Sunday, July 31, 2016

#2,159. Bernie (2011)


Directed By: Richard Linklater

Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey



Tag line: "A story so unbelievable it must be true"

Trivia: Several real residents of Carthage, Texas who knew the real Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent appear in the film providing commentary on the events







The title character in Bernie, a 2011 comedy / drama from director Richard Linklater, is not your typical Jack Black wise-ass. He’s a far cry from Barry, the over-opinionated bully in 2000’s High Fidelity, and is nothing at all like J.B., the delusional, foul-mouthed musician from Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny. Hell, he doesn’t even have anything in common with Dewey Finn, the volatile rocker-turned-school teacher in Linklater’s own 2003 flick School of Rock.

So what was it about the actor that made him right for this particular role? Damned if I know. But I’ll tell you this: Black disappears into the part of the kind-hearted, slightly effeminate funeral director from Carthage, Texas, who befriends a lonely but much-despised widow. As I was watching Bernie, I had to keep reminding myself I was also watching Jack Black. It’s easy to forget it’s him.

Based on a true story, Bernie relates the tale of Bernie Tiede (Black), assistant funeral director and all-around great guy. Active in the community, Bernie befriended practically every resident of Carthage (including the men, despite the fact some thought he was a bit of a sissy). He even won the love and respect of wealthy widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), considered by many to be the meanest woman in East Texas. Over time, what began as a friendship blossomed into something more, with Bernie accompanying Marjorie on trips to Europe, New York, and even Acapulco. Eventually, Bernie cut his hours down at the funeral home and became Marjorie’s personal assistant.

For a while, it seemed like the perfect arrangement. Then Marjorie started putting demands on Bernie’s time, insisting that he be at her side most of the day. She hated the fact he volunteered at the local theater, or spent hours on end flying a small plane (along with everything else, Bernie was a novice pilot). Having been a people person his entire life, Bernie didn’t like having to give up his friends, nor did he enjoy Marjorie’s verbal abuse (she insulted him frequently). So, one afternoon, as the two were walking to the car, Bernie picked up a high-powered air rifle and shot Marjorie four times in the back, then stuffed her body inside a freezer in the garage.

He might have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for Marjorie’s pesky stockbroker, Lloyd Hornbuckle (Richard Robichaux), the only person in town actively looking to speak with the elderly widow. Following a brief investigation, Bernie was arrested for first-degree murder (a full nine months after the shooting). District attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) promised to throw the book at him. One problem, though: nobody in Carthage wanted to see Bernie put away, and a few were actually happy he killed the old lady! With his fellow citizens hounding him to set Bernie free, Davidson did the only thing he could: move the trial to another city. But would even an impartial jury convict a nice guy like Bernie?

Shirley MacLaine is predictably excellent as the overbearing Marjorie, who during her early days with Bernie seems to be a changed woman (he convinces her to attend church services, and she accompanies him to various art shows and theater events). But soon the real Marjorie resurfaces, and it’s more than Bernie can bear. Even a simple lunch date turns acidic; as the two are eating, Bernie tries his damnedest to stop Marjorie from chewing her food 25 times before swallowing (which was pointless, he argues, seeing as she was chewing refried beans). Though not a well-developed character (we learn more about Marjorie after her death than we do while she’s alive), MacLaine still manages to make her believable. McConaughey is also strong as the charismatic D.A. who can’t understand why his friends and neighbors are supporting a murderer, and Linklater’s decision to include documentary style interviews with the townsfolk (some real, others portrayed by professional actors) was a stroke of genius (their insights, presented throughout the movie, act as a sort of narration track, and it’s these interviews that get some of the movie’s biggest laughs).

But Bernie is all about Jack Black, who is near-flawless as the odd, lovable lead character. An overly generous individual who went out of his way to make others happy (he would buy gifts for people for no reason at all), Bernie Tiede, who first moved to the area ten years before the murder, immersed himself in Carthage, joining the church choir and assisting the theater with their musical productions. As with any small town, rumors circulated about Bernie, with some believing he was gay. His boss at the funeral home, Don Leggett (Rick Dial), was convinced Bernie was asexual, even after he started seeing Marjorie (it was a strange relationship. to be sure: not entirely romantic but definitely more than friends). As Bernie, Black wins over the audience as quickly as the real Bernie won over his hometown, and while the shooting is both sudden and disturbing, there’s never a moment when we aren’t on his side.

It might not be as widely known as some of Black’s other movies, but Bernie reveals what the actor is capable of, and I only hope he changes things up again in the future like he did here. The “typical” Jack Black character has its good points, but in Bernie he shows us he can do so much more.







Saturday, July 30, 2016

#2,158. L'Age d'Or (1930)


Directed By: Luis Buñuel

Starring: Gaston Modot, Lya Lys, Caridad de Laberdesque





Tag line: "A surrealist masterpiece"

Trivia: For 50 years, this film remained unavailable to the general public






L’Age d’Or (The Age of Gold) marked the second collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, whose first movie together was the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou. As film historian Robert Short notes in his audio commentary for L’Age d’Or, the financial success of Un Chien Andalou was both a blessing and a curse for its makers, showing the world that motion pictures were a viable medium for the surrealist movement while, at the same time, failing to generate the reaction that Buñuel and Dali had hoped for (it’s embrace by the public was, for them, proof that the film was an artistic flop). Needless to say, they didn’t make a similar mistake with L’Age d’Or, a motion picture that both shocked and appalled audiences, critics, and even the Catholic Church.

Following a short documentary sequence detailing the physicality and behavior of scorpions, L’Age d’Or presents a series of vignettes, loosely tied together by the ongoing difficulties that a man (Gaston Modot) and the woman he loves (Lya Lys) encounter while trying to consummate their relationship. The action shifts from a religious ceremony on a remote island (commemorating the deaths of four bishops) to an aerial view of Rome (though it was actually Paris), the former hub of paganism that is now headquarters for the Catholic Church. 

From there, it’s off to an upper-class party hosted by the woman’s parents, where the man, in his attempt to get close to his lover, pisses off everyone around him. After a brief, yet unfulfilling meeting with the woman in a small garden, the man, in a fit of rage, tears apart a bedroom, tossing everything from a burning fir tree to a bishop out the window. The movie’s grand finale comes courtesy of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, introducing us to the four survivors of a 120-day orgy of sex and violence, one of whom, referred to as the Duke of Blangis (Lionel Salem), looks and acts an awful lot like Jesus Christ!

With imagery that is both bizarre and beautiful, L’Age d’Or takes aim at several well-respected institutions. Those in authority are mocked in an early segment, where the man, arrested for interrupting a religious ceremony with his lewd behavior, is being led off to jail. During the trip, the man presents the arresting officers with paperwork proving he belongs to a local Goodwill chapter, at which point he’s immediately released. His first act after being freed from custody Is to walk across the street and beat up a blind beggar. The sometimes callous attitude displayed by society, including the time-honored family unit, is covered during the party sequence, where revelers fail to notice everything from a horse-drawn carriage parading through the main greeting area to a deadly fire that breaks out in the kitchen.

