Thursday, April 30, 2015

#1,718. Home Movie (2008)

Directed By: Christopher Denham

Starring: Adrian Pasdar, Cady McClain, Amber Joy Williams

Tag line: "I dare you to watch until our movie is done"

Trivia: This movie premiered at the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival

Home Movie, a 2008 found footage-style horror / thriller directed by Christopher Denham, introduces us to the Poe family, who live in a remote area of upstate New York. David (Adrian Pasdar), a Lutheran minister, can’t get enough of the new video camera. He takes it with him wherever he goes, shooting everything from the surprise dinner he made to celebrate his wedding anniversary to a backyard baseball game. His wife Clare (Cady McClain), a child psychologist, is constantly telling him to put the camera down, but David is having way too much fun to stop now. Unfortunately, their kids, twins Jack and Emily (played by real-life siblings Austin and Amber Joy Williams), don’t enjoy spending time with the family, and withdraw to either their bedroom or the clubhouse they share in the middle of the woods. But what at first looks like a mild case of anti-social behavior soon proves to be something much more disturbing. Can David and Clare turn the kids around, or are sinister forces at work here?

Both Pasdar and McClain do a fine job as the loving parents in search of answers, each turning to what they know best to try and “fix” the children (Mom prescribes some behavior-altering drugs, while Dad is convinced a demon has taken control of their house, and at one point even attempts an exorcism). But as good as they are, it’s the children you’ll remember when you think back on Home Movie. Almost immediately, we sense there’s something different about Jack and Emily. Aside from the fact they never speak, the two spend their nights sleeping in the same bed, and at times seem to appear out of thin air (more than once, we think they’re asleep, only to find them standing by their bed a moment later). It takes a while for David and Clare to realize their kids are wackos (even a troubling incident involving two pet goldfish is quickly forgotten), but once they do, Home Movie enters a whole new realm of creepy.

Though plagued by some of the same issues that affect other found footage films (there are moments, especially later on, when we wonder why the camera is still rolling), Home Movie is an unsettling, often spooky look at a family in turmoil. If you’re a parent, this isn’t a film you’ll easily forget.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

#1,717. Love at First Bite (1979)

Directed By: Stan Dragoti

Starring: George Hamilton, Susan Saint James, Richard Benjamin

Tag line: "Your favorite pain in the neck is about to bite your funny bone!"

Trivia: This movie had the same make-up artist as 1935's Mark of the Vampire: veteran William Tuttle

One day, in the spring of 1979, we were visiting some family friends when we all decided to take in a movie. The film we settled on was Love at First Bite. The theater, as I remember it, was fairly full, and people (myself included) were laughing throughout the movie. It wasn't until today I realized that was the last time I laid eyes on a single frame of this film. It never played on cable TV when I was growing up, and if it was available to rent on video, I didn’t bother to do so. There have been other instances of long gaps of time passing between my first and second viewings of a film, but I don’t recall another that stretched for 36 years!

Though he has lived there for centuries, Count Dracula (George Hamilton) is being evicted from his castle. It seems the Romanian Communists want to convert it into a gymnasium for loyal party members, and have given the Count and his faithful servant, Renfeild (Arte Johnson), one day to get out. So, with no time to make any plans, Dracula decides to follow his heart to New York City, where Cindy Sondheim (Jill St. John), the girl from the fashion magazines, lives. After a slight mix-up at the airport (his coffin is re-routed to a Harlem funeral home), Dracula and Renfeild get a room at the Plaza Hotel. Before long, Renfeild tracks Ms. Sondheim down, and the Count meets her in, of all places, a discotheque. Almost immediately, the two begin a passionate affair, with Dracula placing the first bite on Cindy’s neck during their initial night together (it’ll take 3 bites to turn her into a vampire, which is Dracula’s ultimate goal). Their happiness is threatened, however, when Cindy confesses all to her psychiatrist (and sometimes boyfriend) Dr. Jeff Rosenberg (Richard Benjamin), who, as fate would have it, is the grandson of none other than the Count’s arch-enemy, Dr. Van Helsing! With the help of Lt. Ferguson (Dick Shawn), one of New York’s finest, Dr. Rosenberg makes several attempts to destroy Dracula and sever the hold he has on Miss Sondheim, but what he doesn’t know is that the Count and Cindy are genuinely in love, and plan to spend eternity together.

Many of the jokes in Love at First Bite, especially in the opening scene, would have gone right over the head of my 9-year-old self in 1979, mostly because at that point I hadn’t yet seen the original Dracula, which this movie pokes fun at (and quite effectively, I might add). I laughed when the Count, playing the piano in one of the dark, foreboding rooms of his castle, got fed up with the constant caterwauling of the wolves outside his window and shouted “Children of the Night! Shut up!” Funnier still was Arte Johnson’s take on the character of Renfeild, mimicking that creepy laugh Dwight Frye let out when they found him, half-mad, below decks of the abandoned ship in the classic ’31 film. Every moment of this brief Transylvanian-set sequence had me smiling ear-to-ear, and that smile turned to chuckles once the two arrived in New York City, where, in the late ‘70s, not even the sight of Count Dracula walking down the street was enough to draw someone’s attention (the scene where Dracula, looking for sustenance, transforms into a bat and flies around the city features some of the movie’s funniest moments). George Hamilton, doing his best Bela Lugosi impersonation, is at his absolute finest, paying tribute to the horror icon while, at the same time, satirizing his mannerisms. He makes for a suave Count Dracula, and we can see why Jill St. John’s character, a hip New York model, would fall for him as quickly as she does.

Then, at about the halfway point, things start to go very, very wrong. It’s around this time that Richard Benjamin’s Dr. Rosenberg makes his grand entrance, and while I don’t lay the blame for the movie’s lackluster second half solely at the actor's feet, Benjamin doesn’t do much to help his own case, either (his portrayal of this key character is far too quirky to be effective). The main problem, I think, is that, as the film continues, George Hamilton isn’t featured nearly as much as he is at the beginning. Instead, we see Rosenberg interacting with Cindy and making half-hearted attempts to kill Dracula. Without Hamilton, Love at First Bite flounders badly, and neither Benjamin nor the usually solid Dick Shawn provide enough laughs to make up for his absence.

Sure, a few of the scenes with Dracula are as corny as those without him, but somehow Hamilton makes them work. When he’s not around, the jokes fall flat, and Love at First Bite suffers as a result.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

#1,716. Dead Men Walk (1943)

Directed By: Sam Newfield

Starring: George Zucco, Mary Carlisle, Nedrick Young

Tag line: "Devil's sorcery, as a dead man returns for vengeance!"

Trivia: Originally distributed by PRC in 1943, this film was reissued in the USA in 1948 by Madison Pictures Inc

We open with a close-up of a book titled “History of Vampires”, which is resting on a table. Suddenly, a hand reaches in, picks the book up, and tosses it onto a fire. As we watch it burn, a strange, somewhat sinister face appears on-screen, saying “You creatures of the light, how can you say with absolute certainty what does or does not dwell within the limitless ocean of the night?” He continues for a minute or two, talking of “witches and warlocks, werewolves and vampires, and all the spawns of hell”. It’s a wordy, flamboyant introduction to 1943’s Dead Men Walk, a Poverty Row production notable for its cast, namely veterans George Zucco (playing two different characters) and Dwight Frye (a supporting actor, and an important one, in both Dracula and Frankenstein).

