Friday, July 31, 2015

#1,810. The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014)

Directed By: Adam Robitel

Starring: Jill Larson, Anne Ramsay, Michelle Ang

Line from this film: "The story of Alzheimer’s is never about one person"

Trivia: Filmmaker Bryan Singer was one of the producers of this film

For those who don’t believe a sweet little old lady can scare the bejesus out of you, I point you in the direction of Adam Robitel’s 2014 found footage horror film The Taking of Deborah Logan. This movie is creepy with a capital “C”.

Medical student Mia (Michelle Ang) is putting together a video thesis that will study the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s, and for a subject, she’s chosen Deborah Logan (Jill Larson), an elderly woman recently diagnosed with the disease. Along with her cameraman Luis (Jeremy DeCarlos) and sound engineer Gavin (Brett Gentile), Mia spends the next several months as a frequent guest at the Logan household, befriending Deborah’s only child Sarah (Anne Ramsay), who’s happy to assist. But during the course of their research, it becomes apparent that Deborah’s illness is progressing quite rapidly. What’s more, she’s exhibiting symptoms that suggest she may be the victim of a demonic possession. With the doctors at a loss to explain what’s going on, Sarah and Mia look into other methods to deal with Deborah’s bizarre behavior, all the while wondering what, or who, has grabbed hold of her psyche.

The Taking of Deborah Logan gets off to a deceptively quiet start, with Mia and her film crew setting up tiny cameras around the house as the kindly, somewhat meek Deborah looks on. At first unsure of whether or not she wants to go through with the interviews, Deborah reluctantly agrees when Sarah reminds her that they need the money (Mia has promised them a portion of her grant), or else they’re going to lose the house. Those scenes in which Deborah shows the effects of Alzheimer’s will definitely rattle you (at one point, she accuses Gavin of stealing her gardening spade, screaming and yelling at him in the kitchen before Sarah finally is able to calm her down), but are simply a precursor of what’s to come.

There are hints scattered throughout the movie that suggest something more sinister is at play, including the various pictures Deborah paints, all of which contain a shadowy figure lurking just outside the windows of her home. In addition, the cameras occasionally capture Deborah sleepwalking, during which she mysteriously teleports onto the top of her kitchen stove and even makes her way into the backyard, frantically digging holes as if she were looking for something. Then, one night, Deborah strips off her clothes and sits down at the telephone switchboard in her attic (years earlier, she operated the switchboard out of her home, handling calls and taking messages for many of the town’s prestigious citizens). From there, The Taking of Deborah Logan takes a few turns that are absolutely terrifying.

The cast is exceptional (especially Jill Larson as the title character, whose changing personality sets the entire story in motion), and while the movie itself doesn’t bring anything new to the table (like most found footage, there’s plenty of surveillance video, a whole lot of shaky cam, and, sometimes, no good reason why the cameras are still rolling), The Taking of Deborah Logan does utilize the sub-genre’s conventions to relate what amounts to a very frightening tale.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

#1,809. Evidence (2013)

Directed By: Olatunde Osunsanmi

Starring: Stephen Moyer, Aml Ameen, Caitlin Stasey

Tag line: "Murder is an art"

Trivia: In Germany this film had the added title "On the Trail of the Killer"

A horror film wrapped in a police procedural, 2013’s Evidence takes advantage of the found footage format to present a perplexing mystery, and while the ending may frustrate a few viewers, it’s definitely an exciting ride while it lasts.

Several people have been butchered in the desert town of Kidwell, Nevada, and the police investigating the murders have recovered a couple of video cameras, as well as some cellular phones, from the scene, hoping they might contain images that will help them find the person or persons responsible for the slaughter. With Detective Burquez (Radha Mitchell) leading the investigation, a handful of Nevada’s finest, including Detective Reese (Stephen Moyer), view the material, and what they see is shocking, to say the least.

What started as a Las Vegas getaway for up-and-coming actress LeAnn (Torrey DeVitto); her best friend (and wannabe director) Rachel (Caitlin Stasey); and LeAnn’s musician boyfriend Tyler (Nolan Gerard Funk) turned into a nightmare of epic proportions when their shuttle bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. Along with fellow passengers Vicki (Svetlana Metkina), Steven (Albert Kuo), and Katrina (Dale Dickey), the three followed the driver, Ben (Harry Lennix), to an abandoned truck depot. But instead of finding a phone, they encountered a serial killer in a welder’s mask, who, over the course of a single night, hunted them down one-by-one.

While the footage does show some of the murders in graphic detail, it always stops short of revealing the killer’s identity. Can Burquez and Reese piece together the clues in time, or will a psychopath get away scot-free?

Most found footage movies simply present the so-called “recovered” images, with only a title screen or two to explain what happened, but Evidence takes a different approach, allowing us to sit in with the police as they watch the videos for the very first time. Aside from enhancing the film’s dramatic effect (we see their honest reaction to it all), this also heightens the tension by making us more alert; like Burquez and Reese, we’re looking for clues, which pulls us deeper into the central mystery. In addition, the movie takes the time up-front to establish its characters (via “early” footage of the three leads before they took the trip, as well as the interviews Rachel conducted with the other passengers when they climbed aboard the bus), and even though we realize the majority will not survive the ordeal, we’re still on the edge of our seat, rooting for them as they face off against one very determined killer.

Featuring a masked assailant with a specialized weapon (an acetylene torch), Evidence works quite well as a slasher film, but it’s the way the movie draws us in that impressed me most. While we know early on what’s going to happen (the opening sequence takes us on a tour of the murder scene, where we see a charred body, a severed arm, and some other clues scattered about), the excitement comes from piecing it all together, which results in a few surprises, including a final twist that, though a bit far-fetched, is genuinely shocking. An intense, harrowing look at a murderer in action, Evidence puts a new spin on the sub-genre, and because of this, I’d even recommend it to those who’ve grown weary of the found footage approach.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

#1,808. BMX Bandits (1983) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Brian Trenchard-Smith

Starring: David Argue, John Ley, Nicole Kidman

Tag line: "They're burning up the streets!"

Trivia: Nicole Kidman was doubled by an 18-year-old boy who wore a wig

Notable because it features a 15-year-old Nicole Kidman (in one of her first film roles), Brian Trenchard-Smith’s BMX Bandits was geared towards a younger audience, yet adults with a fondness for ‘80s cinema will also enjoy this sometimes goofy, often fun adventure / comedy.

P.J. (Angelo D’Angelo) and Goose (James Lugton), a pair of BMX-riding best pals, agree to help their friend Judy (Kidman) raise money for a new bike. While out on the lake looking for shellfish they can peddle, the trio finds a container filled with state-of-the-art walkie-talkies, which they sell to a few of their friends. 

Only these are no ordinary walkie-talkies: they belong to a group of hardened criminals, who had them specially tuned to pick up police broadcasts. Without these high-tech gadgets, the crooks won’t be able to pull off the payroll heist they’ve been planning, which promises to net each of them about $250,000! 

