Saturday, February 28, 2015

#1,657. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

Directed By: Tom McLoughlin

Starring: Thom Mathews, Jennifer Cooke, David Kagen

Tag line: "Evil Lives Forever"

Trivia: The first film in the series which did not place first at the United States box office during its opening weekend

Following the debacle that was Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning, the Friday the 13th series returns to form with Part VI: Jason Lives, bringing two fan favorites back into the fold: Jason Voorhees, and Camp Crystal Lake.

Tommy Jarvis (Thom Matthews), still haunted by his run-in with Jason Voorhees (see The Final Chapter), drags his buddy Allen (Ron Palillo, aka Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter) to the cemetery where Jason is buried. To ensure he's really dead, the two dig up the grave, at which point Tommy, remembering the hell Jason put him through, grabs a metal post from a nearby fence and stabs Jason's rotted remains. Unfortunately, he does so in the middle of a thunderstorm! Sure enough, a bolt of lightning strikes the post stuck in Jason’s body, bringing the infamous serial killer back to life. Hoping to stop Jason before he kills again, Tommy heads to the local sheriff’s department to tell them what’s happened. Naturally, Sheriff Garris (David Kagen) doesn’t believe a word he says, and, to prevent a panic from breaking out, tells Tommy, in no uncertain terms, to leave town as quickly as possible. To make matters worse, Jason’s resurrection coincides with the re-opening of Camp Crystal Lake (now known as Camp Forest Green), which is set to play host to a gang of kids, arriving shortly for a weekend getaway. Because she thinks he’s cute, Megan (Jennifer Cooke), the sheriff’s daughter and one of the camp’s new counselors, agrees to help Tommy search for Jason, but how many will die before the notorious killer is found?

By the time Jason Lives hit the scene in 1986, the MPAA was cracking down on extreme gore, threatening to issue an “X” rating to any movie depicting graphic violence. As a result, the kills in Jason Lives aren’t nearly as explicit as they were in Parts 1 through 4, but that doesn’t make them any less effective. One scene in particular, where Jason meets up with camp counselor Cort (Tom Fridley) and his girlfriend Nikki (Darcy DeMoss), who moments earlier were having sex in an RV, features not one, but two of the movie’s best kills. In addition to the bloodletting, Jason Lives ups the ante by taking us back to where it all started: Camp Crystal Lake, which this time around is also populated by a few dozen young campers, none of whom realize the danger they’re in. The final portion of Jason Lives is set almost entirely at the summer camp, and the fact that Jason is running loose around a bunch of kids is enough to kick the tension up a notch.

Jason Lives does have its share of comedy, some of which is downright silly (the sequence where Jason encounters weekend warriors on a paintball excursion goes absolutely nowhere). But by re-introducing those elements that made Friday the 13th so popular in the first place, Jason Lives was, for the series’ die-hard fans, a sight for sore eyes.

Friday, February 27, 2015

#1,656. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Directed By: John Schlesinger

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Sylvia Miles

Tag line: "For those who have never seen it and those who have never forgotten it"

Trivia: Dustin Hoffman kept pebbles in his shoe to ensure his limp would be consistent from shot to shot

For a brief spell in the mid ‘80s, I believed Midnight Cowboy was the greatest motion picture ever made. 

After discovering a copy of it at my favorite video palace (the one I told you about in my write-up of Scorsese’s Mean Streets), I was blown away by the movie’s realistic vibe, and how perfectly it conveyed abject poverty. When my attempts to purchase a copy of my own failed (at the time, movies on VHS cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100, so you can imagine what a hard-to-find title like this would have set me back), I resorted to renting Midnight Cowboy over and over again (as I recall, nobody else was interested in the movie; it was always on the shelf when I went looking for it). 

And no matter how many times I watch it, Midnight Cowboy still moves me to tears.

Bored of his humdrum life in Texas, Joe Buck (Jon Voight) - a cowboy and self-proclaimed ladies’ man - packs his bags and heads to New York City, intent on becoming a high-priced gigolo. 

After a few unsuccessful trysts (the first woman he hooks up with is Cass, played by Sylvia Miles, who, despite living in a penthouse, bilks him out of $20), Joe has a chance encounter with Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a fast-talker with a bum leg who, for a small fee, agrees to set Joe up with Mr. O’Daniel (John McGiver), a guy he claims is a first-class pimp. 

When O’Daniel instead turns out to be an aging homosexual with a religious fixation, a pissed-off Joe goes looking for Ratso, who he finds in a coffee shop a few days later. Broke and with no place to stay (he was recently locked out of his hotel room for non-payment), Joe reluctantly agrees to movie in with Ratso, whose dingy apartment is situated in a condemned building. 

Together, the two do what they can to survive, and over time become the best of friends. But with the winter months fast approaching, a sickly Ratso talks more and more of heading south to Florida, convinced the sunshine and fresh air will cure his aliments. 

Can Joe raise enough money to help his pal realize his dream, or will the city swallow them up instead?

Jon Voight brings an “aw shucks” innocence to the part of Joe Buck, whose turbulent past is revealed by way of a series of flashbacks, presented during his long bus trip to New York City. Raised by his grandmother (Ruth White), Joe was once in love with a girl named Annie (Jennifer Salt), an affair doomed to end in tragedy (In one very traumatic flashback, we watch as Joe and Annie are gang raped by a pack of thugs. Her psyche all but destroyed, a confused Annie tells the police Joe was responsible for the assault). 

The moment he arrives in New York City, it’s clear that Joe is completely out of his element, making him the perfect dupe for a con man like Ratso Rizzo. As played by Dustin Hoffman, Ratso is an ornery cripple with a chip on his shoulder, yet despite having spent so much time on the streets, he’s not particularly good at raising cash. What’s more, his health deteriorates rapidly when the cold weather sets in (to the point he can barely walk without falling down). 

Two years removed from his portrayal of Ben Braddock, the affluent but confused college student in Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, Hoffman plays an entirely different sort of character in Midnight Cowboy, and in so doing established himself as one of the era’s finest actors.

Shining just as brightly as his two stars, director John Schlesinger brings a gritty realism to Midnight Cowboy, giving the film a documentary-like feel that serves its story perfectly (some scenes look as if they were lifted from a nightly news report). 

By focusing on his two loners, tagging along as they traverse the harsh city streets, Schlesinger captures poverty in a way I’d never seen before, making it almost palpable; Joe eventually manages to get his hands on some money, proudly announcing he has $8 in his pocket. Even by late ‘60s standards, $8 wasn’t a lot of money, but because we’ve experienced the lows right along with him (at one point, a desperate Joe prostituted himself on a street corner, hooking up with a homosexual teenager, played by a young Bob Balaban, who, in the end, didn’t have the money to pay), we can’t help but share in his excitement. 

Sure, $8 won’t take them very far, but the fact that they have any cash at all is reason enough to celebrate.

