Saturday, December 23, 2017

#2,483. The Hitcher (1986)

Directed By: Robert Harmon

Starring: Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Tag line: "He came from hell. Don't ask him where he wants to go"

Trivia: C. Thomas Howell admitted that he was actually afraid of Rutger Hauer on and off the set because of the actor's general intensity

From the time I started driving, people have been telling me it’s dangerous to pick up hitchhikers. But they don’t have anything to worry about, because thanks to director Robert Harmon’s 1986 horror / thriller The Hitcher, there’s no way in hell I’ll ever give a stranger a lift! 

Hired to deliver a car to a customer in San Diego, Chicago native Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) begins to fall asleep at the wheel while driving through the desert one evening. Hoping that a little company will help him stay awake, he picks up a hitchhiker named John Ryder (Rutger Hauer). But instead of engaging in small talk, Ryder pulls a knife on Jim and threatens to kill him. To Jim’s surprise, his new passenger is a homicidal maniac, wanted by the police for a series of murders he committed along this stretch of highway. And by the looks of it, he intends to make poor Jim his next victim. 

Luckily, Jim manages to get the drop on Ryder and pushes him out of the car. But the next morning, just when he thinks he’s safe, Jim is horrified to discover that Ryder has hitched a ride with a young family. Jim does what he can to warn them of the danger, but to no avail; Ryder murders the family, then initiates a game of cat and mouse with Jim, who, try as he might, can’t get away from the maniacal killer. 

As the bodies continue to pile up around him, Jim goes to the police, only to find that he himself has become the prime suspect in the killings! Now hunted by both Ryder and the authorities, Jim eventually teams up with Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a waitress he met at a roadside diner and the only person who believes he’s innocent. Nash has promised to help Jim escape, but the question is: can Jim protect Nash from the sadistic Ryder? 

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite plot devices was that of the innocent man accused of a crime he didn’t commit (it was a theme the great director would return to time and again, in movies like The 39 Steps, Saboteur, and North By Northwest, just to name a few). Yet I’m fairly certain that even the Master of Suspense would be shocked by what happens to Jim Halsey over the course of The Hitcher. Whenever Ryder commits a new murder, he somehow manages to make it look like Jim is the killer. With its lead character simultaneously trying to outwit both a psychopath and the police, The Hitcher generates plenty of tension throughout. 

C. Thomas Howell delivers a solid performance as the everyman who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, yet it is Rutger Hauer as the demented Ryder who steals the show. Having already played the villain in a handful of early ‘80s movies (Nighthawks, Blade Runner), Hauer was the perfect choice to portray John Ryder, a madman who gets a kick out of killing people (“Do you got any idea how much blood jets out of a guy's neck when his throat's been slit?”, he asks Jim at one point with a smile on his face). Though he doesn’t have nearly as much screen time in The Hitcher as C. Thomas Howell’s Jim, Hauer’s Ryder looms heavy over the entire film; even when we don’t see him, we know he’s there, watching Jim Halsey every step of the way. 

And that, more than anything else, is what makes The Hitcher one very frightening motion picture.

Friday, December 22, 2017

#2,482. The Burning Moon (1992)

Directed By: Olaf Ittenbach

Starring: Beate Neumeyer, Bernd Muggenthaler, Ellen Fischer

Tag line: "Uncut. Uncensored. Unconscionable"

Trivia: Olaf Ittenbach did all the stunts in this film because he didn't have enough money in the low budget to pay a professional stuntman

According to several sources, the gore scenes in the 1992 German-produced horror anthology The Burning Moon are so intense that the movie’s uncut version is still banned in its native country. Naturally, this piqued my interest, and while I will agree that the film’s director, Olaf Ittenbach (who also handled the effects), does manage to conjure up some impressive carnage, the movie itself was a slog to get through. 

While babysitting his younger sister, drug addict and all-around asshole Peter decides to tell the poor girl a couple of horror-laced bedtime stories. 

The first, titled “Julia’s Love”, is the tale of a teenager named Julia (Beate Neumeyer) who unwittingly goes on a date with a psychopathic killer (Bernd Muggenthaler). Needless to say, the evening doesn’t end well. 

The second story, “The Purity”, is set in the past and follows the exploits of Father Raff (Rudolf Höß), a Catholic priest who, when he’s not busy saying mass or hearing confessions, is raping and killing his female parishioners. Unfortunately, Justuz (Andre Stryl), the village outcast, is being blamed for these horrific acts, and is tormented on a daily basis by angry fathers and boyfriends. Father Raff does what he can to protect Justuz from the mob, but with each new killing the villagers grow more restless. Their frustration eventually boils over, resulting in a turn of events that no one could have predicted. 

A low budget horror film shot on video, The Burning Moon did manage to make me squirm a few times with its gore effects; Julia’s Love has severed limbs as well as an extended murder scene (set in a bathroom) that is tough to sit through. It’s in The Purity, however, that The Burning Moon distinguishes itself, thanks to some very grisly killings and a finale that features a trip into hell, where all sorts of terrible goings-on occur (teeth drilled; heads lopped off; and, most effective of all, one of the damned is torn up the middle when his legs are pulled apart). From a gore standpoint, the hell sequence is truly awesome, and those who love their horror bloody will have a blast watching it. 

The problem is its pacing; The Burning Moon contains too many unnecessary scenes, obviously thrown in to pad its running time. The film’s opening, for example, has more than its share of pointless moments; we tag along with Peter to a job interview (which he intentionally messes up) and later on there’s a nighttime fracas during which he and his pals face off against a rival gang. So when it’s eventually revealed that Peter is nothing more than the storyteller, guiding us from one tale to the next, we can’t help but wonder what the point was of his early scenes (we knew the second we met him that Peter was a jerk. Why beat us over the head with it?). 

Even the two main segments have their downtimes, not to mention cutaways that are so random they’re almost laughable (a dog running through a field, a cross hanging on a wall, etc). Because it slows down so often, The Burning Moon can’t maintain the tension that it’s more violent moments generate. There were even times when I was a little bored by it all. 

With so few movies left in this challenge of mine, I actually considered switching The Burning Moon off at the halfway point and selecting another title to watch. I’m glad I didn’t, though, because the finale in hell was pretty darn creative, and almost made up for some of the film’s weaknesses. 

So my advice to you is this: fast-forward to the hell sequence and skip the rest of The Burning Moon. You won’t be missing as much as you might think.

#2,481. Kiki's Delivery Service (1989)

Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma

Tag line: "I was feeling blue, but I'm better now"

Trivia: 462 colors were used in this movie

One of animator / director Hayao Miyazaki’s most underrated films, 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service centers on a teenage witch who strikes out on her own in the hopes of finding her place in the world. 