The face from the opening scene of Dead Men Walk belonged to Elwyn Clayton (Zucco), who, as the movie begins, is already dead. A student of the occult who worshipped the Devil himself, Elwyn was a menace to society, so much so that his own brother, Dr. Lloyd Clayton (also Zucco), murdered him when he threatened to convert their niece, Gayle (Mary Carlisle), into a follower of the dark arts. Now that Elwyn is dead, Gayle is free to live a normal life and marry Dr. David Bentley (Nedrick Young), an up-and-coming physician who occasionally assists Dr. Clayton.

Unfortunately for them all, Elwyn Clayton learned a thing or two about dark magic over the years, and with this help of his hunchback assistant Zolarr (Frye), he returns to life as a vampire. Looking to avenge his own death, Elwyn visits his brother and vows to turn Gayle into a vampire as well (which he begins to do almost immediately, slowly draining the blood from Gayle’s body over the course of several nights). Refusing to believe Dr. Clayton when he says his brother has returned, Dr. Bentley accuses his mentor of trying to kill Gayle, and threatens to do the same to him if she should die. Can Dr. Clayton defeat Elwyn and save his beloved niece, or will he himself be blamed for a murder he didn’t commit?

Released by PRC, the same poverty row studio behind 1940’s The Devil Bat, Dead Men Walk is a low-budget horror / thriller that, at times, reminded me of the classic monster films produced by Universal in the 1930s (the scene where Zolarr exhumes Elwyn Clayton’s casket is particularly well-staged, with plenty of shadows and a low-hanging fog that envelops most of the set). Aside from its atmosphere, Dead Men Walk also boasts some impressive performances. George Zucco (The Cat and the Canary, The Mummy’s Hand) shines in the dual role of the kindly Dr. Clayton and his sinister brother Elwyn, but what drew me to Dead Men Walk in the first place was that it featured Dwight Frye, who, as he did in Dracula and Frankenstein, plays an assistant willing to obey his master’s every command. While he doesn’t quite match the intensity he brought to the earlier films, it was good to see Frye again all the same.

Despite a handful of deficiencies, including a few slow patches in the middle and an over-abundance of dialogue (at a key moment, the resurrected Elwyn is standing over Gayle’s sleeping body, but instead of going straight for her throat, he delivers a speech to…. well, himself, seeing as he was the only one who could hear it), Dead Men Walk is a fun ‘40s flick that fans of classic horror won’t want to miss.

Monday, April 27, 2015

#1,715. Pontypool (2008)

Directed By: Bruce McDonald

Starring: Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly

Tag line: "Words lose their meaning when you repeat them"

Trivia: Pontypool was simultaneously produced as a motion picture and a radio play

It’s early morning in the small Ontario town of Pontypool, and DJ Grant Mazzy (Steven McHattie) is preparing to go on the air. A former shock jock, Grant was fired from his last job for saying things he shouldn’t have, and as a result his current producer Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle) is keeping him on a short leash, something that doesn’t sit well with either Grant or his assistant, Laurel Ann (Georgina Reilly). 

What starts as a typically slow morning in Pontypool soon takes a terrifying turn when the station’s ‘Eye in the Sky’, Ken Loney, reports that a riot is breaking out in town (voiced by Rick Roberts, Ken isn’t actually in the air when making these reports. Instead, he broadcasts from a nearby studio as helicopter sounds play in the background). 

Grant and the others listen with horror as the pandemonium spreads, sending Ken running for cover. For unknown reasons, the citizens of Pontypool have turned on each other, brutalizing and killing anyone in their path, all the while repeating a single word (which differs from rioter to rioter). 

Eventually, Grant and the others, with the help of Dr. Mendez (Hrant Aliakan), who showed up at the station looking for shelter, discover that a strange epidemic has broken out, one that has attached itself to the English language! As the situation outside escalates, Grant, Sydney, and Laurel Ann find that they are not even safe in their underground control booth, and before long, throngs of infected are knocking at their door...

With Pontypool, director Bruce McDonald proves the old adage that “less is more”, crafting a gripping, often intense horror / thriller that rarely ventures from its central location. Aside from a brief opening sequence, when Grant, on his way to work, encounters a scantily-clad woman wandering the streets during a snowstorm, Pontypool takes place inside the underground studio, where Grant, Sydney, and Laurel Ann listen as the chaos unfolds. The scenes where Ken, who is in the middle of it all, reports on the carnage are harrowing, to say the least, and even though we don’t witness it ourselves, his description of events makes us feel as if we’re in the middle of it all. Soon, the virus makes its way to the station, at which point we see (in brutal, gory fashion) just how deadly it really is.

Holding the film together is star Steven McHattie, who is perfectly convincing as the arrogant DJ tossed headfirst into a nightmare, and the concept that a virus can be spread via language is both unique and horrifying. Every person has their own “trigger” word or phrase that opens the door to the infection, and not knowing which word will eventually set someone off makes it all the more frightening. 

Firing on all cylinders, Pontypool is, from start to finish, a riveting motion picture.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

#1,714. Goldeneye (1995)

Directed By: Martin Campbell

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco

Tag line: "You know the name. You know the number"

Trivia: The Rolling Stones were offered the chance to sing the title song, but declined

With 1995’s Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan joined the ranks of the actors who portrayed the finest spy in her majesty’s service, James Bond 007. And as debuts go, this one’s pretty damn entertaining!

Nine years after he teamed up with agent 006 (Sean Bean) to infiltrate a Soviet base (a mission that ended in disaster), James Bond (Brosnan) once again finds himself in Russia, going head-to-head with a criminal organization known as Janus. Having swiped a military helicopter, Janus operative Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) and her associate, General Ouromov (Gottfried John), fly it to Severnaya, Siberia, where, for decades, an underground control center has been monitoring "Operation Goldeneye", a pair of satellites equipped with an electromagnetic pulse so strong that, within seconds, it can cause a blackout in a major city. With the help of programmer Boris Grishenko (Alan Cumming), a double agent who works at the facility, Janus raids the Severnaya bunker and gains control of the satellites.

Following a successful test of Goldeneye, which reduces the Severnaya bunker to rubble, Bond makes his way to St. Petersburg, where he teams up with Natalya Simonova (Izabella Scorupco), the lone survivor of the attack at Severnaya. Together, the two try to figure out who’s behind all this (for years, the leader of Janus has been something of an enigma). When Bond finally does come face-to-face with Janus' head honcho, he receives the shock of a lifetime, and to make matters worse, learns that the group’s next target is London! Can Bond stop the attack in time?

Like most Bond pictures, Goldeneye begins with a pre-title sequence, one that takes us back to the mid-‘80s mission where 007 and 006 tried to sabotage a Soviet chemical weapons plant. From the first few moments, which feature an amazing stunt (using a bungee, Bond jumps from the top of a tall dam, dropping hundreds of feet to the ground below) to the finale, a thrilling chase involving a plane that's fallen off the edge of a cliff, this sequence gets the audience’s pulse pounding in a big way.

