Tuesday, June 29, 2021

#2,592. The New Gladiators (1983)


With The New Gladiators, Lucio Fulci took a stab at a futuristic sci-fi / action film (a la Escape from New York), with a premise similar to that of Schwarzenegger’s The Running Man.

Rome, 2072: two rival networks, each specializing in real-life violence, are locked in a ratings battle. To win over a global audience, the World Broadcasting Service has devised a new program that harkens back to ancient times: an all-out, gladiator-style fight to the death starring death-row inmates, including Drake (Jared Martin), a proven champion who has been accused of brutally murdering his wife’s killers.

But as Drake will soon discover, the network executives have already determined the final outcome of this new "show".

With cheesy but awesome set pieces (the opening shot of a futuristic Rome gets things off to a fun start) and the always entertaining Fred Williamson in a supporting role (playing one of Drake’s fellow combatants), The New Gladiators showed a lot of promise early on, some of which was realized (the clip from the long-running series “Death Bike” was a blast, as was another program that featured a pendulum).

Unfortunately, the behind-the-scenes intrigue (network execs vying for power, Drake trying to find out if his new show will be on the level, etc) takes up a large chunk of the movie’s midsection, and these moments aren’t nearly as interesting as the violence-fueled sequences.

But the opening is strong, as is the finale (both bolstered by Fulci’s special brand of blood and gore), and the futuristic setting, even when it isn’t convincing, is always appealing.
Rating: 6 out of 10

Sunday, June 27, 2021

#2,591. Hey Good Lookin' (1982)


Like most of Ralph Bakshi’s work, Hey Good Lookin’ is not an animated movie that the entire family can enjoy!

A stranger meets a woman on a lonely New York street, and recounts for her the story of Vinnie (Richard Romanus), who, in the 1950s, was leader of The Stompers, a street gang. With his best friend Crazy Shapiro (David Proval) at his side, Vinnie spent his days hanging around pool halls, and his nights at dance clubs and burger joints.

That is until he reconnected with Roxy (Tina Bowman), a gorgeous brunette from the neighborhood. The minute he saw her, Vinnie was in love, but would he get a chance to tell Roxy how he felt before the big rumble with rival gang, The Chaplains?

Those familiar with Bakshi’s other films, like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, won’t see anything here that they haven’t seen before (along with a few scenes of nudity, the movie is loaded with sexual innuendo, and the comedy is often on the crude side).

But that’s not to say Hey Good Lookin’ is without its charms. John Madara’s ‘50s-style musical score sets the perfect tone, and the film features a handful of impressive scenes (the best being a dreamlike sequence set on a rooftop).

And the casting of Richard Romanus and David Proval as the leads, both of whom appeared in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, was a nice touch.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Friday, June 25, 2021

#2,590. Zachariah (1971)


Director George Englund’s 1971 western Zachariah boasts spirited musical sequences (provided by bands like Country Joe and the Fish and The James Gang, both of which appear in the movie) and a counterculture mentality that - while certainly a product of its time - drives its themes of friendship and anti-violence home in a convincing way.

Zachariah (John Rubinstein) and his buddy Matthew (a very young Don Johnson) are wannabe gunslingers out to make a name for themselves, joining forces first with a group of hapless outlaws known as The Crackers (Country Joe and the Fish) before teaming up with Job Cain (jazz drummer Elvin Jones), the fastest draw in the west.

Featuring comedy (that’s admittedly more “miss” than “hit”), imaginative set pieces (the psychedelic design of Belle Starr’s desert brothel is a definite highlight), and plenty of music (Elvin Jones’ drum solo is amazing), Zachariah ranks as one of the most unusual westerns ever made, and that alone is reason enough to see it.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

#2,589. Hell Bent (1918)


This silent film is an early western by John Ford, who in the years that followed would establish himself as one of that genre’s most accomplished directors. But Hell Bent is more than just a curiosity; throughout the movie, there are hints of the artistry Ford would refine in such later films as Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Searchers.

