Thursday, March 31, 2016

#2,054. Willow Creek (2013)

Directed By: Bobcat Goldthwait

Starring: Alexie Gilmore, Bryce Johnson, Laura Montagna


Trivia: This movie premiered at the 2013 Independent Film Festival of Boston

Like most people, I first became aware of Bobcat Goldthwait in 1985, when he played the gang leader Zed in Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (which, by the way, was the last Police Academy movie I enjoyed). With his bizarre mannerisms and exaggerated voice, he went on to appear in such ‘80s comedies as One Crazy Summer and Scrooged. Nowadays, he’s a writer / director, and while I have yet to check out 2009’s World’s Greatest Dad (starring the late great Robin Williams), I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see Willow Creek, Goldthwaith's 2013 found footage-style horror film about a couple searching for the elusive Bigfoot monster.

Ever since he was a kid, Jim (Bryce Johnson) has dreamed of visiting the spot where, in 1967, Roger Patterson and Bob Gilman captured footage of what they claimed was an honest-to-goodness Sasquatch. Convinced he, too, will encounter Bigfoot, Jim and his longtime girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) travel to the Six Rivers National Forest, where Jim hopes to uncover even more evidence that Bigfoot is, in fact, very real. Ignoring the locals, who tell them to go home, Jim and Kelly head into the woods, completely unaware of the terror that awaits them.

Willow Creek does feature a handful of tense sequences, the best being a 20+ minute uninterrupted scene in which Jim and Kelly, while sleeping in their tent, hear strange noises coming from all around them. Moments like this aside, the movie doesn’t break any new ground, adhering closely to the standards established in 1999’s The Blair Witch Project (getting lost in the woods, laughing off the warnings of the locals, etc.).

What makes Willow Creek work, though, are the central characters, well portrayed by Johnson and Gilmore, and the time we spend getting to know them prior to their sojourn into the woods. Whether hanging out at a Bigfoot-themed restaurant or making fun of a local Sasquatch mural, Jim and Kelly come across as 100% genuine, and because we grow to like them, the horror that befalls the two later in the film seems more terrifying than usual.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

#2,053. Shadows (1922)

Directed By: Tom Forman

Starring: Lon Chaney, Marguerite De La Motte, Harrison Ford

Tag line: "The Greatest Story Ever Told in Motion Pictures"

Trivia: This movie was adapted from a story titled Ching Ching Chinaman by Wilbur Daniel Steele

Shadows is a difficult film to review. On the one hand, it features the great Lon Chaney, who delivers yet another impressive performance. Unfortunately, the character he’s portraying, a Chinese man named Yen Sin, is, in many ways, a stereotype. If you accept the movie as a product of its time, there’s a good chance you’ll come away impressed, if not with the story itself (which is a tad slow, and too melodramatic), then definitely with Chaney (his Yen Sin is one of the most sympathetic individuals in the movie, not to mention the wisest). Just be prepared to cringe at some of the title cards whenever his character “speaks”.

In the fishing village of Urkey, situated on the coast of Maine, there lives a kind, sensitive young woman named Sympathy Gibbs (Marguerite De La Motte), whose husband Daniel (Walter Long) mistreats her horribly. The town’s most prestigious citizen, Nate Snow (John St. Polis), is secretly in love with Sympathy, and despises the way the brutish Daniel takes out his frustrations on her. One night, shortly after Daniel and his fellow fishermen have headed out to sea, a fierce storm rolls in, and when the sun comes up the next morning, the good people of Urkey, including Sympathy, are met with the devastating news that their loved ones did not survive the ordeal. In fact, only a handful of men made their way back to land, one of whom was Chinese immigrant Yen Sin (Chaney), whose ship was destroyed in the storm. Despite being tormented by the locals for his “heathen” beliefs, Yen Sin settles down in Urkey, and quickly gets a job cleaning clothes.

Seizing the opportunity, Nate Snow tries to cozy up to the recently-widowed Sympathy, only to be upstaged by new minister John Malden (Harrison Ford, though obviously not ‘that’ Harrison Ford). Making it his personal mission to convert Yen Sin to Christianity, Malden also falls head over heels in love with Sympathy, and before long the two are married. Their wedded bliss is cut short, however, when Malden learns that Daniel Gibbs may not be dead after all!

An occasionally sappy, overly dramatic film with pacing issues, Shadows also featured the incomparable Lon Chaney, who (as he’d eventually do in both The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) disappears behind layers of make-up to fully embody the part of the elderly Yen Sin. Alas, Yen Sin is also a stereotypical Asian, who washes clothes for a living and mispronounces words (it took me a while to realize that “flen’ was his way of saying “friend”). It’s an unfortunate characterization, especially when you consider how strong Chaney’s performance is otherwise (from his mannerisms down to the contemplative look in his eye). As he’d do many times throughout his career, Lon Chaney made Shadows a memorable film, though in this case it was for both the right and wrong reasons.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

#2,052. Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny (2006)

Directed By: Liam Lynch

Starring: Jack Black, Kyle Gass, JR Reed

Tag line: "The greatest motion picture of all time"

Trivia: Dave Grohl underwent seven hours of makeup to be turned into Satan

Having already brought their unique blend of comedy and hard rock to television (via several half-hour episodes that aired on HBO), the musical duo Tenacious D, aka Jack Black and Kyle Gass, next made their way to the big screen with 2006’s Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, a rollicking, sometimes hilarious adventure that’s guaranteed to please.

A fantastical tale of how the band was formed, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny begins with a young JB (played as a boy by Tony Gentile) ignoring the wishes of his God-fearing, music-hating father (Meat Loaf) and running away to Hollywood, where he’s sure he’ll become a big star. Years later, JB (Black) meets up with fellow enthusiast Kyle Gass (as himself), who, despite claims that he’s a successful rocker, is flat broke and on the verge of being homeless. To raise enough money to pay Gass’s overdue rent, the two friends sign up for an amateur talent competition, and then set out to write the best song of all-time. After doing a bit of research, they discover that the one thing every rock star has is a kick-ass guitar pick. According to an employee at a local record store (Ben Stiller), this pick, which for decades has passed from one rocker to the next, is actually a tooth from the mouth of Satan, and whoever possesses it immediately becomes the greatest guitar player on earth. Thus begins an adventure in which JB and Kyle do everything they can to get their hands on this supernatural pick (known as the “Pick of Destiny”), in the hopes it will make all of their musical dreams come true.