Now that she’s 13 years old, Kiki, a young witch, must leave home and continue her training in the real world. With her talking cat Jiji in tow, an enthusiastic Kiki settles down in a large seaside village and quickly befriends Osomo, a baker’s wife, who lets the eager newcomer move into their upstairs storage room. Before long, Kiki opens up her own delivery service, and with the help of her trusty broom she manages to generate a great deal of business for herself. But when her powers start to fade, Kiki must find a way to get them back, and fast. Should she fail, her dreams of becoming a full-fledged witch may be over before they’ve had a chance to begin. 

As I mentioned in my write-up of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki’s films are at their best when his characters take to the sky, and Kiki’s Delivery Service features a number of scenes in which its lead hops on her broom and soars through the air. From the moment she starts her trip (when Kiki has some trouble controlling her broom) to the thrilling finale, Miyazaki uses the beauty of flight to build tension and excitement throughout Kiki’s Delivery Service, and does so brilliantly. 

Yet it’s Kiki herself, with her infectious exuberance for life, who is the heart and soul of this film. A smart, ambitious teenager, Kiki (at the outset, anyway) is always upbeat, a nice contrast to her pessimistic cat Jiji (who, thanks to his mopey attitude and fear of the unknown, gets most of the laughs early on). With her kindly disposition and willingness to work hard, Kiki is an excellent role model for young girls, and along with Nausicaa and Spirited Away’s Chihiro is one of Miyazaki’s most well-defined characterizations. 

A great movie for parents to share with their daughters, Kiki’s Delivery Service also, in my opinion, ranks right up there with Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbor Totoro as one of Hayao Miyazaki’s finest achievements.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

#2,480. Emperor of the North (1973)

Directed By: Robert Aldrich

Starring: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Keith Carradine

Tag line: "The only way to win is to stay alive"

Trivia: Willis Kyle, President of the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railway, allowed the film company to have unlimited access to his company's rolling stock for the film

Lee Marvin vs. Ernest Borgnine… two of the roughest, toughest hombres in Hollywood history going head-to-head. Now that’s a movie, and it’s the showdown between the two that makes Robert Aldrich’s 1973 film Emperor of the North so damn entertaining. 

The year is 1933 and the Great Depression is in full swing. Vagrants commonly referred to as “hobos” hop onto moving railway cars in the hopes of getting to where to jobs are, but not everyone who works for the railroad is willing to give these destitute souls a free ride. One guy in particular, a conductor for the Oregon line known as “Shack” (Ernest Borgnine), is considered the meanest S.O.B. of the bunch, and would rather club a hobo over the head than let him stow away. Ask any vagrant and he’ll tell you: nobody rides for free on Shack’s train. 

But then, Shack has yet to cross paths with “A-No. 1” (Lee Marvin), the craftiest hobo of them all. In fact, A-No. 1 has vowed to ride Shack’s train to the end of the line, a feat that, should he pull it off, would make him a hero to his peers. 

One thing that A-No. 1 wasn’t banking on, however, was a partner; it seems that a newcomer named Cigaret (Keith Carradine) has been bragging about how he’ll beat A-No. 1 to the punch and be the first to hitch a ride on Shack’s train. Still, despite their rough start, A-No. 1 decides to take Cigaret under his wing and show him the ropes, all the while knowing that it’s much more difficult to sneak two people aboard a boxcar than it is one, and if Shack should catch them in the act, neither hobo will live to tell their tale. 

Both Marvin and Borgnine are excellent in Emperor of the North, and we get a pretty good idea what to expect from their characters the first time we see them on-screen. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Borgnine’s Shack spots a hobo hopping onto his train. Sneaking up behind the unsuspecting vagabond (who was resting for a moment on an outdoor platform), Shack hits him on the back of the head with a hammer, causing the poor vagrant to fall forward (he’s pulled under the train and killed instantly). From start to finish, Shack is a total bastard; even his fellow workers are against him (most are secretly rooting for A-No. 1 to succeed). 

On the flipside is A-No 1, a guy who knows what it takes to survive these tough times. When first we meet him, A-No. 1 is carrying a chicken he’s just swiped, and must fight off an attack by Cigaret and a couple of kids, who want the bird for themselves. A-No. 1 manages to get the better of them and escape with the chicken, proving he’s as tough as he is shrewd. The confrontations between Shack and A-No. 1 will follow suit: Shack relies on brute force to keep A-No. 1 and Cigaret at bay, while A-No. 1 uses the tricks he’s learned over the years to stay one step ahead of his adversary. 

Emperor of the North does have its share of humor (there’s a baptism scene that made me laugh out loud); some nail-biting action sequences (the final showdown between Shack and A-No. 1 is intensely violent); and a strong supporting performance by Keith Carradine, playing a guy we’re never quite sure about (at times, he’s unbearably arrogant). But Emperor of the North is at its best when Marvin and Borgnine are facing off against each other, two characters with very different ideals going mano et mano, and doing so in a way that will surely grab your attention.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

#2,479. Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970)

Directed By: Waris Hussein

Starring: Gene Wilder, Margot Kidder, Eileen Colgan

Tag line: "The Loser Who Beat the System!"

Trivia: Jean Renoir was considered to direct

Whereas most of the men in his neighborhood work at the factory, Aloysius “Quackser” Fortune (Gene Wilder) spends his days patrolling the streets of Dublin with a homemade wheelbarrow and a shovel, scooping up the valuable dung left behind by delivery horses and selling it as fertilizer to local homeowners. 

But life is about to get much more complicated for Quackser. First, he meets Zazel (Margot Kidder), an American student enrolled at a Dublin University, and before long Quackser is head-over-heels in love with her. Then, his livelihood is threatened by a new ordinance that, if approved, will force delivery services to switch out their horse-drawn buggies for motorized vehicles. 

Realizing their son might soon be out of a job, his mother (May Ollis) and father (Seamus Forde) try to convince Quackser to move to America, where he can live with his cousin in the Bronx. But Quackser isn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet, and with Zazel’s help he may find a way to beat the system and maintain his independence. 

Directed by Waris Hussein, Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx is an odd, offbeat romantic comedy that, thanks to the fine work of its star, you can’t help but enjoy. Sporting a convincing Irish brogue, Gene Wilder is at his likable best as the quirky title character who roams the streets of Dublin looking for manure and instead finds love. Kidder, in one of her earliest film roles, is equally as good as the elusive Zazel, a flighty young woman who, though she has feelings for Quackser, is unsure about their relationship and maybe even a little embarrassed by it (she makes plans to meet Quackser at a dance, then shows up with a fellow student and contemplates sneaking away when she spots Quackser on the dance floor). Yet whenever the two are together, Zazel is clearly drawn to the older Quackser, and enjoys the time she spends in his company. 

