Monday, November 30, 2015

#1,932. My Week with Marilyn (2011) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Simon Curtis

Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh

Line from the film: "Little girls should be told how pretty they are. They should grow up knowing how much their mother loves them"

Trivia: Catherine Zeta-Jones was approached to play Vivien Leigh, but declined in favor to spend time with ailing husband Michael Douglas

I’m a sucker for movies like My Week with Marilyn, a behind-the-scenes account of what happened when Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe teamed up to make the 1957 romantic comedy The Prince and the Showgirl. I’ve covered that film on the blog, and while I wouldn’t say it’s the best movie of either performer, Monroe does manage to shine as the dancer unexpectedly thrust into the role of a royal escort.

But it wasn’t long into My Week with Marilyn that I completely forgot it was a real-life exposé., and the reason why is Michelle Williams. Looking every bit as radiant as the actress she is portraying, Williams commands the screen in much the same way Monroe used to do, making it easy to see why Colin Clark (the film’s protagonist) fell madly in love with Marilyn during those long weeks of production.

Eager to break into movies, young Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) ignores the advice of his upper-class parents and heads to London, where, by chance, he encounters family friend Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and his wife, Vivien Leigh (Julie Ormond). At Leigh’s request, Colin is hired to work as 3rd assistant on Olivier’s upcoming directorial effort, The Prince and the Showgirl, which will co-star American sex goddess Marilyn Monroe (Williams).

It was the first time that the acclaimed actress was working on a film produced outside of the United States, and the experience would not be a good one for either Monroe or her esteemed director. Turning up late to the set every day, Marilyn also had difficulty memorizing her lines, and insisted that her acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) be at her side throughout the shoot, which frustrated Olivier to the point of distraction.

At Sir Laurence’s request, Colin is assigned the thankless job of keeping an eye on the troubled actress, who, aside from her unhappy marriage to playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott), is taking a steady stream of drugs to help her “relax”. But it isn't long before Colin, like so many others before him, falls in love with Monroe, who, in turn, sees Colin as one of the few Britons she can trust.

With Colin's help, Marilyn finishes the movie, but is there room for him in her already crowded life, or was this simply a week-long tryst that he will remember forever?

Based on the memoirs of the real Colin Clark, My Week with Marilyn features an all-star cast, including Dame Judi Dench as renowned actress Sybil Thorndike, the only co-star who defended Monroe; and Emma Watson as Lucy, the girl Colin was dating during that very tumultuous period. As Olivier, Kenneth Branagh gives one of his finest performances in years, playing the famed actor/director as an artist who, though initially smitten with Marilyn, regrets casting her in his movie, while recent Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) is near-flawless as the young man in love with a world-famous beauty.

But like Marilyn Monroe before her, it’s Michelle Williams who steals the show, breathing life into an icon who, deep down, was an insecure little girl anxious to please those around her. At several points throughout the movie, Williams perfectly conveys the actress’s sex appeal. Wile touring Windsor Castle, she struts her stuff for the royal servants who have gathered at the bottom of a staircase to greet her. Yet she is equally good playing Monroe as a wounded soul, bursting into tears as the pressure mounts. In what may be the film’s most poignant scene, Colin, fearing Marilyn might have overdosed on pills, climbs through her bedroom window, at which point she, clearly under the influence, asks him to lie beside her in bed, making him promise not to leave until morning. Williams’ performance is so convincing, in fact, that it garnered her numerous award nominations, including an Oscar (which she lost to Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady) and a Golden Globe (which she won).

To say My Week with Marilyn is better than The Prince and the Showgirl is an understatement (again, I did enjoy that 1957 movie, due mostly to Monroe’s spirited turn). But after seeing this film, I want to watch The Prince and the Showgirl one more time, if for no other reason than to marvel at what Marilyn Monroe was able to accomplish in spite of it all.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

#1,931. Preservation (2014)

Directed By: Christopher Denham

Starring: Wrenn Schmidt, Pablo Schreiber, Aaron Staton

Tag line: "Man is the only animal that kills for fun ..."

Trivia: The eldest of the killers is wearing a MGTOW symbol on his mask

Whether it be snakes, bears, or other woodland creatures, there are plenty of things lurking in the forest to keep you on your toes, but in 2014’s Preservation we’re introduced to a threat of a much different, and altogether more frightening, variety.

To reconnect with one another, Mike (Aaron Staton) and his brother Sean (Pablo Schreiber), who recently returned from a tour of duty overseas, head into the woods for a weekend of hunting, camping, and general mayhem. Tagging along is Mike’s wife, Wit (Wrenn Schmidt), who has a secret she’s been hiding from her workaholic husband for some time now, and hopes this getaway will provide her with an opportunity to reveal it. Undeterred by posted signs stating the area has been closed to the public, the three hike deep into the woods, settling down in what they believe is the ideal camping spot.

When the trio awake the next morning, however, they find their perfect weekend has quickly become a nightmare; not only were they robbed during the night (the thieves made off with everything, including their tent), but they also have been branded (each has an “X” drawn on their forehead). It isn’t long before they realize they’re being hunted, and with no idea where they are or what direction to go in, Mike, Sean, and Wit must fight for their very survival against a mysterious group of predators that, at every turn, seems to be one step ahead of them.

The second half of Preservation is a nerve-wracking horror / thriller, the kind of movie best described as a “heart-stopper”, yet what makes it so is the time writer / director Christopher Denham spends in the first half developing his three main characters. In the film’s opening scene, the brothers reminisce about their younger days, and there are hints throughout that Sean has feelings for Wit (something Mike blows off at first, but which eats away at him as the day drags on). As for Wit, she has some important news for Mike, yet his devotion to his work (he spends a good deal of the trip on his cell phone) makes it impossible for the two to communicate. In the film’s first half hour or so, we get to know these characters, so when they find themselves suddenly in danger, we’re rooting hard for them to make it out alive. In contrast, we spend very little time with the group that’s tormenting them: not nearly enough to understand why they’re doing all this, and just enough to make them even more unsettling than before.