While I no longer rank it as my all-time favorite movie, Midnight Cowboy is still high up on the list, and remains one of the most poignant exposés of poverty and loneliness ever committed to film.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

#1,655. Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Directed By: John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller

Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Albert Brooks, Vic Morrow

Tag line: "You're traveling through another dimension. A dimension, not only of sight and sound, but of mind..."

Trivia: John Landis's segments were the first to be filmed, and Steven Spielberg considered canceling the entire project after the deadly helicopter crash

Twilight Zone: The Movie, a 1983 anthology based on the popular television series from the ‘50s and ‘60s, will forever be marred by the tragedy that occurred during its production. On July 23, 1982, while shooting the John Landis-directed segment Time Out, actor Vic Morrow and two children were killed when a helicopter lost control (Morrow and one of the kids were decapitated by the rotor blade, while the second child was crushed to death by the falling copter). It was a disaster that should never have happened (in violation of child labor laws, the scene was being shot at 2:30 in the morning), and regardless of how many times I see it, I can’t watch the film without thinking of this terrible accident.

Following a brief prologue (starring Albert Brooks and Dan Aykroyd), Twilight Zone: The Movie presents four tales of mystery and suspense, starting with the above-mentioned Time Out, in which Morrow plays William Conner, a Vietnam vet and unapologetic bigot who, while sitting with some co-workers in a bar after work, loudly complains about minorities, shouting a few racial slurs in the process. But before the night is out, the “Zone” will show Mr. Conner the error of his ways. The next segment, titled Kick the Can, was directed by Steven Spielberg, and concerns the residents of a retirement community who, following the arrival of newbie Mr. Bloom (Scatman Crothers), are reminded how it feels to be young. Joe Dante’s It’s a Good Life sees teacher Helen Foley (Kathleen Quinlan) make a trip to the home of young Anthony (Jeremy Licht), who, thanks to his special powers, always gets his way. Rounding out the group is George Miller’s Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, about an airline passenger (John Lithgow) whose fear of flying is taken to a whole new level.

Each segment has its strengths, starting with the prologue, an often-funny opening scene (thanks to Brooks’ and Aykroyd’s snappy dialogue) with an unforgettable ending. Along with its message of tolerance, Time Out reminds us just how good Vic Morrow was at being bad. Having made a career out of playing bastards in movies like Blackboard Jungle, The Bad News Bears, and Humanoids from the Deep, Morrow continues his streak by portraying an extreme racist, one who gets his comeuppance when forced to experience life in both Nazi Germany (as a Jew) and the rural south (as a black man). Kick the Can is the film’s most light-hearted tale (you can’t help but like it), shining a light on the elderly, and how, more often than not, they’re overlooked by the younger generations. It’s a Good Life is the visually vibrant story of a boy who can make things happen just by thinking about them, an ability that scares the hell out of his relatives (Kevin McCarthy, of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fame, plays Anthony’s subservient Uncle Walt). It’s a creepy segment that, at times, gets under your skin, but when it comes to sheer terror, nothing can top Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. John Lithgow delivers a manic performance as the frightened passenger who, because of his hysteria, can’t convince anyone that there’s something sinister walking around on the plane’s wings. A taut, edgy tale about paranoia, Nightmare at 20,000 Feet will have you squirming on the edge of your seat.

While it’s impossible to forget the tragedy that haunts the film to this day, there’s no denying that Twilight Zone: The Movie is a whole lot of fun to watch, with a quartet of tales that ultimately offer something for everyone.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

#1,654. House of Last Things (2013)

Directed By: Michael Bartlett

Starring: Lindsey Haun, Blake Berris, RJ Mitte

Tag line: "Pick up the key... unlock the past"

Trivia: Marks the feature film debut of RJ Mitte, aka Walter White Jr. in Breaking Bad

In an effort to save his crumbling marriage, Alan (Randy Schulman) takes his troubled wife Sarah (Diane Dalton) to Italy for a month-long vacation. To watch over their house while they’re gone, he hires Kelly (Lindsey Haun), who temporarily moves in with her mentally slow brother Tim (RJ Mitte). What looks to be an easy job is soon complicated, however, when Kelly’s out-of-control boyfriend Jesse (Blake Berris) shows up and refuses to leave. To make matters worse, Jesse comes across a lost boy while shopping at the local supermarket and decides to bring him back to the house. To Kelly’s horror, Jesse announces that he plans to hold the boy, whose name is Adam (Micah Nelson), until his parents pay a ransom for his return. It’s around this time that the three begin to experience strange visions, all of which suggest something terrible happened inside the house. What they don’t realize is that Alan and Sarah, despite being thousands of miles away, are sharing these visions. Will they discover the cause of this unusual phenomenon in time, or will all five fall victim to the energy that’s enveloping the house and all who live in it?

Written and directed by Michael Bartlett, 2013’s House of Last Things is in no particular hurry to reveal its various mysteries. Under normal circumstances, I’m a fan of films that move slowly, building an ominous tone as they weave their way towards an eventual outcome, but House of Last Things takes it all a bit too far. More than once, we’re presented with images of yellow balloons, golf balls, and apples, all of which clearly figure into a solution that, for most of the movie's running time, remains just out of reach. In addition, director Bartlett tosses in a few elements that go absolutely nowhere; an elderly woman named Rose (Michele Mariana), claiming to be Sarah’s therapist, pops up on occasion, spouting bizarre platitudes that only succeed in confusing us. In the end, House of Last Things wallows in ambiguity for so long that its finale, regardless of what it might be, couldn’t possibly live up to the hype.

And yet there wasn’t a single moment while watching House of Last Things that I wanted it all to end. Despite its over-indulgence, the film is crafted in such a way that it held my attention throughout, and even though it was doomed to be an anti-climax, I was anxious to see how everything tied together. Without a doubt, House of Last Things is a frustrating movie, but never once did I find it boring.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

#1,653. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Directed By: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon

Tag line: "The Biggest Show On Earth!"

Trivia: One of the neon-outlined violins used in the Shadow Waltz number is on display in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, DC

Many rank 42nd Street as Busby Berkeley’s best musical, but my personal favorite is Gold Diggers of 1933. With its intricate dance routines and a handful of truly funny moments, Gold Diggers of 1933 is fun with a capital “F”.

When his latest show is shut down by the creditors, Broadway director Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) heads back to the drawing board, and dreams up a musical he's convinced will run for years. 

Of course, he'll need money to produce it. Enter songwriter Brad Roberts (Dick Powell), who, along with writing the show’s music, also coughs up the needed cash, on the condition that his girlfriend Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler) play the lead. Hopkins agrees, and also casts Polly’s roommates Carol (Joan Blondell) and Trixie (Aline MacMahon). 

Along with writing, Brad is a talented singer, and is courted by Hopkins to play one of the show's leads, but Brad refuses to avoid drawing the ire of his family. Hopkins eventually discovers that Brad's real name is Robert Bradford, of the Boston Bradfords, a wealthy family that would never approve of him being mixed up in show business. In fact, when Brad's older brother Lawrence (Warren William) gets wind of his involvement in Hopkins’ latest venture, he travels to New York with Fanuel Peabody (Guy Kibbee), the Bradford family lawyer, to convince his younger sibling to drop out. 