Anxious to get their walkie-talkies back, two of the criminals, Whitey (David Argue) and Moustache (John Ley), search frantically for P.J., Goose, and Judy. 

What’s more, the police, who have been picking up some strange transmissions as of late, are more than a little perturbed that their secure signal has been hacked, and set out to find those responsible. 

With both the cops and the criminals closing in on them, the three BMX-buddies hop on their bikes and ride as fast as they can, all the while searching for a way out of this mess.

Even at this early stage of her career, Nicole Kidman showed she had acting chops, and is easily the best of the film’s young performers. 
Of course, in a movie called BMX Bandits, it isn’t the performances that grab you; it’s the action, and right off the bat, director Trenchard-Smith treats us to a title sequence with some fast riding and even a few BMX stunts. 

After this initial scene, though, the bikes disappear for a while so that the director can establish his story. In fact, most of the movie’s first half is BMX-free, with Trenchard-Smith finding other ways to keep things chugging along (there’s a tense sequence - set in a cemetery at night - in which P.J., Goose, and Judy are cornered, albeit temporarily, by the two crooks). But rest assured: by the time the film hits the halfway point, the bikes are back, and in a big, big way! 

The humor in BMX Bandits, which ranges from puns to straight-up slapstick, is on the juvenile side (the climax of the big chase could have been lifted from a Three Stooges short), but the BMX action scenes more than make up for it, with our heroes occasionally going way off-road to avoid being captured (at one point, they even take their bikes down a waterpark slide). 

In the end, BMX Bandits might not set the world on fire, but it’s prime '80s cheese, and will surely bring a smile to your face.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

#1,807. Dead End Drive-In (1986) - Spotlight on Australia

Directed By: Brian Trenchard-Smith

Starring: Ned Manning, Natalie McCurry, Peter Whitford

Tag line: "The price of admission is the rest of your life"

Trivia: Director Brian Trenchard-Smith used to go to the drive-in featured in this film. According to him, he saw Peckinpah's Major Dundee there

Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, Dead End Drive-In is set in a world that has fallen apart - just after the opening credits, we’re given a laundry list of cataclysmic events, including a nuclear accident, a revolution in South Africa, and financial collapse in New York City, all of which have contributed to the decline of society as we know it. 

As roving gangs known as “carboys” terrorize the good citizens of Sydney, our hero, Crabs (Ned Manning), is trying desperately to convince his brother Frank (Ollie Hall) to lend him his car, a classic 1956 Red Chevy convertible so that he can take his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) out in style. Frank eventually agrees, and Crabs, hoping for a little “alone time” with Carmen, whisks her off to the Star Drive-In theater. 

But Crabs makes one very costly mistake: to save money on the tickets, he lies and tells the Drive-in’s supervisor, Thompson (Peter Whitford), that he’s unemployed (Regular admission is $10, while for the unemployed, it’s only $3.50). So, instead of a relaxing night at the movies, Crabs finds himself in deep trouble when the police swipe two tires off of the Chevy, thus stranding him and Carmen at the Drive-In!

As it turns out, the Star isn’t so much a movie theater as it is a detention camp (complete with guards and an electrified fence), where society’s cast-offs, some of whom have been there for quite a while, are forced to live out of their cars (by claiming he was unemployed, Thompson concluded that Crabs and Carmen were “undesirables”). 

The next morning, when Crabs storms into the front office to complain, Thompson, instead of helping, gives Crabs and Carmen a booklet of “meal coupons” - which can be redeemed at the snack stand - and offers them blankets. In short, he tells the two young lovers they won’t be leaving anytime soon, and, like those already there, they should accept the fact that the drive-in is going to be their new home. 

Carmen takes Thompson’s advice and befriends some of the other girls, one of whom gives her a new hair-do. Crabs, however, remains determined to find a way out, and is ready to do whatever is necessary to regain his freedom.

As we discover early on, the world in which Dead End Drive-In takes place is both savage and cruel. One night, while Frank (who operates a tow truck) and Crabs are out cruising, they receive a call from Frank’s dispatcher: a three-car accident has just occurred a few blocks over. When they arrive on the scene, the cops are already there, and Frank informs them that he’s claiming the wreckage of all three cars. 

But another tow truck driver shows up at the same time, and he and Frank nearly come to blows as they argue over which of them will be leaving with the smashed-up vehicles. 

Then, some “carboys” drive up and begin vandalizing the wrecks. Knowing it will decrease their value, Frank and Crabs fight them off, all as the cops stand by and watch, offering no assistance whatsoever. 

During the melee, the press arrives and immediately breaks out their cameras, followed closely by an ambulance, because as all this is going on, the victims of the crash still lay bleeding in their cars (and from the looks of it, most were already dead). 

Though not quite as dystopian as The Road Warrior, Dead End Drive-In does have one thing in common with George Miller’s classic 1981 flick: in this world, cars are the ultimate prize, and human life, at best, is a secondary concern.

So, when the story shifts to the Drive-In, we - unlike Crabs - can understand why many of the “inmates” aren’t in a rush to leave. Dave (Dave Gibson), a self-appointed leader of a group of thugs, tells Crabs that, on the outside, he had been out of work for 4 years, and was lucky if he could afford one meal a day. Like most others, Dave’s life "on the inside" is much better than it was in the real world. 

Even Carmen, who had run away from home and was living on the streets, sees the drive-in as a sort of salvation. She tries to convince Crabs that he, too, should accept their fate, but director Trenchard-Smith is quick to show us that the drive-in isn’t the paradise some believe it to be when, without warning, some Asians are bussed in and take up residence. 

All at once, Dave, Carmen, and many of the others are complaining about their new neighbors, and stage a “whites only” meeting to discuss how they plan to respond to this “invasion”. 

Having already taken pot-shots at the media, youth culture, and government control, Dead End Drive-In now shines a light on racism, and though it’s a bit heavy-handed, the message comes across loud and clear.

Yet, despite moments such as these, Dead End Drive-In is, above all, an exploitation film, with a rocking soundtrack, exceptional set pieces (especially the drive-in, where dozens of cars have been converted into makeshift houses), some nudity and sex, and lots of action. Along with a well-staged fight scene, in which Crabs dukes it out with Hazza (Wilbur Wilde), a member of Dave’s gang, the final sequence, where our hero puts his escape plan into motion, is jam-packed with excitement (car chases, shoot-outs, and even the odd explosion). 

When all is said and done, Dead End Drive-In has plenty to say about the world as it existed in 1986, but it’s the thrills that make it worthwhile.

Monday, July 27, 2015

#1,806. Maggie (2015)

Directed By: Henry Hobson

Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson

Line from this film: "Quarantine rules apply to everybody, Wade"

Trivia: Director Hobson created more than 200 pages of storyboards to guide his actors through the film

Maggie is not your typical Arnold Schwarzenegger film. Considered by many one of the all-time great action stars, Arnold here portrays a father who must deal with the fact that his daughter is dying. And guess what? He plays the part pretty darn well!