The scenes featuring Quackser and Zazel are, indeed, well-handled and even quite touching, but Wilder is also strong when on his own; whether he’s selling his wares to a lonely housewife or being ridiculed by the patrons at the local pub, Quackser is the kind of guy you want to know better, and you hope like hell that everything works out for him in the end. 

Though it stars an American (Wilder) and a Canadian (Kidder), Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx is an Irish movie through and through (it was shot on-location in Dublin, and in several scenes Zazel even rattles off a few tidbits of local history, facts about Dublin that she learned while at University). And thanks to Wilder’s performance and the smart, sentimental script penned by Gabriel Walsh, Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx proved to be one of the most endearing Irish films I’ve seen in some time.

#2,478. The Cocoanuts (1929)

Directed By: Robert Florey, Joseph Santley

Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx

Tag line: "Paramount's All Talking-Singing Musical Comedy Hit!"

Trivia: When The Marx Brothers were shown the final cut of the film, they were so horrified they tried to buy the negative back and prevent its release.

I recently picked up a Blu-Ray set that features the five movies the Marx Brothers (aka Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo) made for Universal Studios between 1929 and 1933, a group that includes Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup. All four of these films are classics, and contain some of the Marx’s finest cinematic routines. Bot of all the movies in this set, the title I was most anxious to watch was the one I had never seen in its entirety: 1929’s The Cocoanuts, the first picture the quartet ever made. 

Mr. Hammer (Groucho) is the proprietor of Florida’s Cocoanut Hotel, but despite its beachside location neither he nor his assistant Jamison (Zeppo) has been able to drum up any business. Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont), one of the Cocoanut’s few guests, is trying to convince her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) to break her engagement to Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), a hotel clerk who hopes to one day be a successful architect, and instead marry Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring), who claims to come from a prestigious family. 

What Mrs. Potter doesn’t know, however, is that Yates is actually a con man, and with the help of his partner in crime Penelope (Kay Francis), he intends to steal a valuable diamond necklace that’s been in the Potter family for generations. The situation gets even more chaotic when a pair of bumbling thieves (Chico and Harpo Marx) check into the Cocoanut and are immediately pulled into the whole sordid affair. 

The Cocoanuts was based on the Brothers’ stage show of the same name, and because it was the first of its kind I suppose it’s only natural that the movie feels a little stage-bound at times (though director Florey, who was also shooting Skyscraper Symphony while this film was in production, does try to liven things up with some nifty camera angles). One issue I had with The Cocoanuts that I couldn’t overlook, however, was the fact that the Marx Brothers aren’t in it nearly as much as they should have been! 

Along with its romantic entanglements (Polly is forced by her mother to choose between Bob and Yates), the film has a variety of dance numbers (some well-choreographed, others bland) and several songs written by Irving Berlin that are performed throughout. Romantic subplots always feel out of place in a Marx Brothers picture (their next outing, Animal Crackers, also features one that never quite clicks), but the love story in The Cocoanuts is especially cloying (during Bob and Polly’s first scene together, they sing “When My Dreams Come True” as a duet, after which Bob launches into a long, unnecessary diatribe about how he would fix up the Cocoanut Hotel). 

As usual, both Harpo and Chico are also given a chance to show off their musical skills (Chico on piano, Harpo with both a harp and a clarinet), but otherwise the four brothers are pushed into the background when the song and dance numbers kick in, and the film suffers as a result. 

When Groucho, Harpo and Chico are on-screen, The Cocoanuts soars, and we see the beginnings of what would become their regular routines (Groucho’s and Chico’s spirited wordplay; Groucho simultaneously flirting with and insulting Margaret Dumont; Harpo’s side-splitting pantomime; and Zeppo acting as Groucho’s straight man). I only wish there were more scenes with the brothers, and less of everything else.

Friday, December 15, 2017

#2,477. Vigilante (1982)

Directed By: William Lustig

Starring: Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, Richard Bright

Tag line: "There's Only One Way to Stop Them..."

Trivia: The film is dedicated to Peter Savage who died shortly after filming

Released two years after his controversial horror film Maniac, director William Lustig’s Vigilante is a tense crime thriller shot on the streets of New York that features one hell of an all-star cast. 

Factory worker Eddie Marino (Robert Forster) has his entire world taken away from him when his wife Vickie (Rutanya Alda), who tried to stop a gang from beating up an old man, is attacked by that same gang, a showdown that claims the life of the couple’s young son Scott (Dante Joseph). The gang leader, Rico (Willie Colón), is eventually arrested and put on trial for murder, but his sentence is suspended by the judge (Vincent Beck), and that very afternoon he’s back on the streets. When Eddie protests the verdict, he is charged with contempt of court and sentenced to 30 days in prison. 

With the help of longtime inmate Rake (Woody Strode), Eddie survives his incarceration, and soon after his release he teams up with co-worker Nick (Fred Williamson), who, along with buddies Burke (Richard Bright) and Ramon (Joseph Carberry), has taken the law into his own hands, beating up rapists and hunting down the goons that sell drugs in their community. With Nick’s assistance, Eddie sets out to take his revenge on the gang that destroyed his family, but will the grieving father stop there, or will his thirst for justice turn him into a full-time vigilante? 

As he did with Maniac, William Lustig shot Vigilante on location in New York City, traveling to some of the area’s less hospitable neighborhoods in order to give the movie a down-and-dirty, grindhouse feel (at one point, Nick chases a drug dealer through the graffiti-decorated remains of a community pool, a scene that’s among the film’s best). This, along with a story that borrows heavily from the 1974 box-office hit Death Wish, makes Vigilante a sure-fire crown pleaser, with citizens taking the fight directly to the criminals (during the movie’s first half, Nick and his cohorts extract information from a series of low-level dealers and pimps, all in an attempt to learn the identity of the city’s drug kingpin). 

Yet it’s the fine work turned in by the cast of Vigilante that brings it all together, taking what might have otherwise been a routine thriller (citizens hitting back when the system fails them) and transforming it into something much more substantial. Robert Forster is convincing as the angry family man who tries the legal route first, only to have it blow up in his face. But it’s Fred Williamson as the leader of the vigilantes who really stands out. In the opening scene, Williamson’s Nick delivers a passionate speech to his neighbors, saying they have to look out for themselves; and he regularly ignores the warnings of local policeman Gibbons (Steve James), who tells Nick that he’s pushing back too hard, and may end up in jail himself. 

In addition to the two leads, Maniac’s Joe Spinell has a small role as a scumbag public defender; and Woody Strode is strong as the inmate who watches over Eddie during his 30-day prison stint. 

