Friday, June 30, 2017

#2,374. Willard (1971)

Directed By: Daniel Mann

Starring: Bruce Davison, Elsa Lanchester, Sondra Locke

Tagline: "This is Willard and his friend Ben. Ben will do anything for Willard"

Trivia: According to Ernest Borgnine's autobiography, they offered him a choice of a higher salary or a percentage of the box office. Borgnine chose a higher salary

Willard is basically an extrovert. But it’s all inside” 

Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) is a shy, withdrawn 27-year-old who lives with his bossy mother Henrietta (Elsa Lanchester) in a house that’s in constant need of repair. At work, Willard’s boss, Al Martin (Ernest Borgnine), mistreats him, giving him a multitude of tasks and paying him very little. In fact, Martin would probably fire Willard if he could (Willard’s late father started the company years earlier, and Martin keeps the young man on as a favor to the aging Henrietta). Willard even lacks the self-confidence to ask his pretty (not to mention more than willing) co-worker Joan (Sondra Locke) out on a date.

Yet, despite all this misfortune, Willard does manage to make some new friends: the rats that have invaded a portion of his back yard! Ignoring his mother’s orders to kill these unwanted vermin, Willard instead feeds them, and trains a few to follow simple instructions. At first, he has only a handful of rodent pals, giving them names like Queenie, Socrates, and Ben. It isn't long, though, before Willard has lured in hundreds of rats, all eager to do his bidding. With an army like this at his command, Willard’s confidence grows, spelling doom for those who treated him badly over the years.

But is Willard actually the one in control, or do his little pals control him?

Directed by Daniel Mann, 1971’s Willard isn’t the movie to watch if you have a fear of rats (which I do). Willard grows very close to his new friends, and even brings Socrates and Ben to work with him on a few occasions (letting them hide in the stock room until quitting time). At home, the rats have the run of the entire basement, while Socrates (and sometimes Ben) sleeps in the upstairs bedroom. Willard doesn’t think twice about picking up a rat, or planting little kisses on them. And if the thought of a rodent hiding in your pants pocket gives you the willies, then Willard will be a hard movie for you to sit through (things get especially difficult late in the film, when Willard’s furry compadres go on the offensive).

Yet even more impressive than the well-trained rats that follow the lead character wherever he goes is the performance of Bruce Davison as Willard, who, over the course of the movie, goes from a loser to a self-assured killer before our very eyes (“You made me hate myself” Willard says to Mr. Martin. “Well, I like myself now”). Davison does a wonderful job conveying his character’s early weaknesses as well as his eventual confidence, at which point he fights back (sometimes violently) against those he feels are trying to manipulate him.

In most movies, a transformation such as the one Willard experiences would give the audience something to cheer about, and, to be fair, we do cheer for Willard most of the time. Alas, he takes things too far, further than he ever intended, and even though it’s the rats that do his dirty work, Willard himself becomes the real monster of this film.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

#2,373. Saturn 3 (1980) - The Films of Kirk Douglas

Directed By: Stanley Donen

Starring: Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel

Tagline: "The Ultimate Space Adventure"

Trivia: The robot Hector stood over eight feet tall and cost a little over a million dollars to make

The critics were especially harsh on Saturn 3, a 1980 sci-fi / horror film directed by Stanley Donen. Roger Ebert called the movie “dumb, dumb, dumb”, while TV Guide declared it “dreadful”. Time Out went so far as to say “there’s more fun to be had cleaning out your cat litter tray”.

Saturn 3 was even nominated for three 1981 Golden Raspberry Awards, for Worst Actor, Worst Actress, and the biggie, Worst Picture (which it lost to Can’t Stop the Music).

But is Saturn 3 really as bad as all that?

Well, it’s no sci-fi classic, but it’s certainly better than the reviews would lead you to believe.

The Earth is overpopulated, and to generate enough food for its inhabitants, research stations have been established on planets and moons all across the solar system. The Saturn 3 food research facility (named as such because it’s situated on Saturn’s third moon) is manned by a two-person crew: Major Adam (Kirk Douglas) and his gorgeous assistant Alex (Farrah Fawcett). They have spent years living in isolation, alone in this vast outpost (in fact, Alex, who was born in space, has never once visited earth). 

In an effort to speed up their production, mission control decides to send a scientist to Saturn 3, who will construct a high-tech robot designed to increase the station’s output. But the person they’ve chosen for the job is murdered just before take-off, and his killer, Captain Benson (Harvey Keitel), disguises himself as the dead man and takes his place. 

Labeled unfit for duty by his superiors, the mentally disturbed Benson nonetheless makes his way to Saturn 3, where, upon his arrival, he falls instantly in love with Alex, who is already romantically involved with Adam. 

Benson does eventually complete his task, building an 8-foot-tall automaton named Hector that is outfitted with human brain tissue (to help it perform more efficiently). But to complete its programming, Hector was required to read Benson’s thoughts, which means this incredibly powerful robot now has the mind of a killer. 

To make matters worse, Hector also inherited Benson’s feelings for Alex, resulting in a showdown between man and machine that threatens to tear Saturn 3 apart.

