Monday, February 29, 2016

#2,023. Man on Wire (2008)

Directed By: James Marsh

Starring: Philippe Petit, Jean François Heckel, Jean-Louis Blondeau

Tag line: "1974. 1350 feet up. The artistic crime of the century"

Trivia: The same story is covered by the children's picture book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (2007) by Mordicai Gerstein

Life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion: to refuse to tape yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself, to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge - and then you are going to live your life on a tightrope” - Philippe Petit

With its talking head interviews and archival footage, 2008’s Man on Wire certainly looks like a documentary, yet the manner in which director James Marsh presents the material makes it feel more like a crime thriller, relating the story of a master thief who, instead of money, stole the spotlight, and, for a brief moment, captured the attention of the entire world.

On August 7, 1974, French acrobat / tightrope walker Philippe Petit pulled off what seemed like an impossible feat. With the help of several cohorts, including good friends Jean François Heckel and Jean-Louis Blondeau, his girlfriend Annie Allix, and New York businessman Barry Greenhouse, Petit climbed to the top of the World Trade Center, stretched a high wire between the two towers, and then proceeded to walk across it eight times without the use of a harness or safety net. For Petit, it was the culmination of a dream, the final act in a play that required years of planning, and it made him an instant celebrity. The question he was asked most often in the days and months that followed was “Why”? For a guy like Petit, who had cheated death time and again on the wire, the only answer he could give was “Why not?

By way of home movies (shot by Petit and the others), Marsh shows us the early stages of this grand scheme, and the preparation that went into making it a reality (in one scene, Petit sets up a wire in a small park in France, then has his friends shake it wildly while he’s on it, to ready him for the strong winds he may encounter during his historic walk). There’s a sense of excitement, even whimsy, in these sequences as Petit and the others formulate their plan, but the mood changes as the big day draws near. Feeling they needed outside help, Petit recruited David Forman and Alan Weiner, two Americans, to assist, much to the chagrin of Jean François (who didn’t trust either of them). Then, on the night of August 6th, the conspirators made their way to the top of the Trade Center towers (Petit, Jean-Louis and David in one building; Jean-Francois and Alan in the other), only to find guards were still patrolling the area. It’s the first of several problems they encountered, and by way of some slick reenactments (with actor David McGill standing in for Petit), Marsh successfully conveys the drama and tension of that fateful night, presenting it as if it was a well-planned bank robbery, and putting us smack dab in the middle of it all.

Then we have the stunt itself, which is nerve-wracking and beautiful all at the same time (knowing that Petit survived the walk didn’t calm my nerves as I watched it, and I had to look away when he laid down on the wire and gazed up at the sky). Yet as amazing as his accomplishment was, it’s Petit himself, so full of charm and energy, that makes Man on Wire such a fun movie, and it’s the joy he displays while discussing the endeavor that will stay with you once the film has ended.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

#2,022. Spotlight (2015)

Directed By: Tom McCarthy

Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams

Tag line: "Break the story. Break the silence"

Trivia: Tom McCarthy cited 1983's The Verdict and Sidney Lumet's style direction in that film as influences on this project

Anyone who reads my blog regularly knows that, from first grade straight through to my senior year, I attended Catholic school. What’s more, my family was active in the church. My father occasionally served as a Lecter during mass (not often, but I remember it happening once or twice), and my mother volunteered her time any way she could (still does, actually). As for me, I was an altar boy the last 3 years I was in grade school, and it was during my second year “in service” that a new priest, recently stationed at our parish, took control of the group of us, writing our schedule, training new altar boys, and so on (He trained my brother, in fact, who followed in my footsteps when he was of age).

This priest was a young guy, in his mid-30’s to early ‘40s, and not only did he oversee us altar boys, but he also turned up at a Boy Scout jamboree one year, the only time a member of the clergy at my church ever did so. In addition, I remember some of my classmates singing this priest’s praises, telling me how cool he was, and how he’d sometimes invite them up to his room to show them X-rated movies. A friend of mine mentioned this in front of the priest one day, and instead of changing the subject or nervously making excuses, the priest said, quite matter-of-factly (even proudly), that the God who made heaven and earth also created bare boobs, and he didn’t see anything wrong with looking at them once in a while. Sure, I thought it sounded kinda strange, and maybe a little creepy, but being so close to puberty, I was more annoyed that I’d never been invited to one of these screenings (now, I thank God I wasn’t).

Soon after I moved on to high school, I heard that this priest had been abruptly reassigned to another parish. That was strange, I thought, seeing as it happened so quickly, and without any fanfare (normally, the parishioners would shower a departing priest with goodbye gifts, but nobody saw this one coming). After the scandal that broke in Boston in 2002, the story behind which is recreated so wonderfully in director Tom McCarthy’s 2015 film Spotlight, I now know why this priest’s departure was such a closely-guarded secret.

It was in 2001 that the Spotlight division, a group of investigative reporters working for the Boston Globe, received orders from their new editor, Marty Baron (Live Schreiber), to look into allegations that a Catholic priest had molested dozens of children while serving in several Boston parishes. Headed up by Robby Robertson (Michael Keaton), the Spotlight team, namely Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Caroll (Brian d'Arcy James), uncovered evidence that suggested more than one priest was guilty of this crime, and with the help of both Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer representing a number of victims; and Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), an abuse “survivor” who ran an organization to help those molested by the clergy, Spotlight learned that as many as 87 priests, stretching back decades, were likely pedophiles. Even more damning were the allegations that Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), the well-respected head of the Boston Archdiocese, knew all along about the abuse, and ignored it. Over the course of a year, the Spotlight reporters delved deep into this troubling issue, knowing full well that the majority of their readers (who are Catholic) might turn against them once the story ran.

Spotlight is the type of movie that legendary filmmaker Samuel Fuller would have loved. Having worked for a newspaper in his younger days (at age 12, he was a copyboy, and by 17 a crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic), Fuller always held the press in high esteem, and some of his films, including Power of the Press (which he wrote but didn’t direct) and Park Row were veritable love letters to the fourth estate. By taking us behind-the-scenes, following along with the Spotlight crew as they interview victims and utilize public records, we get swept up in the excitement of it all. More than this, though, Spotlight gives us a new respect for journalists and the job that they do, revealing, sometimes in great detail, how difficult it can be to get to the heart of an issue as devastating as this one.