A terrifying fight for survival, Preservation, like Friday the 13th, The Burning, and The Blair Witch Project before it, gives you yet another good reason to stay out of the woods.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

#1,930. Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)

Directed By: Don Hahn

Starring: Roy Edward Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Michael Eisner

Tag line: "From 1984 to 1994 a perfect storm of people and circumstances changed the face of animation forever"

Trivia: Don Hahn wanted to avoid making what he called a "talking heads documentary" where people sit in front of the camera and talk. This is why none of the interviewees appear onscreen

"From 1984 to 1994, a perfect storm of people and circumstances changed the face of animation forever".

The above title screen appears early on in the 2009 documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, a movie about one of the most lucrative eras for Walt Disney’s Animation department, when a group of executives and artists joined forces to create some of the finest movies the studio has ever produced.

By the early 1980s, Disney’s animation unit was floundering, turning out one dud after another (millions were poured into ambitious projects like The Black Cauldron, which failed miserably at the box office). The studio was ready for a change, which began when Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew and one of the company’s top executives, fended off a possible takeover, then hired Michael Eisner and Frank Wells (former execs with Paramount and Warner Bros., respectively) to serve as CEO and President. Eisner, in turn, brought in Jeffrey Katzenberg to head the film division (one of Katzenberg’s first decisions was to move the faltering animation unit from the building it occupied for decades to an off-lot site in Glendale).

Others were hired as well, including Peter Schneider, who, as President of Walt Disney’s Feature animation division, oversaw the production of movies like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (for which they teamed up with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment) and a little film initially titled Basil of Baker Street, which would be released as The Great Mouse Detective. Both were moneymakers, and the mood around the animation department slowly improved. Songwriter Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken also joined the company, and the music they created for The Little Mermaid helped push that film to the top of the U.S. Box Office. Next on the docket was Beauty and the Beast, and the studio and its employees never looked back…

Directed by Don Hahn, Waking Sleeping Beauty takes us behind the scenes during this incredibly fruitful period; it’s fun to see footage of guys like Tim Burton and John Lasseter early in their careers, and at times we even witness history in the making (like the sequence where Howard Ashman acts out, mostly with his hands, the musical number that would become “Under the Sea”, arguably the most entertaining tune in The Little Mermaid). But what Waking Sleeping Beauty does best is recapture the thrill of it all, bringing us along on an unprecedented journey of creativity that helped save Disney’s animation unit, not to mention the company’s cinematic reputation. Through interviews playing underneath archival footage, we hear from those who were there, all of whom reveal, in amazing detail, how magical an era it truly was.

Toy Story. The Nightmare Before Christmas. Computer animation (though it was deemed a failure, The Rescuers Down Under was the studio’s first foray into digital animation); these, and many other innovations sprang from this team, this period, and this studio. And even though it was all over by 1994 (Soon after the release of The Lion King, Katzenberg, feeling left out in the cold when he wasn’t named President following the untimely death of Frank Wells, resigned from Disney and, together with Steven Spielberg, formed Dreamworks), what they had accomplished will live on forever.

It was Alexander Payne who said in the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession that “You just never know when you're living in a golden age”. Well, the men and women who contributed to Disney’s success during these years knew it, and that makes what they achieved all the more impressive.

Friday, November 27, 2015

#1,929. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)

Directed By: Tom Shadyac

Starring: Jim Carrey, Courteney Cox, Sean Young

Tag line: "He's the best there is! (Actually, he's the only one there is.)"

Trivia: Carrie-Anne Moss and Téa Leoni were considered for the role of Melissa Robinson

The opening scene of 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective tells you everything you need to know about this movie. In it, the title character, posing as a delivery man, is shaking, dropping, kicking, and otherwise mishandling a package clearly marked “Fragile” (with each step he takes, you hear the broken glass rattling around inside it). It’s a familiar joke, done before in a number of screen comedies, yet star Jim Carrey’s exaggerated mannerisms (from his bizarre walk to the way he contorts his face) brings a fresh energy to it. Without Carrey, this would have been a tired old routine. With him, it’s pretty damn funny.

Carrey is Ace Ventura, a private detective who specializes in finding lost or stolen animals (“I don’t do people”, he says at one point). His approach to his job is… shall we say… unusual, and over time he’s managed to piss off the entire Miami police force, especially Lt. Lois Einhorn (Sean Young), who’s barred him from the station. Still, Ventura’s skills make him the perfect person to investigate the recent kidnapping of Snowflake the dolphin, the mascot for the Miami Dolphins football team, which is days away from playing in the Super Bowl. Hired by the team’s chief publicist, Melissa Robinson (Courtney Cox), Ventura discovers that the kidnapper was most likely a former player, one who was part of the team that won the AFC Championship in 1984, only to lose the Super Bowl by a single point when kicker Ray Finkle blew a last-second field goal. The case intensifies when Miami’s star quarterback, Dan Marino (playing himself), is also kidnapped right before the big game. Are the Dolphins destined to lose yet another Super Bowl, or will Ace Ventura save the day?

Story-wise, there’s not a lot to Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and the supporting cast is woefully underdeveloped; Courtney Cox’s character, Melissa Robinson, is reduced to a sidekick / love interest, standing in the background of practically every scene. And while I thought rapper Tone Lōc was an interesting choice to play Emelio, Ace’s only friend on the force, he’s given absolutely nothing to do. In fact, Sean Young's belligerent police Lieutenant is the sole supporting character given a few memorable scenes of her own.

But then, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is, and was always intended to be, a showcase for Jim Carrey's unique brand of comedy, and it’s his strange behavior throughout that gives the film its vitality. After rising to stardom as part of the cast of In Living Color, a TV sketch comedy (a la Saturday Night Live) that was a hit for the Fox Network in the early ‘90s, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective marked Carrey’s first lead role in a motion picture, and he did his best to make it an unforgettable one. In what might be the film’s funniest sequence, Ventura poses as a crazy person (in a tutu) in order to infiltrate a mental hospital, which houses information that's vital to the case (the scene where he meets the facility’s director, played by David Margulies, reveals just how talented a physical comedian Carrey can be). Even moments that seem entirely out of place are a source of laughter; while checking out the empty tank that housed Snowflake the dolphin, Carrey imitates several Star Trek characters (his Captain Kirk is spot-on), at times getting as close to the camera as he possibly can. These impersonations don’t really belong in the movie, and are nothing more than Jim Carrey showing off, but they’re hilarious all the same.