Perhaps the biggest injustice done to Saturn 3 was Kirk Douglas’s Razzie nomination as the year’s worst actor; his performance as Adam may not be as strong as his work in The Bad and the Beautiful or Paths of Glory, but he’s good enough, and for a man of 62 he was in damn fine physical shape (he even has a nude scene, displaying his bare ass during a skirmish with Benson). 

I also liked Harvey Keitel as Benson, a cold, calculating "scientist" who is the polar opposite of the friendly, outgoing Adam (unfortunately, due to his Brooklyn accent, Keitel’s entire performance was dubbed by actor Roy Dotrice, and to see Harvey Keitel but not hear him was a distraction). 

In addition, the special effects produced for Saturn 3 are good, and the set pieces that make up the space station (designed by John Barry) are better; the facility looks great, and is even quite menacing at times (not as claustrophobic or intimidating as the Nostromo in Alien, but not far off, either). 

Alas, the film has its issues as well, starting with Farrah Fawcett, who, though beautiful, delivers a sub-par performance as Alex. The movie also could have used a bit more backstory (we learn very little about the main characters, and even less about their motivations). Worst of all, though. is the lackluster game of cat-and-mouse that develops between the human characters and Hector the robot (it isn’t nearly as engaging as it should have been, and seeing as it takes up the final third of Saturn 3, this is a pretty big problem).

So while its detractors may have gone a bit overboard in damning Saturn 3, it is far from perfect. Still, I’m glad I saw it, and perhaps, at some point in the future, I may even watch it again.

Monday, June 26, 2017

#2,372. The Bling Ring (2013)

Directed By: Sofia Coppola

Starring: Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson

Tagline: "Living the Dream, One Heist at a Time"

Trivia: Kirsten Dunst's cameo, as herself, was not part of the original script. Instead, it was incorporated into the film, after Dunst visited Sofia Coppola on set

It was between the months of October 2008 and August 2009 that a group of southern California teenagers broke into the homes of several celebrities, making off with about $3 million in cash and property. Among the houses targeted were those belonging to Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, Orlando Bloom, and Rachel Bilson. According to reports, the teens entered Paris Hilton’s home on eight different occasions, and Rachel Bilson’s somewhere between three to six times, taking just enough to satisfy their greed, but not nearly enough to alert either of the big-time celebs that anything was missing. Often, the thieves would use the money they stole to hang out at the very nightclubs their victims frequented, and what’s truly ironic is that, once the youths were arrested and put on trial, they themselves became as famous as the personalities they ripped off.

The media dubbed these teenage crooks the “Bling Ring”, which is also the title of the 2013 Sofia Coppola film that chronicles this bizarre true crime story.

During his first day at a new high school (for teens who have been kicked out of their previous school), Marc (Israel Broussard), the fashion-conscious yet lonely son of a Los Angeles film distributor, meets Rebecca (Katie Chang), an outgoing young woman with dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Before long, the two are inseparable, and while hosting a party one night, Rebecca introduces Marc to her favorite pastime: stealing wallets from unlocked cars. Soon, these best pals up the ante by breaking into a house belonging to a friend of Marc’s, who was out of town at the time. This particular robbery nets them several thousand dollars in cash, which they use to go on a shopping spree.

While perusing the internet one afternoon, Marc reads a news article that says Paris Hilton will be attending a party later that same evening. Rebecca asks Marc to find out where Ms. Hilton lives, and that night, the two are hanging out in her home (thanks to a key left under the doormat), stealing a handful of Hilton's belongings and admiring her “Club Room”. 

The duo eventually tell their inner circle of friends, including hip-hop bad girl Chloe (Claire Julien), supermodel wannabe Nicki (Emma Watson), and Nicki’s adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga), about their adventure. The three then beg Marc and Rebecca to take them to Paris Hilton’s house. It was the first of many celebrity homes this group would break into, and before the law finally caught up with them, they will have swiped millions from some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

The Bling Ring works as a crime thriller. We tag along with the teenage thieves on their various excursions, and watch as they turn Paris Hilton’s home into their own private retreat, dancing in her club room, trying on her shoes, and stealing bits and pieces from her large jewelry collection. Many of these scenes were shot in Paris Hilton’s actual house, in the rooms that the real Bling Ring had invaded, and the only thing more shocking than the lead character’s behavior is the decadent lifestyles of their victims. Along with her Club Room, Paris Hilton has an entire wall filled with framed copies of magazine covers that featured her, as well as a shoe closet that’s bigger than a studio apartment!

But, even more than the money, it was these very lifestyles that attracted the members of the Bling Ring in the first place. Most criminals would lay low after committing a high-profile robbery, but not the kids in this film. Instead, they use the stolen cash to gain access to L.A.’s best hotspots, where they often wear the designer clothes they recently swiped! As we see time and again throughout The Bling Ring, the high they get fraternizing with the rich and famous is what drives these teens to steal even more, and it isn’t long before they themselves are as out-of-control as Lindsey Lohan and some of the other celebs they’ve targeted.

Coppola assembled an excellent cast for The Bling Ring, especially Katie Chang and Israel Broussard, who portray the ringleaders of this whole sorry affair. Topping them all, however, is Emma Watson as Nicki, the most clueless of the bunch. When arrested, she tells the press she’s viewing this entire ordeal as a “learning experience”, and is more than happy to talk whenever a camera is pointed in her direction. These young actors do more than bring their characters to life. They actually make us understand their motivations, i.e. -the desire to stand out in a town jam-packed with celebrities, and for a film of this nature, that’s no small feat.