Before the film’s title flashes on-screen, we’re treated to a rock opera-style opening sequence that tells the story of JB’s home life, and what drove him to strike out on his own at a very young age (this scene co-stars a pair of rock legends: Meat Loaf, portraying JB’s father, and Ronnie James Dio as himself). After that, the laughs in Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny come fast and furious, with highlights including JB’s first meeting with Kyle (who’s playing guitar for spare change on the beach); a drug-induced fantasy where JB frolics in the woods with Bigfoot (an uncredited John C. Reilly); and the pair’s attempt to sneak into the Rock and Roll Museum to steal the Pick of Destiny, which is in a room guarded by laser beams (JB manages to switch off these lasers in a most unusual way). All of this leads up to the finale: a hard rock showdown with Satan himself (Foo Fighters front-man Dave Grohl), which closes the movie out in grand fashion.

Featuring strong performances by the two leads (especially Jack Black, who’s at his unhinged best) and profanity-laced original songs that are laugh-out-loud funny, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny hops from one uproarious scene to the next with the greatest of ease, and as a result is an incredibly entertaining rock musical.

Monday, March 28, 2016

#2,051. Shrek 2 (2004)

Directed By: Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, Conrad Vernon

Starring: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz

Tag line: "Not so far, far away..."

Trivia: Jennifer Saunders got a voice coach to help her sing for the Fairy Godmother's opening number

By the end of 2001’s Shrek, it looked as if our hero (Shrek, an ogre) and his new bride (Princess Fiona, also an ogre) were going to live happily ever after. But as is often the case with a hit movie, Shrek, Fiona, and all their storybook friends would go on a few more adventures before being allowed to ride off into the sunset. 2004’s Shrek 2, the first of the sequels (two additional films would follow: 2007’s Shrek the Third and 2010’s Shrek Forever After), offers a nice mix of old and new that, in the end, makes the entire journey worthwhile.

Shortly after returning home from their honeymoon, Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) and Fiona (Cameron Diaz) receive an invitation from Fiona’s parents, the King (John Cleese) and Queen (Julie Andrews) of Far, Far Away, who want to throw a post-wedding bash for the happy couple. Though Shrek is against making the trip, Fiona insists upon it, and after loading their belongings, as well as Shrek’s annoying best friend Donkey (Eddie Murphy), into their carriage, they set off for the kingdom of Far, Far Away (which, as you can imagine, is very far away). While Shrek continues to believe this family reunion will only lead to trouble, Fiona is anxious to see her parents, and is convinced they’ll love Shrek just as much as she does.

What Fiona doesn’t realize is that everyone in the kingdom thinks she was rescued from the Dragon’s tower by Prince Charming (Rupert Everett), and that he is her new betrothed. Needless to say, the populace of Far, Far Away, and especially the king, are none too happy to learn there’s now an ogre in the Royal family. Even Fiona’s Fairy Godmother (Jennifer Saunders) is miffed (mostly because Charming is her son), and insists that the king do whatever it takes to squeeze Shrek out of the picture. When the king’s hired assassin, Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas), instead becomes Shrek’s newest buddy, The Fairy Godmother takes matters into her own hands and conjures up an elixir that’s sure to make Fiona fall in love with her son. Not willing to sit back and watch as his marriage slip away, Shrek and his pals sneak into the Fairy Godmother’s spell factory and steal a potion he believes will help him keep Fiona. But when the potion has an unexpected effect on him and Donkey, Shrek realizes he may have no alternative but to let go of the only woman he’s ever loved.

As they did in the original film, Shrek and Donkey share some great scenes in Shrek 2, with Eddie Murphy once again stealing the show as the lovable but irritating Donkey (the long carriage ride to Far, Far Away, during which Donkey refuses to keep his mouth shut, is easily one of the film’s best sequences). Cameron Diaz, who got a few laughs of her own in Shrek, is a bit calmer this time around, doing her damnedest to prevent Shrek and Donkey from getting into too much trouble; and the various make believe characters who befriended the trio in the first movie are on-hand once again (a scene in which Pinocchio, dangling from a rope, is told to tell a lie so that his nose will grow is positively hilarious).

Joining them is a handful of new, yet equally as entertaining characters. The always reliable John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) does a fine job as Fiona’s father, the King (who is himself hiding a doozy of a secret), as does Julie Andrews as the Queen. As for the film’s villains, Jennifer Saunders’ Fairy Godmother is the most formidable (at the ball, she sings a rendition of Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” that’ll knock your socks off), with Rupert Everett’s Prince Charming, though a bumbling fool, coming in a close second. The best of the bunch, however, is Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots, a Zorro-esque feline swordsman whose most lethal weapons are his eyes.

Featuring a solid storyline (there’s a fun twist involving Shrek, Donkey, and the potion they swiped), some pop culture references (with nods to everything from Of Mice and Men to Hawaii Five-O), and a damn fine soundtrack (along with Jennifer Saunders’s “Holding Out for a Hero”, the movie makes excellent use of The Lipps, Inc.’s disco hit, “Funkytown”), Shrek 2 is the finest of the sequels, often rivaling the comedic ingenuity of the first film, and, at times, surpassing it.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

#2,050. Red State (2011)

Directed By: Kevin Smith

Starring: Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, John Goodman

Tag line: "Love thy neighbor"

Trivia: Samuel L. Jackson was considered for the role that eventually went to John Goodman

If you think you know what to expect from a Kevin Smith movie, think again. 

After years of writing and directing edgy comedies like Clerks, Chasing Amy, Dogma, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Smith makes a hard right turn into new territory with 2011’s Red State, and the results, to put it mildly, are extraordinary.

Teenager Travis (Michael Angarano) agrees to accompany his friends Jarod (Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun) on what they hope will be a fun-filled erotic adventure. For weeks, Jarod has been communicating on-line with a 30+ year old woman in the next town over (played by Melissa Leo), who has agreed to have sex with all three of them. 

But instead of an X-rated romp, the buddies are drugged and taken to the Five Points Trinity Church, which serves as home base for the radical Cooper clan. Headed by Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), who preaches that homosexuality and fornication are destroying the American way of life, the family holds a special nighttime “prayer meeting”, at which they intend to teach the three frightened youths a lesson they won’t soon forget.

But a chance encounter that Travis and the others had with Sheriff Wynan (Stephen Root) earlier in the evening leads to a turn of events that the Coopers weren’t expecting, and by the time the sun comes up, the entire church compound is surrounded by agents from the U.S. Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. 

Under the command of Joseph Keenan (John Goodman), who for months has been investigating reports that the Coopers were purchasing automatic assault rifles, the agents attempt to search the premises, only to be attacked by Abin Cooper and his brood (who are, indeed, heavily armed).  

