Sunday, May 31, 2015

#1,749. Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later (1998)

Directed By: Steve Miner

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Josh Hartnett, Adam Arkin

Tag line: "20 years ago, HE changed the face of Halloween. Tonight, he's back!"

Trivia: Janet Leigh's first role in a feature film for 18 years. Her previous theatrical film was 1980's The Fog

Two decades after her Laurie Strode experienced the most horrifying night of her life, Jamie Lee Curtis returned to the series that made her a star, and in so doing helped deliver one of the Halloween franchise’s most entertaining sequels.

Twenty years have passed since her terrifying encounter with brother / serial killer Michael Myers, during which time Laurie Strode (Curtis) faked her own death, changed her name (to Keri Tate), moved to a new town (Summer Glen, California), and had a son, John (Josh Hartnett), who's now old enough to be in high school. Serving as the headmistress of Hillcrest Academy, the private school that John attends, Laurie / Keri leads a seemingly normal life, and is even dating fellow educator Will (Adam Arkin), with whom she’s very much in love. But try as she might to forget the past, Laurie continues to experience nightmares of that terrible Halloween in Haddonfield, and fears Michael will one day track her down.

Unfortunately, those fears are about to become a reality. After murdering Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), who for years worked closely with Dr. Loomis, Michael (played by Chris Durand) finds a file detailing the current whereabouts of his long-lost sister. Within days, he arrives at Hillcrest, and while most of the students are gone for the weekend, John and his girlfriend Molly (Michelle Williams) are having an intimate get-together with pals Charlie (Adam Hann-Byrd) and Sarah (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe), a gathering that’s interrupted when “Uncle Michael” makes his way into the school. Despite the fact her nightmare has returned, Laurie (who was herself enjoying a romantic night with Will) is determined to protect John at all costs. Armed with an axe and a new attitude, she sets out to find Michael, leading to a sibling showdown that, one way or another, will bring this tragic story to an end.

With Halloween H2O, the Halloween franchise moved in a different direction, ignoring the events of the previous three sequels in order to follow an entirely new timeline. I admit to being a fan of Halloween 4 and 5, yet I had no problem whatsoever with this change, thanks in part to Curtis’ strong portrayal of a more mature Laurie, one who, in spite of her apprehensions, decides that 20 years of running is enough. While the sudden, often unannounced appearance of Michael Myers can still send a shiver up your spine, we find ourselves in the unlikely position of hoping he’ll turn up so that Laurie can get a crack at him. And as cinematic showdowns go, this one’s got plenty of energy (a scene set in the school's abandoned cafeteria, where an angry Michael searches frantically for Laurie, will have you poised on the edge of your seat).

H20 has other strengths as well, including the opening sequence, i.e. the murder of Marion Chambers, which also features a young Joseph Gordon Levitt (he played Marion’s skateboarding neighbor, Jimmy). In addition, LL Cool J adds some humor as the school’s security guard, and Janet Leigh has a brief role as Laurie’s secretary, marking the second time mother and daughter shared the big screen (the first being John Carpenter’s 1980 horror film The Fog). Unlike most slasher films, Halloween H2O also gives us well-rounded teen characters, which had as much to do with the performances as anything else (Hartnett, in his film debut, does a fine job as the son dragged into the middle of a decades-old family squabble).

But when it comes down to it, it’s the battle between Laurie and Michael that ranks H2O right up there with Halloween II as one of the series’ best entries.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

#1,748. Scary Movie (2000)

Directed By: Keenen Ivory Wayans

Starring: Anna Faris, Jon Abrahams, Marlon Wayans

Tag line: "No mercy. No shame. No sequel"

Trivia: In British Columbia, the film was given an 18A rating by the provincial FCO, but was re-rated on appeal by the Motion Picture and Liquor Appeal Board to a 14A. This resulted in a record number of complaints to the Film Classification Office from parents who felt it should have been rated 18A

While the recent onslaught of film spoofs has left me kinda cold (I didn’t bother watching 2008’s Meet the Spartans, which poked fun at action flicks like 300 and Casino Royale, and odds are I never will), I did enjoy 2000’s Scary Movie, a Wayans Brothers production that, while not perfect, managed to make me laugh.

Following the violent murder of classmate Drew Decker (Carmen Electra), a group of friends: the virginal Cindy (Ana Faris) and her boyfriend Bobby (Jon Abrahams); Brenda (Regina Hall) and her slightly effeminate beau Ray (Shawn Wayans); and power couple Buffy (Shannon Elizabeth) and Greg (Lochlyn Munro), can’t help but wonder if her death was somehow connected to a terrible event from the previous summer, when, while out driving, the six of them accidentally struck and killed a fisherman (Craig Brunanski) as he was walking across the street. At that time, the friends vowed never to speak of this tragedy again, but when the masked killer starts bumping them off one-by-one, Cindy urges her remaining pals to bite the bullet and head straight to the police. But is the fisherman actually the killer, or is it someone much closer to them?

Directed by Keenan Ivory Wayans from a script written by siblings Shawn and Marlon, Scary Movie focuses most of its energy on Wes Craven’s Scream. Aside from the killer, who wears the Ghostface mask, we also have the characters Gail Hailstorm (Cheri Oteri), obviously inspired by Courtney Cox’s plucky reporter; and Deputy Dookie (Trevor Roberts), the mentally slow law officer based on David Arquette’s Officer Dewey. In addition, Scary Movie takes aim at I Know What You Did Last Summer (via the plotline involving the dead fisherman), and as a spoof of these two films, it works rather well. I especially liked the beauty pageant scene, a send-up of a similar moment in I Know What You Did Last Summer, where Buffy watches helplessly as the killer claims his first victim. There are references to other horror movies as well, including The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, and a fight towards the end could have been lifted straight out of The Matrix, but it’s the two teen-centric ‘90s horror franchises that are the film’s primary focus.

At times, the humor is juvenile (there are far too many fart jokes), or, worse yet, dated (I remember the “Whassup” Budweiser commercials, but I’m guessing younger viewers won’t), and while Marlon Wayans has his moments as Shorty, the pot-smoking brother of Regina Hall’s Brenda, he’s a poor stand-in for Jamie Kennedy’s Randy, arguably the most popular character in the Scream series. Still, if you’re at all familiar with the films listed above, Scary Movie will, at the very least, give you a few laughs.