Vigilante was one of only three movies that Lustig directed between the years 1980 and 1988 (it was sandwiched between Maniac and Maniac Cop). And while his output during this period may have been sparse, the films he managed to make are all high-quality, each with a grittiness that, even today, resonates in every scene.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

#2,476. The Sister in Law (1974)

Directed By: Joseph Ruben

Starring: John Savage, Will MacMillan, Anne Saxon

Tag line: "She Kept It All In The Family!"

Trivia: John Savage who starred as the principle lead in this film also provided much of the music. He wrote and performed three original songs for the film

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Crown International (an independent studio that had been around since 1959) released an array of exploitation films, from teen comedies (Malibu Beach, Weekend Pass) to horror flicks (The Crater Lake Monster, The Hearse) and a few that straddled the line between the two (1989’s My Mom’s a Werewolf). 

At first glance, writer / director Joseph Ruben’s 1974 movie The Sister in Law has all the makings of a typical Crown International picture; there’s plenty of nudity, as well as a handful of spicy sex scenes. But unlike many of the company’s other offerings, The Sister in Law is a searing drama, relating the often intriguing tale of a family that’s coming apart at the seams. 

After spending a year or so hitchhiking across America, Robert Strong (John Savage) returns home to discover that his sister in law Joanna (Anne Saxon), the wife of his older brother Edward (Will MacMillan), has moved in with his parents (Jack Cooper and Jan DeCarlo). According to Joanna, Edward shacked up with a younger woman and intends to file for a divorce. Yet as unusual as Joanna’s current living arrangements are, things take an even stranger turn when she and Robert hop into bed together! 

Robert does manage to hide their affair from the rest of the family, including Edward, whose writing career has hit a snag. In fact, Edward needs money so badly that he’s even agreed to become a bag man for a local gangster. Unfortunately, the mob wants Edward to make a pick-up in Canada the very weekend that he’s flying to California, where he hopes to land a job as a screenwriter. So, Robert agrees to take his brother’s place, and accompanied by Edward’s new girlfriend Deborah (Meredith Baer), he makes his way north to the pick-up location, not realizing until it’s too late that the contents of the package he’s transporting could change his and Edward’s lives forever. 

John Savage (in one of his earlier roles) and Will MacMillan are both excellent as the brothers with differing ideals; Robert is a free spirit who doesn’t have many worldly possessions (he took very little along with him on his tour of the U.S.A.), while his brother, who until recently was a successful author, wants nothing more than to maintain the luxurious lifestyle he’s grown accustomed to, so much so that its forced him to work for some very shady characters. 

In addition, a fierce sibling rivalry between the two brothers occasionally rears its ugly head (a friendly game of basketball in the pool eventually turns violent), especially when it comes to the women in Edward’s life. Even though he plans to divorce Joanna, Edward would be none too happy to learn that Robert is now sleeping with her (their sex scenes are easily the film’s steamiest moments), and it’s obvious early on that Joanna (played so well by Anne Saxon) only seduced Robert to get back at Edward. During their trip to Canada, Robert even has a fling with Deborah! Clearly, the brothers have their issues, and we see just how poisonous their relationship has become when Edward sends the unsuspecting Robert to Canada, never telling him what it is he’s supposed to pick up. 

The Sister In Law does have its share of exploitative scenes (at one point, Joanna and Deborah get into a catfight, during which they both fall into the pool), but with its folksy soundtrack (with music performed by Savage himself) and an ending that will shock the hell out of you, The Sister In Law proves to be much more than a trashy skin flick, and odds are you’ll be thinking about it for days afterwards.

Friday, December 8, 2017

#2,475. Days of Heaven (1978)

Directed By: Terrence Malick

Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard

Tag line: "Your Eyes...Your Ears...Your Senses...Will Be Overwhelmed"

Trivia: Shortly after filming began, director Terrence Malick tossed out the script, relying instead on the improvisation of the actors

As I mentioned in my write-up of Medium Cool, I had taken several mass media courses in college, all geared towards video production (which, at that point in the early ‘90s, was where the jobs were). Yet, despite its focus, the instructor dedicated three consecutive classes to the art of film. The first week we watched and discussed Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and in the second we got a chance to analyze Hitchcock’s Psycho

Being a movie fan, I had seen both of these before, but the third week’s film, Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, was new to me. 

A period piece that whisks us back to the early days of the 20th century, Days of Heaven is one of the most striking motion pictures I’ve ever seen, and it continues to rank among my favorites of all-time, a position its held since that first viewing all those years ago. 

The year is 1916. Following a violent confrontation with his boss, Chicago steel mill worker Bill (Richard Gere) hops the next train out of town, taking with him his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his adolescent sister Linda (Linda Manz). The train carries the trio all the way to the Texas panhandle, where Bill and Abby get jobs (alongside hundreds of immigrants) harvesting the fields of a rich farmer (played by Sam Shepard). 

To avoid any controversy, Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister, a lie that works to their advantage when the Farmer, who Bill learns is dying of an unknown illness, falls in love with Abby. Hoping to get his hands on the farmer’s wealth when he passes away, Bill convinces Abby to marry the farmer, thus setting herself up to be his sole heir. 

But as the months drag on, the farmer’s health seems to improve, and Bill finds himself on the outside looking in when Abby begins to develop feelings for her new husband. 

Most movies, especially those as visually stunning as Days of Heaven, have no need of a narrator; the images speak for themselves. Yet the narration provided by young star Linda Manz is one of thIS film’s best features. Along with sharing a few of her thoughts on its various characters, Manz’s Linda is often as observant as Malick’s camera, commenting on things that don’t necessarily forward the plot, but add to the film’s reflective tone (“Nobody’s perfect”, Linda says at one point in her thick New York accent. “There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you”). 

Yet what truly makes Days of Heaven such a noteworthy motion picture is its gorgeous cinematography (handled by both Nestor Almendros and an uncredited Haskell Wexler) as well as Malick’s keen sense of what makes a particular image so interesting (in one of the documentaries presented on the Blu-Ray, we’re told that Malick didn’t really follow a shot plan, choosing instead to film whatever caught his eye). 

Days of Heaven does offer a few memorable moments, such as the locust infestation that threatens to ruin the farmer’s crop; and the fire that spreads out of control when he and the workers try to drive these pesky insects away. But the movie is at its best when, as with the narration, the visuals don’t serve the story (some of the long shots of the workers toiling in the fields are positively breathtaking). 

With its emphasis on imagery over dialogue and story, Days of Heaven may seem overly pretentious to some viewers. For me, though, its visuals were more than enough to hold my attention; you could lift just about any frame from this film and hang it on your wall. Days of Heaven is arthouse cinema at its most engaging.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

#2,474. The Devil's Candy (2015)

Directed By: Sean Byrne

Starring: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, Pruitt Taylor Vince

Tag line: "He Will Slither into your Soul"

Trivia: Came in 3rd place for Best Feature at the 2016 Sheffield Horror Film Festival

I first saw director Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy earlier this year, and was beyond impressed. It was a deeply troubling horror film that delved into some dark areas, all the while centering on a very likable young family. I knew then that the movie was special, and when I finally picked up the Blu-Ray a few months later I couldn’t wait to sit down and watch it again. 

