Wednesday, December 31, 2014

#1,598. The Clowns (1970)


Directed By: Federico Fellini

Starring: Riccardo Billi, Federico Fellini, Gigi Reder





Trivia: In its native Italy, this movie was released simultaneously on TV and as a cinema feature









As I’ve stated in the past, I’m not the biggest fan of circus clowns. Apparently, neither was Federico Fellini. In an early scene from his 1970 film The Clowns, the director flashes back to his childhood, recalling the day he first visited the circus. A new and wonderful experience, he enjoyed everything about it with the exception of the clowns. “The clowns didn’t make me laugh”, says the director, who also acts as narrator. “No, they made me cry. Those chalky faces, those enigmatic expressions, those twisted, drunken masks”. Clearly, it was more than the young Fellini could bear.

The Clowns is a documentary that delves into the history of this unusual profession, introducing us to former clowns whose antics entertained children and adults alike for decades. Joined by Tristan Remy, an author who penned the biographies of several famous clowns, Fellini and his crew travel across Europe to talk with as many circus clowns as they can find, most of whom have since retired. Interspersed between these segments are filmed performances showing clowns doing what they do best: making people laugh.

Produced for Italian television (but released theatrically as well), The Clowns isn’t so much a documentary as it is a Fellini documentary. Believe me, there’s a difference (anyone who’s seen Roma will know what I’m talking about). While sitting around a dinner table with several players from a traveling circus, Fellini is introduced to Franco Migliorini, an animal trainer who claims to have received somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 stitches over the course of his career (one of his colleagues quips that they’ve had to drag him from the cage on four different occasions, jokingly adding that they don’t plan to do the same should a fifth occurrence arise). As with most of the movie’s interviews, this dinner sequence has a hint of fantasy about it, which undoubtedly has something to do with the stylish manner in which Fellini presents it (in an almost frantic pace, the camera darts from one performer to another, giving the scene an energy unlike any you’d find in a standard documentary). As he’s shown us many times before, Fellini’s view of the world of circus clowns is a bit skewed, and seasoned with a dash of the fantastic that keeps it from ever feeling 100% genuine. For him, reality is not an absolute, and the entire world is a stage.

Taking into account his initial experience with clowns, we can’t help but wonder why Fellini decided to make this film in the first place. At one point, Tristam Remy asks the director this very question, remarking that the documentary comes a bit late in the game, seeing as circuses have been dying a slow death for years. Was Fellini exorcising the demons of his past, or did he have a genuine interest in the history of this oft-overlooked form of entertainment? The Clowns never answers these questions, though we’re left with the impression that, like many of the great director’s later works, it’s a subject that touched him deeply. The reasons why are unimportant; for Fellini, The Clowns was, much like Amarcord and Roma, a very personal affair.







Tuesday, December 30, 2014

#1,597. African Safari (1968)


Directed By: Ronald E. Shanin

Starring: Michael Rye





Trivia: This movie was also released as Rivers of Fire and Ice









A Crown International release, 1968’s African Safari is a documentary chronicling the adventures of explorer / photographer Ron Shanin as his treks across Central Africa capturing animals for American zoos, from the cute and cuddly (a chimpanzee and two orphaned leopard cubs are treated like pets) to the downright deadly (his specialty is snakes, and along the way he manages to pick up both an Egyptian cobra and a black mamba). His journey takes him to many exotic regions, where he engages with the locals and, on occasion, even tends to their illnesses. But despite brief stops at some of the most beautiful places on earth (like the Kalambo Falls, a 770-ft waterfall situated on the border of Zambia and Tanzania), Shanin is reminded time and again just how lethal the wilds of Central Africa can be, and that you can never let your guard down for a minute in this fascinating, albeit dangerous corner of the globe.

African Safari was a very personal project for Ron Shanin, whose name is all over this movie (aside from directing, he’s also credited as the writer, producer, editor and cinematographer), and in many ways it reminded me of the True-Life Adventure series produced by Disney throughout the 1950s. As with most documentaries of this ilk, a large amount of time is dedicated to watching animals hunt in the wild, and to be fair, some of the footage is amazing (one sequence, where an African hawk eagle grabs hold of a guinea fowl in mid-flight, is presented in slow-motion and is pretty damn incredible). But the sections of the film I found particularly interesting involved Shanin’s interactions with the indigenous tribes he encountered. Soon after visiting an area where the men chisel their teeth down to points (and man, did the procedure look painful!), he gives a few dozen Pygmy children a ride on the back of his truck, and scores an authentic hand-made spear in the process (which one of the kids trades him in exchange for a piece of red cloth).

To audiences of 1968, African Safari was undoubtedly a unique experience, transporting them to faraway places most would never visit on their own. Nowadays, with entire cable channels dedicated to this sort of thing, Ron Shanin’s adventures may seem a bit routine to some, but the movie has enough going for it to keep viewers engaged, and even provides a thrill or two that are sure to get the adrenaline pumping.







Monday, December 29, 2014

#1,596. The Big Country (1958)


Directed By: William Wyler

Starring: Gregory Peck, Jean Simmons, Carroll Baker



Tag line: "Big they fought! Big they loved! Big their story!"

Trivia: This movie was based on the serialized magazine novel Ambush at Blanco Canyon by Donald Hamilton







By its title alone, you’d assume William Wyler’s 1958 movie The Big Country is a larger-than-life motion picture. Clocking in at 165 minutes and shot in 35mm widescreen Technirama, it certainly has the look and feel of a western spectacular like Giant or How the West Was Won. But ultimately, the movie is about more than sweeping panoramas and massive gunfights. Putting the focus squarely on its characters, The Big Country has more in common with Wyler’s The Little Foxes than it does any big-budget Hollywood epic.

Former ship’s captain James McKay (Gregory Peck) is leaving the high seas behind and moving west, where he intends to marry Pat Terrell (Carroll Baker), a beautiful spitfire and the daughter of wealthy land baron Major Henry Terrill (Charles Bickford), owner of the biggest cattle ranch in the territory. Unfortunately, McKay has arrived at a rather inopportune time, and finds himself caught in the middle of a tense showdown between Major Terrell and fellow cattle man Rufus Hannassey (Burl Ives), both of whom are trying to buy a few hundred acres of land known as the “Big Muddy” from its current owner, school teacher Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons). Coveted for its reliable water supply (which never dries up), Terrell and Hannassey know that whoever controls the “Big Muddy” controls the entire area. Aided by his tough-as-nails foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), Terrell has been battling it out with Hannassey and his sons, including the reckless Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors), for years, with neither man showing any signs of backing down. A pacifist by nature, McKay refuses to take sides in the matter, which doesn’t sit well with either Pat or her father. But before the conflict comes to a head, McKay will get involved, and in a big way.

The Big Country looks great; shot on-location in, among other places, California’s Red Rock Canyon State Park and the Mojave Desert, it makes excellent use of its picturesque settings, which serve as a backdrop for many of the film’s more dramatic moments (a scene where Terrell and Leech, along with a few dozen hired hands, ride into Hannassey’s homestead and wreak havoc is one of the movie’s strongest). Equally as impressive is its star-studded cast, which is superb (especially Burl Ives as the hard-headed but eternally fair Rufus Hannassey, a role that landed him an Academy Award as the year’s Best Supporting Actor). Yet what makes The Big Country such an engaging motion picture is its characters, and how their relationships (some merely inferred) evolve over the course of the film. McKay and Pat, deeply in love at the outset, reach a crisis point when McKay refuses to fight Leech (who clearly harbors feelings of his own for his boss’s daughter), which, in Pat's eyes, makes him look like a coward. Even more intense is the bitter, sometimes ferocious relationship between Rufus Hannassey and his eldest son Buck, whose dim wits and questionable morality are a constant thorn in his father’s side (The Big Country’s most uncomfortable scene has Rufus stepping in to prevent Buck from raping Julie Maragon, a standoff that leads to a violent confrontation).