In addition, Lawrence and Peabody plan to offer Polly a large sum of money to break things off with Brad. But when they mistake Carol for Polly, it leads to a series of mishaps that will ultimately teach both men a thing or two about Broadway girls!

Gold Diggers of 1933 starts off strong, with a rousing rendition of “We’re in the Money” performed by Fay Fortune (Ginger Rogers), who even sings a verse in Pig Latin. It’s an elaborate production number, but is nowhere near as extravagant as “Pettin’ in the Park”, which features everything from policemen on roller skates to pretty girls walking in the rain. In the final act, Gold Diggers of 1933, treats us to “The Shadow Waltz” (with dozens of violins that glow in the dark), as well as “Remember My Forgotten Man”, a melancholy ditty set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. As good as the rest of the tunes are, “Remember My Forgotten Man” is hands down the movie’s most poignant sequence. 

Its musical numbers aside, Gold Diggers of 1933 is also a very funny movie. Believing Carol is Polly, Lawrence Bradford wines and dines her, hoping to make her fall in love with him so that she’ll leave Brad alone. Aided by Trixie, who sets to work seducing the lawyer Fanuel Peabody (she gives him the nickname “Fanny”), Carol goes on pretending that she’s Polly, and forces Lawrence to spend big bucks on her (a sequence set in the girl’s apartment, where they talk Lawrence and Peabody into buying them expensive new hats, is pretty damn hilarious). It isn’t long before the two stuffed shirts fall for the girls’ charms, and watching them get raked over the coals by these conniving ladies is a definite highpoint of what I believe is Busby Berkeley’s shining cinematic accomplishment. 

Unlike most musicals of this era, Gold Diggers of 1933 is just as entertaining without the music as with it.

Monday, February 23, 2015

#1,652. Life Itself (2014)

Directed By: Steve James

Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel

Tag line: "The only thing Roger loved more than movies"

Trivia: Voice actor Stephen Stanton provides the voice of Roger Ebert during his various narrations

It was an overcast day in April of 2013 when I first learned of Roger Ebert’s passing. I was on break at work, and headed out to my car to check my cell phone (unlike most people, I don’t have a smart phone, so I don’t feel the need to have it on me at all times). It was then that I saw the text message from my friend John: the film critic who had changed my life was dead.

One of the unwritten rules I laid down for myself when I started this 2,500 movie challenge of mine was that I would avoid referencing current events, which, as everyone knows, don't stay “current” for very long. It was my hope that, in doing so, my reviews would remain “timeless”, meaning people would read them and have no idea when they were written (the glowing praise I heaped on Local Hero five years ago could have just as easily been penned this morning). On April 6, 2013, I temporarily tossed that rule out the window. To ignore the demise of one of the all-time great film critics was unthinkable to me, so I reviewed 1984’s Angel (to understand why I chose this movie, you’ll have to click the link) and in so doing said goodbye to a man who’d turned me on to some of the best motion pictures ever produced.

That was my tribute, meager though it may be. The 2014 documentary Life Itself serves as director Steve James’ homage to this exceptional man. Narrated at times by Ebert impersonator Stephen Stanton, the movie covers every aspect of Roger Ebert’s life, from what was common knowledge (his often-turbulent partnership with Gene Siskel and their hugely popular television show; his career with the Chicago Sun-Times; the screenplay he wrote for Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls; and his drawn-out battle against cancer) to those things very few people knew about him (his childhood in Urbana, Illinois; the time he spent as editor of his college newspaper; his bout with alcoholism; and his loving relationship with his wife Chaz and their grandchildren). In addition to presenting his past, James and his camera were at Ebert’s side right up to the end, when, surrounded by those who loved him, he realized he could fight no longer.

Featuring interviews with some of the cinema’s true visionaries (Martin Scorsese, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog) as well as its up-and-coming stars (at one point, Ramin Bahrani, director of 2005’s Man Push Cart, receives a gift from Ebert that immediately makes him the envy of every film fan on earth), the movie also utilizes archival footage to paint as complete a picture of its subject as possible, up to and including candid images of his final days. More than a documentary, Life Itself is joy and heartbreak wrapped up in a very engaging two-hour package, and I, for one, am glad it was made.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

#1,651. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Directed By: Steve McQueen

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Fassbender

Tag line: "The extraordinary true story of Solomon Northup"

Trivia: The tree where Solomon Northup sees several men being lynched was actually used for lynching and is surrounded by the graves of murdered slaves

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black man living in 1840’s New York who, despite being born free, is kidnapped, transported to Louisiana, and sold into slavery. Given the name “Platt” by his captors, Northup first becomes the “property” of plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a kind, decent man who, at one point, praises Solomon for devising a plan to transport lumber via a small waterway. Alas, not everyone is impressed with Solomon’s accomplishment, and when he has an altercation with hired hand John Tibeats (Paul Dano), Ford has no alternative but to sell Solomon to fellow plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). 

A drunk prone to violent outbursts, Epps is a hard, often savage master who, much to the chagrin of his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson), is also carrying on a sexual relationship with pretty female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). Knowing full well what Epps is capable of, and fearing he may never see his family again, Solomon (who, in order to survive, had to pretend he couldn’t read or write) takes a chance and approaches Canadian laborer Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), telling him his story and asking him to deliver a letter to his wife and two children back in New York, letting them know where he is. But will the message reach them in time?

Much like the ‘70s mini-series Roots, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t shy away from depicting the cruelties of slavery, not all of which involved physical violence. While bartering to sell his new shipment of slaves, trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) ignores the pleas of a young mother (Adapero Oduye) and separates her from her children, selling her son (Craig Tate) to another buyer and keeping the woman’s daughter (Storm Reid) for himself (being of mixed birth, the girl is sure to bring in big money). 

Yet as bad as this is, it pales in comparison to what Solomon and the other slaves are forced to endure while working on Edwin Epps’ plantation. Believing it’s his God-given right (he quotes a scripture passage that, in his mind, justifies a master’s superiority over his “property”), Epps regularly beats his slaves, sometimes over minor infractions (two receive lashings for picking slightly less cotton than they had the day before). In what is certainly the film’s most upsetting scene, Epps even has Patsey whipped for visiting a nearby plantation (the mistress of which is a black woman, played by Alfre Woodard). It truly is a horrible thing to behold (director McQueen goes so far as to show the flesh being torn from Patsey’s back with each successive lash).

The performances are exceptional: Michael Fassbender is unforgettable as the brutal Epps, and Lupita Nyong'o won an Oscar for her portrayal of Patsey, who suffers the indignities of being her master’s “favorite” (the scene where Epps has his way with her is as troubling as any of the movie’s more violent moments). Standing above them all, however, is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, the free man thrown headfirst into a nightmare. The difficulties he faces over the course of these 12 years would have broken most men, but Solomon never gives up hope (as he says at one point, “I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune”, which is exactly what he does).

