Saturday, January 31, 2015

#1,629. Gojira (1954) - Godzilla / Kong Mini-Marathon

Directed By: Ishirô Honda

Starring: Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Akira Takarada

Tag line: "Incredible, unstoppable titan of terror!"

Trivia: In 2004, for his 50th anniversary, Godzilla was given a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame

Released in 1954 by Japan’s Toho Studios, Gojira is the movie that started it all, the first screen appearance of Godzilla, King of the Monsters. But unlike many of its sequels, there’s nothing fun or light-hearted about this movie. Gojira is a dark, brooding cautionary tale about the dangers of nuclear weapons, a topic the Japanese people were all too familiar with.

An unknown force has destroyed several fishing vessels along the Japanese coast, leaving concerned citizens, as well as many government officials, searching for answers. It isn’t until respected Paleontologist Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura, The Seven Samurai) travels to a remote island that the truth is revealed: a prehistoric, reptile-like monster standing 50 meters tall, which had been living under the sea, was forced to the surface by an atomic bomb test. In need of food, the creature makes its way inland, destroying every village and city in its path. 

Seeing it as a phenomenon of nature, Dr. Yamane wants the monster taken alive, while ship’s captain Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), who is secretly been dating Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoke Kochi), agrees with the rest of the world: the creature nicknamed “Godzilla” (a moniker derived from an old island superstition) must die. 

Conventional weapons, however, prove useless against it. In fact, the only hope of ending Godzilla’s reign of terror rests with Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), a colleague of Yamane’s, who has developed a device so powerful it will kill the monster instantly. Fearing it may eventually be used as a weapon, one just as terrible as the atomic bomb, Serizawa is reluctant to turn it over. 

Though it was produced less than 10 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gojira was actually inspired by a more recent event: the 1954 testing of a Hydrogen Bomb, which the U.S. conducted in the Pacific’s Bikini Atoll island chain (a nearby Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon 5, was hit with large doses of radiation when the exploding bomb proved more powerful than first anticipated. Several of its crew fell ill as a result, and six months later, one man lost his life). Still, the destructive path that Godzilla leaves in his wake, especially his rampage through downtown Tokyo, very much resembles the devastation caused by the atomic bombings of 1945, images that, in 1954, were fresh in the memories of many Japanese citizens. 

This gives Gojira a considerably darker feel than most of the series’ later entries, when the giant monster attacks were a bit of diversionary fun. At one point in Gojira, when Godzilla is trouncing through Tokyo, the camera moves to ground level, where a mother is sitting on a street corner, huddling with her three children. She tells them not to be afraid, that it will all be over soon, and in a few moments, the kids will be reunited with their deceased father. It’s a heartbreaking scene, reminding us that when Godzilla is pushing over buildings and flattening bridges, people are dying, a reality that other films in the series were only too happy to ignore.

Shortly after Gojira’s release, a U.S. cut of the movie, titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters, was produced, with scenes featuring actor Raymond Burr, playing an American reporter, inserted into the film. This was the first version of the movie that I ever saw, and while I enjoyed it to a point, it didn’t adequately prepare me for how brutal and hard-hitting the original Gojira was. With somber performances delivered by its entire cast and the introduction of a weapon every bit as frightening as a nuclear bomb, Gojira is, at times, a tough film to watch. Yet the sheer power of its story, coupled with director Honda's impressive pacing, makes it a must-see for sci-fi and horror enthusiasts alike.

Friday, January 30, 2015

#1,628. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961)

Directed By: Irwin Allen

Starring: Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine, Barbara Eden

Tag line: "Race from outer space to seven miles below the sea... with amazing aquanauts of the deep!"

Trivia: The theme song was sung by Frankie Avalon, who also appeared in the film

After making a splash in the science fiction genre with his remake of The Lost World, not to mention such TV series as The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space, filmmaker Irwin Allen next tried his luck at disaster movies, producing ‘70s classics like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, a 1961 film he directed starring Walter Pidgeon and Peter Lorre, proved a nice combination of the two, telling the story of a state-of-the-art submarine that may be mankind’s only hope for survival.

While conducting a series of underwater tests at the North Pole, the brand new U.S. Submarine Seaview, designed by Admiral Harriman Nelson (Pidgeon), is struck by large chunks of ice, which have somehow broken free from the glaciers above. When the sub surfaces to investigate, both Nelson and the Seaview’s Captain, Lee Crane (Robert Sterling), make a startling discovery: the earth’s atmosphere is on fire! Ordered back to New York to discuss possible solutions to this crisis, Admiral Nelson and his good friend, Commander Lucius Emery (Lorre), present a plan to the U.N. that they believe will save the planet, one that involves launching an atomic missile directly into the atmosphere (Nelson believes the blast will be powerful enough to extinguish the flames). When his plan is rejected, Nelson, still convinced it’s the right course of action, hops aboard the Seaview and sets sail for the South Pacific (which, according to his calculations, is where the missile must be fired from to have the desired effect). With the rest of the U.S. Navy ordered to stop the Seaview at all costs, some members of the sub’s crew, spurred on by visiting psychologist Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine), begin to wonder if the Admiral has taken leave of his senses, and fear that his plan, meant to save the world, will destroy it instead.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea does have its problems. For one, the science behind it all is sketchy at best (when told that the atmosphere is on fire, Lorre’s Commander Emery says “theoretically, it’s possible”, as if he were trying to convince the audience that the premise isn’t as ridiculous as it seems). In addition, the film’s attempt to interject some tension into the proceedings (i.e. – is Admiral Nelson losing his mind?) falls short of the mark (mostly because his actions never seem all that extreme). These issues aside, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is a thrilling motion picture, with impressive special effects (the sub looks pretty slick gliding underwater) and a number of exciting sequences (following a near-disastrous run-in with a mine field, the crew of the Seaview face off against a giant squid).

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea isn’t a movie that will challenge your intellect, but it does offer viewers one hell of an exhilarating ride.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

#1,627. Altered States (1980)

Directed By: Ken Russell

Starring: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban

Tag line: "When he heard his cry for help it wasn't human"

Trivia: This was the first American movie for British director Ken Russell

Altered States, a 1980 horror /sci-fi flick starring William Hurt (who, at the age of 30, was making his big-screen debut), was one of the films that played regularly on cable TV when my family first signed up for the service. While I never did sit down to watch the entire movie back then, I remember catching a few scenes here and there, usually in spurts of a couple minutes at a time, and based on what I saw, it didn’t look like something that would interest me. Having now seen it in its entirety, I can tell you this is not a film you can watch piecemeal, then come away thinking you know what it’s about. A sometimes dazzling, often compelling motion picture, Altered States is, by design, a fully immersive experience, and if you turn yourself over to it, I feel confident that, by the time it’s over, you’ll agree it’s one of the most unique movies to emerge from the ‘80s.