Despite it being his first appearance in the role, Brosnan seems very comfortable as Bond, showing a penchant for comedy and a way with the ladies, both of which harken back to Roger Moore; while at the same time maintaining the character’s rough edge, a trait he shares with his immediate predecessor, Timothy Dalton (a scene set in a bathhouse proves that Brosnan’s Bond has no problem whatsoever roughing up a female enemy agent). In addition to Brosnan’s debut, Goldeneye marked the first appearance of Dame Judy Dench as “M”, a role she’d reprise in several subsequent films. During her initial one-on-one with Bond, "M" doesn't pull any punches, telling 007 she considers him “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur” and “a relic of the Cold War”, setting the stage for an occasionally turbulent relationship that would be further explored in the years to come. The rest of the supporting cast is also good, with Desmond Llewellyn getting a few laughs as “Q” (demonstrating his latest gadgets in his lab) and an even younger Moneypenny (Samantha Bod) putting 007 in his place (as the character has done many times in the past). Unfortunately, I can’t reveal too much about the film's villain, mostly because doing so would spoil one of its best twists, but rest assured he’s every bit as maniacal as Blofeld, Goldfinger, and A View to a Kill’s Max Zorin. Also keep an eye out for Joe Don Baker as Jack Wade, Bond’s CIA liaison; and Robbie Coltrane as Valentin Dmitrovich Zukovsky, leader of a Russian criminal organization.

Then, of course, we have the Bond girls, and man, are they amazing! As played by Izabella Scorupco, Natalya is more than a (very) pretty face (she can hack into any computer, a skill that comes in handy more than once), but the real standout in Goldeneye is Famke Janssen’s Xenia Onatopp, an incredibly sexy adversary whose primary weapon is her out-of-control sexuality (her first victim, an Admiral in the Royal Canadian Navy played by Billy J. Mitchell, dies with a smile on his face). These two beauties, combined with some cool gadgets (Bond gets a new car, a BMW equipped with all the bells and whistles of his old Aston Martin) and kick-ass action scenes (the craziest of which has Bond leaping into a Soviet-era tank and chasing an adversary through the busy streets of St. Petersburg), help make Goldeneye a memorable Bond outing.

Thus far in the Bond series, the debut films for each of the previous actors (Connery in Dr. No, Lazenby’s one and only appearance in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Moore in Live and Let Die, and Dalton in The Living Daylights) have been solid, and Goldeneye in no exception. Admittedly, some of his later movies weren’t of the highest quality (one was downright awful), but with Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan proved he was up to the challenge of playing Ian Fleming’s super spy, and in so doing ushered 007 into a new, exciting era.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

#1,713. Pure 80's (2002)

Directed By: Various

Starring: The Buggles, ABC, Tears for Fears

Tag line: "14 Stylish Videos from the Decade of Excess"

Trivia: The music video for The Buggles' song "Video Killed the Radio Star" was the first ever to be broadcast on cable network Mtv when the channel premiered in August of 1981

August 1, 1981. That was the day that Mtv, aka Music Television, debuted in America. As luck would have it, ‘81 was also the year my family finally got cable TV, and while I wasn’t around to witness the opening moments of Mtv, I did tune in a few days later. I can’t remember which music video was the first I ever saw, but I’m pretty sure it was either Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” or The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”. In the end, it doesn’t really matter, because I wound up seeing both of them dozens of times over the next few months, as well as videos for Robert Palmer’s “Looking for Clues”; “One Step Beyond” by Madness; David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes”; and dozens of others. For a fair portion of the ‘80s, Mtv was a major force in my life; the moment I'd get home from school, I’d run upstairs to the television in the spare bedroom and turn it on, then watch it for hours on end. With “VeeJays” Alan Hunter, Nina Blackwood, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn introducing the videos and, on occasion, delivering the latest music news, Mtv taught me everything I needed to know about ‘80s music, and even today, when I hear a song from that era on the radio, images from its video immediately pop into my head.

Pure ‘80s is, as the DVD cover says, a collection of “14 stylish videos from the decade of excess”. Interestingly enough, the first video presented in Pure 80’s was also the first ever broadcast on Mtv: “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles, a fun bit of ‘80s cheese drenched in silver, with a slew of bizarre moments (I never got why the woman / angel was stuck in a tube). Some of the videos have a comedic bent, like ABC’s “The Look of Love” (at one point, a guy seems to be painting a woman’s breast. When the girl steps forward, we see he’s actually several feet behind her, painting a sign), while others set out to tell a story. Who can forget the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, a short horror-themed film directed by John Landis that had Jackson portraying both a werewolf and a zombie? Well, “Thriller” isn’t included in Pure 80’s, but “No More Words”, a tune by the group Berlin, is (set in the 1930s, “No More Words” has the band members portraying Bonnie and Clyde-style criminals, holding up banks in what appears the be the American Midwest). BTW, as a side note, some of the cinema’s best directors helmed music videos, including Sam Peckinpah (Julian Lennon’s “Too Late for Goodbyes”), Martin Scorsese (Michael Jackson’s “Bad”), and David Fincher (Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love”). Remember the video for Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancin’ in the Dark”, one of the many hits off his Born in the U.S.A. album? Most of you probably know that the “fan” he invited on-stage at the end was a young Courtney Cox (Scream), but did you know it was also directed by Mr. Brian De Palma (Carrie, Sisters)?

Watching the various videos in Pure 80’s (which also features “Come on Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners, “Sister Christian” by Night Ranger, and “Heat of the Moment” by Asia, among others) took me back to the early days of Mtv, when music and moving images merged to create something unique. And thanks to compilations like Pure 80’s, these wonderful music videos will live forever.

Friday, April 24, 2015

#1,712. The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949)

Directed By: James Algar, Clyde Geronimi

Starring: Bing Crosby, Basil Rathbone, Eric Blore

Tag line: "Two Tall Tales by the world's top story-tellers in one hilarious All-Cartoon Feature!"

Trivia: Brom Bones later became the inspiration for the character of Gaston in Beauty and the Beast

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad is a 1949 animated Disney anthology featuring two short films: an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book The Wind in the Willows and a telling of Washington Irving’s classic story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Narrated by Basil Rathbone, The Wind in the Willows introduces us to J. Thaddeus Toad (voiced by Eric Blore), a wealthy eccentric whose wild ways have pushed him to the brink of bankruptcy. The situation is so dire, in fact, that his friend Angus MacBadger (Campbell Grant), who’s attempting to put Toad’s accounts in order, fears he may lose Toad Hall, the spacious estate that’s been in his family for generations. With the help of Rat (Claude Allister) and Mole (Colin Campbell), McaBadger tries to subdue the out-of-control Toad, who, along with his new horse Cyril Proudbottom (J. Pat O’Malley), is tearing up the countryside. Things go from bad to worse when Toad is arrested for stealing a motor car. During his trial, Toad (representing himself) sets out to prove that a pack of shifty weasels actually stole the car, something he didn't realize when he bought it from them (having no cash, he instead signed the deed to Toad Hall over to the weasels). In spite of the evidence, Toad is found guilty and sentenced to many years in prison, but Rat, Mole, and Cyril refuse to take this injustice lying down, and hatch a scheme to both spring their friend from jail and, if possible, win back Toad Hall form the weasels.

Next up is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, as told by Bing Crosby (who sings a few songs along the way). Teacher Ichabod Crane rides into the small New England town of Sleepy Hollow, where he’s to serve as the schoolmaster. Shortly after his arrival, he meets Katrina van Tassel, the beautiful daughter of a rich landowner, with whom he immediately falls in love. This incites the wrath of local bully Brom Bones, who also has a thing for Katrina. During a Halloween party thrown by the van Tassels, Bones tries to frighten his romantic rival by telling him the story of the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a soldier that rises from the grave every Halloween to search for a new head. After the party, as the overly-superstitious Ichabod is on his way home, he encounters the dreaded Horseman, who pursues the schoolteacher through the dark woods, determined to make him his latest victim.