Carrey would go on to make better films (The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and better comedies (Dumb and Dumber, The Cable Guy), but if you're looking for some mindless fun, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective is a sure bet.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

#1,928. Learning Hebrew (A Gothsploitation Movie) (2013)

Directed By: Louis Joon

Starring: Zoe Dorman, Dave Disaster, Frederick William Park

Tag line: "If you could e-mail the dead"

Trivia: In The UK, this film had the alternate title Atheist Killer Goths

I love movies that bring something fresh to the table, which is exactly what director Louis Joon’s Learning Hebrew does. Subtitled A Gothsploitation Movie (making it the first of its kind), Learning Hebrew takes shots at religion, war, and philosophy, doing so in a smart, often abrasive manner that hits you like a punch to the gut. And while it may, at times, be a bit confusing, this 2013 film is guaranteed to hold your attention from start to finish.

The lead character / narrator of Learning Hebrew is Bella (Zoe Dorman), an atheistic gothgirl who, along with her best friend / bodyguard StudD (Dave Disaster), pushes Darwinism door-to-door. Among those in her inner circle (aside from StudD) are Magdalena (Annie Ososova), a goth who may not share Bella’s hatred of all things religious; and Pilot (played by director Louis Joon), an Iraqi war veteran whose PTSD is so severe that it’s got him believing he’s Pontius Pilot, the Roman Governor of Judea during the time of Christ. To make matters worse, Bella’s former guardian, Miss Jon (Frederick William Park), a transvestite who raised her from the time she was a little girl, is trying desperately to convince Bella to return home, something the pretty young Goth has thus far refused to do.

Throw in a vagrant / philosopher named Phil (Mike Barrington), who may be more than he seems, and a couple of violent militants (Glenn Walbridge and Emma Joon Dyer) calling themselves the Atheist Revolutionary Army, and you have one of the most unusual collection of characters you’re likely to ever come across.

Stylish and uncompromising, Learning Hebrew crams a lot into its 65-minute run time, including:

1. A direct assault on organized religion (Bella and her friends read books like “The God Delusion”, and the Atheist Revolutionary Army, in its attempt to enlighten the world, blows up a series of subway trains)

2. Flashbacks to both the Gulf War (Pilot, flying an Apache helicopter, is ordered to wipe out a group of civilians) and ancient Roman times (when a thief named Barabbas was put to death)

3. Some well-executed, high-energy club scenes (in one, Phil the vagrant shows off his dancing / light stick skills)

4. Moments of violence (most of which are directed at Pilot, who', along with being beaten up, is the target of an assassination attempt) and sex (at one point, StudD visits a dominatrix played by Juliana Reed who is willing to do anything and everything to keep her clientele happy).

In addition, Learning Hebrew has an excellent soundtrack, and its occasional nod to the 1976 BBC miniseries I, Claudius definitely brought a smile to my face.

Filled to its breaking point with Goth / underground references, and featuring diatribes on everything from the existence of God to the true nature of martyrdom, Learning Hebrew is one hell of an intense experience, and a movie that demands to be seen more than once.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

#1,927. Rita (2003)

Directed By: Elaina Archer

Starring: Kim Basinger, Robert Board, Eduardo Cansino

Tag line: "The real story of Hollywood's Love Goddess"

Trivia: Playboy's Hugh Hefner was one of the Executive Producers of this film

On-screen, Rita Hayworth was a force to be reckoned with, a talented dancer and, thanks to her role in 1946’s Gilda, a femme fatale who would steal your heart, then chew it up and spit it out. She was considered by many the most beautiful actress of her time, and was a favorite of servicemen during World War II (a photo of her in black negligee was a popular pin-up for soldiers serving overseas). Alluring, provocative, sexy… these are a few of the words people used to describe Rita Hayworth, who, in the 1940s and ‘50s, was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood.

That was her public persona, but as we learn in 2003’s Rita, a documentary produced by Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, she was a different person in private; a shy, withdrawn woman who often let the men in her life walk all over her. At the age of 13, she was her father’s dance partner, working several shows a night to help support her family during the depression, and her move to the big screen drew the attention of Columbia studio chief Harry Cohn, who, as punishment for rebuking his sexual advances, assigned Hayworth to a series of small films.

But he couldn’t keep her down for long, and after dancing alongside Gene Kelly in Cover Girl, Hayworth got her big break with Gilda, and became a star. She was married several times, though her various husbands, including Orson Welles and Prince Aly Khan, could never give her what she truly desired: a stable home and time away from the spotlight. A devoted mother to her two daughters, she continued to make movies through the 1950s and ‘60s, appearing with Frank Sinatra (Pal Joey), Burt Lancaster (Separate Tables), and Gary Cooper (They Came to Cordura), and despite a few more disastrous marriages and a growing alcohol dependency, she pressed on, always ready to make her next big comeback.

Then, in 1980, Hayworth’s life was thrown into chaos when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and those who loved her watched as, over the next seven years, she slowly forgot who they were.

Narrated by Kim Basinger, Rita tells the story of both Rita Hayworths: the public beauty and the private wallflower. Featuring clips from many of her films (like 1948’s The Lady From Shanghai, which she made with soon-to-be ex-husband Orson Welles) and some home movies, as well as interviews with family members (such as daughter Princess Yasmin Khan), friends (Ann Miller and Tab Hunter, both of whom had worked with her before), and a few admirers (Nicole Kidman speaks highly of Hayworth, who has been an influence on her own career), Rita delves deeply into the starlet’s often tumultuous life, taking us right up to the bitter end.

Informative and heartbreaking, Rita is a biopic as much as it is a tribute to a remarkable artist, and like all good documentaries of this ilk (like Stardust: The Bette Davis Story), you leave with a new respect for its main subject, and a renewed vigor to see as many of her movies as you possibly can.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

#1,926. Nightmare Castle (1965)

Directed By: Mario Caiano

Starring: Barbara Steele, Paul Muller, Helga Liné

Tag line: "So weird! ...So shocking! Do YOU dare see it!"