As events unfold, Agent Keenan finds himself wrestling with the orders issued by his superiors (who have stated, in no uncertain terms, that they’d be just as happy if none of the Coopers survived the ordeal), while inside the church, Cheyenne Cooper (Kerry Bishé), Abin’s granddaughter, tries to figure out a way to save her younger siblings and cousins from the violent fate that awaits the rest of the family.

Across the board, the performances in Red State are superb. As the trio of sex-hungry teens, Angarano, Gallner and Braun manage to make us care about characters that are (more often than not) loud, abrasive, and even kind of dumb, while John Goodman brings an authority to the conflicted G-man who must decide if its better to save his career or do what he knows is right. 

As for the Cooper family, Melissa Leo gives a haunting performance as the temptress who turns out to be Abin Cooper’s beloved daughter, and Kerry Bishé convincingly portrays a concerned teen doing her damnedest to keep the children from suffering for the sins of their parents. 

The show-stopper, however, is Michael Parks as Abin Cooper, the often calm and collected patriarch / preacher who spews hatred from the pulpit, and believes at all times he is doing the work of the Lord (as the film opens, the Coopers are protesting the funeral of a murdered homosexual teenager, carrying signs that say, among other things, all gays are going to hell). 
In what is the movie’s most chilling sequence, Abin delivers a 10-minute sermon, during which he says God is not the forgiving type, and wants the faithful to stomp out sin using whatever means necessary. As charismatic as he is terrifying, Abin Cooper makes for one hell of a screen villain, and it’s thanks to Parks' superb turn that we fear and despise him as much as we do.

In addition to its excellent cast, Kevin Smith ensures that Red State is also a very stylish film; there’s plenty of hand-held camerawork throughout, and the firefight between the government agents and the Coopers, with its rapid cuts and sudden bursts of violence, is as intense as they come. 

Having been a fan of Smith’s since Clerks, I admit I didn’t know what to expect going into Red State, but based on the results, I’m hoping he continues along this same path (for a while, at least). Dark and brilliant, Red State is an unforgettable experience.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

#2,049. The Corpse Bride (2005)

Directed By: Tim Burton, Mike Johnson

Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson

Tag line: "Rising to the occasion"

Trivia: Had a 55-week shoot, during which 109,440 individually animated frames had to be set up and filmed

Tim Burton is one of the few filmmakers working today who can craft a family movie out of death and decay, and that’s exactly what he did with 2005’s The Corpse Bride, an animated musical comedy in which the dead are more alive than the living.

Though he has never laid eyes on her, Victor Van Dort (voiced by Johnny Depp) will marry Victoria Everglot (Emily Watson) in several days’ time. It was a match arranged by their parents, William and Nell Van Dort (Paul Whitehouse and Tracey Ullman), a fish merchant and his wife looking to break into high society; and Lord and Lady Everglot (Albert Finney and Joanna Lumley), a pair of upper-class elitists who, in spite of their title and spacious mansion, are flat broke. Both Victor and Victoria are apprehensive about the upcoming nuptials, but their fears subside when they meet each other and instantly fall in love. Still, during the wedding rehearsal, a nervous Victor has a hard time remembering his vows, and is sent away by Pastor Gallswells (Christopher Lee), who tells the young man not to return until he’s memorized them perfectly.

While walking through the woods, practicing his vows, Victor places a wedding ring on what appears to be a root that’s pushed its way out of the ground. In reality, it was the finger of the Corpse Bride (Helena Bonham Carter), who is under the mistaken impression that Victor has just married her. Whisked away to the Land of the Dead, Victor tries to convince the Corpse Bride (who died while waiting for the love of her life to elope with her) that it was a misunderstanding, and does everything he can to get back to Victoria. Upon hearing the news that Victor was seen walking with a mysterious brunette, the Everglots break off the engagement,and turn their attention to Lord Barkis (Richard E. Grant), a “distant relative” who showed up early for the ceremony. Believing he, too, can end their financial woes, they announce that the wedding will go on, with Lord Barkis as Victoria’s new groom. But is Lord Barkis truly who he claims to be, and if not, can Victor save Victoria from a fate that could very well be worse than death?

The voice talent does a superb job bringing these characters to life; Depp and Watson are especially good as the young lovers, and Bonham-Carter evokes our sympathy as the poor Corpse Bride, whose untimely end has ensured that she will spend eternity searching for true love. Yet what I liked most about The Corpse Bride was the way it depicted the various worlds inhabited by its characters, namely the Land of the Living, which is gray and depressing; and what exists “below” ground, a wild, raucous place filled with color, where everyone is happy.

Even the musical numbers, written by Danny Elfman, reflect these differences. “According to Plan” sung by the parents of Victor and Victoria, is a dark, gloomy tune that lays out the reasons why the marriage is so important to each family (mild spoiler: not a single one has anything to do with the intended bride and groom or their happiness), while “Remains of the Day”, performed soon after Victor arrives in the Land of the Dead, is an upbeat, jazzy song featuring a skeleton band. Victor experiences the “joy” of being dead for himself when the Corpse Bride, as a wedding gift, gives him the skeletal remains of his dog Scraps, who died when Victor was a child, but is as alive and peppy as ever in the Netherworld.

While the movie does contain a few scenes that could potentially frighten younger viewers (when first awakened, the Corpse Bride rises from the ground and chases Victor through the forest), The Corpse Bride is a gorgeously animated (via stop-motion, in the same vein as The Nightmare Before Christmas) musical romance, and a film that, despite the fact half the characters are deceased, is brimming with life.

Friday, March 25, 2016

#2,048. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Directed By: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Starring: Brigitte Mira, El Hedi ben Salem, Barbara Valentin

Line from the film: "We'll be rich, Ali... and we'll buy ourselves a little piece of heaven"

Trivia: Brigitte Mira received the German Film Award for her performance

One of the most prolific filmmakers of all-time, Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed over 40 movies (two of which were television miniseries) before dying of a drug overdose at the age of 37. Having aligned himself with the New German Cinema (a group that included Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Margarethe Von Trotta, among others), which drew inspiration from the French New Wave, Fassbinder worked quickly and with smaller budgets, yet still managed to turn out one remarkable motion picture after another. Shot in only 15 days, 1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul ranks as one of Fassbinder’s most acclaimed films, and was a tribute to fellow German Douglas Sirk, more specifically Sirk’s 1955 classic All That Heaven Allows.

