Saturday, July 22, 2017

#2,389. Muscle Beach Party (1964)

Directed By: William Asher

Starring: Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello, Luciana Paluzzi

Tagline: "10,000 Biceps Meet 5,000 Bikinis..."

Trivia: Marked the screen debut of music prodigy "Little" Stevie Wonder, who receives an "introducing" credit

Back in the day, my father used to watch the Frankie Avalon / Annette Funicello “Beach” movies on TV, but I myself never cared enough to join him (after a scene or two I usually got up and left the room). So this 1964 film marked the first time I’ve seen one from start to finish, and while I wouldn’t say I made a mistake skipping this sort of fare, Muscle Beach Party is an occasionally humorous slice of mindless fun, and features one hell of a supporting cast.

It is Easter vacation, and everyone’s favorite surfing couple, Frankie (Avalon) and DeeDee (Funicello), along with a few dozen of their closest friends, are spending it on the beach, where they’ll ride waves, carouse, and dance the night away. The house they rent is right next door to a bodybuilding center owned and operated by Jack Fanny (Don Rickles), who tells the kids, in no uncertain terms, to keep away from his muscle-bound goons.

Into this picture of near-tranquility comes the Countess Juliana (Luicana Paluzzi), whose yacht is anchored offshore. With the help of her business manager S.Z. (Buddy Hackett) and attorney Theodore (Peter Turgeon), the Countess hopes to land yet another husband: “Mr. Galaxy” himself, Flex Martian (Rock Stevens), who, coincidentally, happens to be Jack Fanny’s star attraction. While S.Z. and Theodore negotiate to buy Flex’s contract, the Countess spends the day getting to know her new boyfriend.

But moments after Jack Fanny signs the agreement, the Countess spots Frankie on the beach, singing a sad song (he and DeeDee just had an argument). All at once, the Countess has a change of heart, and decides she doesn’t want Flex anymore; she wants Frankie! She tells Frankie she’ll make him a recording star, and together they’ll sail around the world. But is Frankie ready to abandon his carefree life, not to mention his relationship with DeeDee, to become the plaything of a beautiful heiress?

Muscle Beach Party is actually the second in what would be a series of twelve movies produced by Samuel Arkoff’s AIP between 1963 and 1968. Seeing as it’s a sequel, Muscle Beach Party does, on occasion, reference the previous film, 1963’s Beach Party; Morey Amsterdam (of TV’s Dick Van Dyke Show) reprises his role as Cappy, owner of a beachside nightclub that the kids frequent, and every so often he talks about “what happened the last time” Frankie and company hung out at his place.

Still, the fact that I haven’t seen Beach Party didn’t ruin Muscle Beach Party for me in the least, and I couldn’t believe the supporting cast they assembled for this film. Along with its trio of comedy legends (Hackett, Rickles, and Amsterdam), this 1964 sequel featured the screen debut of “Little” Stevie Wonder (though only 13 at the time, Wonder brings the house down with the song “Happy Street”, which he performs on-stage at Cappy’s). Also along for the ride are Dick Dale (the “King of Surf Guitar”) and his Del Tones, who perform a few tunes (including the title number), and keep an eye out as well for a Hollywood horror icon, who makes a cameo appearance towards the end.

Muscle Beach Party does have its flaws, chief among them the movie’s female lead, Annette Funicello, who has zero charisma (along with her bad acting, Funicello clearly couldn’t sing. Her brief rendition of “A Girl Needs a Boy” is so heavily processed that it sounds like she was in a tunnel when she performed it). In addition, the early surf scenes are a distraction: footage of actual surfers in the water is spliced together with shots of Funicello, Avalon, and the rest standing in front of a terrible rear projection (to make it look as if they’re the ones actually riding the waves).

These issues aside, Muscle Beach Party was a passable comedy / musical, and while it hasn’t exactly inspired me to rush out and watch the other films in the series, I enjoyed it while it lasted.

Friday, July 21, 2017

#2,388. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Directed By: Frank Oz

Starring: Rick Moranis, Ellen Greene, Vincent Gardenia

Tagline: "Don't feed the plants"

Trivia: "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" (written for this film) is the first Oscar-nominated song to contain profanity

It started, as many things in Hollywood do, with Roger Corman.

It was in 1960 that Corman, along with screenwriter Charles Griffith, devised a little movie about a man-eating plant and the nerdy young florist who took care of it. 

Did I say “little” movie? Make that miniscule; The Little Shop of Horrors was shot in two days, utilizing sets that had been built for another film. Corman is notorious for keeping a watchful eye on a production’s bottom line, but with The Little Shop of Horrors he managed to outdo even himself (the final cost was about $22,000). Not only has this “little” movie become a cult classic, it also featured one of the earliest big-screen appearances of an actor named Jack Nicholson, who, as I understand it, went on to have a decent career (not to mention 12 Academy Award nominations and three Oscars).

For most low-budget pictures, this is where the story usually ends. But, 22 years later, the songwriting duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken would transform this 72-minute black and white flick into an off-off-Broadway musical. After debuting in 1982, Little Shop of Horrors the stage show enjoyed a 5-year run at New York’s Orpheum Theater, and has played to packed houses across the world ever since.

David Geffen, one of the producers of the stage show, then decided to bring the entire project full-circle by making yet another movie titled Little Shop of Horrors, this time turning it into a big-budget musical extravaganza, with stunning special effects, a top-notch cast, direction by Frank Oz (long-time collaborator of Muppeteer Jim Henson and the voice of Yoda in the Star Wars series), and cameos by well-known comic stars such as Jim Belushi, John Candy, and Bill Murray, just to name a few.

And, like all the previous renderings of this “little” story, Geffen’s version was a smash hit, and is a movie I fell in love with the first time I saw it on cable in the late ‘80s.

Seymour (Rick Moranis) is an underpaid employee of Mushnik’s Flower Shop, a tiny store situated in the heart of Skid Row. In an effort to drum up some business, Seymour convinces his boss Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia) to put a new flower he’s been cultivating in the front window, a plant so exotic that it’s bound to draw customers. Seymour named this plant (which, according to him, appeared from out of nowhere during a recent, unexplained solar eclipse) “Audrey II”, in honor of his co-worker Audrey (Ellen Greene), who he’s loved since he first laid eyes on her. Unfortunately for Seymour, Audrey is already dating Orin Scrivello (Steve Martin), a sadistic dentist who treats her like dirt.

Sure enough, “Audrey II” is a big success, and people come from all around just to see it. With business better than ever, Mr. Mushnik orders Seymour to take extra special care of his new plant. But as the lovesick young man will discover, this is no ordinary flower. Instead of water and sunlight, “Audrey II” needs human blood to survive, and the more it gets, the bigger it grows. After a while, “Audrey II” even starts to talk (voiced by Levi Stubbs), and what it’s telling Seymour to do could kand him in some very hot water.

But even if it can help change his lfie for the better, as "Audrey II" promises, will Seymour actually listen to a talking plant?