12 Years a Slave is, indeed, a tough film to watch, yet we do so because of Solomon Northup, whose desire to be free shines like a beacon in the darkness. He remains, from start to finish, a remarkable individual, and Ejiofor does a masterful job bringing him to life.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

#1,650. Birdman (2014)

Directed By: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Starring: Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Edward Norton

Trivia: Michael Keaton and the rest of the cast had to adapt to Alejandro González Iñárritu's rigorous shooting style, which required them to perform up to 15 pages of dialogue at a time while hitting precisely choreographed marks

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a perfect storm of creativity, a film that fires on all cylinders - execution, performance, story - to create a work of art that is positively stunning.

It’s been years since actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) portrayed Birdman, the popular comic book hero whose exploits were featured in several blockbuster films. Since that time, his career has stalled, and in an attempt to get it rolling again he has written a play based on Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love”. 

The play is set to debut on Broadway in a few days’ time. Alas, things are not going well for either Riggan or his opus (which he is also starring in and directing). For one, his supporting actor (who, truth be told, wasn’t very good) was struck on the head by a falling light during rehearsals. For a moment or two, this tragedy seemed to have a happy outcome when co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) announces her boyfriend is none other than Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), Broadway’s hottest star, and that he may be interested in taking the part. 

After refinancing his house to meet Shiner’s salary demands, Riggan is horrified to discover that his new co-star is a prima donna (Shiner's method acting ruins a very important preview). On top of this, Riggan’s attempts to reconnect with his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who is now working as his personal assistant, aren’t going as he’d hoped. 

Worst of all, however, is the very real possibility that Riggan is losing his mind. He is hounded, night and day, by his alter-ego, Birdman, who wants the aging actor to don the costume again and appear in another film. Hus best friend and business partner Jake (Zach Galifianakis) assures him everything will be OK, but as opening night approaches, Riggan Thomson is convinced that his life and career are about to come crashing down around him.

As crafted by Iñárritu and his team, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) plays as if the entire film was shot in a single take. While this isn’t the case (special effects were utilized to achieve what appears to be a seamless flow), the director did subject his cast and crew to a series of extended scenes, during which the camera roams freely around the playhouse, following one character after another as they prepare for the show's upcoming debut. Aside from giving the movie a “real-time” vibe, this method also enhanced the various performances, introducing a level of tension that served the story perfectly; a flubbed line or miscue by any actor meant an entire scene, many of which stretch for minutes on-end, would have to be re-shot. 

The supporting cast is extraordinary. Edward Norton delivers one of his best performances as the egotistical Mike, an actor willing to give everything he’s got to achieve perfect realism on the stage. While performing a bedroom scene, Mike suggests that he and Lesley actually have sex, which leads to one of the film’s funniest visual gags. Also excellent is Emma Stone, taking what could have been a clichéd character (a troubled daughter angry with her absentee father) and bringing her convincingly to life.

As for the lead, Michael Keaton is damn near flawless as Riggan, a man pushed to his limits as he tries to salvage what is left of his dignity. The parallels with the actor’s own past are hard to ignore: Keaton played the title character in Batman and Batman Returns, only to struggle once he hung up the cape. I’m sure this touch of reality worked to the actor's advantage, but the depths to which he takes his character (Riggan’s conversations with his mind's manifestation of Birdman are troubling, to say the least), coupled with his confidence in some of the picture’s lighter moments (in one scene, Riggan is locked out of the theater during a preview performance, forcing him to dart through the crowded streets of New York in his underwear) prove that Keaton dug considerably deeper for the role, relying on more than real-life experience to give his character the needed intensity.

There are some strong contenders in this year’s crop of Academy Award nominees, with a number of films poised to compete with Birdman for Oscar’s highest honors. If I were a betting man, I’d lay money that Eddie Redmayne, who played Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, will beat out Keaton for Best Actor, while J.K. Simmons, so good in Whiplash, will trump Norton’s bid in the Supporting Actor category. And I’ll be shocked if Linklater’s Boyhood doesn’t capture the top prize as the year’s Best Picture. 

But regardless of whether or not it’s a big winner at this Sunday’s Oscar ceremony (Iñárritu could walk away with Best Director, and either this movie or The Grand Budapest Hotel will win for original screenplay), Birdman is a remarkable achievement that will stand the test the time.

Years from now, people will still be talking about Birdman, and I won’t be the least bit surprised if it shows up on a few “Best of Decade” lists at the end of 2019. It truly is that good.

Friday, February 20, 2015

#1,649. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) - The Films of Wes Anderson

Directed By: Wes Anderson

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric

Trivia: Jeff Goldblum plays Vilmos Kovacs, a tribute to cinematographers László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond


Moments after Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel ended, I wanted to see it again. Chock full of style and humor, it’s a movie that practically demands multiple viewings, and is so entertaining you don’t mind watching it more than once.

An author (Tom Wilkinson) talks of the events that led to the writing of his most popular book. Told in flashback, we join him when, as a younger man (played by Jude Law), he resided at the nearly deserted Grand Budapest Hotel, which once had been the Republic of Zubrowka’s most popular lodgings. One day, he has a chance encounter with Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the elderly owner of the hotel, who invites the author to dinner.

Over the course of their evening together, Moustafa recounts his early days as a lobby boy at the Grand Budapest (the younger Zero is portrayed by Tony Revolori), when he was mentored by M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the refined concierge who oversaw the hotel in its heyday, just before the outbreak of a costly World War.

Along with his many duties, Monsieur Gustave would personally see to the happiness and well-being of the wealthy old ladies who frequented the Grand Budapest. One such woman, Madame M. (Tilda Swinton, in heavy make-up), with whom Gustave had a very "special" relationship, passes away, and in her will leaves the concierge a priceless painting titled “Boy with Apple”.

This doesn’t sit well with Madame M’s son, Dmitri (Adrian Brody), who orders his right-hand man Jopling (Willem Dafoe) to frame Gustave for murder. X  Accused of poisoning Madame M. for his own personal gain, Gustave is shipped off to prison. But with the help of his trusty lobby boy Zero, as well as Zero’s young fiancé Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), he intends to prove his innocence and, if possible, bring his accusers to justice.

You can always rely on Wes Anderson to create a visually interesting film, and The Grand Budapest Hotel is arguably his most stunning achievement. With its painted backgrounds and old-world locations, the movie has a very European feel, a change of pace for the director, whose previous films put the focus squarely on American intellectuals. The Grand Budapest Hotel also features an impressive cast, including F. Murray Abraham (as the melancholy older version of Zero the lobby buy); Edward Norton (the local military commander); Bill Murray (a concierge who assists Gustave in his time of need); and Harvey Keitel (a fellow inmate of Gustave’s who has devised a plan to escape the “impenetrable” prison where they’re being held). Yet, despite its phenomenal supporting crew, it’s the movie’s lead, Ralph Fiennes, who delivers its best performance (I honestly didn’t know he could be as witty as he was in this picture).