But something quite unexpected happened during that subsequent viewing. Even though I knew exactly what was coming, The Devil’s Candy still managed to disturb me more the second time than it did initially. In fact, there was a moment when I had to stop the movie and collect my thoughts, which I didn’t even consider doing the first time I watched it. 

It was a unique experience for me; I’ve been frightened by films before, but I can’t remember another one that scared me more the second time around, and the fact that The Devil’s Candy did so is a tribute to both its director and his excellent cast. 

Despite their money troubles, the Hellman family: struggling artist Jesse (Ethan Embry); his wife Astrid (Shari Appleby); and their teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco), just moved into their dream house, a beautiful Texas residence that’s well off the beaten path. There’s even an old barn out back, which Jesse transforms into an art studio. And while Zooey is somewhat apprehensive about attending a brand new school, the Hellmans are confident they’ll be happy in their home for many years to come. 

But the house has a dark history; Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a mentally backward man whose family once owned the dwelling, used to say he heard voices coming from behind his bedroom wall, and one night those voices told him to murder his parents. Because their deaths were ruled an accident, Ray Smilie is still a free man, and catches the Hellmans off-guard when he shows up on their front porch one evening, asking is he can move back into his old room. Though he feels sorry for Ray, Jesse refuses to let him inside. 

And it’s a good thing, too, because the voices continue to haunt Ray Smilie, telling him to do terrible things to children, and convincing him that he should now set his sights on young Zooey! 

As for Jesse, he, too, has started hearing the voices, which speak to him through his artwork. In a trance one afternoon, Jesse even paints a picture that suggests Zooey is in great danger. 

Can Jesse protect his daughter from Ray Smilie, or has Zooey’s fate already been determined by a force greater than all of them? 

So why did The Devil’s Candy upset me more the second time than the first? The answer is simple: I cared about the Hellman clan, so much so that I didn’t want to see them go through what I knew was coming. From the beginning, it’s obvious the Hellmans are a tight-knit family, and that Jesse and Zooey in particular share a special bond with one another. Ethan Embry was the perfect choice to play Jesse, the well-meaning father who passed his passion for heavy metal music on to his daughter, and Kiara Glasco is equally good as Zooey, who, thanks to her upbringing, is a thoughtful, intelligent young woman. Shari Appleby is also convincing as Astrid, who, though she doesn’t share the same interests as Jesse and Zooey, is a loving mother, but it’s the relationship between father and daughter that pulls us in and makes us fear the evil we know is coming for them. 

Yet despite the horrific things he does throughout the movie (including one very traumatic sequence involving the abduction of a young boy), we realize early on that Pruitt Taylor Vince’s Ray Smilie is as much a victim as any other character in this film. We meet Ray in the first scene, a flashback to the night he murdered his parents. To drown out the voices that are filling his head with terrible thoughts, Ray stands in his darkened bedroom, playing his Flying V electric guitar as loudly as he can. Ray wants the voices to go away, and has no desire to carry out their orders (he even says as much to his potential victims), but his simplistic nature has made it impossible for him to fight the demon controlling his mind. Vince has always been an underrated actor, and in The Devil’s Candy he manages to make us feel sorry for a character that more than once transforms into a monster before our very eyes. 

With The Devil’s Candy, writer / director Sean Byrne has crafter a singular motion picture, and thanks to his steady hand and the excellent performances turned in by his cast the movie loses none of its effectiveness from one viewing to the next. There are instances when familiarity does, indeed, breed contempt, but in the case of The Devil’s Candy it only manages to stir up dread.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

#2,473. House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Directed By: Yimou Zhang

Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau

Line from the film: "We belong to two opposing sides. If we meet again... one of us will have to die"

Trivia:  Yimou Zhang chose world famous opera diva Kathleen Battle to sing the theme song for this film

As a follow-up to his 2002 film Hero, director Zhang Yimou once again delved into the martial arts genre with House of Flying Daggers, a motion picture every bit as exciting – and just as beautiful – as its predecessor. 

In 9th century China, towards the end of the Teng Dynasty, a rebel organization known as the Flying Daggers is attempting to overthrow the corrupt provincial government. Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chungking Express), a member of the local police force, is ordered by his Captain (Andy Lau, Infernal Affairs) to go undercover and win the trust of Mei (Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a blind dancing girl recently taken into custody. Both Jin and the Captain are convinced Mei is, in fact, the daughter of the recently-deceased leader of the Flying Daggers, and it’s their hope that she will lead them straight to the group’s secret headquarters. 

After “helping” Mei escape, Jin (who tells her his name is “The Wind”) follows her deep into the wilderness, doing his best to steer clear of the government troops that are trailing close behind. But during their adventure, Jin and Mei develop feelings for one another, causing Jin to question his loyalties; should he continue with his mission, or protect the woman he now loves? 

In my write-up of Hero, I called it “an all-out attack on the senses” and “an amazing barrage of sights and sounds that never seems to end”. The same can be said for House of Flying Daggers. This movie is incredible; a visual smorgasbord that features one stunning scene after another. Early on, we’re treated to the “Echo Game”, a colorful, wonderfully choreographed sequence in which the Police Captain challenges Mei to a very unusual contest. Equally as good is a later scene set in a bamboo forest, where Jin and Mei battle the government troops attacking them from high atop the trees. 

These are but two of the many extraordinary sequences to be found in House of Flying Daggers, and thanks to the combined efforts of director Zhang Yimou, cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao, and the movie’s excellent special effects crew, the action-oriented scenes are both thrilling and visually awe-inspiring. 

While the story itself (which centers on the love affair that develops between its two leads) may not be as grand in scope as the one told in Hero, director Yimou and his writers throw a few unexpected plot twists into the mix to keep things interesting. This, along with its mind-blowing imagery and exceptional fight scenes, makes House of Flying Daggers, like Hero before it, an astounding cinematic achievement that is not to be missed.

Friday, December 1, 2017

#2,472. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Directed By: Wes Anderson

Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray

Tag line: "His life is fantastic... his wife is fantastic... his neighbors, not so fantastic"

Trivia: Altogether, 535 puppets were made for the film (Mr. Fox had 17 different styles alone)

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a delightful rarity; a kid-friendly animated adventure that is unlike any movie director Wes Anderson ever made before, yet still bears the unmistakable markings of a Wes Anderson film. 

After learning that his beloved wife (voiced by Meryl Streep) is pregnant, Mr. Fox (George Clooney), a notorious chicken thief, vows to find a new line of work. 

