us with ghostly visitations and the occasional jump scare. And while Flatliners is, indeed, spooky at times, I would have liked to see it tackle the issue of life after death with a bit more vigor. I still recommend the movie, which is both stylish and well-acted, but in the end, I wanted more than I got.







Wednesday, January 22, 2014

#1,255. You Only Live Twice (1967)


Directed By: Lewis Gilbert

Starring: Sean Connery, Akiko Wakabayashi, Mie Hama




Tag line: "Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond"

Trivia: Director Lewis Gilbert originally turned down the directing job on this movie







You Only Live Twice was the first Bond movie I ever videotaped off of television, and as a result, I became quite a fan of it. In fact, there was a time, many years ago, when this was my favorite of the series. But like I said, that was many years ago. Being a bit more familiar with the Bond franchise these days, and having recently viewed Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball, I now see that You Only Live Twice was a step in the wrong direction.

The movie opens in outer space, where a mysterious craft swallows up a U.S. spaceship in mid-flight. The Americans blame the Russians, accusing them of trying to gain the upper hand in the space race, but the British are convinced another power is responsible (mostly because the intruding ship landed not in Russia, but the Sea of Japan). To prove this theory, British Intelligence sends their best agent, James Bond (Sean Connery), to Tokyo. After faking his own death, Bond goes deep undercover, and with the help of Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurô Tanba), head of the Japanese Secret Service, discovers the true culprit behind the attack is SPECTRE, which, under the leadership of Ernst Blofeld (Donald Pleasance), is trying to start a war between the U.S. and Russia. It’s up to Agent 007 to expose SPECTRE and, in the process, prevent another World War from breaking out.

You Only Live Twice has a number of problems, starting with Agent 007’s “partner” in this particular venture, Tiger Tanaka. While competently played by Tetsurô Tanba, Tiger was a poor replacement for Felix Leiter, who had assisted Bond in three of the previous four films (absent only in From Russia with Love). And the less said about Bond’s Japanese make-up, the better (meant as a disguise to protect him from SPECTRE, it instead made 007 look like a fool). Yet what really bothered me about the movie were the various missed opportunities in the action department. Late in the film, Bond is being trained at Tanaka’s ninja school. Despite the fact his instruction supposedly lasts a few weeks, we’re only shown one brief segment of this training, when Bond faces off against an undercover SPECTRE agent (who he defeats way too easily). Most disappointing of all, though, was the scene with “Little Nellie”, a gyrocopter and the one and only gadget Bond receives from “Q” (Desmond LLewelyn). Equipped with rocket launchers, forward machine guns, and a flamethrower in the rear, “Little Nellie” was a force to be reckoned with, and when 007 took her out to do some reconnaissance, I was sure an epic battle was about to take place. Bond does, indeed, enter into a firefight with a squadron of SPECTRE helicopters, but the entire conflict was so poorly executed (the exploding copters looked as if they were standing still) that I wasn’t the least bit excited by it.

You Only Live Twice does have its strengths. The pre-title sequence, featuring the initial incident in space and the “death” of James Bond, starts the movie off well, as does Nancy Sinatra’s title song, which is one of my favorites of the series (ranking just behind Shirley Bassey’s Goldfinger and just ahead of Adele’s Skyfall). Also, the two main Bond girls, Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) and Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), are stunningly beautiful, as is the Japanese setting, which the movie utilizes to great effect. Unfortunately, the minuses far outweigh the plusses in this film, making You Only Live Twice the series’ first misfire.







Tuesday, January 21, 2014

#1,254. Troll Hunter (2010)


Directed By: André Øvredal

Starring: Otto Jespersen, Robert Stoltenberg, Knut Nærum



Tag line: "You'll believe it when you see it!"

Trivia: Summit Entertainment bought the rights to produce an American remake before this film's initial release








Three wannabe filmmakers: Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud), Johanna (Johanna Mørck), and Kalle (Tomas Alf Larsen), are hot on the trail of a suspected bear poacher named Hans (Otto Jespersen). But when they follow him into the woods one evening hoping to catch him in the act, the trio discovers that Hans is actually searching for a creature much bigger, and more unpredictable, than any bear. As it turns out, Hans works for the TSS, or Troll Security Service, a branch of the government tasked with keeping Norway’s huge troll population under control. Though skeptical at first, Thomas and the others soon realize that trolls do, indeed, exist, and despite the secrecy his job demands, Hans permits the three to ride along with him, exposing them to the occasionally exciting, often dangerous world of troll hunting.