It’s through interactions such as these that The Big Country grabs our attention, then manages to hold it for nearly three hours, a feat unmatched by many of Hollywood’s grandest epics. In the end, The Big Country may not be all that big, but it definitely delivers the goods.







Sunday, December 28, 2014

#1,595. Knick Knack (1989)


Directed By: John Lassater







Trivia: Originally shown in 3-D at the 1988 SIGGRAPH Animation Show









After scoring a hit with Tin Toy a year earlier, John Lasseter and the gang at Pixar tried their luck with another short film, 1989’s Knick Knack, about a snowman looking to have some fun.

It all begins when the snowman, trapped inside a snow globe, spots a group of summer-themed keepsakes throwing a party on the other end of a souvenir shelf. After making eye contact with one in particular (a bikini-clad beauty), the snowman decides it’s time to leave his glass prison behind, yet try as he might, he’s unable to even so much as crack the side of the globe. Before long, another means of escape will present itself, but will the snowman be too late to join in on the fun?

Whereas Tin Toy was designed to push the limits of computer animation (baby Billy proved a challenge to Lasseter and his group, who before that time had never attempted a human character), Knick Knack is a throwback of sorts, paying homage to the cartoons of yesteryear (Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, etc) by featuring a very simple story laced with one outlandish situation after another (at one point, the snowman tries to escape his globe by dynamiting the glass from within, with hilarious consequences). The craziness is supported at all times by the film’s catchy musical score, written and performed by Bobby McFerrin (who a year earlier hit the big time with the a cappella tune “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”), which sets the perfect tone for the on-screen zaniness.

Like Tin Toy, Knick Knack met with critical acclaim (The UK newspaper The Independent called it “A four-minute masterpiece”), and, after some editing to reduce the female characters’ bust sizes, was the opening short for 2003’s Finding Nemo. Following Knick Knack, Pixar wouldn’t produce another short film until 1997 (Geri’s Game), focusing its attention instead on feature-length pictures such as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. But for those interested in learning a bit more about the studio’s history, movies like Luxo Jr., Tin Toy, and Knick Knack should be your first stop.







Saturday, December 27, 2014

#1,594. Blue Jasmine (2013)


Directed By: Woody Allen

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Alec Baldwin, Sally Hawkins




Trivia: Louis C.K. originally auditioned for the part played by Andrew Dice Clay. Woody Allen felt that C.K. was too nice to play the role and offered him another part








Woody Allen continues his string of recent hits with 2013’s Blue Jasmine, the story of a woman trying desperately to outrun the demons of her past.

Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) had it all. The wife of a successful investment manager named Hal (Alec Baldwin), she lived in an apartment on Park Avenue, wore expensive jewelry, and hosted swanky parties attended by all the best people. Alas, her life of luxury ended the day her husband was arrested by the FBI, accused of bilking innocent men and women out of their hard-earned money. Shortly after he was taken into custody, Hal committed suicide in jail, and Jasmine, flat-broke and with no idea what to do with the rest of her life, suffered a nervous breakdown.

Hoping for a fresh start, Jasmine hops a plane to San Francisco and moves in with her estranged sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who, along with her ex-husband Augie (Andrew Dice Clay), was one of the many victims of Hal’s fraudulent business practices. A cashier at a neighborhood grocery store, Ginger and her two young sons live in a small apartment, yet despite her meager surroundings she welcomes her troubled sister with open arms. Naturally, Jasmine doesn’t approve of Ginger’s tiny abode, nor does she think too highly of her sister's new boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale). On a whim, Jasmine decides she wants to be an interior designer, and lands a job working as a receptionist at a Dentist’s office to pay for her computer classes (she plans to take online decorating courses, but doesn’t know the first thing about computers). At a party one afternoon, Jasmine meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), a diplomat with political aspirations, and before long the two fall in love. But try as she might, Jasmine can’t forget her past, which haunts her on a daily basis.

Like his idol, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen has shown an affinity for strong female characters over the years, and the woman at the center of Blue Jasmine is no exception. A former socialite who’d grown accustomed to her upper-class New York existence, Jasmine suddenly finds herself living in one of the poorer sections of San Francisco. Though grateful to her sister for taking her in, she can’t help but criticize Ginger’s lifestyle, and is especially harsh when discussing the men in her life (from the moment she meets him, it’s obvious Jasmine doesn’t care for Chili). But thanks to the film’s numerous flashback scenes (which detail her time in New York before things fell apart), we see that Jasmine’s taste in men, though admittedly more refined than Ginger’s, isn’t all that great, either (besides being a crook, Hal was a womanizer who constantly cheated on her). Along with revealing Jasmine’s past, these flashbacks also shed light on her state of mind, which becomes increasingly more erratic as the story progresses (at times, her recollections are far too painful, causing Jasmine to occasionally talk to herself in public). Like the character of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Jasmine is a tortured soul unable to let go of a past she continues to idolize.

The entire cast of Blue Jasmine is exceptional. Sally Hawkins shines as Ginger, a woman who begins to take stock of her own life once her sister arrives on the scene, and Alec Baldwin is near-perfect as Jasmine’s deceptively charming husband. One of the movie’s biggest surprises (for me, anyway) was the work of bad-boy comedian Andrew Dice Clay, who, despite appearing in only a few scenes, makes a lasting impression as Ginger’s ex-husband. Yet as good as everyone else is, Blue Jasmine belongs to Cate Blanchett, who convincingly portrays a woman unraveling before our very eyes (she’d win both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her turn in this film).

Yet another feather in the cap of Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine ranks alongside Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris as one of the director’s best offerings of the new millennium.







Friday, December 26, 2014

#1,593. The Law of .45's (1935)



Directed By: John P. McCarthy

Starring: Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams, Molly O'Day, Al St. John



Tag line: "Where blood flowed red!"

Trivia: The film is also known as The Mysterious Mr. Sheffield in the United Kingdom







The 1935 western The Law of .45's is yet another movie that comes courtesy of the gang at Mill Creek Entertainment (it was one of the films in their DVD release Mean Guns 20 Movie Pack). Having scored before with the little-known gem Kansas Pacific (which I found on Mill Creek’s Combat Classics 50 Movie Pack), I was anxious to see what hidden treasures might be waiting for me in the Mean Guns Collection. Fortunately, I still have 19 more chances to find out, because The Law of .45's was as bland as they come.

Cowboy Tuscon Smith (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) and his sidekick Stoney Martin (Al St. John) are driving their cattle through the territory when they’re forced to come to the rescue of rancher Charlie Hayden (Lafe McKee) and his daughter Joan (Molly O’Day), who are being strong-armed by a gunman named Toral (Sherry Tansey). Aided by his band of outlaws, Toral has been roughing up every rancher in the area, so, to keep their new friends safe, Tuscon and Stoney agree to stay on as Hayden’s bodyguards. What they don’t know, however, is that Toral is acting on the orders of shifty lawyer Gordon Rontell (Ted Adams), who, after the ranchers have been worked over, sweeps in and buys their property for a fraction of what it’s worth. It’s all part of his grand scheme to make a boatload of cash, and it’s up to Tuscon and Stoney to put a stop to it.