It was while studying schizophrenia in the 1960s that Professor Edward Jessup (Hurt) first became interested in other states of consciousness. Considered a bright but somewhat quirky researcher by his peers, he would spend hours in an isolation tank, during which he’d have visions suggesting the mind holds the key to mankind’s past, that the memory of thousands of years of evolution lay dormant inside each and every person, and with the right stimulation, these memories can be brought to the surface. Nobody, including his girlfriend Emily (Blair Brown) and his best friend / assistant Arthur (Bob Balaban), can understand Edward’s obsession with unleashing his “true self”, yet he doesn’t let that bother him. He knows he’s onto something big, and is ready to prove it to the world.

The years pass by, and Edward, now married to Emily and the father of two girls (one of whom is played by a very young Drew Barrymore), laments the fact he never completed his research. His marriage on the verge of collapsing, he makes a trip to Mexico, where he spends time with an indigenous tribe that’s discovered a special root, one that supposedly offers those who ingest it a mind-altering experience. Bringing samples of this root back with him, Jessup once again enters an isolation tank, and during his time inside, he begins to change, as if he were regressing to an earlier stage of evolution. At first elated by the results, Jessup soon discovers his “devolution” doesn’t end when he leaves the tank. Undaunted, he remains determined to see his research through, and aided by Emily, Arthur, and colleague Mason Parrish (Charles Haid), he continues his experiment, realizing full well that, once it’s completed, he may never be the same again.

Directed by Ken Russell (Tommy), Altered States is, at times, visually stunning, with montages (which usually crop up whenever Edward is in the isolation tank) as vibrant as they are imaginative (one of Edward’s earliest visions concerns the death of his father, and features imagery that’s religious in nature, everything from a demonic goat to the Shroud of Turin). Yet as engaging as these sequences are, they pale in comparison to what happens to Edward later on, when he undergoes a physical transformation (one segment in particular, where he emerges from the tank in a primitive state and runs out into the street, is handled brilliantly). In addition to its aesthetic qualities, Altered States is a very intelligent movie, with discussions and debates on topics ranging from religion to the potential of the human mind. Written by Paddy Chayefsky (Network), Altered States is a rarity in that it remains interesting even when its characters are just sitting around talking to each other.

The early ‘80s turned out a number of smart science fiction films, including Death Watch, Tron and Brainstorm, yet even in this select group, Altered States stands apart from the rest. I recommend you watch it with a few friends, because this is a movie you’ll definitely want to talk about afterwards.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

#1,626. Die Hard 2 (1990)

Directed By: Renny Harlin

Starring: Bruce Willis, William Atherton, Bonnie Bedelia

Tag line: "They say lightning never strikes twice... They were wrong"

Trivia: The scenes filmed in Denver had to have snow machines brought from a local ski resort with truck loads of ice every night (during the day it would all melt)

I’ll be the first to admit that Die Hard 2 is not as good a movie as Die Hard. But for some reason, I like it anyway. In fact, I find it almost as entertaining as the now-classic original!

It’s Christmas Eve, and L.A. cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), a few years removed from his adventure at the Nakatomi building, is at Washington D.C.’s Dulles International Airport to pick up his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia), whose plane is set to land in 30 minutes. Unfortunately, her flight (as well as dozens of others) is about to be delayed indefinitely. That’s because Dulles’s air traffic center has been commandeered by Col. Stuart (William Sadler) and his top-notch army of mercenaries, who’ve tapped into the airport’s mainframe computer and set up their own command post, which they’ve hidden inside an abandoned church.

A respected officer in the U.S. military, Stuart intends to free Gen. Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), a staunch anti-Communist and the former leader of a Central American nation who’s being extradited to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking. With the plane carrying Esperanza on its way to Dulles, Stuart requests both the General’s immediate release once he lands and a fully-fueled 747 to fly them all to safety. If his demands aren’t met, he’ll keep the planes circling overhead until they run out of fuel. On paper, it may have looked like the perfect plan, but one thing Stuart didn’t count on was John McClane. With his wife in jeopardy, McClane does everything he can to find Stuart and bring him down, knowing full well that if he fails, hundreds won’t live to see Christmas morning.

As it was with the 1988 original, John McClane tends to rub some people the wrong way in Die Hard 2, chief among them being Capt. Carmine Lorenzo (Dennis Franz), the hot-tempered head of airport security who sees our hero as nothing more than a nuisance. Franz, who yells a lot in this movie, is the quintessential pain-in-the-ass, and the scenes where he and Willis butt heads bring an added level of tension to the film. Die Hard 2 also benefits from its airport setting, which it exploits to its fullest (McClane first realizes something is wrong when he sees one of Stuart’s men entering the baggage area, which leads to the movie’s first action-packed sequence). Willis once again delivers a charismatic performance as the hard-nosed McClane, and even sneaks a few self-referential jokes in from time to time (“How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” he asks himself). Though not as interesting as Hans Gruber, William Sadler’s Col. Stuart nonetheless makes for a ruthless adversary; in the film’s most heartbreaking scene, he puts on a show of strength that leads to a tragedy on the ground. And as McClane will soon learn, even those purporting to be his friends can turn out to be enemies.

Of course, what makes Die Hard 2 so much fun is its action sequences. Featuring shootouts in the airport, a high-speed chase on snowmobiles, and a death-defying fistfight on the wing of a 747, Die Hard 2 may push the envelope a bit too far at times (the scene where McClane is trapped in the cockpit of a plane surrounded by 9 live grenades is a prime example), but when it comes to thrills and excitement, this film, like its predecessor, has plenty to spare.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

#1,625. The Corpse Vanishes (1942)

Directed By: Wallace Fox

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Luana Walters, Tristram Coffin

Tag line: "Keeper of the Grotto of Torture!"

Trivia: This film bears some resemblance to the real-life story of Elizabeth Báthory, a 16th-century Hungarian countess / serial killer who was said to preserve her beauty by bathing in the blood of virginal young women

The Corpse Vanishes, a 1942 horror / sci fi flick starring Bela Lugosi, is a bad movie. In fact, I’d say it’s worse than an Ed Wood film; if nothing else, Wood’s pictures provide a few laughs with their over-the-top dialogue and cardboard set pieces. The Corpse Vanishes doesn’t even offer that much. It just kinda sits there, lifeless and dull, challenging you to give a damn about what’s going on (SPOILER ALERT: you won’t).