A virus, which affects crops and people alike, is sweeping across the country. Those whose fields are infected can burn the sickness away just by lighting a match, but for the unfortunate souls who’ve contracted the human form of the disease, there is no cure; in 8 weeks, they will transform into zombie-like creatures with a hunger for flesh. To prevent the virus from spreading, quarantine centers have been set up in all the major cities, and those who’ve been infected must be taken there before the disease has run its course. Farmer Wade Vogel (Schwarzenegger) knows that his oldest daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin), who contracted the virus after being bitten, has only a short time to live, yet he refuses to let go of her. His wife Caroline (Joely Richardson), who’s also Maggie’s step-mother (Maggie’s real mom died several years earlier), fears for the safety of their family (the couple’s two youngest children, played by siblings Aiden and Carsen Flowers, are sent to stay with their aunt). Still, Wade insists that Maggie live out her last days at home, and not in a quarantine center surrounded by strangers. As for Maggie, she realizes her time is just about up, and that the virus inside of her is getting stronger by the minute. What she doesn’t know, however, is whether or not she can control herself once the final stage of the illness sets in.

An infection film as opposed to a straight-up zombie movie (think 28 Days Later), Maggie has its share of intense sequences (one in particular, where Wade and Maggie stop at a roadside gas station, features what is arguably the film’s most frightening moment). But unlike most movies of this ilk, there aren't thousands of diseased roaming the countryside; government and law enforcement officials, with the help of the quarantine centers, have managed to keep the virus in check. Along with minimizing the number of infected, this also sets the stage for the human drama that forms the heart of this film. As Maggie’s illness progresses, the local authorities, including the sheriff (Douglas M. Griffin), urge Wade to turn her over. But Wade is willing to risk everything to ensure that Maggie stays put, threatening anyone who so much as suggests that she be taken to a quarantine center. As for Maggie, she does what she can to lead as normal a life as possible: sitting down to dinner with Wade and Caroline, going for walks in the woods, and spending time with her best friend Allie (Raeden Greer). Yet the reality of her situation is never far from her mind, and as badly as Wade wants to keep her close by, Maggie worries about what will happen when the disease finally takes control of her. Abigail Breslin does a fantastic job as the title character, perfectly conveying the fear and anger of a young girl who knows she’s reached the end of her life, and Schwarzenegger matches her every step of the way as a man who simply cannot let go.

Since his return to the big screen (his stint as the Governor of California kept him away for a number of years), Arnold Schwarzenegger has appeared in a handful of action-oriented films, including every installment of the Expendables series, as well as 2013’s The Last Stand (a movie I enjoyed). Yet as fun as it is to watch Arnie kick ass, he was so good in Maggie that I hope he continues to challenge himself with a few more serious-minded roles. Clearly, he has a knack for them.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

#1,805. Hannibal (2001)

Directed By: Ridley Scott

Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Gary Oldman

Tag line: "Never Forget Who He Is"

Trivia: When Jodie Foster announced she wouldn't return to the role, a number of actresses were considered to play Clarice, including Cate Blanchett and Hilary Swank

The first time I saw Hannibal, Ridley Scott's follow-up to the 1991 award-winning film Silence of the Lambs, my reaction to it could best be described as “lukewarm”. But with each successive viewing, I find myself admiring Hannibal a little more, and now consider it a solid sequel, not to mention a fine film in its own right.

A decade has passed since serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), affectionately known as “The Cannibal” in some circles, escaped from prison, and his whereabouts remain a mystery. Following a botched drug raid, FBI special agent Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore), at the insistence of millionaire Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, playing the only victim to survive an encounter with "The Cannibal"), is re-assigned to the Lecter case, and ordered to do whatever’s necessary to track down her old nemesis. As it turns out, the good doctor has been living in Florence, Italy under the assumed name “Dr. Fell”. While investigating the disappearance of a library curator, Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi (Giancarlo Giannini) of the Florence police force discovers Dr. Fell’s true identity, and, hoping to claim the $3 million dollar reward offered by Verger, attempts to apprehend the elusive killer on his own (a decision he will soon regret). His cover blown, Lecter makes his way back to the States to drop in on his pal, Agent Starling, but will he instead wind up in prison, or, worse still, fall into the hands of Mason Verger, whose thirst for revenge may just give him the advantage over the incredibly sly Lecter.

The key to Hannibal, as it was with Silence of the Lambs, is Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who, even when he's not on-screen, is always the movie’s most interesting character (a good half-hour goes by before Lecter joins the story, yet his presence throughout Hannibal is so strong that he remains a tangible part of every second that preceded his grand entrance). The sequences set in Florence, during which all the facets of Lecter’s unique personality (his sophistication as well as his sadism) are revealed, are, in my opinion, the film’s strongest (An aficionado of the arts, Lecter attends an opera and hosts several historical presentations at the Florence library, moments that are counterbalanced by scenes of incredible violence, such as his killing of a pickpocket, and the grisly manner in which he “ties up the loose ends” in Florence before finally skipping town). Adding to his lore, Hopkins’ Dr. Lecter only targets those he feels are deserving of retribution; as Barney (Frankie Faison), his former guard at the prison, says when questioned by Starling, Lecter “only eats the rude”, making him one of the few homicidal maniacs you both fear and root for at the same time.

My initial issues with Hannibal centered on Clarice Starling, partially because the role had been recast (Moore had the thankless task of following Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning turn in the 1991 original), but also the character herself, as portrayed in the film. The truth is, Moore is utterly fantastic, conveying a fair portion of the down-home innocence that made Starling a fan favorite while, at the same time, playing a more aggressive version of the character. Initially, the decision to “toughen her up” rubbed me the wrong way, but seeing as 10 years have passed between the events depicted in the two movies, it would be silly to assume Starling was the same “new kid” on the force that she was in Silence of the Lambs. Her first run-in with Lecter, followed by years of experience, would have certainly hardened her personality to some degree. She still has her moments of vulnerability; after the unsuccessful (and ultimately blood-drenched) raid to apprehend drug lord Evelda Drumgo (Hazelle Goodman), she breaks down and cries (mostly because a baby was caught in the crossfire, and was in danger of being killed), but aside from scenes like this one, Moore’s Starling is definitely much tougher than she was a decade earlier, and the actress does a phenomenal job portraying her as such.

The most bizarre figure in Hannibal is easily Mason Verger, Lecter’s 4th victim and the only one to survive an encounter with “The Cannibal”. An admitted pedophile, we see, in flashback, how the wealthy Verger (coerced by Lecter) entered a drug-induced state and sliced up his own face with a shard from a broken mirror (a scene that, as you can imagine, is difficult to sit through). Now scarred beyond recognition, Verger has dedicated his life, as well as his life savings, to tracking down Lecter and exacting his revenge. He’s even has specially-trained “attack pigs” brought over from Italy (resulting in another of the film’s many violent scenes). As portrayed by Oldman (unrecognizable behind his “faceless” make-up), Verger is a guy who’s used to getting his own way. Yet as driven as he is, we always feel he’s no match for “The Cannibal”, making their ultimate showdown all the more interesting to watch.

