Tuesday, March 31, 2015

#1,688. Teen Wolf (1985)

Directed By: Rod Daniel

Starring: Michael J. Fox, James Hampton, Susan Ursitti

Tag line: "He always wanted to be special... but he never expected this!"

Trivia: This film was followed by a cartoon spin-off in 1986

The story of a rather unusual teenager, 1985’s Teen Wolf proved to the world that Michael J. Fox, already a bankable star thanks to Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (released earlier that year), was the real deal.

At first glance, Scott Howard (Fox) appears to be a normal teen. A mediocre player for his school’s basketball team (which just lost its opening game), he spends his afternoons working at the hardware store his father (James Hampton) owns, and his nights hanging out with best buddy Stiles (Jerry Levine). On the romantic front, Scott has a huge crush on classmate Pamela (Lorie Griffin), which prevents him from realizing that his lifelong friend Lisa “Boof” Marconi (Susan Ursitti) is head-over-heels in love with him. On top of all this, Scott is experiencing some dramatic physical changes, from a troublesome rash to unexpected hair growth (on his hands and chest). It isn’t until the next full moon, however, that he realizes the extent of his problem: Scott Howard is a werewolf! At first, he tries to hide his condition, but as he’ll soon discover, being a teen wolf has its advantages. In fact, it’s made him the most popular kid in school. The question remains, though: how long can Scott go on playing the wolf?

Teen Wolf has its share of cool scenes, like the night Scott first learns about his “condition” (which has a pretty clever twist at the end), and the basketball game where he inadvertently reveals his secret to the world, but the truth of the matter is that, without Michael J. Fox, this movie wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun. Whether playing an angst-ridden young man (as he does in the opening scenes) or hidden behind layers of make-up, Fox is always at the top of his game, infusing a most unusual character with both humor and heart, and doing so wonderfully.  

Teen Wolf may have its problems (watching it again, I couldn’t help but wonder why the national press never descended on this small town. After all, it isn’t every day that a werewolf leads his high school basketball team to victory), but in Fox’s capable hands, what could have been a silly story about a teenage wolf becomes something a bit more substantial.

Monday, March 30, 2015

#1,687. Magical Mystery Tour (1967)

Directed By: The Beatles

Starring: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr

Line from the film: "I am your friendly Courier. Mister Bloodvessel is my name. Buster Bloodvessel"

Trivia: One artist who was cast in this film but didn't appear was Jimi Hendrix. Paul McCartney wanted him in the film, but Hendrix was already committed to play at the Monterey Pop Festival

After appearing in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, both of which were directed by Richard Lester, The Beatles decided it was time to make a movie on their own. With a handful of new songs and a basic outline of what was to follow, the boys from Liverpool hopped on a bus and, with a few of their friends, made Magical Mystery Tour, a comedy / musical that gets more surreal with each passing scene.

There’s not much of a premise: Richard Starkey (RIngo Starr, using his real name) buys a bus ticket for himself and his Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robins) for what’s promised to be a “Magical Mystery Tour”, a trip with no real destination during which anything can happen. Along the way, they pick up Paul (McCartney), John (Lennon), and George (Harrison), who, with tour guide Jolly Jimmy (Derek Royle) and his buxom assistant (Miranda Forbes) in tow, pay a visit to a military post; take part in a bizarre race; and even swing by a strip club. There’s action (somehow, during the race, Ringo ends up driving the bus), fantasy (the lads also play a troupe of magicians who’ve taken a special interest in the mystery tour), romance (Aunt Jessie is wooed by a very serious-minded passenger named Buster Bloodvessel, played by Ivor Cutler), and, of course, lots of music, with The Beatles performing a number of new songs that would go on to be hits, including “The Fool on the Hill, “I Am the Walrus”, and the title tune, “Magical Mystery Tour”.

Originally a TV special (it first aired on the BBC in December of 1967), Magical Mystery Tour teeters back and forth between lighthearted whimsy and all-out lunacy for most of its running time. There are quiet scenes, like when John and George entertain a young girl on the bus; and some noisy ones as well, including a sing-along in which every passenger sings standards like “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” as loudly as they can. Interspersed between the insanity are what amounts to music videos for the band’s various numbers, the most memorable being “I Am the Walrus”, which, with its animal costumes and guys dressed as eggs, comes closest to matching the film’s frenzied tone. Yet as much as I like this rendition of the classic Beatles song, I find myself enjoying “The Fool on the Hill” even more, a sequence that features Paul McCartney and some lovely images of the French Countryside (it was shot in the South of France).

Definitely a product of the late ‘60s, Magical Mystery Tour may be a bit too trippy for modern viewers, but with everyone involved clearly having a good time, the film also has an infectious quality that, more than likely, will bring a smile to your face.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

#1,686. The Comedy of Terrors (1963)

Directed By: Jacques Tourneur

Starring: Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff

Tag line: "Your favorite creeps...together again!"

Trivia: Richard Matheson wanted to write a follow-up film for AIP, but since this film was not a big hit, plans to make the followup were shelved

We open in a cemetery, the fog hugging the ground as mourners line a freshly-dug grave to say goodbye to one of their own. The ceremony completed, the group slowly shuffles off, leaving the undertakers to complete their task. It’s a familiar enough beginning, one you’d find in any number of scary movies. But there's more to this film than horror; the moment the family and friends of the deceased are gone, the two undertakers tip the casket, dropping only the body into the open hole (thus preserving the coffin for later use). At this point, the tone of the movie switches as the action speeds up to a frenzied pace (a la The Benny Hill Show), with the morticians tossing dirt into the grave as quickly as possible to cover up their deception. It’s a humorous start to a movie that will live up to its title, The Comedy of Terrors.

The deceitful undertakers are Waldo Trumbull (Vincent Price) and his assistant, Felix Gillie (Peter Lorre), and they’re cutting corners because business has been kinda slow lately. Having inherited the small enterprise from his father-in-law Amos Hinchley (Boris Karloff), Trumbull is having a hard time making a go of it, and to add to his misery he quarrels often with his wife, former opera singer Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson). When the landlord, John Black (Basil Rathbone), demands that he pay his past due rent, Trumbull decides to take matters into his own hands. So, that night, he and Gillie set off to murder someone, thus “creating” a new customer for them to bury. Oddly enough, the victim they eventually settle upon is none other than John Black himself! But when the stubborn Mr. Black refuses to die, Trumbull has no choice but to get a bit “creative” to get the job done.

Despite featuring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff, 1963’s The Comedy of Terrors, Like The Raven before it, emphasizes guffaws over screams, and while most everyone gets in on the fun (Karloff’s Amos, a senile old man, has his moments; and Rathbone seems to be lampooning himself by playing John Black as a hammy Shakespearean actor, spouting off lines from MacBeth for no apparent reason), it’s Price who delivers most of the movie’s laughs. A nasty, self-centered cad, Trumbull insults his wife on a regular basis (when Amaryllis talks of how her father liked to collect “curious objects” from around the world, Trumbull snaps back “He did more than collect curious objects, madam. He also fathered one!”). What’s more, he blackmails the elderly Gillie (who escaped from prison some time ago), forcing him to take an active part in his various illegal activities (many of their scenes together have a slapstick vibe, with an obvious double standing in for the aging Lorre when the action heats up). Having played his share of tortured souls in movies like House of Wax and The Pit and the Pendulum, Price clearly relished the chance to portray a comedic jerk, and he makes the most of the opportunity.