Friday, May 29, 2015

#1,747. The Wrestler (2008)

Directed By: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood

Tag line: "Love. Pain. Glory"

Trivia: This film reportedly moved wrestler Roddy Piper so much that he broke down and cried after a screening

Mickey Rourke's portrayal of aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson in Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 drama The Wrestler was lauded by critics,  and as one of the actor's longtime fans I’d like to add my voice to the praise. More than a solid performance, it was a reminder of the incredible promise Rourke showed in his early days, and proof positive that he still has plenty of greatness left in him.

A star in the 1980s, Randy the Ram has fallen on hard times, wrestling on the weekends in very small venues and supplementing his income with a part-time job in a supermarket deli. One night at a local club, he meets Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), an aging stripper who steals his heart. 

Things start to look up for Randy when, after winning a match, he is approached by a promoter looking to book a rematch between him and his old adversary, “The Ayatollah” (Ernest Miller), which, if successful, could get his career back on track. But as he’s training for this upcoming gig, Randy suffers a major heart attack, and after surgery is told that he can never wrestle again. 

Though the prospect of a forced retirement doesn’t sit well with him, Randy does what he can to make the best of it, and at Cassidy’s urging even attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood), who he hasn’t seen in years. But try as he might, Randy can’t let go of the past, and despite the risk decides to go ahead with the rematch, knowing full well that doing so could cost him his life.

There isn't a scene in The Wrestler where Mickey Rourke is anything short of brilliant, from the way he handles Randy’s interactions with fans, always grateful that they still admire him, to the moment his character suffers a heart attack, bringing about the realization that what little glory he had left is now a thing of the past. Equally good are the scenes with his two main co-stars, Tomei and Wood, both playing characters with whom Randy hopes to build a lasting relationship. A sequence set on a vacant boardwalk, where Randy pours his heart out to his daughter, will bring tears to your eyes. 

More than anything, though, Rourke ensures that we, the audience, are in tune with every decision his character makes, whether it’s the right one or not. Like Randy, we realize that climbing back into the ring could kill him, yet after watching him struggle to make a life outside the sport, we know why he’s willing to risk everything to do exactly that. Randy doesn’t have much, so to give up wrestling, the one thing that reminds him of the “glory days”, is easier said than done. Yes, he could die in the ring, but without wrestling, it’s like he’s dead already.

From Body Heat to Diner, from The Pope of Greenwich Village to Angel Heart, you could always count on Mickey Rourke to give 100%, and with The Wrestler we see that he hasn’t lost a step (I also thought he was strong in Sin City, as well as Tony Scott’s unfairly savaged 2005 film, Domino). So good was Rourke’s performance as Randy the Ram that even the Academy sat up and took notice, nominating him for Best Actor, the first time he was ever up for that award.

And with all due respect to Sean Penn, who was indeed spectacular as the lead in Milk, the Oscar that year should have gone to Rourke. No question about it.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

#1,746. Reign of Fire (2002)

Directed By: Rob Bowman

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Izabella Scorupco

Tag line: "Fight Fire With Fire"

Trivia: This film was shot in Ireland, in the Wicklow Mountains

In later years, both Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey would win Academy Awards (Bale in 2010 for his role in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, and McConaughey for 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club), but in Reign of Fire, these two fine actors are upstaged on a regular basis by their CGI co-stars. Forget performance and story; it’s the dragons that make this movie worthwhile.

It was 20 years ago when the first dragon was discovered in an underground cavern, and since that time, the winged creatures have become the dominant species on earth. With every major city in the world laid to waste, humans have been forced to seek shelter in out-of-the-way places. One such band of survivors, led by a man named Quinn (Bale), has set up a small community in an abandoned castle in Northumberland, England. With the help of his good friend Creedy (Gerard Butler), Quinn teaches everyone how best to avoid the dragons. His belief that they may be the last people on earth is proven wrong, however, when an American military unit shows up at their front door. Led by Denton Van Zan (McConaughey), a self-proclaimed dragon hunter, and helicopter pilot Alex Jensen (Izabella Scorupco), the unit’s goal is to eradicate the entire dragon population. But is Van Zan truly a hero, or is he an obsessed madman taking on an enemy he can’t possibly defeat?

Despite its impressive cast, the performances in Reign of Fire are… shall we say… a bit too intense for their own good (McConaughey is especially over-the-top as the leader hell-bent on eliminating the dragon threat once and for all). In addition, the story is littered with plot holes (No matter how you slice it, there had to be more than one dragon when this whole thing started). What the movie does offer, though, is some bad-ass monsters, which, for the most part, look damn realistic. This, combined with a handful of excellent action scenes (the best of which has Van Zan’s outfit battling a particularly tricky dragon in the skies over Northumberland), makes it easy to overlook the film’s various deficiencies.

Though not what I would call a “good” movie, Reign of Fire is always interesting, and in a film where the giant reptiles are the most convincing characters, that’s about all you can hope for.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

#1,745. Das Rad (2003)

Directed By: Chris Stenner, Arvid Uibel, Heidi Wittlinger

Starring: Paul Reubens, Elizabeth Daily, Mark Holton

Trivia: This film won the award for Best Animated Short at the 2002 Sweden Fantastic Film Festival

The imagination and artistry on display in the animated shorts I've seen recently (The Cathedral, No Corras Tanto) had me chomping at the bit to check out a few more, and after reading the premise for 2003's Das Rad, I knew I couldn't let another day pass without watching it.

Produced by the Film Academy of Baden-Württemberg, Das Rad (released as "Rocks" in the U.S.) combines stop-motion with CGI to tell the story of two rocks, Hew and Kew (voiced by Rainer Basedow and Michael Habeck), who, from their perch high atop a mountain, watch the entirety of human history unfold before their eyes. At first amazed by what they see, the duo is soon threatened by mankind's "progress", which does a whole lot more than just change the landscape in the valley below.

Das Rad is, at times, quite funny (Hew, the larger of the two rocks, spends several millenia dealing with an algae "rash"), but the most impressive thing about this 9-minute short (aside form the animation, which is phenomenal) is the way it handles the passage of time. A moment to Hew and Kew equates to dozens, if not hundreds, of years in the earth's evolutionary process. Things move so quickly, in fact, that the progress they witness is often a blur. Conversely, on two separate occasions, we spend time with human characters, first a primitive caveman, then a merchant who, while traveling on a dirt path that runs alongside the rocks, breaks one of the wooden wheels on his cart. After changing it, he tosses the damaged wheel aside, leading to what I consider to be the film's most interesting scene (after finding the broken wheel, Kew realizes man has mastered transportation, but before he can turn and show the evidence to Hew, so much time passes that the wheel turns to dust in his hands).