Even now, I don’t think Hannibal is a perfect film: Though played well enough by Ray Liotta, the character of corrupt FBI agent Paul Krendler, Starling’s superior and a guy who wears his sexist attitude on his sleeve, is too cartoonish (that said, his eventual “encounter” with Lecter remains, for me, the movie’s most disturbing sequence). And while it’s not over-emphasized, the “romance” between Lecter and Starling hinted at over the course of the film (especially towards the end) felt unnecessary. In all likelihood, Hannibal will never attain the level of respectability that Silence of the Lambs has, yet I’ve come to believe it’s as good a follow-up as can be expected.

In fact, it may even be a great one.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

#1,804. Space Station (2002)

Directed By: Toni Myers

Starring: Tom Cruise, James Arnold, Michael J. Bloomfield

Tag line: "A Select Few Have Been Aboard... Now It's Your Turn!"

Trivia: This movie was the first IMAX 3D production filmed in space

When it comes to capturing the awe-inspiring nature of outer space, nothing can beat a giant IMAX screen, and 2002’s Space Station certainly has its share of striking images. The true focus of this documentary, though, isn’t the vastness of space, but the dedication of a handful of people, representing countries such as the U.S., Russia, Canada, Italy, and Japan, who came together to build one of the most fantastic structures ever conceived: the International Space Station.

Narrated by Tom Cruise (who’s livelier than most), Space Station takes us some 250 miles above the earth, where scientists and engineers alike have built a modern marvel. With footage shot by astronauts, cosmonauts, and a few others, the film brings us aboard a U.S. Space Shuttle, on its way to the station to drop off supplies and personnel; and pays a visit to Kazakhstan, where three men (Russians Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Pavlovich Gidzenko, American William M. Shepherd) prepare themselves for a four-month stay at the International Space Station. Their mission: to “turn on the lights” and make sure everything is in perfect working order. They are the first of several crews that will call the station home for an extended period of time, each group doing what it can to ensure the facility is both safe and fully operational.

Originally shown in 3-D, Space Station is, at times, a beautiful motion picture (one image that stands out is that of the station as it passes over the continent of Africa), but by centering on the men and women who worked tirelessly to bring the the structure to life, Space Station tells a story every bit as intriguing as anything the universe has to offer.

Friday, July 24, 2015

#1,803. As Above, So Below (2014)

Directed By: John Erick Dowdle

Starring: Perdita Weeks, Ben Feldman, Edwin Hodge

Tag line: "The only way out is down"

Trivia: This was the first ever production that secured permission from the French government to film in the catacombs

One of the few things I liked about the otherwise forgettable 2007 horror film Catacombs was its setting, i.e. - the Paris Catacombs. Littered with millions of skeletal remains, the centuries-old catacombs stretch for hundreds of miles beneath the city.

Co-written and directed by John Erick Dowdle, As Above, So Below goes one better than Catacombs by staging its story within the confines of the actual catacombs (the earlier movie was shot in Romania, on sets designed to resemble the massive underground tomb). In doing so, this 2014 movie ups the ante by to taking full advantage of what, by its very nature, is an eerie locale.

Like her father before her, Scarlett (Perdita Weeks), a young alchemist, has dedicated her life to finding the fabled “Flamel Stone”, also known as the Philosopher’s Stone, a mystical item that, according to legend, holds the secret to eternal life. On a recent trip to Iran, Scarlett uncovered clues that suggested the stone is buried somewhere in the catacombs of Paris. 

Hooking up with documentary filmmaker Benji (Edwin Hodge), who she hired to shoot a movie about this last leg of her adventure, Scarlett next tracks down her former boyfriend George (Ben Feldman) in the hopes his knowledge of ancient languages will help her locate the stone’s exact whereabouts. 

With a trio of guides - Papillon (François Civil), Zed (Ali Marhyar), and Soixie (Marion Lambert) - to show them the way, Scarlett and the others descend into the catacombs. But are they truly prepared for what the darkness has in store for them?

Shot in found-footage style, As Above, So Below gets off to a rollicking start with a sequence set in Iran, where Scarlett, working against the clock, makes an all-important discovery. Along with establishing the story, this opening builds a level of excitement that will remain throughout the film. The cast also does a fine job, especially Perdita Weeks, who is convincing as both a scholar and an adventurer, thus making her Scarlett the perfect “hero” for a movie of this ilk. 

The real star of As Above, So Below, however, are the Paris catacombs, which, with their narrow passageways and small tunnels piled high with human bones, enhance the tale’s inherent creepiness. Even in those scenes where nothing is lurking in the shadows, we experience a momentary feeling of dread when the group takes off in a new direction, never knowing for sure if they’re heading towards an exit, or deeper into what’s proving to be a cavernous maze of horrors, a place that plays on their deepest fears, as if it can read their minds and peer into their souls..

I enjoyed As Above, So Below, though I’ll admit it won't be for everyone. Those who have issues with “shaky-cam”, for example, may want to think twice before sitting down to watch it (it’s not the worst camera shaking I’ve ever seen, but it has its moments). I also felt the conclusion, though interesting, was a bit rushed (in a few minutes time, a character covers an area that it initially took the group hours to navigate). And while there are a handful of effective scares (a ringing phone heard in the distance gave me the chills), I was expecting the movie to be more frightening than it was, with the filmmakers instead favoring adventure above all else. 

That said, As Above, So Below is still an entertaining watch, and the rare glimpse it offers into the Paris Catacombs is itself worth the price of admission.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

#1,802. Tales from the Crypt (1972)

Directed By: Freddie Francis

Starring: Joan Collins, Peter Cushing, Ralph Richardson

Tag line: "DEATH LIVES in the Vault of Horror!"

Trivia: Director Robert Zemeckis said this is his favorite movie to watch on Halloween

Over the course of this challenge of mine, I’ve been lucky enough to watch some amazing horror anthologies, and Tales from the Crypt, a 1972 Amicus production based on the EC Comics series of the same name, ranks as one of the best.