Aside from its three stars (all horror icons in their own right), The Comedy of Terrors was also directed by Jacques Tourneur (who helmed such classic scare flicks as the original Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie), and written by Richard Matheson, who, along with his science fiction output, penned the scripts for Spielberg’s Duel as well as The Legend of Hell House, and the 4th (and best) segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”. With talent like this, you’d think The Comedy of Terrors would have been a bone-fide horror film. That fact that it’s a good comedy instead is a testament to its cast and crew, who prove that jokes and terror are more closely linked than most people imagine.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

#1,685. The Goat (1921)

Directed By: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts

Trivia: Malcolm St. Clair, who played Dead Shot Dan in this film, would go on to direct some of Laurel and Hardy's later films

A master of physical comedy whose timing was impeccable, Buster Keaton would often wow audiences with his acrobatic feats and perfectly staged gags. In 1921’s The Goat, he gives all of these talents, and a few more besides, a damn good workout.

Hoping to improve his luck, a vagrant (Keaton) tosses a horseshoe over his shoulder. Unfortunately, it hits a policeman square on the head, leading to a chase that sees the vagrant running for his life from a trio of cops. Things go from bad to worse for our downtrodden hero when he’s mistaken for wanted murderer Dead Shot Dan (Malcolm St. Clair). With a determined Police Chief (Joe Roberts) hot on his trail, the poor guy tries desperately to stay out of sight. But when he accepts a dinner invitation from a pretty girl (Virginia Fox), the Vagrant soon finds himself in more trouble than he ever imagined.

The Goat is a madcap comedy in every sense of the word, with plenty of stunts and pratfalls to keep things moving along at a solid pace. After inadvertently hitting the cop with the horseshoe, Keaton’s character (referred to as “The Goat” in the film’s credits) is chased through the streets, narrowly avoiding capture at every turn (He even lures the 3 policemen into the back of a delivery truck, which he then locks up tight. But the long arm of the law isn't through with him yet). Along with its action, The Goat provides a few inspired comedy routines, like when Keaton, in line for a free loaf of bread, accidentally stands behind two mannequins, then wonders why the line isn’t moving.

Like most silent comedians, Buster Keaton appeared in a slew of short movies early in his career, and if the others are anywhere near as frantic as The Goat, it’s a miracle he survived long enough to make feature films!

Friday, March 27, 2015

#1,684. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

Directed By: Amy Heckerling

Starring: Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold

Tag line: "Fast Cars, Fast Girls, Fast Carrots...Fast Carrots?"

Trivia: Jennifer Jason Leigh's real life father, Vic Morrow, died in a helicopter accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie about 3 weeks before the US release of this film

The opening credits sequence of Fast Times at Ridgemont High features a few scenes set inside the Ridgemont Mall. Watching the movie again today, I immediately flashed back to my own teenage years, when my friends and I would spend Friday nights hanging out at our local shopping mall, which looked identical to the one in this film (the Sherman Oaks Galleria stood in for the fictional Ridgemont). I’m talking exactly like it, from the arcade and food court right down to the staircases and glass elevator. 

It was the first of several memories that came rushing back as I watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High, including how much I love this film.

15-year-old Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a sophomore at Ridgemont High, is desperately searching for a boyfriend. Following the advice of her best friend Linda (Phoebe Cates), Stacy dates several guys, including classmate Mark Ratner (Brian Backer), who has a crush on her; as well as Mark’s pal, Mike Damone (Richard Romanus), a con man who has a way with the ladies. 

Stacy’s older brother Brad (Judge Reinhold), in his senior year at Ridgemont, has decided to break it off with his longtime girlfriend Lisa (Amanda Wyss) so that he can ‘play the field’, but is fired from his job before he can end things with her. 

As Stacy, Brad, and the others are dealing with the issues that affect most kids their age, classmate Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) is having a great time surfing waves, smoking dope with his buddies (Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards), and tormenting history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) every chance he gets.

Written by Cameron Crowe, whose experiences posing as a high school student formed the basis of the novel that inspired this film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High captures teen life in the ‘80s much better than some critics gave it credit for at the time. Roger Ebert was especially harsh in his 1-star write-up, calling Fast Timesa scuz-pit of a movie” in which “the humor comes from raunchy situations and dialogue”. 

Yes, it is occasionally raunchy; along with a couple of sex scenes and a very memorable daydream sequence, there’s a moment involving carrots that fueled the fantasies of an entire generation of young men. But Fast Times at Ridgemont High also offers some genuine insight into the teenage experience, including fear of responsibility (despite his cool demeanor, Mike Damone proves he’s just as scared as everyone else, and leaves Stacy to face a difficult situation on her own), awkward first dates (Mark’s and Stacy’s night on the town ends rather abruptly), and, most traumatic of all, high school biology class, with a curriculum that was clearly devised by a sadist (I never went on a class trip to the hospital, but I did dissect a few of nature’s more disgusting creatures). So while the humor in Fast Times at Ridgemont High does sometimes aim low, it's situations reach higher than most teen comedies of this era.

Along with Crowe’s script, Fast Times at Ridgemont High boasts an outstanding young cast, many of whom would go on to bigger and better things. Jennifer Jason Leigh convincingly portrays Stacy as a confused young woman so eager to lose her virginity that she doesn’t stop to consider the consequences, and the stunning Phoebe Cates is exceptional as the worldly best friend who, it turns out, doesn’t have all the answers. In addition to these two, the movie features Judge Reinhold as Stacy’s older brother Brad, who has trouble holding onto a job; and Forest Whitaker as football star Charles Jefferson, an often-angry dude who singlehandedly wins a big game for the home team. And keep an eye out for Nicolas Cage (billed as Nicolas Coppola), making his big-screen debut.

Then there’s Sean Penn as the oft-stoned Jeff Spicoli, a surfer whose sole purpose in life is to have a good time. Despite its ensemble cast, some of whom get considerably more screen time than he does, Penn’s Spicoli is the character that immediately pops to mind when I think of this film; his various run-ins with Ray Walston’s Mr. Hand are arguably the movie’s most hilarious scenes.

