Tuesday, June 30, 2015

#1,779. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) - The Films of Kirk Douglas

Directed By: Vincente Minnelli

Starring: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon

Tag line: "The story of a blonde who wanted to go places, and a brute who got her there - the hard way!"

Trivia: All of the scenes set at Jonathan Shields' studio were shot on the MGM lot, using the studio's actual facilities

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful takes us inside the Hollywood machine, ignoring the glitz and excitement normally associated with the town to instead present it as a place of business, where writers, actors, directors and producers walk a fine line between art and finance, and occasionally stab each other in the back to get ahead.

Three of the most influential artists in Hollywood: director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), all have one thing in common: they despise producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). 

Once, not long ago, Shields Productions was a cinematic powerhouse, winning Oscars and turning out movies that made a boatload of money. Having fallen on hard times as of late, Shields has his head of production, Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) - a man he himself once worked for - contact Amiel, Lorrison, and Bartlow in the hopes they’ll sign on to make his next picture. 

But all three have been burned by Jonathan Shields in the past, and during their visit to Pebbel’s office they recount their experiences with the man, explaining why they can never work with him again.

As film producer and all-around heel Jonathan Shields, Kirk Douglas delivers what I consider to be one of his finest performances, playing the character as both a perfectionist who always gets what he wants and a double-crossing worm who’d sell out his own mother if she stood in his way. At times, he’s a true visionary. Years earlier, when Harry Pebble assigned him and Fred Amiel (both of whom were just starting out) to the B-picture The Doom of the Cat Men, it was Jonathan who decided to scrap the lousy cat-man costumes the studio provided and instead keep their creatures hidden in the shadows. As Jonathan put it, the dark frightens an audience more than anything else (an idea borrowed from Val Lewton, who did this very thing with 1942’s Cat People).

The Doom of the Cat Men proved a success, and Jonathan used his leverage from this to pitch an idea put forward by Fred, who had figured out a way to adapt the best-selling novel “The Faraway Mountain”. Sure, three other studios tried to tackle it and failed, but Fred’s outline was so airtight that it couldn’t miss. Sensing a chance to produce his first important picture, Jonathan pushed hard to get The Faraway Mountain off the ground, and it was eventually green-lit. 

Alas, this was also when Shields started to show his true colors; not only did Jonathan lock Fred out as director, hiring instead the seasoned pro, Von Ellstien (Ivan Triesault), but he took full credit for the screenplay, a move that ended his partnership, as well as his friendship with Fred Amiel. 

Georgia Lorrison and James Lee Bartlow have similar stories to tell about their experiences with Jonathan (both of which are even more heartbreaking than Amiel’s). Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Jonathan Shields set himself up for failure when he ruined his relationship with the three of them, alienating talented people he knew would one day rise to the top of their professions. So, when he needed them, he had to grovel and beg. It was a situation he himself created, and it was costing him dearly.

The Bad and the Beautiful exposes the sometimes ugly underbelly of the motion picture industry, but does it go far enough? If history and the tabloids have taught us anything, it’s that Hollywood is a den of sin, where young starlets fall victim to sex-hungry producers; rampant alcoholism and drug addiction cuts short many promising careers; and shattered dreams lead some young hopefuls to eventually take their own lives. Because the film was made in 1952, these vices are predictably absent (the sequence dealing with Georgia Lorrison briefly touches on a few of the above, yet doesn’t explore them in any great detail). 

What The Bad and the Beautiful does do, however, is show the world that movies are a million-dollar business, and that script meetings, screen tests, and budget proposals matter just as much as what's in front of the camera. It may not vilify Tinsletown entirely, but Minnelli’s film manages to strip away the glamour, and for a movie produced within the Hollywood system, that’s not too shabby.

Monday, June 29, 2015

#1,778. Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988)

Directed By: Michael A. Simpson

Starring: Pamela Springsteen, Renée Estevez, Tony Higgins

Tag line: "When you go camping just take the essentials"

Trivia: This movie was Shot back-to-back and at the very same location as its sequel, Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland. Both finished within six weeks

It’s late at night, and a few teens from the nearby summer camp are sitting around a fire in the middle of the woods. As you’d expect, a few scary stories are flying around, but it’s Phoebe (Heather Binion) who tells the scariest of them all, mostly because it’s true. As her friends sit silently, hanging on her every word, Phoebe reveals how, a few years back, a bunch of kids were murdered at Camp Arawak, which, according to her, is only 20 miles from where they’re currently sitting. The killer had been apprehended and thrown into a psychiatric ward, but has since been released. As Phoebe continues her story, camp counselor Angela (Pamela Springsteen) walks up behind her, telling Phoebe she shouldn’t be out of her cabin, and ordering her to return to camp. But poor Phoebe never does make it back. Thus begins Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers, an entertaining, though not perfect, sequel to the 1983 cult classic, Sleepaway Camp.

Angela, it turns out, was at Camp Arawak when all hell broke loose, but she doesn’t let it bother her. In fact, she’s grown to love life at camp, which, for her, represents all that’s wholesome and pure. She’s so good at her job that the camp’s director, known as “Uncle John” (Walter Gotell), has just named her Counselor of the Week. Though not everyone is happy to have Angela around; aside from Molly (Renée Estevez), who’s a bit awkward herself, the rest of the campers, including Ally (Valerie Hartman), Sean (Tony Higgins), Mare (Susan Marie Snyder), and Rob (Terry Hobbs), think Angela’s a stick in the mud, a killjoy who ruins their fun (by not letting them have sex with each other). Even fellow counselor T.C. (Brian Patrick Clarke) has issues with Angela’s “zero-tolerance” approach to the job, which has led her to send camper after camper home for breaking the rules. But are these banished teens actually making their way home, or are they suffering a worse fate?

More comedic than Sleepaway Camp, Unhappy Campers is a lot of fun to watch (the original was much darker in tone), and features some very effective kill scenes; sisters Brooke (Carol Chambers) and Jodi (Amy Fields) meet a grisly end over a fire pit, and there’s a sequence set in an outhouse that’s tough to sit through. The only problem I had with the film, actually, was the character of Angela, who went from a shy, withdrawn girl in the first film to an outgoing goody-two-shoes in the sequel. For me, the change in her personality was far too drastic to be believable (even more ridiculous was the so-called “operation” Angela supposedly had), and while I felt Pamela Springsteen (real-life sister of rocker Bruce Springsteen) did a good job in the part, the character, as written, left something to be desired.