The cast that McCarthy assembled for Spotlight is beyond impressive. Michael Keaton continues the renaissance he experienced with 2014’s Birdman by delivering a solid performance as the leader of this team of reporters, and both McAdams and d’Arcy James are strong as the subordinates who struggle with personal dilemmas as the story unfolds. Yet it’s Mark Ruffalo (nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work here) who steals the show. From his tense early meetings with Garabedian to his dogged determination to get a peek at classified documents, Rezendes is arguably the most driven of the bunch, and Ruffalo perfectly conveys both his character’s resolve and, later on, his anger at those who covered it up (a lapsed Catholic, Rezendes considered returning to the church before this scandal fell in his lap). Also excellent are Liev Schrieber as the quiet, unassuming editor with excellent instincts; and John Slattery as Ben Bradlee, an old friend of Robertson’s whose initial reluctance to tackle the abuse story slowly melts away when he realizes just how far-reaching it truly is.

Anyway, back to the priest I mentioned above, and the reason why I’m not disclosing his name. Soon after the news broke in Boston, archdiocese all over the country, and then the world, faced similar scandals, with victims coming forward in droves to tell their horror stories to a now-attentive world. A year or so later, a list was published online naming all the priests in the Philadelphia area who were known to have molested children (I can’t remember who published this list, but as you can imagine, it caused quite a stir). Well, for a while there, I was checking this website regularly, and every now and then a new name appears on it, but as of today, the priest I told you about isn’t one of them. I heard he eventually left the priesthood (though I can’t remember who told me this), and a Google search of his name, performed moments before I sat down and started writing, returned only a single result (my church’s website, listing all the former priests who served at the parish).

Did this priest molest anyone? I have no idea. Maybe it’s like he said, that he just enjoyed looking at naked women, and invited curious pre-teens up to his room to share in the experience. Yeah, I know… it’s sick as hell no matter how you spin it. But the bottom line is, nobody ever came forward to accuse this priest of anything. Yet he clearly acted inappropriately, and later on was hurried out of town as quickly, and as quietly, as possible. 

At the end of Spotlight, there’s a title screen telling us that, after the story broke, 249 priests in the Boston area were exposed as molesters. That’s a terrible reality. Even more frightening, though, is the very real possibility some still managed to slip through the cracks.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

#2,021. Fascination (1979)

Directed By: Jean Rollin

Starring: Franca Maï, Brigitte Lahaie, Jean-Marie Lemaire

Trivia: Several years before appearing in this movie, actress Brigitte Lahaie worked in France's adult film indutry

Trivia: In Greece, the movie was released as DEVILISH CHARM

Like many of director Jean Rollin’s films, Fascination features surreal imagery, nudity and sex, and lots of blood, all working in unison to relate a tale of the macabre that grows more mysterious with each passing scene.

The year is 1905. Marc (Jean-Marie Lemaire), a petty thief, has just swindled his partners out of their share of some gold coins. Looking for a place to hide, Marc stumbles upon a remote mansion that, at first glance, seems to be abandoned. Once inside, however, he finds two chambermaids, Elizabeth (Franka Mai) and Eva (the amazing Brigitte Lahaie), who are watching the place for their master, who won't be back for days. Knowing full well his angry cohorts are still lurking outside, Marc makes himself at home, yet can’t shake the feeling that there’s something peculiar about his two pretty companions, who, instead of fearing for their lives, are welcoming him with open arms. In fact, when Marc talks of sneaking away when the sun goes down, Eva seduces him in an effort to keep him there longer. What’s more, she tells Marc that others will be arriving for a party later in the evening, and he’s to be the guest of honor! Marc, whose curiosity has gotten the better of him, decides to stick around, ignoring the pleas of Elisabeth, who, claiming she has fallen in love with him, warns him that, if he doesn’t leave soon, he’ll be in the greatest of danger once night falls.

As with most of Rollin’s movies, Fascination is a low-budget horror film shot entirely on-location, and has moments that are simultaneously artistic and strange. During the opening credits, Eva and Elizabeth, both in white dresses, dance with each other on a bridge as a nearby phonograph (sitting on the ground) plays classical music; and in the very next scene, several high society women visit a slaughterhouse to drink ox’s blood, which, as we discover, is all the rage among those suffering from anemia. But once Marc makes his way to the mansion, Fascination goes into full exploitation mode, with a few sex scenes (including a lesbian encounter) and one particularly gruesome sequence in which Eva, wearing nothing but a black cape, brandishes a scythe and goes after Marc’s enemies (while not necessarily gory, this scene is definitely violent). In addition, Fascination weaves an intriguing mystery (with a pay-off that’s equal to the buildup), and, for a low-budget affair, is fairly well-acted.

Not all of Jean Rollin’s films work as well as Fascination; some of his vampire movies, though gorgeous at times, lack an engaging storyline, and are lethargically paced. This time out, however, he managed to strike the perfect balance between arthouse and grindhouse, resulting in a movie that is all at once beautiful, shocking, alluring, and, yes, as the title suggests, even fascinating.

Friday, February 26, 2016

#2,020. Meat Loaf: Hits Out of Hell (1991)

Most songs written by: Jim Steinman, Meat Loaf

Starring: Meat Loaf, Karla DeVito, Jim Steinman

Trivia: Many of the videos in this collection were shot at live concerts, but the audio is that of the studio recordings

One day, when I was in sixth grade, my teacher brought in an album from his personal collection and played it for the class. I remember it vividly because, seeing as it was a Catholic school, we were normally subjected to religious music or church hymns, but on that day we actually got to hear some rock (and what’s more, it was modern rock). This was the first time I ever heard Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell, and it has since become one of my all-time favorite albums.

Released in 1991, Meat Loaf: Hits Out of Hell is a collection of nine music videos featuring some of the singer’s best-known tunes (while most of the videos were clearly shot during a live concert performance, the audio is that of the studio recordings). Not all of the songs are from Bat Out of Hell; one of the few non-concert videos (it’s set at a truck stop, with Meat Loaf playing a trucker in love with a waitress) is for the ballad “More Than You Deserve”, which was lifted from the album Dead Ringer. But for me, the best videos in Hits Out of Hell are a trio that I watched regularly on MTV back in the day, all three from Bat Out of Hell

You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth” begins with a brief, albeit cryptic intro (“On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?”) before launching into what is one of the singer’s best tunes, while the title track for “Bat Out of Hell” is an epic song (over 8 minutes long) about motorcycles and being in love. Topping them all, however, is “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, which tells the story of a guy so incredibly horny that he makes a vow he immediately regrets. This video, in which Meat Loaf performs alongside Karla DeVito, is a lot of fun, and the tune itself is almost like a mini rock opera (the beat changes several times, giving us what amounts to three songs rolled into one).

