Sunday, January 31, 2016

#1,994. Roadie (1980)


Directed By: Alan Rudolph

Starring: Meat Loaf, Kaki Hunter, Art Carney




Tag line: "The ultimate rock 'n' roll fantasy"

Trivia: First lead role in a film as an actor for rock singer Meat Loaf








Roadie, a strangely uneven musical / comedy directed by Alan Rudolph, stars rock and roll’s own Meat Loaf as Travis W. Redfish, a Texas good ‘ole boy who, along with his best friend / co-pilot B.B. (Gailard Sartain), drives a beer truck for a living. What’s more, Travis is an electronics wiz, and can fix just about anything that his pa, Corpus (Art Carney), breaks.

One day, while making their deliveries, Travis and B.B. spot an RV on the side of the road. At first, they intend to pass it by, but when Travis spies a beauty staring at him from the back of the RV, his heart skips a beat and he immediately pulls over. The girl is Lola (Kaki Hunter), a rock and roll groupie, and the RV is carrying equipment for Glen Campbell, Jr., who has a concert later that night in Austin. Travis fixes the RV in a matter of minutes, leading the road manager, Ace (Joe Spano), to invite him along for the rest of the tour. Travis agrees, and even takes over the driving duties. When they arrive in Austin two hours late, Travis again saves the day by setting the equipment up in 10 minutes flat. As a result, Mohammed Johnson (Don Cornelius), the biggest promoter in the United States, offers Travis a job as a roadie. But Travis only has eyes for Lola, and as long as she stays with the tour, he’ll be there as well.

Thus begins an adventure that will take the love-struck duo cross-country, eventually landing them in New York City, where Lola hopes to hook up with rock star Alice Cooper. But will she lose her virginity to the famous musician (as she originally planned), or will she choose Travis instead?

While it doesn’t feature as many live performances as it probably should have, the few musical sequences there are in Roadie are entertaining (the best of which has Blondie and her band covering Johnny Cash’s "Ring of Fire"). I also liked Roy Orbison’s brief cameo (he shows up at Glen Campbell Jr.’s Austin gig), though I wish they’d have let him hang around a bit longer (Orbison joins Campbell on-stage for no more than a minute, to help quiet the crowd when a fight breaks out).

As the two leads, Meat Loaf and Kaki Hunter have some strong scenes together (the best of which occurs during a concert, when, while talking to each other via a pair of microphones, the two inadvertently become part of the act). Unfortunately, their personalities are all over the place. One moment, Travis is a naïve hick who doesn’t understand the ways of the world, and the next he’s building an intricate machine that turns cow shit into electricity. As for Lola, she seems genuinely interested in Travis most of the time, yet there are scenes that suggest it’s all an act to ensure he stays with the tour. Even as a couple, they go from warm and loving to angry and manipulative in the blink of an eye, making it difficult to get a handle on either of them.

Still, Meat Loaf is a likable lead, and I especially enjoyed the scenes featuring him and Art Carney (as Travis’ laid-back dad, Carney delivers what is arguably the film’s most endearing performance). It’s hard to ultimately recommend Roadie, what with all the issues I had with the movie, but at the same time I’m not sorry I saw it.

And there’s a good chance you'll feel the exact same way.







Saturday, January 30, 2016

#1,993. Popeye (1980)


Directed By: Robert Altman

Starring: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston



Tag line: "Blow me down! It's comink for Chrustmas!"

Trivia: The Sweethaven set that was built for this film still exists, and it is now a popular tourist attraction known as Popeye Village








When I was training for Popeye, I thought: this is it, this is my Superman, and it’s gonna go through the f*ckin’ roof! I also had that dream of getting up to thank the Academy. After the first day on Popeye, I thought: well, maybe this isn’t it; and I finally wound up going: Oh, God, when is it gonna be over?”

The above quote was provided by Robin Williams, a few years after he played the title character in Popeye, a 1980 musical / comedy directed by Robert Altman. I remember going to see Popeye with my friends when it was released, and like Mr. Williams, I wasn’t blown away by the experience. In fact, it was the first time I ever fell asleep in a movie theater.

Inspired in part by the 1930’s animated cartoon Popeye the Sailor, the film opens with Popeye (Williams) arriving in the seaside town of Sweethaven, where he hopes to find his beloved “Pappy”, who he hasn’t seen in over 30 years. After paying almost $2.00 in taxes (including a $0.17 “New in Town” tax) to the Taxman ( Donald Moffat), Popeye makes his way to a boarding house owned by Cole Oyl (MacIntyre Dixon) and his wife Nana (Roberta Maxwell), who rent him their last available room. Along with two other boarders: Mr. Geezil (Richard Libertini) and Mr. Wimpy (Paul Dooley), both of the Oyls’ adult children, Castor (Donovan Scott) and Olive (Shelley Duvall), also live in the house (which can get a bit crazy around dinner time).

But Olive probably won’t be at home much longer, because she’s engaged to be married to Bluto (Paul L. Smith), a brute of a man who rules over Sweethaven whenever the elusive Commodore (who nobody has ever seen) is too busy to do so. The night of her engagement party, however, Olive gets cold feet and decides to run away. After bumping into Popeye (literally) out on the dock, the two go for a stroll, and when they stop to take a short break, a cloaked figure sneaks in from the shadows and replaces Olive’s basket with another that looks exactly like it. To their surprise, Popeye and Olive find a baby tucked safely inside this new basket, with a note attached asking Popeye to raise the child. Thrilled at the prospect of becoming a “mudder”, Popeye names the little tyke Swee’Pea (Wesley Ivan Hurt) and, along with Olive, returns to the boarding house. Of course, Bluto is none too pleased to see his fiance with both another man and a new baby. After throwing a temper tantrum, Bluto dumps Olive, and the next day sends the Taxman around to charge the Oyls “quadruple tax”. When they can’t afford to pay it, the majority of their house (including walls and windows) is repossessed.

Will the Oyls find the money to pay their taxes? Will Popeye ever track down his Pappy? And, more importantly, will Popeye and Olive fall in love with each other? Before the movie is over, all of these questions (and more besides) will be answered.

Fortunately, this time around, I was able to keep my eyes open for the duration of Popeye, and to be honest, it’s not the total disaster I remember it being. First and foremost, I was impressed with the film’s main set piece: the town of Sweethaven, which, with its decaying buildings and steep hills, had a style all its own. Much like he did with the town featured in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Altman had Sweethaven built from the ground up, and, apparently, the entire set is not only still standing on the island of Malta (where the movie was shot), but it’s also become a popular tourist attraction. In addition, the casting, from the major roles to the background players, was just about perfect. Williams does more than simply impersonate Popeye; he breathes life into the character, taking what had been a cartoon personality and transforming him into a living, breathing individual As for Shelley Duvall, she was born to play Olive Oyl, and made the most of the opportunity; while Paul L. Smith, with his imposing physique and intimidating sneer, gave the film a villain you love to despise.