This slight issue aside, Unhappy Campers is a worthy sequel to the original, continuing the story while, at the same time, putting its own unique spin on things.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

#1,777. Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade (2004)

Directed By: Tom Thurman

Starring: Sam Peckinpah, Kris Kristofferson, Fern Lea Peter

Line from this film: "He left us a lasting body of orignial and haunting work and in the end, Sam Peckinpah entered his house justified"

Trivia: Won a Bronze Wrangler for Best Western Documentary at the 2005 Western Heritage Awards

Sam had two lives”, says Peckinpah’s longtime assistant, Katy Haber, at the start of this 2004 made-for-TV documentary (which was produced for the Starz cable network): “Movies that were a reality, and life that was an illusion”. A man who poured everything he had into his craft, Sam Peckinpah was an auteur, a writer / director who put something of himself in every single film. His loves, his fears, his passions and his demons were up there on the screen for the whole world to see, and as narrator Kris Kristofferson, a good friend of its subject’s, points out, this particular aspect of Peckinpah’s work, the laying bare of his very soul, is what made him a true artist.

He directed 14 films over his 25+ year career, but Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade focuses on only 8 of them, namely the westerns that were so close to Peckinpah’s heart. Having grown up on a 25-acre ranch in California, Sam Peckinpah loved the untamed frontier, a fondness he would explore first on television (writing and directing episodes of Gunsmoke and The Rifleman), then in feature films. The low-budget oater The Deadly Companions, released in 1961, was his fist directorial effort, but it was 1962’s Ride the High Country that made critics and audiences alike sit up and take notice. Based on the success of this incredibly moving film, the studio gave him a chance to direct Major Dundee, a large-scale movie starring Charlton Heston and Richard Harris that was a bust at the box office. Still, his experience on Dundee prepared him for his next project, The Wild Bunch, a beautiful, violent motion picture about the dying west that a few called "trash" (the blood flows freely in The Wild Bunch, more freely than most were accustomed to seeing at that time) and others a masterpiece (critic Roger Ebert was one the film’s staunchest defenders in its early days).

Peckinpah followed this up with 1970’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue (which he often said was his favorite of all his films) and Junior Bonner, a 1972 family drama set against the backdrop of a professional rodeo. Neither Cable Hogue nor Junior Bonner made much money, a fact that wasn’t lost on their director, who for years was hounded by questions about the violence in his films (“I made a movie where nobody got shot”, Peckinpah said of Junior Bonner, “and nobody went to see it”). Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid marked another high-point in his career, and has what I consider to be the finest sequence ever committed to film (for more on that, check out my review of the movie), while his final “western”, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, was roundly panned by most critics upon its release (Peckinpah biographer David Weddle called the film “A genuine work of art and a demented movie”). In these 8 pictures, Sam Peckinpah presented a vision of the west that was simultaneously romantic and brutal, lamenting the loss of a simpler time while also showing us that the line separating heroes from villains wasn’t as clear-cut as the movies of Hollywood’s heyday led us to believe.

Featuring interviews with those who knew him intimately (his sister Fern Lea, son Matthew, and frequent collaborators L.Q Jones and James Coburn), and those who drew inspiration from his films (actors Billy Bob Thornton and Michael Madsen, writer/director Paul Schrader), Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade delves into the professional and personal lives of its subject. We learn how Peckinpah’s mother influenced him early in life, only to alienate him later on when she abruptly sold the family ranch (his grandfather wanted Sam and his older brother Denny to eventually inherit it); and hear first-hand how alcohol and drugs got the best of him, cutting short both his career and his life (Peckinpah died in 1984 at age of 59). And, of course, we’re treated to clips from his movies, which only seem to get better with age.

When you think of those directors who defined the western genre, names like John Ford (Stagecoach, The Searchers), Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur), Budd Boetticher (Seven Men From Now, The Tall T), and Sergio Leone (The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West) leap immediately to mind. So, too, does the name Sam Peckinpah. Filmmaker and scoundrel, Peckinpah was a true child of the American west, and we will never see his kind again.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

#1,776. I'll Wait for the Next One... (2002)

Directed By: Philippe Orreindy

Starring: Sophie Forte, Thomas Gaudin, Pascal Casanova

Line from this film: "I read in a magazine there are 5 million single women in France. Where are they?"

Trivia: Won the award for Best Short at the 2004 European Film Awards

Finding love is no easy task, and, as we see in Philippe Orreindy’s 2002 Academy-Award nominated short I’ll Wait for the Next One…. (J'attendrai le suivant... in its native France), you can’t even trust it when it falls into your lap!

A lonely woman (Sophie Forte) boards the Paris Metro. Shortly after the train is under way, a man named Antoine (Thomas Gaudin) addresses the passengers. For three years, he says, he’s been looking for someone to share his life with, a girl who is as open to romance as he is. Antoine tells the crowd a few things about himself (including his age, profession, and how much money he makes in a month), and, after a brief back-and-forth with a married guy (Pascal Casanova), says any woman interested in taking a chance on him should hop off the train at the next station. The woman is intrigued, and a few moments after Antoine finishes his speech, the train comes to a stop, and the doors open…

A drama in the guise of a romance, I’ll Wait for the Next One… features hope and heartbreak in equal doses, all conveyed in less than 5 minutes, and by characters as well-rounded as any you’d find in a full-length film. Though she never speaks a word, we sense almost immediately that the woman is both alone and looking for love (while riding the escalator down to the platform, a young couple making out with one another passes her on their way up, at which point we spot the longing in the woman's eyes, and just a hint of sadness as well). As for Antoine, he appears to be in the same boat, and has decided to do something about it. His speech, though awkward, strikes a chord with the woman, who smiles the entire time he’s delivering it. There’s a brief bit of comedy that comes courtesy of the married guy, who offers to give Antoine his wife’s phone number in the hopes he’ll take her off his hands, but the laughter quickly fades once the woman makes her choice.

With I’ll Wait for the Next One…, director Orriendy has pulled off a minor miracle, squeezing drama, laughs, and pathos into an abbreviated run time, all to tell a story that has the power to break your heart.

Friday, June 26, 2015

#1,775. Of Time and the City (2008)

Directed By: Terence Davies

Starring: Terence Davies

Line from this film: "If Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented"

Trivia: Won for Best Documentary at the 2009 Australian Film Critics Association Awards

The trailer for Terence Davies’ 2008 documentary Of Time and the City refers to the film as “A love song and a eulogy for the city of Liverpool”. This sums the movie up perfectly. it’s a love song in that it pays tribute to the town its director grew up in, showing images from a time when he called this UK city his home; and it’s a memorial to an age that now exists solely in one’s nostalgic recollections, a time that has vanished, never to return.