I have no idea why my teacher decided to play Bat Out of Hell for us, but I’m glad he did (a few months later, this same teacher would go on and on about an upcoming movie that he claimed was going to revolutionize special effects for the screen. The movie was An American Werewolf in London). That random day back in 1981 proved to be one of those defining moments you rarely see coming, and it introduced me to some damn fine music that I still absolutely love.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

#2,019. The Goonies (1985)

Directed By: Richard Donner

Starring: Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Jeff Cohen

Tag line: "The pirates map, The villainous crooks, The underground caverns, The booby traps, the skeletons, The monster, the lost treasure, and the magic that is... THE GOONIES"

Trivia: The pirate ship was entirely real. All the shots were filmed in the ship. After the film, it was offered to anyone who would take it. No one wanted it, so the ship was scrapped

The Goonies is an ‘80s adventure flick filled with exaggerated characters, outlandish situations, and occasionally crude humor that stretches the boundaries of family entertainment to their breaking point. 

It is also one of the all-time great kid’s films, and a movie I love a little more every time I see it.

A small neighborhood in Astoria, Oregon, known as “The Goondocks” to local residents, is in danger of being torn down by a greedy millionaire, who needs the land for his posh new golf course. For Mikey Walsh (Sean Astin) and his older brother Brand (Josh Brolin), the thought of losing their family home is too much to bear. Mikey’s closest friends, Mouth (Corey Feldman), Chunk (Jeff Cohen) and Data (Jonathan Ke Quan) are in the same boat, and barring some miracle this unique group of pals, who call themselves “The Goonies”, is about be torn apart forever.

Then, out of the blue, the miracle they were hoping for falls into their laps. While looking through the artifacts that his father (Keith Walker), a museum curator, is storing in their attic, Mikey discovers an old treasure map that once belonged to One-Eyed Willy, an infamous pirate who, according to legend, buried a fortune in gold somewhere nearby. 

Figuring they could use the gold to save their homes, the Goonies, joined by Stef (Martha Plimpton) and Andy (Kerri Green), undertake what will prove to be a wild adventure. As if finding the loot wasn’t difficult enough (to protect his fortune, One-Eyed Willy set up a number of sophisticated booby traps), Mikey and his pals must deal with Ma Fratelli (Anne Ramsay) and her sons Jake (Robert Davi) and Francis (Joe Pantoliano), a trio of wanted criminals who have also set their sights on the treasure. 

Throw in Ma Fratelli’s mutated son Sloth (John Matuszak), who she keeps chained up in a cell, and you have the makings of a crazy, yet incredibly fun motion picture.

Based on the opening scenes alone, it’s obvious that the Goonies aren’t your average bunch of kids. Mikey, the unofficial leader of the group, is an eternal optimist as well as a dreamer, and is convinced there’s a boatload of treasure just waiting to be found. Corey Feldman’s Mouth is a troublemaker; when asked by Mrs. Walsh (Mary Ellen Trainor) to translate her instructions to their new Spanish-speaking maid Rosalita (Lupe Ontiveros), Mouth instead convinces the poor woman that her employers are drug-addicted sex fiends. 

As for the others, Chunk is clumsy, often breaking whatever he touches; and Data, who likes to invent different gadgets, fancies himself the next James Bond (he makes his initial entrance by gliding down a wire strung between his house and Mikey’s). 

Sure, they’re all strange, and - like every other character in this movie - a bit over-the-top, but we root for them all the same. As for the humor, it’s sometimes too risqué for a family film (while at the Walsh’s, Chunk drops a two-foot-high replica of Michelangelo’s David, breaking off the penis, which, according to Mikey, was his mother’s “favorite part”) yet is guaranteed to make you laugh.

Where The Goonies truly excels, though, is in its adventure sequences, which constitute a fsair portion of the movie. While exploring the underground caverns they believe will lead them to One-Eyed Willy’s booty, the Goonies encounter all sorts of dangers, including bats, booby traps (some are pretty clever), and, of course, the Fratellis, who are always a few short steps behind them. Each and every turn the Goonies make results in another fun action scene, and the group even manages to uncover some amazing things along the way (like what happens to coins when they’re dropped down a wishing well). 

The set pieces, most of which were built on sound stages, are incredible, as is the make-up that transformed former all-pro football player John Matuszak into the lovable Sloth, who, though a tad creepy (his left eye looks as if it melted halfway down his face), proves a useful ally.

With its fast pace and steady stream of unlikely situations, The Goonies was obviously geared towards kids, and may prove a bit too frantic for older viewers. But for those of us who saw it at an impressionable age, The Goonies will always hold a special place in our hearts.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

#2,018. Ride Around the World (2006)

Directed By: Harry Lynch

Cinematography by: David Douglas, Rodney Taylor

Tag line: "The amazing global journey of the Cowboy"

Trivia: Won for Best Documentary at the 2007 Western Heritage Awards

Thanks to John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and a slew of others, the cowboy has become an icon of the American West. But as the 2006 IMAX film Ride Around the World shows us, things like trotting through the plains on horseback, running cattle, even saddles and stirrups were around a thousand years before Hollywood started making movies, and well before the United States of America was born.

It’s a profession that dates back to ancient Morocco, when cavalry soldiers, whose horses had rudimentary saddles and flat stirrups, roamed the outskirts of the Sahara Desert (a ride recreated for us here, as part of a modern wedding celebration). When the Moroccans conquered Spain in the 700’s, they brought with them their equestrian prowess (the Spanish Vaqueros copied their technique while running cattle). In the 1500s, when Spanish conquistadors landed in Mexico, they introduced that country to their unique horse riding skills, and thus the Mexican Charro was born. From there, it was short hop into Texas.

The rest, as they say, is history.

And as director Harry Lynch assures us time and again throughout Ride Around the World, the American cowboy is not a relic of the past. Tagging along with the crew of Texas' 6666 ranch, we watch as modern cowhands move hundreds of steers across a 500 mile stretch, then put their brand on each one when the journey is complete. Even as far north as Alberta, Canada, the rich cowboy tradition lives on, and Ride Around the World, utilizing every inch of the enormous IMAX screen, follows these cowpokes as they continue an adventure that started in a far-off land many, many years ago.

Packing a whole lot of info into its brief runtime, and with landscapes as beautiful as anything John Ford captured in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, Ride around the World presents the true history of the cowboy, and, if you’re like me, it will be an eye-opening experience.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

#2,017. Lessons of Darkness (1992)

Directed By: Werner Herzog

Starring: Werner Herzog

Line from the film: "Has life without fire become unbearable for them?"