Trivia: The director's father Carlo was the producer of the film

Written and directed by Mario Cauiano, 1965’s Nightmare Castle would have been your standard, run-of-the-mill gothic horror tale were it not for the presence of Barbara Steele. An actress with the uncanny ability to look radiant and frightening at the same time, Steele made a name for herself in the early ‘60s by appearing in films such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum. And like Black Sunday, Nightmare Castle, gives us two Barbara Steeles for the price of one!

To punish his unfaithful wife Miriam (Steele), scientist Dr. Stephen Arrowsmith (Peter Muller) ties both her and her lover, David (Rik Battaglia), up in the basement of their spacious mansion, torturing the two before finally finishing them off. Prior to her death, however, the wealthy Miriam informs Stephen that she altered her last will and testament, leaving her entire fortune to her estranged stepsister Jenny (Steele again), who, for years, has been locked up in a mental institution. Eager to get his hands on the money, Stephen seduces Jenny and, before long, makes her the next Mrs. Arrowsmith. Then, with the help of his maid Solange (Helga Line), he tries to break his new wife’s delicate psyche, convincing her that Miriam’s ghost is attempting to contact her. Hoping to have his new bride declared insane, Stephen invites Jenny’s longtime doctor, Derek Joyce (Marino Mase), to spend the weekend with them. But is Jenny truly losing her mind, or does the spirit of Miriam actually wander the hallways, waiting for an opportunity to strike back at her gold digging husband?

Much like she did in Black Sunday, Steele plays two separate characters in Nightmare Castle: the heavy (the adulterous Miriam) and the innocent victim (Jenny). What’s more, she’s excellent in both roles, perfectly conveying the passion and hatred of Miriam (despite being close to death, she has a smile on her face when telling Stephen she’s cut him out of her will) and the confusion, as well as the fear, that grips Jenny the moment she sets foot in her new home (her first night there, she has a terrifying encounter with what she believes is Miriam’s ghost). The remaining cast is also effective (especially Paul Muller as the sly Stephen), but Nightmare Castle comes alive whenever Steele is on-screen, and loses some of its pizazz when she isn’t.

Like many of these early gothic films, the set itself (i.e. the mansion) is a very important piece of the puzzle, as is the lighting and director’s use of shadows (all of which come into play late in the movie). And while the story itself is nothing new (conniving husband resorting to murder, then trickery to gain access to a large sum of money), these elements, along with Barbara Steele’s exceptional performance, help make Nightmare Castle an above-average horror flick.

Monday, November 23, 2015

#1,925. The Company of Wolves (1984) - The Films of Neil Jordan

Directed By: Neil Jordan

Starring: Sarah Patterson, Angela Lansbury, David Warner

Tag line: "The desire... the fantasy... the nightmare"

Trivia: Neil Jordan named his production company after this film

Based on a short story by Angela Carter (who also co-wrote the screenplay), The Company of Wolves is a dark, gothic retelling of Little Red Riding Hood that at the same time puts a new and exciting spin on the werewolf mythos, presenting the creature in ways few films have before.

Asleep in her bedroom, young Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) dreams that she and her family - father (David Warner), mother (Tusse Silberg), and older sister Alice (Georgia Slowe) - inhabit the world of make-believe, living as peasants in what appears to be an 18th century village. 

When Alice is killed by a pack of wild wolves, her grief-stricken parents send Rosaleen to stay with her Grandmother (Angela Lansbury) for a few days. During their time together, Grandmother tells Rosaleen a number of stories, all of which center on werewolves, while also revealing the three most important rules for surviving in the forest:

1. Never stray from the path
2. Never eat a windfall apple, and
3. Never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle

Giving her a red-hooded cape that she initially knit for Alice, Grandmother kisses Rosaleen goodbye and sends her back to her parents.

Over the next several months, Rosaleen realizes that her Grandmother’s stories were more than simple legends. While out walking with a neighbor’s son (Shane Johnstone), she spots a large wolf, which is then hunted by her father and the other men in the village. They manage to trap and kill the beast, only to receive the surprise of a lifetime. 

Some time later, Rosaleen, while on her way to Grandmother’s to deliver supplies, encounters a huntsman (Micha Bergese) in the middle of the forest. Though his eyebrows meet in the middle, she finds herself drawn to this stranger, and even accepts his wager that he will somehow get to grandmother’s house before she does.

With its impressive set design, awesome special effects, and a grandiose performance by Angela Lansbury, The Company of Wolves works quite well as a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood.  It’s the movie’s “other” segments, however, i.e. the reenactments of the various stories told first by Grandmother then by Rosaleen herself, that make this Neil Jordan-directed fantasy / horror film a true treasure. 

With tales ranging from the frightening (the first, about a traveler played by Stephen Rea who marries a pretty young woman then disappears into the night, features what is easily one of the most shocking werewolf transformations I’ve ever seen) to the darkly comic (a wedding feast is interrupted by a peasant girl the groom had impregnated and tossed aside, and her revenge against both he and his prestigious guests will bring a smile to your face), these segments are every bit as important as the main story in establishing both this fantastic, unusual world and the people / creatures that populate it.

From start to finish, Jordan infuses The Company of Wolves with a dreamlike quality; even the opening credits, supposedly set in the "real world", feature elements (swooping camera movements, foggy exteriors) that suggest all is not as it seems. Toss in not one, but two amazing transformation sequences, both of which belong in the conversation alongside Rick Baker's groundbreaking work in An American Werewolf in London, and you have an occasionally gorgeous, often disturbing werewolf film that continues to impress to this day.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

#1,924. Land of Silence and Darkness (1971)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Fini Straubinger, M. Baaske, Elsa Fehrer

Line from the Film: "When you let go of my hand, it's as if we were a thousand miles apart"

Trivia: This movie shared the Interfilm Award (with Where Our Strength Lies), which it won at the 1971 Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival

In Werner Herzog’s 1971 documentary Land of Silence and Darkness, we’re introduced to a remarkable 56-year-old woman named Fini Straubinger, who, due to injuries sustained in a fall when she was a child, lived the majority of her life both deaf and blind. Dedicated to assisting others like herself, Miss Straubinger travels from town to town, helping a variety of people deal with the world around them, which many of them can neither see nor hear.