Narrated by Davies himself, who helmed such films as 2000’s The House of Mirth and The Deep Blue Sea in 2011, Of Time and the City combines still photographs, home movies, and modern-day footage of the city’s landscapes (including St. George’s Hall and the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King) to compose what is, in the end, a very personal journey through Liverpool’s past, with the director focusing almost exclusively on the era of his youth, the 1950’s and ‘60s. “Here was my whole world”, he says over pictures from that period, which, for him, was all about “Home, school, the movies, and God”. He was 15 when he fell in love with the cinema, a time he says was also taken up by wrestling matches at Liverpool Stadium (alongside shots of stars like Gregory Peck, Of Time and the City treats us to a black and white wrestling bout). To coincide with its stunning imagery, the movie offers literary and historical quotes from the likes of Carl Jung and James Joyce (which Davies mixes in with his narration), and music ranging from classical (Gustav Mahler) to pop (Peggy Lee), all blended together to make Of Time and the City as much a work of art as it is a document of the past.

Yet not even nostalgia can wipe the slate completely clean. As Davies reveals, this era had its share of problems as well, including the strict, often oppressive doctrine of the Catholic church (“As far as I knew”, Davies says at one point, “Mother Church still wanted me, but I no longer wanted her”); the Korean War (scenes of which play over The Hollies’ 1969 hit, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother”); and, perhaps most troubling of all, the discrimination that disguised itself as the law of the land (Davies recalls the arrest of 2 gay men in London, who, during their trial, were chastised by the Judge for committing “an act of gross indecency”, which was made worse, he said, because it occurred under one of the city’s “most beautiful bridges”). Still, the filmmaker harbors fond memories of this period, and focuses on those things that were vital to him and his upbringing, often at the expense of what history tells us is important (no movie about Liverpool would be complete without The Beatles, but Davies dedicates no more than a minute or two to the band, leading us to believe their impact on pop culture was much stronger than their influence on him personally).

While the images on display in Of Time and the City are, indeed, gorgeous, the city itself, as seen in the film, is far from elegant. An industrial town brimming with poverty, its streets lined with decaying buildings and graffiti-filled walls, Liverpool clearly wasn’t the ideal place to grow up, yet it was the only home Davies knew. It may not have been perfect, but if Of Time and the City is to be believed, he cherishes the experience of his youth, and that’s something we can all relate to in one way or another.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

#1,774. Adventure in Sahara (1938)

Directed By: D. Ross Lederman

Starring: Paul Kelly, C. Henry Gordon, Lorna Gray

Tag line: "A Yankee Daredevil Hits The Foreign Legion... To Bring You Breath-Taking Thrills!"

Trivia: Based on a story by future director Samuel Fuller

Based on a story written by Samuel Fuller (who also penned the tale that inspired 1943’s Power of the Press), Adventure in Sahara is a passable, if unspectacular drama / adventure about mutiny in the French Foreign Legion.

When his brother, a legionnaire, dies while on duty, American Jim Wilson (Paul Kelly) joins the Foreign Legion in the hopes of getting his revenge on Captain Savatt (C. Henry Gordon), who he believes was responsible for his brother’s demise. At his request, Wilson is stationed at the Agadez Outpost in the Sahara, where Savatt serves as commanding officer, and before long has rallied his fellow troops against the tyrannical Captain. Ignoring the pleas of Lt. Dumond (Robert Fiske), Savatt’s second-in-command, as well as those of his girlfriend Carla (Lorna Gray), who ended up at Agadez when the plane she was flying crashed in the desert, Wilson goes ahead with his mutiny, taking control of the entire outpost. Yet as he’ll soon discover, his problems are far from over.

Adventure in Sahara isn’t without its charms. Along with a handful of well-staged (though not particularly exciting) battle sequences in which the Legion faces off against some Arabs on horseback, the film does a good job establishing Captain Savatt as a stern disciplinarian who occasionally crosses the line into cruelty. While on sentry duty, new recruit René Malreaux (Stanley Brown) tries to piece together a photo of his fiancé, which Savatt had torn into pieces earlier in the day. When Savatt happens by, he has Malreaux arrested for neglecting his responsibilities, and then sentences him to serve as lookout on the wall for 48 hours straight (a punishment that ends in tragedy). On top of this, Adventure in Sahara also features a cameo appearance by actor Dwight Frye (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Vampire Bat), who pops up briefly in the role of Gravet, Capt. Savatt’s right hand man.

Yet, despite its stronger elements, Adventure in Sahara fails to generate any lasting thrills, and will fade from memory soon after the final credits roll.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

#1,773. Even Pigeons Go to Heaven (2007)

Directed By: Samuel Tourneux

Writers: Karine Binaux, Olivier Gilbert, Samuel Tourneux

Trivia: Won the 2007 Junior Jury Award at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival

After picking up a radio signal from an unknown source, a Priest races to the house of the elderly Mister Moulin, arriving just in time to save his life (Mister Moulin was trying to retrieve a sock filled with money from the top shelf of a very tall bookcase when he slipped and fell. Luckily, the Priest was able to catch him before he hit the ground). Using his near-death experience as a jumping-off point, the Priest attempts to chisel Mister Moulin out of his life savings by selling him the XV-750, a state-of-the-art one-man vessel that’s guaranteed to shuttle him safely to the Pearly Gates of Heaven (it seems Mister Moulin is something of a miser, and, according to the Priest, has a long list of sins. In short, if he doesn’t purchase the XV-750, he’ll surely end up in hell). After giving the old man a “free demonstration” of what the XV-750 can do, Mister Moulin agrees to buy it, but the transaction is interrupted by a knock at the door…

Nominated for Best Animated Short in 2008 (alongside the excellent Madame Tutli-Putli, though the winner was Peter & The Wolf), Even Pigeons Go To Heaven is a computer animated comedy that delivers the laughs (during the demonstration of the XV-750, Mister Moulin fully believes he’s visiting the Stairway to Heaven, though some quick shots of what the Priest is doing outside the ship reveal that it’s all a hoax). In addition, there’s a clever twist at the end that, along with explaining things a bit better (answering the question: where did the radio signal the Priest intercepted originate from?), delivers a satisfying conclusion.

Delving into it further may reveal a message or two, including how organized religion has made a practice of exploiting people’s fears in order to make a profit, though, ultimately, I think the creative minds behind Even Pigeons Go To Heaven had but a single goal: to put a smile on our faces. And on that level, it’s a rousing success.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

#1,772. Dead Alive (1992)

Directed By: Peter Jackson

Starring: Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Elizabeth Moody

Tag line: "You'll laugh yourself sick!"

Trivia: Famed collector Forrest J. Ackerman makes a cameo appearance in this film, playing a tourist at the zoo

There are a number of effective ways to mutilate the human body, and director Peter Jackson covers damn near all of them in his 1992 gorefest, Dead Alive.

Released as Braindead in its native New Zealand, Dead Alive takes us back to 1957, when Wellington’s own Lionel Cosgrove (Tim Balme) first met and fell in love with shop girl Paquita (Diana Peñalver). For Paquita, Lionel was her knight in shining armor, the man that her grandmother (Davina Whitehouse) saw in her tarot cards. Lionel, it was foretold, would protect Paquita from all dangers great and small, but nobody could predict just how dangerous things were about to get!