Das Rad received a nod for Best Animated Short at the 75th Annual Academy Awards in 2003, putting it in some very good company (aside from Poland's The Cathedral, Pixar's Mike's New Car, a follow-up to Monster's Inc., was also nominated). And even though Das Rad didn't win (the award that year was given to The ChubbChubbs), it was more than deserving of the recognition.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

#1,744. 20th Century Fox: The Blockbuster Years (2000)

Directed By: Kevin Burns, Shelley Lyons

Starring: Irwin Allen, Robert Altman, Don Ameche

Tag line: "Step Inside a Hollywood Dream Factory"

Trivia: In Spain, this documentary was shown under the title The Golden Years of Fox

20th Century Fox: The Blockbuster Years picks up where The First 50 Years left off: with 1965’s The Sound of Music. Heralded as the picture that saved Fox following the disaster that was Cleopatra, The Sound of Music was a box office sensation (after its initial run, the movie had brought in over $100 million worldwide). But despite the film’s overwhelming success, audiences in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were in the mood for something new, and as a result, big-budget musicals like Hello, Dolly and Dr. Doolittle failed to recoup their costs. As it had been just a few years before, 20th Century Fox was once again on the verge of collapse, and it would take a whole new approach to the art of filmmaking to turn its fortunes around.

With James Coburn returning as narrator, 20th Century Fox: The Blockbuster Years covers what I consider to be one of the most exciting periods of creativity in cinematic history: the 1970s, when brash young filmmakers took the industry by storm, delivering the kind of entertainment that people were clamoring for. In 1970, the studio released two very different war movies: Patton, a biopic about the controversial WWII general; and Robert Altman’s MASH, an irreverent comedy that, despite being set during the Korean War, had plenty to say about Vietnam as well. The era also saw such films as the hyper-realistic The French Connection (which, like Patton, was named Best Picture by the Academy) and the incredibly fun Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In addition, The Blockbuster Years chronicles the birth of the disaster genre (which kicked off with a pair of Irwin Allen productions, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno), and takes us back to May 25, 1977, when the worldwide phenomenon that was Star Wars first hit the scene.

From Alien to Revenge of the Nerds, and from The Omen to Edward Scissorhands, 20th Century Fox: The Blockbuster Years is, like The First 50 Years before it, an exhaustive, clip-heavy documentary about one of Hollywood’s most prolific dream factories, and a glowing memorial to the movies that made it great.

Monday, May 25, 2015

#1,743. Lady Killer (1933)

Directed By: Roy Del Ruth

Starring: James Cagney, Mae Clarke, Margaret Lindsay

Tag line: "Is Hollywood howling ! at this inside story of The Screen Idol Who Threw -?- -?- -?- Out Of His -?- -?- -?- On Her -?- !"

Trivia: Based on the story "The Finger Man" by Rosalind Keating Shaffer

Poor Mae Clarke! Two years after he shoved a grapefruit in her face in The Public Enemy, James Cagney was at it again in Lady Killer, only this time around he got a bit rougher with the actress, dragging her through an apartment by her hair before kicking her out the front door. It’s but one of many memorable scenes from this frantic 1933 crime / comedy, which, along with featuring another fine Cagney performance, rarely slows down to take a breath.

Instead of losing his cool when Myra (Clarke) and her male cohorts Spade (Douglass Dumbrille), Duke (Leslie Fenton), Smiley (Russell Hopton) and Pete (Raymond Hatton) con him out of $50, former movie house usher Dan Quigley (Cagney) talks them into letting him join the gang. With Dan’s help, the group starts taking in more money than ever before, but when a simple heist goes wrong, Dan and Myra hop the next bus bound for L.A., where they hope to lay low until the smoke clears. Soon after their arrival, however, Dan is picked up by the cops, at which point Myra skips town with every cent he had in the world. Dead broke, Dan signs on as an extra in a movie, and before long he’s a big star, dating fellow actress Lois Underwood (Margaret Lindsey) and enjoying his moment in the sun. But when Myra and the others suddenly resurface and threaten to reveal his turbulent past, it may spell the end of Dan’s Hollywood career.

Cagney is a bundle of energy in Lady Killer, rattling off one joke after another early on (in the opening sequence, he loses his job as an usher by poking fun at a couple of customers) before squaring off against Myra and the others (It’s when she shows up unexpectedly, ruining his date with Lois, that Myra experiences the full effect of Dan’s wrath). In addition to Cagney’s spirited performance, director Roy Del Ruth keeps Lady Killer moving along with a series of excellent scenes; the sequence where Dan fakes a car accident to gain access to a wealthy widow’s mansion (so that he and the others can rob it) is a definite highlight, as is the big chase at the end of the picture, which concludes with a thrilling police shoot-out.

Jam-packed with one great moment after another (aside from what’s detailed above, we also spend time on various movie sets, watching Dan go from a nameless extra to a Hollywood star), Lady Killer accomplishes more in 75 minutes than most films do in two hours

Sunday, May 24, 2015

#1,742. The Cathedral (2002)

Directed By: Tomasz Baginski

Starring: Jola Rzebuska, Maria Kucharska, Marcin Jaskowski

Trivia: The film won the the award for Best Animated Short at Siggraph 2002 in San Antonio

A while back, I sang the praises of Ryan, a 2004 short film by Chris Landreth, which blew me away with its imagery and style. The Cathedral, an award-winning 2002 animated short written and directed by Tomasz Baginski, falls into this same category. A wondrous blend of science fiction and fantasy, The Cathedral is a visual tour de force.

Story-wise, there isn’t much to it: In the dark of night, a lone explorer enters an abandoned Gothic Cathedral, which seemingly springs to life as he makes his way around it. But it’s the manner in which it presents this simple tale that gives The Cathedral its singular flavor, employing images that are both picturesque and haunting. As if they were in hiding, the statues scattered throughout the Cathedral show signs of life only after the lead passes them by, some opening their eyes, others smiling slyly, like they know something the explorer does not. Sure enough, when daylight arrives, the building finally reveals its true nature in what proves to be a surprising finale.

Whereas the extraordinary visuals in Ryan gave shape (for want of a better term) to its characters, thus enhancing their personalities, writer / director Tomasz Baginski pours his energy into creating an entire world, one so vibrant and rich that we wish we had more time to discover its various nuances. Bold and beautiful, The Cathedral is a unique work of art.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

#1,741. Mondo Cane (1962)

Directed By: Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi, Gualtiero Jacopetti

Starring: Rossano Brazzi, Yves Klein, Stefano Sibaldi

Tag line: "Never... Never... Never A Motion Picture Like It"

Trivia: Was nominated for the Palme d'Or at the 15th Cannes Film Festival, losing to the Brazilian drama The Payer of Promises

An exploitation movie posing as a documentary, Mondo Cane was an international hit, spawning a number of similarly-themed films made by the same directors (Africa Blood and Guts, Goodbye Uncle Tom) and inspiring an entirely new subgenre, called, quite appropriately, the "Mondo" documentary.