Several years pass. Mr. Fox is now a well-respected (if somewhat obscure) newspaper columnist, and his young son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is proving to be a handful (Ash is not only a bit odd, but he seldom does what he’s told). When informed that his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) will be coming to stay with them for a while, Mr. Fox decides to move his family into a bigger, above-ground home, one that overlooks three prestigious poultry farms owned and operated by Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Michael Gambon). 

Itching to return to his life of crime, Mr. Fox teams up with his new handyman Kylie the Possum (Wallace Wolodarsky) and raids the trio of farms adjacent to his property. But Boggis, Bunce, and especially Bean are not to be trifled with, and the three join forces in an attempt to rid themselves of a very pesky Fox. 

Will Mr. Fox win out in the end, or are his thieving days behind him for good? 

Based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a movie that the entire family can enjoy, with a colorful lead character (handled wonderfully by the always-reliable George Clooney) whose various adventures will have you laughing from the edge of your seat. Along with being both funny and exciting, Fantastic Mr. Fox is also touching in its own way (the relationship between Mr. Fox and his son Ash offers a few heartwarming moments). In addition to its thematic elements, the stop-motion animation is superb, and there are scenes within the film that are truly unforgettable (the best of which features an underground feast that’s interrupted by a river of apple cider). 

Yet as good a piece of family entertainment as this movie is, what struck me while I was watching Fantastic Mr. Fox was how Wes Anderson’s signature style shined through in just about every scene. We see it in an early flashback, when the Foxes break into a Squab farm moments before Mrs. Fox announces that she’s pregnant. Following the two as they sneak around the farm, the scene has a familiar energy to it, fueled in part by Anderson’s choice of music ("Heroes & Villains" by the Beach Boys, which plays during the entire sequence). We’ve seen stylized moments like this before in Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, and because of this we recognize the “Anderson touch” almost immediately. 

In addition, many of the director’s regulars lend their voices to the movie, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray (as Badger, Mr. Fox’s accountant), Willem Dafoe (as a rat hired to guard Bean’s valuable supply of apple cider), and Michael Gambon. We’re even treated to one of Anderson’s patented montage sequences (narrated by Bill Murray) in which we’re introduced to the film’s three evil farmers. 

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a unique entry in Anderson’s filmography, but there’s no mistaking that it is, indeed, a Wes Anderson picture.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

#2,471. Salon Kitty (1976)

Directed By: Tinto Brass

Starring: Helmut Berger, Ingrid Thulin, Teresa Ann Savoy

Tag line: "Nazi Germany, 1939. Depraved. Decadent. Damned"

Trivia: Richard Crenna was originally cast as Cliff but left during the filming and was replaced by John Ireland

Directed by Tinto Brass (who a few years later would helm the extremely controversial Caligula), Salon Kitty is a cross between an erotic exploitation flick and an historical drama, relating the tale of an actual WWII-era brothel and filling it with enough nudity and sex to keep the grindhouse crowd entertained. 

Though she runs the most prestigious whorehouse in all of Germany, Madame Kitty (Ingrid Thulin) is informed by Nazi S.S. officer Helmut Wallenberg (Helmut Berger) that her entire operation is being moved to a new location. What’s more, she’s been ordered to dismiss her current prostitutes and replace them with women loyal to the Socialist Party. Wallenberg tells Kitty that her new and improved “Salon” will cater to the most important men in Germany, but in reality the S.S. is using the brothel to gather information on so-called “loyal” Nazis; the girls have all been trained in espionage, and there are microphones and recording devices planted throughout the building. 

Kitty, who has no idea what Wallenberg and his associates are up to, does her best to turn this new brothel into a lucrative business, only to discover the truth when Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy), one of Wallenberg’s hand-selected prostitutes, falls in love with German pilot Hans Reiter (Bekim Fehmiu). Reiter, who also has feelings for Margherita, tells her that he’s fed up with the war and the Nazis, and he intends to defect to the other side as soon as possible. When Margherita learns a short while later that the S.S. had her beloved Hans executed as a traitor, she and Madame Kitty concoct a scheme that, if successful, will take down Wallenberg and his entire covert operation. 

When initially released in the U.S., Salon Kitty was saddled with an ‘X’ by the MPAA, and it’s a rating the movie certainly deserves; though it shies away from depicting hardcore sex acts, the film Is jam-packed with graphic nudity (both male and female) and features moments involving group sex, forced lesbianism (Wallenberg, who also has his eye on Margherita, orders her at one point to cozy up to his wife Herta, played by Tina Aumont), masturbation, and other acts of perversion (in what is easily one of the film’s most bizarre scenes, a Nazi officer tells a prostitute to put a penis-shaped loaf of bread between her legs, and then he performs fellatio on it). In addition to all the debauchery, Salon Kitty also has a sequence set inside a real-life slaughterhouse that’s tough to watch (in it, a pig has its throat cut before it’s butchered on-screen). 

But thanks to the fine work turned in by its cast, not to mention some well-realized sets and costumes, Salon Kitty proves to be more than just another sex-fueled exploitation film. Helmut Berger is perfect as the shifty Wallenberg, an ambitious officer who intends to use the information gathered at Kitty’s to advance his own career; and Ingrid Thulin (who appeared in a number of Ingmar Bergman classics, including Wild Strawberries and Cries and Whispers) is equally strong as Kitty, the Madame who wants only to bring some joy to those who need it most. The performances, coupled with a well-realized romantic subplot (Savoy and Fehmiu are convincing as the naïve lovers), help Salon Kitty rise above the usual erotic fare. 

The only issue I had with Salon Kitty was its running time; the movie (in its original, uncut version) is about 133 minutes, and even with its plethora of exploitative elements it was, at times, a chore to sit through it. But with Tinto Brass and company going to great lengths to recreate the period in stunning detail, even the slower scenes are visually interesting; and if you feel you can tolerate an historical piece that’s chock full of adult content, then Salon Kitty may just be the film for you.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

#2,470. Any Which Way You Can (1980)

Directed By: Buddy Van Horn

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Geoffrey Lewis

Tag line: "Faster, funnier and wilder. It'll knock you out"

Trivia: The orangutan who played Clyde in this film was found dead of a cerebral hemorrhage two weeks after the film wrapped

This 1980 follow-up isn’t so much a movie as it is a continuation of the party that was Every Which Way but Loose, and with practically every member of the original cast on-hand once again, it’s damn entertaining to boot. 

New York mobster James Beekman (Barry Guardino) is trying to set up a fight for Hank Wilson (William Smith), the undisputed bare-knuckle champ of the East Coast. Unfortunately, Wilson’s reputation precedes him; his last match ended when he killed his opponent! Still, Beekman is determined to find a challenger worthy of taking on his champion, and eventually settles on California native Philo Beddoe (Clint Eastwood), who has yet to lose a fight. 