While the years may have altered my perspective a bit (back in the day, I agreed with Spicoli when he called Mr, Hand a “dick”. Now, I see the poor guy was more patient than I ever gave him credit for), they haven’t changed how much I enjoy Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Every time I watch this movie, I’m a teenager again, and that’s a feeling I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

#1,683. Gothic (1987)

Directed By: Ken Russell

Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Natasha Richardson

Tag line: "Conjure up your deepest, darkest fear... now call that fear to life"

Trivia: Gabriel Byrne walks with a limp and carries a cane because the real Lord Byron had a club foot

Ken Russell’s Gothic really threw me for a loop. A movie that takes us back to the very night that Mary Godwin Shelley was inspired to write her classic novel Frankenstein, the film has a lot going for it (performances, story, etc), yet is constructed in such a way that suggests its maker felt the style of the telling was more important than the tale itself.

Set in the summer of 1816, Gothic introduces us to Percy Shelley (Julian Sands), who, accompanied by his lover Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson) and her stepsister Claire (Miriam Cyr), visits Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) at the Villa Deodati on Lake Geneva, where he resides with his personal physician Dr. John Polidori (Timothy Spall). One night, as a storm rages outside, the five pass the time by reading from a book of ghost tales, at which point Lord Byron suggests they all try their hand at writing a horror story. But when (thanks to a steady stream of wine and laudanum) they instead come face-to-face with their greatest fears, their evening of frivolity descends into a nightmare from which they cannot escape.

Gabriel Byrne shines as the devious Byron, whose constant prodding convinces the others to confront their demons (whether they want to or not), and Natasha Richardson (in an early role) brings warmth to the part of the reserved Mary Godwin, a woman so inspired by the traumas of that fateful evening that she wrote one of the all-time great horror novels, Frankenstein. These same events would be explored again a year or so later in Ivan Passer’s Haunted Summer, but where the latter film focused more on the dramatic, Gothic was interested in weaving a supernatural tale, which, truth be told, fit the subject matter quite nicely (the characters are tormented throughout by the personification of their fears, which at times takes the form of a monster, creeping in the nearby shadows and watching every move they make).

Where Gothic lost me, though, was in its execution. Ken Russell, whose style has always leaned towards the flamboyant, fills the movie with one bizarre image after another, from life-size mechanical puppets that dance to a pair of female breasts with eyes where the nipples should be. It’s not that these sequences don’t work; on the contrary, there are times when they successfully convey the dread that haunts these characters (whether brought on by the laudanum or a force they cannot comprehend). Unfortunately, Russell’s lack of restraint undermines the effectiveness of these scenes, bombarding us with the strange and unusual on such a regular basis that we become numb to it all. Whereas he would have been better off using the approach he took to Altered States (where the imagery supported the story), Russell instead takes Gothic in the direction of Tommy (where the imagery was the story), and the movie suffers as a result.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

#1,682. Cabiria (1914)

Directed By: Giovanni Pastrone

Starring: Italia Almirante-Manzini, Lidia Quaranta, Bartolomeo Pagano

Tag line: "The Master Work Of A Master Mind"

Trivia: Was the first film to use a dolly-track system, the effects of which were pegged "Cabiria movements" in the industry

Years before D.W. Griffith directed Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Italy was already making movies on a grand scale. Films like The Last Days of Pompeii (1908), Lucrezia Borgia (1910) and Quo Vadis? (1912) set the standard by which many later historical epics, both in Hollywood and abroad, would be measured. Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria, one of the last produced during this era, was yet another impressive achievement, a motion picture so enormous in scope that its images are as awe-inspiring today as when it was first released over a century ago.

Set during the period of the Second Punic War (around 200 B.C.), Cabiria opens on the island of Sicily, where Roman aristocrat Batto (Émile Vardannes) and his wife reside with their adolescent daughter Cabiria (Carolina Catena), who is cared for by a slave named Croessa (Gina Marangoni). When nearby Mt. Etna erupts, Croessa and Cabiria head for the safety of the countryside, where they’re kidnapped by Phoenician pirates, who sail to Carthage and sell the two to Kartholo (Dante Testa), a High priest of the God Moloch. Kartholo intends to sacrifice young Cabiria during an upcoming ceremony, causing a desperate Croessa to turn to Fulvius Axilla (Umberto Mozzato), a Roman spy operating undercover in Carthage, for help. Along with his slave Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano), Fulvius rescues the girl, then heads to a local inn, where the Innkeeper Bodosteret (Raffaele di Napoli) agrees to hide them from the throng of worshipers hot on their trail. Thus begins a decade-long adventure, during which our heroes encounter everyone from the famed Carthaginian General Hannibal (also played by Émile Vardannes) to Princess Sophonisba (Italia Almirante-Manzini) of Numidia, all the while hoping to one day reunite Cabiria with the mother and father she left behind.

Aided by its striking set design and remarkable costumes, Cabiria features several gargantuan scenes, from the eruption of Mt. Etna that kicks the story off to Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps (complete with elephants). With the Punic Wars as a backdrop, we watch as the Roman Fleet is nearly destroyed in Syracuse thanks to the mathematician / inventor Archimedes (Enrico Gemelli), who, with the help of humongous mirrors, manages to sink a number of ships (setting them ablaze by reflecting the hot sun onto their sails); and marvel at the film’s various battle sequences, each more extravagant than the last.

While the story’s focus never dwells far from its central characters or their plight (Fulvius makes his way back to Rome, joining the army in their fight against Carthage, while Cabiria, played as an adult by Lidia Quaranta, becomes a handmaiden to the Princess Sophonisba), Cabiria is, first and foremost, a movie spectacular, recreating a time in history when adventure was commonplace, and staging it all in as exciting a manner as possible.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

#1,681. The ABCs of Death (2012)

Directed By: Kaare Andrews, Angela Bettis, et al

Starring: Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Iván González, Kyra Zagorsky

Tag line: "26 Directors, 26 Ways to Die"

Trivia: The opening shot of each of the 26 short films features the camera panning away from something red

It’s a hell of a concept: a horror anthology featuring 26 short films by 26 filmmakers, each dedicated to a different letter of the alphabet.

Yeah, it’s a hell of a concept, and with more hits than misses, The ABCs of Death is also a hell of a movie!

Released in 2012, The ABCs of Death was a true global effort, with short films produced in such countries as France, Canada, Mexico, Surinam, and Japan, just to name a few. Here's how it worked: 26 young directors, most of whom specialize in genre cinema, were assigned a letter of the alphabet and given a small amount of money (somewhere around $5,000) to produce a short about death that, in some way, related back to that letter.

The stories themselves were left entirely up to the filmmakers, who had the freedom to do whatever tickled their fancies. Some of those chosen, such as Ti West (The Innkeepers) Noboru Iguchi (Mutant Girls Squad) and Andrew Traucki (Black Water), were established directors, while others were relative newcomers (known more for her work in front of the camera, actress Angela Bettis directed “E is for Exterminate”, a short about a spider that takes its revenge on the man who tried to kill it).