Released in 2010, director André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter is another entry in the found footage sub-genre, yet aside from the occasional “shaky cam”, the movie makes good use of its documentary-like approach, bringing a feeling of authenticity to what is otherwise a fantastically unbelievable tale. Part of the credit for the film's success has to go to the three young actors playing the film crew, all of whom do a fine job, but the best performance is by Otto Jespersen as Hans, who delivers his lines with such a quiet confidence that we believe every word, no matter how outlandish they may seem (at one point, he asks his new friends if any of them are Christians, because, apparently, trolls can smell Christian blood from a mile away).

Along with the performances, Troll Hunter features some outstanding effects, which bring the various trolls to life in a surprisingly realistic way. The first troll Thomas and the others encounter is an enormous beast with 3 heads, standing some 30 feet high and knocking down trees as it chases the group through the woods. Initially, we catch only brief glimpses of this troll, mostly because Kalle, the cameraman, is scared out of his wits, and running for his life. But when he stops and switches the camera to night vision, we finally see the creature in all its glory (the scene ends with another spectacular effect, showing us what happens when a troll is exposed to bright light).

Even if you’ve grown weary of the whole found footage craze, I’d recommend giving Troll Hunter a try. A wildly imaginative film that’s also a hell of a lot of fun, Troll Hunter is an absolute treat.







Monday, January 20, 2014

#1,253. Where the Wild Things Are (2009)


Directed By: Spike Jonze

Starring: Max Records, James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara



Tag line: "Let the wild rumpus start!"

Trivia: Initially, Warner Brothers studio was so unhappy with Spike Jonze's final movie (it was much less family friendly than they imagined) that they wanted to re-shoot the whole $75 milion project






Based on Maurice Sendak’s 1964 award-winning children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are had been stuck in development hell since the early ‘80’s, at which point Disney planned to turn it into an animated feature. It wasn’t until director Spike Jonze joined the project that the idea of a live-action version took root. Having already helmed Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, two films teetering on the edge of reality while, at the same time, conveying an emotional truth that was quite potent, Jonze’s unique vision proved the perfect fit for Sendak’s tale, resulting in a truly amazing motion picture.

The story centers on a young boy named Max (Max Records), who’s been feeling neglected as of late. Ignored by his teenage sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) and none too happy that his single mom (Catherine Keener) has started dating again, Max throws the occasional temper tantrum, going so far as to bite his mother when she tries to calm him down. Frightened and angry, Max runs away from home and hops into a sailboat, which takes him to a magical island where monsters are real. After befriending Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini), one of the island’s bigger monsters, Max is accepted into their group, and becomes their king. But his inability to help his new friends solve their conflicts leads to a few problems, and forces young Max to reflect on his own emotional issues.

Where the Wild Things Are is a children’s story with a decidedly dark edge. Max, who often lashes out at his family (at one point, he trashes his sister’s room), sees this exact same behavior occur on the island, most of it emanating from Carol. The problems arise when Carol’s good friend K.W. (Lauren Ambrose) starts spending a lot of time with her new friends, a pair of owls named Bob and Terry, causing Carol to feel neglected. At first, Carol was Max’s biggest supporter, defending him when the other monsters, including Judith (Catherine O’Hara) and Alexander (Paul Dano), expressed doubts that the young boy would make a good leader. After a while, though, Carol himself loses faith in the new king, who he thought would bring K.W. back into the fold. When Max fails to do so, Carol reacts violently, and chases him through the forest (K.W. ends up protecting Max by hiding him in a most unusual place). Max does have some fun on the island (one of the best scenes features a battle with dirt clods), but it’s tempered by a sadness so strong that, at times, it’s almost tangible.

The monsters, which were designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, are a remarkable bunch, and even though they only provided the voices (different performers were inside the suits), Gandolfini and the others do a fine job bringing these monsters to life, infusing each with its own distinct personality (O’Hara’s Judith is incredibly pessimistic, while her boyfriend, Ira, voiced by Forest Whitaker, prefers to look on the bright side of things). Even more impressive is the performance delivered by Max Records, totally convincing as an out-of-control brat who eventually sees the error of his ways.

Where the Wild Things Are is more than the perfect embodiment of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book; it’s a cinematic treasure, a beautiful film that, in time, could be considered a great one.







Sunday, January 19, 2014

#1,252. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989)


Directed By: Stephen Herek

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin




Tag line: "History is about to be rewritten by two guys who can't spell..."