Along with the humor, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, at times, quite exciting. The scene in which Gustave and several other inmates try to escape from prison is both tense and exhilarating, and a snowbound chase scene (where two characters on a sled pursue a third on skis) is damn thrilling.

Critics have called The Grand Budapest Hotel a masterpiece, and it’s been nominated for a number of awards (including 9 Oscar nods and a Golden Globe win as the year’s Best Picture in the comedy / musical category). Personally, I have a hard time ranking it over The Royal Tenenbaums, which is one of my all-time favorite films. But I can’t say with any certainty I’ll always feel this way. It’s possible that, the more I see The Grand Budapest Hotel, the more I’ll fall in love with it.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

#1,648. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Directed By: Isao Takahata

Starring: Chloë Grace Moretz, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen

Tag line: "A Princess' Crime and Punishment"

Trivia: This movie was selected to be screened as part of the Directors' Fortnight section of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival

Based on The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a Japanese folk story dating back to the 10th century, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is one of the latest offerings of Tokyo’s Studio Ghibli, which alone is reason enough to celebrate.

While out working one day, a bamboo cutter discovers a tiny princess, so small she can fit in the palm of his hand, nestled inside a luminous stalk of bamboo. Considering her a gift from heaven, the cutter returns home to his wife, who agrees that they should raise the girl as if she were their own daughter. Growing faster than a normal child, the princess befriends some of the local kids, including handsome teenager Sutemaru, and spends her days frolicking with them in the fields of the nearby mountain. After also finding a bamboo stalk filled with gold, the cutter moves his wife and the princess to the city, where he builds a beautiful palace for them all to reside in. Believing the princess was destined to live a life of royalty, the cutter hires the Lady Sagami to teach her how to behave like a refined young woman. Given the name “Kaguya” by royal priest Inbe no Akita, the princess is soon approached by 5 prestigious suitors, all of whom seek her hand in marriage; as well as the Emperor himself, who wishes to make Princess Kaguya one of his many wives. It’s at this point the princess, who longs for the freedom she experienced on the mountain, remembers her true origins, and realizes that the people of her world are coming to bring her home.

For The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, director Takahata and his animators returned to the basics, relying on charcoal drawings and watercolors to bring this ancient folktale to life. Yet despite its simplistic nature, many of the images on display in this movie are among the most elegant Studio Ghibli ever produced (the scene where the cutter searches for the princess in the bamboo forest as the sun goes down is particularly striking). This natural approach proves the perfect match for the story at hand, in which the princess is forcibly removed from a world she loves (the mountain and its nearby forest), only to find herself in one that’s completely foreign to her. Though his intentions were good, we realize early on that the cutter should never have moved his family to the city, where deception is commonplace (some of the suitors stoop to treachery and lies in order to win the princess’s affections). It’s a different life than what they experienced in the wilderness, where people were honest and things were much simpler. While its visual style may be unique, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya fits right in with other Studio Ghibli offerings like Princess Mononoke and Ponyo, putting the focus squarely on the magical qualities of the natural world.

Co-founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke); producer Toshio Suzuki; and Isao Takahata (who, along with this film, also directed 1988’s haunting Grave of the Fireflies), Studio Ghibli has turned out some of the finest animated features of the last 30 years, and while it may be a bit premature to hail it as a classic, I’m betting The Tale of the Princess Kaguya will eventually rank as one of the renowned studio’s all-time best films.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

#1,647. The Theory of Everything (2014)

Directed By: James Marsh

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Tom Prior

Tag line: "His mind changed our world. Her love changed his"

Trivia: It took writer Anthony McCarten 10 years to bring this story to the screen

It was while watching the documentary mini-series Stephen Hawking’s Universe in the late ’90s that I first became aware of how brilliant Stephen Hawking was, and the fact that he’s been able to delve so deeply into the mysteries of the universe while confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak, is amazing, to say the least (for years, Hawking has suffered the debilitating effects of ALS, a disease that attacks the body’s muscle tissue, eventually leading to paralysis). The 2014 film The Theory of Everything, a biopic / romance directed by James Marsh, is Hawking’s story, as told by the woman who stood beside him for so many years.

We begin in 1963, when Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) was a spry, athletic student at Cambridge, majoring in astrophysics. While at a campus party, he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), an arts major, and before long the two are seeing each other on a regular basis. It’s clear to everyone, including his hard-edged instructor, Dennis (David Thewlis), that Stephen Hawking has an exceptional mind. Unfortunately, it was around this time his body began to fail him. Diagnosed with ALS, doctors gave Stephen 2 years to live. Not wanting to waste a moment of the time they had left, Stephen and Jane married, and though his disease grew steadily worse, he managed to complete his doctorate at Cambridge, graduating with full honors. As he continued working on his theories regarding black holes and the origin of the universe, Jane was busy raising the couple’s children and doing everything she could to make her husband (who was now confined to a wheelchair) as comfortable as possible. In an effort to alleviate the pressures of her everyday life, Jane joins a church choir, where she meets Jonathan (Charlie Cox), who, over time, becomes a regular fixture at the Hawking household, assisting Jane any way he can. Things get a bit more complicated, however, when Jonathan confesses to Jane that he’s developed feelings for her. To her surprise, and despite her continued dedication to her husband’s career, Jane finds she has feelings of her own for Jonathan, resulting in complications that neither of them anticipated.

Eddie Redmayne delivers a remarkable performance as Stephen Hawking, a role that was clearly as physically demanding as it was emotionally (there are times later in the film when he’s so spot-on that you have to remind yourself you’re watching an actor portray Stephen Hawking, and not Hawking himself). Ultimately, though, The Theory of Everything is as much Jane’s story as it is Stephen’s (the movie was based on her novel Traveling to Infinity: My life with Stephen), and Felicity Jones was up to the challenge, conveying the love and devotion her character felt for her husband, as well as the frustrations she faced on an almost daily basis as his condition worsened. If nothing else, The Theory of Everything proves that the time-honored cliché “Behind every great man is a woman” is 100% accurate.

With its tale of true love triumphing in the face of adversity, The Theory of Everything had all the makings of a weepie movie-of-the-week. Thanks to the incredible work of both Redmayne and Jones, it never once falls into that trap.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

#1,646. Boyhood (2014)

Directed By: Richard Linklater

Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke

Tag line: "12 years in the making"

Trivia: Richard Linklater cast his daughter Lorelei Linklater as Samantha because she was always singing and dancing around the house and wanted to be in his movies

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was, as its tagline boasts, a movie 12 years in the making. Shot periodically between 2002 and 2013, it follows Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from a boy into a young adult (Coltrane was seven when production started and 19 when it finally wrapped). It was a bold experiment, to be sure, but then Linklater was no stranger to following characters over an extended period; Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, all of which were shot seven years apart from one another, track the blossoming romance of two lovers over 14 years. And much like he did with that trilogy, the director brings a sense of realism to Boyhood that only time could achieve.