The Bling Ring is yet another feather in Sofia Coppola’s cap, a motion picture every bit as stylish as it is disturbing. Yet for me, the film’s biggest accomplishment is that it shines a light not only on the crimes of its main subjects, but the media in general, whose obsession with the rich and famous is as warped as the real-life figures that inspired this movie. With news outlets that now focus on celebs and Hollywood gossip 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there’s a chance that the events depicted in The Bling Ring will happen again. And that is ultimately more troubling than the theft of a few million dollars from people so obscenely wealthy that, for a time, they didn’t even realize they were being robbed!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

#2,371. Personal Best (1982)

Directed By: Robert Towne

Starring: Mariel Hemingway, Scott Glenn, Patrice Donnelly

Tagline: "How do you compete with a body you've already surrenered to your opponent?"

Trivia: Actress Mariel Hemingway trained for more than a year in preparation for her role

Writer / director Robert Towne’s Personal Best is, in many ways, a sports movie; two Olympic hopefuls train for the 1980 games in Moscow, participating in a number of minor events along the way and pushing themselves as hard as they can to stay in tip-top physical shape. But more than anything, this 1982 film is a love story about two women who, though competitors, cannot shake the feelings they have for one another.

The year is 1976. Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly) is a champion Pentathlete, and during the Olympic trials she spots a teenage runner named Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) who, despite losing her event, has great potential. The two strike up a friendship, and Tory convinces Chris to enroll at Cal-Poly, where, along with becoming her teammate (and roommate), she’ll be coached by Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn), considered one of the best in Ladies Track and Field. 

But as Coach Tingloff will discover, Tory and Chris are more than good friends; they’re lovers, and their deep feelings for one another occasionally get in the way of their training. Personal Best follows the two women over the course of several years, detailing their personal struggles as they prepare for the Olympic Games, where (should they make the team) they will be competing against each other in the same events.

Though primarily a love story, Personal Best does, on occasion, put the focus squarely on Chris’s and Tory’s competitive nature; in an early scene, Tory tells Chris she lacks a “killer instinct”, at which point Chris, to prove her wrong, challenges Tory to an arm wrestling match. Using a series of close-ups, director Towne shows, quite effectively, the determination in each woman’s eyes as they strive to win, and takes what could have been a simple (perhaps even a humorous) contest and transforms it into something very revealing. There are many other sports-related scenes scattered throughout Personal Best that accomplish this same thing (with plenty of slow-motion to build the drama of each one).

But it’s the affair between Chris and Tory that takes center stage, and how their love for one another sometimes dulls their competitive edge. Realizing this is the case, Tingloff tries to drive a wedge between the two women (when Tory gets involved in Chris’s training, Tingloff drops some not-too-subtle hints that she’s actually offering bad advice, and trying to sabotage Chris’s performance). Yet his attempts usually end in failure. Chris and Tory also struggle with the effect their relationship is having on their training. Their minds and bodies are telling them to win at all costs, but they cannot ignore their hearts (after a lifetime of pushing themselves to achieve their dreams, they are suddenly in a position of caring more about someone else’s well-being than their own, and they don’t know how to handle it).

Hemingway and Donnelly are outstanding as the lovers trying to cope with a difficult situation, and Scott Glenn is also strong as Tingloff, a hard-nosed coach who cannot understand how two world-class athletes could allow their personal feelings to interfere with their Olympic dreams (in what may be Glenn’s best scene, Tingloff laments the fact he turned down a chance to be a men’s football coach for the less-rewarding job of ladies track and field. “I was coach of the year last year”, he says. “You know what that means when you're a women’s coach? Jack shit”). 

Also, kudos to writer / director Towne for taking what in the 1980’s was a taboo subject (lesbianism) and handling it with care; aside from a few crude remarks made by Tingloff (done primarily to ignite either Chris’s or Tory’s competitive fire), Personal Best does not draw attention to its same-sex relationship. It is a love story, plain and simple; the fact that the lovers are both women doesn’t matter one bit.

And it’s in exploring this love that the movie truly distinguishes itself; Personal Best is, without a doubt, a good sports film, but it’s an even better romance.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

#2,370. Thor the Conqueror (1983)

Directed By: Tonino Ricci

Starring: Bruno Minniti, Maria Romano, Malisa Longo

Tagline: "He Was The Ultimate Warrior"

Trivia: In the Philippines this movie was released as Beastmaster 2

“It was written in the stars, and in the dust of the dead, that from the seed of Ganz the Annihilator would come the greatest of all chieftains, Thor the Conqueror” 

As if on cue, the above bit of narration leads directly into a scene where we witness the birth of the individual who will become this movie’s main character. In it, Thor’s father, Ganz (Angelo Ragusa), and his wizard sidekick Etna (Luigi Mezzanotte) march through a field, while the woman pregnant with Ganz’s child (her name is never revealed) waddles behind, in labor and in extreme pain. 