Trivia: This film's writers, Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, make cameo appearances in the movie, playing waiters at the ice cream parlor






Let me begin by saying that I love Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Love it! The story of two dim-witted teens who travel through time “collecting” some of history’s notable personalities, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is, without a doubt, one of the most endearing teen comedies to emerge from the ‘80s.

Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted "Theodore" Logan (Keanu Reeves) aren’t exactly the best students at San Dimas High. In fact, they’re failing history, and according to their teacher, Mr. Ryan (Bernie Casey), if they don’t get an “A+” on their final presentation, they’re going to flunk out of school. Ted’s father (Hal Landon Jr.), a gung-ho policeman and strict disciplinarian, has already threatened to ship Ted off to an Alaskan military school if he doesn’t get good grades, meaning Bill and Ted’s dream of making it big as rock stars could be over before it has a chance to begin.

Yet there’s more hanging in the balance than even Bill and Ted realize. In the future, their band, the Wyld Stallyons, will not only become the most popular duo in rock history, but will also produce music so beautiful that it brings an end to war and famine. Of course, none of this will happen if the two fail their final presentation, so, to put them on the right path, a visitor from the 27th century named Rufus (George Carlin) goes back to 20th century San Dimas, bringing along a time machine (which looks exactly like a telephone booth) that will allow Bill and Ted to travel to the past, where they can witness first-hand a few of history’s significant events. But instead of simply visiting the past and taking notes, they decide to kidnap historical figures, including western outlaw Billy the Kid (Dan Shor), Greek philosopher Socrates (Tony Steedman), and Napoleon Bonaparte (Terry Camilleri), and bring them back to San Dimas to help present their report. Yet the question remains: can these two slackers pull it off in time?

One of the things I love about Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is it never takes itself seriously. In most movies dealing with time travel, filmmakers go to great lengths to lay out the “ground rules”, chief among them being the characters cannot interfere with the course of history, and should avoid any interactions that might alter the future. Unfortunately, no one told Bill and Ted this rule, so when they stop by the old west, the two immediately stroll into a bar and order a couple of beers (thrilled they can do so without the bartender asking to see their I.D.), then agree to help Billy the Kid cheat at a card game. And if their sojourns to the past don’t disrupt the space-time continuum, odds are the historical figures they bring back with them will be forever changed by the experience. When, after their report is finished, Bill and Ted return Beethoven (Clifford David) to the 18th century, will he be content composing music on an ordinary piano, or will he miss the state-of-the-art organ, complete with synthesizer, that he played during his visit to the San Dimas Mall? The best thing about Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is it never asks these questions. The past and the present collide head-on throughout the entire film, and to hell with the consequences!

Another great aspect of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure are Bill and Ted themselves. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves are terrific as the eternally optimistic best friends, parading through time without a care in the world and even smiling when things get out of hand. Initially portrayed as a couple of lovable losers (in class, Bill describes Napoleon as a “dead French dude”), the duo eventually learn a lot more about history than they ever dreamed possible. It’s the near-perfect blend of character and story that makes Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure such an awesome film, and no matter how often I see it, the movie always brings a smile to my face.







Saturday, January 18, 2014

#1,251. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996)


Directed By: Jim Mallon

Starring: Trace Beaulieu, Mike Nelson, Jim Mallon




Tag line: "Finally a movie that's okay to talk through!"

Trivia: Each episode of the television series is actually longer than this movie








Mystery Science Theater 3000, which aired on U.S. cable network Comedy Central from 1989 to 1996, was an incredibly popular TV show in its day (so much so that, when Comedy Central cancelled the series in 1996, it was picked up by the Sci-Fi Channel, where it ran an additional 3 seasons). Set in “the not-too-distant future”, Mystery Science Theater 3000 featured a main character (originally played by series creator Joel Hodgsen, then later by head writer Mike Nelson) who’s launched into space by evil scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and forced to take part in a bizarre psychological experiment. Along with his two robot sidekicks Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy) and Crow (Trace Beaulieu), Joel (then Mike) spends his days watching bad movies hand-picked by Dr. Forrester, who wants to see how many films it will take to drive his test subject insane. Fortunately for Joel (and Mike), he and his robots have a great sense of humor, and enjoy mocking the cinematic failures Dr. Forrester sends their way. Covering everything from low-budget B movies to 1950’s educational shorts, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew to cult status, and reached such a high level of popularity that, in 1996, the show made its move to the big screen with the aptly-titled Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (from here on out, I’ll refer to it as MST3K: The Movie) follows the same format as its TV counterpart, only with a slightly bigger budget. Linked together by a handful of comedy skits starring Mike and the robots (in one, Mike tries to repair the Hubble spacecraft, which was damaged when he crashed the spaceship into it), MST3K: The Movie sees our heroes riffing on This Island Earth, a 1955 sci-fi film about aliens trying to save their dying planet.