Petty crook Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey) falls for saloon girl Bess Thurston (Neva Gerber), a love that convinces him to change his thieving ways. Things get a bit complicated, however, when Cheyenne learns that Bess’s out-of-work brother, Jack (Vester Pegg), has joined forces with notorious criminal Beau Ross (Joe Harris). X Can Cheyenne convince Jack to go straight before Bess finds out?

Story-wise, Hell Bent is nothing special, nor are many of the film’s action scenes. But Ford’s penchant for shooting outdoors – exploring the vast landscapes of the American West - is on display, and an early shot where a painting morphs into a real life scenario is flawlessly executed (as is a late sequence involving a sandstorm).

Hell Bent may not be John Ford’s finest western, but it has its charms, and fans of the great director won’t want to miss it.
Rating: 6 out of 10

Monday, June 21, 2021

#2,588. Colonel Redl (1985)


Colonel Redl, István Szabó’s award-winning biopic about a military officer in pre-World War One Austria/Hungary, is a fascinating character study, centering on a man whose love of country was overshadowed by his personal demons.

Alfred Redl (Klaus Maria Brandauer) rose from meager beginnings to become one of the most decorated soldiers in the Hapsburg Empire. His determination so impresses his superior, Colonel Von Roden (Hans Christian Blech), that he hand-picks Redl to head up the all-important counter-espionage unit.

But Redl, a closet homosexual, had, from an early age, developed feelings for his boyhood friend and fellow officer Kristof Kubinyi (Jan Niklas), an infatuation that, if discovered, could jeopardize his career.

From what I’ve read, Colonel Redl isn’t historically accurate (the Archduke Ferdinand, played here by Armin Mueller-Stahl, didn’t plot against Redl, as depicted in the film).

But never mind; Szabó still manages to convey his lead’s insecurities in a convincing manner (though he outranked him, Redl felt inferior to Kubinyi, whose family was much more prestigious than his own), and Brandauer delivers a stirring performance as the title character; we understand both the man and his motivations, even when his actions are, at best, dubious (late in the film, he’s willing to do whatever is necessary to advance - then protect - his career).

Winner of the Jury Prize at the 1985 Cannes Festival as well as that year’s BAFTA for Best Foreign Language Film, Colonel Redl is a movie you’ll want to seek out.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, June 19, 2021

#2,587. Devil's Pass (2013)


I’m usually pretty forgiving when it comes to found footage; no matter how outlandish the story, if the presentation is even halfway convincing, I’m in.

Therein lies the problem with Renny Harlin’s Devil’s Pass. There wasn’t a moment I believed its characters or a single word they were saying, and as a result, when the final act veered off into strange and unsettling sci-fi territory, instead of being intrigued, I was just ready for it to be over.

Five college students from Oregon head to Russia to make a documentary about the Dyatlov Pass incident of 1959, where nine healthy, experienced hikers were found dead in the snow.

What caused their demise is a mystery that’s never been solved, and when the five students, led by co-directors Holly (Holly Goss) and Jensen (Matt Stokoe), head out to the location of the tragedy, hoping to find some answers, they instead uncover a 50-year-old secret that could ultimately spell their doom.

Filled with bland characters delivering dialogue that felt forced (regardless of how crazy things get, there’s always time for a little exposition), Devil’s Pass never once felt real, and considering it’s based on an actual event (the Dyatlov Pass tragedy), I’d say a lack of authenticity is a major failing (Harlin and his crew couldn’t even make reality seem real).

There are a few cool scenes (the avalanche sequence was strong), but not enough of them to make up for the movie’s shortcomings. Devil’s Pass proved a major disappointment.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Thursday, June 17, 2021

#2,586. Von Ryan's Express (1965)


Frank Sinatra plays Colonel Joseph L. Ryan, a WWII American pilot whose plane is shot down over Italy. He soon finds himself the ranking officer at an Italian-run prisoner of war camp, and immediately butts heads with British major Eric Fincham (Trevor Howard), whose ultimate goal is to make life as difficult as possible for the camp’s commander, Battaglia (Adolfo Celi).