Once they reach the “sacred spot” (marked by a stone that represents one of the Gods), Ganz and Etna perform a brief ceremony, after which Ganz’s wife staggers into the woods to give birth. A few minutes later, a baby’s cry is heard, and a proud Ganz hoists the infant high into the air, as if to alert the heavens that his successor, Thor, has been born.

But the scene doesn’t end there. Several well-placed arrows interrupt this touching father / son moment, and Ganz is soon after attacked by the army of his arch-enemy, Gnut the Archer (Raf Baldassorre). Etna uses his magical powers to save himself and the infant, leaving Ganz (and, of course, Thor’s mother, who never really does much other than give birth) to fend for themselves.

Thus begins 1983’s Thor the Conqueror, a movie that desperately wants to be Conan the Barbarian, but in the end doesn’t even measure up to Ator, the Fighting Eagle

Watched over by Etna, Thor (Bruno Minniti) grows to manhood, and before long sets out on his own, intent on tracking down the sacred sword that belonged to his father (a weapon that, once he possesses it, will make him the supreme ruler of the land). But the journey won’t be easy: Thor battles many foes during his travels, one of which, a warrior virgin named Ina (Maria Romano), eventually becomes his bride. When his quest is near its end, Thor encounters his father’s old nemesis, Gnut, who uses every ounce of his evil power to ensure that Thor will never claim the throne that’s rightfully his.

So, where does Thor the Conqueror go wrong? For starters, its story is as trite as it is perplexing; Thor’s mission is a simple one (find the sword and become king), but the enemy tribes he encounters along the way will nonetheless have you scratching your head, wondering what the hell is happening (each new tribe looks exactly like the previous one, and often attack Thor without provocation or reason). 

What’s more, the film is incredibly misogynistic; Etna flat-out tells Thor that women are “stupid”, and good only for sex and bearing children. Thor takes his guardian’s advice to heart: after defeating Ina in battle, he rapes her, then immediately makes her his slave (she seems content, however, and at one point even saves Thor’s life). Also, much of the dialogue in Thor the Conqueror is ridiculous (“Many moons times ten have passed”, Etna says in his dual role as narrator, though we’re never sure if he’s actually narrating Thor’s tale or just talking to himself) and it looks as if the entire movie was shot in the same locale (practically every scene is set in a forest).

More than anything, though, Thor the Conqueror is… well, weird! During a dream sequence, Thor is haunted by (among other things) a ghostly, floating chicken head and a giggling skeleton; and in an early scene, Etna helps Thor defeat some of his foes by magically launching a rock into the air (an effect so clunky that it made me laugh out loud).

One thing this movie is not, however, is dull; there is always something happening, whether it’s a battle or an unusual bit of magic. You may not have a clue what’s going on, and some scenes are so ludicrous that the guys from MST3K would have a field day lampooning them, but from start to finish, Thor the Conqueror is non-stop action. I’m not recommending you check it out (it is a very bad film), but if you do, I promise you won’t be bored for a minute.

You’ll be confused, and maybe even a little angry. But never bored.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

#2,369. Intermission (2003)

Directed By: John Crowley

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Kelly Macdonald, Colin Farrell

Tag line: "Small town delinquents. Shady cops. Pretty good girls. And very, very, bad boys"

Trivia: Co-star Colin Farrell performs the song "I Fought The Law" that plays over the end credits

It begins innocently enough: Lehiff (Colin Farrell) is in a small café, situated smack-dab in the middle of a busy shopping center. He is chatting with the pretty waitress (Kerry Condon) that works there, and based on their conversation, we get the distinct feeling that Lehiff fancies her. 

Who knows where the sparks will lead?” he says to her, “And a fella like myself, a stranger, could just be a bit of fun in the sack, no more than that. Or… and it's not that crazy… your soul mate”. The waitress smiles; clearly, she’s as smitten with Lehiff as he seems to be with her.

But this exchange is not what it appears to be. Moments later, something quite unexpected happens, and things quickly spiral out of control.

And with that, Intermission, a flashy, stylish film by first-time director John Crowley, is off and running.

Lehiff is but one of this crime / comedy’s many characters. We also meet John (Cillian Murphy), a clerk at the local grocery store who recently broke up with his longtime girlfriend Diedre (Kelly MacDonald). John felt they needed a break from each other, but after talking things over with his co-worker and best pal Oscar (David Wilmot), a guy who hasn’t had a date in months, John thinks he may have made a mistake.

But it’s too late; Diedre has already hooked up with Sam (Michael McElhatton), a bank manager considerably older than she is. Sam is so in love with Diedre, in fact, that he’s left Noeleen (Diedre O’Kane), his wife of 16 years, to move in with her. Diedre’s sister, Sally (Shirley Henderson), is still reeling from a disastrous relationship of her own, and is none too pleased that Diedre is committing “adultery” with a married man.

And then there’s Mick (Brian F. O’Byrne), a bus driver whose recent accident has cost him his job. Mick told his superiors what happened; that he lost control of the bus when an adolescent punk (Taylor Molloy) threw a rock through the windshield. Alas, nobody believes him.

Fortunately, not everyone in this Dublin neighborhood is having as bad a day. Jerry Lynch (Colm Meaney), a gung-ho police inspector, has been approached by TV producer Ben (Tomás Ó Súilleabháin), who wants to make a hard-hitting documentary about the fight against crime, with Jerry as its star. The egotistical Jerry, whose no-nonsense attitude has pissed off a few small-time thugs (Lehiff included), is only too happy to oblige. 