Despite its subject matter, Land of Silence and Darkness is, for the most part, an uplifting motion picture, showing us how Miss Straubinger has overcome her handicaps to live as full a life as she possibly can. Early in the movie, we join Straubinger and a good friend of hers as they take their first-ever plane ride, an event that both excites and amuses the two elderly women. But as Herzog shows us over the course of the film, many in the deaf/blind community struggle with feelings of isolation and fear on an almost daily basis.

After losing her eyesight and hearing at the age of 18, Fini Straubinger herself spent the next 30 years in bed, immersed in a deep depression, and even though she’s since been able to adapt (Straubinger and those in her immediate group communicate with one another by way of a complex hand-touching technique), we meet a variety of others who have not been so lucky, including a woman who, since the death of her mother, has been in a mental institution, cut off from society. Herzog also follows his main subject to a clinic for young people, many of whom were born deaf and blind and are just now learning to communicate with the outside world. Perhaps most tragic of all is the tale of 22-year-old Vladimir Kokol, who, along with not being able to see or hear, cannot walk, and spends his days entirely alone. Watching this young man sit on the floor of his room, oblivious to everyone and everything around him, is truly heartbreaking.

As he’s done throughout his career, Herzog delves deeply into the subject at hand, revealing both the triumphs and tragedies of the sight and hearing impaired. It is both inspiring and painful, lifting your spirits one minute and moving you to tears the next. And like many of the director’s documentaries, Land of Silence and Darkness is an experience you won’t want to miss.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

#1,923. Fata Morgana (1971)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Lotte Eisner, Eugen Des Montagnes, James William Gledhill

Trivia 1: This movie premiered at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival

Trivia: While shooting this film in Camaroon, Herzog and his small crew were arrested, with authorities believing they were members of a terrorist group that had been sentenced to death in absentia

It started as a science fiction movie about aliens, who travel to earth from the Andromeda galaxy to study life on this planet. But as director Werner Herzog was shooting in the Sahara, capturing mirages on film, he abandoned that storyline and settled instead on a documentary approach, allowing the images to speak for themselves. The resulting movie, 1971’s Fata Morgana, is a tidal wave of astounding visuals; some amazing, others frightening, but every single one unique.

Fata Morgana (which, in Italian, means “mirage”) opens at an airport, the camera set up at the end of a runway watching as a series of planes come in for a landing. But as the day grows longer, and the heat becomes more intense, the images begin to blur, as if the planes themselves were transforming before our eyes. It was Herzog’s way of establishing how heat can sometimes play tricks on our senses, and from there, we’re transported to an even hotter location: Africa’s Sahara Desert, where shots of what appear to be lakes in the distance, or cars driving along the sand, are, in reality, nothing at all (apparently, mirages act like a mirror, showing reflections of things that are occurring miles away. Late in the movie, we see a parked tour bus in the distance, with a number of people surrounding it, stretching their legs. On the DVD commentary, Herzog tells of how, just after shooting this scene, he and his two assistants, parched by the desert sun, ran to this location, hoping the bus might have some ice or water to quench their thirst. When they got there, they found only empty sand, with no tracks whatsoever to signify anyone had been there).

But Fata Morgana is more than desert illusions. “I filmed whatever fascinated me”, Herzog said when speaking of this movie, which also includes aerial shots taken on the Easter Islands (during the making of Even Dwarfs Started Small) of Flamingos gathered around a lake; and a large cathedral on the Ivory Coast (with locals holding a parade in front of it). Back in the Sahara, Herzog occasionally comes across remnants of civilization, a tractor or a half-assembled warehouse, that have been abandoned, often hundreds, if not thousands of miles from the nearest town.

Such images have a subtle beauty to them, but not everything in Fata Morgana is beautiful. During their travels, Herzog and his team stumbled upon hundreds of dead cattle, their bodies so dehydrated that they’d flattened out to near nothing. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Werner Herzog film without the occasional foray into the bizarre; along with a trip to a brothel, where the Madame and head pimp stage their own musical act, we meet a man whose home on the Ivory Coast has a swimming pool filled with sea turtles (he spends hours on end “hunting” the turtles, only to release them, over and over again, back into the water).

Today, Fata Morgana is as notable for what happened behind the camera as what took place in front of it; while in Africa shooting this film, Herzog and his crew, misidentified as German mercenaries by a government that had just seized control in Cameroon, were arrested, then tortured by their guards. This tragic occurrence aside, Fata Morgana is a fascinating motion picture, and yet another example of director Werner Herzog’s determination to bring something new to the screen.

And rest assured: you’ve never seen anything quite like this movie!

Friday, November 20, 2015

#1,922. Graduation Day (1981)

Directed By: Herb Freed

Starring: Christopher George, Patch Mackenzie, E. Danny Murphy

Tag line: "This is one school you won't want to graduate from!"

Trivia: The blonde girl in the number 46 track jersey was cut out of the film as much as possible since she was fired due to refusal to fulfill the nudity requirements

The opening sequence of Graduation Day makes this 1981 horror movie look like a sports film. Interspersed between scenes of teenage athletes competing in track and field events are shots of a boisterous crowd, cheering them on to victory, all as an inspirational rock ballad titled “The Winner” fills the soundtrack. 

Yet as exciting as some of these moments are, the real drama occurs later in the scene, when coach George Michaels (Christopher George) shouts encouragement to his star runner, high school senior Laura (Ruth Ann Llorens), during a race. As her teammates cheer wildly, Laura pulls away from the pack and crosses the finish line ahead of the competition. Her victory soon turns to tragedy, however, when, seconds later, she collapses, the victim of a fatal blood clot.

And just like that, the tone of Graduation Day changes drastically.