With the Allies closing in, the Italian guards abandon their posts, essentially turning the camp over to the prisoners. But a miscalculation on Ryan’s part results in every POW being re-captured by the Nazis and loaded into railway cars bound for Germany.

With time running out, Ryan and Fincham realize they must work together to find a way off that train before it reaches its destination.

Sinatra is solid as the title character, as is Trevor Howard as Fincham, the overzealous officer who believes in shooting first and asking questions later. Both of their characters face moral dilemmas throughout the movie - i.e. how best to handle a captured enemy soldier - and it’s the battle of wills that develops between the two that gives the movie its dramatic center (against Fincham’s advice, Ryan shows mercy to an enemy officer at one point, with disastrous results).

An exciting, often tense movie with a handful of great action sequences (culminating in a nail-biting finale), Von Ryan’s Express is nonetheless at its best when exploring how war can cause a man to rethink his principles, especially when the line between life and death grows narrower by the minute.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

#2,585. The Vineyard (1989)


You know, I do actually enjoy good movies. 

I really do. 

Check out my Yearly Top 10 / Top 20 Lists… they are chock full of awesome films. 

I say this because 1989’s The Vineyard is not a good movie. 

Actually, it’s shit. And yet, for some reason, I had a great time watching it! 

The story (not that it matters) centers on the evil Dr. Elson Po (James Hong), owner of a prestigious island-based winery who, along with dabbling in ancient rituals and black magic, lures twentysomethings to his vineyard and holds them hostage, draining their blood - little by little - and using it to stay perpetually young. 

In fact, a new crop of young adults has just arrived, including Jezebel (Karen Lorre), Lucas (Lars Wanberg), Nancy (Cheryl Madsen), and Jeremy (Michael Wong), all of whom hope to land a part in a new film they believe Dr. Po will be producing. Most will become the doctor’s prisoners, but one has managed to win his heart. 

The performances in The Vineyard are weak, with the exception of James Hong, who is hilariously over-the-top (meaning he’s at least interesting to watch). In addition to the subpar acting, The Vineyard is littered with plot holes and under-explored side stories. There are zombies, half-buried, on the grounds of Dr. Po’s vineyard. Why? Who knows? Also, hints are occasionally dropped that the wine Dr. Po is producing will be used to take over the world, but that’s not really explained either. 

Oh, and did I forget to mention that Dr. Po was born sometime in the early 19th century? 

Mix these elements together and toss in a handful of martial arts-inspired fight scenes and you have an absolute mess of a movie. 

But it was a gloriously fun mess… a so-bad-its-good mess… the kind of mess that will bring a smile to your face. 

So, yeah, I like good movies, but I guess I like shit, too. 

Rating: 5.5 out of 10 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

#2,584. Late Phases (2014)


A low-budget horror film set in a retirement community, with an excellent performance by Nick Damici (Stake Land) as a grizzled, blind war veteran who takes it upon himself to hunt down the local werewolf.

Late Phases (aka Night of the Wolf) is a tense movie, with some familiar faces in the supporting cast, including Lance Guest (Halloween II), Tina Louise (Ginger from Gilligan’s Island), Tom Noonan (House of the Devil), Ethan Embry (The Devil’s Candy) and Larry Fessenden (I Sell the Dead, We Are Still Here).

It’s the special effects, though, that set this one apart, and the look of the creature itself is dwarfed only by the visceral transformation scene that occurs towards the end.

As directed by Adrian Garcia Bogliano, Late Phases is a dark, brooding film that will get under your skin, and is a worthy entry in the werewolf subgenre.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Friday, June 11, 2021

#2,583. Lady Vengeance (2005)

I’m a huge fan of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, the first two entries in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, and as such I went into 2005's Lady Vengeance, the third and final film in the series, thinking it might fall short of the others.

Well, I was wrong; Lady Vengeance is every bit as amazing as its predecessors, and ranks right up there with They Call Her One Eye, Lady Snowblood, and the Kill Bill series as one of the greatest women revenge films ever made.