Yet, despite its strengths, Popeye is a flawed motion picture. For one, the characters (especially Popeye) never shut the hell up, and the constant barrage of dialogue had me begging for mercy well before the film was over (I understand the ‘30s cartoons did this same thing, but at least those were only 7 minutes long. To stretch the incessant mumbling out over almost two hours qualifies as a form of torture). Also, aside from Shelley Duvall’s rendition of "He Needs Me," I felt most of the film’s music was flat (and, to be fair, my enjoyment of "He Needs Me" may have more to do with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love than it does this movie).

More than a few people have said that Popeye was Robert Altman’s worst film, but I disagree (I’m guessing they never saw O.C. and Stiggs. I don’t use the word “hate” often, but I hated O.C. and Stiggs). Still, I have to admit that, coming from the man who gave us MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, Short Cuts, The Player, and Gosford Park, Popeye stands out like a sore thumb. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s not a good one either.







Friday, January 29, 2016

#1,992. A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die (1968)


Directed By: Franco Giraldi

Starring: Alex Cord, Arthur Kennedy, Robert Ryan



Tag line: "That's all McCord gives them!"

Trivia: The American version of this film was cut by 16 minutes, and featured a different ending









Outlaw Clay McCord (Alex Cord) is the fastest gun in the west, and over the years he’s left plenty of dead bodies in his wake. But recently, his shooting hand has been acting up on him, shaking uncontrollably whenever he’s in a tight spot. Fearing he may have inherited his father’s epilepsy, Clay bids goodbye to his longtime partner Fred (Giampiero Albertini) and heads to the town of Tuscosa, where, on the authority of Governor Lem Carter (Robert Ryan), Marshal, Roy Colby (Arthur Kennedy) is handing out pardons to wanted criminals, promising a clean record and $50 cash to anyone ready to turn over a new leaf.

On his way to Tuscosa, McCord makes a stop in Escondido, a town controlled by a shady profiteer named Krant (Mario Brega), to visit an old friend of his, who happens to be a doctor (and might be able to cure his ailment). After gunning down one of Krant’s men for shooting a widow (Rosa Palomar) in cold blood, McCord shacks up with Laurinda (Nicoletta Machiavelli), a pretty brunette, who informs him that Krant killed his friend the doctor a few days earlier for cheating at cards. McCord’s bad luck continues when he finally reaches Tuscosa, where Marshal Colby tells him that under no circumstances will a criminal with a record as long as his be given amnesty. Fortunately for McCord, the Governor sees things differently, and makes a special trip to the territory to personally sign the outlaw’s pardon (in the hopes it will convince other lawbreakers to also turn in their guns). But before he’s granted his freedom, McCord will have to face off against Krant, who is looking to avenge the death of his minion.

Directed by Franco Giraldi, A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die is, in some ways, a typical Italian western, featuring a strong anti-hero who’s quick with a gun and relies on his wits to get him out of tricky situations. Alex Cord delivers a fine performance as the gunslinger ready to hang up his pistols, and Hollywood veterans Arthur Kennedy and Robert Ryan shine in their all-too-brief roles as the lawmen trying to make a difference (though they do stick around for the film’s exciting finale). And while it’s not filled to its breaking point with action scenes, the movie does have its share of thrills (one in particular, where McCord battles a posse that murdered innocent people, reveals just how fast he is on the draw).

The only thing I didn’t really care for was the film’s score. It’s not that the music (composed by Carlo Rustichelli) was terrible so much as it was uninspired, lacking the intense style that Ennio Morricone brought to such Sergio Leone masterpieces as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West (there wasn’t even a catchy theme song, a la Django or They Call Me Trinity). This aside, A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die is a solid western, with great locations (the town of Escondido was appropriately dingy and dusty), a tough-as-nails main character, and a story of redemption that proves more satisfying than the standard fare.







Thursday, January 28, 2016

#1,991. SS Girls (1977)


Directed By: Bruno Mattei

Starring: Gabriele Carrara, Marina Daunia, Macha Magall



Tag line: "Their weapon was desire ... for which there was no defense !"

Trivia: A 1995 UK video print of this film had over 3 mins cut out, including some whipping and torture and a hinted bestiality sequence






I can’t tell you how shocked I was to learn after the fact that 1977’s SS Girls, a film written and directed by Bruno Mattei, was not a comedy (IMDb lists it as a “drama / thriller”). There were scenes in this movie that made me laugh out loud.

The war is not going well for Germany, and Adolf Hitler is convinced some of his highest ranking officers are plotting against him. In an effort to root out the traitors, General Berger (Ivano Staccioli) orders one of his subordinates, SS Commander Hans Schellenberg (Gabriele Carrara), to assemble a squad of ten prostitutes, which, by way of sexual intercourse, will coerce the suspected conspirators into revealing their sinister plans. With the help of his occasional lover, Madame Eva (Macha Magall), Schellenberg “recruits” his team, which, after a few weeks of rigorous training, starts cozying up to some of the Third Reich’s higher echelon. Aided by SS officer Frau Inge (Marina Daunia), the group successfully accomplishes each mission sent their way, but with Schellenberg’s out-of-control ego getting the better of him, Gen. Berger begins to reconsider his appointment, and wonders if Schellenberg himself has suddenly become a threat to the Fuhrer’s safety.

The opening moments of SS Girls are predictable enough, and feature plenty of nudity; once the 10 prostitutes are assembled, Schellenberg and his associate Professor Jurgen (Allan Collins) order them to strip (so they can “inspect” their bodies). Soon after this scene, however, the movie gets a bit crazy, and the basic training sequences, where the girls are taught everything from bondage to ballet, are both creepy (to prepare them for all forms of sexual deviancy, one woman is forced to sleep with a badly deformed hunchback while another lies down with a German Shepherd) and hilarious (at one point, two girls in Roman togas run towards the camera firing machine guns).

Even stranger than the training scenes is the performance of Gabriele Carrara as the near-insane Schellenberg. Drunk with power, he starts behaving like a madman the moment the ladies begin their first mission, cackling like a lunatic and, in one bizarre sequence, dressing up like the Pope (even the German generals, all of whom were suspected of treason, couldn’t stop laughing when they saw his costume). Utilizing a wide range of facial expressions, Carrara goes as over-the-top as an actor possibly can, giving SS Girls a villain who is more funny than frightening.

Unlike most films of this ilk, SS Girls shies away from blood and torture in favor of sex and nudity, which is plentiful (many of the girls are naked for the majority of the movie). Toss in lots of unintentional hilarity, and you have that rare nazisploitation flick that’ll make you laugh more than it will make you cringe.







Wednesday, January 27, 2016

#1,990. Backcountry (2014)


Directed By: Adam MacDonald

Starring: Missy Peregrym, Eric Balfour, Nicholas Campbell



Tag line: "Survive"

Trivia: The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2014








Man, horror movies must be hell on the camping industry! Much like Friday the 13th, Day of the Animals, The Blair Witch Project, and, more recently, Preservation and Exists, 2014’s Backcountry managed to convince me that anyone pitching a tent in the middle of a thick forest is just asking for trouble.