Several months pass, and Laura’s classmates are preparing for graduation. To accept Laura’s diploma on her behalf, her older sister, Navy Ensign Anne Ramstead (Patch Mackenzie), returns home, and with the help of Laura’s boyfriend Kevin (E. Danny Murphy) sets out to find the person responsible for her beloved sister’s death. 

Like most people, Anne focuses her attention on Coach Michaels, who, due to the outcry that followed the tragedy, has been given his walking papers (though he insists Laura’s death was an unfortunate accident, and had nothing to do with his strict training regimen). 

As this is going on, other members of the school’s track team are being slaughtered by an unknown assailant. Who is killing them, and how does this recent string of murders relate to what happened to Laura?

Released in 1981, Graduation Day has a lot in common with the slasher films of that particular era; along with a homicidal maniac hunting teens, the movie features several kills that occur in the middle of the woods (a la Friday the 13th). And like many slashers, the film's kill scenes are damned creative (the most imaginative of the bunch involves a bed of nails, strategically placed near a high jump pit). 

But there are elements of Graduation Day that also make it feel like an early ‘70s Giallo, from its killer wearing black gloves to the red herrings that make us believe any one of a number of people might be the killer.

Therein lies the main problem I had with Graduation Day: too many damn characters! 

Aside from those mentioned above (including the entire track team), we have a school principle (Michael Pataki) who is sleeping with his secretary (E.J. Peaker); a music teacher (Richard Balin) who is seduced by a student hoping to pass his class (the great Linnea Quigley); a security guard (Virgil Frye) who doesn’t take his job as seriously as he should; Anne’s mom Elaine (Beverly Dixon) and her hard-drinking stepfather Ronald (Hal Bokar); and police Inspector Halliday (Carmen Argenziano), who has been contacted by a number of concerned parents, worried because their sons or daughters didn’t return home the night before (many were victims of the killer) . 

The movie even has an insane old woman (Kevin’s grandmother, played by Viola Kates Stimpson) and a pair of chatty teenage girls who walk into the locker room at the worst possible time (one of the two is played by future Wheel of Fortune co-star Vanna White, in an early screen role). To his credit, director Herb Freed does a solid job fleshing most of these individuals out, but in the end, the movie would've been better had a few of them been left on the cutting room floor.

Still, thanks to its various kill scenes and an ending that’s bat-shit crazy, Graduation Day manages to overcome these problems, and while I wouldn’t call it a top-tier slasher (or, for that matter, a top-tier Giallo), it’s an entertaining film nonetheless.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

#1,921. The Box Man (2002)

Directed By: Nirvan Mullick

Written by: Nirvan Mullick

Awards: "Winner of several awards, including Best Debut at the 2002 New York Expo of Short Film"

Trivia: The Trenchcoat Man puppet is only 8 inches tall

A man in a trenchcoat, who lives in an unidentified city, is walking home one evening when he spots a cardboard box sitting on the sidewalk across from his building. While inspecting the box, the man pulls back in shock after discovering a pair of human eyes peering back at him from inside. Frightened, the man quickly retreats to his apartment, yet can’t get this box or its inhabitant out of his mind. Whenever he looks out his window, he sees the eyes staring at him, and after several hours of this he decides enough is enough, and takes matters into his own hands …

Inspired in part by a novel written by author Kobe Abe, The Box Man was a true labor of love for its director, Nirvan Mullick, who conceived the project while a film student at CalArts. As it turns out, this stop-motion animated short would take him two and a half years to complete, with Mullick constructing everything himself, from the main puppet to the city’s brick walls (which took about 6 weeks to detail). Fortunately for him, his hard work paid off in the end.

Winner of various awards (among others, it took home the Best Animated Short film award at the 2002 Cinequest San Jose festival), The Box Man is a masterwork of paranoia and fear, with its shadowy streets and dark corners reminding one of the great film noirs of the 1940’s and ‘50s. And even though its story (a mysterious box) is quite simple, the movie offers up some jarring images that, in the end, are more disturbing than either the box or its occupant.

That Mullick accomplishes all this in only a few minutes of screen time makes The Box Man all the more impressive.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

#1,920. A Ninja Pays Half My Rent (2003)

Directed By: Steven K. Tsuchida

Starring: Timm Sharp, Anthony Liebetrau, Shin Koyamada

Line from the film: "Excuse me, could you pass the syrup please? Please?"

Trivia: This movie won a Special Jury Prize at the 2003 Aspen Shortsfest

Finding the right roommate can be difficult. In fact, as we see in director Steven K. Tsuchida’s 2003 short film A Ninja Pays Half My Rent, sometimes it can be murder.

When his original roommate David (Anthony Liebetrau) dies in a freak grapefruit accident, Barry (Timm Sharp) advertises for a new one, and to his surprise, an honest-to-goodness Ninja (Shin Kyamada) agrees to move in with him. As you might expect, adapting to life with a trained assassin has its share of problems, but after working out some of their issues, Barry and his new roomie quickly become the best of frien… well, they reach an understanding. Unfortunately, the pairing wasn’t destined to last, and one day, after returning home from his morning jog, Barry realizes just how dangerous the life of a ninja can be.

To be honest, A Ninja Pays Half My Rent wasn’t the movie I set out to review today, but after coming across it accidentally (I found this short while checking out some trailers on a random DVD), I knew I had to switch things up. Director Tsuchida, who co-wrote the script with Aaron Ginsburg and Wade McIntyre, squeezes some big laughs into this very short film (one scene in particular, where Barry tries to “train” his new roommate at the breakfast table, is laugh-out-loud funny), and even finds time to throw a surprise ending into the mix.

Hilarious and fun, A Ninja Pays Half My Rent definitely brightened my day.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

#1,919. The Wild Blue Yonder (2005)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Brad Dourif, Donald Williams, Ellen Baker

Tag line: "A Science Fiction Fantasy"

Trivia: This movie was presented at the 62nd Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the FIPRESCI Prize

I come from another galaxy, a blue one, way, way beyond your world. Where I come from is the Wild Blue Yonder

Thus begins 2005’s The Wild Blue Yonder, a science fiction fantasy that could only spring from the mind of Werner Herzog.