One of the strongest attributes of this 1986 comedy / musical is its superior cast. Rick Moranis is flawless as the nebbish Seymour, as is Ellen Greene as Audrey, a role she herself originated on Broadway. Topping the list, though, is Steve Martin as the psychotic dentist, an over-the-top performance that fits the character to a “T”. In addition, director Frank Oz utilizes the “Greek Chorus” (Tichina Arnold, Michelle Weeks, and Tisha Campbell) to perfection; along with being backup singers on practically every musical number, this trio pops up occasionally in small roles (street toughs, etc). The star cameos, including Christopher Guest (as a customer), John Candy (a radio DJ) and Bill Murray (a masochistic dental patient), are equally fun, while Motown legend Levi Stubbs provides the voice of “Audrey II”, whose foul-mouthed manipulation of Seymour results in some of the movie’s most entertaining sequences.

And then there’s the music, composed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (who, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, helped restore Disney’s animation department to its former glory with their work on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin). Every single song the duo created for Little Shop of Horrors, from the opening number to "Suddenly Seymour" to "Mean Green Mother from Outer Space", is a classic. Rounding out this list of superlatives are the film’s outstanding special effects, which, by bringing an oversized plant so convincingly to life, did their part to make Little Shop of Horrors an unforgettable motion picture experience.

But the story still isn't over.

Like many films that make their way through the Hollywood system, Little Shop of Horrors was initially screened for a test audience, and while they loved the characters, this group absolutely hated the original ending, which was lifted directly from the play. Based on their reaction, the producers felt a change was needed, and told director Oz and company to shoot a more upbeat finale.

It’s certainly not the first time such an alteration was forced on a filmmaker, but what made this particular change so heartbreaking was that Richard Conway, supervisor of the movie’s model unit, spent an entire year of his life working on that end scene, putting together a special effects-laden extravaganza that Frank Oz himself called “masterful”. Twelve months dedicated to a single sequence, and nobody would ever see it.

The Blu-Ray that I recently purchased of Little Shop of Horrors has rectified this injustice by restoring the original ending, giving audiences the choice of watching either the theatrical version or the movie that Oz, Ashman, etc. intended all along. But while praising the hard work and technology that helped re-assemble this lost footage, Frank Oz issued the following warning in a brief note he penned for the Blu-Ray release: “Be Prepared. (The ending is) not pretty”.

As someone who believes strongly in the French Auteur Theory, I have always made it a point to watch a director’s cut, regardless of how much or how little it differed from the theatrical release (Richard Donner’s cut of Superman II changed that movie completely, while George Miller’s preferred version of The Road Warrior contained only one additional minute of footage). But with this most recent viewing of Little Shop of Horrors, I made an exception, and watched the theatrical cut instead.

My reason for doing so is simple: I fell in love with this picture when I first saw it all those years ago, and I wanted to re-live that experience one more time. When next I watch Little Shop of Horrors, I’ll check out this director’s cut, and it will undoubtedly change the entire movie for me. So, as if saying goodbye to an old friend, I allowed myself one final encounter with the version I adore.

Is that so wrong?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

#2,387. Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

Directed By: Michel Levesque

Starring: Steve Oliver, Donna Anders, Gene Shane

Tag line: "If you're hairy you belong on a motorbike!"

Trivia: A quote from this movie can be heard in the beginning of Rob Zombie's song "Dragula"

Man, this is one trippy motion picture!

Directed by Michel Levesque (who co-wrote the script with David M, Kaufman), 1971’s Werewolves on Wheels tags along with a biker gang known as the “Devil’s Advocates” as they travel the highways of California, looking for a good time. Their leader is Adam (Stephen Oliver), a free spirit whose girlfriend Helen (D.J. Anderson) rides with him. One of Adam’s closest pals is fellow biker Tarot (Deuce Berry), who got his name because he believes his trusty deck of Tarot cards can help him see into the future. And what he’s seen recently has made him very, very nervous.

The trouble begins when the gang decides to rest on the grounds of a monastery, where the monks, under the watchful eye of their high priest “One” (Severn Darden), worship not God, but Satan. After knocking the bikers out with drugs (which they hid in bread and wine), the monks lure Helen into the bowels of their priory, where, in a trance-like state, she takes part in one of their rituals, dancing (naked) with a snake and eating bread that’s been dipped in cat’s blood. When Adam wakes up and discovers Helen is missing, he and a few others storm the monastery, rescuing her before the ceremony is finished.

But in the days that follow, Adam, Tarot, Helen, and a few others realize something very strange is going on, a feeling that only intensifies when a handful of their friends are murdered, in violent fashion, during the night. What the gang doesn’t know is that the monks put a curse on them, and now, whenever the moon is full, select members of the Devil’s Advocates become bloodthirsty werewolves!

At the outset, Werewolves on Wheels looks and feels like a typical biker movie; along with the standard shots of the gang flying down the road on their cycles, there’s a scene where the driver of a pickup truck runs one of the Devil’s Advocates off the road, only to be beaten to a pulp when the rest of the gang catches up to him. The moment the action shifts to the monastery, however, the film changes gears and transforms into a bizarre supernatural horror film (the satanic ceremony is shown in detail, and, to be honest, it’s pretty damn cool).

From that point on, Werewolves on Wheels is a combination of the two, blending elements of the biker genre with those of a werewolf movie (complete with jump scares and plenty of blood and gore). Yet what’s truly amazing is how effective this mix is, creating a unique hybrid of action and horror that’s far too entertaining to ignore.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

#2,386. Double Exposure (1983)

Directed By: William Byron Hillman

Starring: Michael Callan, Joanna Pettet, James Stacy

Tag line: "Smile and say die!"

Trivia: Michael Callan's younger sister appears as an extra in the mud wrestling scene

The pre-title sequence that opens 1983’s Double Exposure, in which an undercover cop, posing as a hooker, is stabbed to death by an unknown assailant, had me convinced I was in for yet another ‘80s slasher film. The very next scene, however (which plays during the credits), had a dream-like quality to it (slow-motion, stuttered movements, etc), and all at once I changed my mind; clearly, Double Exposure was going to be a psychological thriller.

Ultimately, the movie has elements of both subgenres scattered throughout, and there are moments when it is simultaneously chilling and brilliant.

But more than anything, Double Exposure is a Goddamn jumbled mess.

On the surface, things seem to be going well for Adrian Wilde (Michael Callan). His job as a freelance photographer affords him the opportunity to hang out with a bevy of gorgeous models, and he’s dating the beautiful Mindy (Joanna Pettet), a younger woman who might just be the love of his life. But appearances can be deceiving; in fact, Adrian is tormented nightly by violent dreams in which he murders the very models that work for him. To make matters worse, these nightmares are coming true; several girls have turned up dead, all finished off in the manner his dreams predicted.

Adrian opens up to his psychiatrist, Dr. Frank Curtis (Seymour Cassel), in the hopes he can somehow make sense of the situation. But the nightmares continue. Adrian next tries talking to his brother B.J. (James Stacy), a professional stunt driver, but B.J. is busy dealing with his own issues, including a failed marriage and the loss of an arm and a leg in a recent accident.

As AdrIan wrestles with his subconscious, the bodies continue to pile up, and it’s only a matter of time before the detectives investigating the murders, Sgts. Fontain (Pamela Hensley) and Buckhold (David Young), will come knocking on his door.

But is Adrian really a serial killer, or is he a victim of circumstance?

Simply put, the kill scenes in Double Exposure are inspired. Along with the pre-title sequence mentioned above, we’re treated to an impressive POV shot (from the killer’s perspective, of course) during which a hooker (played by future Oscar-nominee Sally Kirkland) is murdered. Yet as good as these moments (and several others) are, the film’s best kill takes place in the middle of the woods, and is so gruesome that you won’t soon forget it.