Though I’d never seen the movie before, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad wasn’t an entirely new experience for me; years ago, I was able to check out The Legend of Sleepy Hollow when it played on TV. That said, I was very impressed by Disney’s take on The Wind in the Willows, which is a lively tale with likable characters and a few exciting situations (a late sequence, where the four friends try to get the deed back from the weasels, is a lot of fun). The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, on the other hand, doesn’t hold up quite as well. The middle portion of the short drags terribly, and not even the smooth sounds of Bing Crosby singing songs like “The Headless Horseman” ("Now, ghosts are bad, but the one that's cursed... is the Headless Horseman, he's the worst") can save it. The moment Ichabod Crane rides into that forest at night, however, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow springs to life in a big way, providing more thrills (and scares) than we’re used to seeing in a Disney film. This sequence alone makes The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad a worthwhile experience, but combine it with the breezy entertainment of The Wind in the Willows and you have a lesser-known Disney effort that deserves a much wider audience.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

#1,711. Starry Eyes (2014)

Directed By: Kevin Kolsch, Dennis Widmyer

Starring: Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan

Tag line: "She would kill to be famous"

Trivia: Nick Simmons, who plays Ginko in the film, is the son of Gene Simmons from the band KISS

How far would you go to make your wildest dreams come true? What would you be willing to sacrifice? Anything? Everything? These are the questions that Sarah (Alex Essoe), a struggling actress trying to make a name for herself in L.A., must answer. You see, someone has just presented her with the opportunity of a lifetime, but before she can snatch it up, she’s gonna have to do a little soul searching. And depending on which direction she goes, it may be the last time Sarah has a soul to search.

Like thousands of young women looking to break into movies, Sarah can’t get her foot in the door. She spends her days working at a quirky restaurant (in a uniform that’s skin-tight), then dedicates her free time to furthering her “career”, going from one audition to another and sending her resume and headshot to every producer in town. One day, she gets a call to read for a part in a new horror film titled The Silent Scream, a movie being produced by Astraeus Pictures, which, over the years, has turned its share of young hopefuls into stars. But after pouring her heart into the audition, the casting director (Maria Olsen) and her associate (Marc Senter) send Sarah on her way with a dismissive “We’ll get back to you”. Believing she blew it, Sarah runs to the restroom and, in a fit of anger (directed at herself), starts pulling her own hair. What she doesn’t know is that the casting director is just outside the bathroom stall, listening to her tantrum. When Sarah walks out, the casting director immediately brings her back into the office, and all at once, Sarah is the frontrunner for the part. Following another very strange audition, she’s invited to the producer’s house (Louis Dezseran), but when she realizes she’s expected to have sex with him, Sarah decides enough is enough and storms out, ending any chance she has at landing the role.

Her friends, including roommate Tracy (Amanda Fuller) and director wannabe Danny (Noah Segan), tell Sarah that she did the right thing, that her dignity is more important than any role, no matter how big it might be. Even the overly-competitive Erin (Fabianne Therese), who undermines Sarah’s confidence every chance she gets, is behind her on this one. Her dreams shattered, Sarah agrees to play a role in a movie that Danny is making on his own, one that will also feature Tracy, Erin, and the rest of their friends. Yet through it all, Sarah can’t shake the feeling that she might have made a mistake. Maybe she should have given in and let the producer have his way with her. If that’s what it takes to make it big in Hollywood, why not? After all, isn’t fame and fortune the ultimate goal? Isn’t that what everyone wants? What Sarah does next will change her life in ways she never imagined.

Directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, Starry Eyes feels a lot like a David Lynch film, especially the scenes where Sarah is “auditioning” for the lead role in The Silent Scream (her first callback, where she enters the room and, with a spotlight trained on her, is told to disrobe, had a vibe reminiscent of Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.). Such moments are further enhanced by Alex Essoe, whose performance strikes the perfect balance between ambition and despair. After rejecting the producer’s sexual advances, Sarah finds herself back among her friends. Yet, for some reason, she sees them in a much different light this time around. Before, Tracy, Danny, and the others used to act as Sarah’s support group, picking her up when she fell and offering the words of encouragement she desperately needed. Having come so close to achieving the success the rest of them could only dream of, Sarah suddenly views them all as anchors weighing her down, life’s losers spinning their wheels on the road to nowhere. Not wanting to end up like Tracy and the rest, Sarah knows what she has to do, and the remainder of Starry Eyes shows us the consequences of her actions. While we don’t always agree with Sarah’s decisions, Ms. Essoe’s stunning performance ensures that, at the very least, we understand why she made them in the first place.

As much an exposé of the Hollywood star system as it is the story of one girl’s quest for fame, Starry Eyes features a number of disturbing scenes, most of which occur late in the movie, after Sarah has decided what course of action she’s going to take. It’s in these moments that the film’s true horror shines through, shaking us to our core as we watch Sarah deal with a bizarre turn of events. Combining practical effects with often shocking imagery, Starry Eyes is a terrifying glimpse into an actress’s psyche, not to mention one hell of a potent horror movie.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

#1,710. Black Dynamite (2009)

Directed By: Scott Sanders

Starring: Michael Jai White, Salli Richardson, Byron Minns

Tag line: "He's a powder keg of black fury that's about to explode!"

Trivia: Michael Jai White first had the idea for the movie while while listening to James Brown's "Super Bad"

He’s a powder keg of black fury that’s about to explode!” cries the tagline for 2009’s Black Dynamite, an action / comedy that takes aim at ‘70s blaxploitation films. And with Michael Jai White in the title role, Black Dynamite does explode in just about every scene!

When his brother Jimmy (Baron Vaughn) is killed by “the man”, Black Dynamite (White), a former Vietnam vet / CIA agent who is also a Kung-Fu expert, vows to track down those responsible and make them pay. 

Black Dynamite eventually discovers that Jimmy’s death was linked to a new drug called “smack”, which is sending kids (including orphans) to the hospital. Joining forces with a group of militants led by Saheed (Phil Morris) and aided by his soul brothers Bullhorn (Byron Minns) and Cream Corn (Tommy Davidson), Black Dynamite takes the fight to the streets, facing off against pimps, gangsters, martial arts masters and corrupt politicians, all the while cozying up to a fine fox named Gloria Gray (Salli Richardson). 

Before long, Black Dynamite and his friends have cleaned up the neighborhood, but a covert operation known as “Code Kansas” soon rears its ugly head. What is “Code Kansas”, and how will it affect the black community? If anybody can find the answers to these questions, it’s Black Dynamite!

Shot on Super 16mm film stock, Black Dynamite looks like the movies it is satirizing (right down to their over-saturated colors). What’s more, the film pokes fun at the low production values that plagued the era’s blaxploitation offerings (a la Dolemite), with boom mics making their way into the shot and cameras going out of focus at exactly the wrong time. 
Many of the staged goofs are hilarious, like the rear projection we see through the car windows as Black Dynamite gives chase to Chicago Wind (Mykelti Williamson), or the “roaming teardrop” on the cheek of Honey Bee (Kym Whitley) that appears and disappears continuously throughout an opening scene. 