Perhaps most shocking of all is the film’s attack on religion, which did not go unnoticed by the leaders of the Catholic Church, who condemned the movie (in addition to its scandalous 120 Days of Sodom ending, the final image is that of a crucifix with female scalps nailed to it; and at one point earlier in the film, the woman, sexually frustrated, sucks on the toes of a religious statue adorning her parent’s garden).

There’s a lot going on in L’Age d’Or, some of which I didn’t understand (I’ve no idea what the symbolism was behind the cow in the woman’s bed, or why the hunter shot the child who playfully stole money from him). The film’s central message, at least as I see it, is how the various branches of authority involve themselves in the lives of everyday people, and how their often-puritan ideals prevent a free expression of love. I’ve no doubt this is at least part of what the film was trying to imply, but I’m equally as certain there were other points that went over my head.

Whatever the true meaning (or meanings) of L’age d’Or might be, one thing is certain: Buñuel and Dali (who had a falling out before it was completed, and would never work together again) evoked a reaction from all corners with this movie. A French right-wing group, known as the Patriots, was so enraged by the film that its members disrupted screenings by throwing ink at the screen, and, a while later, the Prefect of Police in Paris had the picture pulled from circulation. Finally, these two champions of surrealism had produced a work that struck a chord with its viewers, one that caused them to look at things in a way most would rather not.

This, I’m sure, made the two of them smile.







Friday, July 29, 2016

#2,157. The Dead (2010)


Directed By: Howard J. Ford, Jonathan Ford

Starring: Rob Freeman, Prince David Oseia, David Dontoh



Premiere: This movie premiered at the 2010 UK Frightfest Film Festival

Trivia: The opening scene in the desert was filmed on one of the last days of shooting







The opening moments of 2010’s The Dead, where a lone figure walks across the Sahara Desert, are absolutely gorgeous, and look as if they might have been lifted from a BBC nature documentary. The serenity of it all is eventually broken, however, by a man, his leg badly mangled (two bones protrude from the side of it), walking towards our protagonist. This man is a zombie, the walking dead, and he’s immediately followed by another… and another… and another. Despite its often-stunning scenery (it was shot on-location in Ghana, Burkina Faso, and other areas of Africa), The Dead is a no-nonsense horror film about a zombie outbreak, and the difficulties that 2 characters face as they try to make their way to safety.

The dead have returned to life in West Africa, and are feeding on the living. Lt. Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman), an American engineer, finds himself stranded when a plane carrying him and a handful of others crashes soon after taking off. The only survivor of the ordeal, Murphy is anxious to find another airport so he can return home to his wife (Katy Richardson) and daughter (Fae Ford-Brister). Along the way, he meets Sgt. Daniel Dembele (Price David Oseia), an African solider searching frantically for his son (Gaal Hama). Working together, they commandeer a vehicle and head deep into the desert, with the dead hot on their trail every step of the way.

Directed by brothers Howard and Jon Ford, The Dead has quite a bit in common with George Romero’s Living Dead series. Along with moving very slowly, the zombies in this film are literally everywhere. As a result, Murphy and Daniel must remain constantly on the move; whenever they stop driving for one reason or another, the dead start lumbering towards them. Sure, they’re easy to outrun (so as not to waste ammunition, neither Murphy nor Daniel will shoot an oncoming zombie until it’s right on top of them), but the living dead are relentless in their pursuit. Even at night, the two leads cannot lose focus or take it easy. This is what gives the movie its tension, which grows stronger with each passing scene.

The gore effects are also excellent, with realistic bite wounds, violent head shots (one zombie gets his face caved in by a shotgun blast), and body parts strewn about (not all those who are bitten get back up; sometimes, there’s nothing left of them but a puddle of blood and guts). All this, plus the vast quantities of living dead that populate the film, make The Dead a highly effective, not to mention very serious, horror flick.

I’m a fan of Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and the like, but it was good to see a movie that reminds us just how frightening zombies can truly be.







Thursday, July 28, 2016

#2,156. Bad Taste (1987)


Directed By: Peter Jackson

Starring: Terry Potter, Pete O'Herne, Craig Smith



Tag line: "Human meat for intergalactic hamburgers"

Trivia: There was never a script for the movie; each scene was filmed from ideas Peter Jackson had come up with during off-time







It took four years for Peter Jackson to finish Bad Taste, a sci-fi / horror / comedy that also marked his directorial debut. With no script and very little money to speak of, Jackson cast his friends (as well as himself) in most of the key roles, and in the process turned out an imaginative, often funny film stocked to its breaking point with blood and guts.

Barry (Pete O’Herne), Frank (Mike Minett), Ozzy (Terry Potter), and Derek (played by Jackson himself), all working for the Government’s Astro Investigation and Defense Services (or AIDS for short), head to the small New Zealand village of Kaihoro to follow up on rumors that creatures from outer space have landed. To their dismay, they find the reports are 100% accurate, and that the aliens, under the leadership of Lord Crumb (Doug Wren), are using the town’s population as an alternate food source! 

Tracking the aliens to a house situated on top of a hill, Barry and the others make plans for an all-out attack designed to finish off the invaders and, if possible, rescue a charity collector named Giles (Craig Smith), who, in less than 24 hours, is to serve as the main ingredient in a special alien stew.

Though he eventually secured a grant from the New Zealand Film Commission, Jackson made the majority of Bad Taste with hardly any funds at his disposal. As a result, the entire movie was shot with a 16mm camera that was well over 20 years old, and most members of the cast had to take on multiple roles (in one particularly insane scene, Derek, played by director Jackson, tortures an alien, also portrayed by Jackson, in the hopes of obtaining information). 

Yet, even with such a low budget, Jackson managed to create some awesome gore effects. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Barry is being chased by an ax-wielding alien who, despite a number of warnings, refuses to drop his weapon. Left with no alternative, Barry shoots the creature several times, though it doesn’t stop coming until the top half of its head has been completely obliterated. This is the first of many scenes to feature spewing brain matter, but the movie’s single most disgusting sequence happens a bit later, when an alien (Jackson again) vomits up a gallon or so of green gunk (as bad as this is, it’s what he and his cohorts do with it that will truly turn your stomach). Jackson would put his penchant for the grotesque to good use a few years later in his zombie classic Dead Alive, and it was fun watching him hone these skills throughout this movie.

In addition to the gore, Bad Taste features some exciting chase sequences, a shootout or two (including a very funny scene with a rocket launcher), and an alien transformation (Jackson reportedly cooked the creature’s masks in his mother’s oven). Put it all together, and you have one of the craziest, messiest, and most entertaining alien invasion movies you’re likely to ever see.