Having spent a good deal of his childhood roaming the woods of a picturesque Canadian reserve, Alex (Jeff Roop) decides to treat his girlfriend Jenn (Missy Peregrym) to what he believes will be a romantic weekend getaway, and can’t wait to show her the beautiful lake and waterfall that lie at the end of Blackfoot Trail. Unfortunately, the excursion doesn’t go as he planned; their first night in the woods, Jenn invites Brad (Eric Balfour), an Irish hiker who happened to be passing by, to have dinner with them (over the course of the evening, Brad acts erratically, resulting in a few tense moments for Alex and Jenn). Then, once the two venture deeper into the wilderness, their food reserve is eaten by an animal (Alex is convinced it was a raccoon), and, to make matters worse, Alex gets lost while guiding Jenn to the lake, with no idea how to get back to the trail. Yet as bad as the situation is, there’s an even greater threat lurking nearby, and the panicked couple must do everything they can to get as far away from it as possible.

Backcountry builds the tension up slowly, putting its characters (and us) on edge with each new mini-disaster that strikes. During his time with them, Brad seems intent on challenging Alex’s manhood, as if he was attempting to steal Jenn away from him (right before leaving, he appeared ready for a fight). So, later that evening, when Jenn hears noises outside their tent, she’s afraid it might be Brad spying on them (Alex calms her by saying it’s simply acorns falling from a nearby tree). Of course, this is just the beginning of their worries, and with each successive scene, director Adam MacDonald tosses a bit more stress into the mix, which reaches a fever pitch when Alex loses his way (not only did he refuse a map at the visitors center, a move clearly designed to impress Jenn, but he also stole her cell phone from her backpack and hid it in the car, hoping to keep her mind off of the outside world during their vacation). Still, even with the methodical way it generates tension, the terror that eventually befalls the young couple happens so quickly, and so matter-of-factly, that it catches us off-guard, resulting in a scene more terrifying than anything we had imagined.

Sure, films like Jaws and The Impossible have proven that even the beach isn’t always a safe place, but after watching what unfolds in Backcountry, I’ll take lying in the sand over a stroll in the woods every day of the week!







Tuesday, January 26, 2016

#1,989. Anchoress (1993)


Directed By: Chris Newby

Starring: Natalie Morse, Gene Bervoets, Toyah Willcox



Tag line: "Ecstasy and orthodoxy in the 14th century!"

Trivia: This movie s partly based on accounts of an historical female anchorite, Christine Carpenter, who was walled into her anchorhold in a village church in Surrey, England, in 1329







Directed by Chris Newby, 1993’s Anchoress is based on the true story of Christine Carpenter, who, in 1329, became an Anchoress (a person who, for religious reasons, agreed to live the remainder of their days walled up in a cell, one usually connected to a church) for her parish in Shere, a town situated in Southeast England. More than this, though, Anchoress is a raw, striking motion picture that, both stylistically and thematically, owes quite a bit to Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc.

Convinced the Virgin Mary spoke to her in a dream, Christine Carpenter (Natalie Morse) ignores the wishes of her mother (Toyah Willcox) and pledges her life to the Catholic Church. Spurred on by the local priest (Christopher Eccleston), the young girl takes a vow of celibacy, and asks the bishop (François Beukelaers) to allow her to become an Anchoress. He agrees, and even though she’s barely 15 years old, Christine enters a newly-constructed cell attached to the town’s small church, where she’ll remain for the rest of her life, offering up prayers and answering the questions of those who visit her (because she’s supposedly in a state of grace, it’s believed Christine now possesses a wisdom beyond her years, and she gives advice on everything from love to how to get into heaven).

For Christine, being an Anchoress seemed like the best way to avoid the Reeve (Gene Bervoets), an overseer who employs her father (Pete Postlethwaite) and had set his sights on marrying her. Sure enough, with Christine out of the picture, the Reeve instead begins to court her younger sister Meg (Brenda Bertin), who eventually becomes his wife. But through the small window of her cell, Christine watches the world pass her by, and soon regrets the lifetime commitment she made. The priest, however, insists that she remain true to her vows, initiating a battle of wills between the two that Christine has little hope of winning.

From its realistic period costumes and set pieces to its steady stream of close-up shots, Anchoress was clearly inspired by The Passion of Joan of Arc (which also took place during the Middle Ages). What’s more, while Anchoress does feature plenty of scenes with dialogue, some of the film’s best moments play out in silence, starting with the opening sequence, in which Christine spots a pair of monks transporting a statue of the Virgin Mary through a large field (framed perfectly by cinematographer Michel Baudour, this scene is absolutely gorgeous).

Along with matching the look and feel of Dreyer’s classic, Anchoress relates a similar tale of religious oppression, with the priest manipulating both Christine (he refuses to allow her to make physical contact with anyone on the outside, and insists she spend her time embroidering blankets, which he then sells to the faithful) as well as the community at large (when Christine’s mother, who rejects the church and its teachings, butts heads with him, the priest convinces the rest of the town that she’s a witch, and should therefore be put to death). In addition to its theological issues, the movie also has something to say about the role of women in the Middle Ages (when girls far too young to know the ways of the world were married off to men twice their age).

Shot in stunning black and white, Anchoress flawlessly blends all of these elements together, resulting in a beautiful, poignant, and often thought-provoking motion picture.







Monday, January 25, 2016

#1,988. The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)


Directed By: Alexander Korda

Starring: Charles Laughton, Robert Donat, Franklin Dyall



Tag line: "EVERY WOMAN GOT IT IN THE NECK - Eventually"

Trivia: The first non-Hollywood film to win an Academy Award, Charles Laughton won the 1933 Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance






Unlike many of the movies that cover the reign of England’s Henry VIII (Anne of the Thousand Days, A Man for All Seasons, and, more recently, The Other Boleyn Girl), 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII skips some of the most dramatic moments of the infamous monarch’s life, including his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon; their eventual divorce; Henry’s split with the Catholic Church (which supported Catherine); his personal struggle with former friend and advisor Sir Thomas More (whose faith would not permit him to acknowledge the divorce); and his tempestuous second marriage to Anne Boleyn, who, after failing to give Henry a male heir, was accused of incest, adultery, and high treason, for which she was executed. By omitting these historical events, The Private Life of Henry VIII offers a rare glimpse into the King’s later years, and reminds us that, while Catherine and Anne may have been his most noteworthy spouses, Henry still had four wives to go.

As the film opens, Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) is moments away from being executed. At the request of her husband, England’s Henry VIII (Charles Laughton), a shot will be fired the minute Anne’s head hits the ground, at which point he will immediately marry wife #3, Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie). During their time together, Jane gives birth to the son that Henry so desired, but she does not survive the delivery.