Right out of the gate, The ABCs of Death gets your adrenaline pumping with “A is for Apocalypse”, a violent story about a man (Miguel Insua) and his wife (Eva Llorach) directed by Nacho Vigalondo, who also helmed the wonderful 2007 sci-fi / thriller Timecrimes. This is followed by “B is for Bigfoot”, Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s unique take on the Yeti mythology in which a horny couple (Harold Torres and Alejandra Urdiaín) try to convince the guy’s younger sister (Greta Martinez) to leave them alone, saying a Yeti will eat her heart if she doesn’t stay in bed. Both movies are extremely effective, as is “D is for Dogfight”, a stylish short by Marcel Sarmiento about a boxer (Steve Berens) forced to fight a savage dog.

Other films worth noting are Ben Wheatley’s “U is for Unearthed”, a first-person perspective in which the audience watches events unfold through the eyes of a hunted vampire; “Q is for Quack”, a self-referential comedy by Adam Wingard (You’re Next) where he and his writer, Simon Barrett, lament the fact they’ve been saddled with the difficult letter “Q”; and Thomas Cappelen Malling’s “H is for Hydro-Electric Diffusion”, a cartoon-like fantasy set in World War II about a dog in uniform who is seduced by a sultry night-club dancer (and she’s a real fox!)

Speaking of cartoons, we’re also treated to the animated short “K is for Klutz”, about a woman who, after using the bathroom, is tormented by her own turd; and, along those same lines, “T is for Toilet”, a Claymation flick centering on a young boy’s fear of the toilet, which has thus far hindered his parents’ attempts to potty-train him.

Of course, there are some duds as well. Noboru Iguchi’s “F is for Fart” is an overly-bizarre “comedy” about a teenage girl (Arisa Nakamura) who longs to smell the farts of her pretty teacher (Yui Murata); and after getting off to a strong start, The ABCs of Death ends with the disappointing “Z is for Zetsumetsu”, director Yoshihiro Nishimura’s nudity-infused crapfest that sets out to insult as many people as possible (it even makes references to tragedies like 9/11). While not bad, per-se, Timo Tjahjanto’s “L is for Libido”, about a sex-centric contest in which the loser is viciously murdered, definitely crosses the line into poor taste with a scene involving child molestation.

That said, the worst shorts were, quite surprisingly, from a pair of directors I admire. Andrew Traucki’s “G is for Gravity” is a (very) short film about suicide that left me scratching my head, but even this wasn’t as bad as Ti West’s “M is for Miscarriage”, a movie so incredibly minimalistic that it was almost embarrassing.

On the whole, however, I’d say The ABCs of Death was a worthwhile experience, and I can’t wait to check out its sequel, last year’s The ABCs of Death 2. With the likes of the Soska Sisters (American Mary), Vincenzo Natali (Haunter), and Julien Maury (director of the excellent 2007 French horror film Inside) tossing their hats into the ring, I’m betting this second installment will be as much fun as the first!

Monday, March 23, 2015

#1,680. Mean Johnny Barrows (1976)

Directed By: Fred Williamson

Starring: Fred Williamson, Roddy McDowall, Stuart Whitman

Tag line: "Brutal!..Blasting!..Blazing!"

Trivia: Co-star Elliott Gould came in for a half-hour's work to help out his MASH co-star, improvising his part on the spot

Actor Fred Williamson, who starred in movies like Black Caesar and Bucktown, has also worked behind the scenes on a number of films. And while I was lukewarm on Joshua, a 1976 western based on a screenplay he penned, his directorial debut, the action / crime flick Mean Johnny Barrows, was, at all times, an entertaining watch.

After receiving a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. army for striking his superior officer, Johnny Barrows (Williamson) returns home to Los Angeles. Once there, he’s approached by mobster Mario Racconi (Stuart Whitman), who wants to pay Johnny to rub out his family’s competition, namely Don Da Vince (Anthony Caruso) and his two sons Carlo (Mike Henry) and Tony (Roddy McDowall), who’ve been trying to peddle drugs in nearby neighborhoods. Hoping to live a normal life, Johnny turns down Racconi’s offer and goes to work at a local gas station. Unfortunately, his boss, Richard (R.G. Armstrong), is a cheapskate, and following an argument over his meager paycheck, Johnny finds himself unemployed and in desperate need of cash. Convinced by a pretty blonde (Jenny Sherman) to give Racconi another chance, Johnny throws on a slick white suit and sets out to eliminate the Da Vince family. What he doesn’t know is there’s a traitor in the Racconi organization, one who's setting Johnny up to take a very big fall.

For a fair portion of its running time, Mean Johnny Barrows is an exciting grindhouse-era crime film; one scene in particular, where Williamson jumps out of a van brandishing a pair of shotguns, is exploitation gold. In addition to the action, Mean Johnny Barrows features a strong supporting cast, including Stuart Whitman (quite good as a Mafioso), R.G. Armstrong (who made a career out of playing bastards like the one he portrays here), and Anthony Caruso. Even Roddy McDowall, who at first seems like an odd choice to play an Italian crime boss’s son, holds his own as the shifty Tony, and keep an eye out for Elliot Gould, who pops up briefly as a street bum (appearing as a favor to Williamson, his co-star in Robert Altman’s MASH, Gould ad-libbed his single scene, resulting in one of the film’s funniest segments).

With plenty of thrills and some blood-drenched shoot-outs, Mean Johnny Barrows was the perfect vehicle for Fred Williamson, who, this time around, gets the job done on both sides of the camera.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

#1,679. Psychomania (1973)

Directed By: Don Sharp

Starring: Nicky Henson, Mary Larkin, Ann Michelle

Tag line: "Motorcycle Maniacs on Wheels"

Trivia: During a BBC interview, Nicky Henson said that he has always thought the film was terrible and only decided to be in it because he thought no one would ever see it

A movie about undead bikers? Sounds a little unusual, doesn’t it? Well, that’s just scratching the surface; directed by Don Sharp, 1973’s Psychomania is, from start to finish, an intensely strange motion picture.

Tom Latham (Nicky Henson) is the leader of a biker gang, a group of hell raisers known as “The Living Dead”. His gang’s name proves prophetic, actually, because Tom has just stumbled upon something both his mother (Beryl Reid) and his family’s faithful servant, Shadwell (George Sanders), were hiding from him: the secret to eternal life. Of course, like most secrets, there’s a catch: if you want to live forever, you must, 1. kill yourself, and 2. have total confidence that you will return (even the slightest hesitation when taking your own life will put you in the grave for good). So, the next day, while he and his buddies are running from the cops, Tom decides to end it all by driving his bike off a bridge. With his mother’s permission, Tom’s girlfriend, Abby (Mary Larkin) and the rest of “The Living Dead” bury Tom along with his beloved bike. Shortly after, someone claiming to be Tom is spotted at a roadside rest stop, where 5 innocent people are murdered. What’s more, his body is no longer in its grave! As the gang soon discovers, their fearless leader has conquered death, and it isn’t long before they want to do the same. With an undead army of vicious bikers at his disposal, Tom plans to take over the city, something his mother simply cannot allow. But then... how is she going to stop him?