As for the acting, Michael Jai White is as boisterous as can be, delivering each line as if it was the most important in the film. More often than not, his over-the-top mannerisms will have you laughing out loud; a scene where he’s telling his wartime buddy, CIA agent O’Leary (Kevin Chapman), about his most traumatic experience in Vietnam is comedy gold. 

As for the supporting cast, Byron Minns does a great Dolemite impersonation, and both Phil Morris and Tommy Davidson have their moments as they help Black Dynamite take down the city’s drug lords. And keep an eye out for Arsenio Hall, who makes a brief but very funny appearance as a pimp named Tasty Freeze.

In addition to its comedic moments, Black Dynamite is also a kick-ass action film, thanks in no small part to star Michael Jai White’s martial arts expertise (the actor holds black belts in seven different styles). As fun as some of the shootouts are, it’s the hand-to-hand skirmishes between White and the bad guys that will have you in stitches (an early scene where he’s “practicing” his kung-fu with a few Asian pals is a definite highlight). This, along with its barrage of sidesplitting sequences, makes Black Dynamite a movie you won’t want to miss. 

See it once, and then immediately watch it again. You'll be glad you did!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

#1,709. The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Directed By: George Marshall

Starring: Bob Hope, Paulette Goddard, Richard Carlson

Tag line: "The two stars of The Cat and the Canary find love and laughter in a haunted house!"

Trivia: Bob Hope is said to have enjoyed this role since it was a total change of pace for him. In most of his films he portrays a coward while, in this one, he is heroic

A year after they made The Cat and the Canary, Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard reunited for the horror / comedy The Ghost Breakers, and while the laughs are as plentiful here as they were in the earlier film, the horror elements are even more intense this time around, resulting in a movie that, on occasion, is more frightening than it is funny.

New York socialite Mary Carter (Goddard) has just inherited the “Castillo Maltido”, a spacious mansion on a remote island off the coast of Cuba that’s been in her family for generations. Ignoring the warnings of the Cuban solicitor, Mr. Parada (Paul Lukas), who tells her the old estate is haunted, Mary books passage on a ship bound for Cuba to check out her new property. Meanwhile, in another part of the city, radio personality Lawrence “Larry” Lawrence (Hope) is up to his usual tricks, revealing the secrets of the city’s organized crime syndicate to his loyal listeners. Alas, his latest story hits a bit too close to home for mob boss Frenchy Duval (Paul Fix), who tells Lawrence he got it all wrong and asks him to swing by his hotel suite so that he can “give it to him straight”.

Believing there’s going to be trouble, Lawrence’s valet, Alex (Willie Best), hands his boss a gun just before he enters the hotel, but as Larry approaches Frenchy’s room, shots ring out behind him (a showdown between Mr. Parada and a Cuban informant named Meredes, played by none other than Anthony Quinn, that somehow relates to the Castillo Maltido). Out of fear, Larry fires his gun, and in the confusion thinks he’s the one who shot Meredes dead (it was actually Parada). In a panic, he seeks shelter in the first suite he happens upon, which, as luck would have it, belongs to Mary Carter! Convinced of his innocence, she agrees to hide Larry from the police. Not taking any chances, Larry climbs into the only place the cops won’t search: a large trunk Mary is packing for her trip to Cuba. Sure enough, Larry evades the police, but before anyone knows what’s happened, the trunk is taken from the room and loaded onto the ship. With Larry and Alex on board, the boat leaves dock, and during the long trip to Cuba Mary tells Larry all about her inheritance, and how she feels someone is trying to scare her away from it. So, Larry agrees to accompany her to the Castillo Maltido, but are the rumors that ghosts reside there simply tall tales to frighten visitors, or do Mary’s ancestors haunt the halls of her new estate, bringing death to those who venture inside?

Early on, The Ghost Breakers puts the emphasis squarely on comedy, with Hope’s “Larry” Lawrence tossing out a slew of one-liners, most of which hit their mark (when Mary first meets him, she has a hard time believing his name is Lawrence Lawrence. “My middle name is Lawrence, too”, he replies. “My folks had no imagination”). Once they’re on the boat, however, the movie shifts gears and becomes an intriguing mystery, with Mary being hounded by an unknown person intent on keeping her from her inheritance (after a day out with Larry, she returns to her room and finds a sinister voodoo trinket stuck to her door). But where The Ghost Breakers truly excels is in its final act, during which Larry and Alex, along with Mary and her friend Geoff Montgomery (Richard Carlson), who she ran into on the boat, make their way to the small island where the Castillo Maltido is located. Aside from the various spirits that haunt the old place (we actually meet one of them), the group also must contend with a voodoo priestess (Virginia Brissac) and her zombie son (Noble Johnson, looking pretty damn creepy), both of whom live nearby. Aided by the impressive set pieces, including a tomb where many of Mary’s relatives are preserved under glass, these scenes will surely have you poised on the edge of your seat.

Not all of the humor translates well to modern times; Larry’s valet, Alex, played by black actor Wilie Best, is occasionally the butt of jokes that today seem a lot more insensitive than they did in 1940 (when the lights in Larry’s hotel room are knocked out by an electrical storm, he calls for Alex, only to find he’s standing right next to him in the darkness. “You look like a blackout in a blackout”, Larry snorts, adding “If this keeps up, I’ll have to paint you white”). These unfortunate moments aside, The Ghost Breakers is a funny, spooky flick that, more often than not, will have you laughing while you’re covering your eyes.

Monday, April 20, 2015

#1,708. Mabel's Wilful Way (1915)

Directed By: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and Mack Sennett

Starring: Mabel Normand, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, Edgar Kennedy

Trivia: This movie was shot on-location in Oakland's Idora Park

Filmmaker Mack Sennett (who, if the Internet Movie Database is to be believed, produced 1,115 movies, mostly shorts, between the years 1911 and 1949) was responsible for giving a number of the silent era’s best screen comics, such as Marie Dressler (Dinner at Eight), Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!), W.C. Fields (The Bank Dick), and even the great Charlie Chaplin (City Lights), their first big break. Nicknamed “The King of Comedy”, Sennett is considered the founding father of slapstick, a comedy style prevalent in many of his earliest shorts, including Mabel’s Wilful Way, a 1915 movie he co-directed along with its two stars, Mabel Norman and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (both of whom were also “discovered” by Sennett).

While having lunch at a posh restaurant with her parents (Glen Cavender and Alice Davenport), Mabel (Normand) grows weary of the ambiance and decides to sneak away. Stumbling upon an amusement park, she crosses paths with Fatty (Arbuckle), who, along with his pal (Edgar Kennedy), is enjoying a nice day out. After spotting the pretty Mabel, the friends argue over which of them will act as her escort for the afternoon (with Fatty winning out in the end). While this is going on, Mabel’s parents, realizing she’s gone, begin a frantic search for her, and in the process have their own “encounters” with their daughter’s two gentleman suitors!