When he was seven, Mason Jr.’s mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) moved both he and his older sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) to Houston, where, hoping to make a better life for her young family, she enrolled in college. Things take an unexpected turn, however, when the children’s father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who had been out of the picture since he and their mother divorced, returns from Alaska, announcing that he intends to stick around Texas for the foreseeable future. Once in school, Olivia starts dating her psychology professor, Bill Welbrock (Marco Peralla), who has two children of his own (Jamie Howard and Andrew Villarreal) from a previous marriage. Olivia and Bill eventually marry, and are happy for a while, but Bill’s drinking soon spirals out of control, causing Olivia to file for divorce. Several years later, Olivia, now a teacher, moves in with Jim (Brad Hawkins), an Iraqi war veteran, while Mason Sr. marries Annie (Jenni Tooley), with whom he has a new baby. As for Mason Jr, who’s become quite a talented photographer, he meets and falls in love with Sheena (Zoe Graham), a high school classmate, and the two talk of attending the same college in the spring. But as graduation day approaches, Mason Jr. discovers that even the best-laid plans can quickly fall apart.

Linklater does occasionally throw a few cultural references into Boyhood to remind us of the period in which each segment takes place. In one of the film’s opening scenes, Samantha annoys Mason Jr. by belting out the Britney Spears song “Oops I Did it Again”, and later on, after Olivia and Bill have tied the knot, the kids dress up in Harry Potter costumes and head to the bookstore for the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (which hit shelves in July of 2005). The film also has its share of tense moments, like when Olivia decides to leave Bill, whose become abusive towards her and Mason Jr. Ultimately, though, Boyhood isn’t as concerned with high drama or the changes in society as it is the way its characters relate to one another over time. This is best exemplified in the weekend getaways the children have with their real father, Mason Sr.  Early on, he takes Samantha and Mason Jr. bowling, and to Minute Maid Park to see a Houston Astros baseball game, but a few years later he and the kids are putting up “Obama / Biden” signs in a suburban neighborhood and discussing the importance of contraception (a topic that comes up when Sam announces she has a new boyfriend). Over the course of the film, Mason Sr.’s relationship with his children evolves, going from a fun-loving dad to a concerned father who wants to ensure that his kids remain on the right path (a conversation he has with Mason Jr. about the nature of high school romances is especially poignant). Much like he did in Linklater’s Before trilogy, Ethan Hawke comes across as completely natural in these scenes, and as a result, the talks he has with the kids feel 100% genuine.

Addressing the process of growing up like no movie has before it, Boyhood is an epic cinematic achievement that, at the same time, is an intimate look at families and the ties that bind them. It is, simply put, a remarkable motion picture experience.

Monday, February 16, 2015

#1,645. Finding Vivian Maier (2013)

Directed By: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel

Starring: Vivian Maier, John Maloof, Daniel Arnaud

Trivia: Comedian Jeff Garlin is the Executive Producer of this film

So who was Vivian Maier? Well, we have the basics: born Feb. 1926 in New York, died April of 2009 in Illinois, and know she worked as a nanny, employed by numerous families over the course of several decades, mostly in Chicago and its outlying area. Those who knew Vivian also recall she usually had a camera hanging around her neck, and that she seemed to enjoy taking pictures. As it turns out, Vivian Maier took a ton of pictures, over 100,000 in all, as well as hundreds of 8mm and 16mm films. What’s more, she was pretty darn good at it; experts who’ve reviewed her work now consider her one of the finest street photographers of all time, a gifted artist with an exceptional eye. What nobody can figure out, though, is why she hid it away from the world (she never even bothered to have many of her photos developed). Did Vivian Maier know how talented she was? Did she care? These are just some of the questions that co-directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel try to answer in their excellent 2013 documentary Finding Vivian Maier, a film that attempts to piece together the life of a woman who, by all accounts, preferred to remain an enigma.

It all began at an auction house, where John Maloof, looking for pictures for an upcoming nature project, paid $380 for a box full of negatives, apparently taken by a mysterious woman named Vivian Maier (an initial Google search of her name turned up nothing). Eventually, he scanned a few into his computer and posted the pictures online, where people went absolutely gaga over them. So, he tracked down more negatives, some of which offered clues into Maier's background (a few had phone numbers on them), and Maloof's diligence soon paid off. He found people who’d known Vivian Maier, including the parents that hired her and the children she watched over (all of whom are adults now). One couple in particular was holding onto a storage facility filled with boxes of stuff Vivian had acquired over the years (she was, as they put it, a “pack rat”, seldom throwing anything away). In the meantime, Maloof was showing Vivian’s photos to a number of experts (who agreed she was an amazing talent) and organizing exhibits at art galleries in New York, London, and other cities, many of which proved to be a smashing success. The news media soon got hold of the story, and before long Vivian Maier and her photos were causing a stir. As for those who knew her during her lifetime, all they could do was scratch their heads and wonder why she never told them what she was up to.

Finding Vivian Maier is, at times, incredibly engrossing, especially when relating the story of John Maloof’s quest to find out who Vivian Maier was (at one point, his search leads him to former talk show host Phil Donahue, who had hired Vivian for a short time in the ‘70s). What I found interesting was that not a single person who knew Vivian could provide many details about her life, mostly because she revealed very little of herself to them. She was, it seems, a private person (one former employer tells of how Vivian demanded a lock on her door, while another remembers her telling them never to go into her room unannounced). Sometimes, Vivian’s behavior was downright bizarre: a shop owner who was holding goods for her in the ‘80s recalls that she didn’t want to give her name (she signed the receipt “V. Smith”), and when one of the kids in her charge was hit by a car, Vivian saw it as a photo opportunity, snapping pictures of the poor boy lying in the street as he waited for the ambulance to arrive.

Yet this strange woman was also a phenomenal artist, capturing images of everyday life that are among the most breathtaking I’ve ever seen. This is where Finding Vivian Maier truly excels: treating us to hundreds of Vivian’s pictures, snapshots of people going about their business, with no idea that they're being photographed. The experts interviewed over the course of the film praise her composition and framing, comparing Vivian to such well-known photographers as Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. As intriguing as Maier’s story is, it pales in comparison to those moments when we’re shown the fruit of her labors. Normal pictures may be worth 1,000 words, but some of Vivian Maier’s are easily worth a million of them.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

#1,644. The BoxTrolls (2014)

Directed By: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi

Starring: Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Nick Frost

Tag line: "Heroes come in all shapes and sizes...even rectangles"

Trivia: This was the first animated film composer Dario Marianelli ever worked on

Based on the children’s book Here Be Monsters!, The BoxTrolls is the 3rd feature film (after Coraline and Paranorman) released by Laika LLC, an American studio that specializes in stop-motion animation, and thanks to its amazing visuals and top-notch cast, this latest entry is every bit as good as its two predecessors.