While on a guided tour of the local catacombs, five perfect strangers are inadvertently separated from the group, and end up in a secluded room. But they’re not alone; a strange man in a dark robe (Sir Ralph Richardson) is there with them, and at his prompting, the five contemplate some of their recent actions. Housewife Joanne Clayton (Joan Collins) vividly remembers murdering her husband Richard (Martin Boddey) on Christmas Eve, only to be stalked immediately after by a homicidal maniac in a Santa Costume. Equally as treacherous is Carl Maitland (Ian Hendry), who left his wife (Susan Denny) and two young children to run away with his mistress (Angela Grant). James Elliott (Robin Phillips) used manipulation and fear to drive his neighbor, elderly widower Arthur Grimsdyke (Peter Cushing), to the brink of suicide; while unscrupulous businessman Ralph Jason (Richard Greene), along with his wife Enid (Barbara Murray), made a wish to a charmed statue, hoping it would end their money troubles. Rounding out the group is Major William Rogers (Nigel Patrick), who recently became the manager of a rest home for the blind, though his decision to cut costs didn’t sit well with patient George Carter (Patrick Magee) or any of the others. What Is it that brought these five people together in this dark room, and, more importantly, why are they unable to leave?

With the always-interesting Sir Ralph Richardson handling the framing story, Tales from the Crypt next weaves a quintet of spooky tales. The first, titled “And All Through the House”, stars the gorgeous Joan Collins as a woman who, because she just killed her husband, is unable to call for help when a psychopath in a Santa suit shows up at her front door. It’s a tense sequence, to be sure, and even features an effective jump scare, yet this story pales in comparison to the next three: “Reflection of Death”, “Poetic Justice”, and “Wish You Were Here”, all of which have a little something in common with Romero’s Living Dead films (Cushing, who plays a widower in “Poetic Justice”, lost his beloved wife to emphysema just prior to appearing in this picture. As a result, the scene where his character tries to contact his deceased spouse via a Ouija board hits pretty close to home). Though not as strong as the previous four entries, the fifth story, “Blind Alleys”, still has its moments, as well as a solid performance by Patrick Magee (who also portrayed the handicapped writer in A Clockwork Orange).

Directed by Freddie Francis, who made a number of fine films for Hammer Studios (including Paranoiac in 1963 and The Evil of Frankenstein the year after), Tales from the Crypt is a nice combination of zombies, psychopathic killers, and the supernatural. And while I wouldn’t rank it as high as either Dead of Night or Creepshow, it would definitely make my “Top 5 Horror Anthologies” list.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

#1,801. The Living Sea (1995)

Directed By: Greg MacGillivray

Starring: Steven K. Katona, Meryl Streep, Judith Connor

Line form the film: "Despite its great power, the sea invites contemplation"

Trivia: This movie was produced by Science World, a Vancouver based science education center

I was so impressed with director Greg MacGillivray’s Coral Reef Adventure that I wanted to check out a few of his other films, and sure enough, 1995’s The Living Sea is every bit as stylish as that 2003 movie was.

There is only one ocean”, says narrator Meryl Streep towards the beginning of The Living Sea, “The World Ocean”, and this is exactly what MacGillivray and his crew set out to prove. Ignoring boundaries laid down on a map, fish swim from one region of the globe to another, and tides move in every direction. Working as a single unit, the oceans, in unison with mankind, ensure that life on this planet, both on land and under the sea, continues to flourish.

From the Pacific Northwest to the waterways of Asia, The Living Sea travels all across the world, and, much like Coral Reef Adventure, features gorgeous underwater photography, capturing a young family’s scuba-diving expedition in the Palau islands, and following a researcher as she studies a new species of jellyfish (in addition, there are some awesome shots of humpbacked whales, not to mention a deep-sea diving expedition that makes a startling discovery of its own). I’m also a fan of the movie’s various time lapse sequences (revealing, among other things, the hustle and bustle of San Francisco harbor), and MacGillivray even manages to throw a little excitement into the mix, detailing the trials and tribulations that coast guard rescuers face along the shores of Oregon, and showing surfers in Hawaii doing what they do best.

An award-winning filmmaker, MacGillivray has worked on a number of documentaries over the years, most of which are water-related (his first movie, 1967’s Free and Easy, covered longboard surfing in California and Hawaii, while his most recent project in 2015 focused on Humpback Whales), and as Coral Reef Adventure and this film have proven, he’s an expert at spotting the natural beauty, as well as the wonder, of life at the bottom of the sea.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

#1,800. Tromeo and Juliet (1996)

Directed By: Lloyd Kaufman

Starring: Jane Jensen, Will Keenan, Valentine Miele

Tag line: "Body Piercing, Kinky Sex, Dismemberment. The Things That Made Shakespeare Great"

Trivia: James Gunn was paid $150 for writing the screenplay

Directed by Lloyd Kaufman (The Toxic Avenger) from a script co-written by James Gunn (The Specials, Guardians of the Galaxy), 1995’s Tromeo and Juliet is Troma’s take on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, merging elements of the classic love story with the nudity, sex, and gore that put Kaufman, Herz and company on the cinematic map.

Set in modern-day New York City and narrated by Lemmy (one of the founding members of the band Motorhead), Tromeo and Juliet centers on the forbidden love affair that develops between Juliet Capulet (Jane Jensen) and Tromeo Que (Will Keenan), whose families have been at odds for some time. 

The trouble between the two clans started years earlier, when “Cappy” Capulet (Maximillian Shaun) betrayed his old friend and business partner Monty Que (Earl McKoy), first by stealing the video porn business they started together, then by sleeping with Monty’s wife, Ingrid (Wendy Adams), who abruptly divorced her husband so that she and Cappy could be married. 

The younger generations - born well after the events that started it all - have kept the feud alive, battling and bickering with each other every chance they get. But when Tromeo and Juliet meet at a costume party, their feelings for one another run deep, so much so that they’re even willing to turn their backs on their families.

As expected, this newfound love doesn’t sit well with either the Capulets or the Ques. Cappy Capulet, who has been physically abusing Juliet for years, has arranged for her to marry London Arbuckle (Steve Gibbons), heir to a large meat-packing company. 
As for Tromeo, his best friend Murray Martini (Valentine Miele) enjoys beating the hell out of every Capulet that crosses his path, so the notion of Tromeo hooking up with the daughter of their sworn enemy isn’t an appealing one. 

Tromeo's and Juliet's affair will eventually lead to more bloodshed, yet with the help of a confused priest (Flip Brown) and an opium dealer (Garon Peterson), the star-crossed lovers may just beat the odds and find a way to live happily ever after.

Despite its classical influences, Tromeo and Juliet is, first and foremost, a Troma film, meaning it’s jam-packed with gooey gore (several characters die gruesome deaths, and poor Sammy Capulet, played by Sean Gunn, loses a few fingers when Murray forces his hand into a paper slicer) and lots of sex, including a steamy lesbian encounter between Juliet and her servant Ness (Debbie Rochon). 

In addition, we’re treated to a full-on nipple piercing (performed by Tromeo’s cousin Benny, played by Stephen Blackehart); some animal cruelty (the squirrel hanging by its neck at the beginning of the movie was clearly fake, but the mouse that became a lizard’s snack was not); and other various perversions (including - though not limited to - incest). 

