Saturday, December 23, 2017

#2,483. The Hitcher (1986)

Directed By: Robert Harmon

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

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

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

From the day I started driving, people have been telling me it’s dangerous to pick up hitchhikers. But they have nothing to worry about, because thanks to director Robert Harmon’s 1986 horror / thriller The Hitcher, there’s no way in hell I’m ever gonna give a stranger a lift! 

Hired to deliver a car to a customer in San Diego, Chicago native Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) starts to feel a bit groggy while driving through the desert. Hoping a little company might help him stay awake, he picks up hitchhiker John Ryder (Rutger Hauer). But instead of engaging in small talk, Ryder pulls a knife on Jim and threatens to kill him. Turns out Jim's new "friend" is a homicidal maniac, wanted by the police for a series of murders committed along this stretch of highway. And by the looks of it, Ryder wants to make poor Jim his next victim. 

Fortunately, Jim gets the drop on Ryder and pushes him out of the car. But the next morning, just when he thinks he’s safe, Jim is horrified to discover that Ryder has hitched a ride with a young family! 

Jim does what he can to warn them of the danger, but to no avail; Ryder murders the family, then initiates a game of cat and mouse with Jim, who, try as he might, can’t seem to dodge the maniacal killer. 

As the bodies pile up around him, Jim goes to the police, only to find that he himself has become the prime suspect in the killings! 

Now hunted by both Ryder and the authorities, Jim eventually teams up with Nash (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a waitress he met at a roadside diner and the only person who believes he is innocent. Nash has promised to help Jim escape, but the real question is: can Jim protect Nash from the sadistic Ryder? 

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

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

And that, more than anything, is what makes The Hitcher such an intensely frightening motion picture.

Friday, December 22, 2017

#2,482. The Burning Moon (1992)

Directed By: Olaf Ittenbach

Starring: Beate Neumeyer, Bernd Muggenthaler, Ellen Fischer

Tag line: "Uncut. Uncensored. Unconscionable"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Directed By: Hayao Miyazaki

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Minami Takayama, Rei Sakuma

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

Trivia: 462 colors were used in this movie

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

Now that she’s 13 years old, Kiki, a young witch, must leave home and continue her training in the real world. With her talking cat Jiji in tow, an enthusiastic Kiki settles down in a large seaside village and quickly befriends Osomo, a baker’s wife, who lets the eager newcomer move into their upstairs storage room. 

Before long, Kiki opens up her own delivery service, and with the help of her trusty broom she manages to generate a great deal of business for herself. But when her powers start to fade, Kiki must find a way to get them back, and fast. Should she fail, her dreams of becoming a full-fledged witch may be over before they’ve had a chance to begin. 

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

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

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

Thursday, December 21, 2017

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

Directed By: Robert Aldrich

Starring: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Keith Carradine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emperor of the North does have its share of humor (there’s a baptism scene that made me laugh out loud); some nail-biting action sequences (the final showdown between Shack and A-No. 1 is intensely violent); and a strong supporting performance by Keith Carradine, playing a guy we’re never quite sure about (at times, he’s unbearably arrogant). But Emperor of the North is at its best when Marvin and Borgnine are facing off against each other, two characters with very different ideals going mano et mano, and doing so in a way you won't soon forget.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

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

Directed By: Waris Hussein

Starring: Gene Wilder, Margot Kidder, Eileen Colgan

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

Trivia: Jean Renoir was considered to direct

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

But life is about to get more complicated for Quackser. First, he meets Zazel (Margot Kidder), an American student enrolled at a Dublin-based University, and before long Quackser is head-over-heels in love with her. 

On top of that, his livelihood is threatened by a new ordinance that, if approved, will force delivery services to switch out their horse-drawn buggies for motorized vehicles. 

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

Directed by Waris Hussein, Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx is an odd, offbeat romantic comedy that - thanks to the fine work of its star - you can’t help but enjoy. Sporting a convincing Irish brogue, Gene Wilder is at his likable best as the quirky title character, who roams the streets of Dublin looking for manure and instead finds love. 

Kidder, in one of her earliest film roles, is equally good as the elusive Zazel, a flighty young woman who, though she has feelings for Quackser, is hesitant about their relationship and maybe even a little embarrassed by it (she makes plans to meet Quackser at a dance, then shows up with a fellow student and contemplates sneaking away when she spots Quackser on the dance floor). Yet whenever the two are together, Zazel is clearly drawn to the older Quackser, and enjoys the time she spends with him. 

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

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

#2,478. The Cocoanuts (1929)

Directed By: Robert Florey, Joseph Santley

Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx

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

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

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

Mr. Hammer (Groucho) is the proprietor of Florida’s Cocoanut Hotel, but despite its beachside location neither he nor his assistant Jamison (Zeppo) has been able to drum up any real business. 

Mrs. Potter (Margaret Dumont), one of the Cocoanut’s few guests, is busy trying to convince her daughter Polly (Mary Eaton) to break her engagement to Bob Adams (Oscar Shaw), a hotel clerk who hopes to one day be a successful architect. Instead, Mrs. Potter wants Polly to marry Harvey Yates (Cyril Ring), who claims to come from a prestigious family. 