Wednesday, July 27, 2016

#2,155. Ground Floor (2014)




Directed By: Asya Aizenstein

Written by: Asya Aizenstein



Awards: Won the award for Best Short at the 2016 Miami Jewish Film Festival

Trivia: This movie served as it's director's graduation project from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem



A 2014 animated short by Asya Aizenstein, Ground Floor was included as a special feature on the DVD for the 2015 movie Wondrous Boccaccio, recently released by Film Movement. Less than 3 minutes long, Ground Floor was Ms. Aizenstein’s final project for the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and, in her own words, represents “an individual’s reflections on her urban environment”.

Animated in black and white, the film presents a series of shots obviously set in a big city (back alleys; large buildings; passing subway cars; and the always-familiar image of sneakers, tied by the laces, hanging from telephone wires). While many of the scenes possess a gritty, metropolitan feel, they are at times juxtaposed with more serene imagery, including a woman, her body hidden in the shadows, peering out of the darkness at the world around her; and, even more striking, a sequence where what at first appears to be a geometric pattern suddenly springs to life, revealing it's actually a collection of butterflies resting on a city sidewalk (one by one, these butterflies take flight, soaring high above the landscape). An intriguing combination of urban decay and poetic motion, Ground Floor features no dialogue whatsoever (there’s only a musical accompaniment, composed by Yonatan Albalk). But then, none was needed; as with any good animated film (or indeed, movie of any kind), the visuals speak for themselves.

Much like Waves ’98 and Sea Child, Ground Floor was a very personal project for its writer / director, representing her own experiences and observations while at the same time displaying her unique approach to animation. And based on this brief school assignment, I’m sure Ms. Aizenstein has a bright future ahead of her.







Tuesday, July 26, 2016

#2,154. The Deadly Spawn (1983)


Directed By: Douglas McKeown

Starring: Charles George Hildebrandt, Tom DeFranco, Richard Lee Porter



Tag line: "They're here and they're hungry"

Trivia: Gene Simmons of the band 'KISS' currently owns the prop of a severed head that appears in the movie







If there was a Hall of Fame for micro-budget monster movies, 1983’s The Deadly Spawn would be one of its first inductees. A fast-paced, gore-fueled sci-fi / horror flick about carnivorous creatures from outer space, this film is fun with a capital “F”.

It all begins one night when a meteor comes crashing to earth. Two campers (Andrew Michaels and John Arndt), who witnessed the event, decide to investigate, only to be attacked and killed by a man-eating, worm-like creature with enormous teeth. From there, this otherworldly monster makes its way to a nearby home, where it crawls into THE basement through an open window. The next morning, the owners of the house, Sam (James Brewster) and Barb (Elissa Neil), rise early, and quickly become the alien’s newest victims.

The rest of the house’s occupants, which includes the couple’s two sons Pete (Tom DeFranco) and Charles (Charles George Hildebrandt), as well as Aunt Millie (Ethel Michelson) and Uncle Herb (John Schmerling), who are visiting for a few days, wake up later and assume Sam and Barb got an early start on their planned day trip. It isn’t until young Charles goes down in the basement that the truth is discovered. What’s more, the creature spawned during the night, resulting in hundreds of smaller worms that are every bit as hungry as their “mother”!

While Charles, who also happens to be a fan of monster movies, continues to search the basement for clues, life goes on as usual upstairs. Pete, a college student, invites his classmates Ellen (Jean Tafler), Frankie (Richard Lee Porter), and Kathy (Karen Tighe) over for a study date, while Aunt Millie heads to her mother Bunny’s (Judith Mayes) house to help her prepare for a luncheon. It won’t be long, though, before each of them encounters the new “babies”, which seem to be multiplying by the hour. The question is: can these creatures be stopped?

The Deadly Spawn moves along at a brisk pace (its hour and a half runtime flies by), and the performances are better than what you’d find in most low-budget horror movies (the scenes with Pete and his classmates are especially good). Best of all, though, are the special effects, which were overseen by John Dods. The creature, with its gaping mouth and hundreds of teeth, reminded me of those monsters you’d find in ‘50s sci-fi films, while the “baby” aliens took on several forms (they start as wiggling little worms, and grow from there). In addition, there were several very convincing gore scenes. When Charles is in the basement, he spots his mother’s severed head, slowly being devoured by the baby aliens; and later on, Bunny’s luncheon is interrupted by dozens of these otherworldly tykes, one of which attaches itself to her head!

With all of its elements coming together so wonderfully, The Deadly Spawn stands as a shining example of what can be accomplished with a little bit of money and a whole lot of imagination







Monday, July 25, 2016

#2,153. Satan's Sadists (1969)


Directed By: Al Adamson

Starring: Russ Tamblyn, Scott Brady, John 'Bud' Cardos



Tag line: "MOTORCYCLE Maniacs on Wheels -- BREEZY RIDERS Roaring to HELL!"

Trivia: This film was shot at the Spahn Movie Ranch in Simi Valley, CA, at the same time that Charles Manson and his "family" were living there






Any gang that names itself after the Prince of Darkness has quite a reputation to live up to, and in this film’s very first scene we meet a group of bikers who appear to be up to the challenge. While out riding, the gang comes across a couple making out in the woods. Grabbing hold of the guy, they force him to watch as several of their number rape his date. Soon after, the couple, now unconscious (or perhaps dead), is placed in the front seat of their car. Booze is poured over their lips (to give the impression they’ve been drinking), and the car is then pushed over a cliff, breaking apart on the rocks below (if the man and women weren’t already dead, they sure are now).

And with that, Al Adamson’s 1969 biker flick Satan’s Sadists is off and running!

With Anchor (Russ Tamblyn) as their leader, the Satans, which also includes Firewater (John Cardos), Muscle (William Bonner), Romeo (Bobby Clark), Acid (Greydon Clark), Willie (Robert Dix), and Anchor’s main squeeze Gina (Regina Carrol), wreak havoc on the highways of the American Southwest, terrorizing any and all innocent people they meet along the way. Stopping at a roadside diner, the Satans harass a pretty waitress named Tracy (Jackie Taylor), and then turn their attentions towards Nora (Evelyn Frank), the middle-aged wife of Charlie Baldwin (Scott Brady), a cop on a much-needed vacation. To keep the gang at bay, Charlie pulls a gun, but is quickly subdued by Firewater. Another patron, former Marine Johnny (Gary Kent),is knocked cold when he tries to intervene, at which point Anchor leads the Baldwins, as well as Lew (Kent Taylor), who owns the restaurant, outside for a little “fun”, leaving Muscle and Romeo behind to keep an eye on Johnny and Tracy.

Realizing their lives are in danger, a now-conscious Johnny gets the jump on Muscle and Romeo, then, along with Tracy, sneaks out of the restaurant. They then hop into Tracy’s dune buggy and drive away as fast as they can, causing the remaining Satans to give chase. When the dune buggy breaks down in the middle of the desert, Johnny and Tracy head into the nearby hills, in the hopes the rocky terrain will prevent the gang from following on their bikes. Thus begins a tense game of cat and mouse, with Johnny and Tracy doing whatever is necessary to avoid the Satans, who have vowed to keep up the search until the two are found. But with Anchor growing more sadistic by the minute, there’s a good chance the Satans will self-destruct before they can track down their prey.