A killer is on the loose, one who murders brides on their wedding day, then steals their bodies before the guys from the morgue show up. Determined to get to the bottom of this bizarre case, reporter Pat Hunter (Luann Walters) gathers up several clues (chief among them being an orchid that emits a mysterious odor), all of which lead her to a spooky mansion owned by the strange scientist, Dr. Lorenz (Bela Lugosi). In an effort to keep his beloved wife (played by Elizabeth Russell) from aging, Dr. Lorenz has been abducting the brides (who, it turns out, aren’t really dead) so he can extract fluid from their glands, which he then injects into his wife, thus giving her a youthful glow. When a storm forces her to spend the night at the mansion, Pat, with the help of Mrs. Lorenz’s personal physician, Dr. Foster (Tristram Coffin), sets to work looking for more incriminating evidence, but will she live long enough to write her story?

Luann Walters turns in a lackluster performance as the plucky reporter, and the character’s somewhat callous attitude early on makes it hard to root for her as the movie progresses (at one wedding, the bride’s body is stolen within minutes of her dropping dead, causing Pat to rush out of the chapel, barely able to contain her glee as she shouts “What a story!”). Not faring much better is Tristram Coffin, whose Dr. Foster is something of a bore; he and Pat function as the film’s heroes / love interests, yet they have no chemistry whatsoever. Also quite weak is the flimsy dialogue, which occasionally approaches Ed Wood-like territory; at one wedding, the Bride’s mother (Gladys Faye) expresses concern over the recent rash of killings, to which her daughter (Joan Barclay) replies “You should forget all that silly nonsense about those brides dropping dead”. Silly, indeed!

Bela Lugosi, always the consummate professional, plays it as straight as he can, and diminutive actor Angelo Rossitto (Freaks, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), who stands just under 3 ft. tall, is also interesting in his brief appearance as Dr. Lorenz’s henchman, Toby. Yet try as they might, neither of them can rescue this movie. The Corpse Vanishes is a true stinker in every sense of the word.

Monday, January 26, 2015

#1,624. The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner (1974)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Walter Steiner, Werner Herzog

Trivia: This film was made as part of a series for a German television station

Walter Steiner, a champion ski flyer (a sport similar to ski jumping except that it involves a much bigger hill), is the subject of Werner Herzog’s The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, a 1974 documentary produced for German television. While the film does spend some time with Steiner away from the slopes (aside from a series of interviews conducted while he’s ice fishing, Herzog visits the athlete in his woodworking shop, where we see a few of his creations), it’s the scenes in which he’s doing what he loves (i.e. flying through the air) that make this movie such a rewarding experience.

Narrated and hosted by Herzog (in an unusual move, the director stands in front of the camera as well, as if he were a reporter covering an event), the bulk of The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner takes place at a 1974 competition in Planica, a region that at the time was situated in Yugoslavia (today, it’s part of Slovenia). With many of his jumps (as well as those of his competitors) presented in slow motion, Steiner, considered the odds-on favorite to win, sets a new course record during his first trial run. Still, he’s more concerned than pleased; convinced the track is too fast, he fears that, if the judges don’t shorten the run, a wipe-out of tragic proportions will likely occur. Sure enough, his second run takes him even further down the slope than the first, but shortly after he lands, Steiner crashes to the ground, opening up a gash on his forehead. Luckily, he’s able to continue, but wonders if it’s worth the risk. “I feel I’m in the arena”, Steiner says, “with 50,000 people waiting to see me crash”. If he does compete, odds are he’ll break a few more records before he’s through, yet his chances of suffering a career-ending injury are also great. How will he handle this dilemma?

It’s the stuff that great sports stories are made of: the thrill of the competition; the athlete struggling with both the conditions of the course and his own psyche; all playing out before our eyes. With The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner, Werner Herzog has crafted a superior documentary that, at the same time, is an excellent sports drama.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

#1,623. Return of the Fly (1959)

Directed By: Edward L. Bernds

Starring: Vincent Price, Brett Halsey, David Frankham

Tag line: "All new and more horrific than before!"

Trivia: The script was written specifically to use the standing sets from The Fly

Taking a page out of Universal’s Frankenstein series, Return of the Fly, a sequel to the 1958 classic The Fly, features a son who follows in his father’s footsteps, continuing an experiment that would have best been left alone.

Fifteen years after the untimely death of his father, Philippe Delambre (Brett Halsey) lays his mother to rest as well. Hoping he can shed some light on his family’s tumultuous past, Philippe implores his uncle, Francois (Vincent Price), to tell him what really happened to his father. Against his better judgment, Francois takes the young man to the remains of Andre Delambre’s laboratory, showing him the transporter chambers and explaining to Philippe how a tragic accident caused Andre to turn into a human fly. Anxious to prove to the world that his father was on the right track, Philippe decides to continue his research, aided at all times by his friend Alan (David Frankham), a British scientist who’s as eager as Philippe is to duplicate Andre Delambre’s experiments.

Unfortunately, Alan (whose real name is Ronald Holmes) has plans of his own for the transportation technology, and makes arrangements to sell the blueprints for the device, as well as all the research, to the highest bidder. When Philippe discovers what Alan is up to, the two men get into a fight, during which Philippe is knocked unconscious and placed in one of the transporter chambers. Hoping to make a quick exit, Alan switches the machine on, causing Philippe to disappear. Soon after, Francois, who was contacted by Philippe’s girlfriend Cecile (Danielle De Metz), shows up on the scene, and, realizing what’s happened, starts up the transporter in order to re-materialize his nephew. To Francois's horror, he finds that history has repeated itself: a fly ended up in the chamber with Philippe, and as a result, he and the insect have exchanged body parts (Philippe’s head, arm, and leg have been replaced with those of the fly)! As Francois works diligently to remedy the situation, Philippe sets out to exact revenge on the man he once called his friend.

Return of the Fly was obviously produced on a much smaller budget than the original; aside from being shot in black and white (The Fly was in color), the special effects aren’t nearly as good this time around (especially the lead character’s “fly-like” features, which are larger and more ungainly). On the plus side, the movie weaves an interesting tale, one that ties in nicely with the events from the first film while also bringing something new to the table (the deceitful Alan adds a bit of intrigue to the proceedings). On the acting front, Vincent Price does an admirable job as the over-protective uncle, and Brett Halsey is convincing as the brilliant but naïve Philippe.