Along with the violence, Double Exposure also works as a psychological thriller, with Michael Callan turning in an extraordinary performance as a man on the edge, wondering if he’s actually capable of murder, or if it’s just his mind playing tricks on him. Also strong is James Stacy as Adrian’s troubled brother B.J., and while I didn’t think the film’s romantic subplot was particularly well-developed, Joanna Pettet shines as Adrian’s love interest.

Unfortunately, even when taking its better elements into account, Double Exposure is a hard film to recommend. There are times when we’re not sure if what we’re seeing is a dream or reality, and large chunks of the movie feel as if someone spliced scenes together in random order, hoping they’d make sense. In addition, the police investigation into the killings (established during the pre-title sequence) is practically ignored until the final 20 minutes, and Cleavon Little, who portrays Fontain’s and Buckhold’s foul-tempered superior, is totally wasted in what proves to be a very insignificant role (he’s on-screen exactly 3 times, and in his last appearance his character has a pointless argument with Sgt. Fontain).

Some of the issues that plagued Double Exposure can be easily explained: initially, the goal of its director, William Byron Hillman, was to shoot a new movie that would also feature sequences from a little-known film that he and star Michael Callan made 10 years earlier, called The Photographer (which had a plot similar to this film's). When the studio behind The Photographer threatened to sue, Hillman and company found themselves with several plot holes that needed filling, and fast. According to an interview he did for the DVD release of Double Exposure, Callan, who also produced the movie, did some uncredited writing as well, and the additional scenes he’d concoct at night were often shot the very next day.

Naturally, with a production as frenzied as this one seemed to be, it’s no wonder the movie has its problems. But knowing this doesn’t make Double Exposure any less disjointed or perplexing, and while I admire Hillman and Callan for cobbling together some truly remarkable scenes, the film, as a whole, still falls short of the mark.

Friday, July 14, 2017

#2,385. Club Paradise (1986)

Directed By: Harold Ramis

Starring: Robin Williams, Peter O'Toole, Rick Moranis

Tag line: "The vacation you'll never forget -- no matter how hard you try"

Trivia: Peter O'Toole replaced John Cleese in the role of Governor Anthony Cloyden Hayes

I hadn’t seen Club Paradise in what must be 25 years, yet my opinion of it has not changed one iota: the movie is sporadically funny, but with such a talented cast it should've been much better.

After being injured on the job, Chicago fireman Jack Moniker (Robin Williams) receives a large insurance settlement from the city, enough money for him to retire and move to the Caribbean island of St. Nicholas. Once there, Moniker befriends musician Ernest Reed (Jimmy Cliff), who owns (and performs at) a popular night club. 

Unfortunately, Ernest is a bit behind on the club’s taxes, and the Prime Minister of St. Nicholas, a man named Solomon Gundy (Adolph Caesar), is demanding that they be paid immediately. To help Ernest, Jack pays the back taxes, and together the two pals, along with Jack’s new British girlfriend Phillipa (Twiggy), turn Ernest’s hot spot into a tropical resort, which they call “Club Paradise”.

Before long, Club Paradise is welcoming it’s first-ever guests: Dr. Randy White (Steven Kampmann) and his wife Linda (Andrea Martin); business partners Barry Nye (Rick Moranis) and Barry Steinberg (Eugene Levy); co-workers Mary Lou (Robin Duke) and Jackie (Mary Gross); and Terry Hamlin (Joanna Cassidy), travel writer for the New York Times. As Jack works frantically to fix some of Club Paradise’s bigger problems (no running water, bug infestations, etc), the guests settle in, determined to have the vacation of a lifetime.

Unbeknownst to them all, Prime Minister Gundy is conspiring with Volt Zerbe (Brian Doyle-Murray), owner of the largest hotel on St. Nicholas, to sell the entire island to an Arab Prince. When Jack and Ernest refuse to turn Club Paradise over to him, Gundy uses every means at his disposal to drive them out of business, and not even Anthony Croyden Hayes (Peter O’Toole), the British Governor of St. Nicholas, can stop him.

Just look at that cast: Robin Williams, Peter O’Toole (who proved he could be funny in films like The Ruling Class and My Favorite Year), Brian Doyle-Murray (who also co-wrote the script), Robin Duke (Saturday Night Live), as well as four former cast members of SCTV (along with Martin, Moranis, and Levy, Joe Flaherty makes a brief appearance as the slightly odd pilot of a small plane). That’s an all-star comedy team right there. In addition, Jimmy Cliff provides a handful of cool Reggae tunes, and Adolph Caesar hams it up to perfection as the shifty politician looking to get rich.

Together, these actors and actresses do manage to generate some laughs; Moranis and Levy, as two very Jewish playboys on the prowl, have their moments, as does Robin Williams, whose rapid-fire delivery occasionally hits the mark (especially during the opening scene set in Chicago). There’s also a moment involving a helium tank that had me laughing out loud, and I got the distinct impression while watching Club Paradise that the cast had a great time making it (and why not? Most of the movie was shot on-location in beautiful Jamaica).

But it wasn’t enough. For every funny scene, Club Paradise had two that went absolutely nowhere (i.e. - an extended sequence in which the guests visit a nude beach), and some cast members were woefully underused (Peter O’Toole, Joe Flaherty, Joanna Cassidy).

I really wanted to love Club Paradise. In the end, though, it was, at best, a “middle-of-the-road” comedy; it made me laugh, but not as much as it should have.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

#2,384. Blue Water, White Death (1971)

Directed By: Peter Gimbel, James Lipscomb

Starring: Tom Chapin, Phil Clarkson, Stuart Cody

Tag line: "The Most Frightening and Fascinating Sea Adventure Ever"

Trivia: One of the few documentaries shot in the wide screen 2.35:1 format

Blue Water, White Death, a 1971 documentary co-directed by Peter Gimbel and James Lipscomb, chronicles the exploits of a team of underwater photographers (Stanton Waterman, Ron & Valerie Taylor, and Gimbel himself) who attempt to do something never done before: capture images of a great white shark in its natural habitat. Joined by researchers and technicians alike, as well as folk singer Tom Chapin (who provides the music for the film), the group will spend five and a half months at sea, beginning their journey with a whaling expedition in South Africa before sailing to Madagascar, Grand Comoro, Ceylon, and Western Australia, all in the hopes of finding the elusive, and very dangerous, great white.

Locating a great white shark may have been the ultimate goal of Blue Water, White Death, but it’s the crew’s additional adventures that make it so fascinating. During their time with the whaling fleet in South Africa (a sequence that includes graphic images of whale hunting that some viewers may find difficult to watch), the photographers spent several days filming sharks of various species, which fed on the carcasses that the whalers left behind. At times, hundreds of these predators were swarming around, and, to get a closer look at the feeding frenzy, the photographers left their protective cages to swim among the sharks, a decision that, though quite risky, resulted in a handful of amazing scenes.