Trivia: This film was financed by the television studios Canal+ and Première

Lessons of Darkness is a documentary, but it’s also a Werner Herzog documentary, meaning that its part fiction and part reality. The setting is Kuwait, just after the first Gulf War. The retreating Iraqi forces, acting under orders, employed a scorched earth policy, setting fire to hundreds of oil wells on their way out of the country. Herzog was on-hand to capture images of the burning wells, yet presents them, along with other scenes of destruction, as if it were a science fiction film. “A planet in our solar system”, says Herzog, who also acted as narrator, “wide mountain ranges, clouds, land covered in mist”. By spinning it as a sci-fi tale, Herzog strips away the political and social context of each sequence, allowing the imagery to speak for itself. More than this, though, he sets the stage for the devastation to come, which, at times, transforms the landscape into what looks like an alien world.

Separated into thirteen sections, Lessons of Darkness opens with a flyover of Kuwait City, followed closely by debris spread over a wide area of desert (In keeping with the fiction that he established at the outset, Herzog links the two scenes together, presenting them as “before” and “after” shots of the same location, insinuating that, due to the war, the great city has vanished entirely). We do eventually meet a pair of Kuwaiti women, both of whom (if the narration is to be believed) were victims of atrocities, and take a tour of areas so saturated with oil that, from the air, it looks like we’re passing over a lake or river.

Then, starting with section 8 (titled “A Pilgrimage”), Herzog’s commentary is reduced to next to nothing. It’s at this point Lessons of Darkness takes a decidedly surreal turn, focusing on firefighters as they attempt to extinguish the out-of-control blazes and cap the flowing oil. Set to the music of Wagner, one sequence in particular reveals the total chaos of the situation: fire shooting from the ground; oil falling like rain; and plants that, once green, are now completely black (one shot, showing a section of land that is grey and dead, seems to support Herzog’s assertion that this is not earth, but the surface of another world).

Yes, Lessons of Darkness is a Werner Herzog documentary, and is not entirely factual, yet the truths conveyed by the images themselves are overwhelming, and more "real" than anything you’d ever see on the nightly news.

Monday, February 22, 2016

#2,016. The Martian (2015)

Directed By: Ridley Scott

Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig

Tag line: "Help is only 140 million miles away"

Trivia: Jessica Chastain prepared for her role by meeting with astronauts and scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center

In a 1998 movie you might have heard of called Saving Private Ryan, a rescue party was sent out to find and retrieve a character played by Matt Damon. Seventeen years later, in the Ridley Scott-directed film The Martian, the actor once again portrays a guy in need of some assistance, only this time help will be coming from a lot further away!

Damon plays Mark Watley, astronaut and member of the Ares III crew, which, as the movie opens, is busy exploring the surface of Mars. Their mission is cut short, however, when an approaching storm is detected, one powerful enough to tip over their escape module, the Hermes. To protect her crew, Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) orders everyone onto the Hermes for immediate departure, but as they’re making their way to the module, a satellite breaks loose and strikes Watley, carrying him hundreds of feet in the wrong direction. When sensors indicate that the collision punctured Watley’s suit, leaving him exposed to the harsh climate, Commander Lewis and the others, namely Major Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), Systems operator Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), flight surgeon Dr. Chris Beck (Sebastain Stan), and navigator Alex Vogel (Askel Hennie), conclude that Watley is most likely dead, and take off without him.

But Watley didn’t die, and, after making his way back to base, finds he’s been stranded on a planet that’s millions of miles from home. Knowing it will take four years for a rescue team to reach him, and figuring he only has enough food to last 31 days, Watley realizes the odds are against him. To make matters worse, he has no way of communicating with NASA, meaning that, even if he does conjure up some supplies out of thin air, nobody knows he’s alive, and therefore they won’t be looking for him.

Back on earth, the officials at NASA, including head administrator Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels), Mars mission director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Ares III mission director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), mourn the loss of Astronaut Mark Watley, then carry on with business as usual. In fact, it isn’t until over a month later, when satellite planner Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) notices some equipment has been moved at the Ares III site, that they realize Watley is still alive. With the help of Bruce Ng (Benedict Wong) and his team of engineers, NASA rushes to build a rocket that, at the very least, will drop off supplies to carry Watley through until the next scheduled Mars mission arrives. With media relations director Annie Montrose (Kristen Wiig) handling the press, NASA works tirelessly to bring their lost son home, but they’re going to need plenty of outside help, and more than a little luck, to accomplish what seems like an impossible task.

A reliable actor, Damon shined in movies like Good Will Hunting (which he also co-wrote with Ben Affleck), The Departed, and the Bourne series, yet in The Martian, he gives what may be his finest performance, playing a character as witty as he is intelligent (despite the situation, he never loses his sense of humor), and, in the process, makes the hopeless seem possible (Watley’s ultimate solution to the food problem is both ingenious and a little gross). Unlike Saving Private Ryan, where his character doesn’t even appear until the final act, Matt Damon is front and center through most of The Martian, and, while his supporting cast is also exceptional (especially Chastain, who’s absolutely believable as the Ares III commander), he is brilliant in what, at times, amounts to a one-man show.

This, combined with awesome special effects (the Jordan desert is convincingly transformed into the surface of Mars), a story that’s brimming with tension (you’ll be on the edge of your seat the entire time), and the sure hand of Ridley Scott to pull it all together, results in an unforgettable experience. The Martian is a big-budget spectacular done right.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

#2,015. Legends of Flight (2010)

Directed By: Stephen Low

Starring: Mike Carriker

Tag line: "Fly in the cockpit of some of history's most amazing aircraft"

Trivia: This movie was produced in association with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Directed by Stephen Low (Titanica, Mark Twain’s America), 2010’s Legends of Flight is an IMAX movie that centers on aviation, from its rich and storied past to the modern advancements that are revolutionizing the aircraft industry. With Mike Carriker, the chief test pilot for Boeing, as our guide, we see classic planes like the Harrier Jet and the Schleicher Glider in action, and take a trip inside a Boeing assembly plant, where the company’s latest and greatest, the 787, is being tested and re-tested to ensure that it’s safe.

Yet while the various sequences detailing the history and construction of aircrafts are, indeed, interesting, it’s the manner in which director Low presents it all that makes Legends of Flight such an engaging film. Relying heavily on computer graphics, it recreates the legendary Constellation (a style of plane originally used by the military during World War II, the Constellation became a commercial craft in the mid-40s, when TWA introduced it to the world), and employs a variety of graphics that enhance those sections delving into airplane design, carbon fibers (used for the first time, supposedly, in the Boeing 787), and other topics that, without the CG, would have seemed a bit too scholarly for their own good.