While this 1962 movie does have something to say about the world we live in, the ultimate goal of Mondo Cane is to shock and disgust, which, on occasion, it does quite well.

Shot on-location in Europe, Asia, America, Australia, and places in-between, Mondo Cane is a barrage of random sequences, some funny (in Hamburg, Germany, we watch as drunks stumble out of a beer hall), some sad (we join a funeral already in-progress at a Los Angeles area pet cemetery), and some incredibly bizarre (off the coast on New Guinea lies Kiriwina Island, where, apparently, it is customary for gangs of topless women to chase down every man they encounter). Exploring how different cultures handle birth, love, feasting, and death, Mondo Cane brings the entire world into focus, and more often than not, it isn’t a pretty sight.

Despite being a documentary, some of the scenes in Mondo Cane were clearly staged, including one that features Italian actor Rossano Brazzi (while sitting in a department store in New York City, he’s accosted by at least 3 dozen women who, in a fit of passion, tear his shirt to shreds).

Such fabrications aside, Mondo Cane goes to great lengths to show us that truth is often stranger than fiction. Some sequences are mildly entertaining, like the spa in Japan where scantily-clad ladies pamper male executives who had a bit too much to drink the night before. Others will hit you over the head with their barbarity. Along with a segment in Portugal where several men are gorged during a running of the bulls, there’s a particularly horrific segment shot in New Guinea, where a tribe ends its fasting period by killing hundreds of pigs and cooking them over makeshift fire pits. Animal lovers beware: the filmmakers don’t shy away from showing the slaughter, which is carried out with wooden clubs.

Mondo Cane does occasionally attempt to draw parallels between the various cultures, showing how men and women from all corners of the globe are basically the same. A scene in Tabar, New Guinea in which two women in a cage are being fattened up before they marry the local dictator, is immediately followed by a trip to an L.A. gym, where women do what they can to look appealing to the opposite sex. But those seeking a deep, meaningful dissertation on the human experience would be better suited looking elsewhere.

At its core, Mondo Cane is pure exploitation. Anything else is gravy.

Friday, May 22, 2015

#1,740. Little Caesar (1931)

Directed By: Mervyn LeRoy

Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell

Line from this film: "I don't want no dancin'... I figure in makin' other people dance"

Trivia: Warner Brothers' head of production, Darryl F. Zanuck, decided to make this film after one of his close friends was killed by a bootlegger

Though not the first American gangster movie ever made (most agree that honor belongs to D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley), Little Caesar kicked off a series of films that focused on the anti-hero, a criminal whose fearlessness and fortitude carried him to the top, making him king of the underworld. Usually lumped together with The Public Enemy (released later that same year) and Scarface (1932), Little Caesar made a lot of people sit up and take notice, and not everyone liked what they were seeing.

Two petty hoods, Cesare Enrico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), tired of working in the sticks for chump change, head to the city, where they hope to make a name for themselves. For Massara, that means leaving the criminal life behind and becoming a professional dancer. Paired with the lovely Olga (Glenda Farrell), Joe headlines at a posh nightclub, and before long is a big star. As for his pal, Cesare Enrico (who likes to be called “Rico” for short), he wants one thing and one thing only: power! Starting out as the muscle in a gang headed by Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), Rico’s blinding ambition and tough-as-nails mentality (as well as his knack for knocking off the competition) helps him rise through the ranks. But along with the power comes notoriety, and before long police Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas Jackson), who’s sworn to take down the city’s criminal element, comes gunning for Rico. Will the pugnacious hood remain on top, or is this the end of Cesare Enrico Bandello?

Aside from initiating the Hollywood gangster craze, Little Caesar is the film that made Edward G. Robinson a star. A diminutive actor hailing from Bucharest, Romania, Robinson brought a calculated determination, as well as the feistiness of a rabid dog, to the role of Rico, and in so doing made him the most charismatic character in the entire film (even an actor as experienced as Douglas Fairbanks Jr. seems boring when compared to Robinson’s portrayal of Rico). From the get-go, we know exactly what Rico is after, and never once does he veer from that path. It isn’t even the money he wants; he tells Joe early on that it’s the power he’s after, the knowledge that he’s on top, and people will obey his every command. This is what drives Rico to kill and steal, and watching his meteoric rise is what makes Little Caesar such a fascinating motion picture.

As it was with Cagney in The Public Enemy and Paul Muni in Scarface, Robinson’s performance ensured that the lawless Rico was the focal point of Little Caesar, a fact that didn’t sit well with either the censors or the moral majority (at one point, the American Legion, fearing their influence, threatened to boycott all gangster films). But try as they might to change the tide of public opinion, American audiences connected with these anti-heroes, who used tenacity alone to climb the ladder of success. It didn’t even matter if Johnny Law won out in the end; for a while, Little Caesar’s Rico, The Public Enemy’s Tom Powers, and Scarface’s Tony Camonte were on top of the world looking down on the rest of us, and for audience members still dealing with the Great Depression, this taste of victory, however brief, was surely better than what the world was offering them.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

#1,739. Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990)

Directed By: John Harrison

Starring: Deborah Harry, Matthew Lawrence, Christian Slater

Tag line: "Four Ghoulish Fables in One Modern Nightmare"

Trivia: Laurel Productions initially announced a sequel to this film in October 1990, but it never came to fruition

I was a fan of the Tales from the Darkside television series, though admittedly I came to it a bit late (it launched in 1984, but I didn’t start watching until ‘87, at which point it was on its last legs). 

But had I never seen the show, I still would've wanted to check out 1990’s horror anthology Tales from the Darkside: The Movie.  Featuring segments written by Michael McDowell (who penned Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas) and George A. Romero (the Living Dead series), one of which was based on a short story by Stephen King (Creepshow, Pet Sematary), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie already had enough going for it.

Throw in makeup effects by Robert Kurtzman (Predator, From Dusk Till Dawn), Howard Berger (Drag Me to Hell, This is the End), and Greg Nicotero (Day of the Dead, Wishmaster), and you have a film sure to pique the interest of any red-blooded genre fan!