But this wasn’t the only danger the group would face. While in Grand Comoro, the rough currents nearly pulled one diver out to sea; and in Ceylon, Peter Gimbel suffered a case of the bends, a condition that, if untreated, could lead to paralysis or even death. More than anything, though, Gimbel and company wonder what might happen when they do finally encounter a great white. At the start of Blue Water, White Death, the narrator, Wally King, reminds us just how deadly this creature can be by recounting some real-life cases (according to King, a great white once swallowed a man whole in the waters of La Jolla, California, while another victim was bitten in half off the coast of Western Australia). Most of the photographers had never seen a great white shark up-close, and had no idea what to expect. Yet, despite the potential threat, they couldn’t wait to find one. For some (especially Peter Gimbel), locating a great white even became an obsession.

The movie has its quiet moments as well; Ron & Valerie Taylor frolic with seals in Australia, and we’re treated to some beautiful underwater shots of sea turtles, eels, and barracudas. But for most of its runtime, Blue Water, White Death is as much a thrilling adventure as it is a documentary, and, like those who took part in the journey, you will be swept up in the excitement of it all.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

#2,383. The Don is Dead (1973)

Directed By: Richard Fleischer

Starring: Anthony Quinn, Frederic Forrest, Robert Forster

Tagline: "Power built an empire. Passion destroyed it."

Trivia: First Hollywood-based motion picture production in nine years for star Anthony Quinn

Released a year after The Godfather, The Don is Dead is yet another movie that throws the spotlight on organized crime. But unlike Coppola’s award-winning epic, this 1973 film takes a “down-and-dirty” approach to the material, telling the story of a bloody mob war fought not for money or power, but for love.

The trouble began when Don Paolo, the head of the Regalbuto crime family, died unexpectedly. As a result of his passing, the Regalbuto empire was split in half, with Don Angelo DiMorra (Anthony Quinn) assuming control of one part and Luigi Orlando (Charles Cioffi), the consigliere for the imprisoned Don Jimmy Bernardo (Barry Russo), taking over the other. With no heir of his own, Don DiMorra also agrees to take Don Regalbuto’s son Frank (Robert Forster), under his wing, promising Frank that he will one day inherit the DiMorra crime family and all of its assets.

But Luigi Orlando has plans of his own, and together with Jimmy Bernardo’s girlfriend Marie (Jo Anne Meredith) he attempts to drive a wedge between Don DiMorra and Frank by setting DiMorra up with Frank’s girlfriend, a singer named Ruby (Angel Tompkins). Not realizing that Frank has been seeing Ruby on a regular basis, Don DiMorra falls in love with her, causing a surprised Frank to lose his temper when he learns of the affair. Before long, the two former friends are engaged in an all-out war, with Don DiMorra and his family on one side, and Frank and his pals the Fargo brothers, Tony (Frederic Forrest) and Vince (Al Lettieri) on the other. Both Frank and DiMorra suffer major losses as the war rages on, while Luigi Orlando sits back, waiting patiently for the perfect moment to swoop in and take control of the city. 

But when the smoke finally clears, will it be Orlando who comes out on top or someone else entirely?

The cast that director Richard Fleischer and his team assembled for The Don is Dead is certainly impressive; Anthony Quinn, Frederic Forrest, and Robert Forster deliver top-notch performances, as do a pair of Godfather veterans, Al Lettieri (as one half the Fargo brothers) and Abe Vigoda (who appears briefly as Don Talusso). Yet what makes The Don is Dead such a treat is the manner in which screenwriter Marvin H. Albert (who also penned the novel the movie is based on) structures the story, hitting us time and again with shocking violence while also taking us behind-the-scenes, where we watch as the two sides use strategy and deception to try and gain the upper hand. And like most stories that involve a war, we’re never sure at any point who is going to be the next person to die.

While it doesn’t quite reach the same lofty heights as The Godfather, The Don is Dead is nonetheless an entertaining crime film, and it packs a fair number of surprises into its 115 minutes.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

#2,382. Last Train from Gun Hill (1959)

Directed By: John Sturges

Starring: Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, Carolyn Jones

Tagline: "The mightiest double-barreled excitement to blaze across the screen !"

Trivia: Hal B. Wallis bought Les Crutchfield 's story in March 1954 and planned it as a possible starring vehicle for Charlton Heston or Burt Lancaster

Last Train From Gun Hill, a 1959 western directed by John Sturges, gets off to a brutal start; a Native American woman (Ziva Rodann) and a young boy, presumably her son (Lars Henderson), are enjoying a leisurely ride in a horse-drawn wagon when they pass a couple of cowboys resting by the side of the road. Looking to have some fun with the pretty squaw, the two cowboys hop on their horses and, after catching up to the wagon, try and convince the woman to slow down. Instead, she hits one of them with her riding whip, leaving a gash on the man’s cheek.

The wagon speeds up, only to capsize when it tries to make a sharp turn. The injured man, none too pleased about the wound he just received, dismounts his horse and corners the squaw, who tells her son to run away as fast as he can. The cowboy rips her top off, and she lets out a scream. Frightened, the woman’s son jumps on one of the assailant’s horses and rides for help, which, unfortunately, won’t arrive in time to save his mother.

But this was no ordinary woman. She was the wife of Matt Morgan (Kirk Douglas), a federal marshal stationed in nearby Pawley. And her attacker was no everyday cowboy. His name is Rick Belden (Earl Holliman), the only son of cattle baron Craig Belden (Anthony Quinn), a man so powerful that he practically owns the town of Gun Hill. To complicate matters, Matt Morgan and Craig Belden are the best of friends, former partners who spent many years riding together before going their separate ways.

To bring his wife’s killers to justice, Morgan hops the next train to Gun Hill, and during the trip meets a former saloon girl named Linda (Carolyn Jones), who, it turns out, is also close to Craig Belden (though, as we will soon discover, she’s no fan of his son Rick).

Once in Gun Hill, Morgan makes his way to the Belden Ranch, and tells his old pal that he’s going to arrest both his son Rick and the cowpoke who accompanied him to Pawley, a ranch hand named Lee Smithers (played by Brian G. Hutton) who is himself employed by Craig Belden. Morgan intends to bring the two back to Pawley to stand trial for rape and murder. Despite their friendship, Craig Belden warns Morgan not to try and take his son away, promising that, if he does, all of Gun Hill will stand against him.

With 6 hours to go before the train back to Pawley arrives, it looks as if there’s going to be quite a showdown on the streets of Gun Hill, and seeing as the sheriff (Walter Sande) is in Craig Belden’s pocket, Matt Morgan is more than likely going to have to fight this particular battle alone.

The theme of a hero (or heroes) facing insurmountable odds is one that director John Sturges has returned to time and again throughout his career, whether it be in a western (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven), a war film (The Great Escape), or even a drama (The Old Man and the Sea). In Last Train from Gun Hill, Matt Morgan finds himself taking on not just his friend and the men he employs, but everyone in Gun Hill. Once the reason for his coming to town is made known, Morgan can’t walk down the street without drawing stares from every front porch or window, and the sheriff of Gun Hill refuses to sign his warrants or provide Morgan with deputies to help him serve them. “Isn’t there anyone in this town not afraid of Craig Belden?” Morgan asks the local bartender (Val Avery). “Sure”, the bartender replies. “The graveyard’s full of them”. Morgan does eventually take Rick Belden into custody, resulting in a final act that is as intense as they come.