An alien (Brad Dourif) from another galaxy, who has been on earth for some time, guides us through a most unusual story. After relating the tale of how his people came to this planet, the Alien tells us about a dangerous situation that occurred several years earlier, when a group of scientists decided to examine the spaceship that landed in Roswell back in the 1950s. During their investigation, some members of the research team contracted an unknown virus. Fearing a widespread epidemic that might destroy life on earth, the CIA, in association with NASA, sent a group of astronauts into deep space, hoping they would find another planet that, in an emergency, could support human life. Using a series of chaotic tunnels located in our solar system, the astronauts eventually made their way to what had been the Alien’s home world, a beautiful place nicknamed “The Wild Blue Yonder”, and what they found there would both shock and amaze them.

In unison with the scenes featuring Brad Dourif’s Alien (in one, he pays a visit to n abandoned town that his people built years earlier, a place they hoped would become their capital city on earth), The Wild Blue Yonder relies on stock footage (some of which was provided by NASA), which is strategically pieced together to tell a fictional tale of otherworldly visitors and deep space travel (training exercises for new astronauts, filmed at the Johnson Space Center, are presented here as images of the Alien’s people arriving on earth). At times, the visuals are amazing (especially towards the end, when shots of Henry Kaiser’s underwater expedition in Antarctica stand in for the supposed “exploration” of the Alien’s home world), but its Brad Dourif’s bizarre narration that makes The Wild Blue Yonder so much fun to watch (a sequence in which he attempts to explain the complexities of space travel while standing in front a decaying trailer park is a definite highlight).

While the stock footage does occasionally wear out its welcome (there are too many scenes of astronauts floating weightless in space), Brad Dourif never does. Simultaneously strange and fascinating, his performance is the glue that holds The Wild Blue Yonder together, and while I definitely recommend the movie as-is, I can’t help but wish that Dourif appeared in it a bit more often than he does.

Monday, November 16, 2015

#1,918. Life of Pi (2012)

Directed By: Ang Lee

Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain

Line from the film: "I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye"

Trivia: Suraj Sharma never intended to audition for the film. He went to a casting call to support his brother, and beat out more than 3,000 hopefuls for the lead role

A lot of time and effort was devoted to bringing author Yann Martel’s 2001 fantasy / adventure novel Life of Pi to the big screen. After passing through the fingers of several directors, including M. Night Shyamalan (who also wrote a version of its screenplay) and Alfonso Cuarón, Ang Lee joined the production in 2009, and then spent the next three years of his life making this movie a reality. From its casting (over 3,000 young men auditioned for the part of the 16-year-old lead before Suraj Sharma, a teen with no acting experience, was selected) to the complexities of its ocean-bound scenes (for which a 1.7 million gallon wave tank was built in an abandoned airport in Taiwan) to its marvelous special effects (accomplished through the combined efforts of companies in Los Angeles, Malaysia, India, Taiwan and Canada), Life of Pi was a gargantuan project, and thanks to Lee and his exceptional team, this story of a boy and his tiger has become one of the 21st century’s most visually impressive motion pictures.

The movie opens with an adult Pi (Irrfan Kahn) meeting with author Yann Martel (Rafe Spall), who’s interested in turning Pi’s amazing adventure into a book. Pi Patel, whose real name is Piscene (he changed it to “PI” years earlier when schoolmates started calling him “Pissing”), grew up in India’s Pondicherry district, where his father (Adil Hussain) owned and operated a state-sponsored zoo. As a boy, PI (played as a 5-year-old by Guatam Belur and an 11-year-old by Ayush Tandon) showed an interest in a number of organized religions, including Hindu, which he learned from his mother (played by Tabu); Catholicism; and Islam, all of which contributed to his strong belief in God.

It was in his teenage years that Pi’s father announced he was moving the family to Canada, where he’d found someone interested in buying the zoo’s various animals, including the dangerous Bengal tiger they called “Richard Parker” (named after the man who captured him). Though unhappy to be leaving both India and his girlfriend Anandi (Shravanthi Sainath), Pi (now played by Sharma), his parents, and his older brother Ravi (Vibish Sivakumar) joined the zoo animals aboard a Japanese freighter bound for North America.

Then, a few days out of Manila, tragedy struck when, during a thunderstorm, the ship was severely damaged and began to sink. Pi, who had gone above to watch the storm, attempted to save his family, only to realize their cabin was already submerged. In the chaos that ensued, Pi, along with a stray zebra, found himself aboard one of the ship’s lifeboats. Alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he and the zebra were eventually joined by a Hyena, an orangutan, and the tiger, Richard Parker. Before long, Pi and Richard Parker were the only ones left alive, and during their many weeks at sea, the industrious young man did everything he could to keep the tiger alive, knowing at all times that the enormous, bad-tempered Richard Parker would have gladly made him its next meal.

From start to finish, Life of Pi is an amazing motion picture, with images so awe-inspiring that you won’t believe your eyes; the scenes shot on-location in India (including one of a religious ceremony that featured thousands of lit candles) are absolutely gorgeous. That said, the film’s most spectacular moments occur while the title character and the tiger, Richard Parker, are alone at sea, clinging to life aboard a tiny boat (to stay safe, Pi constructs a makeshift raft, which allows him to float a few yards behind the lifeboat, out of the tiger’s reach). Many of these sequences are beyond stunning, like the night a giant whale makes its presence known, or when Pi and his traveling companion are pelted by a school of flying fish. Even a simple long shot, showing the duo drifting in the middle of the vast ocean, takes on a special significance, and the CGI that brings the tiger, as well as the other animals and fish, to life is among the best I’ve ever seen (I never knew which shots of Richard Parker were of the real-life tiger used to portray him, and which were generated by a computer).