Offered $10,000 in advance, Beddoe agrees to square off against Wilson, only to change his mind when his nearest and dearest, including longtime manager Orville (Geoffrey Lewis), his landlady Ma (Ruth Gordon), and girlfriend Lynn Taylor-Halsey (Sondra Locke), beg him to call it off. Even Philo’s pet Orangutan Clyde wants him to cancel it. 

But as Philo will soon discover, the mob can be very persistent; to force his hand, they kidnap Lynn and promise Philo that, if he doesn’t fight, he’ll never see her alive again. To save the love of his life, and with a lot of people across the country betting on him to win, Philo feels he must go through with it, but worries that he and Wilson, who have since become good friends, may not put on the kind of show that Beekman and his associates are expecting. 

Any Which Way You Can has more of a story than its predecessor, but like the 1978 original this movie is at its best when focusing on its characters. Geoffrey Lewis returns as Orville, and Ruth Gordon’s Ma is just as cantankerous this time around (she even manages to land herself a boyfriend). Despite how they left things in Every Which Way but Loose, Sondra Locke’s Lynn Taylor-Halsey is also back, rekindling her romance with Philo. Then, of course, there’s Clyde the Orangutan, who has his share of funny scenes (the best being when he trashes a car driven by Beekman’s right-hand man). Though played by a different primate (Mabis, the orangutan in Every Which Way but Loose, had matured, making him dangerous to work with), Clyde is just as entertaining as ever. 

Along with the main cast, the Black Widow biker gang, led by the always-frustrated Chollo (John Quade), are still trying to even the score with Philo Beddoe (their run-in with a road tarring vehicle leads to some of the movie’s biggest laughs). Even the gambler, Beekman, has a memorable introduction (when first we meet him, he’s bet big bucks on his pet rattlesnake, which is locked in a life-or-death struggle with a mongoose). In one of the film’s most interesting twists, Philo and his soon-to-be opponent in the fight, Jack Wilson, become friends (each man saves the others’ life at different points in the movie); and we even spend some time with a few of the high-rollers betting on Philo, like Texas millionaire Zack Tupper (Barry Corbin) and mob boss Tony Paoli Sr. (Al Ruscio), whose $1 million bet makes Beekman more than a little nervous. 

Then there’s the music, with the opening tune “Beers to You” (a duet by Ray Charles and star Clint Eastwood) establishing the film’s party-like atmosphere right from the get-go. And like Every Which Way but Loose, Any Which Way You Can features cameos by a few legendary musicians, such as Fats Domino and Glen Campbell, both of whom also perform. Even Clyde gets his own song this time around (“The Orangutan Hall of Fame”, sung by Cliff Crofford). As with the first film, its country music soundtrack fits Any Which Way You Can to a T. 

Thanks to cable television, I actually saw Any Which Way You Can before Every Which Way but Loose, and while there were a couple of minor plot points that I wasn’t up to speed on (I didn’t know why there was so much tension between Philo and Lynn in the early scenes), I had no problem at all keeping up with this 1980 sequel, which has plenty of action (the fight that closes out the film is epic), lots of laughs, and even a little romance (just about every main character, including Clyde, lands a significant other). 

Any Which Way You Can definitely stuck close to the formula established in the first movie, but at least it was a formula that worked.

Friday, November 24, 2017

#2,469. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981)

Directed By: Walerian Borowczyk

Starring: Udo Kier, Marina Pierro, Patrick Magee

Tag line: "Recourse to evil runs rampant against the laws of human restraint"

Trivia: Fanny Osbourne was the name of Robert Louis Stevenson's real life fiancée

Having already impressed me with his penchant for arthouse debauchery in The Beast and Behind Convent Walls, I was eager to see director Walerian Borowczyk‘s 1981 film The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. And as it was with the other two movies, I was not disappointed. 

Noted scientist Dr. Henry Jekyll (Udo Kier) is engaged to be married to the lovely Ms. Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), and some of the most important people in London have been invited to a dinner party celebrating their impending nuptials. Among those in attendance are General William Danvers Carew (Patrick Magee) and his beautiful daughter Charlotte (Agnès Daems); The Rev. Donald Regan Guest (Clément Harari); Mr and Mrs. Enfield (Eugene Braun Monk, Catherine Cost) and their teenage daughter Victoria (Magali Noaro); and Dr. Lanyon (Howard Vernon), Dr. Jekyll’s mentor and a first-class surgeon. 

What none of them realizes is that another guest will also be joining them: Mr. Edward Hyde (played by Gérard Zalcberg), Dr. Jekyll’s volatile, over-stimulated alter-ego. The result of one of Dr. Jekyll’s experiments, Mr. Hyde occasionally takes over Jekyll’s body, raping and killing every young woman he comes across (soon after Mr. Hyde makes his first “appearance”, the dinner guests begin to die in grisly fashion). 

Hoping to ensure that her fiance is safe, Fanny sneaks into Henry Jekyll’s lab and, while there, learns the truth about his connection to Mr. Hyde. Can Fanny marry a man who is unable to control the darkness in his soul, or does she have a few demons of her own that will make her the ideal wife for both Jekyll and Hyde? 

Using Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic tale as a starting point, Borowczyk adds his own unique spin to the story (Fanny Osbourne was not in the novel; in reality, this was the name of Stevenson’s real-life wife, an adventurous woman whose tenacity impressed Borowczyk). And in so doing, the director creates a motion picture that is both perfectly refined (the various discussions that occur during the party, including a rather tense debate between Jekyll and Dr. Lanyon on the merits of metaphysical science, are well-scripted) and undeniably grotesque (the movie opens with the attempted rape and murder of an adolescent girl on the streets of London; and a scene in which Dr. Lanyon inspects the remains of a female guest, whose genitals were butchered beyond recognition by Hyde, proves difficult to watch). 

Still, even with its more extreme elements (which includes Hyde raping one of the male dinner guests), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne is more subtle – more restrained - than either The Beast or Behind Convent Walls. That is in no way a slight on this 1981 movie; as I already pointed out, it has its lewder moments. But the fact that Borowczyk also manages to engage his audience with dialogue and an appreciation of the arts (along with a dance routine performed by Victoria, there’s a painting that sparks a spirited conversation among the guests) is a testament to his skills as a filmmaker. 