Yet what makes the showdown in Last Train from Gun Hill so intriguing is that its two major combatants are old chums, and, despite being on opposite sides of this fight, neither man really wants to hurt the other. Though desperate to save his son, Craig Belden gives Morgan several chances to leave town quietly, a courtesy he doesn’t extend to many people (as we witnessed earlier when he handed Lee Smithers his walking papers). As for Morgan, the anger he feels towards Rick Belden is tempered, at least in part, by the respect he has for Craig. Douglas and Quinn are both superb in their respective roles, and by way of their performances we can tell that their characters are damn near heartbroken to be facing off against one another.

But with so much on the line, neither is willing to back down, and it’s because of this that Last Train from Gun Hill is as much a tragedy as it is a western.

Monday, July 10, 2017

#2,381. The Beast (1975)

Directed By: Walerian Borowczyk

Starring: Sirpa Lane, Lisbeth Hummel, Elisabeth Kaza

Tagline: "Just About The Most Outrageous Erotic Fantasy Ever Committed To Film"

Trivia: Actor Dylan Pringle once took a date to a screening of The Beast in London. She was reportedly "appalled" by his taste in films

“Eroticism… sex… is one of the most moral parts of life” 
                                                              – Walerian Borowczyk 

Born in Poland in 1923, Walerian Borowczyk displayed a penchant for the fine arts early in life, studying painting in Krakow and eventually moving into Lithography. As a young man, he designed a series of award-winning movie posters before dabbling in the cinematic arts himself, turning out animated films in Poland and France (he emigrated to Paris in 1959, where he would spend the remainder of his days). In the late 1960s, Borowczyk made the leap into live-action, and many of his subsequent films, which centered on sexuality, could have played simultaneously in both the arthouse cinemas and adult movie theaters of the day. Lauded by some critics as a genius and denounced by others as a smut-peddler, Borowczyk’s output never failed to stir up controversy, and 1975’s The Beast proved to be one of the most controversial of his career.

Inspired by a short film that Borowczyk himself directed in 1972 (which is shown in its entirety, as a dream sequence, over the course of this movie), The Beast is set in the picturesque French countryside, and concerns the efforts of Marquis Pierre de l'Esperance (Guy Tréjan) to marry off his only son Mathurin (Pierre Benedetti) to heiress Lucy Broadhurst (Lisbeth Hummel). Upon his death, Lucy’s father, who had amassed a small fortune in the business world, left his entire estate to his daughter on the condition that she marry Mathurin within 6 months of his passing, and that the ceremony be officiated by the well-respected Cardinal Joseph do Balo, the brother of Pierre’s uncle Duc Rammaendelo De Balo (Marcel Dalio).

A once-proud family, the l'Esperances have fallen on hard times as of late, and need this marriage to keep them afloat financially. So Pierre does everything he can to ensure the wedding goes off without a hitch. With Lucy and her Aunt Virginia (Elisabeth Kasa) already on their way, Pierre forces Rammaendelo to call Cardinal De Balo in Rome, despite the fact the two brothers had a falling out years earlier, and are refusing to talk to one another. Cardinal De Balo, it seems, is convinced that Rammaendelo and the rest of the l’Esperances are heathens, in part because Mathurin has never been baptized. Hoping it will lure the Cardinal to his house, Pierre sends for the village Priest (Roland Armontel), asking him to baptize Mathurin as soon as possible.

But the rumors that the l’Esperance family was cursed 200 years earlier when their ancestor, Romilda, was raped by a wild beast are more than idle gossip, and should the true nature of this curse be revealed, it would surely destroy any chance of a marriage between Mathurin and the lovely Lucy Broadhurst.

Borowczyk’s affinity for merging art and pornography is on full display in the opening scene of The Beast; immediately after a title card featuring a quote by Voltaire (“Troubled dreams are, in fact, a passing moment of madness”), we’re treated to a close-up of an erect horse penis, and watch as two equines (with Mathurin looking on) have sex with one another. Though shocking, this scene is but a prelude for the promiscuity to come, and there are times when Borowczyk even presents the couplings in a humorous light. Throughout the movie, the secret trysts between the l’Esperance’s butler Ifany (Hassane Fall) and Pierre’s daughter Clarisse (Pascale Rivault) are constantly (and inadvertently) being thwarted by Pierre himself, who calls for Ifany time and again to assist with whatever crisis he’s dealing with at the moment.

There is humor, also, in the story of Mathurin’s and Lucy’s proposed marriage. Seeing as the two have never met, the dim-witted Mathurin is afraid that Lucy might reject him, a fear that’s fueled by the conniving Rammaendelo, whose sole aim is to prevent the wedding from taking place (Mathurin is Rammendelo’s caretaker, and without him around the old man is convinced he’ll be tossed to the wayside). As for Lucy (who is treated as if she was a delicate flower by both her Aunt and Pierre l’Esperance), her passions are ignited soon after her arrival at the l’Esperance estate when she finds pictures depicting acts of bestiality hidden in a drawer. Whenever she’s alone, Lucy masturbates to them.

The most scandalous moments in The Beast, however, are the dreams that Lucy experiences several times during her stay in the country. As mentioned above, the scenes that make up these sequences were lifted from Borowczyk’s 1972 short film, also titled The Beast, in which a maiden (presumably, in this case, Pierre’s ancestor Romilda, played by Sirpa Lane) is chased through a forest by a wild beast, whose erect penis spews semen with every step it takes. The beast catches the maiden and has his way with her, an eventuality that, by all appearances, is as pleasing to the victim as it is her attacker. It was due to explicit imagery such as this that The Beast, even in a heavily edited form, was refused classification in the UK by the BBFC (when it was shown at London’s independently-run Prince Charles theatre, the Director of Public Prosecutions tried to get the film banned outright under the Obscene Publications Act).

Yet as startling as The Beast can be, it is also quite beautiful, with Borowczyk making great use of his surroundings (the movie was shot entirely on-location). In addition, The Beast serves as an effective critique of the French aristocracy, whose outward sophistication masks inner desires every bit as licentious as those of the lower classes.

To my surprise, The Beast is not the first Borowczyk picture I’ve seen during this challenge of mine; back in June of 2012, I reviewed his 1978 film Behind Convent Walls, which I described as “a rare blend of European Art-House cinema and exploitation sleaze”, calling it ” a shining example of both”. This sentiment is equally as fitting for The Beast, a gorgeous, evocative motion picture that has now piqued my curiosity. 

From here on out, I want to watch as many of Borowczyk’s movies as I can lay my hands on.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

#2,380. Zombiethon (1986)

Directed By: Ken Dixon

Starring: Karrene Janyl Caudle, Tracy Burton, Paula Singleton

Tag line: "Shambling shapes! Crawling creeps! Fleshless fiends! The liveliest Festival of the Dead is about to begin!"

Trivia: Features clips from such zombie-themed films as Lucio Fulci's Zombie and Jess Franco's Oasis of the Zombies

A pretty young woman (K. Janyl Caudle), wearing a schoolgirls uniform, is walking through a forest when she spots a zombie in the distance. In a panic, she runs, eventually crossing Wilshire Blvd and ending up outside Los Angeles’s El Rey movie theater. Afraid that she’s been followed, the girl darts inside and takes a seat in one of the crowded auditoriums. She becomes so entranced by what’s playing on the screen, which happens to be clips from Lucio Fulci’s 1979 horror film Zombie, that she doesn’t realize the entire theater is filled with the walking dead, and they are closing in on her… 

Thus begins producer Charles Band’s Zombiethon, an anthology of sorts featuring select scenes from a variety of zombie films, all tied together by a framing story (make that “stories”) centering on the El Rey movie theater. Along with Fulci’s Zombie, there are clips from Jean Rollin’s Zombie Lake, Jess Franco’s Oasis of the Zombies, and Ted V. Mikel’s Astro Zombies, just to name a few. Most of the scenes lifted from these movies contain lots of nudity and gore; the sequences from Zombie include the naked scuba diver that is attacked by an underwater ghoul (which, soon after, gets into a fracas with a man-eating shark).