Soon after Jane’s death, the royal court urges Henry to wed yet again, and while he himself has his eye on Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), his ministers recommend a more politically prudent union with Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester). To secure the marriage, Henry sends Thomas Peynell (John Loder) to Germany. But instead, Peynell himself falls in love with Anne, and after she and Henry are married, Anne does everything she can to convince the king that the wedding was a mistake. Henry happily agrees, and grants Anne a quick divorce (on her own terms).

Once again a single man, Henry openly courts Katherine Howard, who, unbeknownst to him, was once romantically involved with his closest advisor, Thomas Culpeper (Robert Donat). But Katherine’s ambition was boundless, and she seduces Henry in the hopes he will make her queen. In Henry’s eyes, Katherine is the true love he has been longing for all these years, and considers their marriage a happy one. But as the king grows older, Katherine’s attentions return to Culpeper, and the two rekindle their affair. How will Henry react to the news that his beloved queen has been unfaithful? Well, seeing as he has one wife yet to go (Katherine Parr, played by Everley Gregg), I’m guessing you can figure that out for yourself!

By all accounts, Henry VIII was a larger-than-life King, and to play him, you needed a larger-than-life actor, which, in my book, made Charles Laughton the perfect choice for the role. From the moment he appears on-screen, Laughton’s Henry is both energetic (his eagerness to wed Jane Seymour is apparent) and somewhat arrogant (“My first wife was clever”, he says to Thomas Culpeper, “and my second was ambitious. But my third... Thomas, if you want to be happy, marry a girl like my sweet little Jane. Marry a stupid woman!”). Often bellowing his lines as opposed to delivering them, Laughton makes for a very convincing King, and his sometimes harsh demeanor (he can barely hide his displeasure when he meets Anne of Cleves, who he considers unattractive) is, at times, tempered by a genuine depth of feeling (his love for Katherine Howard is all-consuming, as is his heartbreak when she deceives him). And, of course, there’s the now-famous banquet scene, where Laughton allows Henry’s bad table manners to shine through while eating chicken.

There are other good performances to be found in The Private Life of Henry VIII, including Merle Oberon, whose brief appearance as the doomed Anne Boleyn is touching and memorable; and Robert Donat as Culpeper, a man torn between the king he admires and the woman he loves. But it’s Charles Laughton’s tour-de-force portrayal of the boisterous monarch that makes The Private Life of Henry VIII the fine film that it is.







Sunday, January 24, 2016

#1,987. The Machine Girl (2008)


Directed By: Noboru Iguchi

Starring: Minase Yashiro, Asami, Kentarô Shimazu



Tag line: "Schoolgirls, Drill bras, Ninjas, One big machine gun!"

Trivia: According to writer and director Noburo Iguchi, the idea for The Machine Girl went back to a simple idea he had about a one-armed girl in a bikini looking for revenge






A revenge flick drenched in blood, The Machine Girl is a wild and crazy gorefest that, despite its intense storyline (a schoolgirl avenging the death of her younger brother), is so outrageous that you can’t help but laugh while watching it.

Orphaned when their parents committed suicide (they were falsely accused of murder), Ami (Minase Yashiro) and her brother Yu (Ryôsuke Kawamura) are nonetheless trying to live as normal a life as possible. That changes, however, when Yu and his friend are bullied by Sho Kimura (Nobuhiro Nishihara), the son of a local Yakuza boss. With the help of his gang, Sho terrorizes the two boys so intensely that he eventually kills them. Suddenly all alone, Ami seeks revenge, only to be captured by Sho’s parents, Ryûji (Kentarô Shimazu) and Violet (Honoka Ishibashi), who slice off Ami’s left arm while torturing her. Ami does manage to escape, and makes her way to a garage where Miki (Asami) and Suguru (Yûya Ishikawa), the parents of Yu’s friend (who was also murdered), nurse her back to health. What’s more, they outfit Ami with a special appendage to replace her missing arm: a high-powered machine gun! Together, Ami and Miki decide to make one last stand against Sho and his family, but are they powerful enough to defeat an entire Yakuza clan?

The splatter effects for The Machine Girl were handled by Yoshihiro Nishimura, who, later that same year, would direct the equally bloody Tokyo Gore Police. And like that film, The Machine Girl has its moments of incredible brutality, almost all of which are as over-the-top as you can get. In the opening scene, Ami (who already has her machine gun) takes on some of the members of Sho’s gang. With often pinpoint accuracy, her machine gun lops off heads and obliterates faces, resulting in lots of blood spraying in every direction. It’s a messy beginning, to be sure, but merely serves as a precursor for the true carnage to come.

It may sound pretty gruesome, but The Machine Girl is perfectly aware of the insanity that plays out on-screen; each new death is more overblown and exaggerated than the last, as if Nishimura was trying to out-do himself from scene to scene. Those who shy away from overly-gory films will want to steer clear, but if severed limbs and spurting wounds are your cup of tea, then The Machine Girl should be the very next movie you watch.







Saturday, January 23, 2016

#1,986. The Three Musketeers (1973)


Directed By: Richard Lester

Starring: Oliver Reed, Raquel Welch, Richard Chamberlain



Tag line: ". . . One for All and All for Fun!"

Trivia: Timothy Dalton and Jon Finch both turned down the opportunity to play D'Artagnan








Based on the classic novel by Alexandre Dumas but with a twist of humor added by screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser, 1973’s The Three Musketeers is a star-studded, action-packed adventure that, on occasion, will also make you laugh.

It’s the 17th century, and D’Artagnon (Michael York), an ambitious young provincial, is hoping to join the king’s musketeers. Shortly after arriving in Paris, however, he runs afoul of Athos (Oliver Reed), Porthos (Frank Finlay), and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain), all of whom are musketeers themselves. Each challenges the over-confident D’Artagnon to a duel, but instead of fighting one another, the four team up to battle troops loyal to Cardinal Richelieu (Charlton Heston), a religious leader who, with the help of his right-hand man Rochefort (Christopher Lee), is trying to discredit Queen Anne (Geraldine Chaplin).

After defeating the Cardinal’s men, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis help D’Artagnon settle in, giving him money to hire a servant (Roy Kinnear) and find lodgings for the night. As it turns out, the landlord who runs the boarding house where D’Artagnon stays, an elderly man named Bonacieux (Spike Milligan), is married to Constance (Raquel Welch), a woman half his age who is also the Queen’s dressmaker. After discovering that Richelieu intends to tell the King (Jean-Pierre Cassel) about Queen Anne’s dalliance with the British Ambassador, the Duke of Buckingham (Simon Ward), Constance asks D’Artagnon to help quell the situation. Aided by his new pals the Three Musketeers, D’Artagnon does what he can to protect the Queen’s reputation, but are Richelieu and his accomplices, which includes the lady de Winter (Faye Dunaway), more formidable than the young man initially realized?