That said, there’s also plenty of Shakespeare to be found in Tromeo and Juliet; aside from its well-staged love story (Jensen and Keenan do a fine job as the two leads), there are moments when the dialogue is lifted directly from the Bard’s play (after Juliet utters the famous line “Parting is such sweet sorrow”, Tromeo replies with “totally sucks”). Still, those looking for a faithful adaptation of Shakespeare, a la Laurence Olivier’s Henry V, will be disappointed - not to mention a bit repulsed - by what this movie has to offer.

There have been several noteworthy film versions of Romeo and Juliet over the years, including Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie (starring Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting as the doomed lovers) and Baz Luhrman’s stylish modern-day telling, 1996’s Romeo + Juliet, which paired Leonardo DiCaprio with Clare Danes. 

The play even inspired a damn good musical (West Side Story, the movie version of which won the Academy Award for Best Picture), and Disney’s straight-to-video sequel Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride borrowed heavily from this 16th century tragedy. 

But as strong as these films are, I’d easily rank Tromeo and Juliet above each and every one of them. Funny, poignant, and utterly disgusting, it’s more than a great Troma flick; Tromeo and Juliet is the most entertaining Shakespeare adaptation I’ve ever seen.

Monday, July 20, 2015

#1,799. Dinosaurs Alive (2007)

Directed By: David Clark, Bayley Silleck

Starring: Michael Douglas

Line from the film: "For more than 150 million years, dinosaurs roamed every corner of the planet"

Trivia: This movie was produced in association with the American Museum of Natural History

The pre-title sequence of the 2007 IMAX documentary Dinosaurs Alive details an incredible find. In the sands of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, researchers unearthed the skeletal remains of two dinosaurs, a Protoceratops and a Sharp-Clawed Velociraptor, each of whom died while fighting the other (the velociraptor’s claw is still embedded in the jaw of the Protoceratops). As narrator Michael Douglas tells us, this battle to the death, which occurred some 80 million years ago, is now frozen in time… forever.

Just prior to revealing these fossils, Dinosaurs Alive presents a computer simulation of the fight, where we watch a CGI velociraptor sneak up on what it assumes will be an easy kill, only to realize that it’s picked the wrong dinosaur to mess with. Surprisingly, this dramatization isn’t as interesting as the remains themselves, and, like the rest of its computer-animated scenes, weakens the movie as a whole.

For 150 million years, dinosaurs roamed the earth, and as Dinosaurs Alive shows us, we don’t know nearly as much about them as we thought we did (per the film, we’ve only uncovered 2% of the dinosaur species that once called this planet home). By tagging along with paleontologists as they unearth new remains and following them into the lab where everything is meticulously separated and cataloged, Dinosaurs Alive is there when an entirely new species is discovered, while at the same time relating a few facts about dinosaurs sure to amaze a good many viewers. In addition, the filmmakers produced a handful of computer-generated simulations, set millions of years in the past, to show us how these creatures may have interacted with one another.

Co-directed by David Clark and Bayley Silleck, Dinosaurs Alive is at its best when focusing on the men and women that do all the legwork, from the initial explorers who first traveled to the Gobi Desert in the 1920s (seen in archive footage) to the scientists of today, working in a field so relatively young that any expedition might reveal the existence of a brand new species, such as the Effigia, a 9-ft. long creature that looked more like a crocodile on two legs than it did a dinosaur (oddly enough, it was a graduate student who made this most recent discovery). At the same time, I was surprised to learn that some velociraptors were covered not with scaly or leathery skin, but feathers, further proof that birds, and not lizards, are the descendants of dinosaurs.

In comparison to moments such as these, the CGI scenes (which are thankfully few and far between) feel like cartoon breaks, and instead of “bringing history alive”, as intended, sabotage the film’s overall pace, slowing things to a crawl. I’ve no doubt kids will enjoy seeing dinosaurs chase each other around, but for those of us wanting to know more about these amazing creatures, there’s no substitution for the real thing.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

#1,798. Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa (2002)

Directed By: David Breashears

Starring: Heidi Albertsen, Roger Bilham, Jacob Kyungai

Tagline: "Five climates, six climbers, 19,340 feet of mountain"

Trivia: Won a 2004 Best of Show Award for its musical score at the 2004 Accolade Competition

Since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to visit the Serengeti, which, for some reason, always struck me as one of the most beautiful places on earth. And if the opening shot of this 2002 documentary is any indication, I'd say I was right; in it, a giraffe makes its way across a great expanse of the African plain, the setting sun casting an orange glow that illuminates the entire area. But this isn’t a movie about the Serengeti, or Africa’s vast collection of wildlife. This film focuses on a much different, yet equally awe-inspiring locale: Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, the continent’s largest mountain.

With Jacob Kyungia (who has climbed Kilimanjaro some 200 times) as their guide, five people: Scientist Roger Billham, Author Audrey Salkeld, Danish model / adventurer Heidi Albertsen, and two kids, African Hansi Mmari and 12-year-old American Nicole Wineland-Thomson (accompanied by her father, who remains off-screen), attempt to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, hoping to get an up-close look at the fabled snows that line its peak (having lived in Tanzania his entire life, young Hansi has never experienced snow). Of course, the group has a long way to go before they reach the top, and must first make their way through a rainforest, across a desert, and over the mountain’s arctic region before arriving at their ultimate destination (“It’s like walking from the equator to the North Pole in only a week” says Jacob in voice-over). Despite such hardships, all are determined to see the trip through to the end, but will the rough terrain and cold, thin air eventually get the better of them?

Featuring interviews with each of the five climbers, and with Jacob providing narration, Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa offers some amazing insight into the mountain, as well as its surrounding region, which, at times, is every bit as harsh as Kilimanjaro (in the desert that lines the base of the mountain, temperatures rise during the day, then drop to freezing at night, forcing the local flora to adapt to both extremes). While there’s little to no animal life on the mountain, the explorers do, at one point, stumble upon the skeletal remains of an elephant, leaving them all to wonder why it climbed 15,000 feet just to die. Yet the majority of the film is dedicated to the trip itself, with each participant giving brief updates on how they’re handling the ever-changing conditions.

Because of this, Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa isn’t what I would call an adventure movie (the filmmakers do try to generate some drama during the interviews, when a few climbers say they don’t know if they’ll make it to the top, though, to be honest, their doubts aren’t explored in any great detail). Yet while it may lack the “thrill-a-minute” excitement of other IMAX films, it is, in the end, a satisfying journey of discovery, which, punctuated by the fabulous score of composer Alan Williams, makes Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa a movie that's well worth your time.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

#1,797. Kaw (2007)

Directed By: Sheldon Wilson

Starring: Sean Patrick Flanery, Stephen McHattie, Kristin Booth

Tag line: "Don't Look Up"

Trivia: A Sci Fi Pictures original film that premiered in 2007 on the Sci Fi Channel

A 2007 horror / thriller about a small Pennsylvania community at the mercy of some pissed-off ravens, Kaw has its moments of unintentional hilarity, but even if it did make me laugh at the wrong times, I never once wanted to switch the movie off.