Shot on-location at Oakland’s Idora Park, an outdoor amusement park that, at the time, was considered the finest in the San Francisco Bay area, Mabel’s Wilful Way features plenty of slapstick comedy, ranging from a fight between Mabel’s father and Edgar Kennedy (which spills onto a Merry-Go-Round) to a scene in which Fatty, having lost control at the bottom of a humongous sliding board, inadvertently pushes a pie into the face of a policeman (played by Joe Bordeaux). As with many of Sennett’s Keystone comedies (named after the studio he himself founded in 1912), the humor in Mabel’s Wilful Way is broad, perhaps a bit too broad for modern audiences. But if you’re at all interested in the early days of screen comedy, then Mack Sennett should be one of your first stops, and Mabel’s Wilful Way is as good a place as any to start.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

#1,707. Dames (1934)

Directed By: Ray Enright, Busby Berkeley

Starring: Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler

Line from the film: "I'm free, white, and 21. I love to dance AND I'm going to dance"

Trivia: Jean Rogers, who later played Dale Arden, Flash Gordon's girlfriend in 30s serials, is a member of this film's chorus

It takes a while for 1934’s Dames to get down to business, but once it does, this Busby Berkeley musical is guaranteed to “wow” you.

Horace P. Hemingway (Hugh Herbert) and his wife Mathilda (Zasu Pitts) stand to inherit $10 million dollars from Mathilda’s peculiar cousin, Ezra Ounce (Guy Kibbee). But before he agrees to sign it over to them, the couple, as well as their daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler), must prove to Ezra that they are morally upright. This won’t be a problem for Mathilda, who leads a quiet, unassuming life. However, things get a bit dicier when it comes to the remaining members of the Hemingway clan. Barbara has fallen in love with song and dance man Jimmy Higgens (Dick Powell), a distant cousin who Ezra considers the “black sheep” of the family; while Horace had an unfortunate (albeit innocent) run-in with showgirl Mabel Anderson (Joan Blondell) on a train. In an effort to secure the cash needed to stage Jimmy’s newest musical, Mabel blackmails Horace, threatening to tell Mathilda and cousin Ezra about their railway “experience” if he doesn’t cough up $20,000. Once he has the money, Jimmy is able to make his Broadway dreams come true. But will cousin Ezra’s moral crusade ruin his opening night?

The first hour or so of Dames is dedicated to both cousin Ezra’s “inspection” of the Hemingways (to ensure they’re worthy, Ezra moves in with them for a month) and the budding romance between Jimmy and Barbara. While these two tales have their moments (the scenes with Jimmy are particularly entertaining thanks to Powell’s charismatic performance), neither are as good as the framing stories of 42nd Street or Gold Diggers of 1933, a pair of earlier Berkeley efforts that, for the most part, put the focus squarely on the Broadway experience. The cast of Dames does what it can to keep things moving along, but after a while I was ready for the comedy / romance to end, and for the music to begin.

The movie comes alive in a big way during its last act, which takes us to the opening night of Jimmy’s show. All three of the featured musical numbers are superb, each enhanced by Berkeley’s unique talents. The first song, “The Girl at the Ironing Board”, has Joan Blondell working at a laundromat and dancing with various men’s garments that spring to life as they hang on a clothesline. Next, we’re treated to what is undoubtedly the movie’s finest sequence: “I Only Have Eyes for You”, which sees Keeler and Powell riding a subway car to the end of the line. Some of the routines Berkeley created for this scene rival the title number for 42nd Street and the “Forgotten Man” sequence of Gold Diggers of 1933 (two routines that, prior to this film, I considered his best work). Things wrap up nicely with “Dames”, which features a handful of clever camera tricks. This final half hour of Dames makes up for the 60+ minutes of mediocrity that preceded it, bringing the movie to a very satisfying end.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

#1,706. Happy Gilmore (1996)

Directed By: Dennis Dugan

Starring: Adam Sandler, Christopher McDonald, Julie Bowen

Tag line: "He doesn't play golf... he destroys it"

Trivia: Was the very first winner of the MTV Movie Award for Best Fight

Ever since he was a kid, all Happy Gilmore (Adam Sandler) ever wanted to do was play professional hockey. With the help of his father, he developed one hell of a slap shot, perhaps the most powerful the game has ever seen. But Happy isn’t much of a skater… or a puck handler. And he has a hard time keeping his temper in check. So, every year, when he tries out for the team, he goes home disappointed. Adding to his troubles is the fact that the IRS has just put a lien on the house owned by his beloved grandmother (Frances Bay), who failed to pay taxes over a 10-year period (including penalties, the amount she owes is $275,000). In short, Happy needs money… and fast!

It’s at this point fate intervenes. Realizing he can convert his slap shot into a golf swing, Happy hangs out at a nearby course, hustling golfers by betting he can drive the ball farther than they can (and doing so each and every time, occasionally sending it flying over 400 yards). While taking his swings, Happy catches the eye of Chubbs Peterson (Carl Weathers), a former golf pro who was forced to give the sport up when an alligator bit off his hand. With Chubbs’ help, Happy wins a local tournament, earning him a spot on the pro tour. Realizing his short game (putting, chipping, etc) isn’t all it should be, Chubbs advises Happy to take six months off to sharpen his skills. But Happy needs money now, and with his towering drives, he captures the attention of the entire golf community, including Virginia (Julie Bowen), the pro tour’s attractive public relations director. Unfortunately, he’s also incurred the wrath of the sport’s top player, Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald), who’s none too happy to be playing second fiddle to an “amateur”. Can Happy win enough money to save his grandmother’s house, or will his short temper make him a laughing stock?

As played by Sandler, Happy Gilmore is a very angry guy. Early on, we learn that his only claim to fame in the hockey world involved him removing his skate during a game, and then stabbing an opponent with it. We also get to witness a few of his tantrums first-hand (upon hearing that he didn’t make the hockey team, Happy tackles the coach). Even on the golf course, he loses his temper quickly, shouting obscenities at the ball when he swings and misses on the opening tee. His outbursts, during which he attacks fellow players, throws equipment, and at one point threatens Shooter McGavin with a broken beer bottle, would seem shocking in almost any other movie. But Happy Gilmore stars Adam Sandler, an actor who has made a career out of playing likable louts. Sure, Happy sometimes crosses the line (in the film’s most hilarious scene, he and game show host Bob Barker, appearing as himself, get into a knock-down-drag-out fistfight on the golf course), but Sandler’s knack for bringing out the best in these sort of characters (due mostly to their basic, almost innocent approach to life’s problems) shines through in each and every scene. We root for Happy, and hope that he somehow gets the better of the arrogant Shooter McGavin (wonderfully portrayed by Christopher McDonald), all the while realizing he’s a guy who needs some serious anger management training.

With its often funny, occasionally abrasive depiction of the world of professional golf, Happy Gilmore is an effective sports comedy as well as a showcase for its star, one of the few performers who can make audiences laugh at psychotic behavior.

Friday, April 17, 2015

#1,705. Elysium (2013)

Directed By: Neill Blomkamp

Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley

Line from this film: "Earth's wealthiest inhabitants fled the planet to preserve their way of life"

Trivia: Wagner Moura contracted pneumonia while filming so the production was stopped for a few days to allow him to recover

Elysium, a 2013 sci-fi / action movie directed by Neill Blomkamp, creates a futuristic world that, despite being positively amazing, never engaged me as it should have. As a result, the film's story, involving a class struggle of epic proportions, was rendered almost entirely ineffective.