Of course, you need a good story to go along with all that beauty, and Life of Pi has just that, telling a fascinating tale of survival that, in turn, is a moving portrait of a man whose faith never wavers. It’s this, combined with all the visual splendor and a stirring performance by Sharma (whose inexperience never once shows through), that helps Life of Pi stretch the boundaries of motion picture creativity to their farthest point, crafting, in the process, a film for the ages.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

#1,917. Stung (2015)

Directed By: Benni Diez

Starring: Clifton Collins Jr., Jessica Cook, Tony de Maeyer

Tag line: "The Ultimate Buzzkill"

Trivia: Writer Adam Aresty came up with the idea for the story while working as a caterer at an outdoor party with a severe wasp infestation problem

As a result of her father’s recent death, Julia (Jessica Cook) has inherited the family catering business, and despite her nervous disposition, she intends to keep it afloat for as long as she can. Her first gig as boss is a party being held on the decaying estate of Mrs. Perch (Eve Slatner), a wealthy widow who lives with her hunchbacked son Sydney (Clifton Collins Jr.). To ensure everything goes off without a hitch, Julia keeps her lone employee, the normally volatile Paul (Matt O’Leary), on a short leash, ignoring his romantic overtures and insisting that he remain professional at all times. But it isn’t Paul who’s going to ruin this particular shindig; it’s the local wasp population, which, for some inexplicable reason, is getting more aggressive with each passing minute. Before anyone knows what’s hit them, Julia, Paul, Sydney, and the other guests are running for their lives, one very short step ahead of the hundreds of killer wasps that have crashed the party.

Based on its trailer, I was expecting director Benni Diez’s Stung to have a lot in common with Infestation, another giant bug movie that also had its share of comedy. But while this 2015 film does feature a few funny moments (many of which come courtesy of Lance Henriksen, who plays the gruff, no-nonsense, and often drunk party guest / mayor of the community in which all hell breaks loose), Stung plays it straight for the majority of its runtime, with revelers falling, one by one, to the huge, rather disgusting wasps that come crawling out of a hole in the ground. What makes these bugs all the more treacherous is that they don’t sting to kill; much like the title creature in Alien, Ridley Scott’s classic 1979 sci-fi / horror film, these wasps use their human victims as incubators, laying eggs inside of them that “hatch” into even bigger flying bugs. So, as you can imagine, Stung gets a bit messy at times, and thanks to some well-executed CG and special effects, we witness every drop of the blood and gore that fills the second half of the movie.

A throwback of sorts to the 1950’s, when giant bug films like Them!, Tarantula, and The Deadly Mantis were scaring the bejesus out of the movie-going public, a number of killer insect flicks have emerged in the last 10 years, some good (In my opinion, The Mist is one of the all-time best Stephen King adaptations) and some bad (like 2011’s abysmal Camel Spiders). With its fast-paced story, better-than-average effects, and unique hero (portrayed as something of a clown early on, Matt O’Leary’s Paul proves to be the bravest of the bunch), Stung takes its place alongside Infestation and Big Ass Spider as one of the better modern insect / monster movies.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

#1,916. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Directed By: Martin Brest

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Judge Reinhold, John Ashton

Tag line: "The Heat Is On!"

Trivia: Other actors who were considered for the role of Axel Foley were Al Pacino and James Caan

48 Hrs and Trading Places helped make Eddie Murphy a movie star, but it was 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop that launched him into the stratosphere, showing the world how talented a comic actor he truly was and establishing him as one of the decades biggest box-office draws.

Murphy plays Axel Foley, a Detroit Cop who heads to Beverly Hills to track down the killer of his best pal Mikey (James Russo). With the help of Jenny (Lisa Eilbacher), an old friend from Detroit who now operates a prestigious L.A. art gallery, Axel discovers that Mikey had been working at a warehouse owned by wealthy California businessman Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff). When Axel barges into Maitland’s office demanding answers, he is arrested by the LAPD and shuttled off to jail.

Respecting the fact that he’s a fellow cop, Lt. Bogomil (Ronny Cox) releases Axel from custody while at the same time warning him not to take the law into his own hands again. To ensure he stays on the straight and narrow, Bogomil assigns Detectives Taggart (John Ashton) and Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) to keep an eye on their colleague from Detroit, but after delving into some of Maitland’s so-called “business” dealings, Axel is more determined than ever to bring the shady millionaire to justice.

To say Beverly Hills Cop gets off to a great start is an understatement. Following a funny scene where the fast-talking Axel, working undercover, tries to sell a truckload of stolen cigarettes to a couple of crooks, there’s an exciting chase through the crowded streets of Detroit, with one of the thugs driving the truck at full speed, crashing into one vehicle after another as Axel holds on for dear life. A thrilling action sequence perfectly executed by director Martin Brest, this opening also establishes that Axel Foley is a wise-ass who doesn’t always play by the rules; he’s eventually chewed out by his commanding officer, played with gusto by Gilbert R. Hill, for conducting an undercover operation without departmental approval.

The role of Axel Foley was tailor-made for the charismatic Murphy, who, with his rapid-fire delivery and impeccable timing, makes us laugh damn near every time. Even a brief exchange with Jenny’s flamboyant assistant Serge (Bronson Pinchot) - which barely lasts a minute - is comic gold (though, the be fair, Pinchot is equally as hilarious). And as he did in 48 Hrs, Murphy handles the movie’s action scenes with the greatest of ease. At a strip club, Axel spots a couple of shifty characters who clearly intend to rob the place, and, with the help of Taggart and Rosewood, disarms the crooks before they squeeze off a single shot.

The supporting performances are just as strong. Ashton and Reinhold generate some laughs as the mismatched partners (Taggert is a hard-ass veteran, Rosewood a naïve rookie), and though he's not in the film for very long, James Russo’s heartfelt turn as Mikey brings weight to a character we barely get to know. 

In addition to its fine cast, the film’s action sequences are out of this world (aside from the opening chase, the grand finale is pretty damn exciting); and the music, from the techno awesomeness of Harold Faltermeyer’s "Axel F" to such up-tempo numbers as Glenn Frey’s "The Heat is On" and Patti Labelle’s "New Attitude", helped carry the soundtrack for Beverly Hills Cop (released by MCA Records) all the way to #1 on the Billboard 200 Chart.

But as good as the rest of the movie is, without Eddie Murphy, Beverly Hills Cop would have been a run-of-the-mill ‘80s action / comedy. With him, it ranks alongside Big Trouble in Little China, The Blues Brothers, Back to the Future, and the actor’s own 48 Hrs as one of the decade’s absolute best.