In the end, Return of the Fly may not look as good as its predecessor, but what it lacks in production values, it makes up for in story.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

#1,622. Licence to Kill (1989)

Directed By: John Glen

Starring: Timothy Dalton, Robert Davi, Carey Lowell

Tag line: "His bad side is a dangerous place to be"

Trivia: A scene in this film was shot at a Key West, Florida house that formerly belonged to writer Ernest Hemingway

1989’s Licence to Kill, the 16th entry in the James Bond series and the second to feature Timothy Dalton as Agent 007, continues the trend set forth in the previous film, The Living Daylights, in that it favors action and high drama over romance and comedy. The result is a hard-hitting, occasionally brutal motion picture featuring a determined lead character, who doesn’t allow anything (or anyone) to keep from completing his mission.

While on his way to his wedding, CIA agent Felix Leiter (David Hedison) receives word that a plane carrying Central American drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) has just landed in nearby Key West, Florida. With the help of his Best Man, British agent James Bond (Dalton), Leiter and his team make a quick detour to capture Sanchez, then hurry to the church, arriving in plenty of time to finish the wedding. Unfortunately, the wealthy Sanchez spread enough money around in advance to buy his freedom, and before heading south of the border, sends Dario (Benicio Del Toro), his most trusted henchman, to kill Leiter’s new bride (Priscilla Barnes), then feed Leiter himself to a hungry shark (he loses his leg and part of his arm in the attack).

When word of what happened reaches Bond, he decides to take matters into his own hands and hunt down Sanchez. Fearing their top agent is allowing his emotions to cloud his judgment, MI6 sends “M” (Robert Brown) to convince Bond to abandon this personal vendetta against Sanchez. When he refuses, “M” suspends Bond’s licence to kill and attempts to take him into custody, at which point 007 escapes. Now a rogue agent, Bond sneaks his way into Central America and, with the help of CIA operative Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell), heads to Isthmus, a small republic controlled by Sanchez, where he intends to infiltrate the drug lord’s operation. Aided by both “Q” (Desmond Llewellyn), who’s on holiday and sympathetic to Bond’s cause; and Sanchez’s oft-battered girlfriend Lupe (Talisa Soto), an undercover Bond soon gains access to Sanchez’s inner circle, but will he exact his revenge before his true intentions are revealed?

As it was with The Living Daylights, Bond spends little time in Licence to Kill wooing the opposite sex (unlike previous entries starring both Connery and Moore, Dalton’s 007 is too focused to engage in a series of frivolous romances). As a result, the movie is packed with one exciting scene after another, beginning with the pre-title sequence (following a shoot-out, Leiter and Bond capture Sanchez, then parachute to the church where the wedding ceremony is to be held) and finishing as all Bond films do, with an extended action scene (which, in the case of this picture, involves a fleet of big rigs, a few Stinger missiles, and a whole mess of explosions). Dalton once again turns in a solid performance as Her Majesty’s top secret agent, playing the part far more seriously than any of his predecessors (there’s even mention made of Bond’s brief marriage, featured in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which ended in tragedy, feelings that most certainly come rushing back when he discovers Leiter’s new bride lying murdered on her wedding bed). As the Bond girls, Lowell and Soto are appropriately beautiful, and 007 does spend some quality alone time with both, but in each case the romantic tryst is short lived, and doesn’t interfere with the task at hand.

Along with the two ladies, the rest of the supporting cast is also superb. Robert Davi’s Sanchez is the perfect Bond foil, suave and elegant one minute, ruthless the next (one particular underling finds himself on the wrong side of a pressure chamber, resulting in the movie’s bloodiest sequence), and a very young Benicio Del Toro, despite his limited screen time, makes for a great henchman (in the few scenes in which his character appears, he’s almost as sadistic as Sanchez). In addition, singer Wayne Newton makes a brief appearance as a slimy televangelist working for Sanchez, while Desmond Llewellyn’s “Q” has an even bigger presence in this film than he had in Octopussy, providing Bond with a few awesome gadgets (including a movie camera that emits a laser ray), then sticking around to assist with the mission (sometimes without Bond himself knowing about it).

As with The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill’s central story branches off in a couple of unnecessary directions (the subplot featuring the stinger missiles felt like a late addition, as if it were added simply to explain why they turn up in the grand finale), but as a whole, it’s a strong entry in the series, and left me feeling a little sad that Timothy Dalton didn’t return for another outing. With all due respect to Pierce Brosnan (who was himself tailor-made for the role), I’d have liked to see Dalton play the part at least one more time.

Friday, January 23, 2015

#1,621. One Million Years B.C. (1966)

Directed By: Don Chaffey

Starring: Raquel Welch, John Richardson, Percy Herbert

Tag line: "This is the way it was"

Trivia: The publicity photograph of Welch from the movie became a best-selling pinup poster, and something of a cultural phenomenon

Under normal circumstances, it takes a hell of a lot to upstage the work of Ray Harryhausen, the sage of stop-motion whose creations have graced such fantasy films as Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Clash of the Titans. But in the case of 1966’s One Million Years B.C., all it took to push him into the background was an animal-skin bikini!

Set “long, long ago, when the world was just beginning” (to quote the film’s narrator, Vic Perrin), One Million Years B.C. kicks things off with a visit to a prehistoric tribe known as the Rock People, a violent bunch of hunters led by Anhoba (Robert Brown), whose two sons, Tumak (John Richardson) and Sakana (Percy Herbert), are constantly at each others' throats. As the result of a family squabble (which begins when Anhoba steals food from Tumak), Tumak is banished from the tribe (the moment he’s gone, Sakana lays claim to Tumak’s woman, Nupondi, played by Martine Beswick). Wandering the desert alone, Tumak encounters a number of creatures (including a giant iguana that nearly devours him) before meeting up with the lovely Loana (Raquel Welch), a member of the peaceful Shell tribe. At first accepted by the Shell people as one of their own, Tumak’s temper soon gets the better of him, and he is once again banished. Having fallen in love with the outsider, Loana leaves her people and joins Tumak on his journey, which will eventually lead him back to his own tribe, now ruled by his brother Sakana. Will Tumak return to his violent ways, or has Loana finally tamed his savage heart?

Produced by Britain’s Hammer Studios (Michael Carreras, a top executive with the company, is credited with penning the screenplay), One Million Years B.C. features a handful of Ray Harryhausen’s amazing animated sequences, including an unforgettable fight between the Shell people and an Allosaurus, as well as a pterodactyl that flies off with one of the film’s main characters. In fact, the only special effect segments that don’t work are those the master animator had nothing to do with, where real animals were shot in close-up to make them appear larger than normal (the above-mentioned showdown between Tumak and the Iguana is one such sequence). But no matter, because as thrilling as Harryhausen’s giant creatures are, they don’t get our pulses pounding nearly as much as Raquel Welch does. With her dyed-blonde hair and skimpy costume, Ms. Welch commands our undivided attention the moment she takes the screen, and then holds it until the story’s exciting climax. Her features were so striking that she ended up dominating the film’s advertising campaign (the posters put her front and center, much larger even than the movie’s dinosaurs).