For years, the town of Cheesebridge has been plagued by a group of subterranean monsters called the Boxtrolls (much like a turtle and its shell, each troll wears a box that it can quickly retreat into should anyone happen by). Though primarily trash pickers, the Boxtrolls crossed the line a decade earlier when they kidnapped the Trubshaw baby, infant son of local inventor Herbert Trubshaw. As a result of this heinous crime, the town’s mayor, Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), hired exterminator Archibald Snapper (Ben Kingsley) to seek out and destroy every last Boxtroll. Hoping it will gain him admittance to the Society of White Hats, a cheese-tasting club reserved for the town’s most prestigious citizens, Snapper, aided by his henchmen Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), has been diligent in his pursuit of the underground creatures, and has thus far captured more than half of them. What nobody realizes, however, is that the Boxtrolls are a peaceful species, and have lovingly raised the Trubshaw baby, now affectionately known as Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), as one of their own. In an effort to save them from total annihilation, Eggs and his new friend Winnie (Elle Fanning), the mayor’s daughter, try to convince the rest of Cheesebridge that the Boxtrolls mean them no harm. But with Snapper set to unveil a new secret weapon in his fight against them, it looks as if the Boxtrolls’ days may be numbered.

The world of The BoxTrolls is a wondrous place, starting with Cheesebridge itself (from a distance, the town looks like a mountain of houses piled on top of each other, with the Mayor’s residence as its peak) and extending downwards to the underground lair of the film’s title characters, where garbage is magically transformed into useful everyday items and the ceiling, filled with illuminated boxes hanging from ropes, looks as if it were a star-filled sky. To give voice to its bizarre characters, co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi turned to a number of talented performers. Sir Ben Kingsley shines as the villainous Snapper, providing the movie with a memorable bad guy while getting a few laughs of his own (so anxious to fit in with Chesebridge’s upper crust, Snapper ignores the fact that he’s actually allergic to cheese). Also funny are Frost and Ayoade as Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, who, despite being Snapper’s accomplices, are convinced they’re the “good guys”. Rounding out the cast are Hempstead-Wright and Fanning, quite strong as the young heroes of the piece; Jared Harris as the incredibly self-absorbed Mayor; Simon Pegg as the eccentric inventor locked away in Snapper's dungeon; and Tracy Morgan as the insane Mr Gristle, the least talkative (and craziest) of Snapper’s henchman. Also worth noting are the contributions of Dee Bradley Baker and Steve Blum, who, in bringing the various Boxtrolls to life, created the creature’s unique way of communicating.

Though it does feature a few images that might prove troubling to younger kids (Snapper’s allergic reaction to cheese, swelling up like a balloon whenever he eats it, can look pretty gross at times), The BoxTrolls is an excellent family film that, with its message of individuality, is sure to appeal to parents and children alike.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

#1,643. Nurse (2013)

Directed By: Douglas Aarniokoski

Starring: Kathleen Turner, Judd Nelson, Katrina Bowden

Tag line: "Your pain is her pleasure"

Trivia: This movie was nominated for 2 Golden Trailer Awards, including Trashiest Trailer

It’s fairly easy to figure out what drives O.R. nurse Abby Russell (Paz de la Huerta), the demented lead character of 2013’s Nurse, to take her frustrations out on married men that cheat on their wives. Early on, director Douglas Aarniokoski provides us with a brief flashback in which a young Abby (played as a child by Katia Peel) pays a visit to her father’s office, bursting through the door unannounced in the hopes of surprising him. We don’t see the results of this encounter until much later in the film, but come on… from this description alone, I’m sure you can guess what Abby saw when she opened that door. It's not exactly a mystery, but to be fair, Nurse isn’t a movie about the traumas of the past. It’s not interested in delving into Abby’s motivations, or profiling a serial killer operating within the healthcare system. With blood and nudity aplenty, Nurse is as exploitative as they come, and that’s what makes it so entertaining.

Over the years, Abby has become a pro at seducing married men, and always manages to show them the error of their ways (though very few are given enough time to repent). But she has other interests as well. For example, she’s quite attached to Danni (Katrina Bowden), a student nurse she herself mentored. You might even say Abby is obsessed with her (she grows jealous whenever she sees Danni with her EMT boyfriend Steve, played by Corbin Bleu). One night, Abby invites Danni, who’s just discovered that her stepfather Larry (Martin Donovan) is cheating on her mother, out for a few drinks. While at a club, Abby slips roofies into Danni’s glass, resulting in an evening of unbridled passion (both Abby and a stranger they met at the club take turns having their way with the heavily drugged Danni). When Danni awakens the next morning, she doesn’t remember a thing, but it isn’t long before she realizes Abby is infatuated with her. And as the young nurse soon learns, Abby Russell isn’t the sort of person who takes “no” for an answer.

Paz de la Huerta shines as the sensually psychotic Abby, who, when we first meet her, is heading out for a night on the town in a dress that leaves nothing to the imagination. Within moments of walking into a nightclub, she’s approached by Fred (Chris Hoffman), who quickly hides his wedding ring before offering to buy her a drink. From there, the two head up to the roof, where Abby has a few surprises in store for the unfaithful Fred. In this scene, and many others, de la Huerta is as alluring as she is dangerous, going from drop-dead sexy (she sheds her clothes numerous times throughout the film, and never seems in a hurry to put them back on) to incredibly frightening in the blink of an eye (her seduction of Danni’s stepfather is chilling, to say the least).

Where Nurse falters, apart from its sub-par CGi (simply put, low-budget outings like Nurse lack the necessary funds to make computer graphics look convincing), is the way it deviates from its initial plot line. Following the opening scene, which establishes Abby’s personal vendetta against cheaters, the movie veers off in a different direction, exploring her disastrous relationship with Danni, which, though interesting, is never as much fun as the “woman on a mission” aspect of her story. Luckily, the filmmakers had de la Huerta to fall back on. Her performance, coupled with Aarniokoski’s stylish approach to the material, keeps things rolling along nicely, and infuses Nurse with a personality that’s absolutely enticing.

Friday, February 13, 2015

#1,642. My Brother's Wife (1966)

Directed By: Doris Wishman

Starring: June Roberts, Sam Stewart, Bob Oran

Tag line: "Sex was her master! Lust was her destiny!"

Line from the film: "I'm beautiful. I really am. Don't you want me?"

Frankie (Sam Stewart) has just arrived in New York City, and his first stop is to see his brother Bob (Bob Oren), who lives in an apartment with his young wife Mary (June Roberts). The moment Frankie lays eyes on the stunning Mary, he wants her, but she’s determined to remain faithful to Bob. That changes, however, when Mary realizes Bob, who’s much older than she is, will never satisfy her lustful desires, at which point she and Frankie engage in a torrid affair. What Mary doesn’t realize, though, is that Frankie is also seeing his old flame Zena (Darlene Bennett). In need of money so that he and Zena can leave town together, Frankie lies to Mary, telling her he wants to take her to Mexico, where she can get a quickie divorce from Bob so that the two of them can be married. Saying he needs money to set this plan in motion, Frankie tells Mary to turn over her and Bob’s entire savings, $2,000. Because she’s deeply in love with Frankie, Mary agrees, but will she learn the truth in time, or will Frankie skip town with her money, leaving Mary all alone?