Many of the movies presented on MST3K over the years were truly awful (my two favorite episodes featured Manos: The Hands of Fate and Eegah!). Every now and then, though, the show would poke fun at a decent flick, which is precisely what happens in MST3K: The Movie (This Island Earth is one of the better sci-fi films to emerge from the ‘50s). That said, Mike and the boys do a fine job picking it apart, tossing out dozens of hilarious one-liners and witty observations (some of the funniest involve the strange relationship that exists between the film’s lead character, played by Rex Reason, and his nerdy sidekick). In the end, MST3K: The Movie didn’t change my opinion of This Island Earth, but it did provide plenty of laughs at the movie’s expense.

Truth be told, MST3K: The Movie isn’t particularly cinematic; aside from a few instances of colorful language, there’s nothing here we haven’t already seen on the TV show. But as someone who enjoyed the series, I didn’t have a problem with this at all. MST3K: The Movie doesn’t have an intricate storyline, and it certainly didn’t dazzle me with its special effects. But the film made me laugh, which was reason enough to see it.







Friday, January 17, 2014

#1,250. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)


Directed By: James Cameron

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Edward Furlong




Tag line: "This time he's back...for good!"

Trivia: For agreeing to appear in this film, Arnold Schwarzenegger was given a $12 million Gulfstream III business jet






For my friend John and I, the release of a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie used to be an event. Beginning with Predator in 1987, we made sure we caught all of the actor’s movies on the big screen, and had a blast with every damn one of them (The Running Man and Total Recall were particularly entertaining). The best of the bunch, however, was 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron’s sequel to his 1984 film, The Terminator. Featuring groundbreaking special effects, Terminator 2 was an action-packed extravaganza that, even today, is one of the most exciting sci-fi flicks ever produced.

Following an unsuccessful bid to blow up a computer manufacturing plant, Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton), who survived her encounter with the futuristic assassin in the first Terminator film, is committed to an insane asylum. As a result, her teenage son, John (Edward Furlong), the future leader of humanity, becomes a ward of the state, and is sent to live with foster parents Todd (Xander Berkeley) and Janelle (Jenette Goldstien). Convinced his mother is insane, John has a change of heart when he comes face-to-face with two killing machines from the future: one (Robert Patrick) out to destroy him, the other (Schwarzenegger) trying to protect him. After breaking Sarah out of the asylum, John and his new bodyguard attempt to track down Miles Dyson (Joe Morton), a scientist whose work would eventually lead to the creation of Skynet and, ultimately, the end of civilization. The problem, of course, is that they’re also being hunted by a T-1000, a more advanced terminator whose sole mission is to eliminate John Conner, thus clearing the way for machines to take over the earth.

After trying to kill Sarah Conner in The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger returns in Terminator 2 as one of the good guys, sent by the future John Conner to protect his past self. Yet, despite switching sides, the actor brings the same icy cold determination to the role that he did in the first film, playing the T-800 as a humorless automaton ready to blow anyone other than John Conner away. The teenager does what he can to to prevent his heavily-armed bodyguard from killing indiscriminately, but with limited success (in one of the movie’s funnier scenes, the T-800 shoots a security guard in the legs. When a bewildered John Conner, who had just ordered him not to kill any more, looks on in disapproval, the T-800 says, matter-of-factly, “He’ll live”).

Yet as bad-ass as Schwarzenegger’s T-800 is, his opponent, the T-1000, is the real force to be reckoned with. Made of a substance best described as “liquid metal”, the T-1000 can change its appearance to resemble anyone it’s come into contact with, and can even transform parts of its body into deadly weapons (it demonstrates both of these abilities in an early scene with John’s foster parents). What’s more, the liquid metal makes the T-1000 impervious to bullets; a shotgun blast to the face only slows it down for a minute. The revolutionary special effects that Cameron and his crew employed to bring the T-1000 to life, though more commonplace today, were something to behold in 1991, taking what was already a cool concept to the next level while, at the same time, giving our heroes an adversary that was virtually indestructible.

Throw in some adrenaline-fueled chase scenes (the best of which involves a tractor-trailer) and a tough-as-nails performance by Linda Hamilton, and you have a sci-fi / action hybrid that’s second to none. In later years, James Cameron would direct the two highest-grossing motion pictures of all-time (1997’s Titanic and 2009’s Avatar), yet, for me, Terminator 2: Judgment Day will always be his crowning achievement.