For One Million Years B.C., Ray Harryhausen conjured up monsters as extraordinary as any he’d animated before, yet the image that’s forever linked with this movie is that of a 25-year-old beauty, wearing next to nothing as she gazes into the distance. Poor Ray may have put in the time, but it was Raquel Welch who walked off with the picture.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

#1,620. La Soufriere (1977)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Werner Herzog

Trivia: This movie won the award for Best Short at the 1978 German Film Awards

Throughout his career, Werner Herzog has been as much an adventurer as a filmmaker. For Aguirre Wrath of God, he traveled to the remote regions of Peru, an area he would return to for 1982’s Fitzcaraldo (in which he dragged a 340-ton steamship over a mountain using nothing but ropes and a tractor). Even at this late stage of his career, he continues to challenge himself (2007’s Encounter at the End of the World was shot on-location in Antarctica), yet his most dangerous undertaking came in 1977 for the movie La Soufriere, a film named after an active volcano on the Caribbean island of Guadalupe that, at the time, was about to erupt.

Hoping to capture footage of the expected destruction, Herzog and two cameramen made their way to the island, which by the time they arrived had been evacuated (in most cases, the only signs of life were dogs and other animals left behind by their owners, forced to scavenge for food in order to survive). As smoke and fumes bellowed from the nearby volcano, Herzog toured the abandoned streets, and on occasion dragged his camera as close to the mountain as he could (due to a number of tremors that had shaken the area, many of the roads were impassable, littered with fallen rocks and debris). During their travels, Herzog and his crew stumbled upon a trio of local men who didn’t leave with the others, all of whom said they were fully prepared to die. But how long would it be before the volcano finished them off? Along with his experiences on Guadalupe, Herzog (who also acts as the film’s narrator) gives us a brief history lesson about a similar catastrophe that occurred on the island of Martinique in 1902, when Mount Pelee erupted, killing some 30,000 people (ironically, the only survivor of that tragedy was a prisoner who had been locked away in solitary confinement).

With its images of lonely streets and vacant homes, La Soufriere takes on a chilling quality, giving the impression that Herzog and his crew are the only people left on earth. This creepy vibe only grows stronger when the director focuses his camera on the volcano, which looks more menacing with each passing scene. Yet as intriguing as La Soufriere is (I was riveted from start to finish), never once do we lose sight of the fact that Herzog put both himself and his assistants in harm’s way; with the volcano predicted to blow at any minute, he seems in no rush to wrap things up, and at times actually ventures closer to the simmering mountain. Yes, it made for a fascinating documentary, but a risky one as well.

When he encounters the villagers who refused to leave, Herzog asks them why they’ve purposely put their lives in such jeopardy. It’s a question we could easily pose to the filmmaker himself.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

#1,619. A Decade Under the Influence (2003)

Directed By: Ted Demme, Richard LaGravenese

Starring: Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Robert Altman

Tag line: "The '70s films that changed everything"

Trivia: This documentary is presented in 3 parts, as they aired on television

Co-directed by Richard LaGravenese and Ted Demme (who passed away shortly after completing this movie), A Decade Under the Influence is a documentary chronicling what proved to be a fascinating period in American film: the 1970s. Interviewing a number of the decade’s movers and shakers, including Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather), William Friedkin (The French Connection), Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), Robert Altman (MASH) and writer Robert Towne (Chinatown), A Decade Under the Influence is as much a time capsule of this era of creativity as it is a loving tribute to the men and women who, with their energy and determination, forever changed the face of American cinema.

Broken into 3 parts (it was broadcast on the Independent Film Channel as a trio of one-hour specials), A Decade Under the Influence begins by examining the inspirations that drove these filmmakers to take on the studio system (which was collapsing at the time) and save American films from drifting into obscurity. Spurred on by such foreign directors as Truffaut (The 400 Blows, Jules et Jim), Renoir (Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game), Fellini (8 ½, La Dolce Vita), Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai), De Sica (Bicycle Thieves) and Bergman (The Seventh Seal), this young group of actors, writers, and directors shook up the status quo, creating works that gave audiences what they wanted, namely movies reflecting the time in which they lived, from the sexual revolution (Shampoo) and Women’s Lib (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) to Watergate (All the President’s Men) and the Vietnam War (Coming Home, Apocalypse Now). Along with these socially conscious films, the ‘70s also gave birth to the summer blockbuster, with pictures likes Jaws and Star Wars taking in more money than Hollywood had ever seen before and, in the process, bringing big business into the equation. All at once, movies were more than a form of artistic expression; they were a million-dollar industry.

A Decade Under the Influence covers some of the same ground as Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, a similar documentary released the same year which also featured clips from such seminal works as Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show and The Graduate. However, A Decade Under the Influence takes things a step further by focusing heavily on the B-movies of Roger Corman (Foxy Brown) as well as the indie flicks of John Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence), which were every bit as important to this period as the mainstream features. Clocking in at around 3 hours, this documentary delves head-first into its subject, exploring all aspects of what it was that made the ‘70s such a unique era for American films.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

#1,618. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Directed By: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Alison Doody

Tag line: "Have the adventure of your life keeping up with the Joneses"

Trivia: Two thousand rats were bred for the production (they had to be bred specially as ordinary rats would have been riddled with disease)

After the darkly violent Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Steven Spielberg and company return to the series’ roots with 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a fast-paced, occasionally funny action / adventure that sees our hero, Indiana Jones, once again battling it out with Nazis as he tries to track down a religious artifact: the fabled Holy Grail.

Following a flashback to 1912, where a much younger Indiana Jones (played as a child by River Phoenix), while on a scouting trip in Utah’s Monument Valley, tried to rescue the Cross of Coronado from profiteers, we leap forward to 1938, when Indy (Harrison Ford) is approached by antiquities collector Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), who, for years, has been looking for the Holy Grail. Believed to be the cup Jesus drank from at his Last Supper, the Grail went missing (or was hidden away) during the First Crusade, when, according to legend, a trio of Knights (all brothers) stumbled upon it.