The year is 2154. Due to pollution and overcrowding, the earth has become an inhospitable place, and the millions still residing there live in abject poverty, with little or no access to health care. Things are much different, however, on Elysium, a terraformed space station that orbits the earth, which houses only the wealthiest members of society. Thanks to its clean air and advanced medical facilities (including “Med Bays”, which can cure any and all illnesses), conditions on the station have been idyllic for some time, a way of life that Elysium’s Secretary of Defense, Delacourt (Jodie Foster), protects with every fiber of her being, ensuring that any “non-citizens” (i.e. – those living on the planet’s surface) attempting to board Elysium are dealt with in as severe a manner as possible.

Max De Costa (Matt Damon), a former convict living in the ruins of Los Angeles, works on an assembly line for the Armadyne Corp., the company that initially designed Elysium and now provides it with robots that both serve and protect. One day, while on the job, Max is accidentally exposed to lethal doses of radiation, and is told that he has only 5 days left to live. With nowhere else to turn, Max asks his neighbor and good buddy Julio (Diego Luna) to set up a meeting with Spider (Wager Moura), a smuggler who, for years, has been trying to sneak the sick and dying into Elysium so that they can receive some much-needed medical care. Realizing that Elysium is his only hope for survival, Max agrees to help Spider kidnap John Carlyle (William Fichtner), the CEO of Armadyne, so that they can steal his identity and gain access to the station. What they don’t know is that Carlyle is assisting Secretary Delacourt in her bid to take control of Elysium, which she feels is being weakened by bleeding heart bureaucrats like the facility’s president, Patel (Faran Tahir). In an attempt to prevent Spider and Max from completing their mission, Delacourt sends Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a former military man now acting as one of her agents on earth, to stop them. But with nothing to lose, Max has no intention of letting anyone stand in his way, and is determined to reach Elysium… or die trying.

Elysium boasts some great action scenes (the kidnapping of John Carlyle, as well as the ensuing firefight, is a thrill-a-minute), and many of the film’s earth-bound characters are fleshed out wonderfully. Along with Max and Spider, we’re introduced to Frey (Alice Braga), a childhood friend of Max’s whose young daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay) has terminal leukemia (meaning she would also benefit from a trip to Elysium). Most interesting of all, though, is the mercenary Kruger, expertly portrayed by Sharlto Copley (because he works directly for Secretary Delacourt, he has access to high-tech weaponry, making him a total bad-ass and a formidable adversary for Max). In addition to the above, the special effects in Elysium are beyond impressive, including the robotic police force that maintains order on the planet’s surface (Max has a run-in with two robot cops while on his way to work one morning). All of these elements come together to make the sequences set on earth as dramatic as they are electrifying.

Where the movie comes up short is in its depiction of Elysium. Unlike their earthbound counterparts, we learn very little about the people of Elysium with the exception of Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster is a great actress who, unfortunately, isn’t given much to work with here). Along with the privileged few who inhabit it, the film spends no time exploring the world of Elysium itself; ignoring the wonders of this remarkable achievement to instead have us sit in on council meetings (where, more often than not, Delacourt is forced to answer for her actions). In the end, I wanted to see more of Elysium than just board meetings and control rooms, and thanks to this lackluster presentation, the film’s tale of class warfare fizzles out before it has a chance to pick up steam.

If you’re in the mood for an effects-heavy action flick, then look no further than Elysium. Just don’t expect it to deliver anything more than that.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

#1,704. Mary of Scotland (1936)

Directed By: John Ford

Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Fredric March, Florence Eldridge

Tag line: "One of the greatest love stories of all time... brought to the screen in throbbing glory by a wonderful cast of stars!"

Trivia: Leslie Goodwins filled in as director for a few scenes when John Ford wasn't available

The last time I was in England I paid a visit to the cathedral in Peterborough (aka The Cathedral Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew), a structure that dates back to the 12th century. Among the highlights of my tour was a roped-off section with a sign that read “Former burial place of Mary Queen of Scots”. After being executed by England’s Queen Elizabeth I in February of 1587, Mary’s body was laid to rest in the cathedral (her request to be buried in France was denied by Elizabeth), where she remained until 1612, when her son, King James I, had her exhumed and moved to Westminster Abbey (as fate would have it, she was interred directly across from Elizabeth). Having led a tumultuous life, It seems poor Mary Stuart couldn’t even find peace in death. Her brief reign as the Queen of Scotland was, to put it mildly, quite chaotic, and in John Ford’s 1936 film Mary of Scotland, we get an idea of just how turbulent it really was.

When her husband, the King of France, dies, Mary Stuart (Katherine Hepburn) returns to her native Scotland to serve as its Queen, a move that angers both her half-brother Moray (Ian Keith), who, for years, had been the country’s regent; and her cousin Elizabeth I (Florence Eldridge), who realizes Mary’s claim to the throne of England is stronger than her own. But as Mary soon discovers, being Queen of Scotland is no easy task. Within hours of her arrival, she’s forced to deal with the country’s nobleman, many of whom aren’t happy that she’s a Catholic Queen in what’s become a protestant nation. In fact, the only two people Mary can truly trust are her Italian secretary Rizzio (John Carradine); and Lord Bothwell (Fredric March), a Scottish military commander with whom she’s fallen in love. Alas, a Queen’s heart is seldom her own, and after being pressured by her advisers, she agrees to marry her cousin Lord Darnley (Douglas Walton), even though she has no feelings for him whatsoever. Trapped in a loveless marriage and hounded by John Knox (Moroni Olsen), the leader of Scotland’s Protestant Reformation, Mary sometimes feels as if she’s a prisoner in her own country. Unfortunately, this is just the beginning for Mary Stuart, whose brief reign will prove to be one of the most controversial, and most tragic, in British history.

Katherine Hepburn delivers a heartbreaking performance as Mary, a woman who, despite her best efforts, was unable to secure the support of Scotland’s most powerful men (her initial meeting with John Knox doesn’t go well). A sharp contrast to Hepburn’s kindly but naïve Mary, Florence Eldridge’s Elizabeth is a strong-willed woman, and Ford continually underlines the differences between the two, showing, in no uncertain terms, why Elizabeth was the better Queen (time and again, Mary falls into the traps laid by her enemies, most of which stem from her feelings for Bothwell. As for Elizabeth, she regularly rebuffs the advances of her suitors, sacrificing love for what she deems “the greater good”). It’s clear early on that Mary doesn’t have the strength of spirit to govern her people, a strength that Elizabeth exhibits in each and every scene she appears in.

Though occasionally a bit too melodramatic, Mary of Scotland is nonetheless an effective period film, thanks in large part to its depiction of two of history’s most famous women. Over the course of the movie, we can’t help but like Hepburn’s Mary, who simply wanted to experience love. Yet by the same token we fear Eldridge’s Elizabeth, and as Mary of Scotland shows us, fear is often a more powerful ally than love when it comes to ruling a nation.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

#1,703. The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)

Directed By: Albert Pyun

Starring: Lee Horsley, Kathleen Beller, Simon MacCorkindale

Tag line: "A kingdom ruled by evil. A princess enslaved by passion. A warrior driven by justice"

Trivia: The producers wanted Oliver Reed to narrate the movie, but were dissatisfied with his performance and replaced him with Simon MacCorkindale

When all is said and done, 1982’s The Sword and the Sorcerer is a bit light on both “The Sword” (which I’m assuming is the one with the 3-pronged blade used by the lead character) and “The Sorcerer” (who only has a handful of scenes, many not as memorable as they should be), but aside from that, it’s not a bad little action / fantasy flick.