Evermore, PA is a quaint little town. So little, in fact, that Sheriff Wayne (Sean Patrick Flanery, one half of The Boondock Saints) has no choice but to pack up his things and take his new bride Cynthia (Kristin Booth) to the big city, where her talents as a cultural anthropologist may prove useful (as he points out, there isn't much call for her profession in a community of only a few hundred people). The day before they’re set to leave, however, all hell breaks loose in Evermore, pitting the outgoing sheriff against hundreds, maybe thousands of bloodthirsty ravens. They’ve already killed one person (a farmer who's only mistake was trying to start up his tractor), and attacked another: school bus driver (and former town drunk), Clyde (Stephen McHattie). But this was just the beginning; before long, all of Evermore is being ransacked by these winged killers, whose aggressive behavior is as mysterious as it is deadly.

Borrowing a page from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, Kaw features a number of bird attack scenes, some of which are well-executed (the sequence early on where the ravens try to take out Clyde has a few harrowing moments), while others are just plain goofy (not content with slamming into the windows, the ravens get a bit “creative” at one point when storming Clyde’s bus, which broke down on its way back from a girls basketball tournament). As for the ravens, they’re occasionally creepy, but, for the most part, are done in by shoddy CGI (the nighttime shots of them flying, silhouetted against the moon, looked absolutely cartoonish). Even more bizarre is the scene where we discover why the birds went ballistic in the first place (turns out a local Mennonite family knew more than they were letting on). Which, of course, leads to what might be the biggest issue I had with Kaw: it gives the ravens a motive. In The Birds, Hitchcock wisely avoided any explanations as to why his feathered assassins were attacking, which heightened the tension. By filling us in on the particulars, Kaw actually undermines the effectiveness of its central creatures (we sympathize with the ravens after learning what happened to them).

On the plus side, Kaw has a strong cast (Flanery does a good job as the sheriff, yet the best performance is delivered by the always reliable Stephen McHattie, and keep an eye out for Rod Taylor, star of 1963’s The Birds, who has a small role as Evermore’s resident physician), and the story moves along at a solid pace (I was never bored watching it). In the end, I’m not sure these positives outweigh the film’s negatives, but hey… at least it wasn’t a total fiasco!

Friday, July 17, 2015

#1,796. Coral Reef Adventure (2003)

Directed By: Greg MacGillivray

Starring: Liam Neeson, Howard Hall, Michele Hall

Line from the film: "How wonderful that the largest living structures on earth are built by tiny animals"

Trivia: Five new species of fish were discovered during the making of this documentary

On its own, the ocean can be a breathtaking sight, and the South Pacific island of Fiji is a place where the sea is at its most majestic, a brilliant blue pool teeming with colorful tropical fish. But something is killing the island’s coral reef, threatening the thousands of species that call it home and the locals who count on it to feed their families. Coral Reef Adventure, a 2003 IMAX documentary, details the struggle to save this coral reef, and the dangers that those who dedicate their lives to protecting these natural wonders sometimes face.

When Rusi Vulakoro, a deep-sea diver and native of Fiji, noticed the island’s coral reef was in trouble, he contacted researchers Howard and Michele Hall, both experienced underwater photographers, and asked for their help. Over the course of many months, the trio visited a number of locations around the globe (such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef) in the hopes they might shed some light on the problem. Concluding that several factors were to blame for the reef’s demise, including nearby deforestation (which caused an increase in sediment) and a warming trend that’s been affecting bodies of water the world over, the group turns to Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famed Oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and a renowned scientist in his own right, to determine how best to revitalize Fiji’s Coral reef before it disappears forever.

Featuring the startling imagery you’d expect to find in an IMAX movie, Coral Reef Adventure presents colors so vibrant that you’d think you were watching scenes from Pixar’s Finding Nemo. But nothing here is computer-generated; it’s alive, and thus even more amazing to behold. Yet what makes Coral Reef Adventure an engaging film isn’t its beauty, but the discoveries made during its underwater explorations (one particularly memorable sight is that of an octopus, searching for food along the dying reef), as well as the dangers the researchers face on a regular basis (aside from “the bends”, a sometimes fatal condition that affects deep-sea divers, the Howards and their team find themselves swept up in a current that dumps them into the middle of 300 Grey Reef Sharks). Yes, it’s a gorgeous motion picture, but its moments such as these that’ll stick with you well after the movie’s images fade from memory.

The music of Crosby, Stills, and Nash (including hits like “Teach Your Children”, “Marrakesh Express”, and my favorite tune of theirs, “Southern Cross”) coupled with narration provided by both actor Liam Neeson and the principles themselves add quite a bit to the overall experience, but it’s the thrills to be found deep under the sea that puts the “adventure” in this film’s title.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

#1,795. Destiny in Space (1994)

Directed By: Ben Burtt, Phyllis Ferguson, et al

Starring: Leonard Nimoy, Roberta L. Bondar, Eric DeJong

Tag line: "Prepare to explore the universe"

Trivia: Four separate filmmakers directed this movie

Who better to narrate a space-themed documentary than Mr. Spock himself: the late, great Leonard Nimoy? This alone lends an air of authenticity to 1994’s Destiny in Space, an IMAX documentary featuring images shot by astronauts while aboard the space shuttles. Along with its behind-the-scenes footage of the construction and eventual deployment of the Hubble telescope, Destiny in Space contemplates man’s future role in the galaxy, wondering aloud if, and when, we’ll visit other planets in our solar system.

In essence a tale of “today” (meaning NASA as it existed in 1994) and “tomorrow”, Destiny in Space tags along on several shuttle missions, studying the crew as they float weightless through the cabin, exercise to stay in shape, and, of course, conduct a series of experiments, most designed to test how people might react to an extended stay in outer space. The bulk of the movie, though, is dedicated to the Hubble, which, after its release into orbit in 1991, was found to have a major flaw in its design. So, three years later, another crew is sent to carry out the repairs, which, as you can imagine, were a little tricky (aside from the limitations of working in space, the Hubble is one of the most expensive pieces of equipment ever assembled, so extra care had to be taken to ensure it wasn’t damaged any further). In addition, Destiny in Space looks years into the future, when man might finally have the capability, as well as the desire, to travel to Venus or Mars, our two closest neighbors, one of which may, with a little work, serve as an off-world colony one day.

By way of CGI-enhanced flyovers, Destiny in Space takes us to the surfaces of Venus and Mars, explaining in detail why they’re not hospitable places for man to visit. Of the two, Mars is the most likely to sustain human life, but as the movie points out, we’d have to first master the art of terraforming (adjusting the planet’s atmosphere to make it oxygen-rich), something that would probably take 1,000 years to accomplish. This section of the film has its moments, yet pales in comparison to the scenes where we see the astronauts hard at work on the Hubble telescope (releasing it, then, three years later, fixing it). I also enjoyed hearing about some of the “upcoming projects” NASA was working on in 1994, including a small robot that would explore the surface of Mars, a precursor of “Spirit” and “Opportunity”, which are currently carrying out this very mission (well, “Opportunity” is, anyway; “Spirit” seems to be broken).