Thursday, January 16, 2014

#1,249. Cold Prey II (2008)


Directed By: Mats Stenberg

Starring: Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Marthe Snorresdotter Rovik, Kim Wifladt



Tag line: "The Nightmare Continues October 10th..."

Trivia: The opening weekend of this film was the best for any Norwegian movie in history







Following in the footsteps of 1981’s Halloween II, director Mats Stenberg’s Cold Prey II, a sequel to 2006’s Cold Prey, picks up almost immediately where the original left off. Having survived the massacre at the ski lodge, Jannicke (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) is found wandering along an abandoned road, covered in blood and carrying a pick axe. She’s taken to the local hospital, where she tells the authorities the terrifying tale of what happened to her and her friends. While investigating her story, the police locate the bodies of Jannicke’s friends, as well as that of their killer (Rune Melby), all of whom are transported to the hospital so that autopsies can be performed on their remains. But as Jannicke is trying to come to terms with the horror of it all, the hospital staff, which includes doctor-in-training Camilla (Marthe Snorresdotter Rovik), makes a startling discovery while examining the bodies, kicking off yet another night of murder and mayhem.

Cold Prey II is an interesting mix, a strong continuation of the original film that also takes the story in a different direction. Whereas Cold Prey relied as much on the elements, as well as the isolation of its main characters, to build a suspenseful tale, Cold Prey II puts the focus squarely on the killer himself. And just like in the first movie, he’s a force to be reckoned with, a cold-blooded murderer who uses anything at his disposal to finish his victims off (in a particularly grisly scene, he attacks one character with a fire extinguisher). Cold Prey II even gives the audience a little background info on the killer, attempting to explain what it is that drives him to commit these murders (a local doctor tells a chilling story of what transpired the day the killer was born).

Featuring some incredibly tense scenes set inside the hospital (yet another similarity it shares with ‘81s Halloween II) and a handful of gory kills, Cold Prey II is a solid sequel, not to mention one of the finest slasher films to come along in the last 10 years.







Wednesday, January 15, 2014

#1,248. Metropolis (1927)


Directed By: Fritz Lang

Starring: Brigitte Helm, Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich



Tag line: "There can be no understanding between the hands and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator"

Trivia: Footage from this film was used in Queen's Music Video for their song, "Radio Ga Ga"







Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi classic, Metropolis, combines social commentary with superior special effects, crafting a world that’s as nightmarish as it is fascinating. 

Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) is one of the rulers of Metropolis, a futuristic city that’s a paradise for some, and a prison for others. Above ground, Metropolis features huge skyscrapers that house the rich, while far below, the poor toil away to keep the city running, putting in 10-hour shifts and often risking life and limb. For years, these two societies have been kept separate, but when Maria (Brigitte Helm), the spiritual leader of the workers, travels to the surface with a group of children (to show them the world above), she catches the attention of Fredersen’s son, Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), who immediately follows her into the depths below. Shocked by the conditions the workers are forced to endure, Freder spurred on by his love for Maria, talks to his father, imploring him to make some changes. Instead, Frederson pays a visit to the scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who constructs a robot double of Maria that, if successful, will discredit the real Maria by inciting rebellion among the workers. But when the ensuing revolution threatens the city’s well-being, Freder and the real Maria do what they can to restore order and, if possible, unite the peoples of Metropolis in the process.

At its heart, Metropolis is a chilling cautionary tale of the dangers of class structure, presented in its most extreme form. Yet what remains with you long after the movie ends is its astounding imagery. In one of the film’s best scenes, we witness a shift change, with workers on one side of the screen staggering home as those on the other side shuffle towards their work stations (all proceeding as if they were in a zombified state). Another notable sequence features Freder, horrified by things he sees below, taking over for a tired worker, only to find himself trapped at the man’s station for hours, doing the best he can to maintain the grueling pace the job requires. Then there’s the movie’s single most impressive image: Rotwang’s robot, a gleaming metallic creation that will eventually take on the likeness of Maria. In its featureless state, this robot is a sight to behold, and remains one of the most memorable automatons in motion picture history.