Prior to The Law of .45's, I’d never heard of Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, though I’ve seen a few of his movies (he had a small role in the 1940 World War I adventure The Fighting 69th). Apparently, Mr. Williams was quite a star in his day, appearing in dozens of westerns in the ‘20s and ‘30s including Thunder Over Texas, Cowboy Holiday, and the awkwardly titled Big Boy Rides Again. Nicknamed “Big Boy” by Will Rogers, Williams certainly had the build of a leading man (he was 6’2” with a muscular frame), but not the screen presence of one; in The Law of .45's, his Tuscon Smith is pretty damn dull. In fact, I thought his sidekick Stoney was the more interesting of the two. Had Williams and St. John switched roles, The Law of .45's might’ve been better.

A boring leading man is bad enough, but when mixed with lackluster action, a couple of forgettable ditties sung around the campfire, and a by-the-numbers romantic subplot, you have a movie that’s dead on arrival. The Law of .45's isn’t even good enough to be a fun “bad” film.

It’s just…. Blah.






Thursday, December 25, 2014

#1,592. Samsara (2011)


Directed By: Ron Fricke

Starring: Balinese Tari Legong Dancers, Ni Made Megahadi Pratiwi, Puti Sri Candra Dewi



Tag line: "From the creators of the award-winning film Baraka"

Trivia: For several years the filmmakers attempted to secure permission to film in North Korea, but were ultimately denied access






From director Ron Fricke, the creative mind behind the groundbreaking documentaries Chronos and Baraka, comes yet another visual explosion, 2011’s Samsara, a movie that spans the globe to capture images of life, death, and everything in-between.

Samsara (which in Sanskrit means “continuous flow”) was filmed over the course of four years, during which time Fricke and his crew visited 5 continents, capturing breathtaking images of the natural world (like the Epupa Falls in Angola, Africa) as well as some of mankind’s greatest achievements (a brief sequence in Cairo provides us with a glimpse of the Pyramids at Giza). With stops in Beijing (where we witness an impressive parade), Jerusalem (to visit the Wailing Wall), and even Arlington National Cemetery, Samsara explores the circle of life in a number of fascinating ways (the baptism of several babies is quickly followed by a trip to the Catacombe dei Cappuccini in Palermo, Italy, where the preserved body of young Rosalia Lombardo, a two-year old girl who died of pneumonia in 1920, lies in a glass-covered coffin).

The film's examination of death expands beyond the human world to include animals (by way of visits to a chicken farm and a meat-packing plant) and even entire communities (some of the film’s most moving imagery is that of New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, where we see first-hand the devastation caused by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina), yet Samsara also acts as a celebration of life, introducing us to the exotic ballet of the Balinese Tari Legong Dancers and wowing us with an incredible exhibition staged by the students of the Tagou Martial Arts School in Zhengzhou, China, sequences as awesome as any natural wonder the movie has to offer.

Shot on 70mm, Samsara, like Chronos and Baraka before it, acts as a window to the world, through which we see many interesting things. Awe-inspiring and occasionally shocking, Samsara is guaranteed to blow you away.







Wednesday, December 24, 2014

#1,591. Tai-Chi Master (1993)


Directed By: Yuen Woo Ping

Starring: Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Siu-Ho Chin




Tag line: "A Legendary Meeting"

Trivia: Along with playing the lead role, Jet Li also produced this movie








Best friends Jun Bao (Jet Li) and Tien Bo (Chin Siu Ho) are monks in the Shaolin temple, yet despite their lowly status, both have trained extensively in the martial arts. Hoping to impress the Shaolin master (Hai Yu), Tien Bo participates in a fighting contest, only to lose his cool when his opponent cheats. Jun Bao is quick to come to his friend’s aid, and as a result, they are asked to leave the temple. Out in the real world for the first time in their lives, the two friends do what it takes to survive. Jun Bao befriends a group of rebels who, with the help of jilted wife Siu Lin (Michelle Yeoh) and young pickpocket Miss Li (other girl), are trying to overthrown the territory’s corrupt Royal Governor (Jian-kui Sun). Hoping to one day become a rich and powerful man, Tien Bo instead enlists in the army, and quickly rises through the ranks to become one of the Governor’s bodyguards. Despite the different paths their lives have taken, Jun Bao and Tien Bo remain friends, but when Tien Bo learns he’s in line for a promotion, he makes a decision that could ultimately turn Jun Bo against him.

One of the first collaborations between Jet Li (who also served as the film’s producer) and director Yuen Wo Ping, Tai Chi Master contains some extraordinary martial arts sequences, the most stunning of which occurs just after the fighting contest in the Shaolin temple, when Tien Bo, having angered the Master by allowing his temper to get the best of him, joins with Jun Bao to take on the Temple’s elite warriors, all of whom are brandishing wooden poles (the resulting showdown has to be seen to be believed). Yet as incredible as this particular battle scene is, it’s simply the first of many that appear throughout the film. On top of this, Tai Chi Master is a very funny movie; a later sequence where Jun Bao temporarily loses his mind features some hilarious moments, showing that Jet Li is as good a comedian as he is a fighter.

With spectacular showdowns that, no matter how intense they may be, are always fun to watch, Tai Chi Master delivers more than its share of amazing martial arts action, peppered with a sense of humor that’s equally as satisfying.







Tuesday, December 23, 2014

#1,590. Matango (1963)


Directed By: Ishirô Honda

Starring: Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Hiroshi Koizumi



Trivia: The film was never released in mainstream American theaters, but probably did have limited exhibition in Japanese-American communities on the West Coast







The creative force behind such legendary movie monsters as Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra, Japanese director Ishirō Honda brings an entirely new kind of creature to the big screen in 1963’s Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People), while at the same time demonstrating that mankind is, on occasion, the scariest beast of them all.

A yacht belonging to millionaire Masafumi Kasai (Yoshio Tsuchiya) is caught in a storm. Badly damaged as a result, the ship comes to rest on a deserted island, forcing Kasai and his passengers, including college professor Kenji (Akira Kubo); Kenji’s pretty student Akiko (Miki Yashiro); writer Yoshida (Hiroshi Tachikawa); the boat’s captain, Naoyuki (Hiroshi Koizumi), and beautiful singer Mami (Kumi Mizuno), to seek shelter until the yacht can be repaired. While searching the island, the group comes across an abandoned science vessel, covered from top to bottom with a bizarre sort of fungus. After locating the captain’s log, they discover that the ship’s crew was investigating the island’s unusual mushroom formations when they mysteriously disappeared. Realizing their supplies won’t hold out for long, Kasai and the others start looking for food, only to find very little is available, Do they dare eat the island’s vast array of mushrooms, which by all accounts possess a power nobody fully understands?

Many of Matango's early scenes, including the storm at sea and the group’s arrival on the island, successfully establish an ominous tone, which grows more intense once the disabled science ship is discovered. Aside from the fungus and mold that’s overtaken the entire vessel, there are occasional sightings of a strange creature lurking in its corridors, which may or may not be human. But as Matango is quick to point out, the biggest threat its protagonists face comes from within. To avoid starving to death, the film’s characters start turning on one another, allowing their most primitive instincts to rise to the surface. Food is stolen from a central holding area, while sailor Senzô Koyama (Kenji Sahara), instead of sharing them with the group, sells the dozen or so turtle eggs he found to Kasai for an exorbitant amount of money. The worse things get, the more violent and visceral the characters become, resulting in a tangible sense of dread that escalates with each successive scene. By the time the film’s creatures enter the picture (looking pretty gruesome thanks to some effective make-up), the situation has already advanced beyond the point of no return.