That said, Legends of Flight does, on occasion, come across as one big commercial for Boeing Industries (we spend a great deal of time watching its employees build what they hope will be a new and improved style of plane). While we do occasionally catch a glimpse of a competitor’s aircraft (including the Airbus A380, an amazingly large machine that can seat as many as 580 people), Boeing is clearly the star of this particular show.

No matter, though, because even without the Boeing material, Legends of Flight would be an informative, occasionally exciting motion picture experience.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

#2,014. Cry of the Banshee (1970)

Directed By: Gordon Hessler

Starring: Vincent Price, Essy Persson, Hilary Heath

Tag line: "Edgar Allan Poe probes new depths of TERROR!"

Trivia: The title sequence was designed and animated by Terry Gilliam

Sir Edward Whitman (Vincent Price), the corrupt magistrate of a 16th-century English town, regularly accuses young women of witchcraft, a “crime” that is punishable by death. Aided by his equally slimy son Sean (Stephen Chase), Lord Edward dishes out his own unique brand of justice, and in so doing alienates his second wife Patricia (Essy Persson) and his daughter Maureen (Hilary Heath), both of whom consider him a monster. Not even the recent return of son Harry (Carl Rigg), who had been away at school, can soften Sir Edward’s demeanor. 

Things take an unexpected turn, however, when Sir Edward, Sean, and a group of others attack a coven of witches led by the mysterious Oona (Elizabeth Bergner), killing several in the process. Vowing to take revenge, Oona asks the Dark Lord to send her an instrument of evil, one who will destroy not only Sir Edward, but his entire family as well. To add insult to injury, the killer sent to finish them off is someone the Whitmans have known for years!

As witch hunter movies go, director Gordon Hessler’s Cry of the Banshee falls well short of the mark. That’s not to say it’s a complete dud; Price is predictably solid as the egomaniacal patriarch of the Whitman clan, and Stephen Chase, who plays Sir Edward’s son Sean, is just as loathsome as his old man (like all good villains, you hope that this father-son duo will get theirs before the movie is over). There are some good scenes as well, including the opening, when Sir Edward sentences young Margaret Donald (Pamela Farbrother) to be flogged as she’s dragged through the streets (even better is a sequence in which Sean finds himself all alone in a church courtyard, not realizing that the animalistic killer is lurking nearby).

Unfortunately, in the case of Cry of the Banshee, the sum of its parts is much better than the movie as a whole. Unlike other witch hunter films of this period, including Mark of the Devil and Price’s own The Witchfinder General, the horror of accusing innocent people of witchcraft, then sending them to their doom is never fully explored (most of the women suspected of sorcery in this film are, in fact, actual witches). And because it’s established early on that most of the Whitmans are total bastards, the movie isn’t particularly suspenseful (it’s not a matter of “if” they’ll get their comeuppance, but “when”). Perhaps most disappointing of all is the “creature” sent by Oona to wreak havoc on Sir Edward and his brood (the identity of the killer was a decent enough twist, but the make-up effects that transformed him into a rabid beast were woefully ineffective).

It isn’t often that a film starring the incomparable Vincent Price will leave me cold, but alas, that’s exactly what Cry of the Banshee did.

Friday, February 19, 2016

#2,013. When Marnie Was There (2014)

Directed By: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Starring: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Nanako Matsushima

Award: Won an award for Best Feature Film (Ages 11-13) at the 2015 TIFF Kids International Film Festival

Trivia: Was nominated for Best Animated Film at the 88th Academy Awards

Studio Ghibli’s films are amazing for many reasons, but one thing that always impresses me is their keen sense of the natural world. Take, for example, the opening scene of their latest offering, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s 2014 fantasy When Marnie Was There. In it, the lead character, Anna, is sitting in a park by herself, drawing in her sketchbook. It’s a lovely sunny day, and as her classmates (gathered nearby) are talking with one another, Anna is watching some kids play in a sandbox. The animation, of course, is beautiful, but this scene does more than simply wow us with its artistry; it brings us into its world, and in so doing makes it feel almost tangible. Like Anna, we bask in the warmth of the sun as it peeks through the trees, and enjoy the slight breeze blowing all around us. Over the years, the studio’s output has stirred our emotions, but it’s this ability to transform the artificial into reality that makes their movies stand apart from the rest. We will experience other palpable moments during When Marnie Was There: walking in a rain storm; water from a lake lapping against our ankles; and the crisp air of a moonlit night. It’s difficult enough for a live-action film to evoke such a sensation. For an animated picture to achieve it is nothing short of a miracle.

During that sequence in the park, we learn quite a bit about Anna. For one, she’s an outsider, a girl who is always on her own, and seems to prefer it that way. She’s also incredibly shy; despite the fact she’s a talented artist, Anna shrinks at the thought of sharing her sketches with someone else. When a teacher asks to see what she’s doing, Anna has a panic attack, and is immediately sent home. Her foster mother Yoriko (Anna’s real parents were killed in a car accident when she was an infant) fears for her daughter’s well-being, and, at the recommendation of the family doctor (he believes the attack was brought on by asthma), sends the young girl to the country for a few months to stay with her relatives, the Oiwas. Though distant at first, Anna soon warms up to her hosts, who allow her the freedom to explore the surrounding landscape, warning her only to steer clear of the Marsh House, a rundown mansion that lies at the other end of the lake.

But Anna finds herself strangely drawn to this old building, and can’t shake the feeling that she’s been there before. One night, she meets Marnie, a young girl about her own age who claims that she lives in the Marsh house with her parents and several servants. Ignoring the orders of her strict nanny, Marnie slips away each and every night to be with Anna, and the two become fast friends. But there’s more to this mystery than either of them realizes, and a handful of startling revelations expose the truth about Marnie while, at the same time, helping Anna understand her own past as well.

Unlike every other Studio Ghibli film, the name “Hayao Miyazaki” doesn’t appear anywhere in the production credits for When Marnie Was There (the famed producer / director retired before this picture was made). Yet, even in his absence, the movie bears his unmistakable mark, from the style of its animation to the richness of its characters, most of which are female (actress Geena Davis, who provided the voice of Anna’s mother in the English dubbed version, said in an interview that “if you ever wanna show someone an example of what you can do with female characters and the kind of range you can portray, just look at the films of Studio Ghibli”). As they’ve done many times before, in pictures such as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, The Tale of Princess Kaguya and a slew of others, the artisans at Studio Ghibli throw a spotlight on some fascinating young women in When Marnie Was There, from the introverted Anna, who refuses to realize how special she truly is, to the effervescent Marnie, who shows her new friend that life is definitely worth living. Even the supporting characters, like Nobuko, a popular girl who tries to befriend Anna when she first arrives in the country, and Setsu Oiwa, the kindly caretaker who gives Anna the freedom to do what she wants, are multi-layered individuals, and as alive as they can possibly be.