Epic in scope and grand in design, Metropolis is a cinematic masterpiece, directed by a filmmaker at the absolute top of his game. It is, and likely always will be, one of the most influential films, sci-fi or otherwise, ever produced







Tuesday, January 14, 2014

#1,247. Family Guy Presents Blue Harvest (2007)


Directed By: Dominic Polcino, Peter Shin

Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Alex Borstein, Seth Green





Trivia: When originally broadcast, this episode was seen by 10.86 million viewers








Family Guy, an animated half-hour television comedy created by Seth MacFarlane, is one of those shows you either love or you hate. Personally, I love it (though I admit it often stretches the boundaries of good taste). Released during the series’ 6th season, Blue Harvest is an hour-long episode that spoofed 1977’s Star Wars. Featuring some very funny moments, Blue Harvest is an effective satire that, along with the jokes, is also quite respectful of its source material.

When the power goes out while they’re watching television, Peter Griffin (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) passes the time by telling his family the story of Star Wars, with the show’s characters standing in for the original cast. Chris Griffin (Seth Green) plays Luke Skywalker, and his mother, Lois (Alex Borstein), is Princess Leia. Peter himself takes on the part of Han Solo, while the family dog, Brian (also Seth MacFarlane) is Chewbacca. And who better to play Darth Vader than the sinister infant, Stewie Griffin (MacFarlane yet again)? With their friends and neighbors assuming the remaining roles (in this universe, Obi-Wan Kenobi, portrayed by the lecherous Herbert, isn’t so much a Jedi Master as he is a leering pedophile), Blue Harvest presents a condensed version of Star Wars, hitting many of the movie’s high points over the course of its 47-minute run time and doing so in hilarious fashion.

First and foremost, Blue Harvest is a very funny spoof. One of the highlights is a conversation during which Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin (played by the town’s Mayor, who happens to be Adam West) are told about the Death Star’s one weakness: a 2-meter wide exhaust pipe that, if fired on, could potentially blow the entire station to smithereens (Vader asks if they can cover it with a piece of plywood, yet balks at the suggestion they pay to have it fixed, telling his subordinate to instead “get estimates”). My favorite moment occurs during the rescue of Princess Leia, when she, along with Luke, Han and Chewbacca, escapes the enemy by diving into a garbage chute. After being nearly flattened by the compactor, the group pauses to inspect some of the trash around them, which includes a slightly disheveled sofa that Chewbacca says would “look great” in Han’s apartment. This leads to what I consider the show’s single funniest sequence, where Han and Chewbacca, under heavy fire, try to squeeze this sofa into the Millennium Falcon, only to realize it’s not going to fit!

Yet what makes Blue Harvest so entertaining is that it was produced by people who clearly adore the original film. Some images are even presented in the exact way they appear in Star Wars, right down to the camera angle (like the formation of the rebel fighters as they prepare for their attack on the Death Star). Though played for laughs, Blue Harvest is, at the same time, a loving tribute to a classic motion picture, making it a must-see for anyone who considers themselves a Star Wars aficionado.







Monday, January 13, 2014

#1,246. 1408 (2007)


Directed By: Mikael Håfström

Starring: John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Mary McCormack



Tag line: "No one lasts more than an hour"

Trivia: The axe the fireman uses to break down the hotel door at the end is the exact same axe Jack Nicholson used in The Shining








Based on a Stephen King short story, 1408 features some damn creepy scenes and a convincing performance by John Cusack, who plays Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a writer who has dedicated his life to investigating haunted locations. Thus far, his research has turned up nothing supernatural, but that all changes the moment he walks into room 1408 of New York’s Dolphin Hotel, reputedly one of the most haunted locales in the entire country.

It’s so bad, in fact, that Enslin’s initial attempts to book the room were denied. When he threatened legal action, the Dolphin had no choice but to allow him to check into 1408, yet not before hotel manager Gerald Odin (Samuel L. Jackson) tried one last time to talk Enslin out of staying in the accursed room. According to Odin, more than 50 people have died in 1408, and what’s more, those who check in usually don’t stay for more than an hour. Determined to learn the truth, a skeptical Enslin signs the register and makes his way to the 14th floor, kicking off an evening of terror unlike any he’s faced before.

1408 does a fine job building up anticipation. The scene with Samuel L. Jackson’s somewhat morbid hotel manager, who practically begs Enslin to rethink his decision, sets the perfect tone for what’s to follow, and later in the movie, when all hell is breaking loose, we can’t help but think Enslin should have heeded this warning. And when I say “all hell breaking loose”, that’s exactly what I mean, with Enslin experiencing everything from a clock radio that plays nothing but The Carpenters to ghostly visions of 1408’s past victims. One of the film’s most spine-tingling scenes has Enslin, who desperately wants out of 1408, trying to get the attention of the guy in the hotel across the street, only to discover it’s a mirror image of himself (and that he’s not alone in the room)! Cusack does a good job as the cynical writer in search of the supernatural, and as the movie plays out, we learn about his character’s troubled past, including why he’s so anxious to meet up with a ghost.