Filled to its breaking point with violence, Satan’s Sadists is a disturbing, yet ultimately engaging mix of the biker and horror genres, featuring a handful of characters you love to hate. Chief among them is Russ Tamblyn’s Anchor, who, in the early scenes, hangs in the background, quietly watching the other members of his gang while at the same time ignoring Gina, who is obviously in love with him. That all changes the moment Anchor discovers that Charlie Baldwin is a cop. In what is a truly surreal moment, Anchor (holding a gun) chastises the career policeman (and, indeed, all cops) for harassing members of the “Love Generation”, college kids and hippies whose only crime is “growing their hair long, smoking a little grass and getting high” and “writing poetry in the sand”. This dramatic speech is then followed by what might be the film’s most troubling bit of violence, and from then on, Anchor is completely unhinged.

Both Firewater and Gina try talking sense to Anchor, telling him to give up the chase for Charlie and Tracy, but he won’t listen, resulting in even more scenes of shocking brutality. A former Oscar nominee (for 1957’s Peyton Place), Tamblyn is perhaps best known for his performance as Riff in the 1961 award-winning film adaptation of West Side Story, as well as appearances in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, How the West Was Won, and The Haunting. While I wouldn’t rate his turn as Anchor in Satan’s Sadists as one of his all-time best, Tamblyn is nonetheless chilling in the part, providing the movie with what proves to be a very menacing antagonist.

I haven’t yet seen all of Al Adamson’s films, but of the ones I have watched (including Dracula vs. Frankenstein, Brain of Blood, and Cinderella 2000), Satan’s Sadists is far and away the finest of the bunch. As scandalous as it is entertaining, Satan’s Sadists ranks right up there with Easy Rider, The Wild Angels, and Hells Angels on Wheels as one of the best biker movies of the 1960s.







Sunday, July 24, 2016

#2,152. Brave (2012)


Directed By: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman

Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson




Tag line: "Change your fate"

Trivia: This is the first Pixar film set entirely in the historic past








From Snow White to Mulan, Disney’s animation department has turned out its share of well-realized female characters. With 2012’s Brave, the gang at Pixar threw their hat into the Princess ring with a lively, energetic redhead named Merida, and, while the movie surrounding her isn’t one of the studio’s best, watching this feisty Scot do her thing is reason enough to see it.

The setting is Scotland, in Medieval times. Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), daughter of Lord Fergus (Billy Connolly) and his wife Elinor (Emma Thompson), is about to learn the identity of her future husband; as tradition dictates, the eldest son of each clan will compete against one another in the Highland Games for Merida’s hand in marriage. But even as the various clans assemble outside, the young girl announces she has no desire to be tied down, and demands that she be allowed to choose her own path through life. Elinor, who has been trying her best to turn Merida into a proper young woman, will have none of it, and remains as determined as ever to end her daughter’s tomboy ways.

Following a quarrel between the two, Merida angrily rides off into the woods, where, as fate would have it, she meets a witch (Julie Walters) claiming to possess special powers. Merida desperately wants to change her fate, so the witch hands her an enchanted piece of cake, which she claims will do just that. But instead of altering Elinor’s strict adherence to tradition, the cake transforms the Queen into a huge black bear! Now, Merida must race against time to change her mother back before the spell becomes permanent.

Whereas most Pixar movies feature original, highly imaginative plotlines, Brave comes across as ordinary (especially in the film’s second half, which, while exciting at times, feels like your standard, run-of-the-mill adventure yarn). And even though I enjoyed Billy Connolly’s take on Fergus, most of the remaining male characters (i.e. - the clan leaders and their sons) weren’t particularly interesting (though kids might get a kick out of Merida’s ornery younger brothers, a set of triplets who also eat the cake and become bear cubs).
 

But what saves the movie from drifting into mediocrity is the character of Merida, a headstrong Scottish Princess who thumbs her nose at tradition to do as she pleases. In what is easily my favorite scene, the three suitors are competing against each other in an archery contest when Merida, ignoring her mother’s pleas, grabs her bow, rushes onto the field, and announces, quite defiantly, “I’ll be shooting for my own hand” (see if you can guess who wins). While her temper does occasionally get the better of her (she tears an important family tapestry during an argument with Elinor), Merida remains the most appealing individual in Brave, and her sometimes-tumultuous relationship with her mother gives the film all the heart it needs.

There are other aspects of Brave that work quite well, including its depiction of ancient Scotland (the animation is, start to finish, beautiful) and its score (I’m a sucker for Celtic music, which is featured throughout the film). Yet it’s Brave’s lead character that stands tallest. 

If I had a daughter, I’d want her to be exactly like Merida.







Saturday, July 23, 2016

#2,151. Picture Snatcher (1933)


Directed By: Lloyd Bacon

Starring: James Cagney, Ralph Bellamy, Patricia Ellis



Tag line: "His camera takes 'em from love nests to Page One before they can bat an eye---or put on a negligee!"

Trivia: The role of Allison was designed as a comeback part for Alice White







Here’s a nifty little pre-code gem for you: a 1933 comedy / drama starring James Cagney as a former mobster turned newspaper photographer who discovers his new career is as shady and dangerous as his old one.

Gangland leader Danny Kean (Cagney) has just been released from Sing Sing, but instead of continuing his life of crime, he tells his cronies, including second-in-command jerry “The Mug” (Ralf Harolde) that he’s going legit. From there, he contacts newspaper editor J.R. McLean (Ralph Bellamy), who offered to give Danny a job once he got out of prison. Despite his lack of experience, Danny is hired to be a photographer for the Graphic News, a tabloid publication that specializes in gossip and controversy. 

It isn’t long before Danny becomes a valued member of the Graphic News team, and even though he has to occasionally dodge the advances of flirtatious co-worker Allison (Alice White), who happens to be McLean’s main squeeze, Danny is happy to finally put his criminal past behind him. Still, his job requires him to “stretch” the law from time to time, which puts him at odds with the cops, notably Lt. Casey Nolan (Robert Emmett O’Conner), the father of his steady girlfriend, journalism student Pat Nolan (Patricia Ellis). Can Danny win over Pat’s domineering father, or will the love of his life slip through his fingers?

As directed by Lloyd Bacon, Picture Snatcher is a thrill-a-minute, a fast-paced motion picture that contains one pulse-pounding sequence after another. Danny’s first assignment for the Graphic News pits him against a heavily-armed fireman (G. Pat Collins) who, the night before, responded to a blaze in his own apartment, where he found the charred remains of his wife and her lover! Angry and embarrassed, this fireman has been taking potshots at every reporter who's come knocking. Thinking on his feet, Danny not only gets the picture, but sees it plastered all over the front page in the next day’s edition! 

Another sequence has Danny sneaking a camera in to a death row execution and taking an illegal snapshot of a female prisoner the moment she’s electrocuted (this was inspired by a real-life 1928 incident in Chicago, where a reporter, the camera tied to his ankle, photographed murderess Ruth Snyder while she was strapped to the chair). From there, Picture Snatcher features fistfights, car chases, shoot-outs, and, of course, James Cagney, who is himself a formidable force of nature in this film.