To get out of the rain one evening, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), a widowed cleaning woman in her mid-60s, walks into a small neighborhood bar, where she meets Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a Moroccan laborer who is half her age. Recognizing the loneliness in each others' eyes, Emmi and Ali become romantically involved, and eventually marry. Far from being happy that Emmi has found a mate, the people in her life, including her neighbors, co-workers, and even her own children, turn against her, many unable to accept the fact that she married a foreigner (and a black one at that). Is Emmi’s and Ali’s love strong enough to survive this onslaught, or will it drive them apart?

Lacking the funds that Sirk had at his disposal for All That Heaven Allows, Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul has a rough, unpolished feel to it, yet the emotional impact of the story is every bit as poignant as what’s presented in that 1955 Hollywood classic. When Emmi introduces new husband Ali to her adult children: Krista (Irm Hermann), Bruno (Peter Gauhe), and Albert (Karl Scheydt), all three react angrily to the news (Bruno goes so far as to kick in Emmi’s television set); and the other tenants in Emmi’s apartment building, many of whom she’s known for years, are suddenly cold and distant. Even the owner of the local grocery store, a man named Angermayer (Walter Sedlmayr), shows his disapproval by refusing to serve Ali when he attempts to buy margarine. By way of some wonderfully framed long shots, Fassbinder conveys the isolation that the newlyweds experience on a daily basis, and though she tries to remain strong, it’s sometimes more than Emmi can bear. As with Cary and Ron in All That Heaven Allows, we feel for Emmi and Ali, and root for them to overcome all the negativity in their lives.

Winner of two awards at that year’s Cannes Film Festival (including a special Jury prize), and credited as the movie that introduced Fassbinder to the rest of the world, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is simultaneously dramatic and heartbreaking, and shines a light on bigotry at its absolute ugliest

Thursday, March 24, 2016

#2,047. The Jazz Singer (1927)

Directed By: Alan Crosland

Starring: Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland

Tag line: "The supreme triumph the world has ever known in the Motion Picture Industry"

Trivia: George Jessel, star of the stage version, was asked to play the role in the film, but refused over a pay dispute. Eddie Cantor was also asked, and also refused

Anyone with a basic knowledge of film history will have heard of 1927’s The Jazz Singer. The first motion picture to feature synchronized dialogue, The Jazz Singer single-handedly ushered in the era of the “talkies”, making it one of the most influential movies ever produced. But as I sat down to watch it this evening, I found myself wondering how effective the film would be all these years later. Was The Jazz Singer still a time-honored classic, or merely a museum piece, a relic of the past that, somewhere along the line, lost its edge?

For five generations, a member of the Rabinowitz family has served as the Cantor of their New York City synagogue, and the current Cantor (Warner Oland) is preparing his son, Jakie, to follow in his footsteps. But Jakie doesn’t want to be a Cantor; a fan of jazz music, he intends to sing and dance on stage, in front of a live audience. When, at the age of 13, Jakie (played as a boy by Robert Gordon) is found performing in a local beer hall, his father drags him out by the scruff of his neck and, once home, whips the poor boy, telling him that, whether he likes it or not, he’s going to be a Cantor. Though he knows it will break the heart of his beloved mother (Eugenie Besserer), Jakie defies his father and leaves home, vowing never to return.

Ten years pass, and Jakie (Al Jolson), who has since changed his name to “Jack Robin”, is an up-and-coming jazz singer, waiting for his big break. During a cabaret performance, Jack catches the eye of Mary Dale (May McAvoy), a dancer, and with her help he’s soon headlining a musical revue. Eventually, Jack is offered a job on Broadway, and once in the city, he stops in to visit his parents. Though his mother is overjoyed to see him, Jack’s father, still angry all these years later, remains distant and cold. In spite of his father’s attitude, Jack has no intention of turning his back on his budding career, but when a crisis arises, he must decide what’s more important to him: family tradition or the cheers of the crowd.

Despite being the first-ever talkie, The Jazz Singer is, for most of its running time, a silent picture. It isn’t until Jolson sings “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” on-stage that we get our first bit of synchronized sound (two earlier musical numbers, including Jakie performing in the beer hall at age 13, were recorded after the fact, and are therefore not synchronized). Moments later, Jolson utters the immortal line “You ain’t heard nothing yet”, then belts out a spirited rendition of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’Bye)”, and with that, the era of sound was born (as good as this early sequence is, the film’s best moment is when Jack, home for the first time in years, sits down at the piano and serenades his mother with a couple of songs).

Yet as interesting as its musical numbers are, The Jazz Singer is even better as a family drama. The scene where Jack returns home will surely move you to tears, as will his attempts to reconcile with his father, who stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that he even has a son. In fact, I have to admit that I was choked up for most of the film’s final act!

Aside from a few unfortunate scenes in which Jack, in blackface, performs on-stage (including the now-infamous “Mammy” finale), The Jazz Singer remains a shining example of Hollywood in its pioneering days, and while its various innovations were indeed groundbreaking, it’s the story, as well as the fine work of its talented lead, that makes The Jazz Singer a classic.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

#2,046. Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)

Directed By: Francis Ford Coppola

Starring: Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins

Tag line: "Love Never Dies"

Trivia: Gary Oldman hired a singing coach to help him lower his voice by an octave to help him give Dracula a more sinister quality

It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of watching Bram Stoker’s Dracula; the movie is so intensely stylish, so lavishly beautiful that its 2+ hours seem to pass in a fraction of that time. And yet, despite the exuberance it inspires, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film is not perfect, and certain aspects of it simply do not work.

In an effort to explain its title character’s “condition”, Bram Stoker’s Dracula opens in 1462, the year Prince Vlad Dracula (Gary Oldman) of Transylvania rode into battle against the superior forces of the Turkish Army. Despite the nearly insurmountable odds that they faced, Dracula and his men were victorious. But the celebration was to be short-lived; when Vlad returned to his castle, he found that his beloved with Elisabeta (Winona Ryder), who mistakenly believed he was killed on the battlefield, had committed suicide. Seeing as she took her own life, the priests informed Vlad that Elisabeta’s soul was eternally damned, which didn’t sit too well with the grieving Prince. In a fit of anger, Vlad renounces his faith in God, and as punishment for doing so is doomed to roam the earth for all eternity as an undead monster, one that must drink human blood to survive.