It all begins when Lionel’s overbearing mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody) follows the two lovers to the zoo. While spying on them from behind a bush, Vera is bitten by a Rat Monkey, a rare creature found only in Sumatra. What at first appears to be a simple bite, however, soon has Vera knocking on death’s door, and despite the best efforts of Lionel and Nurse McTavish (Brenda Kendall), the old girl passes away rather quickly. 

But she doesn’t stay dead for long; moments after expiring, Vera is up and walking again, only now she has a craving for human flesh! 

His mother now a zombie, a confused Lionel does what he can to keep her locked up, but within a day or two, dear old Mom and a few others she has infected are on the loose, attacking everyone they come across. 

Will Lionel fulfill his destiny and keep his beloved Paquita safe, or will she, too, eventually join the ranks of the walking dead?

Dead Alive is considered by many to be one of the bloodiest motion pictures ever made (do an online search for the top-10 goriest movies of all-time, and I’ll bet this title appears on just about every list), but the red stuff doesn’t start flowing right away. The opening scene, in which explorer Stewart McAlden (Bill Ralston) first captures the Rat Monkey on the island of Sumatra, has more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark than it does a horror film (there’s a chase involving natives with spears, who are bound and determined to prevent McAden from leaving the island with his prize). 

From there, the story shifts to Wellington, where we’re introduced to the love-starved Paquita, desperate to find her Prince Charming, as well as the shy, somewhat clumsy Lionel, whose mother keeps him on a short leash (several flashbacks hint at a family tragedy that Lionel is convinced was his fault). Aside from an alarming moment or two (the morning after she is bitten, Vera’s skin starts to peel off), Dead Alive focuses on it characters early on, and isn't yet interested in turning our stomachs.

That all changes, however, when a deathly sick Vera insists on entertaining the Mathesons (Lewis Rowe and Glenis Levestam), who have come to make her the new head of the local women’s auxiliary. The bloody puss that Vera inadvertently squirts into Mr. Matheson’s custard is bad enough, but it’s the way she reacts to her ear falling off that will really shock you. 

From then on, Dead Alive is nothing short of insane, with a brutal scene involving Vera and Nurse MacTavish; a priest who uses kung-fu to subdue some zombies in a church graveyard (“I kick ass for the Lord!”); and a blood-drenched house party that doesn't break up until Lionel wheels in his trusty lawnmower (arguably the film’s most violent sequence).

By spending time with the characters before the carnage begins, Jackson ensures that his audience will care about the leads and their plight, and will pull for them to somehow survive this very messy apocalypse. 

But Dead Alive is at its best when the guts are oozing and the limbs are popping off. As horror / comedies go, Dead Alive is easily the grossest of the bunch, and I loved every minute of it!

Monday, June 22, 2015

#1,771. The Monster Squad (1987)

Directed By: Fred Dekker

Starring: Andre Gower, Robby Kiger, Stephen Macht

Tag line: "The End of the World Starts at Midnight"

Trivia: Dustin Diamond had a small role as a kid who tries to sell comic books to the boys, but this was later cut

Before it reached the five-minute mark, Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad already had me smiling ear to ear. 

Opening 100 years in the past, the movie takes us to the castle of Count Dracula, and as the camera moves through the darkened, shadowy halls of his terrifying abode, we spot a few armadillos scurrying about on the ground.


These same creatures also showed up in 1931’s Dracula, and even today, their appearance in that film has fans scratching their head. Though native to the Americas (most originate in South America, but a few species made their way to the United States), these bizarre rodents suddenly, and inexplicably, turn up in Transylvania, crawling around as Bela Lugosi is giving Dwight Frye a tour of his castle. 

The second I saw the armadillos in The Monster Squad, I knew the creative minds behind it shared my love for classic black and white horror. In 1931’s Dracula, armadillos seemed out of place, but in The Monster Squad, their inclusion was just about perfect!

Legend has it that every 100 years or so, a seemingly indestructible amulet - the source of all that is good in the universe - becomes temporarily vulnerable. Should it be destroyed during this brief window of time, the powers of evil would immediately take control of the entire planet. 

A century earlier, Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Jack Gwillim) managed to keep the amulet from falling into the hands of the sinister Count Dracula (Duncan Regehr), who would have smashed it the first chance he got. It’s been about 100 years since that showdown, meaning the amulet might once again be in great danger. 

To ensure it remained safe, Van Helsing’s followers hid it somewhere in the United States. But Count Dracula has tracked it down, and not willing to take any chances, he’s brought a few of his “friends” - aka Frankenstein’s Monster (Tom Noonan), The Wolfman (Carl Thibault), the Mummy (Michael Reid MacKay) and the Gillman (Tom Woodruff Jr.) - along to help him destroy the amulet once and for all.

Who can stop the Count and his fiendish crew? Why, The Monster Squad, of course! 

Having answered the call to arms, The Monster Squad is prepared to defend the amulet at all costs… provided their mothers don’t call them in for dinner first. 

See, the members of The Monster Squad, Sean (Andre Gower), Patrick (Robby Kiger), Horace, aka “Fat Kid” (Brent Chalem), Eugene (Michael Faustino) and newest member Rudy (Ryan Lambert), are all pre-teens with a passion for horror movies. But don’t let their size fool you: when it comes to fighting monsters, this squad is second to none!

Thanks to the antics of its adolescent cast, kids are sure to get a kick out of The Monster Squad, but that doesn’t mean it won’t give your young’uns a nightmare or two. The opening sequence, a flashback to Van Helsing’s showdown with Dracula, features a rather feral vampire bride (biting into an armadillo) as well as an army of decaying corpses, awakened by the Dark Lord to do his bidding. 
Another memorable scene (and one most kids can relate to) features a clever twist on the childhood fear of monsters living in the bedroom closet (it will make you laugh and cower in fright at the same time). 

Still, the tykes that make up the Monster Squad are a fearless bunch; in a particularly tense sequence, a few of them break into the old house where Dracula and his crew are hiding, only to find themselves facing off against the Count and the Werewolf, a scene that also provides what is arguably the film’s best line: “Wolfman’s got nards” (a discovery Horace makes at a very opportune moment).

As with their younger counterparts, the actors portraying the monsters are also quite good. Duncan Regehr’s Dracula is easily the most malevolent of the bunch (in a heartbreaking scene, the Count takes his frustrations out on the Squad’s beloved clubhouse). As with Laurence Talbot in the 1941 film, the Wolfman in The Monster Squad is a tortured individual who is unable to control the beast within (his transformation inside a phone booth is especially well-done). Likewise, Frankenstein’s Monster is every bit the misunderstood character he was in the 1931 version, only this time around he's hooked up with someone willing to accept him as he is (giving us a chance to see what might have been had Karloff’s monster found a friend or two). As for the Gillman and The Mummy, they look as good as they did in their original films.