Betty (Debbie Harry), a witch residing in a posh suburban neighborhood, is preparing a dinner party for eight, and the main course is going to be her paperboy, Timmy (Matthew Lawrence), who is chained up in a small dungeon adjacent to her kitchen. Hoping to stall his imminent demise, Timmy relates his three favorite stories from the horror-themed book that Betty gave him to pass the time. 

The first, titled Lot 249, is about a nerdy college student named Bellingham (Steve Buscemi) who has been cheated out of a fellowship award by classmates Lee (Robert Sedgwick) and Susan (Julianne Moore). An antiquity major, Bellingham takes his revenge by bringing an ancient Egyptian mummy (Michael Deak) to life, then ordering it to kill his two adversaries. But will Bellingham’s neighbor Andy (Christian Slater), who also happens to be Susan’s brother, thwart his plans before he can carry them out? 

Story #2, aka Cat from Hell, tells the tale of an elderly rich man (William Hickey) who offers a professional assassin (David Johansen) $100,000 to kill the black cat that has been hanging around his mansion. Yet what at first appears to be an easy hit takes a terrifying turn when the cat starts fighting back. 

Finally, there’s Lover’s Vow, in which Preston (James Remar), a struggling New York artist, witnesses a murder committed by a gargoyle. Instead of finishing Preston off as well, the gargoyle makes him promise never to tell anyone about what he’s just seen. Preston agrees, and over the course of the next 10 years his career takes off. What’s more, he marries a beautiful woman named Carola (Rae Dawn Chong), the love of his life and the eventual mother of his two children. For Preston, it’s the realization of all his wildest dreams. But some dreams have a way of turning into nightmares.

With decent performances from both Debbie Harry and Matthew Lawrence, the framing story gets the job done, but it’s the three main segments that truly stand out. Aside from featuring a sexy Julianne Moore (in what would be her big-screen debut), Lot 249 (which McDowell adapted from a short story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) is also a nod to the classic monsters of Universal’s heyday, a reminder that a mummy can still give you the shivers . 

Written by Romero and based on a work by Stephen King, Cat from Hell is the film’s funniest sequence (thanks in large part to William Hickey, whose over-the-top portrayal of a drug-addicted millionaire is absolutely hilarious), but it also has one of the movie’s best special effects, a moment that will have you laughing and cringing at the same time. 

And while the final twist in Lover’s Vow may be a tad predictable, it’s still an effectively romantic tale (and the gargoyle looks awesome).

With the crisp storytelling of the TV series and plenty of R-rated gore, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is the best of both worlds, and that alone is something to celebrate. Whether you’re a fan of the show or not, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie is definitely worth a watch.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

#1,738. Revenge of the Creature (1955)

Directed By: Jack Arnold

Starring: John Agar, Lori Nelson, John Bromfield

Tag line: "Weird Monster Escapes! Terror Seizes City!"

Trivia: Reported to be the highest-grossing film of the "Creature" trilogy

I was one of the many people who tuned in to the televised 3-D broadcast of Revenge of the Creature in 1982, which played on a local UHF station here in Philadelphia (the glasses were the old red-and-blue style, and were delivered straight to my door in the weekend edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer). Well, the 3-D, as I remember it, was shit; the only time it actually worked was during one of the underwater scenes (when a glob of seaweed floated by), yet the film itself kept my attention. In fact, I took the glasses off around the halfway point, but still watched the movie straight through to the end.

A direct sequel to 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature picks up shortly after the events of that film, with the scientific world all abuzz over the possible existence of a prehistoric sea monster (aka the “Gill Man”). Hoping to make history, Joe Hayes (John Bromfield) of Florida’s Ocean Harbor Oceanarium leads an expedition to the Black Lagoon, where, following a close encounter with the creature, he manages to capture it. Once back at Ocean Harbor, Joe, aided by animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson), sets to work studying the Gill man in the hopes they’ll be able to communicate with him. During the course of their experiments, Clete falls in love with Helen, but what he doesn’t realize is that the creature also has feeling for her. After escaping from the Oceanarium, the Gill Man begins to stalk Helen, and, before long, kidnaps her. With no idea whether she’s alive or dead, Clete searches frantically for Helen, but will he find her in time to save her from a watery grave?

Revenge of the Creature gets things rolling pretty quickly; within the first 10 minutes or so, we’re treated to both the Gill Man (looking every bit as menacing as he did in the original) and a handful of intense scenes (the most thrilling of which is an underwater fight between the creature & Joe Hayes). From there, the movie barely stops to take a breath, giving us one dramatic sequence after another, including the monster’s escape (during which he turns a car over) and his abduction of Helen (grabbing her while she and Clete are enjoying an evening at a seaside restaurant). In addition to the excitement, Revenge of the Creature has some great underwater photography, an impressive cast (along with John Agar, who’s suitably heroic, and the beautiful Lori Nelson, the film marks the screen debut of actor Clint Eastwood, playing an absent-minded scientist), and a finale that’s positively nerve-racking.

While it never quite reaches the level of the iconic original, Revenge of the Creature is both a solid sequel and a ‘10” on the fun meter.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

#1,737. 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years (1997)

Directed By: Kevin Burns

Starring: James Coburn, Julie Andrews, Roddy McDowall

Tag line: "Step Inside a Hollywood Dream Factory"

Trivia: The fifty years covered are 1915 through 1965

Director Kevin Burns’ 1997 documentary 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years is a veritable feast for cinephiles, an intensive documentary about one of Hollywood's major studios. And over the course of 2+ hours, this movie shows us how it got so big in the first place!

Narrated by James Coburn, 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years shuttles us back to the beginning, when Hungarian immigrant William Fox, toiling in New York’s garment district, decided to take a chance on the brand-spanking new motion picture industry. Selling everything he owned, Fox opened a chain of theaters, and before long was producing his own movies (his first being Life’s Shop Window in 1914). Hoping to expand, he eventually moved his fledgling company, Fox Films Corp., to the west coast, settling in the up-and-coming town of Hollywood, California. With the help of actress Theda Bara (who, in films like 1917’s Cleopatra and The She-Devil, gave birth to the Hollywood “Vamp”) and a series of popular westerns (including John Ford’s The Iron Horse), Fox was soon a major force in the industry, and even though he lost the race to introducie sound to movies (Warner Bros. beat him to the punch with 1927’s The Jazz Singer), Fox’s sound-on-film system would become the standard for decades to come (among the earliest pictures to feature this new technology was F.W. Murnau’s brilliant award-winning masterpiece, 1927’s Sunrise).