Flash forward to the latter part of the 19th century. Real estate solicitor Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) is sent by his boss to the remote country of Transylvania, where he’ll meet with the elusive Count Dracula to discuss his recent purchase of several homes in London, including the abandoned Carfax Abbey. During his month-long stay at the Count’s decaying castle, Harker comes to believe there’s something unusual about his elderly host, who sleeps all day and never eats or drinks. What’s more, Dracula has become obsessed with a picture of Harker’s fiancée Nina (also played by Winona Ryder), who the young man plans to marry the moment he returns to London. Harker’s suspicions about the Count are confirmed when, while exploring a darkened hallway one evening, he encounters Dracula’s three vampiric wives (Monica Bellucci, Michaela Bercu and Florina Kendrick), all of whom try to seduce him. Because he’s discovered his secret, Dracula has no choice but to lock Harker inside the castle when he departs for London, leaving him behind as a “snack” for his wives to nibble on from time to time.

Soon after his arrival in England, Dracula (who, because he was able to feed during his long trip, is once again a young man) sets his sights on Nina’s best friend Lucy (Sadie Frost), with whom Nina has been staying while Jonathan is away. As Dracula slowly drains the life from Lucy’s body, one of her former suitors, Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant), sends for his mentor Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) in the hopes he will know how to treat the dying young woman. It isn’t long before Van Helsing realizes what’s going on, and with the help of Dr. Seward, as well as Lucy’s fiance Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes) and good friend Quincey Morris (Billy Campbell), he sets out to find and, if possible, kill Dracula before Lucy turns into a vampire. What none of them know, however, is that Dracula is romantically involved with Nina, who he’s convinced is the reincarnation of his beloved Elisabeta. And what’s more, he has Nina believing it as well. When she receives word that Jonathan, who escaped the castle, is being cared for in a Romanian convent, Nina rushes to his side, yet is unable to shake the deep feelings she has for the mysterious Count, who has, in the few short weeks they’ve spent together, become the love of her life.

With its well-realized set pieces and excellent make-up effects (Dracula’s physical change, from an old man to a young one, is handled well, and at various times throughout the film he takes on the form of a wolf or a giant bat), Bram Stoker’s Dracula looks phenomenal, and its jarring camera angles, coupled with a unique approach to the narration (using diary entries and correspondences to keep the audience abreast of what’s happening), brings an energy to the film that remains strong throughout.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula also boasts some incredible scenes (my favorites being the opening sequence set in 1462 and, later in the film, a confrontation in a crypt, where Van Helsing and his three accomplices have their first encounter with a vampire). Unfortunately, there are moments in the movie that come up short. During a storm (which was conjured by Dracula), a wolf slips through the bars of his cage at the zoo and runs off, yet aside from that brief moment, the animal never figures prominently in the story. Another missed opportunity is the character of Renfield, Dracula’s servant who’s been locked away in a sanitarium. Played by Tom Waits, Renfield appears only sporadically, and contributes very little to the final film.

As Dracula, Gary Oldman is positively superb, handling the romance, drama, and horror with equal effectiveness; and even though Anthony Hopkins is a bit too flamboyant at times, he’s the only actor in Bram Stoker’s Dracula who comes close to rivaling Oldman’s screen presence. As for the younger leads, they’re more of a mixed bag. Ryder may not have been the ideal choice for Nina (I actually thought Sadie Frost’s Lucy was more interesting), but I don’t agree with those who say she delivered a bad performance (a late scene, where she and Van Helsing are alone at night in the Carpathian mountains, shows a more sinister side to her character, and she’s quite good in this sequence). Alas, all the criticism aimed at Keanu Reeves is justified; he’s lackluster at best, and his English accent is the pits. He even fails as a romantic lead; at no point in Bram Stoker’s Dracula did I want Nina to end up with him. Dracula may have been evil incarnate, and a plague on the world, but at least he wasn’t boring.

The biggest issue I had with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, though, was how it handled the passage of time. Characters often travel great distances in what seemed like a matter of hours (when Nina leaves Dracula behind in London to be with Jonathan in Romania, she not only gets there quickly, but manages to marry him before Dracula even knows she’s gone). Yet the film’s various shortcomings did not spoil the experience for me. With style to spare, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is beautiful and disjointed, thrilling and flawed, and I look forward to watching it again in the near future.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

#2,045. The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)

Directed By: Charles Brabin, Charles Vidor

Starring: Boris Karloff, Lewis Stone, Karen Morley

Tag line: "The Frankenstein of the Orient!"

Trivia: Charles Vidor started directing this movie but was fired after a few days of shooting and replaced by Charles Brabin

At the beginning of his DVD commentary track, movie historian Greg Mank calls 1932’s The Mask of Fu ManchuThe most gleefully sadistic, sexually delirious, high-camp horror film of pre-code Hollywood”. With its torture devices, serums that turn ordinary people into slaves, and racial rants against the “white man”, The Mask of Fu Manchu certainly raised a few eyebrows back in the day, but damn if it isn’t fun to watch!

Shortly after agreeing to lead an expedition to Asia, which will attempt to locate the tomb of Genghis Khan and retrieve his fabled sword and mask, Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) is kidnapped by agents working for Dr. Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff). A Chinese super-criminal, Fu Manchu intends to be the first to find Genghis Khan’s final resting place, and will use the late Emperor’s sword to inspire his people to declare war against the west. Hoping to make a deal with Fu Manchu to bring her father back alive, Sir Lionel’s daughter Sheila (Karen Morley) and Sheila’s fiance Terrence Granville (Charles Starrett) head to China, and along with British secret agent Nayland Smith (Lewis Stone) discover the tomb and take possession of the sword. But Fu Manchu has no intention of reaching a compromise, and with the help of his daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy), the ruthless leader sets a plan in motion that, if all goes well, will land him the sword and a few new prisoners for his “collection”.

The Mask of Fu Manchu boasts some wild and crazy scenes that, even in the pre-code era, pushed the envelope as far as they possibly could. While Fu Manchu’s various torture devices were, indeed, shocking (my favorite of the bunch featured a teeter-totter and a pit filled with hungry crocodiles), it’s the serum he develops that takes the story in a unique, and altogether warped new direction (in essence, the serum allows Fu Manchu to control the mind of whomever he chooses, and he uses it to turn a member of the Barton party into his daughter’s sex toy). In addition to all the zaniness, The Mask of Fun Manchu marked the first horror film in which Boris Karloff spoke (he played mutes in both Frankenstein and The Old Dark House), and the actor is deliciously evil in the role (while torturing Sir Lionel, Fu Manchu taunts him with food, then offers him a drink of water. To Sir Lionel’s dismay, it’s actually salt water).

The Mask of Fu Manchu did spark its share of controversy. State censors cut lines of dialogue and, in some cases, entire scenes from the torture sequences; and protests made by the Japanese American Citizens Group in the ‘70s, who had issues with the way the film portrayed Asians, resulted in further edits when the movie premiered on home video. And while the racism does occasionally cross the line into poor taste (aside from the fact white actors played Asians, Karloff’s infamous “Conquer and Breed” speech, where he tells his followers to “Kill the white man and take his women”, had its detractors), The Mask of Fu Manchu remains one of early horror’s most fascinatingly entertaining films.