When she was 19 years old, Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) was sentenced to 14 years in prison for kidnapping and murdering a 5-year-old boy. But as it turns out, Lee Geum-ja took the fall for someone else, school teacher Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik), who gets a kick out of abusing children.

Upon her release, Lee Geum-ja sets out to take bloody revenge against the man who ruined her life, and she spent her entire prison sentence planning out exactly how she was going to do it. But a grisly discovery, as well as a reconciliation with her long-lost daughter (Kwon Yea-young), forces Lee Geum-ja to settle on an alternative means of vengeance.

And oh baby, is it strong!

Like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy before it, Lady Vengeance is jam-packed with style and loads of violence, and director Park Chan-wook keeps things moving at a brisk pace. It’s the revenge scenes at the conclusion of the film, however, that pushed this one over the top for me. As difficult as they were to watch, they were also very, very satisfying.

In fact, Lady Vengeance might feature the greatest revenge sequence ever committed to film, and like its predecessors is a masterpiece that needs to be seen.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10 (What are you waiting for?!?)

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

#2,582. The Warriors (1955)


Also released as The Dark Avenger, The Warriors is a slight, if fitfully entertaining, costume adventure with an aging Errol Flynn in the lead role.

It’s the 14th Century, and Edward, the Black Prince (Flynn) watches over England’s holdings in France, specifically the region known as the Aquitaine. Though a treaty has been reached that essentially ended the Hundred Years' War, several French noblemen, led by the Comte de Ville (Peter Finch), remain determined to rid themselves of English rule.

To gain an upper hand on the Black Prince, de Ville and his knights kidnap Lady Joan Holland (Joanne Dru) and her younger brothers. The always-daring Edward, with the help of Sir John (Rupert Davies), takes drastic measures to ensure their safe return.

Despite being a bit too old to still be playing a swashbuckling hero, Flynn does his best with the part of Edward, and there are times he’s still convincing with a sword. In addition, The Warriors was shot on-location in England, which added a touch of authenticity.

But there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before, and when all is said and done, you’ll find – as I did – that you’d have been better off watching some of Flynn’s earlier classics (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, etc) instead of this dry retread.
Rating: 4 out of 10

Monday, June 7, 2021

#2,581. The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

Penelope Spheeris’ documentary The Decline of Western Civilization chronicles L.A.’s underground punk rock scene, and does so in a way that is absolutely intoxicating.

Filmed on-location from December 1979 to May 1980, The Decline of Western Civilization introduces us to a handful of punk groups, including X, Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks, interspersing footage of their live performances with interviews Spheeris conducted with members of the bands. The live shows have a definite energy to them, and audiences occasionally get so rowdy that they lose control. During a Circle Jerks concert, a fan runs on-stage and tries to pick a fight with the lead singer. Not to be outdone, Lee Ving, the voice of Fear, shouts insults at the crowd, which not only shouts back but also spits on him). The music is loud and fast, with titles like “White Minority”, “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene”, and “Gluttony”. Many of the songs were new to me, but I did recognize “Let’s Have a War” by Fear, which appeared on the soundtrack for 1984’s Repo Man.

As The Decline of Western Civilization shows us time and again, the bands took their music seriously, despite the fact most were severely underpaid. At the time this film was made, the members of Black Flag were living in the basement of what was once a Baptist church. Spheeris asks how much money they take home after each performance, and lead singer Ron Reyes responds “Nothing”, adding “maybe there’s enough left over for a meal or two”. In fact, the most Black Flag ever earned during a single gig was $200, which had to be split four ways!

Along with the bands and their venues, The Decline of Western Civilization also gives voice to the fan base. Shot in black and white, youngsters like Eugene and Gennifer talk about why they love punk rock, with most saying it’s a way for them to get out their aggression. The “Pogo Dance”, where punks hop up and down to the music, was popular at the time, and resulted in more than a few fights. And if this movie is to be believed, the release of pent-up anger was what drove the rockers themselves to take that stage night after night.

As hard-hitting as it is informative, The Decline of Western Civilization is a snapshot of a subculture that was all but ignored in its time, and to this day, it remains one of the finest rock documentaries ever committed to film.
Rating: 9 out of 10 (Buy it now!)