As a fan of old-time horror, I loved how The Monster Squad brought these creatures convincingly to life. Rest assured, however, that even if you’ve never seen a single one of the classics from Universal’s heyday, you’ll still have fun watching this movie. 

Yes, The Monster Squad is a loving tribute to the past, but it stands on its own just as well.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

#1,770. The Boondock Saints (1999)

Directed By: Troy Duffy

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus

Tag line: "Thy Kingdom Come. Thy Will Be Done"

Trivia: The prisoner number for Il Duce, is Director Troy Duffy's old cell phone number

Anyone who has seen the extraordinary 2003 documentary Overnight knows how unhinged writer / director Troy Duffy became while making his dream project, 1999’s The Boondock Saints. A bartender with no previous film experience, Duffy penned what insiders at the time referred to as the hottest screenplay around, and after a bidding war, it was Harvey Weinstein and Miramax who purchased the rights to it. 

Weinstein and his studio, however, would eventually withdraw from the project due to Duffy’s erratic behavior; considered a low-budget picture form the start, he insisted on courting big-name stars like The Matrix’s Keanu Reeves and even Kenneth Branagh, actors he couldn’t possibly afford. Straining both his professional and personal relationships during production (Overnight was shot and directed by Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith, both friends of Duffy’s, yet doesn’t portray him in a positive light), Duffy’s Hollywood career seemed over before it began. 

Compounding the problem was the fact that the scheduled release of The Boondock Saints coincided with the tragedy at Colorado's Columbine High School, where two students entered the school with firearms, killing 12 classmates and one teacher before turning the guns on themselves. As a result, the movie, which has quite a bit of gunplay, was given a token release in 5 cities, where it played for a week before disappearing from the big screen.

Still, in spite of its troubled history, The Boondock Saints is a stylish, energetic crime film, and I find myself enjoying it a little more every time I see it.

When the Russian mob threatens to take over their favorite bar, brothers Connor (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Murphy (Norman Reedus) McManus take matters into their own hands by killing three of the mob’s enforcers. As a result of this showdown, the devoutly religious McManus boys decide to enter the vigilante business, taking to the streets to rid Boston of its criminal element. 

Joining them in their "sacred" quest is good friend Rocco (David Della Rocco), a low-level mobster with plenty of inside information. It isn’t long before the three start making headlines by polishing off crooks, thugs, and the scum of society at a regular clip. And while the media has no clue as to their actual identities, they start referring to them as “The Saints”, applauding the efficient manner in which they’re cleaning up the city.

Of course, not everyone is happy with their efforts. Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe), an openly gay FBI investigator with the uncanny ability to piece together a crime scene, is hot on their trail. Even more dangerous, though, is “Papa Joe” (Carlo Rota), head of the mafia's Yakavetta family, who has no intention of allowing “The Saints” to disrupt his organization. To this end, “Papa Joe” brings in the mob’s most ruthless hit man, a guy known only as “Il Duce” (Billy Connolly), to eliminate The Saints before they can do any further damage. 

Will the brothers and Rocco survive this onslaught, or are their days as the saviors of society numbered?

Despite his lack of experience behind the camera, Duffy infuses The Boondock Saints with tons of energy; even the opening scene, where the brothers are simply attending mass, has style to spare. I especially liked how the first-time director handled his lead characters' vigilante efforts, showing us each crime scene after the fact, with bodies and bullet casings strewn all over the floor as Agent Smecker studies the clues to figure out what went down. Once Smecker presents his version of events, the film flashes back to reveal how “The Saints” actually did it, sequences that feature plenty of bloody carnage (the scene where the brothers take out an entire room of high-level Russian gangsters is particularly well-handled). By giving us the aftermath before the event itself, Duffy builds our anticipation while, at the same time, showing us just how good Smecker is at his job (his deductions are usually spot-on).

With its excellent cast (Flanery and Reedus are likable as hell as the McManus brothers, but Dafoe’s animated turn as the slightly effeminate Smecker is a scene-stealer) and a whole lot of flash and flair, The Boondock Saints is a spirited, entertaining crime film, and I’m happy that, despite its checkered history, the movie found an audience on home video (it made some $50 million in video sales in the U.S. alone). 

You can argue that Duffy, whose arrogance nearly ruined the picture, may not deserve this success, but his film certainly does.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

#1,769. Boys Town (1938)

Directed By: Norman Taurog

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney, Henry Hull

Tag line: "Greater than the imagination of the best writers!"

Trivia: Freddie Bartholomew was considered for the part of Mickey Rooney's best friend, but was not cast because the producers felt he was too associated with Little Lord Fauntleroy

Based on the true story of Father Edward Joseph Flanagan, who, in 1921, established Boys Town, a small community outside Omaha, Nebraska, designed to give orphaned and wayward boys a place to call home, 1938's Boys Town stars Spencer Tracy as the good father, who fought both the banks and politicians to keep his facility (which, at its height, housed some 500 kids) going strong. Providing a place to live as well as a future for the young men in his care (giving them a basic education while also teaching them a trade), Father Flanagan lived by the credo that “there’s no such thing as a bad boy”. This belief is challenged, however, with the arrival of Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney), younger brother of convicted murderer Joe Marsh (Edward Morris). Cocky and street-wise, Whitey has a hard time fitting in, but when his actions lead to a near tragedy, he runs away, only to become embroiled in a scandal that, if the authorities have their way, could close the doors at Boys Town for good.

Though he was only 17 years old at the time he made Boys Town, Mickey Rooney was already a seasoned Hollywood pro, having acted since the age of six in shorts and feature films (in 1935, he played Puck in director William Dieterle’s version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream). As the often stubborn Whitey, Rooney has a few good scenes (those moments late in the movie when he breaks down and cries are especially effective, and pack quite an emotional punch), but, in the end, it’s Spencer Tracy’s understated performance as Father Flanagan that makes Boys Town the tearkjerker it is. From the moment he first appears, comforting convicted killer Dan Farrow (Leslie Fenton) less than an hour before he’s to die in the electric chair, we get a sense of Father Flanagan’s selfless nature, and spot the inspiration in his eyes when Farrow says his life might have been different if he had just one friend when he was 12 years old. Armed with the basic philosophy that there’s no such thing as a bad boy, Father Flanagan raises the money needed to start Boys Town from friends such as businessman Dave Morris (Henry Hull), and then works tirelessly to make his dream come true. From his calm approach when dealing with the financiers (who constantly try to shut him down) to the way he handles the volatile Whitey, Tracy brings Father Flanagan’s generosity to the surface in just about every scene, and in so doing gives the film its heart and soul.

There’s not a second in Boys Town where Spencer Tracy looks as if he’s acting, which is the mark of a great performance. A noble, caring individual who transformed Boys Town into a safe haven for young delinquents, Father Flanagan was clearly an exceptional man, and Tracy, at his absolute best, brings him convincingly to life.