Despite its steamy storyline, director Doris Wishman’s low-budget sexploitation flick My Brother’s Wife is nothing to write home about. For one, every single line of dialogue was dubbed during post-production, which leads to a few unintentionally hilarious “discussions” (Frankie and Zena somehow carry on an entire conversation while making out, their lips locked onto one another). Wishman also continues her obsession with inanimate objects in this film, occasionally panning away from the action to focus on an ashtray or a slab of sidewalk concrete. On a technical level, My Brother’s Wife is competently shot (a fight in a pool room, which kicks off the movie, is fairly well handled), and the story itself shows promise early on (giving off a vibe similar to that of the classic noir flick The Postman Always Rings Twice). And while its tale of deception does fizzle out a bit in the last act, the finale packs a wallop, finishing things in highly dramatic fashion. As far as the sex goes, My Brother’s Wife would best be classified as “adult lite”, with one memorable scene of nudity (Mary stands in front of a mirror, admiring her shapely curves) and a sexual encounter between Frankie and Mary that’s shown entirely in silhouette (another well-shot sequence). There’s even a bizarre lesbian encounter, which, though interesting, is entirely out of place in this film (besides, it isn’t the least bit erotic).

With a few scenes shot on the streets of New York (including a segment or two in Central Park), My Brother’s Keeper is, at the very least, a time capsule of a bygone era, but anyone in the mood for high drama or a little skin would be better served looking elsewhere.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

#1,641. Rodan (1956)

Directed By: Ishirô Honda

Starring: Kenji Sahara, Yumi Shirakawa, Akihiko Hirata

Tag line: "Thundering out of unknown skies--The super-sonic hell-creature no weapon could destroy!"

Trivia: This movie was inspired by an incident in Kentucky in 1948, when Captain Thomas F. Mantell, a pilot for the Kentucky Air National Guard, died in a crash while allegedly pursuing a UFO

Following the success of both the original Godzilla (aka Gojira) and its sequel, Godzilla Raids Again, Toho Studios decided to expand its Kaiju universe with Rodan, a 1956 film directed by Ishirô Honda in which an enormous pteranodon terrorizes Japan.

It all begins with the disappearance of two miners in the small community of Kitamatsu. A rescue party, led by the mine’s security chief Shigeru (Kenji Sahara), makes its way to the scene, where they find the mangled remains of one of the missing men. Soon, more people turn up dead, and it isn’t long before the authorities identify the killers: giant insect larvae, dating back millions of years. Joined by the local police force, Shigeru ventures deep into the mine to kill the humongous insects, only to be buried alive by a sudden earthquake. While investigating the cave-in the next day, the police find the injured Shigeru, who, aside from losing his memory, is none the worse for wear. It’s around this time that an unusual UFO appears in the sky, one powerful enough to outrun (and destroy) a high-speed military aircraft. After capturing a photo of the so-called UFO, experts notice it has a wing similar to that of an ancient pteranodon, a huge, bird-like reptile thought to have been extinct for millions of years. When Shigeru regains his memory, he recalls having seen the creature hatch from an egg underground. As authorities search the mines for additional eggs, the pteranodon, nicknamed “Rodan”, unleashes its fury on several Japanese cities. In an effort to save lives, the army fights back, at which point they make a startling discovery that might spell doom for all of Japan.

The first of the giant monster movies shot in color, Rodan starts things off with not one, but two mysteries: who or what is killing the miners in Kitamatsu; and what is the strange UFO that’s streaking through the sky? While we’re occasionally treated to an exciting scene or two (such as the initial discovery of the insect larvae), many of Rodan’s early sequences are on the talky side, with top-level meetings in which scientists compare findings and analyze data. Once the action kicks into gear, however, Rodan delivers the goods (after being chased by military aircrafts, Rodan attacks the city of Fukuoka, reducing it to rubble), and even tosses a few surprises into the mix to keep us on our toes.

Rodan would go on to appear in a number of films, including Ghidora the Three-Headed Monster and 1968’s Destroy All Monsters (a mash-up that featured nearly a dozen creatures), and though he’d never quite achieve the same notoriety as Godzilla, Rodan remains an integral part of Toho’s rich and colorful Kaiju history

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

#1,640. Pet Sematary (1989)

Directed By: Mary Lambert

Starring: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne

Tag line: "Sometimes dead is better"

Trivia: Stephen King makes a cameo appearance in the movie, playing a minister in a funeral scene

Moments into the film, we get an uneasy feeling. 

It’s a beautiful day, and a family is moving into their new home in what seems to be a peaceful neighborhood. Suddenly, a truck barrels down the road. And then another. It’s at this point we realize the “peaceful neighborhood” is anything but, and that any child who wanders into the street will quickly find themselves in the greatest of danger. 

It’s a chilling realization, the first of many waiting for us in director Mary Lambert's adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary.

The new arrivals are the Creed family: Louis (Dale Midkiff), a doctor who has recently accepted a position with the University of Maine; his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby); and their young children Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) and Gage (Miko Hughes). While unpacking, the Creeds meet their only neighbor, Jud Crandall (Fred Gwynne), who lives just across the street from them. 

While out playing, Ellie stumbles upon a small path that extends into the nearby woods. This path leads to a pet cemetery (the sign at the entrance of it is misspelled, reading “Pet Sematary”). According to Jud, kids have been burying their beloved pets there for years, but it turns out this isn’t the area’s only graveyard. 

Lying a short distance beyond the pet cemetery is an Indian burial ground that, legend says, has the power to bring the dead back to life. At first skeptical, Louis discovers the rumors are true when he buries Ellie’s pet cat Church (which wandered too close to the road) in this ancient resting place. 

The next day, Church miraculously returns, yet there’s something not quite right about it. Normally a docile animal, Church is now violent (he scratches Louis’ face, something he had never done before), and seems to follow Louis wherever he goes. Despite these warning signs, Church won't be the only one buried in this sacred spot, and next time the consequences will be even more severe.

The main thrust of the story, the ancient locale with the supernatural powers, is handled well, and results in some effectively spooky scenes (which grow in intensity as the movie rolls on). 

But what makes Pet Sematary so unsettling are its creepy side stories. First and foremost is the continual appearance of a ghost, that of college student Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), who died on Louis’ operating table of injuries sustained when he was hit by a truck. Because Louis tried to save him, Pascow’s spirit feels obliged to watch over the Creed family, warning them of the dangers involved with resurrecting the deceased (when Louis doesn’t listen, Pascow instead reaches out to young Ellie). 

On top of this, we’re treated to several disturbing flashback sequences, like when a young Rachel (played as a child by Elizabeth Ureneck) was forced to care for her dying sister Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek), whose body was twisted and deformed as a result of spinal meningitis; or the time Bill Baterman (Chuck Courtney) buried his deceased son Timmy (Peter Stader), a soldier who died in World War II, in the Indian burial ground, kicking off a terrifying chain of events.

The tale of the Creed family’s experiences with the sacred resting place is frightening enough, yet it’s just one of several elements that make 1989's Pet Sematary such a horrifying motion picture.