Psychomania is a decent biker flick, profiling a gang that stirs up all kinds of trouble. After causing an accident that claims the life of a motorist (Roy Evans), “The Living Dead” descends upon a crowded section of town, where they chase mothers pushing baby carriages and knock a painter off a ladder. The police pursue them several times, leading to some exciting action scenes, but it’s the film’s supernatural elements that will truly blow you away. Following an odd sequence in which he visits the room where his father died (the door to which had been locked for 18 years), Tom goes through with his suicide bid, and is buried, along with his bike, in a remote area known as the “Seven Witches”. Soon after, we’re treated to a nifty scene where Tom rides his bike right out of the grave. When the others realize what’s happened to Tom, they, too, start committing suicide, doing so in very creative ways (one guy leaps from a plane and refuses to open his parachute).

From its unique storyline and bizarre casting choices (George Sanders, as regal as ever, portrays a butler with an astute knowledge of the occult) to its folksy theme song (“Riding Free”, performed by Harvey Andrews, is reminiscent of the music of Donovan or Peter, Paul and Mary), Psychomania is a gloriously peculiar movie, and I loved every minute of it!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

#1,678. The Apostle (1997)

Directed By: Robert Duvall

Starring: Robert Duvall, Todd Allen, Paul Bagget

Tag line: "Lust, Obsession, Revenge... Redemption"

Trivia: After seeing the movie, Marlon Brando wrote Robert Duvall a heartfelt letter congratulating him on making such a moving film

The Apostle was a labor of love for Robert Duvall, who, aside writing and directing, played the lead character, a Texas preacher who goes looking for salvation in a small Louisiana town.

E.F. “Sonny” Dewey (Duvall) is a Pentecostal preacher who, ever since childhood, has devoted his life to spreading the word of God. Things take an unexpected turn for him, however, when he learns his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) has been having an affair with Horace (Todd Allen), a youth minister. What’s more, she’s attempting to force him out of the Texas church he himself founded. Angry and humiliated, Sonny prays to God for help, but takes matters into his own hands when, at his son’s little league game, he attacks Horace, putting the young man in a coma.

Now on the run, Sonny makes his way to Louisiana, where he meets up with retired minister C. Charles Blackwell (John Beasley), and, having re-baptized himself as God’s new apostle, decides to form a church in the small Bayou town. Working two jobs, he saves enough money to renovate Minister Blackwell’s former church, then takes to the airwaves, reaching out to the audience of a local D.J. (Rick Dial) in an effort to gain new parishioners. Along the way, Sonny (calling himself “E.F.”) even finds time to date Toosie (Miranda Richardson), a receptionist working at the radio station. Thanks to his hard work and determination, the church eventually draws a large crowd, but despite his newfound success, Sonny knows that, sooner or later, his past is going to catch up with him, and he’ll have to pay for the wrongs he’s done.

Duvall delivers one of the best performances of his career in The Apostle, bringing plenty of charisma to the part of Sonny, a man whose faith is his strongest asset. In the film’s opening scene, Sonny and his mother (June Carter Cash) are out driving when they happen upon a recent accident. Grabbing his bible, Sonny rushes over to one of the vehicles and begins preaching to its critically injured driver, doing what he can to comfort the man with the word of God. That said, The Apostle doesn’t make Sonny out to be a saint (he alludes to having committed adultery during his marriage, and was clearly drunk when he attacked Horace), nor does it demonize his wife Jessie (her fear of Sonny leads us to believe she’s experienced his violent temper before). Instead, it presents its lead as he is, taking the time up-front to show us Sonny’s strengths and weaknesses, then invites us to tag along on his journey of redemption.

The supporting cast of The Apostle is equally good, with impressive turns from Fawcett, Beasley, Richardson, and, in a small role, Billy Bob Thornton (his two scenes are arguably the film’s most memorable). But it’s Robert Duvall who gives the movie its heart, bringing to life a man whose love of God is genuine (a refreshing change from many Hollywood productions, which depict preachers such as Sonny as nothing more than hypocrites), and whose desire to repent unites an entire community. In Duvall’s capable hands, The Apostle tells a story of faith so powerful that it could move an atheist to tears.

Friday, March 20, 2015

#1,677. Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

Directed By: Motoyoshi Oda

Starring: Hiroshi Koizumi, Setsuko Wakayama, Minoru Chiaki

Tag line: "Roasting Anything In Its Path!"

Trivia: The Godzilla prop used in the shot when the planes fly over him in the ice mountains was actually a wind-up toy

A direct sequel to 1954’s Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again ups the ante a bit, giving Godzilla a nemesis to fight and, in so doing, introducing a sense of fun that later films in the series would capitalize on.

While on a deserted island where one of them crash-landed, pilots Shoichi Tsukioka (Hiroshi Koizumi) and Kôji Kobayashi (Minoru Chiaki) witness something amazing: a battle between a new Godzilla and an Anguiras, a carnivorous dinosaur awakened from its deep-sea slumber by the same atomic blast that brought Godzilla to the surface. After a brief meeting with Yamane (Takashi Shimura), who faced off against Godzilla in Tokyo some time ago, it’s determined that the creatures are on their way to the island of Osaka, and since they cannot be killed (the oxygen destroyer that felled the first Godzilla is no more), the best bet is to try and minimize the damage they’ll do. When the battle is over, a victorious Godzilla heads back to sea, but despite the efforts of the military, Osaka is decimated, and the factory Tsukioka and Kobayashi work for, which is owned by the father of Hidemi Yamaji (Setsuko Wakayama), Tsukioka’s girlfriend, lays in ruin. Some months later, Godzilla re-appears near the village of Hokkaido, giving Tsukioka and Kobayashi, as well as the air force, another chance to defeat the monster. But here's the problem: seeing as he can’t be killed, how exactly do you stop Godzilla?

The highlight of Godzilla Raids Again is the fight between the big guy and the Anguiras, a giant beast with spikes on its back that, for the most part, walks around on all fours. This heavyweight bout takes up a fair portion of the movie’s mid-section, and the miniatures designed for this sequence, most of which are destroyed during the melee, are pretty damned convincing. One in particular, a model of the famed Osaka Castle (originally built in 1583), is amazingly detailed, and you can’t help but feel a little sad when the mighty structure comes tumbling down. Along with the battle between the monsters, this sequence also features a daring escape, with several convicts stealing a gasoline truck after knocking out their guards (the prisoners make their getaway while being transported to another facility). As it turns out, though, their bid for freedom came at the wrong time, and the two behemoths rolling around on the ground proved impossible to avoid.