Friday, June 19, 2015

#1,768. The Brick Dollhouse (1967)

Directed By: Tony Martinez

Starring: Tina Vienna, Janice Kelly, Peggy Ann

Tag line: "Tormented by burning desire!"

Trivia: Because he purchased the film unfinished, Producer David F. Friedman had to direct several of the scenes himself

The music is groovy, the starlets are naked, and the story is as flimsy as a tissue in a hurricane. It must be another nudie cutie from the “Mighty Monarch of Exploitation”, producer David F. Friedman, and true to form, his 1967 offering The Brick Dollhouse gives us boobs galore, and not much else besides.

Exotic dancer Min Lee (Joyanna) has been murdered, and police Lt. Parker (George French) is bound and determined to find the one who killed her. So, he interrogates the victim’s roommates: Carmen (Tina Vienna), Danielle (Lee Cory), Sherry (Peggy West), Linda (Helena Clayton) and Sandy (Frankie O’Brien), a quintet of luscious babes who recount their experiences with the deceased, most of which involve a party of some kind. With few leads to go on, Lt. Parker finally gets the break he was looking for when he answers the all-important question: why was the victim wearing a red wig?

In the guise of a murder mystery, The Brick Dollhouse features nudity in just about every scene, which you’d think would be enough to hold the attention of every red-blooded guy in the audience. Well, it isn’t. Take, for example, the flashback sequence in which one of the girls is taking a shower. In close-up, we see her lather up her breasts, the water cascading down her back as she does so. But it doesn’t end there; we next follow the girl into the bedroom, where she puts on make-up (topless), then walks over to the dresser to decide what she’s going to wear (exposing her bare ass). After trying on a pair of pants, she changes her mind, and grabs another. In short, the scene plays on far too long. Yes, the actress has a great body, but when you find yourself shouting “Get on with it!” at a screen that has a naked girl on it, you know something is very, very wrong.

Aside from the shower sequence, The Brick Dollhouse gives us nude massages, stripteases, skinny-dipping (er…, make that skinny-splashing), orgies, a little S&M, sex on a pool table, and girl-on-girl action, all crammed into a scant 55 minutes. Yet when it’s over, you still come away feeling that half the movie was filler. The Brick Dollhouse is, indeed, a swinging ‘60s party, but if you decide to attend, be sure to bring some No-Doze along.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

#1,767. Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935)

Directed By: Henri de la Falaise

Starring: Poetoe Aloes Goesti, Bagus Mara Goesti, Saplak Njoman

Tag line: "Native Customs & Native Music & Native Cast"

Trivia: This film opened in New York on October 1, 1935 at USD$5.00 per ticket ($84.20 in 2012 dollars)

Henri de la Falaise, the director of 1935’s Legong: Dance of the Virgins, was a pretty interesting guy. A member of the French aristocracy (his title was Marquis de La Coudraye), he was the oldest son of Louis Gabriel Venant Le Bailly de La Falaise, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in fencing. Awarded the Croix de Guerre for his heroism during World War I, Henri de la Falaise met and married Hollywood starlet Gloria Swanson (a union that ended soon after in divorce), then, a few years later, tied the knot with actress Constance Bennett, who founded the production company that financed this movie.

Equally as fascinating is Legong itself, which, despite being made in 1933 and released in 1935, wasn’t only silent (at a time when sound had entirely taken over), but shot in color as well (using the 2-color process that was also on display in Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum). Filmed on the island of Bali, the entire cast was made up of natives, and many of their customs and rituals were featured in the move. Toss in some stunning photography and a story concerning the pitfalls of love, and you have one of the more unique motion pictures to emerge from the 1930s.

There’s an ancient Balinese saying: “Should love enter thine eyes and go to thy heart, beware. For should he whom thou choosest not return thy love, thy gods will frown and disgrace will befall thee”. Always fearful that this might happen to her, the maiden Poutou (Poetoe Aloes Goesti) nonetheless develops feelings for Nyong (Njong Njong Njoman), a musician, whom she intends to marry. To help Poutou land Nyong, her father, Gousti Bagus (Bagus Mara Goesti), arranges for his daughter to make her final dance as a maiden, known as “The Legong”, at the temple in a few days’ time. Alas, Nyong discovers that he’s in love not with Poutou, but her half-sister Saplak (Saplak Njoman). Can Poutou win over the man of her dreams, or is she destined to live out the rest of her life alone, and in shame?

The story itself, a basic tale of love of heartbreak, isn’t the most impressive aspect of Legong. Instead, what truly grabs your attention is the detailed look at the Balinese culture, which director de la Falaise focuses on throughout the movie. For example, even though it was made in the mid-1930’s, the women in this film, including the two female leads, are topless most of the time (the nudity was cut from the original U.S. release, but added back in recent years). In addition, Legong gives us an elaborate dance sequence; an actual cockfight (which the men in the village gamble on); and follows the characters around as they perform their daily tasks, like fetching water from the nearby spring or “pounding” the rice with a bamboo pole.

Some images may seem a bit odd (at one point, a pair of adolescent boys are seen smoking cigarettes in the marketplace), but thanks to the film’s gorgeous cinematography (which captures the natural wonder of this “Isle of Perpetual Summer”), Legong is, at all times, as captivating as it is unusual.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

#1,766. Class of Nuke 'Em High (1986)

Directed By: Richard W. Haines, Lloyd Kaufman

Starring: Janelle Brady, Gil Brenton, Robert Prichard

Tag line: "Readin'...writin'... and radiation!"

Trivia: The Monster is never seen in a full shot because the costume was never finished

Not to take anything away from The Toxic Avenger, but 1986’s Class of Nuke ‘Em High has always been my favorite Troma film. I remember watching it late at night on cable back in the day, and thinking it had everything I could have possibly wanted in a movie: monsters, topless women, and some primo gross-out effects, the entertainment triumvirate when you’re a teenager!

It’s just your average day in Tromaville, U.S.A. The birds are singing, kids are rushing off to school, and toxic waste is seeping into the ground at the nuclear power plant. 

The plant’s manager, Mr. Paley (Pat Ryan), tells the press there’s nothing to worry about, but less than a mile away, some very unusual things are happening at Tromaville High. 

It all began a few months earlier, when the honor society started dressing like rejects from a punk rock concert, and formed a gang called “The Cretins” (which now supplies fellow students with all the pot they can smoke). This pales in comparison, however, to the recent death of Dewey (Arthur Lorenz), the smartest kid in school, who threw himself out a window just before his face started to melt.

Still, not even this tragedy can keep the student body from having a good time, and at a school dance, Warren (Gil Brenton) and his virginal girlfriend Chrissy (Janelle Brady) smoke a joint that pal Eddie (James Nugent Vernon) bought from The Cretins. To Warren’s surprise, the pot turns the normally frigid Chrissy into a sexual dynamo, and the two make love for the first time. 