Where 1408 stumbles is in its conclusion, which, without going into spoilers, confused the hell out of me the first time I saw it (a second viewing did clear things up a bit). Fortunately, it doesn’t detract from the rest of the film. If you like a good ghost story, then check into 1408 and enjoy the ride.







Sunday, January 12, 2014

#1,245. Creepshow (1982)


Directed By: George Romero

Starring: Hal Holbrook, Leslie Nielsen, Adrienne Barbeau




Tag line: "The Most Fun You'll Ever Have... BEING SCARED!"

Trivia: The makeup and special effects in this film were provided by Romero's longtime collaborator, Tom Savini






For me, George Romero’s Creepshow is the best horror anthology ever produced. Inspired by such ‘50s horror comics as Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, Creepshow presents five separate stories of the macabre, all penned by renowned author Stephen King, and each as entertaining as it is frightening.

After a brief opening sequence, in which a young boy (played by Stephen King’s real-life son, Joe) is slapped around by his father (Tom Atkins) for reading horror comics, Creepshow launches into the first of its five tales, "Father’s Day", about a nasty old guy named Nathan Grantham (Joe Lormer) who’s murdered by his adult daughter, Bedelia (Viveca Lindfors). Unfortunately for her, dear old dad refuses to stay dead, returning from the grave seven years later to ruin a family dinner. This is followed by "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill", in which backwoods yokel (you guessed it) Jordy Verrill (played by Stephen King himself) has a run-in with a meteorite that causes a plant-like organism to grow on his body, one that multiplies at an alarming rate. Next up we have "Something to Tide You Over", starring Leslie Nielson as vindictive millionaire Richard Vickers, who takes his revenge on his cheating wife (Gaylen Ross) and her lover (Ted Danson). But as Vickers will soon learn, even the dead can seek vengeance. The fourth story, simply titled "The Crate", involves both a vicious monster and a timid college professor (Hal Holbrook) who’s looking to dispose of his obnoxious wife (Adrienne Barbeau), and, finally, we have "They’re Creeping Up on You", about a foul-tempered businessman (E.G Marshall) whose fear of germs is put to the ultimate test when his apartment is overrun by thousands of cockroaches!

Whereas most horror anthologies feature one or two solid sequences (Tales That Witness Madness leaps immediately to mind), Creepshow gives us five, three of which ("Father’s Day", "Something to Tide You Over" and "They’re Creeping Up on You") were written specifically for the film by Stephen King ("The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" and "The Crate" were based on previously published works). My favorite of the bunch is easily "Something to Tide You Over" (Leslie Nielson’s plot to do away with his wife and her lover is ingenious, and there’s a scene late in the story that make me jump each and every time I see it), though I do have a soft spot for "The Crate" as well (Adrienne Barbeau is deliciously wicked in this one).

Creepshow would spawn a pair of sequels, the first of which, titled Creepshow 2, had its moments (a third film, Creepshow 3, was a 2007 direct-to-video release), yet neither were as entertaining as the original. The tag line for Creepshow is “The most fun you’ll ever have... BEING SCARED”, and, in my opinion, that sums the movie up just about perfectly.







Saturday, January 11, 2014

#1,244. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)


Directed By: Peter Jackson

Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen




Tag line: "The Journey Continues December 18th"

Trivia: Elijah Wood's real-life sister, Hannah, plays one of the refugees in the Helm's Deep sequence







The follow-up to 2001’s Fellowship of the Ring and the middle chapter in the Lord of the Rings saga, Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers is every bit as awesome as its predecessor, and features a battle sequence that’s among the finest ever filmed.

The Fellowship has been broken; Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), in an effort to destroy the ring and defeat the Dark Lord Sauron, have left their comrades behind, determined to make the rest of the long journey to Mount Doom on their own. Along the way, the two encounter Gollum (Andy Serkis), the creature who once owned the ring. Hoping he can guide them to Mordor, Frodo forms an alliance with Gollum. But can he truly be trusted, or will Gollum attempt to kill his new “master” to take back what used to be his?

Meanwhile, Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are pursuing the Orcs that captured Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). During their travels, they’re reunited with Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who survived his fight with the Balrog and is, as a result, more powerful than ever. Together, the four make their way to Rohan, a land in turmoil ever since its king, Théoden (Bernard Hill), fell under the spell of Wormtongue (Brad Dourif), an agent of the evil wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee). With the help of Théoden's niece, Éowyn (Miranda Otto), Gandalf and Aragorn free Théoden from Wormtongue’s control. Following his recovery, Théoden decides to move the entire population of Rohan to the stronghold at Helm’s Deep, where preparations are made to defend it from the massive orc army that’s on its way.