Based on author Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 novel of the same name, When Marnie Was There is a much darker story than most told by Studio Ghibli (Anna’s depression, which occasionally crosses into self-loathing, dominates the first half of the film), but that doesn’t prevent it from becoming a life-affirming experience. Even without Hayao Miyazaki at the helm, Studio Ghibli continues to set the bar higher with each new production, showing the world what animation can accomplish with a little imagination and a whole lot of heart.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

#2,012. Anna Christie (1930)

Directed By: Clarence Brown

Starring: Greta Garbo, Charles Bickford, George F. Marion

Tag line: "Garbo talks!"

Trivia: Both an English and a German language version of this film was produced, with Garbo starring in both

Garbo talks!

That’s what the posters for 1930’s Anna Christie promised, and for moviegoers at the time, this was reason enough to see it. A star in the 1920s, Garbo, like Charlie Chaplin, continued to appear in silent pictures after the rest of Hollywood had switched to talkies. So, the chance to finally hear one of the cinema’s biggest and brightest speak on-screen helped make Anna Christie a very popular film that year (it set 1st and 2nd week box office records at New York’s Capitol Theaters, on its way to grossing $1 million during its U.S. run). But while it was the novelty of sound that drew audiences to Anna Christie, it was Garbo’s electrifying performance that stayed with them well after the movie ended.

While at a dockside bar with his live-in companion Marthy (Marie Dressler), Chris Christofferson (George F. Marion), the captain of a New York coal barge, receives word that his estranged daughter Anna (Garbo) has left St. Paul, Minnesota (where she spent that last 15 years living with relatives), and is on her way to see him. Following a heartfelt reunion, an ecstatic Chris invites Anna to stay with him on the barge for as long as she likes. But his happiness at having her back soon turns to concern when Anna strikes up a relationship with Matt (Charles Bickford), a boisterous Irish sailor they pulled out of the water one foggy evening (he and the rest of his crew were stranded when their ship was damaged). Believing sailors make the worst husbands, Chris does everything he can to break the couple up, but it’s a secret from Anna’s past that may drive the lovestruck Matt away once and for all.

It isn’t until 15 minutes into the film that Garbo makes her grand entrance in Anna Christie; the opening scenes feature the equally versatile Marie Dressler, whose drunken antics add a bit of comic relief (in need of more whiskey, she and Chris wobble into town, stumbling all the while as they walk across the gangplank). After receiving word that Anna will be arriving soon, Chris heads to a nearby restaurant to get something to eat (to sober himself up), and it is then that Garbo first appears. Walking slowly into the bar, she sits at a table and orders a drink from the barkeep, Larry (Lee Phelps):

Give me a whiskey, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby”.

Picture Play magazine said it was “The voice that shook the world”, while the New York Herald Tribune’s Richard Watts, Jr. described it as a “husky, throaty contralto”. To be sure, audiences at the time were most likely stunned to hear such a deep voice emanating from Garbo’s petite frame, but that shock wouldn’t have lasted long; soon enough, it was Garbo’s performance that grabbed their attention, and throughout Anna Christie, she’s at her mesmerizing best.

It was a role tailor-made for Garbo, that of a woman who, time and again, has experienced the worst in men (Anna drops hints that, during her stay in Minnesota, one of her male cousins raped her, and confesses to Marthy that, for the last two years, she worked at a brothel), and is convinced she will never find love. That changes, however, when Matt enters the picture. Intent on making Anna his wife, Matt does everything he can to win her affections (in what is the only sequence not set along the New York docks, Anna and Matt enjoy a fun-filled day at Coney Island), but Anna knows that if the truth about her past is revealed, it will likely drive Matt away. And because she, in turn, has feelings for him, the thought of losing Matt weighs heavy on her mind.

Based on an award-winning play by Eugene O’Neill, Anna Christie is undoubtedly stage bound (most of the movie takes place on two sets), and the sound is mediocre at best (not a surprise, seeing as the technology was new at the time). As for the supporting cast, Marie Dressler stands out in the few scenes in which she appears, infusing the oft-inebriated Marthy with plenty of character and just the right amount of worldly wisdom (despite their thick, often cartoonish accents, both Bickford and Marion are also quite good as the men in Anna’s life). But audiences went to Anna Christie for one reason and one reason only: to both see and hear Greta Garbo, and as she would do many times over the years, the actress gave it her all, and then gave a little more.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

#2,011. Tower of London (1962)

Directed By: Roger Corman

Starring: Vincent Price, Michael Pate, Joan Freeman

Tag line: "Mother England meets Father Terror!"

Trivia: This film was originally planned to be shot in color

Though not a remake, Roger Corman’s Tower of London is, like the 1939 movie of the same name, the story of Richard III, the English king who supposedly murdered several family members (including his young nephews) to gain the throne. Vincent Price, who played Richard’s doomed brother the Duke of Clarence in the 1939 version, is also on-hand this time around, portraying the tyrannical lead character. Yet while there are definitely similarities between the two films, Corman’s Tower of London delves deeper into Richard’s psyche than the previous movie did, painting him as a scheming individual who is tormented by the spirits of his victims, and is slowly losing his mind.

The film opens in April of 1483. England’s King Edward IV (Justice Watson) lies on his deathbed, and, surrounded by his family and several loyal subjects, declares his brother, the Duke of Clarence (Charles Macaulay), the Protector of the Realm, which makes him the legal guardian of the two young princes, future king Edward V (Eugene Mazzola) and Richard (Donald Losby). In turn, the king asks his other brother Richard (Price) to be Clarence’s closest advisor and right-hand man. But Richard is ambitious, and instead leads Clarence into a wine cellar and plunges a dagger into his back. As a result, Richard is proclaimed Protector the moment Edward IV dies, and aided by Sir Ratcliffe (Michael Pate), he eliminates all those who stand between him and the throne of England. But as Richard will discover, the path to the monarchy is not without its perils, and each and every day, he is haunted by the spirits of those he’s killed, pushing him to the brink of insanity.