Since that time, many men have searched in vain for the Grail, including Indiana Jones’ father (Sean Connery). A lifelong Grail historian, the elder Dr. Jones was working for Donovan when he abruptly disappeared. To add to the mystery, Indiana receives a package in the mail that contains his father’s diary, a small notebook filled with clues about the Grail’s possible resting place. Convinced that dear old dad is in trouble, Indiana and his mentor Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) hop a plane to Venice, where the elder Dr. Jones was working when he vanished. Joined by his father’s assistant, Dr. Elsa Schneider (Allison Doody), Indiana finds himself drawn into the search for the Holy Grail, which, like the Ark of the Covenant, is also being sought by the Nazis. Will Indiana Jones save his father and locate the Grail in time, or is the sacred chalice destined to fall into Hitler’s hands?

Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade features lots of pulse-pounding action, from its clever flashback sequence (when we learn, among other things, why its lead character is afraid of snakes) to a thrilling chase in the desert of Hatay (where Indy faces off against a battalion of Nazis and a tank). Assisted by some familiar faces (along with Denholm Elliott’s Marcus, Indy teams up with Sallah, his cohort from Raiders of the Lost Ark portrayed by John Rhys-Davies), our hero also joins forces with his own father, a partnership that, aside from introducing a little family drama into the mix, results in a handful of funny scenes (unlike his son, the elder Jones isn’t much of an adventurer, and is more comfortable wielding a book than he is a firearm). Ford and Connery are excellent as the two Joneses (their chemistry was so good that I had no problem whatsoever believing they were father and son), and the fact they spend so much time together is a definite plus. And to top it all off, Indy gets another crack at the Nazis, this time taking the fight all the way to Berlin (where he has a close encounter with the Fuhrer himself)!

Chock full of insane action sequences and tongue-in-cheek humor, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a throwback of sorts to Raiders of the Lost Ark in that it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

Monday, January 19, 2015

#1,617. April Fool's Day (1986)

Directed By: Fred Walton

Starring: Deborah Foreman, Griffin O'Neal, Clayton Rohner

Tag line: "Childish pranks turn into a bloody battle for survival!"

Trivia: The film's French title was Weekend of Terror, while in Germany release was titled The Horror Party

April Fool’s Day, a 1986 horror / comedy directed by Fred Walton (the man behind 1979’s excellent When a Stranger Calls), is one of the more unique slasher films to emerge from the ‘80s. True, it plays fast and loose with some of the subgenre’s conventions, but it's still a fun watch.

Muffy St. John (Deborah Foreman), a college student from a well-off family, invites some of her classmates to spend the weekend at her island mansion. 

After witnessing a near-fatal accident that badly injures a ferry deckhand (Mike Nomad), Muffy’s friends, including Harvey (Jay Baker), Nikki (Deborah Goodrich), Rob (Ken Olandt), Nan (Leah King Pinsent), Kit (Amy Steel), and Arch (Thomas F. Wilson) arrive at the island, only to discover that their host has planned a few practical jokes to help celebrate April Fool’s Day. 

The frivolity quickly comes to an end, however, when Muffy’s cousin Skip (Griffin O’Neal) goes missing. It isn’t long before some of the others disappear as well, leaving behind clues that suggest they may have been murdered. Hoping to survive this terrifying ordeal, the remaining friends band together to find a way off the island, all the while trying to figure out the identity of the potential killer. 

But are things truly as they seem?

Based on the opening few minutes of April Fool’s Day, you’d think you’re in for a standard ‘80s slasher flick; following a flashback sequence in which Muffy recalls a traumatic childhood birthday party, we join the others on the dock as they’re waiting for the ferry, during which they act like typical movie teens, talking about sex and generally having a good time. Once the gang arrives at the mansion, however, the film veers off in a more comedic direction, hitting us with a series of well-planned practical jokes that Muffy arranged beforehand. Some of her pranks are basic (whoopee cushions and dribble glasses), while others are more advanced (in the room Rob and Kit share, Muffy has rigged the lights so that, whenever one is turned off, another switches on). 

In addition to its humorous start, April Fool’s Day acks the gore found in such genre classics as The Burning, The Prowler, and My Bloody Valentine. Most of the kills in this movie occur off-screen, with little or no blood left behind. 

Yet, despite its breaks from the norm, April Fool’s Day presents us with a mystery that is, at times, quite intense (a scene featuring an outdoor well is sure to get your pulse pounding), and while many viewers will undoubtedly feel cheated once the film ends, I give Walton and writer Danillo Bach points for trying something new.

Those in the mood for an ‘80s slasher might be annoyed by April Fool’s Day, but I had a great time watching it.  Give it a chance and you may feel the same.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

#1,616. Of Human Bondage (1934)

Directed By: John Cromwell

Starring: Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Frances Dee

Tag line: "The Love That Lifted a Man to Paradise......and Hurled Him Back to Earth Again"

Trivia: Leslie Howard and some of the other British cast members were upset that Bette Davis, an American, had been cast in the film

In Ken Grout’s intriguing new book “And the Winner Really Is: The Definitive Ranking of the Greatest Actors and Actresses in Oscar History” (available for purchase through Amazon as well as the publisher’s website), the author sets out to determine the 100 greatest performers ever to grace the silver screen by employing a formula he himself created, one that centers on the Academy Awards. Using a point system based on the number of nominations and wins a specific actor or actress has received over the years, Mr. Grout compiled what amounts to a very scientific, yet ultimately fascinating list of Oscar’s best and brightest. While the book does feature a few surprises (Cate Blanchett, winner of last year’s Best Actress award for her work in Blue Jasmine, finishes higher than both Greer Garson and Maggie Smith), those familiar with Oscar’s rich history can probably guess which celebrities will appear towards the top, and seeing as Bette Davis, my all-time favorite actress, is high on the list, I can say with confidence that Mr. Grout is definitely on the right track!

One of Davis’ earliest roles (and the part many believe was responsible for making her a star) was that of Mildred, the conniving waitress in 1934’s Of Human Bondage who, for years, makes life a living hell for Philip (Leslie Howard), the shy, partially disabled medical student hopelessly in love with her. After failing to make it as an artist, Philip, afflicted since birth with a clubbed foot, decides to try his hand at medicine, and it’s during his time as a student that he first meets Mildred, who works at a small London eatery. Despite the fact she’s already being wooed by the wealthy Miller (Alan Hale), Philip is able to convince Mildred to go on a few dates with him. Though she remains cold and distant at all times, Philip is soon head-over-heels in love with Mildred, so much so that he can’t even concentrate on his studies. Their relationship seemingly ends when Mildred agrees to marry Miller, at which point Philip starts seeing Norah (Kay Johnson), a writer who genuinely has feelings for him. Alas, when Mildred’s and Miller’s romance comes crashing down (leaving the now-pregnant Mildred with nowhere to go), she returns to Philip, who gladly takes her back. It’s a trend that will continue for years, with Mildred constantly walking out on Philip for another man, only to crawl back when the affair sours. Yet try as he might to resist her, Philip is always there to catch Mildred when she falls. Will he remain under her spell forever, or will Philip finally break free, ending this vicious cycle that’s caused him so much heartbreak?