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

The Cocoanuts was based on the Brothers’ stage show of the same name, and because it was the first of its kind I suppose it’s only natural that the movie feels a little stage-bound (though director Florey, who was also shooting Skyscraper Symphony while this film was in production, does try to liven things up with some nifty camera angles). 

One issue I had with The Cocoanuts that I couldn’t overlook, however, was the fact that the Marx Brothers aren’t in it nearly as much as they should have been! 

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

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

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

Friday, December 15, 2017

#2,477. Vigilante (1982)

Directed By: William Lustig

Starring: Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, Richard Bright

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

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

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

Factory worker Eddie Marino (Robert Forster) has his entire world taken away from him after his wife Vickie (Rutanya Alda) tries to stop a gang from beating up an old man. She is eventually attacked by that same gang, a showdown that ultimately claims the life of the couple’s young son Scott (Dante Joseph). 

The gang's leader, Rico (Willie Colón), is arrested and put on trial for murder, but his sentence is suspended by the judge (Vincent Beck), and that very afternoon he’s back on the streets. When Eddie protests the verdict, he is charged with contempt of court and sentenced to 30 days in prison. 

With the help of longtime inmate Rake (Woody Strode), Eddie survives his incarceration, and soon after his release teams up with co-worker Nick (Fred Williamson), who, along with buddies Burke (Richard Bright) and Ramon (Joseph Carberry), has taken the law into his own hands, beating up rapists and hunting down the goons that sell drugs in their community. 

With Nick’s assistance, Eddie sets out to take his revenge on the gang that destroyed his family. But will the grieving father stop there, or will Eddie's thirst for justice turn him into a full-time vigilante? 

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 14, 2017

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

Directed By: Joseph Ruben

Starring: John Savage, Will MacMillan, Anne Saxon

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

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

Throughout the '70s and ‘80s, Crown International (an independent studio that had been around since 1959) released an array of exploitation films, from teen comedies (Malibu Beach, Weekend Pass) to horror flicks (The Crater Lake Monster, The Hearse) to a few that straddled the line between the two (1989’s My Mom’s a Werewolf).

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

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

Robert manages to hide their affair from the rest of the family, including Edward, whose writing career has hit a snag. In fact, Edward needs money so badly that he has agreed to become a bag man for a local gangster.

Unfortunately, the mob wants Edward to make a pick-up in Canada the very weekend he’s flying to California, where he hopes to land a job as a screenwriter. So, Robert agrees to take his brother’s place, and, accompanied by Edward’s new girlfriend Deborah (Meredith Baer), makes his way north to the pick-up location, not realizing until it’s too late that the contents of the package he will be transporting could change both his and Edward’s lives forever.

John Savage (in one of his earlier roles) and Will MacMillan are excellent as the brothers with differing ideals. Robert is a free spirit who doesn’t have many worldly possessions; he took very little along with him on his tour of the U.S.A. As for Edward, who until recently was a successful author, he wants nothing more than to maintain the luxurious lifestyle he has grown accustomed to, forcing him into an alliance with some very shady characters.

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

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

Friday, December 8, 2017

#2,475. Days of Heaven (1978) - The Films of Terrence Malick

Directed By: Terrence Malick

Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

#2,474. The Devil's Candy (2015) - Sean Byrne Double Feature

Directed By: Sean Byrne

Starring: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, Pruitt Taylor Vince

Tag line: "He Will Slither into your Soul"

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

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

But something quite unexpected happened during that subsequent viewing. Even though I knew what was coming, The Devil’s Candy managed to disturb me more the second time! In fact, there was a moment when I had to stop the Blu-Ray and collect my thoughts, something that wasn't necessary the first time I saw it.

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

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

But the house has a dark history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 3, 2017

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

Directed By: Yimou Zhang

Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 1, 2017

#2,472. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) - The Films of Wes Anderson

Directed By: Wes Anderson

Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray

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

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

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

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

Several years pass. Mr. Fox is now a well-respected (if somewhat obscure) newspaper columnist, and his young son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is proving to be a handful (a bit odd, Ash seldom does what he’s told). When informed that his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) will be coming to stay with them for a while, Mr. Fox decides to move his family into a bigger, above-ground home, one that overlooks three prestigious poultry farms owned and operated by Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Michael Gambon).

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

Based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a movie the entire family can enjoy, with a colorful lead character (handled wonderfully by the always-reliable George Clooney) whose various adventures will have you laughing as you're poised on the edge of your seat. Along with being both funny and exciting, Fantastic Mr. Fox is also touching in its own way; the relationship between Mr. Fox and his son Ash offers up a few heartwarming moments.

In addition to its fine thematic elements, the stop-motion animation is superb, and there are scenes within the film that are truly unforgettable, the best of which features an underground feast that’s interrupted by a tidal wave of apple cider.

Yet as good a family entertainment as this movie is, what struck me while watching Fantastic Mr. Fox was how Wes Anderson’s signature style shined through in every scene. We recognize it in an early flashback, when the Foxes break into a Squab farm moments before Mrs. Fox announces her pregnancy. Following the two as they sneak around the farm, the scene has a familiar energy to it, fueled in part by Anderson’s choice of music ("Heroes and Villains" by the Beach Boys). We’ve seen stylized moments like this before in Bottle Rocket, RushmoreThe Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and we recognize the “Anderson touch” almost immediately.

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

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