In addition, Diedre’s mom, Maura (Ger Ryan), is now a local celebrity, praised by the media for her role in rescuing people from the wreckage of an overturned bus (the very crash that put poor Mick on the unemployment line).

Over the course of several days, the lives of all these individuals will intersect, culminating in an attempted robbery that is sure to land a few of them in hot water!

With so many characters, you’d think this movie might get a bit confusing after a while. But thanks to Mark O’Rowe’s smart, profanity-laced script and the excellent performances of its cast, Intermission is anything but muddled. On the contrary: the characters are so well-realized that every single one of the film’s subplots or individual tales, regardless of how much or how little time is dedicated to them, is thoroughly engaging. Add to this director John Crowley’s cinema-verite approach (there’s plenty of handheld camerawork), some explosive scenes, and heaps of witty dialogue, and you have a movie brimming with energy.

Yet what’s truly amazing is that, through all of the craziness that plays out on-screen, all the swearing and the sudden violence that hits us from out of the blue, Intermission is, at its heart, a love story (or should I say stories), with men and women looking for that special someone (and occasionally finding them). 

That, in my opinion, is the most endearing aspect of this underrated 2003 gem.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

#2,368. Hope and Glory (1987) - The Films of John Boorman

Directed By: John Boorman

Starring: Sarah Miles, David Hayman, Sebastian Rice-Edwards

Tag line: "The epic story of a world at war. And a boy at play"

Trivia: A 650 feet long suburban street set with seventeen semi-detached houses was constructed for this movie

John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, a 1987 film about a small family coping with the difficulties of living in London during World War II, played regularly on cable TV in the late ‘80s. I never sat down and watched it from start to finish back then, but there’s one moment from its trailer that always made me chuckle. 

Billy Rohan, a 10-year-old boy (and the movie’s central character), is on his way to school. When he turns the corner, he finds the schoolhouse is in ruins. Elated, Billy joins the other children, all of whom are shouting and celebrating. As the teachers try desperately to gain control of the situation, one of Billy’s friends runs up to him and shouts “Rohan! It was a stray bomb!” Then, looking up to the sky, his arms outstretched, the friend adds, “Thank you, Adolf!

It’s one of several funny moments to be found in Hope and Glory, a film that is also, at times, quite sad, and even a little romantic.

A semi-autobiographical account of director John Boorman’s own childhood, Hope and Glory opens in 1939, just as England has declared war on Nazi Germany. Young Billy Rohan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) lives with his family in the suburbs of London. In a fit of patriotism, Billy’s father Clive (David Hayman) enlists in the army, and his mother, Grace (Sarah Miles), fearing what might happen, makes plans to send Billy and his younger sister Sue (Geraldine Muir) to live with relatives in Australia, where they’ll be safe from Nazi air raids. 

But Billy refuses to go; he’s excited by the prospect of a war being fought in his own backyard, and over the next few years he experiences his share of what 20th century warfare has to offer. German bombs destroy several neighborhood houses, and planes battle in the skies above. In addition, Billy’s teenage sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) falls in love with a Canadian soldier (Jean-Marc Barr) who is stationed nearby. 

But as Billy will eventually discover, war isn’t all fun and games. In fact, there are times when it can be downright heartbreaking.

The magic of Hope and Glory lies in how it views war through the eyes of a child, who thinks it’s kind of neat when his classes are interrupted by air raid sirens, or he finds a few shards of shrapnel lying in the road. At one point, Billy joins a gang of kids that invades bombed-out houses, breaking anything that’s still standing. 

Billy isn’t alone in his fascination with World War II; one afternoon, a German plane is shot down, and the entire neighborhood gathers to gawk at the pilot (played by Boorman’s son, Charley), who parachuted into a nearby field.

Of course, war can also be tragic, and Hope and Glory doesn’t shy away from the chaos of late night air raid sirens or explosions that shatter glass and reduce dwellings to rubble. In conditions such as these, children are forced to face some harsh realities (one of Billy’s friends is orphaned when her mother is killed by a bomb), and even adults occasionally ponder the paths that their lives have taken. With Clive off fighting the war, Grace finds herself growing closer to Mac (Derrick O’Connor), Clive’s best friend (and the guy she once had a crush on). War undoubtedly leaves a lasting impression on the soldiers who serve on the front lines, but as Hope and Glory demonstrates, it can be just as tough on those they’ve left behind.

Well-acted from top to bottom (Sebastian Rice-Edwards is especially fantastic in what is essentially the lead role), Hope and Glory is a funny, poignant, and often moving portrait of a family doing their best to deal with a difficult situation, and learning a bit about themselves in the process.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

#2,367. A Night to Remember (1958) - Spotlight on England

Directed By: Roy Ward Baker

Starring: Kenneth More, Ronald Allen, Robert Ayres

Tag line: "TITANIC... The greatest sea drama in living memory told as it really happened!"

Trivia: This is regarded as the largest British production of the 1950s. It was also the most expensive film made by the Rank Organization

With a budget somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million, James Cameron’s 1997 award-winning film Titanic recreated, in great detail, the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the British luxury liner that struck an iceberg in April of 1912 and carried some 1,500 souls with it to its watery grave. 