Soon after the stock market crash of 1929, a nearly bankrupt Fox was forced out of the studio he founded, clearing the way for Darryl Zanuck to take the helm. Merging Fox with his own company, 20th Century Pictures, Zanuck would lead this new powerhouse (aptly named 20th Century Fox) into Hollywood’s Golden age, introducing future stars like Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart to movie audiences (both actors made their feature film debut in 1930’s Up the River) and producing some of John Ford’s most beloved classics (Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley). During World War II, Zanuck, who volunteered with the Signal Corps, instructed his studio to concentrate on flag-waving war films (Winged Victory, Guadalcanal Diary) and lighthearted musicals (most starring Betty Grable, who’d become the most popular pin-up girl for G.I’s serving overseas), which gave Americans hope, and something to smile about, during this difficult time.

Oddly enough, the above only brings us to the halfway point of 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years. And believe it or not, the second half of this documentary is every bit as extensive, covering the turbulent 1950s, when TV forced movie screens to get bigger (Fox led the way with 1953’s The Robe, the first film presented in the Cinemascope widescreen process); and a young starlet named Marilyn Monroe (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven Year Itch) took Hollywood by storm. From social consciousness (Gentleman’s Agreement, The Snake Pit) to Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals (Oklahoma, The King and I), and from Sci-Fi ( The Fly, The Day the Earth Stood Still) to Elvis Presley (Love Me Tender), 20th Century Fox remained on the cutting edge. Hell, they even found a way to survive the debacle that was 1963’s Cleopatra, which ran years over schedule and millions of dollars over budget. The good times and the bad, the classics and the box office duds, are all there for the taking in this exhaustive, highly informative documentary.

There are brief interviews with some former stars (Roddy McDowall, Debbie Reynolds), but for the most part, 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years is all about the movies, told by way of clips from over a hundred of the studio’s films. This, coupled with Coburn’s narration, makes 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years much more than a history lesson; it’s an homage to Hollywood’s illustrious past, and a celebration of all the cinema has to offer.

Monday, May 18, 2015

#1,736. The Bat (1959)

Directed By: Crane Wilbur

Starring: Vincent Price, Agnes Moorehead, Gavin Gordon

Tag line: "When it flies, someone dies!"

Trivia: former RKO studio head C. J. Tevlin purchased the remake rights for The Bat from Mary Pickford, who first produced a film adaptation of the play in 1926

A film starring Vincent Price titled The Bat? Surely, it’s a horror movie, right? Actually, no; while there are definitely horror elements scattered about, The Bat is a mystery through and through (and a pretty nifty one at that).

John Fleming (Harvey Stephens) has embezzled a million dollars in securities from the bank he himself founded, and while vacationing at his cabin getaway, he offers his friend, Dr. Wells (Price), half of that money in exchange for helping him fake his own death. Meanwhile, famed mystery writer Cornelia van Gorder (Agnes Moorehead) and her assistant, Lizzie Allen (Lenita Lane), who are renting Fleming’s house while he’s away, are being tormented by a masked killer known only as “The Bat”. Wearing a black mask and a glove with razor-sharp claws, The Bat breaks into the Fleming house on a nightly basis, and if the two women can’t figure out who he is or what he wants, odds are they’re going to become his next victims.

It made sense to list Vincent Price as the #1 star of The Bat; by 1959, he’d appeared in House of Wax (1953), The Fly (’58), and a pair of William Castle movies, House of Haunted Hill and The Tingler (both ’59), all of which were fairly popular with audiences. Still, the billing is misleading, because Price’s Dr. Wells is only a supporting character (an important one, mind you, but secondary nonetheless). The real star of The Bat is Agnes Moorehead, whose Cornelia van Gorder reminded me of a quirky version of Jessica Fletcher, the author / sleuth played by Angela Lansburty in the ‘80s TV series Murder, She Wrote. Joined at all times by her trusty assistant, Lizzie, Ms. Van Gorder puts her detective skills to the test by trying to solve the mystery of The Bat, trading witty asides with Lizzie as she does so (while reading a newspaper article about the Bat’s latest killing, Lizzie blurts out “It says here that the Bat never leaves no fingerprints”. “That's understandable”, Cornelia replies, “Having no face he probably has no fingers either”). Even in his supporting role, Price manages to shine, bringing a sinister edge to Dr. Wells that rears its ugly head early on (a scene I won’t spoil for you here). But despite the horror icon’s solid performance, it’s Moorehead and Lane who steal this particular show.

The Bat is, at times, downright creepy (especially in the scenes where the killer is inside the house, tormenting Ms. Van Gorder and Lizzie), and with its tale of masked killers and corporate greed, it also proved to be an intriguing mystery, one that, thanks in part to the spirited give-and-take of Moorehead and Lane, you’re sure to enjoy.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

#1,735. The Avengers (2012)

Directed By: Joss Whedon

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson

Line from this film: "Puny god"

Trivia: The film was promoted at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con International, during which a teaser trailer narrated by Samuel L. Jackson was shown

With 2012’s The Avengers, Marvel brought “Phase One” of their Cinematic Universe to a close, a collection of movies that included Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger

Having already established each hero’s distinct personality, the challenge was to ensure they all had equal time while also delivering a kick-ass action extravaganza. It was an ambitious project, to be sure, but in true Marvel fashion, they not only pulled it off, but exceeded expectations, and in so doing set the bar for the entire subgenre higher than it had ever been before.

As the story opens, S.H.I.E.L.D. (which stands for “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division”), under the leadership of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), is conducting a series of tests, headed by physicist Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), on the Tesseract, a priceless gem that is also one of the galaxy’s most powerful energy sources. Suddenly and without warning, the Tesseract opens a wormhole, through which Loki (Tom Hiddleston), an Asgardian God and the step-brother of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), enters earth’s realm and steals the mighty stone. 

Using his power to control the minds of Selvig and several S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, including archery master Clint Barton, aka “Hawkeye” (Jeremy Renner), Loki manages to escape with the Tesseract, which he will use to open a portal through which an alien army can invade earth. Once the aliens have taken over, Loki intends to set himself up as ruler of the entire planet.

To stop Loki, Nick Fury puts into motion the "Avengers Initiative", a plan by which he assembles the world’s greatest heroes, who he hopes will work together to end this global threat. With the help of Agent Paulson (Clark Gregg), Fury contacts millionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), better known as Iron Man; super spy Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), who goes by the name Black Widow; and Captain America (Chris Evans), who is still trying to cope with life in the 21st century. 