To win his battle against Good King Richard (Christopher Cary), bad king Cromwell (Richard Lynch) awakens the evil sorcerer Xusia (Richard Moll) from his eternal slumber, promising to give him whatever he desires in return for his help. Xusia keeps his side of the bargain, and as a result Richard’s army is soundly defeated in every skirmish. But because he fears the Sorcerer’s power, Cromwell ambushes his new ally, stabbing Xusia through the chest and, by all accounts, banishing him back to the nether world. Realizing his kingdom is lost, Richard bequeaths his ancestral weapon, a sword with three blades (two of which can be fired at the enemy in battle) to his oldest son Talon (played as a child by James Jarnigan), then sends the boy away In the hopes that he will one day avenge the wrongs done to their family.

Several years pass, and Cromwell, aided by his war chancellor Count Macheli (George Maharis), has conquered over half the known world. Yet, despite his dominance, he fears he may soon lose the position he fought so hard to attain. For one, a rebel army led by Prince Mikah (Simon MacCorkindale) and his sister, Princess Alana (Kathleen Beller), has been gaining strength, and is days away from standing against him. On top of that, Cromwell isn’t convinced that he actually killed Xusia, whose power will have only gotten stronger if he survived. With the help of his spies, Cromwell tracks down the rebel headquarters, taking Prince Mikah into custody and forcing Princess Alana to become his new queen. One thing Cromwell didn’t count on, however, is the mysterious warrior (Lee Horsley) who recently rode into town. A veritable one-man army, this warrior, who, as fate would have it is also the owner of a 3-pronged sword, has sworn to rescue Mikah, which would help end Cromwell’s tyrannical reign. But if Xusia does, indeed, return, will the warrior be strong enough to defeat his black magic, or is the kingdom doomed to fall under the sorcerer’s control?

When you look at it, the story that The Sword and the Sorcerer tells, that of an oppressive king facing off against the forces of good, is as basic as they come. A little too basic, actually; with its world filled with sorcerers, mystical weapons, and magic, I was expecting The Sword and the Sorcerer to be more imaginative. In fact, the very first scene, when one of the followers of Xusia uses her powers to bring her master back to life, is cool as hell. After this, the film settled down into a run-of-the-mill rebellion tale, which was a bit of a letdown. In addition, the sorcerer Xusia, despite being mentioned in the title, hardly appears in the movie at all (and when he does, he’s not as powerful as we were initially led to believe). Also largely forgotten is the tri-bladed sword of King Richard, though after seeing it in action, I’d say its lack of screen time is a good thing (early on, when young Talon fights Cromwell’s men, he fires the two external blades at them, which fly through the air on a string, wobbling all the way to their mark).

Thus far, I’ve concentrated on the negative, which might lead you to believe I didn’t enjoy The Sword and the Sorcerer. Well, the opposite is true; this is an entertaining ‘80s fantasy film, with plenty of exciting battle scenes, a hero you can get behind, and a gorgeous leading lady (Kathleen Beller). On top of that, Richard Lynch is deliciously nasty as Cromwell, and, for an early ‘80s movie, many of the special effects look surprisingly good. In the end, The Sword and the Sorcerer may lack the imagination of other fantasy films of this era (Clash of the Titans, Conan the Barbarian), but it’s still a lot of fun.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

#1,702. The ABCs of Death 2 (2014)

Directed By: Rodney Ascher, Julian Barratt, et al

Starring: Martina García, Jen Soska, Béatrice Dalle

Tag line: "Some people never learn"

Trivia: Aside from directing one of the shorts, Jen and Sylvia Soska also appear briefly in "W is for Wish"

It’s time for another gruesome trip through the alphabet!

Like the 2012 original, 2014’s The ABCs of Death 2 invited filmmakers from around the world to participate in an experiment: each director (or team of directors) was assigned a letter of the alphabet, at which point they wrote and directed a short movie about death that, in some way, was connected to the letter they were given. The content of each film was left to the discretion of its individual creator.

And with the likes of Jen and Sylvia Soska (Dead Hooker in a Trunk, American Mary), Julien Maury (Inside), and Rodney Ascher (who helmed the 2012 documentary Room 237, in which five individuals presented their own unique interpretation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) joining in, The ABCs of Death 2 promised to be every bit as much fun as its predecessor.

As it was with The ABCs of Death, some of the shorts in The ABCs of Death 2 are better than others. In fact, my favorite entries this time around - in alphabetical order - are:

C is for Capital Punishment by Julien Gilbey – In this short, a small community takes the law into its own hands by executing a man (Ian Virgo) accused of murdering a teenage girl. But did he really commit the crime? Though a not-too-subtle jab at the death penalty, C is for Capital Punishment impressed me with its acting, and its final scene is as brutal as they come.

I is for Invincible by Erik Matti – A crazy, sometimes creepy film about four adult children doing everything they can to finish off their wealthy mother (Sherry Lara) so they can divvy up her estate. But no matter what they do, mama doesn’t want to die! The violence in this short is gloriously over-the-top, and its tongue-in-cheek approach only adds to the experience.

O is for Ochlocracy (Mob Rule) by Hajime Ohata – Putting a different spin on the zombie apocalypse, this film, about a woman (Aki Morita) brought before a court of the undead and charged with murder, was very creative, and pretty damn funny.

S is for Split by Juan Martinez Moreno – This incredibly intense home invasion tale has a few twists that I never saw coming.

T is for Torture Porn by Jan and Sylvia Soska – I’m a fan of the Soska sisters, and this short about an asshole pornographer (Connor Sweeney) who gets his comeuppance when his latest subject (Tristan Risk) doesn’t take his abuse lying down has one of the collection’s most satisfying finales.

Z is for Zygote by Chris Nash – The ABCs of Death 2 ends on a strong note thanks to this bizarre look at a pregnant woman (Delphine Roussel) who refuses to give birth until her husband (Timothy Paul McCarthy) returns home. The problem is: he’s been away almost 13 years! This clever short is as gross as it is imaginative, but I loved every minute of it!

Also worth mentioning is K is for Knell directed by Kristina Buozyte and Bruno Samper, about a woman (Julija Steponaityte) who, after seeing a black orb floating in the sky, witnesses a series of murders occurring in the apartment building across the street. K is for Knell starts off great, but lost me in its final moments, which didn’t live up to what went before. I also enjoyed Vincenzo Natali’s U is for Utopia, a sci-fi flick set in the not-too-distant future that takes on society’s view of what constitutes a “perfect” person.

Alas, as with any anthology, The ABCs of Death 2 has its duds. L is for Legacy by Lancelot Iduwa Imasuen had an interesting concept (an African village faces the wrath of the Gods when a planned religious ceremony goes awry), but was undercut by its shoddy-looking monster; and P is for P-P-P-P Scary! by Todd Rohal, a black-and-white comedy about 3 inept prison escapees (Bryan Connolly, David Strong, and Vincent Prendergast) who encounter a strange man (Ivan Dimitrov), didn’t really make me laugh. In fact, I found the characters annoying.

Like The ABCs of Death, The ABCs of Death 2 is always intriguing (even its worst entries manage to keep your attention), and I can only hope that, somewhere along the line, we get a third film. As good as The ABCs of Death 1 and 2 are, I’m betting a few more treks through the alphabet will be just as entertaining.