It is a tragedy that continues to fascinate. A mammoth ship, the RMS Titanic was labeled “unsinkable” by its manufacturer, the White Star line. Yet it never completed its maiden voyage, and sits, to this day, at the bottom of the North Atlantic. Packed with drama, romance, and plenty of thrills, 1997’s Titanic took in over a billion dollars worldwide, making it one of the biggest box-office successes in cinematic history.

Directed by Roy Ward Baker, 1958’s A Night to Remember is another take on the Titanic tragedy. It was produced on a more modest budget (estimated to be around half a million British pounds), yet is every bit as realistic, every bit as intense, and every bit as moving as Cameron’s epic undertaking.

While sailing from London to New York, the RMS Titanic, the largest liner ever constructed, sideswipes an iceberg in the North Atlantic. What at first seems like a near-miss soon proves catastrophic when the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe), informs the crew that a gash in its side is flooding Titanic’s lower decks, and in a few hours the great vessel will sink to the bottom of the ocean. 

Knowing full well there aren’t enough life boats to save everyone on board, Captain Smith (Laurence Naismith) and his subordinates, including First officer Murdoch (Richard leech) and Second Officer Lightoller (Kenneth More), do what they can to get the women and children to safety, all the while hoping that a nearby ship will come to their rescue. 

Unfortunately, the only vessel to answer Titanic’s distress call is the RMS Carpathia, whose Captain, Arthur Rostron (Anthony Bushell), orders his crew to take whatever steps necessary to get them to Titanic’s position as quickly as possible. Even at full-speed, though, the Carpathia is 4 hours away, meaning a good many will already be dead by the time it arrives.

Based on Walter Lord’s non-fiction book of the same name, A Night to Remember takes its time at the beginning to introduce the various characters, most notably Second Officer Lightoller, played superbly by top-billed star Kenneth More, who spends the days prior to Titanic's maiden voyage in the company of his wife (Jane Downs). That said, the majority of the movie is dedicated to what transpires after the ship hits the iceberg, with events playing out as quickly as they did that fateful night in April, 1912. 

Upper-class passengers, most of whom have no concept of the danger they’re in, complain about the “inconvenience” of putting on life jackets and gathering on the frigid deck. A nearby ship, the Californian (no more than 10 miles away) is oblivious to Titanic’s situation, and ignores the SOS signals, including the distress rockets sent up every five minutes. Then there are the passengers on Titanic's lower decks, locked in until the first and second classes have safely boarded the lifeboats. Those who survived the disaster would praise A Night to Remember for its realism, and it’s to the filmmaker’s credit that they went to such lengths to depict this terrible night as accurately as possible.

But A Night to Remember is more than a documentary-style account; it features plenty of drama as well. After a brief conversation with Thomas Andrews, first-class passenger Robbie Lucas (John Merivale), realizing how dire the situation is, calmly convinces his wife (Honor Blackman) to board one of the lifeboats with their three children. He reassures his family that he will follow on another boat, yet knows that, in all likelihood, he will never set eyes on them again. This is the first of several emotional scenes in which passengers must make that all-important decision: board the lifeboat, or stay behind so their loved ones will survive.

In addition, A Night to Remember shows us the individual acts of bravery performed by the ship’s crew. Wireless operator Jack Phillips (Kenneth Griffith) remained at his post as long as possible to send the distress signals; and the band continued to play right up to the end, doing their damnedest to bring an air of calm to the escalating drama. 

Then there are the ship’s final moments, the screams that those on the lifeboats can hear in the darkness. Some, including the boat carrying American millionaire Molly Brown (Tucker McQuire), return to pick up survivors. Alas, many do not return.

While not as visually impressive as what Cameron and his team accomplished with 1997’s Titanic (the miniature shots in this movie were lifted from a 1943 Nazi propaganda film produced by Joseph Goebbels), the story as depicted in A Night to Remember is powerful, and just as likely to move you to tears.

Monday, June 5, 2017

#2,366. Electra Glide in Blue (1973)

Directed By: James William Guercio

Starring: Robert Blake, Billy Green Bush, Mitchell Ryan

Tag line: "He's A Good Cop. On A Big Bike. On A Bad Road"

Trivia: The rough cut of this picture ran for around three and a half hours

During his introduction for the Electra Glide in Blue DVD, James William Guercio, the director of this 1973 film, tells of how he spent his childhood in a small-town movie theater. Apparently, the owner of this particular theater was a John Ford fan, and as a result, Guercio saw movies like The Quiet Man and The Searchersabout 200 times”.

This left a lasting impression on the first-time director, and sure enough, Ford’s influence is evident early on in Electra Glide in Blue; a camera, perched in the middle of a desert road in Monument Valley, stares off into the distance. The picture is in black and white to start, then slowly changes to sepia-toned, and eventually full-blown color just as a minivan speeds past. 

It’s a gorgeous shot, and the picturesque panorama was captured brilliantly by the great Conrad Hall (who served as the director of photography). Along with establishing the story's central location, this brief scene lets us know that Electra Glide in Blue, like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers before it, is going to play out like a western.