The film isn’t all fun and games; a brief scene where Hidemi is watching Osaka burn from a distance, knowing full well that her father and boyfriend are still there, packs an emotional punch, and the finale, though somewhat upbeat, also has its share of tragedy. Its handful of dramatic moments aside, Godzilla Raids Again marked a definite shift in tone for the series, moving away from the darkness so prevalent in the original and putting the focus squarely on the spectacle, thus pushing the anti-nuke message of the first film (which isn’t gone entirely) into the background.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

#1,676. Mark of the Devil (1970)

Directed By: Michael Armstrong

Starring: Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, Olivera Katarina

Tag line: "Positively the most horrifying film ever made"

Trivia: Around half a dozen languages were spoken on the set of this film

Guaranteed to upset your stomach” cried the poster for 1970’s Mark of the Devil, a movie so intensely brutal that some theaters gave out barf bags prior to each showing. To be sure, Mark of the Devil is a violent motion picture, but what I found even more disturbing was the film’s portrayal of the so-called “Servants of God” who sat in judgment of others, deciding whether or not someone was guilty of a trumped-up charge of witchcraft. The fact that men such as these actually roamed the countryside for hundreds of years, exacting their own brand of justice wherever they went, is enough to send a shiver up your spine.

The setting is a small European village in the 18th century. Claiming to be a man of God, the town’s local witch hunter, Albino (Reggie Nalder), abuses his power on a regular basis (aside from sexually assaulting potential suspects, he executes young women without so much as a trial). His reign of terror finally comes to an end when Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier) arrives on the scene, bearing a proclamation that his mentor, Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom), is on his way. A well-known witch finder, Lord Cumberland has been hand-picked by the Prince to track down and eliminate all evildoers (which, in no uncertain terms, means Albino is now out of a job). Having served for years as his apprentice Christian believes Lord Cumberland is a great man, and that he’s doing God’s work. His opinion changes, however, when Cumberland arrests a local barmaid named Vanessa (Olivera Viuco), who Christian is quite fond of, on suspicions of being a witch (his commitment to his master is further dampened when he catches Cumberland strangling someone with his bare hands). Disillusioned, Christian starts to wonder if men like Albino and Cumberland are truly God’s servants, or if they’re using their position to enforce a much more nefarious agenda.

The film’s various torture scenes are, indeed, tough to watch. One alleged witch, a former nun accused of bearing Satan’s child (she claims she was raped by the bishop), is first tied to the rack (which stretches her to her breaking point), then has her tongue ripped out by the root. But more than this, Mark of the Devil shows us how easy it was to condemn innocent people to death on a charge of heresy. Suspected of being possessed by a demon, a nobleman, Baron Daumer (Michael Maien), is throw in jail. As we soon discover, though, the Baron owns a significant amount of land that the church wants, and the best way to get him out of the picture is to expose him as a blasphemer. As a servant of the church, Lord Cumberland does what he can to get the Baron to forfeit his property (going so far as to torture him). But even If Cumberland fails to convince the young Baron that it’s in his best interest to comply, he can always have him executed as a heretic. Either way, the church gets the land they desire.

This is where the true horror of Mark of the Devil lies: the notion that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people were callously condemned by men of God (whose authority was absolute) for crimes they clearly did not commit. It’s almost too horrible for words, and the movie presents it all very effectively, bombarding you with images and events so terrible that they’ll likely stay with you for days.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

#1,675. Shark Attack in the Mediterranean (2004)

Directed By: Jorgo Papavassiliou

Starring: Ralf Moeller, Julia Stinshoff, Gregor Bloéb

Tag line: "Deep ocean terror at a new depth!"

Trivia: This movie was originally produced for German television

Borrowing elements from other films and with a style reminiscent of a SyFy original movie, Shark Attack in the Mediterranean isn’t the best shark-related flick you’ll ever see, but it’s not the worst way to pass an hour and a half, either.

For a while now, Sven (Ralf Moeller), a German expatriate, has been operating a helicopter shuttle service on the island of Mallorca, where he lives with his teenage daughter Maja (Oona-Devi Liebich). Years earlier, Sven’s beloved wife (and Maja’s mother) was killed in a shark attack, a tragedy so devastating to him that he’s strongly considering moving back to Germany. One day, while flying newly-arrived oceanographer Julia Bennet (Julia Stinsoff) to the local institute, Sven intercepts a distress call saying three divers are trapped in a cage at the bottom of the ocean, and are completely surrounded by man-eating sharks! Once rescued, the divers claim they saw an enormous shark, over 30 feet long, swimming in the area. Their story is somewhat confirmed the next day when the badly mutilated body of a young man washes up on the beach. Sheriff Carlos Rivera (Gregor Bloeb), who also happens to be Sven’s best buddy, doesn’t believe a huge great white is patrolling the nearby waters, an opinion he shares with Dr. Verena Brandauer (Katy Karrenbauer) of the institute. A shark expert researching a possible cure for cancer, Dr. Brandauer says there hasn’t been a creature that large since prehistoric times. Determined to prove them wrong, Sven teams up with Julia Bennett to hunt down the humongous carnivore, but even if they do find the shark, how exactly are they going to kill it?

If Shark Attack in the Mediterranean seems a little familiar, it’s because it has a lot in common with some earlier shark films. Researchers using sharks to help cure a debilitating disease? That’s straight out of Deep Blue Sea. Helicopter versus shark? Jaws 2. At one point, an official, hoping to prevent a panic from breaking out, says an obvious shark attack might have been caused by a boat’s outboard motor, a statement lifted almost verbatim from 1975’s Jaws. Along with being unoriginal, Shark Attack in the Mediterranean has a style that’s way over-the-top, with lots of swooping cameras, quick edits, and senseless slow-motion (the filmmakers actually thought it’d be a good idea to show Sven tossing his sunglasses onto a table in slo-mo). Adding to the unintentional hilarity is a scene in which Sven runs up and down a crowded beach, shouting “Shark alarm” over and over again to get the swimmers out of the water. I don’t know how many times he bellows “Shark alarm”, but I’m betting it’s at least a dozen and a half.

Here’s the thing, though: I still had fun watching Shark Attack in the Mediterranean! The action scenes are fairly intense (especially the opening rescue), and there’s a subplot involving Carlos’ dying wife that gives the story a dash of emotional depth. I won’t lie to you: most of the time, this movie is more “so bad its good” than it is “good”, but whether you’re swept up by the film or just plain laughing at it, Shark Attack in the Mediterranean is one picture that’ll definitely hold your attention.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

#1,674. The Commitments (1991)

Directed By: Alan Parker

Starring: Robert Arkins, Michael Aherne, Angeline Ball

Tag line: "They Had Absolutely Nothing. But They Were Willing To Risk It All"

Trivia: Alan Parker originally wanted Van Morrison for the role of Joey "The Lips" Fagan

Manager wannabe Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr. (Robert Arkins) is putting together a band.  Not a regular rock and roll band, mind you, but one that specializes in soul music. 

With this as his goal, Jimmy begins his quest to find the best musicians in all of Dublin. Starting with his good friends, guitarist Outspan Foster (Glen Hansard) and bass player Derek Scully (Kenneth McCluskey), he adds saxophonist Dean Fay (Félim Gormley), drummer Billy Mooney (Dick Massey), pianist Steve Clifford (Michael Aherne), and lead singer Declan “Deco” Cuffe (Andrew Strong). 