Yet what I found particularly perplexing about Zombiethon wasn’t so much its penchant for the extreme as it was the selection of films it presented. Most did, indeed, feature the living dead, but also included were excerpts from Fear (aka Murder Syndrome), which, by the looks of it, is a psychological horror film; and in spite of its title, The Invisible Dead appears to be about an invisible ape-man that likes to rape women, with nary a zombie in sight.

Even stranger than the movies were the various segments that make up Zombiethon’s framing story. Aside from the schoolgirl mentioned above, there’s an extended sequence in which a beautiful woman walks along a beach as a narrator (we assume it’s the girl herself speaking) spouts some new-age mumbo-jumbo. Before long, she’s grabbed by a zombie that sneaked up from behind. As the zombie is carrying the woman, she turns to him and suggests that they take in a movie, at which point they immediately head to the El Rey. Towards the end of Zombiethon, we’re even treated to a series of comedic moments involving the living dead themselves, which have invaded the theater (in one, a zombie projectionist has trouble handling some film canisters, causing the undead audience below to impatiently clamor for him to start up the movie).

Running a scant 73 minutes, Zombiethon is an easy enough watch, and if you’re a zombie aficionado it’s a must-see.

As for me, I thought Zombiethon was fun while it lasted, but I can’t shake the feeling my time would have been better spent re-watching Fulci’s Zombie instead.

Friday, July 7, 2017

#2,379. Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)

Directed By: Charles Jarrott

Starring: Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Patrick McGoohan

Tag line: "They Used Every Passion In Their Incredible Duel!"

Trivia: Vanessa Redgrave was originally cast as Queen Elizabeth, but was replaced by Glenda Jackson

From producer Hall B. Wallis, the man behind both Becket and Anne of the Thousand Days, comes 1971’s Mary, Queen of Scots, a movie as grand in scope as its predecessors, and featuring an all-star cast that brings its historic power struggle convincingly to life.

Soon after the death of her husband, the King of France (Richard Denning), Mary Stuart (Vanessa Redgrave) returns to her native Scotland to assume her rightful place as that country’s monarch. But Scotland has changed since she’s been away; for one, the Protestant beliefs that have taken hold in England have also spread north, causing friction between the Scottish nobles (some of whom have embraced the new faith) and the church in Rome. In addition, Mary’s half-brother James (Patrick McGoohan) has been ruling Scotland in her absence, and has no intention of completely surrendering his power. More than anything, though, the Catholic Mary faces opposition from her cousin, England’s Queen Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson), due mostly to Mary’s insistence that she, and not Elizabeth, is the true heir to the British throne.

With several envoys from Rome, including courier / musician David Riccio (Ian Holm), to advise her, Mary stands against those who challenge her power. But as Mary deals with the treachery in her own court, Elizabeth is busy plotting Mary’s downfall, ordering her stable master (and lover) Robert Dudley (Daniel Massey) to travel north, where he will present himself as a potential husband for the widowed Mary. But at the same time, the wily Elizabeth also sends her Catholic cousin, Lord Darnley (Timothy Dalton), to Scotland, knowing full well that Mary will prefer him to the Protestant Dudley. Ignoring the advice of her brother and many Scottish nobles, Mary does, indeed, marry the weak-willed yet egotistical Darnley, a move that eventually plunges the country into civil war.

As Mary and her chosen guardian, Lord Bothwell (Nigel Davenport), try to maintain control of Scotland, Elizabeth waits patiently in England for the day that Mary is finally deposed. But will Mary succumb to the pressures and abdicate, or will the son she bears, fathered by Darnley, fulfill the childless Elizabeth’s deepest fears by one day sitting on the thrones of both England and Scotland?

Filled to its brim with political intrigue and backdoor dealings, Mary, Queen of Scots has quite a bit going for it, starting with its extraordinary cast. Vanessa Redgrave is predictably superb as the naïve yet determined Mary, whose trusting nature is constantly getting her into trouble (her impulsive marriage to Darnley causes more problems than she ever imagined, and leads to a shocking turn of events that threatens to bring her reign to a disgraceful end).

Equal to Ms. Redgrave in every way is Glenda Jackson as Elizabeth, who, despite being the more experienced of the two monarchs, lives in fear of losing her throne to the younger Mary, who has formed an alliance with the church in Rome. While it’s clear early on that Elizabeth is the better tactician, both women are strong in their own way, and the two make for formidable foes. The film’s supporting cast, including Nigel Davenport (the confident Bothwell), Timothy Dalton (the duplicitous Darnley), and Ian Holm (Mary’s loyal friend, Rizzio), is also impressive, but it’s the showdown between the queens that gives Mary, Queen of Scots its dramatic punch.

Along with the fine work of its two stars, Mary, Queen of Scots boasts excellent costumes (designed by Margaret Furse, who won an Academy Award for Anne of the Thousand Days) and makes great use of several locations throughout England and Scotland (such as Parham House in West Sussex and Hermitage Castle in Newcastleton). Then there’s the Oscar-nominated score composed by John Barry, which incorporates plenty of period music from the 16th century (Barry’s score for Mary, Queen of Scots ranks as one of his finest, and for the man who composed the music for Midnight Cowboy and such early Bond films as Goldfinger and Thunderball, that’s high praise indeed).

The struggle between Mary and Elizabeth has been brought to the screen many times over the years. In 1895, Thomas Edison produced the 18-second short The Execution of Mary Stuart, which some believe marked the first use of cinematic special effects; and even John Ford, master of the American West, tackled the story in 1936’s Mary of Scotland, which featured the indomitable Katherine Hepburn in the title role. But of all the versions I’ve seen, Mary, Queen of Scots is far and away the best.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

#2,378. Audition (1999)

Directed By: Takashi Miike

Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki

Tag line: "She always gets a part"

Trivia: When the film was screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival 2000 it had a record number of walkouts

To say the last 1/3 of Takashi Miike’s extraordinary horror film Audition is tough to watch might be the understatement of the century. And a big reason why it’s so shocking is that the entire first hour of the movie (with one or two exceptions) plays like a drama / romance, in which a middle-aged man falls for a beautiful younger woman. But as he, and the audience, will discover, she is no ordinary lady, and it’s because this revelation comes so late in the game that the climactic sequence is as traumatic as it is (well, that and the copious amount of bloody violence).

Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), an executive at a Japanese-based film production company, has been a widower for seven years now, and his teenage son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) reminds him that he’s not getting any younger, and should find himself a new wife. Unfortunately, Aoyama has been out of the dating loop for some time, and has no idea how to land a potential mate. In an effort to find Aoyama the perfect woman, his friend, movie producer Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), suggests that they hold mock auditions for a non-existent film, a plan that will surely lure dozens of pretty young ladies into their offices.