What they don’t know, however, is that the marijuana supplied by The Cretins grows in the soil surrounding the nuclear power plant! The next day, both Warren and Chrissy are sick as dogs, but it’s the discovery that Chrissy is pregnant which really throws them for a loop. And if she and Warren think some of their classmates are a little strange, just wait until they get a glimpse of their new “baby”!

Co-directors Richard W. Haines and Lloyd Kaufman (working under the pseudonym “Samuel Weil”) get the ball rolling early on in Class of Nuke ‘Em High; before the title even flashes on the screen, we witness the horrible demise of Dewey, the teenage brainiac who made the mistake of drinking the green sludge that flows from the school’s water fountains. By the end of first period, poor Dewey was spewing slime, and while the jump from the second floor window didn’t kill him, he probably wishes it would have when the skin on his face starts to melt!

This is the first of many unusual sequences to be found in Class of Nuke ‘Em High, a few of which feature The Cretins and their “extra-curricular” activities (at one point, they fake an epileptic seizure to steal an elderly woman’s purse). But it’s the scenes involving the after-effects of Warren’s and Chrissy’s night of debauchery that really stand out. Aside from the fact their offspring looks like a mutant worm, Warren experiences a series of temporary transformations, becoming a monster even more frightening than Toxie (his bedtime “hallucination” is especially disturbing). In true Troma fashion, the above only scratches the surface; scene after scene in Class of Nuke ‘Em High will have you laughing as you try to hold back the dry-heaves.

Mix all this together with a handful of obligatory boob shots, and you have the makings of a classic. Which, incidentally, is what Class of Nuke ‘Em High is.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

#1,765. Heavy Metal (1981)

Directed By: Gerald Potterton

Starring: Richard Romanus, John Candy, Joe Flaherty

Tagline for this film: "A Step Beyond Science Fiction"

Trivia: This film's production was expedited by having several animation houses work simultaneously on different segments

Released in 1981, Heavy Metal is an anthology of animated shorts, all inspired by Heavy Metal magazine, a monthly publication that first hit U.S. newsstands in 1977, blending sci-fi and fantasy with a nice helping of erotica. Featuring the voice talents of stars like John Candy, Eugene Levy, and Harold Ramis, and with a few segments penned by Dan O’Bannon (of Alien and Return of the Living Dead fame), Heavy Metal is adult animation at its very best.

Having just returned home from a mission, an Astronaut (voiced by Don Francks) surprises his teenage daughter (Catherine Semple) with a beautiful green sphere, which he found in outer space. The moment he takes it out of its protective case, the sphere gives off a brilliant light, which promptly melts the astronaut, killing him instantly. Cornering the daughter, the sphere then reveals its name is Loc-Nar (Percy Rodriguez), and that it is the personification of pure evil. In order to frighten the girl, Loc-Nar recalls some of the beings it’s tormented over the years, including Harry Canyon (Richard Romanus), a New York cab driver who, in 2031, met a girl (Susan Roman) whose father had found Loc-Nar, and was killed by those looking to possess it themselves. Also on earth, Loc-Nar once encountered a boy named David Ellis Norman (John Candy), who, after trying to retrieve what he thought was a glowing green meteorite, was hurled into space, where he transformed into a muscular man who assumed the moniker “Den” (David’s initials). Abducted by the sinister overlord Ard (Martin Lavut), Den is ordered to retrieve Loc-Nar from the Queen (Marilyn Lightstone), who refuses to part with it.

There were others who felt the wrath of Loc-Nar, including Hanover Fiste (Rodger Bumpass), who found the sphere just before testifying in court on behalf of his commander, space pirate Captain Sternn (Eugene Levy); the crew of a B-17 bomber on their way back from a raid; and aliens / dope fiends Edsel (Levy) and Zeke (Harold Ramis), whose robot companion (Candy) convinces a buxom beauty (Alice Playten) to have sex with him. Rounding out the tales is the story of Taarna, a peace-loving society whose entire population was wiped out by mutated human soldiers (all of whom were altered by Loc-Nar). To get her revenge, the lone remaining Taarakian, a warrior maiden, tries to destroy the mutants, but encounters several obstacles along the way that may prevent her from achieving her goal.

I’ve always been impressed with how wildly imaginative Heavy Metal is, and while the animation definitely gives off an ‘80s vibe, it’s still the perfect complement for the film’s various stories. Each tale has something unique to offer: So Beautiful and So Dangerous, the segment featuring the doped-out aliens and the horny robot, is easily the most humorous of the bunch, followed closely by the Captain Sternn sequence. Den combines action and sex to tell its story of a boy turned into a man, and B-17, one of two segments written by Dan O’Bannon, is arguably the darkest, most violent entry. My two favorites, though, have always been Harry Canyon (primarily because I like its dystopian setting, giving us a New York City where the U.N. Building has been transformed into a low-rent housing project) and Taarna, the longest of the sequences, which tells a fascinating tale of genocide and revenge (the image of the Taarakian maiden, astride her winged mount, also served as the film’s now-iconic poster art). Then, of course, there’s the rock music that accompanies each entry, with songs by Journey, Blue Oyster Cult, Black Sabbath, Devo, Sammy Hagar and many others adding yet another layer of cool to an already kick-ass production.

Admittedly, I did find the voicework a bit distracting this time around, mostly because I could tell when John Candy and Harold Ramis were behind the mic (their voices were so distinctive). Still, this is a minor quibble, and didn’t detract from the overall experience. Thirty-plus years later, Heavy Metal is as inventive, inspiring, and entertaining as ever.

Monday, June 15, 2015

#1,764. Power of the Press (1943)

Directed By: Lew Landers

Starring: Guy Kibbee, Lee Tracy, Gloria Dickson

Line from the film: "Freedom of the press means freedom to tell the truth"

Trivia: This film was based on an original story written by director Samuel Fuller

1943’s Power of the Press was based on an original story by Samuel Fuller (director of such hard-hitting films as Shock Corridor, Pickup on South Street and The Big Red One), who, at the age of 17, worked as a crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic. It was a profession he clearly loved, and even though the dialogue in Power of the Press is often heavy-handed, the film’s tale of an unscrupulous city newspaper is strong enough to keep our attention throughout.