The Public Enemy may have made James Cagney a star, but it was roles like Danny in Picture Snatcher that kept him on top, taking his tough-guy persona and peppering it with a splash of comedy. Rattling off dialogue at a rapid-fire pace, Cagney continually makes us laugh, whether he’s duping the cuckolded fireman (telling him he’s an insurance adjuster come to inspect the damages) or putting the frisky Allison in her place (like Mae Clarke before her, poor Alice White gets knocked around a little). Setting aside his nice guy image, Bellamy also shines as the alcoholic editor who takes a chance on Danny (a late scene where a drunken McLean walks in on Danny and Allison is a definite highlight).

Throw in a few loose women (Alice White is especially alluring) and some not-too-subtle sexual innuendo, and you have a rollicking motion picture that thumbed its nose at the censors while also giving audiences of the day exactly what they wanted.







Friday, July 22, 2016

#2,150. Will Penny (1967)


Directed By: Tom Gries

Starring: Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Donald Pleasence




Tag line: "The Brute in Every man Was Also in Him - And the Love and the Violence"

Trivia: First credited role in a theatrical film for Lee Majors.






In movies like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and El-Cid, Charlton Heston played larger-than-life characters whose courage and strength inspired those around them. In Will Penny, a 1967 western written and directed by Tom Gries, he portrays a different sort of hero altogether, a simple cowboy who has spent his entire life in the saddle, and doesn’t know how to live any other way.

Having just finished a cattle run for boss Anse Howard (G.D. Spradlin), 50-year-old cowhand Will Penny (Heston) finds himself in need of a job. Tagging along with fellow cowboys Blue (Lee Majors) and Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe), Will sets off in search of work, hoping to secure a position before the cold weather sets in. Along the way, the trio gets into an altercation with a preacher named Quint (Donald Pleasance), who is traveling with his adult sons Rafe (Brice Dern), Romulus (Matt Clark) and Rufus (Gene Rutherford). During the melee, Will shoots Rufus dead, and a grief-stricken Quint vows to one day take his revenge on the aging cowboy.

Saying goodbye to Blue and Dutchy, Will pays a visit to the Flat Iron Ranch, and is hired by the foreman (Ben Johnson) to be one of the company’s new line riders, keeping an eye on a remote section of the ranch during the upcoming winter. But when he arrives at his new cabin, Will finds a woman named Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett), who, along with her son Horace (Jon Gries), has already moved in. Abandoned by their guide, who was hired by Catherine’s husband to lead them westward, the two have nowhere else to go.

Instead of kicking them out immediately, Will allows them to stay while he’s riding the line. Unfortunately, during his travels, Will once again encounters Quint and his sons, who beat him mercilessly and leave him for dead. Somehow making his way back to the cabin, Will is cared for by Catherine, who treats his wounds and nurses him back to health. As thanks, Will lets her and Horace stay for the winter, during which he experiences something he never has before: family life. Over time, Will and Catherine develop feelings for one another, but does he have it in him to settle down, or is it too late?

What sets Will Penny apart from most screen westerns is the realistic way it depicts the life of a cowboy. Unlike most western heroes, Will Penny is not a sheriff or even a gunslinger; he’s a hired hand, and worries when he’s out of work. Even more revealing are the scenes in which Will interacts with Catherine and Horace. Accustomed to being alone, Will is suddenly living with two other people, and it’s a difficult adjustment for him. Even the simple things most of us take for granted are a challenge; In one of the film’s more poignant scenes, Catherine tries to teach Will a Christmas song, so that he can join in the next time she and Horace are singing (to her amazement, he doesn’t know a single carol). Over time, he and Catherine develop feelings for one another, which leads to even more complications (Will has a hard enough time providing for himself, let alone a small family). Though excellent throughout the entire film, Heston is particularly superb in these scenes, capturing the shyness and uncertainly of a man out of his element who believes he’s too old to change his ways.

There are a handful of action scenes scattered throughout Will Penny, not the least of which is its exciting finale. But despite the occasional thrill, the movie is more a character study than it is a traditional western, and thanks to the fine work of it’s star (with an assist from the intelligent, realistic script), it’s a memorable one at that.







Thursday, July 21, 2016

#2,149. Lady in White (1988)


Directed By: Frank LaLoggia

Starring: Lukas Haas, Len Cariou, Alex Rocco



Tag line: "The year is 1962. The place is Willowpoint Falls. Nobody talks about what happened in the school cloakroom 10 years ago. Now, in the dead of night, Frankie Scarlatti is going to find out why"

Trivia: Lukas Haas and Katherine Helmond were both nominated for a Saturn Award in 1990






When I think of horror films that are geared towards kids, the ones that usually leap to mind are The Monster Squad, The Gate, Gremlins, and even Poltergeist. Going forward, I’ll be adding Lady in White to that list as well. A 1988 ghost tale written and directed by Frank LaLoggia. Lady in White will give the young’uns goosebumps, and packs enough of a wallop to keep their parents watching along with them.

We travel back to 1962, to the sleepy community of Willowpoint Falls. Like most kids in the area, young Frankie Scarlatti (Lukas Haas) comes from a good home; he lives with his widowed dad (Alex Rocco), his grandparents (Renata Vanni and Angelo Bertolini), and his older brother Geno (Jason Presson). Stopping in from time to time to also pay Frankie a visit is Uncle Phil (Len Cariou), his father’s best friend, who was all but adopted into the clan years earlier when his parents passed away. Yet, while things seem pretty normal on the surface in this quaint small town, a darkness hangs over the citizens of Willowpoint Falls in the form of a serial killer who, over the past decade or so, has murdered 10 children. Nobody knows who this psychopath is, or, worse still, when he will strike next.

But seeing as its Halloween, Frankie isn’t concerning himself with such things; he’s busy enjoying his class’s Halloween party, and is looking forward to trick or treating later on. Unfortunately, two of his classmates play a practical joke on Frankie by locking him in the school’s cloakroom, with the intention of leaving him there all night long. Frankie’s anger and disappointment soon turns to terror, however, when, on the stroke of ten, the ghost of Melissa Ann Montgomery (Joelle Jacobi), the killer’s first victim, appears in the cloakroom, re-enacting the night she was murdered (she was killed in that very room). Moments later, the door is kicked open, and a man walks in. All at once, Frankie realizes he’s face-to-face with the killer! Luckily for the young boy, his dad, who had been out looking for him, interrupted the killer before he could finish off Frankie as well. As a result of this near-tragedy, the police arrest the school’s custodian, an African American man named Harold Williams (Henry Harris), and charge him with attempted murder. But is he really the guilty party?

As for Frankie, he continues to receive visits from his new ghostly friend Melissa, who is anxious to reunite with the spirit of her deceased mother, the legendary Lady in White, who every night roams the cliffs by the ocean, looking for her beloved daughter. Frankie does his best to help Melissa, and while doing so makes a startling discovery that could prove the cops have the wrong man in custody.