Though she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar (as a write-in, she actually finished third in the voting for that years’ Best Actress award), Bette Davis delivers a searing performance as the selfish, vindictive Mildred, a woman with few redeeming qualities who takes advantage of Philip’s diminished self-confidence (caused in part by his handicap) to manipulate him every step of the way. Leslie Howard does an admirable job portraying the weak-willed Philip, generating sympathy for a guy who, more often than not, is his own worst enemy (we cringe every time he takes Mildred back), but it’s Davis who commands the screen. There isn’t a moment in the entire film where we like her character, who, on her very first date with Philip, treats him with nothing but contempt (when she first notices Philip’s limp, Mildred scoffs to herself, as if to say she could never truly love a man who wasn’t “complete”), yet as relieved as we are for Philip each time she’s out of his life, the movie isn’t nearly as interesting without Mildred as it is with her.

Over the years, Bette Davis would play a variety of on-screen bitches (her role as the stubborn, vain Southern Belle in 1938’s Jezebel netted her an Academy Award), but Mildred may be the bitchiest of them all. If nothing else, her performance in Of Human Bondage showed the world how good Bette Davis was at playing bad.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

#1,615. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Directed By: Michael Anderson

Starring: David Niven, Cantinflas, Finlay Currie

Tag line: "...and the whole world loves it!"

Trivia: This film used 140 sets built at six Hollywood studios, as well as in England, Hong Kong and Japan

Hollywood turned out some big movies in the 1950s, including such monumental epics as The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Giant, The Bridge on the River Kwai and How the West Was Won. One of the decade’s most successful large-scale motion pictures was producer Mike Todd’s 1956 adventure / fantasy Around the World in 80 Days, a movie featuring over 40 stars (many in cameo roles) and thousands of extras, with shooting locations in England, Spain, Hong Kong, Japan, and the U.S. According to estimates, the wardrobe department alone spent some $410,000 on costumes, creating nearly 75,000 of them in the process!

Based on the novel by Jules Verne, Around the World in 80 Days transports us to London in the year 1872. Phileas Fogg (David Niven), a respected member of the prestigious Reform Club, makes a wager with several other members that, in 80 days, he can circumnavigate the entire globe. Intent on winning the bet, Fogg, with his new vale Passepartout (Cantinflas) in tow, sets off on what will prove to be a grand adventure, taking him to such exciting locales as Spain (where Passepartout tries his luck at bullfighting), Bombay (where they rescue the beautiful Princess Aouda, played by Shirley MacLaine, from religious zealots who were about to burn her alive), and the American West (where Fogg and the others narrowly escape a Sioux raiding party). Also tagging along is Police Inspector Fix (Robert Newton) of Scotland Yard, who’s convinced Fogg is the thief that recently stole £55,000 from the Bank of England. Hoping to collect the £2,000 reward posted for the crook’s capture, Inspector Fix follows Fogg on his global trek with the intention of arresting him the moment he sets foot on British soil. But the question remains: will Fogg complete his journey in 80 days?

Along with its many “big” scenes (like Passepartout’s attempt at bull fighting and the shoot-out with the Sioux, who attack the train Fogg and his companions are traveling on), Around the World in 80 Days boasts a star-studded cast, with such well-known celebrities as John Gielgud, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, Charles Boyer, Peter Lorre and Red Skelton popping up from time to time. While most have very limited roles (Frank Sinatra, as a barroom piano player in San Francisco, doesn’t utter a single line), a few performers do manage to leave their mark on the film (John Carradine’s loud-mouthed politician, Col. Stamp Proctor, even gets to challenge Phileas Fogg to a duel). As for the two main stars, David Niven portrays Fogg as a perfect English gentleman who, due to his obsession with punctuality, always finds a way out of a jam (after learning that the train to Marseilles will be delayed, he purchases a hot-air balloon and flies it over the alps), while Mexican star Cantinflas ends up having most of the fun (aside from his bullfighting exploits, his Passepartout also briefly joins a troupe of acrobats in Japan). But the real driving force behind Around the World in 80 Days was its producer, Mike Todd, who, in bringing this elaborate tale to the big screen, dragged his cameras to a number of exotic locations, resulting in a film that’s as much a world travelogue as it is a rousing adventure.

Known as a master showman thanks to his years on Broadway (where he dabbled in everything from striptease to opera), Mike Todd may not have been the most experienced producer in Hollywood (this was his first and only film), but he was definitely one of the most determined. And with Around the World in 80 Days, his tenacity paid off in a big way.

Friday, January 16, 2015

#1,614. The Bells of San Angelo (1947)

Directed By: William Witney

Starring: Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Andy Devine

Tag line: "Swinging From His Toes And Shooting From His Hips...Roy Battles His Foes With A Song On His Lips!"

Trivia: In Spain, the film was released as The Bells of Rosarita

Even those who’ve never seen one of his films have likely heard of Roy Rogers, the singing cowboy who starred in over 100 movies and had his own TV and radio shows in the 1950s and ‘60s. Though he occasionally appeared as a supporting player early in his career (he had a small role in Dark Command, with John Wayne), Rogers soon became a star in his own right, often playing the hero (who, quite coincidentally, was usually named Roy Rogers). Directed by William Witney, who would helm some two dozen of Rogers’ movies in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, The Bells of San Angelo teams Roy with many of his regular co-stars, including his wife Dale Evans; his Palomino horse, Trigger (who actually received second billing), and Andy Devine, who adds a bit of comic relief as the sheriff wanted by Scotland Yard.

The Bells of San Angelo sees Rogers playing an officer with the border patrol sent to the small town of San Angelo to investigate a possible smuggling operation. But before he can speak with his key witness, the young man is gunned down by guards working for an American mining company, who claim he had stolen from them (they go so far as to plant a nugget of pure silver on the dead man’s body). Realizing there’s something strange going on, Roy decides to hang around for a while, a decision that doesn’t sit well with the mine’s boss, Rex Gridley (John McGuire). To further complicate matters, Roy receives a telegram from his superiors telling him noted western fiction author Lee Daniels is coming to town, and that he should allow the writer to tag along with him during his investigation. Expecting a man, most assume Daniels missed the bus when he doesn’t turn up, but in reality, Lee Daniels is a woman (Dale Evans), who, after learning that Roy doesn’t care much for her writing, tries to conceal her identity. As if all this wasn’t enough, British lawyer Lionel Bates (Olaf Hytten) shows up on the scene looking for a man named George Wallington Lancaster, which, unbeknownst to everyone, was the real name of the local sheriff before he changed it to Cookie Bullfincher (Andy Devine). Fearing the worst, the sheriff tries to leave town soon after Bates arrives, but Roy convinces him to stick around, especially since he’ll need his help squashing the smuggling operation (which threatens to turn deadly before he can close the book on it).