The most impressive thing about The Three Musketeers is its cast, starting with the musketeers themselves. From Oliver Reed’s brooding, no-nonsense Athos to the flamboyance of Finlay’s dapper Porthos; and from the quiet, sometimes pious ladies’ man Aramis to the eager newcomer D’Artagnon, each has his own distinct personality, making them all the more interesting as the story progresses. In addition, Raquel Welch delivers one of the finest performances of her career as the clumsy but beautiful Charlotte (the role won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical), and Geraldine Chaplin is effective as the dutiful Queen who has fallen in love with another man. Toss in Roy Kinnear and Spike Mulligan, both of whom generate a fair number of laughs, and you have one hell of a collection of stars.

Most fascinating of all, however, are the film’s villains: far from the evil, moustache-twirling baddies you find in other movies, Heston’s Cardinal Richelieu and Lee’s Rochefort are laid back, approaching things with a cold detachment that makes them seem even more sinister.

Equally as strong are the sword-fighting sequences. Unlike the rest of the movie, which is comedic in nature, these battles are fairly intense, and have an air of genuine danger about them (several performers were actually wounded, including Oliver Reed, who almost died when he was stabbed in the throat during the windmill sequence). Choreographed by William Hobbs (who also worked on such films as Flash Gordon, Excalibur, and Rob Roy), these fights are guaranteed to drag you to the edge of your seat.

Originally intended as a three hours plus epic, The Three Musketeers was instead split in two, with the second half of the story released a year later (as The Four Musketeers). I have yet to see this sequel, but after spending time with these well-realized characters, I admit I’m looking forward to it.







Friday, January 22, 2016

#1,985. Stormchasers (1995)



Directed By: Greg MacGillivray

Starring: Surindra Bhandari, Howard Bluestein, Hal Holbrook





Trivia: Winner of a Gold Camera Award at the U.S. International Film & Video Festival








Before Jan De Bont’s Twister, before the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers series, there was this 1995 IMAX film. Directed by Greg McGillivray, Stormchasers captures the excitement as well as the intensity of tracking down a major storm, all in an effort to collect data that might help researchers and scientists better understand these forces of nature and, if possible, save the lives of those in harm’s way.

Both in the air (the film opens with a wind glider heading into a storm, then later we join a military aircraft as it flies into the eye of a hurricane) and on the ground (Professor Howard Bluestien of the University of Oklahoma and some of his students travel the Midwest’s Tornado Alley looking for twisters), Stormchasers follows brave men and women as they risk their lives to understand what it is that makes these storms tick. Narrated by Hal Holbrook and with a score composed by Patrick Williams, Stormchasers is jam-packed with thrills.

I have to admit that I get a charge out of watching movies like Twister and Stormchasers, and I’d love to be part a group like the ones presented in this documentary, whether it be climbing aboard a plane to check out an impending hurricane (these segments date back to 1993, when Hurricane Emily plowed into the Outer Banks of North Carolina) or hauling ass to catch up to a thunderstorm (in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, we watch a tornado form in the clouds, then touch down). Though it does spend some time explaining the science behind these storms (with CG reenactments to show us what causes them to spring up), Stormchasers is at its best when following those who throw caution to the 120 MPH wind.







Thursday, January 21, 2016

#1,984. To the Arctic (2012)


Directed By: Greg MacGillivray

Starring: Meryl Streep, Leanne Allison, Karsten Heuer



Tag line: "A story of love, family and survival in the harshest place on Earth"

Trivia: While making this film, its crew followed a polar bear family for 7 straight days







There are few truly wild places left, and none so majestic as this

Produced for IMAX theaters (and originally released in 3-D), To the Arctic travels to the top of the world, where only the strong survive. But with the ice caps melting at an alarming rate, it may soon be impossible for any creature, great or small, to call this harsh, wondrous region their home.

Narrated by Meryl Streep and featuring the music of Sir Paul McCartney, director Greg McGillivray’s 2012 film To the Arctic is a gorgeous yet informative motion picture about one of the coldest places on earth (temperatures regularly drop to 30 below in winter). The “stars” of the movie are a polar bear mother and her two cubs, which, according to a behind-the-scenes documentary, the crew of To the Arctic followed for seven full days, capturing moments both funny (hoping to avoid getting wet, one cub leaps onto a free-floating patch of ice, then moves quickly around it as the ice turns over under his weight) and frightening (it’s not uncommon for adult male polar bears to make a snack out of a young cub, and we watch as the mother and her brood scurry across the ice for miles to avoid one particularly hungry intruder). Though it documents the habits of several species, including birds, walruses, and caribou, it’s the polar bears who take center stage.

But To the Arctic isn’t just a wildlife documentary; it also delves headfirst into an increasingly serious issue, namely the disappearance of the polar ice caps. Per the film, the area covered by sea ice has shrunk by 25% since 1980, and at the rate it’s melting, the ice could disappear completely by the year 2050. Over the course of the movie, we see how the vanishing ice is affecting the polar bears, who, in their search for food, must now swim out even further, and, on occasion, come home empty handed (a story is told of one polar bear that swam for 9 days and over 400 miles to feed her young cub, only to find it dead when she returned). Joined by scientists and sailors who’ve dedicated a fair portion of their life to this region, we learn just how devastating this problem could potentially be, both for the Arctic and the entire world, and suggestions are made as to how the melting, if not eliminated, can at least be slowed.

Every bit as beautiful (along with scenes of the Northern Lights illuminating the sky, the movie features some amazing underwater photography), and equally as entertaining (thanks to its trio of polar bears) as your standard IMAX documentary, To the Arctic also serves a greater purpose, and here’s hoping its message doesn’t fall on deaf ears.







Wednesday, January 20, 2016

#1,983. The Final Girls (2015)


Directed By: Todd Strauss-Schulson

Starring: Taissa Farmiga, Malin Akerman, Adam DeVine



Line from the film: "They won't be singing Kumbaya... they'll be screaming Kumba-no!"

Trivia: The car accident at the beginning of the film was entirely computer generated but the car crash and explosion at the camp was done practically






Director Todd Strauss-Schulson’s 2015 film The Final Girls is a tribute to / spoof of the slasher films of the 1980s that also relates the touching tale of a girl trying to reconnect with the mother she lost years earlier.

Max (Taissa Farmiga) is the daughter of late actress Amanda Cartwright (Malin Akerman), who, back in 1986, appeared in a movie titled Camp Bloodbath, a slasher flick that has since gained a cult following. Spurred on by Duncan (Thomas Middleditch), a horror film fanatic and the step-brother of her best friend Gertie (Alia Shawkat), Max agrees to attend a screening of Camp Bloodbath, which, coincidentally, is being held on the third anniversary of her mom’s death. Joined by Chris (Alexander Ludwig), who has a thing for Max; and Vicki (Nina Dobrev), Chris’s overbearing ex, Max, Gertie, and Duncan make their way into the theater and settle in for what they hope will be an entertaining evening.