Rounding out the band are three pretty back-up singers: Natalie (Maria Doyle), Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher) and Imelda (Angeline Ball), as well as middle-aged trumpeter Joey “The Lips” Fagan (Johnny Murphy), who claims to have shared the stage with such legendary R&B performers as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Sam Cooke (among others). Whether he’s telling the truth or not, Joey is clearly the most experienced musician of the group, and it’s he who comes up with the band’s name: The Commitments.

After securing equipment (from some shady characters), a place to practice (the top floor of a billiard room), and even a bodyguard (the volatile Mickah, played by Dave Finnegan), Rabbitte pushes The Commitments to learn such classic yunes as “Mustang Sally” and “The Dark End of the Street”. 

Before long, the group is playing gigs throughout Dublin, mostly to packed houses, but will in-fighting among the band’s members ruin their chance to achieve greatness?

Since its release in 1991, Alan Parker’s The Commitments has proven to be a very popular film. In 1996, several of its characters were featured on an Irish postage stamp (part of the “Centenary of Irish Cinema” collection), and a 2005 poll sponsored by Jameson’s Whiskey named it the Best Irish Film of All-Time. 

Part of its appeal is undoubtedly the young cast that Parker assembled, almost all of whom had never acted in a movie before. Robert Arkins is extremely likable as Jimmy Rabbitte, Jr., the creative force behind The Commitments, and Johnny Murphy (one of the picture’s most experienced actors) gives a solid performance as the God-fearing trumpet player Joey Fagan, whose stories fascinate both Rabbitte and his father, Jimmy Sr. (Colm Meaney), a lifelong Elvis fan (Fagan tells the two about his brief stay in Graceland, as Elvis’ guest). 

By the time it’s over, we've grown to like every member of The Commitments; even the often arrogant lead singer “Deco”, who lets the little bit of fame he achieves go straight to his head. It’s fun watching this collection of ragtag musicians come together as a group, and even when they’re at each others' throats (which happens quite often), we can’t help but root for them to succeed.

Another reason The Commitments continues to resonate with viewers almost 25 years later is the music. While the performances are good, the actors and actresses that make up the band were chosen mostly for their musical prowess, which shines brightly each and every time they take the stage. Bolstered by Andrew Strong’s deep, soulful voice (which, considering he was only 16 when the movie was shot, is kind of amazing), The Commitments do justice to every classic they perform. Their rendition of “Mustang Sally” is spot-on, as is the band’s take on “Try a Little Tenderness” and “Slip Away”. Even the ladies get in on the act (one of my favorite numbers is “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)”, sung by Maria Doyle), and it’s to everyone’s credit that there isn’t a bad tune in the bunch.

With great music, likable characters, and a gritty urban setting (which takes us to areas of Dublin I’m sure the city’s tourism council would rather forget about), The Commitments is a movie that, as long as there are dreamers, will always be timeless.

Monday, March 16, 2015

#1,673. Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes

Trivia:  The movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival

In my write-up of 1940’s The Devil Bat, I mentioned how the films of Bela Lugosi were like cinematic “comfort food” for me, how I always relish the chance to watch a movie the star appeared in, no matter how small his role might be. Well, “comfort food” is a good way to describe my feelings about the movies of Werner Herzog as well. Whether documentary or narrative, I find Herzog’s work utterly fascinating, and his 2010 movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams is no exception. Taking us deep underground to observe drawings dating back some 32,000 years, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is, like most of the director’s films, an entirely unique experience.

Located in Southern France, Chauvet Cave, which a trio of explorers stumbled upon in 1994, contains the oldest cave paintings ever discovered. Shortly after this remarkable find, the French Government sealed the area off, and has only allowed a handful of people to enter the cave, one of whom was director Werner Herzog. Joined only by his cameraman, a sound recorder, and an assistant, Herzog spent 5 days inside Chauvet (due to the buildup of gases, nobody was permitted to remain underground for more than a few hours at a time), capturing as many of these amazing images as possible.

Like many of Herzog’s documentaries, Cave of Forgotten Dreams branches off in a number of different directions. Aside from presenting the paintings inside Chauvet, the film also covers some of the other archaeological finds made in the area, including primitive figurines carved from ivory. In addition, the movie delves into the geology of the region, wondering if there might be other caves not yet discovered. While these asides are interesting enough, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is at its best when showing the ancient images of Chauvet, some of which are extraordinarily detailed. Featuring a series of animals, everything from horses to cattle, these drawings are incredible, shedding light on a period of mankind’s history that’s seldom explored. Thanks to Werner Herzog, they’ve now been preserved for the ages.

But then, Herzog has always been quick to turn his cameras towards the more astonishing aspects of our society. In fact, If I had to choose one filmmaker whose movies would be locked away in a time capsule for a few hundred years, thus giving future civilizations a look at what the cinema of today had to offer, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better candidate than Werner Herzog, whose filmography features historical dramas (Aguirre The Wrath of God, The Enigma of Kasper Hauser); horror (Nosferatu the Vampyre); war (Rescue Dawn); crime (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans); the indomitable human spirit (Fitzcaraldo); and the downright bizarre (Even Dwarfs Started Small, The Wild Blue Yonder). Along with his dramatic output, Herzog has created a slew of documentaries that present life in late 20th and early 21st centuries in a truly distinctive light, both short subjects (How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck) and feature-length (Grizzly Man), not to mention some that cross into the realm of adventure (La Soufriere, The White Diamond, Encounters at the End of the World). With such a diverse selection of movies to his credit, I can think of no one better to represent the “here and now”, showing generations to come what can be accomplished with a little imagination, a whole lot of guts, and a movie camera.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

#1,672. The Devil Bat (1940)

Directed By: Jean Yarborough

Starring: Bela Lugosi, Suzanne Kaaren, Dave O'Brien

Tag line: "Sharp Fanged Blood Sucking DEATH Dives from MIDNIGHT SKIES!"

Trivia: This low-budget thriller, boosted by Bela Lugosi, was one of the biggest successes for the poverty row Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC)

Being a Bela Lugosi fan, I always look forward to the time I spend watching his movies. They’re a sort of cinematic “comfort food” for me, films that, even if they aren’t the greatest, will undoubtedly contain at least one interesting performance. 1940’s The Devil Bat is a perfect example.

Bela stars as Doctor Paul Carruthers, a beloved physician who, unbeknownst to the citizens of Heathville, is breeding a colony of enormous bats, which he’s trained to do his bidding. You see, Dr. Carruthers developed the formula for a best-selling cosmetic product, which he then turned over to Martin Heath (Edmund Mortimer) and Henry Morton (Guy Usher), who proceeded to make a fortune off of it. Outwardly, Dr. Carruthers appears to bear no ill will towards his former partners, who, in a show of gratitude, just cut him a bonus check for $5,000. Privately, though, the good doctor is a very bitter man, and his newest concoction, a shaving lotion, will be the tool by which he gets his revenge.