A grim, foreboding tale of man’s inhumanity to man, Matango is a rare monster movie in that its main characters prove much more frightening than any creature concocted by the filmmakers







Monday, December 22, 2014

#1,589. London in the Raw (1965)


Directed By: Arnold Louis Miller

Starring: David Gell, Emmett Hennessy



Tag line: "The world's greatest city laid bare. Thrill to its gay excitement, its bright lights, but be shocked by the sin in its shadows!"

Trivia: This movie was inspired by the success of Mondo Cane







Inspired by the success of 1962’s Mondo Cane, director Arnold Louis Miller’s London in the Raw is a pseudo-documentary that takes us on a whirlwind tour of the great city during the Swinging ‘60’s, visiting everything from restaurants and nightclubs to Beatnik hangouts, all the while exploring sections of London you’d never find in a travel guide.

Described by narrator David Gell as “a city solidly encamped on the banks of the Thames for 2,000 years”, London is, as the film’s tagline boasts, “laid bare” in this fascinating motion picture, which at times is as much a straight-up exploitation flick as it is an informative documentary. The movie begins innocently enough with some exterior shots of a Public school, with narrator Gell praising the British educational system. London in the Raw then makes a quick stop at a clothing store, where an elderly gentleman is being fit for a bright red hunting jacket. From there, the film veers off in a new, and much seedier, direction, stopping at a betting house where you can put money down on the horse races, something that, thanks to what we’re told was “recent legislation”, is now 100% legal (a few years earlier, gambling facilities like this operated outside the law). In the very next scene, however, we meet a bona-fide lawbreaker: a vagrant playing a tin whistle on the side of the road who could be arrested at any moment for blocking the flow of pedestrian traffic. As he performs for the passersby, a prostitute sticks her head out a 2nd-floor window and beckons to a man on the street, who Gell says, tongue firmly planted in cheek, is “a friend” of hers. This sequence, designed to draw attention to the laws the police choose to enforce as opposed to those they turn a blind eye to, is one of the movie’s more humorous scenes.

Throughout the remainder of its running time, London in the Raw continues its expose of both the “respectable” side of town (a visit to a hair loss center features a graphic, and kinda gross, hair plug procedure) and the back alleys where courtesans and belly dancers apply their trades. Once in a while, the filmmakers discover a location that’s downright bizarre, like the restaurant where patrons, after eating their meal, can, if they like, sketch the nude model sitting on-stage. In many ways a milder version of 1975’s Australia After Dark, London in the Raw introduces us to areas of London that might otherwise have never been explored, and isn’t afraid to shine a light on some of the city’s shadier sections.







Sunday, December 21, 2014

#1,588. Frosty the Snowman (1969)


Directed By: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.

Starring: Jackie Vernon, Billy De Wolfe, Jimmy Durante





Trivia: This special marked the first use of traditional cel animation (as opposed to stop-motion animation) for Rankin/Bass in a Christmas special







Confession time: I was never a big fan of 1969’s Frosty the Snowman. I mean, it’s OK. It has some nice music and tells a decent story, but back in the day, when December would roll around and I’d peruse the TV Guide to see what Christmas shows were playing that week, I never got all that excited when I saw Frosty among the listings. To me, it was always a “second tier” Holiday special, which is how I continue to view it to this day.

It’s Christmas Eve, and a classroom full of kids are sitting in school, waiting for the final bell to ring so they can go outside and enjoy the freshly fallen snow. Not even Professor Hinkle (Billy De Wolfe), a magician brought in by their teacher as a sort of Christmas present, can keep the kid’s attention (besides, as magicians go, Professor Hinkle is pretty lousy). Once school is dismissed, a group of friends, including young Karen (June Foray), build a snowman, which they name “Frosty”. After decorating their new creation with a pipe and some coal for his eyes, they put on the finishing touch: a discarded top hat that a few minutes earlier belonged to Professor Hinkle (who threw it away in disgust). To everyone’s amazement, the hat proves magical after all, bringing Frosty the Snowman to life (voiced by Jackie Vernon). After having fun with his new friends, Frosty realizes the temperature is rising, and tells the kids he has to head to the North Pole to keep from melting. Karen, who’s grown very fond of Frosty, decides to go with him. But someone else is tagging along as well: the ornery Professor Hinkle, who, now that he knows it’s actually magical, wants desperately to retrieve his hat. In need of assistance, Frosty and Karen receive a helping hand from the animals of the forest and even Santa Claus himself, but will Frosty make it to the North Pole in time, or will he melt before he gets there?

One of the strengths of Frosty the Snowman is its narrator, Mr. Jimmy Durante, who along with relating Frosty’s and Karen’s story also gets to sing the title song (still my favorite rendition of this particular tune). As for the animation, it’s nothing special but it’s good enough (unlike other Rankin / Bass Holiday shows, Frosty the Snowman features traditional animation as opposed to stop-motion). Even still, Frosty always leaves me kinda cold (bad pun intended). To be honest, I haven’t spent a lot of time wondering why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that Frosty doesn’t feel like a Holiday special to me. Granted, it takes place on Christmas Eve, and Santa makes a cameo appearance, but ultimately, Frosty could have just as easily taken place in January or February (yes, I know they say it was “Christmas Snow” that helped bring Frosty to life, but if that’s the case, why does he revert back to a normal Snowman whenever the top hat falls off?). Shows like A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town all have that Holiday vibe. For me, Frosty never did; it was always more a wintertime fantasy than it was a Christmas one.

Again, I don’t dislike Frosty the Snowman. It’s a fine piece of children’s entertainment. But if I were to compile a list of my all-time favorite Christmas programs, Frosty the Snowman wouldn’t be at the top of it.







Saturday, December 20, 2014

#1,587. The Little Drummer Boy (1968)


Directed By: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.

Starring: José Ferrer, Paul Frees, June Foray





Trivia: Originally sponsored by the American Gas Association, The Little Drummer Boy premiered on December 19, 1968 on NBC








Of all the Holiday-themed songs ever produced, “The Little Drummer Boy”, written by Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941, is my all-time favorite. Though cCovered by artists ranging from Bing Crosby to Jimi Hendrix, the best version of the tune was recorded in 1958 by the Harry Simone Chorale, a rendition that rose as high as #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart. So popular is this particular Christmas song that it inspired a Rankin / Bass stop-motion animation special, 1968’s The Little Drummer Boy, which, over the years, would become a Holiday tradition in its own right.

Set in biblical times, The Little Drummer Boy introduces us to Aaron (Ted Eccles), an orphan whose parents were murdered by thieves. Since their deaths, Aaron has wandered the desert with his three best friends: Joshua the camel, Samson the donkey, and Babba the sheep, who dance as he plays his beloved drum. Hoping to add the talented youngster to his circus troupe, showman Ben Haramad (Jose Ferrer) kidnaps Aaron and forces him to perform in front of large crowds in Jerusalem, despite the fact the boy, still bitter over his parents’ untimely death, harbors a deep hatred for all human beings. During their travels, Ban Haramad and Aaron come across a caravan of three kings (all voiced by Paul Frees), who are following a bright star in the sky that they believe will lead them to a king more powerful than any other on earth. To make some fast money, Ben Haramad sells Aaron’s camel, Joshua, to the three kings. In an attempt to reclaim him, the boy tracks the trio of sovereigns to the small town of Bethlehem, where they ultimately find the “King” they’ve been looking for.