The good times come to an abrupt end, however, when a quick spreading fire breaks out during the screening, trapping everyone, including the five friends, in the middle of a raging inferno. Thinking fast, Max leads Chris, Gertie and the rest to the front of the theater and, hoping to find a way out, cuts a large hole in the screen. But when they all pass through it, instead of an exit, they’re magically transported into the world of the movie! Now, besides having to deal with such obnoxious ‘80s characters as the chauvinistic Kurt (Adam Devane) and the oversexed Tina (Angela Trimbur), Max finds herself face-to-face with a younger version of her mother, who played the kind yet somewhat naïve Nancy. Knowing full well that Nancy and the others are about to be murdered, Max does what she can to save both her friends and the film’s main characters before a vicious masked killer (Dan B. Norris) can finish them off.

From the moment that Max and her pals reluctantly join the cast of Camp Bloodbath, The Final Girls walks a fine line between comedy (their interactions with Kurt, Tina and the rest are often hilarious, as is the flashback scene, where Max and the others are whisked away to a black and white reenactment of the day that the killer, named Billy, was pushed too far by the camp’s counselors) and horror (as with Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, Billy is damn near invincible, and pretty handy with a machete). Yet what I really liked about the movie was the way it handled the relationship between Max and her mom. Having spent time with them in the film’s opening sequence (which also reveals how Amanda died), we know the two were very close, which makes the later scenes between Max and Nancy that much more poignant (the first time she meets her mom’s character, Max’s emotions get the better of her).

Thanks to the excellent performances delivered by both Farmiga and Akerman, this mother / daughter bond brings plenty of emotional depth to The Final Girls, and in so doing introduces a decidedly feminist sensibility to a sub-genre (the slasher) that, in the past, has been criticized for its misogyny.








Tuesday, January 19, 2016

#1,982. Carny (1980)


Directed By: Robert Kaylor

Starring: Gary Busey, Jodie Foster, Robbie Robertson





Tag line: "Where love is just another sucker's game"

Trivia: In Brazil this film was released as DEATH CIRCUS







Patch (Robbie Robertson) and Frankie (Gary Busey) have a good thing going. Workers with a traveling carnival, they operate the dunk cage, with Patch collecting the money out front while Frankie, wearing clown make-up, shouts insults from inside the cage, daring players to try and knock him into the water. Then, one night, 18-year-old Donna (Jodie Foster) walks into their lives. Tired of her small town and sick of her domineering boyfriend (Craig Wasson), she decides to tag along with the carnival as it tours the south. Frankie, who’s starting to fall for Donna, is thrilled to have her around, while Patch is concerned that she might get in the way. To prove her worth, Donna takes a job as an exotic dancer in the “Cooch show” (which ends badly), then helps out Gerta (Meg Foster) in one of the carnival’s many game booths. But when a crime boss named Marvin Dill (Bill McKinney) tries to extort money from Patch and the carnival’s manager, Heavy St. John (Kenneth McMillan), it threatens to put their entire operation out of business.

Directed by Robbie Kaylor, 1980’s Carny works well as a drama, showing how Donna’s arrival has put a strain on Patch and Frankie’s decade-long partnership; and features some good performances from its main cast, especially Busey as the kind, somewhat naïve Frankie, who transforms into the biggest jerk around when he climbs into the dunk cage (the abuse he heaps on players occasionally hits a nerve, causing some of them to try to attack him). Among the supporting players, Elisha Cook Jr is frantic and hilarious as the unhinged carny worker known as “On-Your-Mark”, who has spent 50 years of his life on the road, while Kenneth McMillan’s Heavy St. John is a no-nonsense supervisor who spends most of his time bribing local officials and fighting with bureaucrats who attempt to shut them down (every stop on their tour presents a new challenge, and a new group of politicians looking for a handout).

But where Carny truly excels is in its depiction of carnival life, most of which involves trying to bilk patrons out of their hard-earned cash; one of the first things Gerta teaches Donna is how to flirt with the customers to ensure they keep on playing. And with actual circus performers like The Alligator Man (Emmet Bejano) and the Monkey Woman (Percilla Bejano) joining in on the fun, Carny has a bit in common with Tod Browning’s Freaks, including how life on the road forges a bond between the carny folk, who sometimes go to great lengths to protect their own.

A raw, sometimes edgy portrayal of what goes on behind the scenes of a traveling carnival, Carny shines a light on a way of life that, even in 1980, was beginning to fade away.







Monday, January 18, 2016

#1,981. Reckless (1984)


Directed By: James Foley

Starring: Aidan Quinn, Daryl Hannah, Kenneth McMillan


Tag line: "Girls like TracEy never tell their parents about guys like Rourke"

Trivia: After seeing Aidan Quinn in this film, director Martin Scorsese hired him to play Jesus in the original Paramount Pictures development of The Last Temptation of Christ (which later got canceled)






1984’s Reckless featured a number of cinematic firsts. Aside from the directorial debut of James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross), it was Chris Columbus's (writer of Gremlins and The Goonies) first produced screenplay, and marked the screen debuts of both Aidan Quinn (The Mission, Legends of the Fall) and Jennifer Grey (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dirty Dancing). The story of a rebellious high-school student living in a working-class community, Reckless set itself apart from the teen-centric movies of its day, and had more in common with ‘50s classics like Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One than it did the films of John Hughes (Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club).

Johnny Rourke (Quinn) used to be one of the “good kids”, and is still a starting player on his school’s football team. Recently, however, Johnny has become an outcast, with no idea what he wants to do with his life, but knowing full well that he wants to do it someplace else. At the annual dance, Johnny is randomly paired with Tracey Prescott (Daryl Hannah), a cheerleader who lives on the “right” side of town. Yet, despite their different upbringings (Johnny’s father, played by Kenneth McMillan, is a laborer at a Steel Mill), the two hit it off, much to the annoyance of Tracy’s longtime boyfriend Randy Daniels (Adam Baldwin). For the reclusive Johnny, falling in love is something he’s never experienced before, but will Tracey turn her back on the only life she’s ever known to be with him, or will she succumb to peer pressure and toss Johnny aside?

Everything in this movie clicks, starting with the performances of its two leads. Daryl Hannah is convincing as the good girl trying to hide her dark tendencies (early on, while out driving with Randy and her friends, Tracey plays a game of chicken with Johnny, who’s steered his motorcycle into her lane. Ignoring Randy and the others, who are telling her to pull over, Tracey continues to drive straight towards Johnny, hoping he’ll be the first one to blink). As for Quinn, who looks like James Dean and mumbles like Marlon Brando, he’s equally as good as the anti-hero looking to get out.

In addition, the steel mill, which employs practically the entire town (including Johnny’s father), looms heavy in the background throughout most of Reckless, and is all Johnny and the others can see when peering out the window at school. Shot on-location in communities in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio, the film makes great use of its blue-collar setting, and shows us why Johnny is so anxious to break free. Throw in a rocking ‘80s soundtrack and James Foley’s dynamic direction (at the school dance, Johnny and Tracey hop about to Romeo Void’s “Never Say Never”, and as they do, the camera moves continuously in a circle around them, resulting in a scene with an incredible amount of energy), and you have a teen angst movie that’s as vibrant as it is dramatic.