Despite his initial reservations about deceiving so many women, Aoyama goes along with Yoshikawa’s scheme, and during the auditions he meets Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina), a former ballerina who suffered a leg injury a while back that forced her to give up dancing. Though he’s physically attracted to her, Aoyama is even more impressed with Asami’s tenacity, and the brave manner in which she has dealt with adversity. Aoyama eventually asks Asami out on a date, and before long the two are an item.

But Asami is not what she seems to be, and if Aoyama isn’t careful, his new girlfriend may just pull him down into the darkness that has already enveloped her soul.

My good friend Jason Pyles, host of both Movie Podcast Weekly and the Horror Movie Podcast, has a saying that I’ve heard him repeat numerous times: “Horror happens to those who deserve it the least”. Nowhere is this sentiment more accurate than in Miike’s Audition. From the outset, it’s obvious that Aoyama, so well portrayed by Ryo Ishibashi, is a decent man; a loving father and a dedicated executive looking for a girl willing to spend the rest of her life with him. When he finally connects with the seemingly shy and unassuming Asami, we’re happy for Aoyama, and like him we ignore the warnings of Yoshikawa, who sees something in Asami that makes him… uncomfortable.

Yoshikawa is so worried, in fact, that he begs his friend to take things slowly, advising that Aoyama not call Asami for a few days. Aoyama begrudgingly agrees, and it’s here that Miike reveals Asami’s true nature; during the days that Aoyama doesn’t call her, Asami sits on the floor of her near-vacant apartment, obsessively staring at the phone, as if willing it to ring. She remains perfectly still the entire time (though something else in her apartment does move, giving the film its first of many creepy moments). All at once, we know something about Asami that Aoyama does not, bringing an added level of tension to the ensuing scenes in which they appear together.

All leading up, of course, to the film’s climax, and, boy, is it a doozy! Featuring flashbacks, dream sequences, alternate conversations, and lots of blood and gore, the final moments of Audition are, without question, among the most terrifying in modern horror.

If you don’t believe me, see for yourself. But be prepared to squirm in your seat a little, and odds are you’ll cover your eyes once or twice before it’s over.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

#2,377. My Little Eye (2002)

Directed By: Marc Evans

Starring: Sean Cw Johnson, Kris Lemche, Stephen O'Reilly

Tag line: "Fear Is Not Knowing. Terror Is Finding Out"

Trivia: Emily Perkins was considered for the role of Emma

Drawing inspiration from reality-based television programs such as Big Brother, director Marc Evans’ 2002 film My Little Eye tells the story of five total strangers: Rex (Kris Lemche), Matt (Sean CW Johnson), Charlie (Jennifer Sky), Dan (Stephen O’Reilly), and Emma (Laura Regan), who agree to spend 6 months together in an isolated house, after which they’ll be awarded $1 million in cash.

It’s all part of a brand new internet-based series, for which hundreds of webcams, both inside and outside the house, will be watching their every move. There are a few rules that must be obeyed: the contestants are not permitted, under any circumstances, to wander outside once the sun goes down; and should any of the five decide to end the experiment prematurely, none of them will be paid. Despite some early hiccups, the group has nonetheless managed to live together amicably for 5+months, and with only a handful of days left to go, it looks as if they’re going to make it to the end.

But a string of frightening events, all of which occur in a few days’ time, has Rex, Matt, and the others wondering who it is that’s controlling the situation, and how far that person (or persons) is willing to go to prevent them from collecting their money.

In keeping with the premise of his film, director Evans shoots the entirety of My Little Eye with a series of webcams, the very ones that are supposedly watching the lead characters every minute of every day. Fortunately, with so many webcams scattered throughout the house (some in locations so unusual that that the participants themselves don’t know about them), the movie still manages to be visually exciting. Occasionally, the camera placements are even kinda creepy (in what might be the film’s eeriest scene, we discover that a camera has been hidden inside a pen, allowing viewers to see what one character is jotting down in her private journal). 

Yet as disturbing as the CCTV-style footage can be at times, it’s the film’s central location, a large house in the middle of nowhere, that’s sure to give you the willies. With nothing but a barren, snowy landscape as far as the eye can see, we get the sense that this structure is hundreds of miles from civilization, kicking the tension up a notch or two the moment events begin to spiral out of control.

The actors portraying the five contestants are fine in their respective roles, and do a good job conveying the fear and paranoia that would naturally set in once things start getting weird (the standout performance is delivered by Kris Lemche, whose Rex is the most determined of the bunch, convincing the others time and again that the strange occurrences are likely being orchestrated by the company that hired them). And look for Academy-Award nominee Bradley Cooper in a brief but memorable role as a lost traveler (who may know more about the house and its occupants than he’s letting on).

While its story is indeed a familiar one (paranoid characters, cut off from the rest of the world, doing what they can to survive a potentially dangerous situation), My Little Eye is unique enough in its approach to ensure that even seasoned genre fans won’t be experiencing déjà vu. As stylish as it is unsettling, My Little Eye is independent horror done right.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

#2,376. The Great Escape (1963)

Directed By: John Sturges

Starring: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough

Tagline: "From a barbed-wire camp- to a barbed-wire country!"

Trivia: Donald Pleasence had actually been a Royal Air Force pilot in World War II, who was shot down, became a prisoner of war and was tortured by the Germans

Hoping to lure American audiences away from their television sets, Hollywood produced an inordinate number of “big” movies throughout the 1950’s and ‘60s, epics that boasted larger-than-life characters, exotic settings, a huge stable of stars, and running times that approached (and occasionally exceeded) the 3-hour mark.

Focusing primarily on biblical and historical epics at the outset, the studios soon applied this new way of doing things to other genres as well, including the war film. Fresh on the heels of 1961’s The Guns of Navarone and ‘62s The Longest Day, both of which featured an enormous cast, plenty of heart-pounding action, and some top-notch battle sequences, director John Sturges and his crew took the real-life story of a mass escape from a World War II German POW camp and turned it into yet another large-scale motion picture.

And while it doesn’t have as many action-oriented scenes as either The Guns of Navarone or The Longest Day, 1963’s The Great Escape is every bit as thrilling as its two predecessors.

In an effort to prevent further escapes, The German Luftwaffe builds a brand new high-security POW camp, and then fills it with their most uncooperative prisoners, enemy flyboys who have repeatedly tried to burrow and climb their way to freedom. One in particular, American pilot Captain Hilts (Steve McQueen), has made 17 escape attempts in the past, while British Squadron Leader Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) has masterminded several big-scale breakouts. In fact, Bartlett has become such a thorn in the Germans’ side that the Gestapo has promised to execute him on the spot if he tries to escape again.

But such threats mean nothing to Bartlett, who intends to put the Nazi’s new camp to the test by staging the biggest escape he’s ever attempted: 250 men at once! With plans to dig three tunnels simultaneously (nicknamed “Tom”, “Dick”, and “Harry”), Bartlett knows that, if he’s going to pull off this seemingly impossible feat, he’ll need all the help he can get. 