While 1939’s Tower of London focused more on the dramatic elements of Richard III’s climb to the top, this 1962 version introduced gothic horror into the mix, giving us several unsettling scenes in which Richard is confronted by the ghosts of those he’s murdered. Director Roger Corman, who, just prior to this film, turned out a pair of successful Poe adaptations (House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum), handles these scenes wonderfully, yet it’s the manic performance delivered by Vincent Price that makes Tower of London such a disturbing motion picture. Teetering back and forth between evil manipulator and out-of-control lunatic, Price’s Richard is a terrifying despot, and his descent into madness gives Tower of London a creepy vibe that only grows stronger as the story unfolds (at one point, Richard believes he’s attacking an apparition, only to find that he’s wrapped his hands around the neck of his beloved wife Anne, played by Joan Camden).

1939’s Tower of London was a well-made motion picture, with Basil Rathbone doing a fine job as the despicable Richard. But when it comes to playing insanity on-screen, few could do it as well as Vincent Price, and it’s thanks to him that this version of Tower of London is the more memorable of the two.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

#2,010. The Golem (1920)

Directed By: Carl Boese, Paul Wegener

Starring: Paul Wegener, Albert Steinrück, Ernst Deutsch

Tag line: "The 1920 Horror Masterpiece"

Trivia: The third of three films that co-director / star Paul Wegener made featuring the Golem

The Golem (subtitled How He Came Into the World) was actually the third film to feature its title character, a 16th-century monster made of clay whose primary purpose was to protect the Jewish community. Like the previous movies (1915’s The Golem and the 1917 short comedy The Golem and the Dancing Girl), Paul Wegener (who also co-wrote the screenplay for this movie and shared directing duties with Carl Boese) appears as the dreaded Golem, and while some aspects of this 1920 movie may prove troublesome for modern audiences, The Golem nonetheless stands with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as one of the best examples of the German Expressionist Movement.

While gazing at the stars, Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), the spiritual leader of the Jewish Ghetto in Prague, determines that his people are in for some bad times. Sure enough, the very next day, the Emperor (Otto Gebühr) issues an edict ordering the Jews to vacate the Ghetto, forcing them out of the only home most of them have ever known. Shortly after reading the edict, which was delivered by a knight named Florian (Lothar Müthel), the Rabbi constructs a Golem (Wegener), a large humanoid creature made entirely of clay, which, according to his books, will help protect his people from their enemies. During a ritual, Rabbi Loew summons the demon Astaroth, who assists him in bringing the Golem to life. The Emperor does eventually change his mind, and agrees to let the Jews remain in the ghetto. But when Florian falls in love with the Rabbi’s daughter Miriam (Lyda Salmonova), the Golem is called into service, leading to a series of catastrophes that threaten to destroy the Ghetto and everyone in it.

The Golem is certainly not a perfect movie; the story is a bit sluggish at times, and truth be told, the title creature isn’t all that frightening (the film’s creepiest scene, when Rabbi Loew conjures up the demon Astaroth, doesn’t even feature the Golem). What the film does have, however, are some amazing set pieces (the Ghetto, designed by architect Hans Poelzig, was built from scratch) that, with their sharp angles and bizarre fixtures, helped define German Expressionism. And with camerawork by the great Karl Freund (who, along with shooting 1931’s Dracula, was the director of the original Mummy film), The Golem is, from start to finish, an absolute visual feast.

Though not as well-known as either The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu, The Golem deserves a place of honor alongside them, and any fan of classic horror should definitely check it out.

Monday, February 15, 2016

#2,009. Sex and Fury (1973)

Directed By: Noribumi Suzuki

Starring: Reiko Ike, Akemi Negishi, Ryôko Ema

Tag line: "The Biography of the Woman Boss of Bad Girls..."

Trivia: In Italy, this film was released as Sex and Japan

Now here’s a film that lives up to its title!

A Japanese revenge movie, Sex and Fury, directed by Noribumi Suzuki and starring Reiko Ike, features some amazing fight scenes, often with blood (and a few body parts) flying in every direction. And thanks to Swedish bombshell Christina Lindberg (They Call Her One Eye), who plays a British spy, there’s more than enough sex to go around.

Japan, 1905. As a young girl, Ocho (Reiko Ike) witnessed the murder of her police detective father, and has vowed to avenge his death by seeking out his killers.

Years later, after helping Yuki (Rie Saotome), a naïve virgin, escape a life of prostitution, Ocho discovers that two of her dad's three killers, Kurokawa (Seizaburô Kawazu) and Iwakura (Hiroshi Nawa), are now high-ranking government officials. As it turns out, Ocho isn't the only one who wants Kurokawa dead; Shunosuke (Masataka Naruse) is leading a rebellion against the government, and has set his sites on the corrupt politician as well.

Meanwhile, a team of British agents, led by Guinness (Mark Darling), are trying to start a new opium war in Japan. Aided by his pretty assistant Christina (Lindberg), Guinness cozies up to Kurokawa and Iwakura in the hope that they will help him accomplish his goal. What Guinness doesn’t know is that Christina only volunteered for the mission so she could track down her ex-lover, who just so happens to be the rebel leader Shunosuke!

Will Ocho get her revenge, and, in the process, learn the identity of the third killer?

Will Christina and Shunosuke reunite and live happily ever after?

Is Japan destined to be mired in yet another opium war?

If you want to know the answers to these questions, and even if you don't, I recommend you check out Sex and Fury. Trust me… you’ll be happy you did!

Though its story breaks off in a number of different directions (Ocho’s attempt to help Yuki doesn’t go as smoothly as planned, and we eventually learn that Iwakura has been having an affair with Kurokawa’s wife), I never once found Sex and Fury confusing or difficult to follow. But it’s not the story that makes this such a great movie. It’s the action scenes, many of which will blow your mind.

My personal favorite occurs early on, when Ocho, while taking a bath, is attacked by a dozen or so assassins. Acting quickly, a naked Ocho grabs her sword and starts hacking away, cutting off arms and slicing through necks with the greatest of ease. The entire melee plays out in slow motion, and at one point the combatants break through a wall that leads to a picturesque garden, a light snow falling all around them as they continue the fight. It is one of many battles featured throughout the film, yet this particular scene is so stylish and brutal that it manages to stand apart from the rest. Tarantino borrowed heavily from this scene for an equally impressive sequence in Kill Bill, Vol. 1.

Then there’s Christina Lindberg, looking as stunning as ever, as a woman who, while searching for love, is forced to surrender her body for the “greater good”. Aside from being raped by Guinness, she entertains Kurokawa by having a lesbian encounter with his maid as he watches. Not to worry, though, because despite her innocent demeanor, Christina can also kick ass when necessary, as we see in a late scene, when she and Shunosuke finally reconnect in a railway yard. In a movie filled with incredible sequences, this is yet another that you won’t soon forget.