Saturday, June 5, 2021

#2,580. Fangs of the Living Dead (1969)


Before turning his attention to the Blind Dead series, Armando de Ossorio wrote and directed this 1969 film about Sylvia (Anita Ekberg), a gorgeous model who inherits a castle from long-forgotten relatives, only to discover the family secret: her ancestors are centuries-old vampires!

Fangs of the Living Dead is the American cut of Malenka, The Vampire’s Niece, which contained an additional 20+ minutes (and, from what I’ve read, an alternate plotline that suggests the vampire curse is a hoax concocted by Sylvia’s uncle, played by Julian Ugarte).

While I wish I had seen Ossorio’s original version of the movie, Fangs of the Living Dead nonetheless features a handful of creepy moments (a nighttime sequence set in a graveyard is effective, as is the final showdown between Sylvia’s uncle and her fiance, portrayed by Gianni Medici), though I could have done without the comedy, which often felt out of place, and the ending scene with Max (a character played by Cesar Benet) was particularly woeful.
Rating: 5.5 out of 10

Thursday, June 3, 2021

#2,579. Fences (2016)

Films based on plays can, at times, feel “un-cinematic” and stagey. It takes some mighty strong performances to keep things flowing at a decent pace, and with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis starring in Fences, a drama inspired by August Wilson’s stageplay about a working-class family in 1950’s Pittsburgh, you have two of the finest actors of this (or any) generation at the helm.

Troy Maxson (masterfully portrayed by Washington) works as a garbage collector to support his family, wife Rose (Davis) and teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). A headstrong individual, Troy is a larger-than-life figure, and over the course of the movie we learn enough about him to convince us he’s an exceptional man (a former baseball star who came from meager beginnings, Troy also keeps an eye on his mentally backward younger brother Gabriel, played by Mykelti Williamson, a veteran who suffered a severe brain injury during World War II).

But Troy has his flaws as well; he did time in prison for robbery, and is far too strict with Cory, pulling the young man off the football team for failing to keep his job at the grocery store. Before long, we learn something else about Troy, a secret that, when revealed, threatens to tear his family apart.

This is when Viola Davis takes center-stage. Content to remain in her husband’s shadow for years, Rose is suddenly forced to deal with a reality she never expected, and it’s more than she can bear. In one extraordinary scene, Rose stands up to Troy, letting years of pent-up frustration flow through her. Davis won an Oscar for her performance here, and in scenes such as this one you’ll see the award was well-earned. No actress delivered a better performance in 2016 than Viola Davis.

The supporting cast - including Williamson, Adepo, Stephen McKinley Henderson (as Jim, Troy’s co-worker and best friend) and Russell Hornsby (who plays Troy’s older son from a previous relationship) - is also solid. But Fences belongs to Washington and Davis, and these two powerhouses make the most of it.

Forget stagebound… Fences is positively electrifying.
Rating: 9 out of 10 (Don't Miss It!)

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

#2,578. The Headless Woman (2008)


A 2008 Argentinian film written and directed by Lucrecia Martel, The Headless Woman is the richly detailed, occasionally disturbing portrait of a well-to-do woman whose life is suddenly turned upside-down.

While driving along a secluded stretch of road, Vero (Maria Onetto - momentarily distracted - hits something (or someone) with her car. Afraid to get out and look, she simply drives away, and for the next few days is haunted by the notion that she may have killed somebody.

From start to finish, The Headless Woman is an engrossing thriller, thanks in large part to the performance of its star, Maria Onetto. Initially, Vero refuses to talk to anyone about what happened, yet by her very mannerisms we see that she can think of nothing else. At one point, she jumps into the shower with her clothes on, and later finds it difficult to concentrate during the simplest conversations. Though she remains silent through a fair portion of the film, we sense that Vero’s mind is constantly spinning, and that she’s losing control.

A deeply dramatic motion picture, The Headless Woman is nonetheless subtle in its approach to the material; it’s Onetto’s performance alone that keeps us on the edge of our seats.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10