From early on, you can tell Lady in White was intended for a younger audience. Along with some corny humor (most involving the grandfather’s attempts to hide his smoking from his wife), the story is told primarily from Frankie’s perspective (we spend a good deal of time in the classroom with him, and listen in as he reads one of his monster stories aloud). Yet even with its childlike sensibilities, Lady in White proves to be a decent horror film, with more than its share of creepy scenes (the entire cloakroom sequence is truly frightening). The movie also touches on the racial inequalities of the early 1960s (the town’s sheriff, played by Tom Bower, tells Frankie’s dad that even if Harold Williams isn’t the killer, he’s the perfect scapegoat because “he’s black”). 

At times, the comedy is a bit overdone, and, what’s more, I was able to figure out who the real killer was before the halfway point. Fortunately, these weaknesses aren’t nearly enough to ruin your enjoyment of the film.

Of course, what constituted a “children’s movie” in the ‘80s is much different than what many would consider acceptable today. Aside from some mild profanity (the worst word, if memory serves, is “asshole”), the film’s horror elements could be a little more intense than what modern kids are used to, especially the cloakroom scene (the finale is also pretty strong). So please keep that in mind when deciding whether or not Lady in White is suitable for your child. 

But if you think your kids can handle it, show them Lady in White, and while you’re at it, watch it yourself. None of you will be disappointed.







Wednesday, July 20, 2016

#2,148. Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)


Directed By: Sam Wanamaker

Starring: Patrick Wayne, Jane Seymour, Taryn Power



Tag line: "New!! Sinbad's Boldest And Most Daring Adventure!"

Trivia: After the live action filming was done, it took animator Ray Harryhausen almost 1½ years to do the animation







The third and final chapter in the Sinbad Trilogy, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger was released in 1977, the same summer that another fantasy film known as Star Wars (or Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) hit the scene. While Star Wars represented a leap forward in movie special effects, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger relied on stop-motion animation, which had been in use since the days of silent pictures. Fortunately, the man responsible for creating Sinbad’s effects was Ray Harryhausen, who, despite specializing in such a time-honored, "archaic" process, always found a way to make it seem fresh.

Sinbad (played this time around by Patrick Wayne) has come to the port city of Charak to pay a visit to his good friend Prince Kassim (Damien Thomas) and his sister, Princess Farah (Jane Seymour), who also happens to be the famous sailor’s girlfriend. Arriving several days after the scheduled coronation of Kassim as Caliph, Sinbad assumes the Prince is now the city’s new ruler. But thanks to the evil witch Zenobia (Margaret Whiting), step-mother to the Prince and Princess, the coronation was never completed. It is Zenobia’s wish that her own son Rafi (Kurt Christian) be made Caliph, so as the crown was about to be put on Kassim’s head, she used her magic to turn the Prince into a baboon!

With nowhere else to turn, Princess Farah begs Sinbad to help her brother. To this end, Sinbad gathers up his crew (as well as Kassim and Farah) and sets sail for the Greek island of Casgar, rumored home of the brilliant alchemist Melanthius (Patrick Troughton). Though unable to break Zenobia’s spell himself, Melanthius, who lives alone with his daughter Dione (Taryn Power), recommends they brave the icy waters of the North to visit the remains of the once-great city of Hyperborea, where an advanced race known as the Arimaspi resided. It’s Melanthius’ belief that the town’s sacred temple may house the secret to changing Kassim back to his former self. With time slipping away (if Kassim isn’t made Caliph by the seventh full moon, Rafi will be crowned instead), the group heads north, sailing as quickly as they possibly can. What they don’t realize, however, is Zenobia and Rafi, along with their mechanical servant the Minotaun, are following close behind, and intend to reach the Temple of Hyperborea before our heroes do.

As with many of Harryhausen’s previous films (including the first two Sinbad movies, 7th Voyage and Golden Voyage), the best moments in Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger feature his stop-motion magic. We get a few original creations, like the Minotaun (for the close-up scenes, actor Peter Mayhew, AKA Chewbacca in the Star Wars films, dons the Minotaun suit) and the Troglodyte, an ancestor of mankind’s that is several stories tall. Yet some of Harryhausen’s most impressive work involves not mythical creatures, but real-life ones; the animation he provides for the baboon version of Kassim is among his finest of all-time (there are moments when you believe you’re watching a real animal). And while Sinbad and his crew’s fight with the giant Walrus isn’t particularly exciting, the final battle, in which the Troglodyte squares off against a Sabretooth Tiger, is thrilling as hell.

But along with the animation, I also enjoyed the adventure at the heart of Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Sure, the story itself isn’t original (there are scenes that could have easily been lifted from earlier fantasy films), but it still managed to hold my undivided attention. In some of Harryhausen’s lesser movies, I found myself waiting impatiently for the animated sequences, and didn’t care as much about the quest at the heart of it all (Golden Voyage of Sinbad is one example). This was not the case with this Eye of the Tiger. With the ushering in of high-tech computer graphics, its tale of swordplay and ancient magic may seem antiquated to some, but I had a great time watching this movie.

In fact, I’m kinda sad that Harryhausen didn’t have a fourth Sinbad film in him.







Tuesday, July 19, 2016

#2,147. Mildred Pierce (1945)


Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott




Tag line: "A mother's love leads to murder"

Trivia: The U.S. Navy granted permission to film in Malibu despite wartime restrictions, but asked to be allowed to view all footage shot there







For years, my perception of Joan Crawford was clouded by the 1981 film Mommie Dearest, in which she was portrayed as a half-crazed career woman who hated wire hangers and heaped abuse (both mental and physical) on her daughter Christina. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered her on-screen persona; movies like The Unknown, Grand Hotel, and Rain showed me how beautiful she once was, while 1945’s Mildred Pierce stood as a testament to her immense talent, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that Joan Crawford was one of the finest screen actresses of her day.

We open with a murder: an unknown man is shot dead, and moments later, a woman contemplates ending it all by jumping off a dock into the water below. The woman is Mildred Pierce (Crawford), and the man who is now dead was her second husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Picked up by the police and brought to the station for questioning, Mildred discovers they’ve already made an arrest in the case: her first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett), who has confessed to the killing. But Mildred insists he is innocent, and proceeds to tell the cops her life story in the hopes it will clear Bert’s name.

The movie then presents a series of flashbacks, starting with the day her marriage to Bert ended. Objecting to the way she spoiled their two daughters Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), Bert packed his bags and moved in with the wealthy Mrs. Biederhof (Lee Patrick), with whom he had been romantically involved. Alone and with no income, Mildred took a job as a waitress, working many hours to afford the luxuries that the teenage Veda had grown accustomed to. Using her newfound skills, and with the help of family friend (and Bert’s former partner) Wally Shay (Jack Carson), Mildred rented a rundown house and turned it into a successful restaurant. The owner of that house, and therefore her new business partner, was Monte Beragon.