As Power of the Press opens, Edwina “Eddie” Stephens (Gloria Dickson) is reading a scathing editorial, printed in a small-town newspaper, which takes aim at her boss, John Cleveland Carter (Minor Watson), publisher of the largest daily paper in New York City. In this article, the writer, Ulysses Bradford (Guy Kibbee), attacks Carter’s integrity, accusing him of “creating” the news instead of reporting it. Stirred by these words, Carter decides to change how his newspaper, The Gazette, does business, a move that angers his partner, Howard Rankin (Otto Kruger), who’s been fabricating news stories in order to stir up anti-war sentiment. When Carter threatens to expose Rankin’s unethical practices along with his own, he’s shot by one of Rankin’s cronies. But before he dies, Carter changes his will, leaving his controlling interest in the newspaper to none other than Ulysses Bradford! Spurred on by Eddie, Bradford takes his place as the new publisher of The Gazette and insists that the paper start presenting both sides of every story, something that doesn’t sit well with either Rankin or Griff Thompson (Lee Tracy), the head of the newsroom. Things take a turn for the worse when Rankin frames former Gazette employee Jerry Purvis (Larry Parks) for Carter’s murder. Can Bradford and Eddie prove Purvis is innocent, or will the poor guy be sent to the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit?

A love letter to the “Fourth Estate”, Power of the Press spends a great deal of time pontificating on the importance of a free press while attacking those who use the media to further their own agenda. “Beware of those who hide behind the front pages of America”, John Cleveland Carter says during a speech he was giving right before he was shot, “who use, for their own advantage, the power of the press. They are as dangerous as enemy planes, guns, bombs, tanks!” And because it was produced during World War II, Power of the Press also features some flag-waving propaganda (Rankin is called a “traitor” for suggesting America should stay out of the war, and the strong-arm tactics he uses to control the newspaper causes Eddie to compare him and his cronies to the Gestapo). Yet, despite its tendency to preach, the movie manages to draw you into its story of journalistic integrity, and the scenes that show us the inner workings of a city paper are intriguing, to say the least (Guy Kibbee delivers a fine performance as Ulysses Bradford, giving the character a down-home innocence that works to his advantage in almost every situation, but it’s Lee Tracy’s Griff Thompson who steals the show. He may have turned a blind eye to Rankin’s corruption, but Griff is a bona-fide newspaper man who knows how to tackle a big story, and over time we come to admire his tenacity). 

Fuller would eventually direct his own newspaper-themed film, 1952’s Park Row, and while that movie is superior to this one in almost every way, Power of the Press does manage to get its point across rather effectively.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

#1,763. Stardust: The Bette Davis Story (2006)

Directed By: Peter Jones, Mark A. Catalena

Starring: Susan Sarandon, Bette Davis, Ruthie Davis

Line from the film: "I never cared how I looked as long as I looked like the character"

Trivia: This movie was produced by, and originally aired on, Turner Classic Movies

She was the best actress of her generation, and one of the greatest ever to step in front of the camera. Determined and strong-willed, she stood up to the studio system at a time when actors and actresses were treated as property, fighting for roles she deemed important and rejecting others that didn’t meet her high standards. As if mirroring her tempestuous career, her life behind-the-scenes was every bit as dramatic, yet through it all, she lived life on her own terms, and didn’t allow anyone to stand in her way. The actress was Bette Davis, and Stardust, a 2006 documentary produced by Turner Classic Movies, is her story.

Starting, as most documentaries do, at the beginning, Stardust provides background on the family life of Ruth Elizabeth Davis, known years later around the world as Bette, including how her Puritan father left his wife and two daughters to marry another woman; and the early days in New England, when her mother, Ruth (lovingly called “Ruthie” by her girls), laid the groundwork for her daughter’s future. Through interviews with those closest to her, such as adopted son Michael Merrill and former nanny Marion Richards, we learn about Davis’ four marriages, almost all of which ended badly, and the sketchy circumstances surrounding the death of husband #2, Arthur Farnsworth, who allegedly died of a head injury following a fall. Often absent from the family home, Davis would nonetheless speak publicly of how motherhood changed her life, and in later years kept her daughter B.D. very close to her, making the teenage girl her constant companion (a role she herself filled with her own mother, Ruthie, who, by all accounts, benefitted greatly from her daughter’s success). Stardust delves into the dark recesses of Bette Davis’ personal life, showing us the good and bad, the beautiful and the ugly, to give us as complete a picture as possible of this complex individual.

And then, of course, there are the movies that made Bette Davis a household name. Though, as we discover, fame and fortune didn’t come easily; following a string of successful stage plays, Universal signed the young starlet to a contract, then, upon her arrival, humiliated her by making the poor girl submit to a series of screen tests (Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, was supposedly unimpressed with her appearance, and in later months would comment privately on her lack of sex appeal). Released from her contract after a short time, Bette then hooked up with Warner Bros., and the rest, as they say, is history. Over the years, she would make many films for the studio, including Dangerous (for which she won her first Academy Award), Jezebel, and The Letter, playing femme fatales the likes of which Hollywood had never seen before (ironically, her star-making role in 1934’s Of Human Bondage was produced not by Warners, but RKO). Yet, despite her success, Bette always fought for better roles, challenging chief Jack Warner, who retaliated by suspending her and, on one occasion, dragging her into court to keep her in line. But Bette never backed down, and soon was in control of her own career, choosing scripts and directors for many of her projects. Along the way, she made a few enemies, including fellow actresses Miriam Hopkins and, more famously, Joan Crawford (both of whom, its rumored, became irritated with Miss Davis when she had affairs with the men in their lives), but even in her later works, like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (where she appeared alongside Crawford), Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte and The Whales of August (in which she co-starred with another legend, Lillian Gish), Bette Davis showed the world that, even at an advanced age, she could hold her own with the best of them.

Narrated by Susan Sarandon, Stardust gives us the complete story by way of archived footage, a collection of stills, and clips from some of Davis’ finest movies (along with the ones listed above, we’re also treated to scenes from Dark Passage, Now, Voyager, All About Eve, and The Star). In addition, there are interviews with friends, family, and the next generation of performers, including James Woods, Ellen Burstyn, and Jane Fonda, all of whom speak very highly of her work. Despite all the turmoil that surrounded her, there’s no denying the power of Bette Davis' on-screen persona, where, even when playing vixens and cheats, she possessed a strength that made her an icon to women and, eventually, gay men, who, among other things, identified with her “who gives a damn” attitude. Davis may not have been the prettiest actress (though at times she was beautiful, like in 1932’s Cabin in the Cotton, where she portrayed a stubborn southern belle), but that didn’t matter to her. “I never cared how I looked as long as I looked like the character”, Bette Davis once said, a belief we see time and again in films like 1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, where she portrayed Queen Elizabeth (she had part of her head shaved for the role) and The Old Maid, for which she was prematurely aged with make-up. “The great achievement”, James Woods says at one point during Stardust, “is the total absence of narcissism in a business and art that is truly, totally, and only about narcissism”. A consummate professional, Bette Davis often sacrificed appearance in favor of performance,. something many of her peers were unwilling to do.

An in-depth presentation of the life of a Hollywood legend, Stardust is a treat for both the fans of Bette Davis and those looking to learn more about her. If you love movies, this documentary is not to be missed.