Monday, March 21, 2016

#2,044. Valley Girl (1983)

Directed By: Martha Coolidge

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Deborah Foreman, Elizabeth Daily

Tag line: "Life in the Valley: Hair, clothes... and attitude"

Trivia: Director Martha Coolidge was required by the film's producers to show female breasts at least four times. They felt it would make the movie more appealing to younger males

The term “Valley Girl” originated in Southern California in the early 1980’s, and there were a number of stereotypes that went hand-in-hand with this moniker. The product of an upper middle-class environment, Valley Girls (or “Vals”, for short) were, in most cases, high school students who lived in the San Fernando Valley, spent their free time shopping at the Galleria mall, and had their own unique way of speaking, throwing words and phrases such as “like”, “you know”, “totally”, and “gag me with a spoon” into just about every sentence. 

Frank Zappa even wrote a song about them (titled, quite aptly, “Valley Girl”), which featured a running “Valleyspeak”-style monologue by his daughter, Moon Unit.

Needless to say, Valley Girls were easy targets for ridicule (Zappa’s song is mostly comedic in nature). Yet, surprisingly enough, director Martha Coolidge’s 1983 film Valley Girl doesn’t poke fun at this exclusive class of young women; it’s a touching teen love story, with likable characters and a tale of romance that's sure to melt even the coldest heart.

Julie (Deborah Foreman) has just broken up with her boyfriend Tommy (Michael Bowen), and is ready for the next love of her life. To her surprise, she gives her heart not to one of her rich classmates, but a punk rocker from Hollywood named Randy (Nicolas Cage), who crashes a party hosted by her friend Suzi (Michelle Meyrink). 

Though they travel in very different circles, Julie and Randy fall head-over-heels for one another. Julie’s friends, Suzi, Loryn (Elizabeth Daily), and Stacey (Heidi Holicker), tell her to dump Randy - because he isn’t “one of them” - and hook back up with Tommy. Faced with the very real possibility of being ostracized at school, Julie must decide what’s more important: her social standing, or the guy she loves.

It’s a story as old as Shakespeare: two young people from opposite sides of the tracks meet and fall in love, only to be forced apart by those who claim to have their "best interest" in mind. Yet this time-honored plot device works well in Valley Girl thanks in large part to the performances of its two leads. Though she is occasionally as vapid as her friends, Foreman‘s Julie takes a chance when Randy enters the picture, and is rewarded with a relationship that may be the most important of her life. Despite pressure from her peers to toss Randy aside, Julie’s ex-hippie parents (played by Frederic Forrest and Colleen Camp) have taught her to be independent, and advise Julie to follow her heart. 

Stronger still is Nicolas Cage as Randy, whose tough exterior melts away whenever he’s with Julie. Valley Girl marked Cage’s first lead role in a movie, and his patented quirkiness, coupled with a genuine chemistry between he and Foreman, ensured it would be a memorable debut.

Valley Girl does get a bit raunchy at times; there’s plenty of nudity scattered throughout, and a subplot involving Suzi and her stepmom Beth (Lee Purcell), who are both after the same boy, has a fairly erotic payoff. Still, even with the skin and sex, Valley Girl features interesting characters and a poignant love story, and thus has more in common with such ‘80s teen films as Pretty in Pink and Say Anything than it does Porky’s and The Last American Virgin.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

#2,043. The Phantom of the Opera (1962) - Hammer Horror Movies

Directed By: Terence Fisher

Starring: Herbert Lom, Heather Sears, Edward de Souza

Tag line: "The most unusual tale of terror - and love - ever told!"

Trivia: Cary Grant was originally slated not for the role of the Phantom, as is commonly assumed, but for the romantic lead, eventually played by Edward de Souza

I’ve wanted to watch Hammer’s The Phantom of the Opera for a while now, in part to see how it compared to both the Lon Chaney Sr. 1925 film and Universal’s 1943 take on the classic story. But mostly, I was intrigued by the casting of Herbert Lom in the title role. As proficient in comedy (his Chief Inspector Dreyfus was always a highlight of the Pink Panther series) as he was in horror (Mark of the Devil, Jess Franco’s Count Dracula), Lom seemed the ideal choice to portray a complex character like the Phantom, and as expected, the actor did not let me down.

It's a December night in the year 1900, and the London Opera House has become the scene of a terrible tragedy: during the premiere performance of a new Opera by Lord Ambrose D’Arcy (Michael Gough), a backstage worker hangs himself. It's so traumatic, in fact, that the star of the show, Maria (Liane Aukin), immediately quits the production, forcing the theater to temporarily close. Some (including Maria) believe the notorious Phantom (Lom) is to blame, though very few have actually ever seen him. Phantom or not, the show must go on, and while holding tryouts, producer Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza) pays particular attention to the lovely Christine (Heather Sears), a novice with an incredible voice.

But someone else has also taken notice of Christine: the elusive Phantom! It's after her initial audition that Christine first hears from the Phantom, who promises to transform her into the finest singer in the world. Aided by his mute servant (played by Ian Wilson), the Phantom kidnaps Christine and drags her to his underground lair, where he has lived for years. In his effort to save Christine, Harry (who’d fallen in love with her) does a little research and discovers the Phantom’s true identity, but will this revelation help him rescue Christine, or is she destined to live out her days performing only for her captor?

Unlike 1925’s Phantom of the Opera, which concealed the Phantom’s physical deformities until late in the picture, this 1962 version shows its title character’s face before the opening credits. While not as impressive as Lon Chaney’s make-up, the look of the Phantom in this movie is still better, and more horrific than what’s found in the 1943 film. Yet as frightening as he appears, the Phantom is even more sinister when talking; we never see him the first time he addresses Christine, but what he’s saying is enough to send a shiver down your spine (“You will be the greatest star the opera has ever known”, he tells her, “Greater than the greatest! And when you sing, Christine, you will be singing only... for me”). Though at times quite fierce (especially while “training” Christine), the Phantom is also somewhat sympathetic, and Lom does a tremendous job bringing both his madness and his humanity to the surface. In the end, he’s not the most villainous character in Phantom of the Opera (that distinction belongs to Gambon’s Lord D’Arcy), but he’s definitely the most interesting.