Through her whirlwind romance with Beragon and a personal tragedy that threatened to tear her family apart, Mildred remained committed to giving her children the best she could afford, especially Veda. But instead of being grateful, Veda complained openly, calling her mother a “common waitress” and demanding that they movie into a better neighborhood. Over time Veda herself grew close to Monte Beragon, who proved every bit as greedy as she was, yet no matter how much Mildred protested, Veda did what Veda wanted.

Of course, none of this answers the $10,000 question: who killed Monte Beragon, and why? The truth does eventually come out, and not even the police can believe what really happened.

The character of Mildred Pierce is a complex one. She refuses to let any man get the better of her, whether it be Bert, Beragon (who she marries for convenience, not love), or Wally Shay (he’s been trying to woo her for years, but Mildred will barely give him the time of day). Yet the inner strength she displays when dealing with members of the opposite sex completely evaporates when it comes to Veda (early on, Mildred tells Bert, in no uncertain terms, that the girls will always be first in her heart). As expected, this preferential treatment turns young Veda into a spoiled brat; using the money she made baking pies for the neighbors, Mildred buys the young girl a new dress. Unfortunately, it doesn’t meet her high standards (Mildred overhears Veda telling Kay that the dress is “cheap”, and that she will never wear it) Crawford (who netted her one and only Oscar for her work here) perfectly conveys her character’s two extremes, and the scenes she shares with Ann Blyth (also quite good as the precocious Veda) are the film’s strongest.

Others had a hand in making Mildred Pierce the excellent motion picture that it is, including screenwriter Ronald MacDougall (like most film noirs, the dialogue is clever and to the point) and director Michael Curtiz (who uses shadows to great effect). In the end, though, it was the movie’s star who made it unforgettable. In a career that spanned almost 50 years, Joan Crawford had her share of great performances, yet her work in Mildred Pierce remains her crowning achievement.







Monday, July 18, 2016

#2,146. Saawariya (2007)


Directed By: Sanjay Leela Bhansali

Starring: Ranbir Kapoor, Sonam Kapoor, Salman Khan



Tag line: "When he first fell in love..."

Trivia: Music director Monty Sharma and director Sanjay Leela Bhansali spent two and a half years working on the film's soundtrack







It only took me about six years to finally get around to a Bollywood film, and while 2007’s Saawariya, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and starring distant cousins Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor, may not have been the ideal movie to start with, it definitely has its charms.

Singer / dancer Ranbir Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) has just blown into town, and quickly wins the heart of the prostitute Gulabji (Rani Mukerji), who, despite her feelings for the young man, knows that a relationship with him is completely out of the question. Hired to perform at a local nightclub, Raj decides to stick around for a while, and rents a room from the elderly Lillian (Zohra Segai), who he affectionately nicknames “Lillipop”. 

One night, Raj meets a mysterious beauty named Sakina (Sonam Kapoor), and falls instantly in love with her. Unfortunately, Sakina is herself head-over-heels for Imaan (Salman Khan), a traveler and former boarder of her grandmother’s. Before leaving, Imaan promised to come back for Sakina, telling her to meet him on the town’s bridge exactly one year later. Will Raj sweep Sakina off her feet before Imaan returns, or is theirs a love that was never meant to be?

With its lavishly decorated sets and spirited dance sequences, Saawariya is an oftentimes stunning visual treat; the opening musical number, where Raj sings the title song as Gulabji watches, gets the movie off to a great start, though my favorite scene is when Raj tries to woo Sakina during a rainstorm. Yet as gorgeous as Saawariya is, it’s the cast itself that is responsible for most of the on-screen magic. Rani Mukerji and Sonam Kapoor are both extraordinary as the ladies in Raj’s life, while Zohra Segai (who was nearly 95 when this film was made) lights up the screen as Lillipop, the initially bitter old woman who warms up to Raj because he reminds her of the son she lost many years earlier. As for the men, Salman Khan is excellent in the brief but pivotal role of Imaan (we see him primarily in flashbacks), but it is Ranbir Kapoor who commands our attention. Ridiculously charismatic, Ranbir dances his way through most of the picture (someone else provided his singing voice), doing so with style to spare.

Where Saawariya falters is in the story department, meaning there isn’t nearly enough of one to keep a feature-length film afloat. It’s not unusual for Bollywood productions to run long (2001’s exceptional Lagaan: Once Upon a TIme in India is just shy of four hours), and by normal standards, Saawariya’s 132 minutes is relatively short. Alas, it’s not quite short enough, and at times the movie is even a little dull.

But in those scenes when Saawariya soars high, it’s truly a marvel to behold.







Sunday, July 17, 2016

#2,145. Bend of the River (1952)


Directed By: Anthony Mann

Starring: James Stewart, Rock Hudson, Arthur Kennedy



Tag line: "The greatness...the glory...the fury...of the Northwest Frontier!"

Trivia: Some of the river scenes were filmed on the Sacramento river in northern California







James Stewart certainly played his share of nice guys throughout his career, from town banker George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life to the uber-friendly and gloriously insane lead in Harvey. But during the handful of westerns he made with director Anthony Mann, the actor stretched his boundaries a bit, giving his “aw shucks” persona a rest in order to portray dark, conflicted characters. In short, he was a bad-ass in these movies, and 1952’s Bend of the River was no exception.

Glenn McLintock (Stewart) is leading a wagon train of settlers westward to Oregon, where they hope to build a new life for themselves. While out scouting for a possible shortcut, he interrupts the lynching of Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), who has been accused of cattle rustling. Not willing to sit back and watch a man hanged by his neck, McLintock rescues Cole, and the two become fast friends. Following an Indian attack, during which Laura (Julia Adams), the daughter of settler Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen), is injured, the band of travelers makes its way to Portland, where they meet gambler Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson) and riverboat captain Mello (Chubby Johnson), among others.

It’s here that McLintock and Cole part ways (Cole talks of heading to California to look for gold, while McLintock is determined to help Baile and the others build a community in the Oregon wilderness). After striking a deal with Portland businessman Tom Hendricks (Howard Petrie), paying him in advance for supplies to be delivered to their new settlement just before winter, McLintock and the pioneers press on, leaving Laura behind to recover from her wounds.

Several months pass, and the settlers, having reached their ultimate destination, are worried because Hendricks has yet to show up with their supplies. To find out what’s happened, McLintock and Baile return to Portland, where they discover a town now booming thanks to the recent gold rush. Cole (who never did get to California) and Trey Wilson have opened up their own casino, and are raking in tons of money. What’s more, Cole is now romantically involved with the fully-recovered Laura, and plans to marry her as soon as possible. To make matters worse, Hendricks, realizing the gold prospectors will pay him more, has reneged on his promise, and refuses to release the supplies. This leads to a showdown in the streets of Portland, during which McLintock, aided by Cole and Trey Wilson, steals the supplies and escapes on Captain Mello’s boat. But before they reach the new settlement, McLintock and Baile will learn that Hendricks isn’t the only one suffering from “Gold Fever”.