Narrated by Greer Garson, The Little Drummer Boy is an unusual entry in Rankin / Bass’s canon of Holiday specials in that it presents a religious-themed story and not a straight-up fantasy, a la Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or The Year Without a Santa Claus (I admit it was a bit odd watching characters walk around in a desert as opposed to a snowy landscape). On a technical level, the animation in The Little Drummer Boy isn’t as fluid or inspired as some of the duo’s other films, but the fine work of its voice cast (Garson, Eccles, and Ferrer, as well as regulars Paul Frees and June Foray) more than make up for its visual deficiencies. Most impressive of all, though, is the movie’s title song, performed throughout by the Vienna Boys Choir, which delivers as good a version of the tune as any I’ve heard before.

While not as time-honored as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Rankin / Bass’s The Little Drummer Boy tells a story unlike any they ever attempted, delivering a message of love and forgiveness most families will undoubtedly embrace.







Friday, December 19, 2014

#1,586. Gremlins (1984)


Directed By: Joe Dante

Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton


Tag line: "Cute. Clever. Mischievous. Intelligent. Dangerous"

Trivia: Originally planned and scheduled for a Christmas release, the film was rushed into production shortly after Warner Bros. found out that it had no major competition against Paramount's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or Columbia's Ghostbusters for the summer movie season.





Watching Joe Dante’s Gremlins during its theatrical run in the summer of 1984 proved an interesting experience. A movie chock full of dark humor, it gave most audience members plenty to laugh about. Unfortunately, I couldn’t join in on the fun. Don’t get me wrong: I really liked Gremlins (still do, actually), but its title creatures were far too disturbing for this young viewer at the time, and as a result I didn’t so much as crack a smile while watching it.

As the movie opens, inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) is strolling through Chinatown, on the lookout for the perfect Christmas gift for his son, Billy (Zach Galligan). In an out-of-the-way trinket shop, he stumbles across a unique creature called a Mogwai, which he believes will make a good household pet. According to legend, there are three rules everyone who owns a Mogwai must obey: 1) Never expose it to light, 2) Never get it wet, and 3) Never, ever feed it after midnight. But rules are made to be broken, and before Billy knows what’s hit him, his Mogwai (who he lovingly nicknames “Gizmo”) has spawned a number of duplicates (getting a Mogwai wet makes them multiply), which then mutate before his very eyes (feed them after midnight, and the Mogwai transform into green, scaly creatures with a bad attitude and a penchant for destruction). It isn’t long before Billy’s hometown of Kingston Falls is overrun with these monsters, and it’s up to him and his new girlfriend Kate (Phoebe Cates) to end the reign of terror once and for all.

Despite all the mayhem the gremlins unleash on this small town (up to and including murder), director Dante clearly intended the film’s later sequences to be comedic in nature. While hanging out at a bar where Kate works, the little green bastards have one hell of a wild party, during which they pretty much trash the place (one gremlin in a trenchcoat even flashes Kate as she’s scrambling to keep the drinks coming). Still, no matter how funny the film tried to be, I simply couldn’t laugh. The reason for this, I think, is that I genuinely liked Kingston Falls, the small town at the center of it all, a place populated by mostly good people (the exception being Polly Holliday’s Ruby Deagel, a miserly old broad who, before long, gets what’s coming to her). How could I giggle and guffaw as these terrible monsters destroyed this peaceful town, and at Christmastime no less?

Turns out I wasn’t the only one who felt the gremlins went too far. Along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (released that same summer), Gremlins is credited with forcing the MPAA to adopt a new rating, PG-13, signifying a film that, while not overly explicit, may contain scenes that very young viewers will find hard to handle. Nowadays, I think the movie is hilarious (my favorite sequence has the gremlins piling into a theater to watch Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), but in June of 1984, it was much too intense for me; I sat there horrified by what I was seeing. This may not have been the reaction Joe Dante was shooting for, but I’m betting he’d be somewhat pleased to learn that his comedy upset me so deeply.







Thursday, December 18, 2014

#1,585. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)


Directed By: Charles E. Sellier Jr.

Starring: Lilyan Chauvin, Gilmer McCormick, Toni Nero




Tag line: "Santa's Here!"

Trivia: This film was known as Slayride throughout its production. Tri-Star decided to change the title to Silent Night, Deadly Night at the last minute







Condemned by parents groups and critics alike for its depiction of a killer in a Santa suit, the Christmas-themed slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night has gone down in history as one of the most controversial movies ever produced. The outcry was so big, in fact, that Tri-Star Pictures, the studio behind it, pulled the film from theaters after only a week. That was thirty years ago, and even though the public uproar has quieted down some, Silent Night, Deadly Night remains every bit as intense as it was back in 1984.

Ever since he witnessed the murder of his parents (Jeff Hansen and Tara Buckman), both of whom were killed by a psychotic in a Santa suit (Charles Dierkop), Billy Chapman (played as a kid by Danny Wagner) has had a problem with Christmas (he breaks into a cold sweat whenever he sees a picture of Santa Claus). The Mother Superior (Lilyan Chauvin) of the Christian orphanage where he was raised believed all the boy needed was some good, old fashioned discipline, while his teacher Sister Margaret (Gilmer McCormick) felt that Billy’s aversion to the holiday masked a much deeper problem, one that, if not handled properly, could cause him to lose control. Sister Margaret’s worst fears are realized when, a few years later, a teenage Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) takes a job at a small toy store. With Christmas just around the corner, Billy’s boss, Mr. Sims (Britt Leach), asks Billy to dress up as Santa for the kids, at which point his mind snaps, turning what had been a docile young man into a homicidal maniac.

Unlike John Carpenter’s Halloween, which gives us a killer (Michael Myers) whose motives are a complete mystery, Silent Night Deadly Night reveals the traumas that contributed to its lead character’s mental collapse. While a very young boy (played by Jonathan Best), Billy’s family paid a Christmas Eve visit to his grandfather (Will Hare), who tells the impressionable youth that Santa is someone to be feared (“You see Santa Claus tonight you better run boy”, the old man says, “You better run for your life!”). Alas, the very night Grandpa said this to Billy was the one on which his parents were murdered by that guy in the Santa suit (who shoots Billy’s father through the head, then, after trying to rape her, slits his mother’s throat). His psyche is further damaged by the severe treatment he receives at the orphanage, where the well-meaning but strict Mother Superior lives by the credo “punishment is good” (at one point, she whips the boy for leaving his room without her permission). With so many painful memories, it’s no wonder Billy eventually loses his mind.

Like most ‘80s slasher flicks, Silent Night, Deadly Night features a number of gruesome kills, with Billy using everything from Christmas lights to the claw end of a hammer to get the job done (in one of the film’s more memorable scenes, he relies on deer antlers to take out a victim). With its creative kills, powerful story, and an early appearance by Scream Queen Linnea Quigley (Return of the Living Dead, Nightmare Sisters), Silent Night, Deadly Night did more than survive the onslaught of negative criticism heaped upon it (even actor Mickey Rooney came out against the movie in 1984, saying the “scum” who produced it should be “run out of town”); it has become a cult classic.