Directed with flair by Noribumi Suzuki, nearly every shot in the film is perfectly framed (the background scenery is often as interesting as what’s going on in the foreground), and with a powerful performance by Reiko Ike in the lead role, Sex and Fury stands as one of the best revenge flicks to emerge from the ‘70s, a movie every bit as ferocious as it is beautiful.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

#2,008. The Man From Deep River (1972)

Directed By: Umberto Lenzi

Starring: Ivan Rassimov, Me Me Lai, Prasitsak Singhara

Tag line: "He dared the forbidden river where adventure ends and hell begins!"

Trivia: Ruggero Deodato's film Jungle Holocaust was originally conceived as a sequel to this film

Considered the first in what would be a string of cannibal films, Umberto Lenzi’s The Man from Deep River is the account of a an Englishman who finds he’s more at home in the jungle than he ever was in the western world.

Photographer John Bradley (Ivan Rassimov) travels to Thailand on business, but when he ventures too far into the wilderness, he’s captured by a native tribe and forced into slavery, catering to the every whim of his "master", Maraya (Me Me Lai), who also happens to be the Chief's daughter. Befriended by an old woman (Pratitsak Singhara), Bradley manages to break free, only to be recaptured a few hours later. But the attempt doesn’t go unnoticed; the chief, impressed by his tenacity, welcomes Bradley into the fold, inviting him to join the tribe. Though hesitant at first, Bradley soon settles in, and is content in his new life. His happiness is threatened, however, when some nearby cannibals attack, forcing him and the others to fight for their very survival.

By focusing on its lead character and his indoctrination into a foreign culture, The Man From Deep River has more in common with the 1970 western A Man Called Horse than it does Eaten Alive or Cannibal Holocaust. In fact, cannibals appear only sporadically throughout the movie (and hardly at all in the first hour). Instead, we’re treated to the dramatic tale of a man willing to turn his back on his old life in favor of a more primitive existence. Featuring the stunning cinematography of Riccardo Pallottini, who captures the beauty as well as the savagery of this corner of the world (the film was shot on-location in Thailand), and with a solid performance by Rassimov , The Man From Deep River is much more than your run-of-the-mill exploitation flick. 

That’s not to say the movie is violence-free. In reality, it has plenty of blood and gore (in one scene, a pair of cannibals are punished by having their tongues cut out). Even more upsetting are the sequences in which actual animals are slaughtered (one in particular, which was later re-used for Eaten Alive, features the on-screen killing of a crocodile, and a later sequence with a sacrificial goat will likely turn your stomach). Still, even with such scenes, The Man From Deep River sets itself apart from other cannibal films of this era by putting the emphasis on story, resulting in a motion picture that can shock you one minute, and stir your emotions the next.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

#2,007. Watership Down (1978)

Directed By: Martin Rosen

Starring: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Ralph Richardson

Tag line: "All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and when they catch you, they will kill you... but first they must catch you"

Trivia: Most of the locations in this movie either exist or were based on real places in Hampshire, England and surrounding areas

Having never read the classic adventure novel by Richard Adams, I have no idea how 1978’s Watership Down, an animated film written and directed by Martin Rosen, stacks up against the original work. What I do know, however, is that the movie, about a group of wayward rabbits looking for a new home, creates a fascinating little world of its own, one that’s every bit as exciting as it is dark and dramatic.

The rabbits of the Sandleford warren have been living the good life for some time, with plenty of food and a deep shelter to keep them safe from predators. But according to young Fiver (voiced by Richard Briers), danger is on its way. A clairvoyant, Fiver sees a future in which the fields of Sandleford run red with blood, and tries to warn the others that they must leave the area as soon as possible. But seeing as he’s a runt, only a handful of rabbits take him seriously. Defying the orders of their leader to stay put, Fiver and his brother Hazel (John Hurt), along with Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), Blackberry (Simon Cadell), Pipkin (Roy Kinnear) and others manage to sneak away in the middle of the night.

According to Fiver, there’s a lush field on top of a tall hill just waiting to be found, a place where they can all be safe and happy once again. But getting there isn’t going to be easy. The first day out, one of them is carried away by a hawk, and later on a few others will encounter an angry dog, a barnyard cat (Lynn Farleigh) and a farmer armed with a shotgun. With the help of a gull named Kehaar (Zero Mostel), the rabbits do eventually find their hill, only to realize they need more rabbits, including some females, if they’re to make this peaceful oasis a true warren.

More than simply telling a story, Watership Down draws us into its unique world, a place where rabbits have their own mythology, as well as an intricate, and sometimes oppressive, system of government. The opening scene, narrated by Sir Ralph Richardson (being a fan of both Dragonslayer and Time Bandits, his voice was immediately recognizable to me), relates the tale of the Sun God Firth, who the rabbits believe created the entire world; and El-Ahrairah, Prince of the Bunnies, whose arrogance caused Firth to curse the rabbits, turning the other animals against them. Along with explaining how rabbits got their speed and keen sense of impending danger, this brief segment establishes up-front the basis of its character’s belief system, which later on will expand to include death itself (voiced by Joss Ackland, The Black Rabbit collects the souls of the deceased).

As the movie plays out, we also learn about the rabbits’ occasionally unjust social structure, including how the Owsla (a sort of police force) carries out the orders of the head rabbit, who sets the rules for the entire warren (during the course of their adventure, Hazel, Fiver, and the others encounter the tyrannical Woundwort, voiced by Harry Andrews, who rules over a large group, and punishes those who challenge him. The film’s electrifying final act features a showdown between the main characters and Wormwound’s Owsla). 

Director Rosen (aided in large part, I’m sure, by Richard Adams’ novel) presents all this in a manner that makes it easy to comprehend, yet never once does he pander to his audience with needless exposition. Instead, he provides us with the details, and then asks us to work it all out for ourselves.

In addition, Watership Down benefits from having a talented group of actors toiling behind the microphone. Leading the way is John Hurt as Hazel, the rabbit that becomes the group’s leader; and his most powerful ally is Michale Graham Cox’s Bigwig, a former Owsla official and easily the most battle-ready of the bunch (he helps them escape that first night by standing against fellow Owsla Captain Holly, voiced by John Bennett). For comic relief, there’s Roy Kinnear as the cowardly Pipkin, and Zero Mostel (in his final screen role) as the misguided yet ultimately kind-hearted Kehaar. These performers, as well as all the others, infuse their characters with a distinct personality, allowing an already intriguing story to burst convincingly to life.

Though he would direct only one other film (1982’s The Plague Dogs), Martin Rosen achieved a minor miracle with Watership Down by taking a beloved book and turning it into an equally respected motion picture.