As played by Stewart, McLintock is an honorable man who always keeps his word, but there are hints that he’s also running from his past (he was a raider during the Civil War, and did things he clearly isn’t proud of). Helping Baile and the others is his way of setting things straight, but don’t think for a minute that McLintock’s desire to change has weakened his resolve in any way. During the attack that injured Laura, he and Cole rush into the surrounding woods to take on the Indians, with each man saving the others’ life before the melee is over. In addition, McLintock gets ornery as hell when someone double-crosses him (as Hendricks quickly discovers). Stewart does a remarkable job bringing this complex character to life, embodying the decency as well as the inner fire that steers his actions.

Yet as good as Stewart is, it’s the overall flow of the film, the organic way in which its story unfolds, that impressed the hell out of me. Like all of Mann’s westerns (The Furies, Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, etc)., Bend of the River moves effortlessly from one situation to the next, turning its back on formula and convention in favor of a more natural form of storytelling (the showdown with Hendricks in Portland is followed by the escape on Captain Mello’s steamboat, which then evolves into some tense scenes on-land when McLintock faces dissention within his own ranks). As a result, we the audience are swept up by what’s happening on-screen, watching intently with no idea what’s coming next (Mann’s westerns are never predictable).

There’s a spirit of spontaneity that permeates throughout Bend of the River, which, combined with Stewart’s superb performance, makes for an exciting and altogether unique motion picture.







Saturday, July 16, 2016

#2,144. The Black Castle (1952)


Directed By: Nathan Juran

Starring: Richard Greene, Boris Karloff, Stephen McNally


AKA: In Sweden the film was released as The Castle of Dread

Trivia: The film was made in the United States but premiered in Sweden








A horror movie with two of the genre’s biggest and brightest relegated to supporting roles? Sounds kinda fishy to me. But the truth of the matter is that 1952’s The Black Castle, a film with both Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr., has great atmosphere and a solid story to boot, and doesn’t need star power to carry it through.

Set in the 19th century, The Black Castle stars Richard Greene as Sir Ronald Burton, a former military commander who travels to Austria in search of his two missing comrades. They were last seen at the estate of Count Von Bruno (Stephen McNally), a former adversary who, it turns out, is seeking revenge against the trio of British officers who defeated his forces in Africa (Burton’s friends were two of them, and Burton himself is the third). Using the assumed name “Richard Beckett”, Burton scores an invite to the Baron’s estate, and once there begins looking for clues as to what might have happened to his old pals.

But Instead of uncovering evidence, Burton falls in love with the Baron’s long-suffering wife Elga (Rita Corday), who has grown to despise her husband. Avoiding both the Baron’s mute assistant Gargon (Chaney) and the mysterious Dr. Messien (Karloff), Burton tries to smuggle Elga out of the castle, only to find that escaping the Baron’s clutches is easier said than done.

The Black Castle impressed me right off the bat with its dark, ominous set pieces (the opening scene takes place in a crypt), and reminded me of the classic Universal horror movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s (to add to its overall creepiness, the sequence is narrated by a character who may or may not be already dead). Then, once the film got rolling, I was drawn in by its story of intrigue and revenge, thanks in large part to the performances of Greene (quite good as the hero) and McNally (who seemed to be having the time of his life portraying the sinister Baron).

As for its horror royalty, Karloff fares a little better than Chaney (at least Dr. Messien was given a few lines of dialogue; the mute Gargan grunts his way through most of the picture). Not that it matters, though, because even without Karloff and Chaney, The Black Castle is a winner.







Friday, July 15, 2016

#2,143. Zombie 5: Killing Birds (1987)


Directed By: Claudio Lattanzi

Starring: Lara Wendel, Robert Vaughn, Timothy W. Watts



AKA: This film was also known as Dark Eyes of the Zombie

Trivia: The house featured in the beginning of the film is the same used in Lucio Fulci's The Beyond







Directed by Claudio Lattanzi, Killing Birds was released in some areas of the world with the additional title Zombie 5, making it yet another entry in an unofficial series that began with Lucio Fulci’s 1979 gorefest, Zombie. It’s a strange designation when you think about it, seeing as this 1987 horror film doesn’t actually feature any zombies until the very end. But to be honest, this is just one of many aspects of Zombie 5: Killing Birds that will have you scratching your head.

A soldier (whose face we never see) has just finished his tour of duty in Vietnam, and is heading home to surprise his wife (Brigitte Paillet) and meet, for the first time, his infant son. Unfortunately, it’s the soldier himself who gets the shock of a lifetime when he opens the bedroom door and finds his beloved asleep in the arms of another man! In a fit of rage, the solider kills both the lover and his wife (slashing their throats), then turns his anger towards his in-laws (Ellis and Nona Paillet), who had been babysitting. Arrested for the crime, the soldier is eventually taken to a mental hospital, where he says goodbye to his young son before being led inside…

Flash forward 20 years: college student Steve Porter (Timothy W. Watts) is thrilled to learn his senior project has been green-lit by the school’s administrators. Joined by his friends Paul (James Villemaire), Mary (Leslie Cumming), Rob (James Sutterfield) and Jennifer (Lin Gathright), he heads deep into the Louisiana wilderness to track down a woodpecker that’s been put on the endangered list. Along with former flame / school reporter Anne (Lara Wendel) and local official Brian (Sal Maggiore Jr.), the group first pays a visit to Mr. Fred Brown (Robert Vaughn), a blind researcher and the only one who knows where the woodpecker hangs out. From there, Steve and his pals set up shop in an abandoned house (as fate would have it, the very same house from the opening scene). But during that first night, several of the college chums disappear without a trace, and it isn’t until much later in the evening that the others realize they’re not entirely alone.

With the exception of the always-interesting Robert Vaughn (hidden behind dark glasses and some gnarly-looking make-up), the acting in Zombie 5: Killing Birds is pretty awful, with the worst performance of them all delivered by the lead, Timothy Watts (it’s no surprise this was his only film credit). In addition, the whole “college researchers” section of the movie takes a while to get rolling, with several scenes inserted to pad out the running time (including a laughable music-fueled montage of the group relaxing by the side of a lake). Yet what annoyed me most about Zombie 5: Killing Birds were the lapses in its story. Throughout the second part of the film, hints are dropped that Steve is somehow connected to the house’s past (there’s even a decent “flashback-style” sequence, where Steve finds himself walking through the house as it was 20 years earlier). It’s no mystery what the filmmakers were getting at, but before it ties itself up, this subplot is abandoned entirely in favor of a truly bizarre finale.

Those moments when we do see some zombies aren’t terrible, and during the opening, there’s even a violent bird attack (it pulls a character’s eye out of its socket). Oh, and there’s a scene involving fire that’s fairly grisly (one of the only times the movie sent a chill up my spine). In the end, though, we’re talking 3-4 minutes of worthwhile material, and in a picture that’s an hour and a half long, that’s just plain dismal.

My recommendation: go back and watch Fulci’s Zombie, and leave Zombie 5 to the birds.