Wednesday, December 17, 2014

#1,584. Mike's New Car (2002)


Directed By: Pete Docter, Roger Gould

Starring: Billy Crystal, John Goodman





Trivia: Screened exclusively with a limited two-week reissue of Who Framed Roger Rabbit to qualify for Oscar consideration








Mike’s New Car, a 2002 short produced by Pixar, marked a number of “firsts” for the studio. Along with being the first short film to star characters from a previously released work (Mike and Sully from 2001’s Monsters, Inc.), it was also the first ever to feature spoken dialogue (aside from some sound effects and their musical scores, movies like Tin Toy and Geri’s Game were silent).

One morning, Mike (Billy Crystal) surprises his good friend Sulley (John Goodman) by showing him his new car (when Sulley asks what was wrong with his previous car, Mike replies “Three little words… Six Wheel Drive!”). Excited to take it for a spin, Mike hurries Sulley into the passenger’s seat, then takes his place behind the wheel (Sulley doesn’t have much room at first, but fortunately, the seats are adjustable). Before they begin, an alarm sounds reminding the two to put on their safety belts. This kicks off a comedy of errors after which Mike realizes that “new” isn’t always “better”.

As they’ve done with so many of their short films (including the previous year’s For the Birds), Pixar squeezes a number of big laughs into Mike’s New Car, most of which involve Mike trying to figure out how this new vehicle of his works. After inadvertently locking himself out of the car while trying to loosen his safety belt, Mike tells Sulley to “push the button”, which should re-open the driver’s side door. But when Sulley glances at the console, he sees nothing but buttons, and doesn’t know which one to push. Following a few wrong choices, the door is finally opened, but when Mike realizes he, too, has no idea which button does what, the car seemingly comes to life and attacks the two buddies. It’s a very funny scene in what, from beginning to end, is a hilarious short film.







Tuesday, December 16, 2014

#1,583. Arthur Christmas (2011)


Directed By: Sarah Smith, Barry Cook

Starring: James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, Bill Nighy




Tag line: "All elf breaks loose"

Trivia: First announced in 2007 under the title Operation Rudolph








One of the most common Holiday-related questions kids ask is “How can only one man (i.e. Santa Claus) deliver toys to all the children of the world in a single night?” Arthur Christmas, a 2011 animated film co-produced by Sony Pictures Animation and Britain’s Aardman Studios, answers that question thusly: He does it with a little help from his friends (a few thousand of them, actually).

It’s a common misconception that, since the dawn of Christmas, there’s been only one Santa Claus. In fact, there have been twenty, all of whom trace their ancestry back to the original St. Nicholas. The current Santa, Malcolm Christmas (voiced by Jim Broadbent), has held the job for 70 years, and is nearing the end of his reign. A lot has changed since he first became Santa. For one, he no longer uses a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. Instead, Santa now cruises the world in the S-1, a massive airship that can travel at the speed of sound and has room enough for thousands of elves, who assist him during his Christmas Eve run by delivering the toys on his behalf. Santa’s oldest son (and heir apparent), Steve (Hugh Laurie), oversees the entire operation from the North Pole’s mission control center, while his younger son, the always-optimistic but somewhat clumsy Arthur (James McAvoy), has the thankless job of answering the millions of letters sent by children from all over the world.

Yet despite the technology at their disposal, no one notices until it’s too late that, at the end of Santa’s most recent run, a solitary toy was overlooked. For Steve, missing a delivery is no big deal (after all, they successfully handled over 2 billion packages that night), but for Arthur, the thought of a child’s Christmas being ruined is too much to bear. Hopping aboard the old sled that previous Santa's used for hundreds of years, Arthur, along with his grandfather, aka Santa #19 (Bill Nighy) and an elf named Bryony (Ashley Jensen), sets out for England, hoping to deliver the toy in time for Christmas morning. But will the antiquated sled make it there in one piece?

Right out of the gate, Arthur Christmas introduces us to a fascinating world in which Santa and his elves have gone high-tech. We watch early on as the S-1 makes its way into a city, and marvel as hundreds of elves drop from the ship onto the rooftops below, where, with military precision, they deliver gifts to thousands of children in a matter of minutes, using an assortment of gadgets to get the job done (one of the most interesting gizmos is a scanner that determines whether a child has been “good” or “naughty”). Equally as impressive is the mission control center, situated hundreds of feet below the North Pole, where Steve Christmas and a few thousand elves monitor the S-1’s progress. Aside from being very creative, these scenes establish the film’s overall tone, which can best be described as frantic. Even later on, when Arthur and his “GrandSanta” climb aboard the old sled, the energy remains at a fevered pitch, giving us one exciting sequence after another (at one point, Arthur and Grandsanta lose their way and land in the Serengeti reserve of Tanzania, where they have a close encounter with a pride of lions).

Utilizing the voice talents of an all-star cast (which also includes the likes of Michael Palin, Imelda Staunton, Laura Linney, and Eva Longoria) and delivering a message of hope that’s sure to resonate with many younger viewers, Arthur Christmas is arguably the most original Holiday film to come along in years.







Monday, December 15, 2014

#1,582. Zeppelin (1971)


Directed By: Etienne Perier

Starring: Michael York, Elke Sommer, Peter Carsten




Tag line: "The Great War's most explosive moment!"

Trivia: The air combat scenes were filmed using Lynn Garrison's collection of World War I replica aircraft, originally assembled for 20th Century Fox's The Blue Max






I’m sure that on paper, 1971’s Zeppelin had all the makings of a rousing adventure film, telling a World War One era spy story in which an experimental German dirigible is sent on a secret mission to invade Great Britain. To its credit, the movie does feature moments of genuine excitement (especially in its last half), but as an espionage thriller, Zeppelin fails to deliver on just about every level.

It’s 1915, and the citizens of England live under a constant threat from above. In an attempt to destroy the country’s morale, German airships, hiding in the clouds and flying thousands of feet higher than any airplane, have been bombing London on a nightly basis, attacks the British have thus far been unable to prevent. Enter Lt. Geoffrey Richter-Douglas (Michael York), an officer assigned to a low-level clerical position in London. Born and raised in Germany, Richter-Douglas still has relatives in his former homeland, most of whom are aristocrats. In fact, he’s so missed by some of his cousins that the family has sent Stephanie (Alexandra Stewart), a beautiful German spy working undercover in England, to lure him home.

Loyal to the Crown, Richter-Douglas immediately reports this to his commanding officer, Captain Whitney (Rupert Davies), only to learn his superiors also want him to return to Germany, where, posing as a British traitor, he can observe first-hand the construction of a new dirigible, the LZ-36, designed by his old friend Professor Altschul (Marius Goring) and the professor’s assistant / wife, Erika (Elke Sommer). Once back in Germany, Richter-Douglas wins the confidence of Colonel Hirsch (Anton Diffring), an intelligence officer who does more than show the new arrival the LZ-36; he invites him along on its maiden voyage, a top-secret mission that, if successful, will force the British to sue for peace. During the flight, Richter-Douglas makes every attempt to warn the British of the impending attack, but will his messages reach the proper authorities in time?