When Lom is not on-screen, Hammer’s Phantom of the Opera suffers. The love story between Christine and Harry is effective (with both performers doing an adequate job), but the movie contains far too many musical sequences, which slow the pace to a crawl (the lone exception being the finale, where Christine stars in an opera on the life of Joan of Arc). Fortunately, Lom is around just long enough to take your mind off the movie’s issues, and in the end, I enjoyed Hammer’s Phantom of the Opera more than I did the 1943 version

Saturday, March 19, 2016

#2,042. Aïssa (2014)

Directed By: Clément Tréhin-Lalanne

Starring: Manda Touré, Bernard Campan

Premiere: "This movie won the Procirep's Award at the 2015 Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival"

Awards: This movie premiered at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival

Along with sending its members an independent feature every month, Film Movement also shines a spotlight on a different short movie, which is included on each new DVD. Thanks to Film Movement, I’ve seen a few fascinating shorts over the years (the animated No Corras Tanto is one, and The Box Man is another). Aïssa, a 2014 French film featured on the recent Glassland DVD release, relates the story of a young woman forced to endure a humiliating experience.

Believing she may be an illegal immigrant, the authorities order that Aïssa (Manda Touré), a Congolese girl working as a beautician on French soil, be taken to a doctor, who will determine whether or not she is under 18 years of age (minors are granted legal status). During her examination, the Doctor (voiced by Barnard Campan) asks Aïssa to remove her clothing, then proceeds to inspect her various body parts, measuring each one in a meticulous, yet very clinical manner.

Writer / director Clément Tréhin-Lalanne was inspired to make Aïssa after reading a 2007 article about two Congolese youths who underwent a similar examination. The article, which also included a copy of the medical report, “deeply shocked” Tréhin-Lalanne, who found it abhorrent that a young person’s future was left in the hands of a complete stranger (the two were proven to be over 18, and therefore deported). These are the emotions he conveys in his film.

When we first meet the girl in question (well played by Manda Touré), she is clearly frightened. Her trepidation is countered by the doctor, whose approach to his task is very direct (he remains off-screen the entire time, and we hear his findings by way of a tape recording he made for the authorities). The doctor shows no emotion or empathy as he inspects Aïssa (“The breasts are fully developed and formed”, he says as he looks at her naked chest, and he then measures the growth of hair under her arms and on her pubic area). When he announces the results of his examination, the camera is affixed on Aïssa, and we see her reaction to what he has to say.

For the doctor, it’s simply one of many physicals he administers on a daily basis. For Aïssa, it’s been a life-altering experience. Heartbreaking and poignant, Aïssa is a straightforward short that will give you plenty to think about.

Friday, March 18, 2016

#2,041. Polyester (1981)

Directed By: John Waters

Starring: Divine, Tab Hunter, Edith Massey

Tag line: "It'll Blow Your Nose!"

Trivia: The Love Theme that plays at a key scene in this movie was performed by actor / comedian Bill Murray

Ah, Odorama; that wonderful throwback to the days of William Castle and cheesy gimmicks (in spirit, at least, seeing as I’m not sure Castle ever actually used Odorama). Give audience members a scratch ‘n’ sniff card and they, too, can experience the same odors, however pleasant or foul they might be, as the movie’s characters. And with John Waters at the helm, you can imagine what sort of smells awaited those who paid good money to see 1981’s Polyester, a spoof of ‘50s melodramas with a dash of the gross-out humor that made its director an underground sensation.

Poor Francine Fishpaw (Divine). Her middle-class life is in turmoil. Her husband Elmer (David Samson), who owns and operates an adult movie theater, is cheating on her, and the couple’s two kids are an absolute mess. Their daughter Lu-Lu (Mary Garlington) has been knocked up by her loser boyfriend Bo-Bo (Stiv Bators), and son Dexter (Ken King) is a glue-sniffing outlaw with a foot fetish. To top it off, her mother, La Rue (Joni Ruth White), is a money-grubbing shrew who steals cash from Francine’s purse, then tosses insults at her. With the help of her best friend Cuddles (Edith Massey), Francine tracks down Elmer one evening and catches him in bed with his secretary Sandra (Mink Stole). Francine asks for a divorce, but the realization that her marriage is caput ultimately pushes her over the edge, turning her into a raging alcoholic. Then, out of the blue, she meets Todd Tomorrow (Tab Hunter), a handsome professional who drives a sports car. In no time at all, Francine and Todd are making plans for the future. But is their love the real deal, or yet another wrong turn on the bumpy road that is Francine Fishpaw’s life?

The Odorama process is explained in the opening scene of Polyester by Dr. Quackenshaw (Rick Breitenfeld). It’s simple, really: when a number flashes on the bottom of the screen, scratch the corresponding number on the card you received and sniff away. It’s good for a joke or two (one number appears moments after Elmer farts in bed), but most of the humor in Polyester stems from its exaggerated characters and the outlandish predicaments they find themselves in. While out on a date with Lu-Lu, Bo-Bo, playing a game of sorts, hangs out of a car window and swats a gospel singer (Jean Hill) on the ass with a broom (enraged, the singer hijacks a city bus and gives chase). Not to be outdone, Dexter sneaks up on unsuspecting women and, for a sexual thrill, stomps on their feet (the media has dubbed him the “Baltimore Foot Stomper”). Divine is his usual flamboyant self as the oft-suffering Francine, who spends most of the movie crying about her life, and Tab Hunter is as close to a “regular” leading man as you’ll ever see in a John Waters film (the actor plays the part well enough). And, of course, Edith Massey is on-hand, delivering what might be the worst performance of her career as Cuddles (and believe me, that's saying something).

Clearly influenced by the movies of Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession), Polyester explores such hot-button topics as abortion, adultery, drugs, and sexual deviancy, yet does so in the over-the-top fashion we’ve come to expect from its director (Lu-Lu, at one point, admits to Francine that the boys at school pay her good money to dance on tables). Though nowhere near as disturbing as Pink Flamingos, Polyester does, like most John Waters films, stretch the boundaries of good taste, and gets a lot of laughs in the process.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

#2,040. Glassland (2014)

Directed By: Gerard Barrett

Starring: Will Poulter, Toni Collette, Jack Reynor

Premiere: This movie premiered at the 2014 Galway Film Festival

Trivia: Toni Collette shot her scenes for this film over a six-day period

It was in my write-up of 2001’s He Died with a Felafel in His Hand that I first told you about Film Movement, a sort of “DVD of the Month” club that specializes in foreign and independent movies. Every four weeks or so, Film Movement sends its subscribers a DVD of its latest offering, and while I was a proud member of the service when it first launched in 2002, I was forced (due to personal issues) to cancel my membership towards the middle of the club’s third year. Well, after revisiting the Film Movement website last October, I decided to renew my subscription, and am once again receiving fascinating motion pictures in the mail. Glassland, a 2014 drama written and directed by Gerard Barrett, was this month’s selection.