Along with the return of all the main characters, The Two Towers gives us a few new faces as well, chief among them Gollum, perfectly portrayed by Andy Serkis, who, by way of motion capture technology, brought the CG-enhanced creature convincingly to life. After making a brief appearance in Fellowship of the Ring, the treacherous Gollum becomes a full-fledged character in The Two Towers, and will figure prominently in the saga from this point out. Another computer generated character is Treebeard, leader of the Ents, a race of tree creatures that ultimately band together to fight Saruman. Voiced by John Rhys-Davies (who also plays Gimli), Treebeard is a truly remarkable creation, and the Ents’ battle against Sarumon’s forces is one of the film’s most spectacular scenes.

The key battle in The Two Towers, however, is the one that occurs at Helm’s Deep. Taking up a huge portion of the movie’s overall running time, the Battle for Helm’s Deep is as exciting as it gets (at one point, Legolas, having placed a bet with Gimli over which of them can kill the most orcs, rides a shield down a flight of stairs as if it were a surfboard, taking out Orcs on both sides of him with his trusty bow). Jam packed with action and high drama, the Battle for Helm’s Deep is considered by many fans the single best sequence in the entire trilogy.

As middle chapters go, The Two Towers ranks right up there with The Empire Strikes Back, carrying the story forward in tremendous fashion while, at the same time, building up the audience's anticipation and leaving them wanting more. Yet, even as a stand-alone film, The Two Towers, providing thrills aplenty, delivers the goods.







Friday, January 10, 2014

#1,243. Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)


Directed By: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen




Tag line: "Kill is love"

Trivia: The entire first reel of this film is presented in black and white







Picking up where Kill Bill Vol. 1 left off, the Bride (Uma Thurman), having dispatched two former colleagues of the Viper Assassination Squad, sets her sights on the remaining three: Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah), Bud (Michael Madsen) and her former boss and lover, Bill (David Carradine). Still pissed over being shot and left for dead in an El Paso wedding chapel, an attack she believes also claimed the life of her unborn child, The Bride continues her “Roaring rampage of revenge”, only this time she’s in for more than the fight of her life; there’s also a big surprise waiting for her at the end of the line.

Where Kill Bill Vol. 1 had a distinctly “Eastern” feel (aside from the fact a major portion of the film was set in Japan, Vol. 1 also featured an anime sequence, and co-starred Sonny Chiba, whose movies like The Street Fighter and The Bodyguard are personal favorites of director Quentin Tarantino), Vol. 2 shifted the action to the American West, paying homage to several classics of the western genre (during a flashback sequence at the Wedding Chapel, Tarantino frames a shot of the Bride standing in a doorway, a nod to the final moments of John Ford’s The Searchers). But aside from changing locales, Kill Bill Vol. 2 has plenty of what made Vol. 1 such a fun movie, including pulse-pounding action (my favorite scene being the well-choreographed fight with Elle Driver) and a handful of flashbacks that help flesh out the story (there’s an extended sequence in which The Bride, back when she first joined the Viper Assassination Squad, is trained by martial arts master Pai-Mei, portrayed by the legendary Gordon Liu). Then, of course, we have the big showdown with Bill, at which point the final twist is revealed (and it’s a doozy). I’ve heard some people complain that these last scenes are a bit too talky, and don’t have enough action. Personally, I loved the give-and-take between Bill and the Bride, and was plenty engrossed in what they were saying (Bill’s take on the mythos of Superman is a definite highlight). Snappy dialogue has always been one of Tarantino’s trademarks, and in my opinion, the finale of Kill Bill Vol. 2 features some of his “snappiest” to date.

As in the first film, the cast of Kill Bill Vol. 2 is superb. Daryl Hannah is sadistic as hell as the Bride’s arch-nemesis, Elle Driver, and David Carradine shines as Bill, who, after being something of an enigma in Vol. 1, dominates a large chunk of this movie. And then there’s Uma Thurman, who explores a wide range of emotions between the scenes where she’s kicking someone’s ass. She was so effective in the role that the Golden Globes nominated her for Best Actress (which they also did a year earlier, for her work in Vol. 1). These performances, coupled with Tarantino’s razor-sharp script, transformed the entire Kill Bill saga into a top-notch action series.