John Hughes was, without a doubt, the voice of this particular generation, but with Reckless, Foley, Columbus, and Quinn shouted back a little, giving us a couple of kids who looked around and saw that they wanted more out of life than their parents, or their town, could give them. Well made in every respect, Reckless is 1950’s rebellion updated for an ‘80s crowd.







Sunday, January 17, 2016

#1,980. The American Dreamer (1971)


Directed By: L.M. Kit Carson, Lawrence Schiller

Starring: Dennis Hopper, L.M. Kit Carson, Lois Ursone




Line from the film: "The artist must really be alone. He has to be alone"

Trivia: As originally intended, this film played mostly on college campuses






After the surprise success of Easy Rider, its director (and co-star), Dennis Hopper, became one of the hottest commodities in the motion picture industry. Hoping he’d deliver another box-office sensation, Universal studios gave Hopper $1 million dollars, as well as full creative control over his next film, a pet project of his titled The Last Movie. Once production wrapped on The Last Movie (which was shot on-location in Peru), Hopper, to avoid the executives in Hollywood, set up shop at a house in Taos, New Mexico, where he would spend months editing the film.

The American Dreamer, a 1971 documentary by L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller, chronicles this long, arduous post-production process, and, in addition, is an in-depth exposé of the filmmaker himself.

Shot mostly in Taos, The American Dreamer does, on occasion, provide a glimpse into the filmmaking process. There are scenes with Hopper in the editing bay, discussing The Last Movie with co-editor David Berlansky, and at one point we eavesdrop on a meeting between Hopper and his agent, who’s gently pressuring his client to give the studio an idea of when the film might be finished. But it’s clear early on that, at this stage of his career, post-production wasn’t one of Hopper’s strengths (while with Berlansky, he calls the editing process “boring”), and it’s not long before we realize he’d rather be doing something else.

Sure enough, Hopper spent more time partying in New Mexico than he did working on The Last Movie. In one of The American Dreamer’s more explicit sequences, he jumps into a bathtub with two naked girls, then proceeds to make love to them. With plenty of alcohol and marijuana to keep him "busy" (not to mention a steady stream of women), it’s a wonder Hopper got any work done at all (which might explain why The Last Movie was a critical and commercial disaster, a film so bad it’s listed in the book “The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made”).

But, in my opinion, the best scenes in The American Dreamer aren't set in either the editing bay or the bathtub. At several intervals throughout the film, Hopper talks directly to the camera, discussing his past and divulging his innermost thoughts and feelings (“I know that now, I’m really lonely”, he says early on, adding that it’s the role of the artist to be alone, even if “being alone is a painful scene”). Away from the groupies and the hangers-on, Hopper reveals more about himself in these sequences than he does at any other point in the film.

Yet, despite its behind-the scenes revelations and unbridled debauchery, The American Dreamer is not a pure documentary; much of it was obviously staged (like the moment when Hopper, making a statement about the absurdity of suburban life, strips off his clothes and strolls bare-ass naked down a neighborhood street). In fact, in a recent interview, co-director Lawrence Schiller called The American Dreamer not a documentary, but a movie in which “an actor plays himself”. Still, there’s no denying the film has its share of genuine sequences (at one point, Hopper chastises Schiller for continuously filming people who didn’t want to participate), and even if Hopper was acting, there were times when he let his guard down (especially when discussing his still photographs, which were clearly very important to him).

So, is The American Dreamer a document of a filmmaker’s self-destructive nature, or is it a premeditated farce? I’m guessing the truth lies somewhere in-between. And even though Hopper’s philosophical observations sometimes feel like the ramblings of an egotist, The American Dreamer remains a fascinating study of an artist who, however briefly, lost interest in the creative process and let himself go.







Saturday, January 16, 2016

#1,979. The Cyclops (1957)


Directed By: Bert I. Gordon

Starring: James Craig, Gloria Talbott, Lon Chaney Jr.



Tag line: "50 FT. HIGH MAN-THING in a land of NATURE GONE MAD!"

Trivia: Though much of the action takes place in two different canyons, all scenes for both were shot in California's fabled Bronson Canyon







Over the course of his career, director Bert I. Gordon made a number of films featuring giant radioactive monsters, including Beginning of the End, The Amazing Colossal Man, Earth vs. the Spider and Empire of the Ants. The Cyclops, a 1957 black and white horror / sci-fi flick, is yet another example of Gordon’s penchant for huge creatures, and while I did have some issues with the movie, the monsters themselves were impressive.

Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott) is convinced that her fiancé Bruce, whose plane crashed in a remote region of Mexico three years earlier, is still alive. In an effort to find him, she leads an expedition south of the border, with scientist Russ Bradford (James Craig), miner Marty Melville (Lon Chaney Jr.), and pilot Lee Brand (Tom Drake) joining her on this grand adventure. Ignoring the opinions of her traveling companions, all of whom believe that Bruce is dead (it has, after all, been years since anyone last heard from him), Susan sets out into the wilderness, only to discover that every animal she encounters has grown to an enormous size. Russ believes these incredible mutations were caused by some sort of radioactive material in the ground below them, and that, if they stick around for much longer, it may begin to affect them as well. Still, Susan is determined to track Bruce down, and insists that they continue looking. Yet none of the four were prepared for what they eventually found… 

Utilizing the special effects that were available to him at the time, Gordon fills The Cyclops with a number of gargantuan creatures, including two lizards (who fight each other to the death), a tarantula, and my personal favorite, a 12-foot-tall hawk that snacks on a giant rodent. Even more imposing is the cyclops itself, a deformed humanoid (with one good eye) that towers over the main characters. Though primitive in nature (it grunts and snarls continuously), this cyclops does occasionally show signs of intelligence (instead of crushing the plane that Susan and the others arrived in, he studies it, as if recalling something from his own past), causing us (and the main characters) to wonder whether or not he is truly a monster. While the other mammoth-sized creatures were indeed extraordinary, the cyclops was, without a doubt, the best of the bunch.

It’s a shame that Gordon didn’t dedicate as much time to instructing his actors as he did the special effects. The normally reliable Lon Chaney Jr. goes a bit overboard as the slimeball Marty (at one point, he tries to convince Lee to fly him to safety, leaving Susan and Russ behind), though I give him credit for at least trying. Gloria Talbott, on the other hand, shows no life whatsoever as the woman supposedly risking it all for love (she barely reacts when a giant monster pops into view; and often delivers her lines as if she’s reading them off a cue card). Usually a strong actress (she was great as the selfish daughter in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows), Talbott looked bored throughout The Cyclops, and her lack of energy bogged down scenes that might have otherwise packed a punch. 

The acting aside, The Cyclops is a decent giant monster movie, created by a man who, over the years, would become an expert in that particular sub-genre.







Friday, January 15, 2016

#1,978. Arabia (2011)


Directed By: Greg MacGillivray

Starring: Hamzah Jamjoon, Helen Mirren





Tag line: "Travel to an exotic and extraordinary land"

Trivia: This movie was originally presented in 3-D








The desert... Mecca.... camels... oil.