Hoping to both stop Loki and hide the Tesseract on Asgard for safe keeping, Thor eventually joins the group as well, as does the recently rescued Hawkeye. To round out the team, Fury sends Natasha to track down Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), whose alter-ego, the Incredible Hulk, could prove a useful ally. 

But the question remains: can this group of heroes function as a team, or will they spend more time fighting each other than battling Loki and his army?

Along with its wall-to-wall action, The Avengers is also an exemplary character study, showing what happens when a group of individuals who have grown accustomed to working alone are asked to join a team. Some have no issues whatsoever adapting; once a soldier in the U.S. army, Captain America had already fought alongside others. A few, however, like Tony Stark, have relied on their own wits and have no idea how to function as part of a group. This leads to some intense showdowns within the ranks of the Avengers (Iron Man and Thor have a particularly violent fight at one point), which makes the moments they do work together all the more satisfying. When the chips are down, though, they come together to get the job done, and by the time the final battle is staged, Joss Whedon ensures that each and every member plays an integral part in it.

Having portrayed their characters in previous movies, Downey Jr., Evans, and Hemsworth are predictably strong, as are Renner (who had a bit part in Thor) and Johansson (whose Black Widow wowed Tony Stark in Iron Man 2). The real standout, however, is the new guy, Mark Ruffalo, who replaced Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner / the Incredible Hulk. Arguably the most complex member of the Avengers, Banner must live with the reality that there is a monster inside of him, one he himself cannot control. In those moments when he loses his temper, Banner / The Hulk becomes a wrecking machine, sending everyone - including the other Avengers - running for cover. Throughout the film, Ruffalo perfectly conveys his character’s inner turmoil, and as a result, his Hulk is, at all times, the most sympathetic and the most frightening member of this illustrious team.

Yet as intriguing as the group’s inner workings are, it’s the action scenes that make The Avengers such an entertaining movie. From the opening sequence, where Loki swipes the Tesseract, to the final showdown (which must be seen to be believed), The Avengers is a thrill-a-minute motion picture.

The fact that it offers something more besides?  Well, that's a nice bonus.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

#1,734. The Thing (2011)

Directed By: Matthijs van Heijningen

Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, Ulrich Thomsen

Tag line: "In a place where there is nothing, they found something"

Trivia: The creature in this 2011 film was brought to life by way of a combination of practical effects and CGI

John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my all-time favorite horror films (my 3rd favorite, in fact, behind Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead), and it’s because of this that I approached its 2011 prequel, also titled The Thing, with trepidation. Would it do the previous movie justice, or was I in for a CGI-fueled monster flick that was heavy on special effects and light on everything else? Well, I’m happy to report that my initial fears were unfounded. Though far from great, this newest incarnation of The Thing is an action-packed thrill ride that most fans of the 1982 Carpenter classic will enjoy.

Deep in Antarctica, a team of Norwegian researchers makes the discovery of a lifetime: an alien spacecraft, trapped under the ice, which, according to estimates, has been there some 100,000 years. To learn a bit more about this monumental find, Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) and his assistant Adam (Eric Christian Olsen) invite American Paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to have a look at it. Shuttled to the outpost aboard a helicopter piloted by Carter (Joel Edgerton) and his pal Derek (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, aka Mr. Eko in the hit TV series Lost), Kate arrives just in time to witness yet another historic find: a strange alien being, frozen in a block of ice, is discovered on the ship and promptly brought back to the base for further analysis.

Only this alien isn’t dead, as everyone learns later that evening when it bursts out of the ice and promptly disappears, hiding somewhere inside the building. What's more, it also has the power to transform itself into any living creature, which the group discovers when it tries to "absorb" their colleague, Henrik (Jo Adrian Haavind). After burning both the alien and Henrik with a flamethrower, Kate takes a blood sample from the creature and finds its cells are still alive! In fact, by this point, it’s had enough time to copy any one of the dozen or so people left at the base. To isolate the danger, Kate recommends a quarantine until they can figure out who is still human, and who isn’t. But while the group argues amongst itself to decide the best course of action, the alien continues to move, leaving the survivors to wonder who among them they can actually trust.

Clearly, director Matthijs van Heijningen is just as big a fan of Carpenter’s The Thing as I am, because he follows many of the same beats as that movie, from the creative way he brings its creature to life (using both CGI and practical effects to do so) to the tension its presence stirs up, causing friends and co-workers to turn on one another (with sometimes tragic results). He even comes up with his own version of the original’s “test scene” (one that’s much simpler than what we get in Carpenter’s film, but is effective nonetheless). The international cast does a fine job, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead leading the way as a scientist who realizes just how dangerous this monster will be if it escapes (fearing the creature is on-board, she attempts to wave down a helicopter that just took off, which leads to one of the movie’s best scenes). Prior to The Thing, I’d only seen Winstead in a handful of films, including Final Destination 3, the sub-par Black Christmas remake, the 2010 action / comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and Tarantino’s Death Proof, one of the two films that make up 2007’s Grindhouse (she was Lee, the pretty but somewhat simple cheerleader in the movie’s final segment). Though certainly good in those films, she showed me a lot more with her performance in The Thing, playing both a shy scientist with a theory to a bad-ass warrior on the hunt (a la Ripley in the Alien series). While the monster is undoubtedly the focal point of 2011’s The Thing, Winstead’s impressive turn gives it a run for its money.

As I said at the beginning, this version of The Thing isn’t perfect. Along with some questionable CGI, the late sequence set aboard the centuries-old spaceship never really comes together as it should. Still, everything I mentioned above, in addition to a final scene that harkens back to the original, makes The Thing a surprisingly strong prequel to the 1982 masterpiece.

Friday, May 15, 2015

#1,733. The Gathering Storm (2002)

Directed By: Richard Loncraine

Starring: Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Jim Broadbent

Tag line: "Germany was arming itself for war. But they didn't count on one man"

Trivia: Finney gained many accolades for his performance, winning both a BAFTA Award for Best Actor and an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor

Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of the UK during World War II, a very difficult time in the nation's history. With the Nazis setting up shop just across the channel in France, the threat of invasion loomed heavy over the British Isles, yet through it all, Churchill remained steadfast in his belief that the Allies would be victorious in the end, that Hitler’s Germany would be defeated, and the world would once again be safe from tyranny. The 2002 movie The Gathering Storm, jointly financed by the BBC and HBO, is set several years before the war breaks out, when Churchill, viewed as a Tory relic by both the opposition and members of his own party, went to great lengths to warn Britain that Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany could not be trusted. Alas, very few people agreed with him, calling the elder statesman a war monger and doing what they could to silence him. In the 1940s, Winston Churchill was a beacon of hope for millions of people who’d gather by their radio on a regular basis to hear his words of encouragement. As The Gathering Storm shows us, in those years before Europe erupted, hardly anyone was listening to him at all.