Shot in Dublin, Glassland introduces us to John (Jack Raynor), a twentysomething cab driver who spends most of his free time taking care of his alcoholic mother Jean (Toni Collette), with whom he lives. When Jean’s latest drunken binge lands her in the hospital, John decides enough is enough, and searches for a way to get his mother the help she needs. In addition to taking care of his mom, John also regularly visits his brother Kit (Harry Nagle), who, because he has Downs Syndrome, resides in a specialized home (Jean blames Kit for the breakup of her marriage, and refuses to acknowledge him). When not working or trying to keep his family from falling apart, John is usually hanging out with his best friend Shane (Will Poulter), who, in a few short days, will be leaving Dublin to travel abroad.

Shane continually invites John to join him on his upcoming adventure, and though tempted to do so, John realizes he can’t possibly leave his mother, who will surely die if she doesn’t get help soon. Aided by an alcohol abuse counselor named Jim (Michael Smiley), John learns of a treatment center that is willing to take his mother in. Unfortunately, it’s going to cost a lot of money, money that John simply doesn’t have. Knowing he’s in need of funds, John’s boss at the taxi service offers him an opportunity to make a boatload of cash doing something that under normal circumstances John would never do.

How far is John willing to go to save his mother? Is he ready to break the law?

A gut-wrenching family drama, Glassland features exemplary performances from its three leads. John is the glue holding this wounded family together, and as played by Jack Raynor, he’s a concerned yet patient son who remains calm even when his mother’s behavior gets out of hand (he simply sits and listens as Jean, lamenting the breakup of her marriage, refers to his beloved brother Kit as “that thing”). Toni Collette is equally as impressive as Jean, conveying both the joy and the tragedy of drinking to forget (“I don’t even like the taste”, she tells John while sipping wine, “but I like how it makes me feel”). While both characters do sometimes lose control of their emotions (the scene where John drives Jean to an AA meeting is particularly intense), the real strength of their performances shines through in the film’s quieter moments, of which there are plenty (in sequences that are almost entirely silent, director Barrett focuses on the faces of these two characters, and in their eyes we see the heartbreak and anger that’s eating away at them).

Matching them both, though in a more limited capacity, is Will Poulter as Shane, the friend who doesn’t realize how good he has it. While he and John are playing a video game, Shane’s mother Bridie (Darine Ní Dhonnchadha) dotes on her son, bringing him drinks and attempting to hold a conversation with him. Shane, who is more interested in the game, blows her off, and though he doesn’t show it outwardly, we know this must bother John, and sense that he would gladly change places with his callous friend any day of the week.

One of the selling points of the Film Movement service is that it brings you extraordinary movies you might otherwise have never seen. A poignant, moving, and at times even uplifting look at a family in crisis, Glassland is definitely worth a watch.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

#2,039. Def-Con 4 (1985)

Directed By: Paul Donovan, Digby Cook, Tony Randel

Starring: Lenore Zann, Maury Chaykin, Kate Lynch

Tag line: "The last defense. The last hope. The battle for the future of the world has begun"

Trivia: In Germany, this film had the added title The Last Detail

Three U.S. astronauts: Howe (Tim Choate); Walker (John Walsch); and Jordan (Kate Lynch), have been orbiting the earth for 407 days, on a space station armed with nuclear warheads. Tired of their long confinement, all three are counting the hours until they can return to earth. Then, the unthinkable happens: nuclear war breaks out between the United States and the Soviet Union. As they watch from space, the world below is obliterated in the blink of an eye.

Several weeks later, Howe picks up a short-wave radio broadcast from his wife, telling him the fallout has created some sort of super virus that is infecting all who survived the initial attacks. Despite Howe’s insistence that they return to earth immediately, Walker (the ranking officer) decides they will stay put and give the virus time to run its course.

But someone down below has other plans. An unknown person or persons taps into the station’s computer, and orders the control capsule to immediately re-enter earth’s atmosphere. After crash-landing on a beach, during which Jordan is knocked unconscious, they hear someone stirring outside the capsule, and decide to open the hatch. Before they can react, Walker is dragged away and eaten by cannibals.

Thus begins a post-apocalyptic nightmare. Howe is taken hostage by a heavily-armed vagrant named Vinny (Maury Chaykin) and brought to a makeshift military base run by Gideon (Kevin King), a teenage dictator with an army of thugs at his disposal. Teaming up with J.J. (Lenore Zann), Gideon’s former girlfriend and current prisoner, Howe attempts to escape, and is doubly anxious to do so after learning that Gideon has taken the space station’s last warhead, which is set to detonate in exactly 60 hours!

A low-budget Canadian production (forget what its poster shows you; this movie never achieves that level of sci-fi awesomeness), Def-Con 4 starts off strongly, with some tense, exciting scenes set aboard the space station. Watching the flashes of light fill their monitors once the war begins, each signifying that another U.S. city has fallen, is a damn intense sequence. The drama continues once the crew is back on earth. A “trial” set up by Gideon, where he sits in judgment of several characters, is a definite high-point, and a handful of action scenes keep things moving along at a brisk pace.

As for the performances, Maury Chaykin, who, years later, would appear in Atom Egoyan’s excellent The Sweet Hereafter, is good as the dim-witted Vinny; and Kate Lynch, Bill Murray’s main squeeze in Meatballs, makes for a convincing astronaut / doctor (her Jordan was the station’s medical officer). Topping them all, however, is Lenore Zann, whose J.J. is the strongest of the bunch. Her character never backs down, even when Gideon threatens to kill her. Tenacious and determined, Zann’s J.J. gives Def-Con 4 a bona-fide hero.

The same cannot be said for Tim Choate, however, whose Howe is essentially the film's main character. More annoying than he is interesting, Choate screams his way through several scenes, and lacks the charisma of a leading man. At times, his Howe even acts cowardly. In addition, the movie’s basic set pieces and overall poor production value may turn off some viewers. Personally, I didn’t have a problem with either, and thought they added a little personality. As for the character development, it could have been better. We know that, when the war broke out, J.J. was a student, but only because she wears a school uniform throughout the movie. Aside from that, we learn very little about her.

Still, Def-Con 4 delivers the goods more often than not, and, along with Stake Land and Tooth and Nail, is one of the better low-budget post-apocalyptic films I've seen.