For most of my life, these are the things that popped immediately to mind when thinking of the Arabian Peninsula, an area of the world that (aside from the above aspects) always seemed shrouded in mystery. Arabia, a 2011 IMAX film, peels back the curtain to reveal a country much different than I ever imagined.

Narrated by Helen Mirren and Hamzah Jamjoon (a film student and native Arabian), Arabia is both a gorgeously shot travelogue, detailing some of the country’s most stunning sights; and a history lesson, going back thousands of years to teach us about what is now known as Arabia’s two Golden Ages. Some of the images are familiar: there’s Riyadh, Mecca (both seen from the air), and the desert itself (the filmmakers even managed to capture a fierce sandstorm). A fair portion of Arabia is also dedicated to a religious ceremony in Mecca (truly an inspiring sequence), and there’s a brief discussion about camels, and why they’re the perfect beasts of burden for this corner of the globe.

Yet Arabia also surprised me on more than one occasion. Along with its large population of camels, the area is home to other several creatures as well, including, if you can believe it, baboons (per the film, when the Red Sea formed 25 million years ago, it trapped animals that were originally African in the peninsula, forcing them to adapt to the harsh, dry conditions). More surprising than this even is the fact that Arabia features an underwater exploration of various shipwrecks in the Red Sea, a few of which date back to ancient times. If there was one thing I didn’t expect to see in a documentary titled Arabia, it was undersea photography!

I also enjoyed learning about the country’s rich history. Some two thousand years ago, Arabia’s first Golden Age was brought about by the Nabataeans, desert dwellers who produced vast quantities of Frankincense, which was then shipped to all corners of the Roman Empire. Even more amazing was the area’s Second Golden Age, which occurred while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. During this period, Arabia was itself a vast empire, stretching across four continents. More importantly, it was the center of scientific discovery, giving birth to modern Algebra and advancing the study of physics centuries before Isaac Newton was born.

Like many of the fine films produced by MacGillivray Freeman (including Coral Reef Adventure and Journey into Amazing Caves), Arabia is a remarkable documentary that takes full advantage of its large-screen format (it was originally released in 3-D), a motion picture as beautiful as it is informative, shining a light on a civilization that, up until now, had remained almost entirely in the shadows.







Thursday, January 14, 2016

#1,977. The Walk (2015)


Directed By: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Guillaume Baillargeon



Tag line: "Every dream begins with a single step"

Trivia: Philippe Petit himself personally trained Joseph Gordon-Levitt how to walk on a tightrope








Like many people, I was wowed by the Academy Award-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire, which told the incredible story of Phillippe Petit, the acrobat who, in 1974, strung a high wire between the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center, then staged one of the most death-defying stunts ever conceived by walking across it several times (without the use of safety equipment). The Walk, a 2015 film directed by Robert Zemeckis, is a dramatization of these same events, bringing to life both the tension and the exhilaration of this extraordinary achievement while, at the same time, paying tribute to the two buildings at the heart of it all.

It was in 1973 that Petit (Joseph Gordon Levitt) first learned about New York’s Twin Towers (which, at that point, were still under construction). His obsession with tightrope walking stretched back to his childhood, when, one night at the circus, he saw the White Devils, a high-wire family act headed up by Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley). Anxious to learn how to walk the wire himself, the brash young Petit eventually convinced Papa Rudy to train him, and was soon earning money on the streets of Paris, setting up his wire anywhere he could and performing for the passers-by. It was during this time that Petit met two of his future “accomplices”: Annie (Charlotte Le Bon), a street musician; and Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony), a photographer and self-proclaimed revolutionary. Together, these three, along with a mathematician named Jeff (César Domboy), laid the groundwork for what would be the greatest tightrope display of all-time.

Once in New York, Petit and the others managed to recruit a few more accomplices, including American insurance salesman Barry Greenhouse (Steve Valentine), who worked in one of the towers; and J.P. (James Badge Dale), a French expatriate who operated an electronics store. After rounding out the team with photographer Albert (Ben Schwartz) and a stoner named David (Benedict Samuel), Petit put his plan into motion, plotting out every detail, from how he and his cohorts would sneak to the top of the two towers (posing as deliverymen) to the manner in which they’d set up and test the tightrope, ensuring that it’s 100% safe for his history-making (and law-breaking) feat. If all went well, he’d take his first step “into the void” when the sun came up on August 6th. But, as with life itself, things rarely go according to plan, and Petit and the others must overcome several unexpected obstacles to pull off their grand, insane scheme.

One of the things that remained with me after watching Man on Wire was how energetic the real Petit was, and Zemeckis captures this exuberance in The Walk by way of a spirited cinematic style the he employs right from the get-go. After a brief introduction by Gordon Levitt’s Petit (delivered while standing atop the Statue of Liberty), the film flashes back to a year earlier, when he was performing for pedestrians on the streets of Paris. Shot in black and white (with occasional splashes of color thrown in) and accompanied by the catchy music of the time period (including Claude François’ French version of The Archies ‘60s hit “Sugar Sugar”), we follow Petit as he steers his unicycle past outdoor cafes, and exhibits his unique brand of entertainment for the masses. It’s a dynamic opening that also sets the stage for the excitement yet to come.

And that excitement, of course, comes courtesy of Petit’s nerve-racking high-wire acts, including an early performance at a small town fair (which ends badly), and his walk across Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral (another stylish sequence, with Zemeckis following Petit as he steps out onto the rope, only to swoop down to ground level a moment or two later, where we watch alongside the crowd that has gathered below). Though compelling, these initial walks are merely precursors for the main event, and even though we know ahead of time what’s going to happen, the scenes set atop the Twin Towers are as harrowing as they are invigorating.

The casting of American Joseph Gordon Levitt in the lead role may have seemed like an odd choice to some, but time and again in The Walk, the actor proves he was the right man for the job. Conveying his character’s vitality as well as his occasional arrogance (which is especially prevalent when Petit and the others are planning the walk), Gordon Levitt shows why he’s one of the more interesting young actors working in Hollywood today, and the fact the he’s a Francophile (a fan of Jean-Luc Godard’s, he often lists Alphaville and A Woman is a Woman among his favorite films) who speaks the language fluently brought an authenticity to his performance that shines through in practically every scene.

Along with Petit and his history-making exhibition, The Walk also pays homage to the Twin Towers, reminding us time and again just how imposing they were. During his first visit to New York, Petit made his way to the top of one of the towers and, to get a sense of what he’d be dealing with, stepped out onto a beam. But he didn’t stop there. “I had to dare to look down”, he tells us in his dual role as narrator, and it was at that point he knew what he was up against. “It’s impossible”, he said to himself, “but I’ll do it”.

An often thrilling, quite entertaining motion picture, The Walk is a loving tribute to a vibrant personality, an amazing stunt, and two buildings that aren’t there anymore.