But while the movie’s look and feel may owe a lot to John Ford, its story has more in common with Easy Rider and Vanishing Point, both released a few years earlier (1969 and 1971, respectively). 

In the west that John Ford explored in films such as Wagon Master and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, America was still growing, and those who dared the westward expansion had a fighting chance to make a better life for themselves. 

In Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, and Electra Glide In Blue, however, (a trio of movies that, for want of a better term, I classify as the “Motorized West Trilogy”), the main characters went looking for the American dream, only to find it wasn’t all they hoped it would be.

Motorcycle cop (and Vietnam Veteran) John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) roams the long stretches of highway that cut through the Arizona desert, waiting for the day he’ll be promoted to Detective. 

He finally gets the chance to prove himself while investigating an apparent suicide. The coroner (Royal Dano) insists the deceased man, a longtime resident of the area, took his own life, but Wintergreen is convinced he was the victim of foul play. 

Harve Poole (Mitchell Ryan), the detective assigned to the case, admires Wintergreen’s “go-getter” attitude, and orders an autopsy. Sure enough, the suicide was staged to cover up a murder, and all at once, Wintergreen is promoted. 

But as the ambitious lawman will soon learn, the life of a homicide detective isn’t nearly as glamorous as he imagined.

Robert Blake delivers an excellent performance as the proud yet naïve Wintergreen; during the opening credits, we see how seriously the character takes his job by the way he puts his uniform on in the morning (making sure everything is just right before he walks out the door). Later, we tag along with Wintergreen as he flags down a couple of vehicles and writes them a ticket (the first is driven by an L.A. cop on vacation, who can’t believe his fellow officer won’t give him a break). 

Wintergreen’s partner in these early scenes is Zipper (Billy Green Bush), who is his opposite in every way. Zipper spends most of the day resting in the shade, and plants drugs on a young hippie they pull over (played by David J. Wolinski) simply because he didn’t like the way he looked. When he’s promoted to detective, Wintergreen is elated, in part because he can finally leave Zipper and his corrupt ways behind.

Unfortunately, his new colleague, Harve Poole, isn’t as honest and upright as Wintergreen initially thought. Sure, Harve talks a big game, bragging about his exploits and pausing occasionally to offer Wintergreen some advice. But Wintergreen’s eyes are opened during the murder investigation when the duo, looking for a possible suspect, drive to an abandoned farm that doubles as a biker hangout. The bikers are less than helpful, which causes an impatient Harve to turn violent (in an attempt to show he means business, Harve beats several bikers into submission). 

The two detectives obtain the desired information, but Wintergreen does not approve of Harve’s tactics, and his disappointment with his new partner grows even stronger when he and Harve have a falling out over a waitress (Jeannine Riley) they’ve both been dating.

Blake is, indeed, the star of Electra Glide in Blue, and as such he does a great job conveying his character’s early enthusiasm and eventual disenchantment. The movie's second star, however, is undoubtedly Conrad Hall, whose camerawork, at times, infuses Electra Glide in Blue with an almost fantasy-like atmosphere. While the outdoor scenes are clearly an homage to John Ford, the indoor sequences are every bit as stylish, thanks in large part to the manner in which Hall utilizes shadows and back-lighting (the opening segment, a series of close-ups in which the murder/suicide plays itself out, is especially intriguing).

As with Electra Glide in Blue, the remaining two movies that make up the “Motorized West Trilogy” feature the work of top-notch cinematographers; Easy Rider was shot by László Kovács (Five Easy Pieces, Paper Moon), while John A. Alonzo (Sounder, Chinatown) handled the camerawork for Vanishing Point. As a result, all three have their share of amazing imagery. 

And while the protagonists themselves may be different (Easy Rider’s Wyatt and Billy are drug dealers; Kowalski in Vanishing Point is a former cop turned lawbreaker; and Electra Glide in Blue’s Wintergreen is a by-the-books policeman), the central theme explored by all three films - their character’s disillusionment with the America they encounter on their journeys - is just as powerful today as it was during the Vietnam War era.

This particular aspect of their stories is what will stay with you long after the movies themselves have ended.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

#2,365. Django, Prepare a Coffin (1968)

Directed By: Ferdinando Baldi

Starring: Terence Hill, Horst Frank, George Eastman

Tagline: "Wanderer. Gunslinger. Executioner"

Trivia: The band Gnarls Barkley sampled the soundtrack from this film for their hit song "Crazy".

Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 western Django was a box-office sensation, and for years afterwards a slew of films tried to capitalize on its success by putting “Django” in their title. Most (including Quentin Tarantino’s excellent 2012 film Django Unchained) had no connection whatsoever to the original movie. One notable exception is 1968’s Django, Prepare a Coffin, a prequel of sorts to Django that was co-written by Franco Rossetti (who also penned the original). Unfortunately, Franco Nero wasn’t available at the time (he was busy making Camelot in America), so the lead was played by Terence Hill, a charismatic actor who would shoot to superstardom a few years later as the title character in 1970’s They Call Me Trinity.

This, plus the return of cinematographer Enzo Barboni (who did a masterful job shooting Django), was enough to ensure that Django, Prepare a Coffin would, at the very least, be a solid follow-up to Corbucci’s 1966 classic.