Make no mistake: The Strange Case of Dr, Jekyll and Miss Osbourne will shock, and occasionally appall, you. But it will also stimulate your mind, and do so quite brilliantly.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

#2,468. Kull the Conqueror (1997)

Directed By: John Nicoletta

Starring: Kevin Sorbo, Tia Carrere, Thomas Ian Griffith

Tag line: "Courage Conquerors All"

Trivia: While practicing for the fight scenes, Kevin Sorbo nicked himself with a dull-bladed prop sword. At his request, producers gave him a rubber sword

I’m a proud fan of ‘80s fantasy / adventures (Conan the Barbarian, Dragonslayer, Clash of the Titans, Time Bandits), even the silly ones (like Krull and The Sword and the Sorcerer), and I always have a great time whenever I watch these films. 

Kull the Conqueror, however, is a ‘90s fantasy adventure, and I didn’t find it nearly as entertaining as its ‘80s counterparts. 

Having just defeated Borna (Sven-Ole Thorsen), the near-crazed King of Acheron, in a battle to the death, the barbarian Kull (Kevin Sorbo) inherits the King’s crown, and becomes the new ruler of the land. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with the rightful heirs, including the warrior prince Taligero (Thomas Ian Griffith), who plots openly to dispose of Kull as soon as possible. To this end, Taligero and the others conspire with Enaros (Edward Tudor Pool), a wizard whose mastery of ancient magic allows him to raise the 2,000-year-old demon witch Akivasha (Tia Carrere) from the dead, in the hopes she can help them destroy Kull once and for all. 

Though he has developed feelings for Zareta (Karina Lombard), a palace slave who can see into the future, Kull quickly falls under Akivasha’s spell, and after a hastily-arranged wedding ceremony he declares her his queen. 

Does the mighty Kull possess the strength to eventually resist the evil Akivasha, or will she use her vast powers to transform Acheron into a hell on earth?

One of the many issues I had with Kull the Conqueror was its hard rock soundtrack, which, though not prevalent throughout the entire movie, doesn’t quite fit the scenes in which it is employed (like the opening sequence, when Kull is trying to prove he’s worthy of joining Taligaro’s honor guard). With its lackluster costumes, bland set pieces, and shoddy special FX, Kull the Conqueror also has a made-for-TV feel about it, a la Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (starring Kevin Sorbo) or Xena: Princess Warrior, both of which were popular shows at the time this film was produced. In addition, the world created for Kull the Conqueror isn’t all that impressive. Nor, for that matter, is it’s mythology; Enaros conjures up Akivasha far too easily, and she, in turn, wins Kull’s affections moments after the two first meet. As a result, the movie’s more fantastical scenes have no real weight to them. 

The cast does a decent job; while he doesn’t have the screen presence of Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Kevin Sorbo fits the part of Kull well enough, and isn’t the worst lead actor I’ve ever seen. As for the chief baddie, Tia Carrere delivers a spirited performance as Akivasha, the demon who becomes a Queen. Unfortunately, none of the film’s characters (including these two) are as defined as they could have been, giving us zero reason to care about a single one of them. 

In all fairness, the ‘90s did produce a few effective fantasy / adventures (I enjoyed 1995’s Jumanji), but thanks to its myriad of problems, Kull the Conqueror was not one of them

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

#2,467. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

Directed By: Albert Lewin

Starring: George Sanders, Hurd Hatfield, Donna Reed

Tag line: "Why did women talk about Dorian Gray in whispers?"

Trivia: The movie is black and white except for four times when Dorian Gray's picture is shown in color

I sent my soul through the Invisible 
Some letter in that after-life to spell; 
And by and by my soul returned to me, 
And answered ‘I myself am Heaven and Hell’ 
      - The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám 

The above quote appears at both the beginning and the end of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Written and directed by Albert Lewin, this 1945 film was based on a novel by noted playwright Oscar Wilde, and focuses on the duality of man’s nature - the good and evil that is inside each and every one of us. Only in the case of this movie’s lead character, he has somehow managed to isolate his darker side, and does not suffer the guilt of his terrible actions. 

Yet a reminder of his crimes and indiscretions haunts him daily, and as a result, what at first seemed like a blessing to him quickly became it a curse. 

The story opens in London, 1886. Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield), a 22-year-old aristocrat, is posing for a portrait of himself, which his good friend, artist Basil Hallward (Lowell Gilmore), is painting. On the day that the picture is to be finished, the pair is visited by the always-sarcastic Lord Henry Wotten (George Sanders), who, noting the beauty of the portrait, complimented Gray on his appearance, telling him that he should enjoy life while he is young. Suddenly struck with the notion that his youthful exuberance will eventually fade, Dorian Gray wishes to never grow old, saying he would be willing to sacrifice anything, even his soul, if he could remain young forever. 

It isn’t until later on that Dorian realizes his wish has been granted; despite the passage of several years, his body has not aged. Instead, the picture of himself that Basil painted grows older in his place. But more than showing his true age, this portrait also serves as a reflection of Dorian’s soul, becoming uglier with each of his misdeeds. 

As Dorian lives the life of a scoundrel, breaking the heart of singer Sibyl Vane (Angela Lansbury) before agreeing to marry Basil’s niece Gladys (Dona Reed), his painted image continues to morph and deform, growing more grotesque as the years drag on. Try as he might, Dorian cannot ignore the ghastliness of his portrait, and wonders if there’s still time to fix the wrongs he’s done. 

Hurd Hatfield is perfectly convincing as the title character, transforming from a naïve young gentleman at the outset into a hardened shell of a man who cares only about his own pleasures. Yet despite his continued debauchery, Dorian is always aware of what he’s become, and occasionally expresses a desire (however briefly) to change his ways. As good as Hatfield is, though, the best performance in The Picture of Dorian Gray is delivered by George Sanders, whose Lord Wotten is directly responsible for Dorian’s shameful shenanigans. It’s he who convinces Dorian that youth is to be treasured, and life lived to its fullest, without regret or remorse (“I like persons better than principles”, Wotten says at one point, “and persons with no principles better than anything at all”). Dorian Gray may be the monster of this story, but Lord Wotten created him, and Sanders is so deliciously hedonistic in the role that, as bad an influence as he is, you can’t help but admire his character’s impudence. 

In addition to its talented cast, The Picture of Dorian Gray features several chilling scenes, all of which center on the portrait of its lead character. Soon after putting Sibyl Vane’s virtue to the test (a move instigated, of course, by Lord Wotten), Dorian decides to break off their romance, and sends her a damning letter, calling her character into question and saying they will never see each other again. Shortly after this letter has been delivered, Dorian notices a slight change in the picture’s facial expression, a sneer on the lips that gives it a harder edge. As Dorian’s actions become more questionable, his likeness alters until, at last, it is beyond hideous. Though shot in black and white, director Lewin does, on several occasions, show us Dorian’s portrait in full-blown color, making its monstrosities all the more unsettling. 

A morality tale about the effect that evil has on our psyche, The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of the more disturbing films to emerge from 1940’s Hollywood, and is a truly thought-provoking motion picture.