To this end, he enlists the aid of a number of his compatriots, including flight Lt. Hendley (James Garner), who can track down the materials they’ll need; Lt. Velinski (Charles Bronson), aka the “Tunnel King”, who has already dug his way out of numerous camps; Lt. Blythe (Donald Pleasance), a master forger; Lt. Ashley-Pitt (David McCallum), assigned the task of getting rid of the dirt that’s sure to pile up once the digging starts; and Australian officer Sedgwick (James Coburn), who, among other things, constructs an air pump that will allow those working in the tunnels to remain down there for hours on end. As for Captain Hilts, who has already tried to escape several times on his own (each attempt earning him a stint in solitary confinement), he initially balks at the idea of a mass break-out, but figures he has nothing to lose by pitching in and helping any way he can.

After months of preparation, the Allied prisoners are more than ready to leave their Nazi captors behind. But even if Bartlett does manage to sneak out 250 men under the cover of darkness, how many will actually make it to the border before they’re recaptured?

Though set primarily inside a POW camp, The Great Escape is still one hell of an action/adventure film. Not 20 minutes after they’ve arrived at the new camp, a half dozen prisoners, including Velinski and Sedgwick, try to escape, while Hilts, who tests the guard towers by crossing into a restricted area, earns himself 20 days in the cooler, a sentence passed by commandant Von Luger (Hannes Messemer) himself.

Of course, the real excitement comes in the final act (the escape itself), but even in the early scenes dedicated to putting Bartllett’s plan into motion, director Sturges and his writers, James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, maintain a consistent level of tension throughout. Along with the constant fear that the Germans might stumble upon one of the tunnels during a routine inspection, there are the personal dramas that keep our eyes glued to the screen, such as the revelation that Velinski suffers from claustrophobia, or that Blythe’s deteriorating eyesight may force Bartlett and the others to leave him behind.

It is moments such as these, handled wonderfully by the movie’s all-star cast, that make The Great Escape so intriguing, and the camaraderie that builds among its characters ensures we’re rooting for these guys every step of the way. So while it’s true that other war films have more action than The Great Escape, very few are as much fun to watch.

Monday, July 3, 2017

#2,375. Cleopatra (1963)

Directed By: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison

Tagline: "The motion picture the world has been waiting for!"

Trivia: Joan Collins was cast in the title role in 1958, but after several delays she became unavailable

20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra was years in the making, and a string of calamities caused its budget to skyrocket. Actors came and went (which led to a multitude of reshoots); large sets were built at Pinewood studios in London, then demolished when the production shifted to Italy; finely-detailed props were constructed at great expense, only to be tossed aside and never used; and more often than not, the cast and crew sat around waiting for director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (brought in after the initial director Rouben Mamoulian resigned) to re-write the script, which wasn’t even halfway finished when shooting began.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, star Elizabeth Taylor, whose $1 million dollar salary was a record at the time, suffered through a number of health scares early on (almost dying at one point when she contracted pneumonia in England), resulting in additional delays. Then, of course, there’s the scandal that plagued Taylor and co-star Richard Burton, whose torrid affair made headlines the world over (they fell in love while making the film, despite the fact both were married to other people at the time).

It's as if the Gods of both Egypt and Rome were conspiring against the film. When all was said and done, Cleopatra cost the studio over $31 million (according to the U.S. Inflation Calculator, that’s equivalent to $247 million today), and it is still considered one of the biggest financial flops in cinematic history.

But Cleopatra is something else as well: it’s an extraordinary motion picture, and a Hollywood epic of the highest order. It may have taken lots of blood, sweat, and tears to bring it to the big screen, but as far as I’m concerned, Cleopatra was worth every single penny that Fox spent on it.

The year is 48 B.C., and Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) has just defeated the armies of his former colleague, Pompey the Greatd. When told that Pompey, who escaped during the fighting, was on his way to Alexandria to seek sanctuary, Caesar decides to give chase, and once in Egypt will also act as mediator to settle a dispute between that country’s co-rulers, the boy-king Ptolemy (Richard O’Sullivan) and his sister Cleopatra (Taylor), who are locked in a civil war against each other.

But fate intervenes; Caesar quickly falls in love with Cleopatra, and, after naming her sole ruler of Egypt, he remains in Alexandria long enough to see the feisty queen bear him a son. Caesar does eventually return to Rome, and after some time orders Cleopatra and the boy to join him. Alas, Caesar is assassinated on the Ides of March by several senators, including Brutus (Kenneth Haigh), Cassius (John Hoyt), and Casca (Carroll O’Connor), who feared that Caesar’s most recent title, dictator for life, was turning him into a tyrant. With the help of Caesar’s close friend Marc Antony (Richard Burton), Cleopatra and her entourage slip out of Rome and return to Alexandria, and even though Caesar’s will named his grand-nephew Octavian (Roddy Mcdowall) as his heir, Cleopatra still dreams of the day when her son will reign over both Egypt and the Roman Empire.

Several years pass. Though they worked together to track down and kill Caesar’s assassins, the alliance between Octavian and Marc Antony is beginning to falter. The two eventually agree to split the empire in half, with Octavian ruling in Rome while Antony is given authority over the eastern provinces, including Egypt. Once in Alexandria, Antony meets with Cleopatra, and like Caesar before him he falls instantly in love with the beautiful queen. With Antony at her side, Cleopatra hopes to conquer the Roman Empire for her son, and she encourages Antony to defy Octavian at every turn, a move that will certainly lead to yet another civil war (one that Cleopatra and Antony have very little chance of winning).

Above all else, 1963’s Cleopatra is a gorgeous motion picture, with lavish set pieces and well-realized costumes that bring this tumultuous era of human history vibrantly to life. And like most epic films, the movie boasts a number of elaborate sequences, including an early skirmish in Alexandria between Caesar’s legions and those loyal to Ptolemy; as well as the impressive re-creation of the battle in the harbor of Actium, where Antony and Cleopatra took on Octavian’s navy, which was under the command of his good friend Agrippa (Andrew Kier). Topping them all, though, is Cleopatra’s grand entrance into Rome, a sequence so extravagant that it must be seen to be believed.

As for the cast, Elizabeth Taylor shines as the stubborn queen whose feminine guile won the hearts of two of history’s greatest men, and her on-screen chemistry with co-star Richard Burton is positively electric (which, I’m sure, had just as much to do with their off-screen antics as it did their acting ability). Often overlooked, but equally as important to the film, is Rex Harrison’s performance as Julius Caesar, whose skill as a military tactician proved invaluable when he first arrived in Alexandria (those initial confrontations between Caesar and the impulsive Cleopatra are priceless). Also excellent is Roddy McDowell as the conniving Octavian, while both Martin Landau (as Rufio, a general loyal first to Caesar, then to Antony) and Hume Cronyn (as Cleopatra’s top advisor, Sosigenes) are strong in support.

Despite its 4+ hour runtime, Cleopatra is very well paced (thanks in large part to Mankiewicz’s intelligent script), and while it never had a chance to make back all the money it cost to produce it, the movie did take in more at the the U.S. boix office in 1963 than any other film. In addition, Cleopatra netted four Academy Awards (for cinematography, art direction, costume design, and special effects) while also scoring a nomination for Best Picture of the year (which it lost to Tom Jones).

Cleopatra may, indeed, be the film that changed the face of Hollywood forever, trumpeting the end of the studio system (which collapsed in full before the decade was out). But it also ranks alongside Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, and Lawrence of Arabia as one of the finest big-budget spectacles ever made, and I for one never tire of watching it.