While only mildly effective as a glimpse of what’s to come, Destiny in Space, now 20+ years out, works pretty darn well as a history lesson.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

#1,794. Cosmic Voyage (1996)

Directed By: Jesse Hibbs

Starring: Audie Murphy, Marshall Thompson, Charles Drake

Tag line: "IMAX Film Projects the Big Picture of our Vast Universe as Never Seen Before"

Trivia: Was nominated for Best Documentary, Short Subjects at the 1997 Academy Awards

Of all the IMAX documentaries I’ve watched thus far, Cosmic Voyage is hands-down my favorite. Written and directed by Bayley Silleck, the movie takes us on a journey from the outer reaches of the galaxy to the innermost workings of a single cell, all related in a way that’s guaranteed to keep your eyes glued to the screen.

Narrated by Morgan Freeman (while that phrase has, by now, become something of a cliché, this 1996 movie marks one of the actor’s earlier efforts behind the mic), Cosmic Voyage uses two historic events: Galileo’s invention of the first telescope in 1609 and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek’s 17th-century improvement of the microscope, as starting points, building upon each one to convey the beauty and mystery of the galaxy, and the marvels found at the center of an atom. With stops in Venice, the Netherlands, and the Fermilab Particle Accelerator in Illinois, the film next delves into the Big Bang Theory, during which we learn how life on earth began, while also contemplating the possibility of its existence elsewhere in the universe.

These topics alone would be enough to make Cosmic Voyage a fascinating documentary, but it’s the movie's unique approach to the material that really grabs your attention. For example, the film’s journey to the farthest reaches of space begins in St. Mark’s Square in Venice (the city where Galileo perfected the telescope), using a meter-wide acrobat’s ring as a reference point. From there, the camera glides outward, momentarily pausing each time the distance increases by the power of 10. At 10 meters out, we can see all of St. Mark’s Square; at 100 meters, the city of Venice, and so on. You’ll be amazed at how quickly things move (a mere 13 “steps” from the ring, i.e. a meter to the 13th power of 10, puts our entire solar system into view). Using this simple method, Cosmic Voyage reveals the vast wonders of the universe, utilizing state-of-the-art CGI to bring it all to life.

Then, its time to travel inward, at which point the action shifts to Delft, a village in the Netherlands (and van Leeuwenhoek’s home town), where we focus on a single raindrop teeming with bacteria. Once again using a meter to the power of 10 as a reference, Cosmic Voyage makes its way downward to the subatomic level, zooming in on a strand of DNA until it hits the smallest possible variable: the quark. As researchers peered deeper and deeper into this microscopic world, they formed a theory about what caused the Big Bang, which many believe was the event that spawned the entire known universe. In what might be its most intriguing segment, the movie recreates the Big Bang, complete with a brief history of the earth (in its infancy, the planet was a molten rock, pelted on a regular basis by giant meteors), including how life formed in its primordial pool.

What makes these expeditions even more exciting is director Silleck’s keen eye for visuals, which he uses to enhance the overall experience while, at the same time, challenging our perception of the world around us, In its opening moments, the film features a birds-eye view of a plane flying through the clouds, but when that plane lands, instead of an actual airport, Silleck cuts to a well-detailed miniature, an optical illusion that, at first, throws us for a loop. “Things around us aren’t always as they seem”, says Freeman, who eventually asks “”What is truly large, and truly small?” In less than an hour, Cosmic Voyage answers that question as completely as it possibly can, and in a way that you’ve likely never seen before.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

#1,793. Drunken Master (1978)

Directed By: Yuen Woo-Ping

Starring: Jackie Chan, Siu Tin Yuen, Jang Lee Hwang

Line from this film: "All students with style must learn how to fall"

Trivia: Once was the highest-grossing Chinese film in South Korea

With his uncanny ability to blend action and humor, Jackie Chan has been entertaining audiences around the world for decades (he’s one of a handful of performers to have stars on both the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Hong Kong Avenue of Stars). After working as a stuntman on several films in the early ‘70s (including Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon), Chan hit the big time as an actor in 1978 when he appeared in two movies directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, the second of which, Drunken Master, catapulted him to the forefront of Hong Kong cinema (his first picture that year, titled Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, was also a hit). Playing folk hero Wong Fei-Hung (one of the few times this historic character was portrayed with a comedic bent), Chan relies on his physical prowess throughout Drunken Master while, at the same time, establishing his position as the Clown Prince of Kung Fu.

A student in a martial arts school run by his father Kei-ying (Lam Kau), Wong Fei-Hung often allows his precocious nature to get the better of him. But when he inadvertently insults his Aunt (Linda Lin) and cousin (Tong Jing), then thrashes the son (Tino Wong) of wealthy aristocrat Mr. Li (Fung Ging) in a fight, a frustrated Kei-ying sends his son off to be trained by the legendary Beggar So (Yuen Siu-Tien), a master in the art of Drunken Boxing. With Beggar So’s help, Wong Fei-Hung learns the ways of “The Eight Drunken Gods”, but will his newfound abilities be enough to save his father from the notorious assassin, Thunderleg (Hwang Jang Lee), who’s been hired to kill Kei-ying so that his rival, Mr. Li, can seize control of the entire area.

Yuen Siu-Tien gets a few laughs as the oft-inebriated Beggar-So, who, despite his advanced age, can still kick some ass (unable to handle the intense action scenes, Yuen Siu-Tien was doubled by, among others, the film’s director, Yuen Woo-Ping). But more than anything, Drunken Master is a showcase for Jackie Chan's unique talents. One moment, he’s making us laugh by clowning around in his father’s class, and the next he’s beating the hell out of Mr. Li’s son (a later scene, where Wong Fei-Hung tries to trick a restaurant owner into giving him a free meal, is also a lot of fun). Chan’s “finest hour”, though, is undoubtedly the scene in which his Wong Fei-Hung, drunk as can be, demonstrates the 8 different styles of the “Drunken Gods”, a sequence that utilizes his comedic timing as much as it does his skills as a fighter.

Drunken Master was a box office smash in Hong Kong, raking in over HK $6 million and inspiring a number of direct sequels (including 1994’s The Legend of Drunken Master, also starring Chan), and even a few imitators (like Gordon Liu’s 1982 flick The Shaolin Drunken Monk). Still, in spite of the film’s success, it would take Jackie Chan more than a decade to finally make it big in Hollywood (1995’s Rumble in the Bronx was his first hit in this country). And if you’re a fan of movies like Shanghai Noon and the Rush Hour series, you’ll want to catch up with Drunken Master at some point as well, if, for no other reason, than to see it’s star in an early role, doing what he does best.