To be honest, I always felt Roy Rogers was a much better singer than he was an actor. As with most of his films, his character in The Bells of San Angelo is squeaky clean, and though he can hold his own in a fight (which he does more than once in this picture), Rogers’ goody-two-shoes image usually won out, even if the situation called for him to get down and dirty. As a result, I often find him the least interesting character in his own movie, though he does impress us on a few occasions with his singing voice (his “A Cowboy’s Dream of Heaven” is a pretty little tune). Faring a bit better is Dale Evans as the writer trying to hide her true identity, and it’s always fun to see Andy Devine turn up in these movies, playing a character much like the ones he portrayed in such John Ford westerns as Stagecoach and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Story-wise, The Bells of San Angelo delivers the goods, providing a handful of thrilling moments, and, once the British lawyer enters the picture, we’re even treated to an old-fashioned fox hunt (with a raccoon standing in for the fox)!

While I may not think much of his acting, there’s no denying the mark that Roy Rogers left on the western genre. And thanks to films like The Bells of San Angelo, it looks as if his reputation as the west’s most heroic singing cowboy is here to stay.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

#1,613. Coraline (2009)

Directed By: Henry Selick

Starring: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, John Hodgman

Tag line: "Be careful what you wish for"

Trivia: For this movie, over 130 sets were built across 52 different studio sound stages

As he did with 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, director and stop-motion animator Henry Selick infuses 2009's Coraline with plenty of style and personality, all to tell the story of a young girl whose perfect dream world quickly turns into a nightmare.

Having just moved to the “Pink Palace”, a former Victorian mansion that’s been split into several apartments, Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning) finds that there’s not much for an 11-year-old to do. What’s more, her new neighbors, a pair of retired stage actors named Miss Spink (Jennifer Saunders) and Miss Forcible (Dawn French); and Russian acrobat Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), are exceedingly peculiar, and don’t make for good company. Not even Wyborne (Robert Bailey Jr.), a kid who lives nearby with his grandmother, is much of a companion, and with her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) so engrossed in their work all the time, poor Coraline can’t help but feel alone and forgotten.

Then, while exploring her new home, the young girl discovers a small door, covered over with wallpaper, that leads to a fascinating world, one that looks like a more interesting version of her new surroundings. Here, she meets her “other” mother and father (also voiced by Hatcher and Hodgman), who, instead of working, spend their time catering to her every need and desire. But according to the stray black cat that hangs around with her (Keith David), which can talk in this bizarre universe, Coraline’s “other” mother is not as friendly as she appears, and is planning to trick the gullible girl into staying in this alternate reality with her… forever.

Like The Nightmare Before Christmas, the animation in Coraline is stunning. From the opening scene, where a pair of mechanized hands disassembles a rag doll, then re-makes it to look exactly like Coraline, Selick and his team drew me into this fantastic world, which became even more colorful (and more intriguing) as the movie wore on. During one of her visits to the “other” reality, Coraline stops by the apartment of the alternate Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, where she’s treated to a most unusual stage show, and a similar encounter in the “other” Mr. Bobinsky’s flat is equally as vibrant and imaginative. Featuring set pieces so elaborate that they required an entire 140,000 square foot warehouse in Hillsboro, Oregon to hold them, Coraline is a visual smorgasbord.

Along with its animation, Coraline boasts some lively characters, each brought convincingly to life by the film’s fine collection of voice actors. Dakota Fanning is beyond great as Coraline, while Keith David gets in touch with his feline side, lending his distinctive baritone to the sometimes sinister black cat. Standing above the rest, though, are Teri Hatcher in the dual role of Coraline’s indifferent real mom and her overly sweet “other” mother; and Ian McShane, who's nearly unrecognizable as the eccentric Mr. Bolinsky. Their talents, combined with the film’s awesome stop-motion, help transform Coraline into a movie as lush and beautiful as anything its director had done before.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

#1,612. Luxo Jr. (1986)

Directed By: John Lasseter

Writer: John Lssseter

Trivia: Pixar's first animation effort following Ed Catmull's and John Lasseter's departure from Industrial Light and Magic's computer division

I conclude my trek through the short films of Pixar animation by taking a look at one of the very first movies the company ever made. Released in 1986, Luxo Jr. was designed to show industry professionals at that year’s SIGGRAPH conference (which is short for Special Interest Group on Graphics and Interactive Techniques) what could be accomplished with some computer software and a little imagination. The resulting film would forever change the face of animation.

The story is quite basic. A desk lamp, sitting contently by itself, is surprised to see a small inflatable ball rolling its way. After the lamp nudges it back in the direction it came from, the ball once again appears, at which point a smaller lamp hops into view, presumably the son of the larger lamp. A little horseplay ensues, and the smaller lamp (named Luxo Jr.) jumps on top of the ball, which, as a result, deflates instantly. The larger lamp (likely its father, Luxo Sr) chastises the smaller lamp for destroying the ball, causing the smaller lamp to sheepishly hop away. A few seconds later, an even bigger ball rolls into view, and the exasperated larger lamp shakes its head (er.. shade) in disbelief.

That’s Luxo Jr. in a nutshell. Like I said, there isn’t much to the story. Even the background is basic (black), and never once does the virtual “camera” move or cut away from its initial set-up (at all times, our attention is focused on the larger lamp). You really can’t get much simpler than that, can you? Of course, what the film does do is give its two central characters their own distinct personalities, and then, without words, has them interact with one another. Again, nothing new; Disney had been doing this sort of thing for years. Only now, it was a computer program that brought these characters to life, and not an animator’s pencil.

This tidbit of trivia may not seem all that special today, seeing as most modern animated features are at least partially produced inside a computer. But it so impressed the crowd at the SIGGRAPH conference that they gave this humble little film a standing ovation. What’s more, the lamp has since become a key component of Pixar’s corporate logo (replacing the “I” in Pixar), and was the first computer-generated movie ever nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short (a few years later, Pixar’s Tin Toy would become the first CGI short to win that award). In fact, Luxo Jr. has even been deemed culturally significant by the Library of Congress, and is now preserved forever in the National Film Registry.

Not bad for a 2-minute flick about a couple of lamps, huh?