Zeppelin begins well enough, showing us one of the many air raids that have been plaguing London since the start of the war. The movie also finishes in grand fashion, giving us a final half hour or so of non-stop action. The problem is what filled the time in-between, which, despite its promising story of spies and double agents, never gathered enough steam to capture my interest. Even Richter-Douglas’s “escape” to Germany, during which British troops (to make it look like a genuine defection) open fire on him, comes across as flat. On top of this, Zeppelin has some internal continuity issues that are impossible to ignore, including Richter-Douglas’ supposed fear of heights (after establishing this bit of information early on, the film all but ignores it once he climbs aboard the LZ-36) and, even more glaring, the issue of the dirigible’s weight restrictions (before taking off, both Erica and the ship’s Captain, Von Gorian, played by Andrew Kier, complain that bringing Richter-Douglas along unannounced will dangerously increase the ship’s weight, which had been meticulously calculated down to the last pound. Several scenes later, the airship docks with a boat in the middle of the ocean, at which point about 2 or 3 dozen additional German soldiers climb on-board. Surprisingly, nobody discusses weight in this sequence).

In a way, I hate telling you to avoid Zeppelin, due mostly to its effective battle scenes and the superb performances turned in by its cast (Michael York never struck me as a leading man in a war film, but he does a fine job nonetheless). Yet I can’t really bring myself to recommend it, either, because of the reasons I mentioned above. I can tell you that there may come a time when I’d be willing to watch Zeppelin again.

But it won’t be anytime soon.







Sunday, December 14, 2014

#1,581. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)


Directed By: James Gunn

Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper




Tag line: "When things get bad, they'll do their worst"

Trivia: James Gunn's brother Sean Gunn was an acting double for Rocket Raccoon during filming








Like millions of people, I caught 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy during its theatrical run this past summer, and the moment it was over I was already anticipating its home video release (the Blu-Ray was a day-one purchase for me). An exciting Sci-Fi / Action / Adventure with awesome special effects and plenty of laughs, director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is the most fun I’ve had in a movie theater in quite some time.

Shortly after the death of his mother, a young Peter Quill (played as a child by Wyatt Oleff) was abducted by an alien spaceship belonging to Yondu (Michael Rooker), the leader of a group of notorious pirates known as “The Ravagers”. Twenty-some years later, Quill (Chris Pratt), himself a petty thief and on the run from Yondu, heads to the abandoned planet of Morag, where, armed with only his beloved Walkman (one of his few remaining earthly possessions), he sets out to find an orb that’s supposedly worth a fortune. The plot thickens, however, when a detachment of Kree warriors led by Korath (Djimon Hounsou) turns up as well, also looking for the orb. After a brief battle, Quill escapes with the orb in tow, thus inciting the wrath of Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), a Kree commander and one of the most feared men in the galaxy. Having struck a deal with the evil ruler Thanos (an uncredited Josh Brolin) to retrieve the orb on his behalf, Ronan sends Thanos’ adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldan) to track it down. Gamora, whose real parents were killed by Thanos, instead betrays Ronan, vowing to do whatever it takes to keep the orb (which houses one of the fabled infinity stones, an item so powerful it can destroy an entire planet) away from him. This forces Quill and Gamora, who don't particularly like each other, to form a temporary partnership. Joined along the way by an overly-aggressive bounty hunter / raccoon named Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper); the brutal fighter Drax (Dave Bautista) who wants to avenge the deaths of his wife and child (both killed by Ronan); and Groot (Vin Diesel), a huge tree-like creature with an incredibly limited vocabulary, Quill and Gamora travel from one end of the galaxy to the other to prevent the orb from falling into Ronan’s hands.

I still can’t decide which of the many action sequences in Guardians of the Galaxy is my favorite. One early scene, featuring a knock-down, drag-out fight that pits Quill against both Gamora (who’s come looking for the orb) and Rocket (who wants to capture Quill to collect the reward Yondu put on his head) is a lot of fun, but then so is the group’s escape from the Kyln prison colony, where Quill and the others are sent after being captured by Corpsman Dey (John C. Reilly), a solider for the Nova Empire. Come to think of it, there’s not a single action sequence in Guardians of the Galaxy that isn’t spectacular. Bolstered by amazing special effects, each and every one is as exciting as they come.

As for the film’s humor, most of it stems from the interactions of its very selfish characters, who never miss an opportunity to degrade and insult each other; at one point, when things start to get real, Gamora laments the fact that she's “going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy”. Her fears are well-founded, too, considering her companions’ actions to that point. During their escape from the Kyln prison colony, Quill put everyone’s life in jeopardy when he delayed their departure to retrieve his beloved Walkman (which one of the guards had stolen). As for Drax, his thirst for vengeance led him to make a rash decision, one that ultimately threatened the safety of the entire universe. As for Gamora (whose motives are the least selfish of the group), she has trust issues when it comes to her male cohorts, while Rocket, whose small frame and raccoon-like features have made him the butt of many jokes, is quick to lose his temper, usually at the most inopportune time. As for Groot, he doesn’t say a lot; his only line through much of the film is “I am Groot”, yet with these three words, he's able to speak volumes. Yes, I know… hundreds of movies have thrown a collection of self-centered characters together, only to have them make a pretty good team (The Dirty Dozen leaps immediately to mind), but in the case of Guardians of the Galaxy, the characters are so well developed that, despite it being somewhat formulaic, I bought this time-honored plot device hook, line, and sinker.

Topping it all off is the movie’s soundtrack, which, for the most part, features nothing but ‘70s rock music (the contents of a cassette tape that Quill’s mother made for him, which he listens to over and over again). Not many Sci-Fi adventures would have tunes like The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” and Björn Skifs Hooked on a Feeling” playing throughout, but in the case of Guardians of the Galaxy, the music fits the picture’s tone to a tee.

Despite the immense popularity of its superhero franchises, Marvel’s green-lighting of Guardians of the Galaxy was still something of a risk (the comic book it’s based on was never one of the company’s most popular, and at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con, when this film’s production was hinted at, studio president Kevin Feige himself referred to it as one of their upcoming “obscure” titles). Well, clearly, it was a risk that paid off. More than a solid entry in Marvel’s cinematic universe, Guardians of the Galaxy may ultimately prove to be the most entertaining movie the studio ever produced.

I can’t wait for the sequel!







Saturday, December 13, 2014

#1,580. Aladdin (1992)


Directed By: Ron Clements, John Musker

Starring: Scott Weinger, Robin Williams, Linda Larkin

Tag line: "imagine if you had three wishes, three hopes, three dreams, and they all could come true"

Trivia: Robin Williams worked at union scale rate on the condition that his voice not be used for merchandising (i.e. toys & such), & that the Genie character not take up more than 25% of the space of a poster, ad, billboard, or trailer. When these wishes weren't honored, he withdrew his support for Disney & the film





Having kicked off the “Disney Renaissance” with movies set under the sea (The Little Mermaid) and in France (Beauty and the Beast), The House of Mouse next turned its attention to the Middle East with 1992's Aladdin. Aside from being an excellent movie, Aladdin was also a box-office phenomenon; taking in nearly half a billion dollars worldwide, it was the most successful motion picture of the year and one of Disney’s all-time biggest hits.