By the 1930s, Winston Churchill (Albert Finney), having served in Parliament for several decades, was out of a job. But much to the government’s chagrin, that wasn’t enough to keep him quiet. Believing that Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (Derek Jacobi) and his cabinet were bending over backwards to appease Nazi Germany, Churchill regularly spoke out against the administration, warning England that, like it or not, war was on the horizon. Only a select few shared his beliefs, including Ralph Wigram (Linus Roache) of the foreign office, who supplied Churchill with information about the Nazis; and good friend Desmond Morton (Jim Broadbent), a former military man who, in later years, would serve as Churchill’s personal assistant. Yet try as he might to convince his fellow countrymen that Germany was a force to be reckoned with, his words often fell on deaf ears.

During this same decade, Churchill’s private life was every bit as tumultuous as his public one. Having retreated to his country home in Chartwell to finish writing a book about his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, Churchill argues frequently with his wife Clementine (aka “Clemmie”) about their troubled finances (Churchill lost quite a bit of money when the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929). Though the couple was still very much in love, Clemmie, in need of some alone time, also went on an extended overseas holiday, leaving Churchill to wonder if she was ever coming back. It proved to be a dark period in Churchill’s life, but an even darker one was fast approaching, when Britain would once again look to him for guidance. As always, Winston Churchill answered the call, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the years, I’ve seen several actors portray Winston Churchill, including Bob Hoskins (in the ‘90s TV miniseries World War II: When Lions Roared) and, more recently, Rod Taylor, who briefly appeared as the former British Prime Minister in Quentin Tarantino’s exceptional 2010 war flick, Inglourious Basterds. In an interview Taylor gave around the time that film was made, he said he was thrilled to have worked on the movie, but added that, when he was initially contacted about the role, he asked Tarantino why he didn’t offer the part to Albert Finney instead. To know why Taylor posed such a question in the first place, one need look no further than The Gathering Storm

Finney’s performance is more than a simple impersonation; he somehow manages to embody the former leader, capturing not only his power as a statesman (i.e. - his knack for public speaking), but also his private persona, including his cantankerous nature (he’d often snap orders at his butler, Inches, played here by Ronnie Barker) as well as the love he had for his wife, and how helpless he felt without her (during Clemmie’s trip overseas, he’d check the mail every day for a letter from her, and wallow in self-pity if one didn’t arrive). More than anything, though, we see how proud he was to call himself an Englishman (as evidenced in the brilliant scene where he explains to Clemmie why he bought the house in Chartwell), and how frightened he was for the country’s future, fearing they weren’t prepared for the hell that Germany was about to unleash on the world, then doing everything in his power to ensure they were.

The Gathering Storm is a superb film in many regards, perfectly recreating the period in which its set and featuring an excellent supporting cast (Derek Jacobi shines as the PM who’s often the target of Churchill’s verbal attacks, while Redgrave delivers a heartfelt performance as the devoted wife who’s not afraid to stand up to her husband). Leading the pack, though, is Albert Finney, winner of a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and a number of other awards for his spot-on portrayal of a giant of a man who, more often than not, was just as human as the rest of us.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

#1,732. Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991)

Directed By: Pete Hewitt

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, William Sadler

Tag line: "Once... they made history. Now... they are history"

Trivia: To coincide with the release of the movie, Marvel Comics released a one-shot comic book adaptation of the film

Forget the title; there’s nothing bogus about this 1991 sequel featuring everyone’s favorite rock star hopefuls, Bill S. Preston, Esq (Alex Winter) & Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves). In fact, I’d say this movie is every bit as excellent as its predecessor.

As established in the first film, 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the future is a much better place thanks to the bumbling pals and their questionable musical skills; by the year 2691, war, hunger, and pollution have been eliminated, and every school offers a class on the finer points of rock and roll. But there are those who don’t appreciate this seemingly utopian society. Enter Chuck De Nomolos (Joss Ackland), a former teacher bent on controlling the world. Hoping to alter the course of history, De Nomolos sends a pair of evil robots, designed to look exactly like Bill & Ted, to modern-day San Dimas with instructions to kill their real-life counterparts before the upcoming Battle of the Bands. Sure enough, the murderous doppelgangers complete their mission by dragging Bill & Ted to the top of a cliff and tossing them over the side. Having killed Bill & Ted, the robots then set their sights on seducing the former medieval Princesses, Elizabeth (Annette Azcuy) and Joanna (Sarah Trigger), who, in the five years since they traveled to the 20th century, have joined the duo’s band (Wyld Stallyns), and, more recently, agreed to marry the now-deceased best friends.

Eager to save the Princesses and destroy the evil robots, the ghostly remains of Bill & Ted evade the Grim Reaper (William Sadler) and make their way back to San Dimas in the hopes of finding someone who can help them. Alas, things go from bad to worse for our heroes when, mistaken for malevolent spirits during a séance, they’re inadvertently banished to hell. But with the help of the Grim Reaper, as well as their old pal from the future, Rufus (George Carlin), Bill & Ted may just cheat death after all.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is its highly imaginative story, which features so many twists and turns that you’ll need a scorecard to keep track of them all. During the course of the movie, our heroes:

   1. Die

   2. Possess the bodies of Ted’s father, police Captain Logan (Hal Landon, Jr.), and his second-in-command, Deputy James (Roy Brocksmith), in the hopes of convincing the police to arrest the evil robots before they can harm the Princesses

   3. End up in Hell, where they come face-to-face with the Dark Prince himself (voiced by Frank Welker)

   4. Compete against The Grim Reaper (unlike Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, where he played chess for the soul of a knight returning from the Crusades, this Reaper is subjected to such modern-day games as Battleship, Clue, and Twister).

And that’s not the half of it. Before Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey comes to an end, they’ll have traveled to places no mortal has ever seen before, brought to life by way of some interesting special effects This, coupled with an inspired performance by William Sadler as The Grim Reaper, keeps the film moving along at a brisk, entertaining pace.

Yet, despite how crazy things get, Bill & Ted approach it all with the same unbridled enthusiasm they showed during their Excellent Adventure. As played by Winter and Reeves, these two characters always maintain a positive outlook, so much so that not even a trip to hell can ruin their day (and as depictions of the underworld go, this one’s fairly creepy). Its unpredictable story makes Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey a fascinating film to watch, but it’s the infectious attitude of its lead characters that makes it so much fun.