Having conditioned the bats to attack whenever they smell the new lotion, Dr. Carruthers gives a sample to Roy, (John Ellis), a son of Martin Heath’s, who’s mauled to death soon after. Hoping for an exclusive story on the recent killing, newspaper editor Joe McGinty (Arthur Q. Bryan) sends beat reporter Johnny Layton (Dave O’Brien) and photographer ‘One-Shot’ McGuire (Donald Kerr) to Heathville, where, with the help of the deceased’s sister, Mary Heath (Suzanne Kaaren), they set to work trying to figure out what’s going on. But how many more will die before this bizarre case is solved?

While it certainly doesn’t rank as one of Bela Lugosi’s finest, The Devil Bat is far from a terrible movie. The story it tells is intriguing, and the titular creatures, though clearly fake, don’t look as bad you you’d expect when swooping through the air (shots of the phony bats are occasionally interspersed with close-up footage of actual ones). Topping all this, however, is another fine performance by the great Lugosi, who’s perfectly convincing as both a mild-mannered physician and a revenge-crazed madman. After giving the lotion to Roy Heath, Dr. Carruthers shakes his hand, at which point Roy, who’s heading home, bids the doctor a good night. “Good BYE, Roy” is Carruthers cryptic reply, a hint of sadness in his voice at the realization this young man, who he’s known since he was a child, is about to become his first victim.

Where The Devil Bat falters is in the scenes featuring the reporter and his photographer sidekick, many of which are played for laughs. It’s not that the actors are bad, per se; in fact, there are times when the two are kinda funny (having promised their boss a picture of the bat, they decide to photograph a stuffed one and pass it off as the real thing, only to be exposed as frauds when a noted researcher examines the picture and notices a tag on the creature’s wing that says “Made in Japan”). But the dialogue in The Devil Bat isn’t particularly well-written, which becomes obvious when anyone other than Lugosi tries to deliver it. As he’s done many times before, Bela Lugosi brings an air of respectability to a film that, without him, would have quickly drifted into obscurity.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

#1,671. Massacre Mafia Style (1978)

Directed By: Duke Mitchell

Starring: Duke Mitchell, Vic Caesar, Lorenzo Dodo

Tag line: "You're IN... or... you're IN THE WAY!"

Trivia: Many of the events in this film were based on real life stories Duke Mitchell heard from his mob buddies

The last time I saw Duke Mitchell, he and Sammy Petrillo were on the run from the great Bela Lugosi in a horrifically bad movie titled Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. To be honest, Mitchell didn’t impress me at all in that film, either with his singing or his acting. But after watching 1978’s Massacre Mafia Style, a picture he also wrote and directed, I see his heart just wasn’t in that earlier stinker. Given the right material, Duke Mitchell was a charismatic performer, and Massacre Mafia Style shows him at his absolute best.

Recent widower Mimi Miceli (Mitchell) is heading back to America. Having lived in Sicily ever since his father, mob boss Don Mimi (Lorenzo Dodo), was booted out by the U.S. government, Mimi is determined to make a name for himself in Los Angeles, and once there immediately looks up his old pal Jolly (Vic Caesar), who agrees to help Mimi any way he can. In a show of strength, the two kidnap Chucky Triploi (Lou Zito), a former Lieutenant of Don Mimi’s and the current boss of a large crime family. Having proven their worth, Tripoli accepts Mimi and Jolly into his organization, using them as muscle whenever he needs to send someone a message. Before long, Mimi is one of most feared hit men in the mob, a fact that doesn’t sit well with his father. To knock some sense into his beloved son, Don Mimi sends his most trusted associate, Bones (Fred Otash), to America with $50,000 in cash, enough money to set Mimi up in a “legitimate” business (i.e. – the porn industry). But as Mimi and Jolly discover, the Mafia isn’t an organization you can easily walk away from, and it isn’t long before the two are fighting for their lives against their former comrades.

Also released as Like Father, Like Son and The Executioner, Massacre Mafia Style is, first and foremost, an exploitation film. The opening sequence, during which Mimi and Jolly shoot up an office building (killing around two dozen people in the process), sets the tone for the entire picture (showing off his musical prowess, Mitchell underscores this opening with a catchy Italian ditty). The violence on display early on continues throughout the movie (another scene, where Mimi and Jolly pay a visit to an associate known as “The Greek”, also gets kinda messy), but aside from its more extreme attributes, Massacre Mafia Style was also a very personal picture for Duke Mitchell, who filled it with tales and events from his own life, as well as a few he’d heard from others over the years. In one of the film’s more poignant moments, Mimi tells Jolly the story of what happened to his father when he first arrived in America, how he was forced to become a fish merchant, only to be attacked and beaten by his competitors whenever he tried to sell his wares. It’s a moving tale, and Mitchell delivers it perfectly.

Originally produced as a response to Coppola’s The Godfather, Massacre Mafia Style approaches mob life from a much different perspective, offering a “down and dirty” look at the lifestyle that’s just as effective in getting its message across. More than this, though, Massacre Mafia Style forced me to take a second look at Duke Mitchell, and I’m happy to report there was a lot more to him than Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla led me to believe.

Friday, March 13, 2015

#1,670. Visions of England (2005)

Directed By: Roy Hammond

Starring: Franca Barchiesi

Tag line: "A spectacular aerial view of a legendary land"

Trivia: This was the 13th entry in the Visions of Europe series

Like Over Ireland, 2005’s Visions of England, the 13th entry in the Visions of Europe series that was initially broadcast on public television in the U.S., visits several of England’s most impressive landmarks, giving us a glimpse at what they look like from a few hundred feet in the air.

Narrated by Franca Barchiesi, Visions of England takes us on an aerial tour of the country, from the White Cliffs of Dover to the remnants of Hadrian’s Wall and plenty of places in-between. Swooping over such scenic locales as the Isle of Wight (including a stop at Osborne House, where Queen Victoria spent the last 40 years of her life); Stonehenge (which is just as magnificent from above); Stratford-upon-Avon (home of Shakespeare); and London (where we remain for the final third of the movie), this made-for-TV special covers many of England’s best-known attractions (the London Eye and nearby Parliament) as well as some I’d never heard of before, like the Uffington White Horse, a 110 m (374 ft) long prehistoric-style figure carved into the side of a mountain and filled in with chalk, a wonder almost as mysterious as Stonehenge (the entire thing can only be seen from above, meaning the people who created the Uffington Horse 2,000 years ago never got a chance to view it in all its glory).

At just under an hour, there simply wasn't enough time for Visions of England to visit every corner of the country; personally, I’d have loved to see what Stamford (a town in Lincolnshire situated on the River Welland) looked like from the air, not to mention Peterborough Cathedral (which, among other things, is the final resting place of Catherine of Aragon, the first of Henry the VIII’s six wives). Still, despite its limitations, Visions of England is a picturesque journey through a land steeped in history, and its unique vantage point makes it a documentary that’s as beautiful as it is informative.