While guarding a shipment of gold, Django (Hill) and his men are attacked by a group of bandits, and during the melee Django’s wife (Angela Minervini), who was accompanying him on the journey, is shot and killed. As he crawls to safety, a wounded Django notices that the leader of the bandits is Lucas (George Eastman), the right-hand man of newly-elected senator David Barry (Horst Frank), a good friend of Django’s who, a day earlier, invited him to join his organization.

Five years later, Lucas and Barry are still stealing gold from passing wagons, each time pinning the crime on an innocent man who, before he knows what’s hit him, is sentenced to hang. What the two thieves don’t realize, though, is that Django himself is the local hangman! By attaching a harness to the back of each condemned prisoner, Django manages to save their lives (while, at the same time, convincing all onlookers that the accused is dead). It’s Django’s hope that those he’s rescued from the gallows, including Garcia (José Torrès) and Johnathan Abbott (Guido Lollobrigida) will help him take his revenge on Lucas and Barry. But as Django will soon discover, not even saving a man’s life is enough to guarantee his loyalty.

As with 1966’s Django, Django, Prepare a Coffin boasts a handful of great scenes, chief among them the saloon stand-off where Django battles it out with Lucas; and the finale, which (like a similar sequence in Corbucci’s film) takes place in a cemetery. In addition, Django, Prepare a Coffin has quite a bit in common with the original; aside from the lead’s outfit (it is identical in both movies), this 1068 prequel features the murder of Django’s wife, which is alluded to in Django (though the man responsible for her death is different this time around). As for Django, Prepare a Coffin's title song, “You’d Better Smile”, performed by Nicola De Bari, is not as strong as Rocky Roberts’ main theme for Django, but it is kinda catchy.

And then there’s Terence Hill, who, along with his striking resemblance to Franco Nero, does a fine job stepping into the iconic role. He may not bring the same intensity to the part that Nero did, but Hill’s Django is nonetheless a far cry from the comedic characters he would play later in his career.

Eve if it isn't the classic that Django is, fans of the original will more than likely get a kick out of this movie as well.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

#2,364. Eagles Over London (1969)

Directed By: Enzo G. Castellari

Starring: Frederick Stafford, Van Johnson, Francisco Rabal

Tag line: "A true story written in flame and fury"

Trivia: When getting the directing job, Enzo and a writing partner took a week to rewrite the overlong script to make it more action orientated and less of a "soap opera"

As I was perusing my DVD collection, trying to decide which movie to watch, I came across Eagles Over London, a 1969 World War II film, and two things about it caught my attention.

First, it was directed by Enzo Castellari, the man behind The Heroin Busters, 1990: The Bronx Warriors and the original Inglorious Bastards, all of which I enjoyed (he also helmed the excellent Keoma, my 2nd favorite Franco Nero spaghetti western after Django).

The second tidbit that piqued my interest was this quote on the back cover of the DVD:

A terrific film with one of my favorite storylines ever. You’re in for a real treat!Quentin Tarantino

I know Tarantino is a fan of Castellari’s work (his own 2009 war movie is also titled Inglourious Basterds), but to see a quote like that from a cinephile of his caliber was enough for me.

I immediately popped it into the player.

Eagles Over London begins with the mass evacuation at Dunkirk, which the British High Command ordered soon after the Nazis gained control of France. Capt. Stevens (Frederick Stafford) and Sgt. Mulligan (Renzo Palmer) are among the thousands of troops waiting at Dunkirk for the ships that will carry them home. 

But what they and the rest of the army don’t know is a team of German spies, disguised as English soldiers, has infiltrated their ranks. Led by a man named Martin (Francisco Rabel), these spies have orders to destroy the British military’s new radar system, clearing the way for Germany to launch a surprise attack from the air (history will call it the Battle of Britain).

Once in London, Capt. Stevens uncovers a series of clues that suggest there are Nazi agents operating in England, and he meets with Air Marshall George Taylor (Van Johnson) to warn him of the danger. Unfortunately, Stevens has no idea who the spies are, or what their ultimate target might be. 

Realizing that time is of the essence, he and his team work quickly to identify and capture the enemy agents, knowing full well that failure to do so could affect the outcome of the war.

Eagles Over London is a non-stop thrill show, with plenty of gunfights, explosions, and even some fisticuffs to keep you entertained. Hands-down, the best sequence is the evacuation of Dunkirk, which Castellari recreates on a grand scale, but there’s also a battle scene late in the film, when the German agents attack a radar outpost, that impressed the hell out of me. 

As for the movie’s depiction of the Battle of Britain, Castellari got a bit creative, relying more on studio-bound shots (of pilots in the cockpits of their planes) and stock footage to bring this famous skirmish to life (despite this economically-minded approach, it’s still damned exciting).

Castellari does manage to throw a romantic entanglement into the mix (both Stevens and Air Marshall Taylor have the hots for Meg, played by Ida Galli, herself a soldier stationed at command headquarters), and there’s even a little comedy relief courtesy of Renzo Palmer’s hard-drinking, no-nonsense Sgt. Mulligan. But these elements are never more than a brief distraction, a momentary diversion to allow the audience to catch its breath. If you’re a fan of action-packed war films, then Eagles Over London should be the very next movie you watch.