Inspired by a folktale from One Thousand and One Nights, Aladdin is the story of…. well, Aladdin (voiced by Scott Weinger), a petty thief who roams the streets of Agrabah with his pet monkey Abu, looking for food. One day, Aladdin encounters a beautiful woman with whom he falls instantly in love, not realizing it’s actually the Princess Jasmine (Linda Larkin), who, upset that she’s being forced by her father, the Sultan (Douglas Seale), to marry against her will, has run away from home. When the Palace guards track them down, Jasmine is returned to her father and Aladdin, accused of kidnapping the Princess, is thrown in jail. Meanwhile, the Sultan’s most trusted adviser, the Grand Vizier Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), is searching for a fabled magic lamp, one that supposedly houses an ancient Genie who, when released, will grant whoever freed him three wishes. Hoping to use the lamp to overthrow the Sultan and gain control of Agrabah, Jafar travels to the ancient cave that houses the lamp. Once there, however, he learns that only “A Diamond in the Rough” (i.e. an honest but poor man) can enter it. Along with his parrot / sidekick Iago (Gilbert Gottfried), Jafar (in disguise) helps Aladdin break out of jail, then convinces the young man to enter the cave and retrieve the lamp. Aided by a magical flying carpet, Aladdin and Abu locate the lamp, but when Jafar tries to double-cross him, Aladdin frees the Genie (the incomparable Robin Williams) himself and, for his first wish, asks to become a Prince, thus making him an eligible suitor for Jasmine. Will Aladdin and Jasmine live happily ever after, or will the treacherous Jafar steal the lamp away from our hero and use it to take over the kingdom?

Aladdin has it all: rich characters (as voiced by Jonathan Freeman, Jafar is one of the most interesting Disney villains I’ve come across); a well-told story, and some great music (“A Whole New World’ won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe as the year’s Best Original Song). As if this weren’t enough, Aladdin also has Robin Williams, who brought his patented energy to the part of the Genie. A fast-talking conjurer with a keen knowledge of pop culture (he impersonates a number of celebrities, including Ed Sullivan and Jack Nicholson), the Genie is hilarious, generating dozens of laughs every time he appears on-screen. Along with the jokes, Williams also sings my two favorite songs from the film: “Friend Like Me” (performed when Aladdin first meets the Genie) and “Prince Ali” (a brilliantly staged number during which Aladdin, now Prince Ali of Ababwa, rides into Agrabah surrounded by dancing girls and a marching band, all in an effort to win Jasmine’s heart). Aladdin may be the star of this movie, but it’s the Genie (and Robin Williams) who steals the show.

During their “Renaissance”, which lasted from 1989 to 1999, Disney’s animation studios turned out 11 movies, including Pocahontas, Hercules (not a great film, but a guilty pleasure of mine nonetheless), Mulan, and Tarzan. Of them all, four are considered classics: The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and, of course, Aladdin. A funny, often romantic motion picture with toe-tapping tunes, Aladdin is a film you’ll return to over and over again.







Friday, December 12, 2014

#1,579. The Living Daylights (1987)


Directed By: John Glen

Starring: Timothy Dalton, Maryam d'Abo, Jeroen Krabbé




Tag line: "Enigmatic. Dangerous... Always living on the edge"

Trivia: This was last Bond film to be scored by John Barry







Released in 1987, The Living Daylights marked the beginning of yet another era in the history of James Bond, with Timothy Dalton taking the reins as the cinema’s most time-honored secret agent. More than a new lead, though, The Living Daylights also changed the way filmmakers would approach Bond and his adventures in the coming years, taking 007 in a new direction while simultaneously paying tribute to the character’s colorful past.

Following a brief but violent training exercise at a British facility on Gibraltar, agent James Bond (Dalton) heads to Czechoslovakia to help KGB General Koskov (Jeroen Krabbé) defect to the west. After injuring a female cellist who doubles as a KGB assassin (allegedly sent to eliminate the General), Bond completes his mission and safely transports Koskov to England, where he tells “M” (Robert Brown) and the rest of MI6 about a covert operation that KGB general Pushkin (John Ryhs-Davies) has undertaken to eliminate enemy spies (allegedly, two of Bond’s accomplices were among its first victims, killed during the exercise on Gibraltar). Shortly after revealing this information, Koskov is recaptured by enemy agents (a major embarrassment for MI6, seeing as the abduction took place at one of their safe houses). But as Bond delves deeper into the matter, he finds not all is as it seems to be, starting with the so-called “assassin”, cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam D'Abo), who he learns is not connected in any way to the KGB. In fact, she’s Koskov’s girlfriend! What’s more, a well-known American arms dealer named Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) is somehow mixed up in the whole affair, leaving James Bond and his associates with more questions than they have answers. Making stops in Vienna, Tangier, and even Afghanistan, Bond slowly pieces together this complex puzzle of deception, and in so doing uncovers a plot more sinister than he originally anticipated.

Timothy Dalton is dead serious throughout The Living Daylights, a definite change of pace from the previous incarnation of 007 (aka Roger Moore), whose films were sometimes as humorous as they were exciting. Dalton’s no-nonsense approach to the role marked a shift back to the series’ roots, when, in movies like Dr. No and From Russia With Love, Bond was much more brutal, relying on his fists as opposed to sense of humor to get the job done. A Shakespearian trained actor, Dalton handles the part well, and is perfectly convincing in the action scenes (during the training exercise that opens the film, Bond ends up on top of a speeding jeep, trying to capture the assassin who just took out his two associates. To his credit, Dalton performed this stunt himself). In addition, Dalton’s 007 takes a more conservative approach to the opposite sex; aside from Kara Milovy, Bond’s only other conquest comes at the end of the pre-title sequence, when he “drops in” on a wealthy, bikini-clad babe as she’s relaxing on her yacht. Reflecting the era in which it was made (when serious issues like nuclear arms and the AIDS virus dominated the nightly news), The Living Daylights gives us a down-to-earth Bond who’s more interested in getting the job done than he is in having a good time.

There are other changes as well; gone is Lois Maxwell as the love-struck Ms. Moneypenny, who in The Living Daylights is played by Caroline Bliss (seeing as Maxwell had been a Bond mainstay since Dr. No, this was the first time another actress stepped into the role). Also, unlike previous outings, Bond’s adversaries in The Living Daylights aren’t as elaborate as Blofeld, Goldfinger, or even A View to a Kill’s Max Zorin. This time out, 007 is facing off against Russian Generals and American arms dealers, yet another reflection of the times (Baker’s Whitaker is the closest we get to a “classic” Bond villain, what with his collection of wax military figures from history, all of which look exactly like him). Of course, not everything is new: Desmond Llewellyn is back as “Q”, who supplies Bond with some unusual gadgets, like the keychain that emits a knock-out gas whenever the agent whistles a few bars of a specific song (this is especially handy later on, when Bond finds himself in an Afghan jail). Most thrilling of all, though, is the return of the Aston Martin, the luxury car equipped with all sorts of neat extras that saved Bond’s life in movies like Goldfinger and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (as expected, it does the same for the “new 007” on a couple of occasions).

As for the “Bond Girl”, Maryann D’Abo is both beautiful and convincing as the somewhat naïve Kara, and the relationship that develops between her and Bond is totally believable (unlike other films, where all 007 had to do was wink at a woman to get her into bed, Bond’s romance with Kara evolves slowly). What's more, the action scenes in The Living Daylights are out of this world. Aside from the opening sequence on Gibraltar, which gets the movie off on the right foot, the last act features a number of thrilling moments, including one where Bond, after fighting off Whitaker’s man Necros (Andreas Wisniewski), dangles hundreds of feet in the air from the back of a plane, hanging on for dear life to a net that could break away at any moment.

If The Living Daylights has one drawback, it’s that the story is more complex than it needed to be (along with a drug-related subplot I found completely unnecessary, Bond teams up with Afghan Freedom Fighters who have their own beef with both the Russians and Whitaker, thus giving the film yet another group of characters to follow). That aside, The Living Daylights is an enjoyable Bond outing, as well as the movie that set the series on a path I hoped it would follow for some time to come.