Saturday, July 31, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 31, 2021

The Day the Sky Exploded (1958) – Widely regarded as the first ever Italian science fiction film, The Day the Sky Exploded (released in Italy as Death Comes from Space) was also co-directed by the great Mario Bava (at least one member of the cast claimed that Bava was the primary director, and not Paolo Heusch, as listed in the credits). An atomic rocket, piloted by American John MacLaren (Paul Hubschmid), takes off from Cape Shark, Australia, bound for the moon. Unfortunately, MacLaren and his ship run into problems while orbiting the earth. MacLaren is forced to eject the capsule, which falls safely on the coast. A miscommunication, however, prevented mission control from destroying the remainder of the rocket, which explodes in a nearby asteroid cluster, fusing hundreds of large rocks together and sending them spiraling towards the earth. Now, MacLaren and a group of international scientists must work quickly to determine if the earth can be saved, or if it’s the end for humanity. The Day the Sky Exploded has its moments; the early scenes, when the rocket first takes off, are exciting, as is the sequence when the ship malfunctions. But the movie relies too heavily on stock footage (I’d guess that at least 20 minutes to a half hour of its 78 minute runtime featured stock footage of one sort or another), and the romantic entanglements, including the scenes with MacLaren’s wife (played by Fiorella Mari), bog the film down. Worst of all is the final 10 minutes, when the powers-that-be scramble to save the world (scientifically speaking, these scenes are borderline laughable). Not a total disaster, but your time would be better spent elsewhere. Rating: 5.5 out of 10

The Invisible Man (2020) – After the misfire that was 2017’s The Mummy, the next generation of Universal’s classic monsters finally get the first-class treatment they deserve in writer / director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, which puts a nice spin on things by focusing not on the title character, but his intended victim. Tired of being manipulated by her boyfriend, wealthy optics engineer Adrian Griffith (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), Cecelia Kass (played superbly by Elizabeth Moss) finally summons up the courage to escape this abusive relationship. Living in fear that her former love will track her down, Cecelia eventually receives the good news that Adrian committed suicide. But her relief quickly turns to dread when she suspects that Adrian, who had been working on a technology that could make him invisible, is not only alive and well but secretly watching her every move. The Invisible Man gets off to a great start; even before we’re introduced to the characters, we witness Cecelia’s well-planned escape from Adrian’s secluded mansion, a sequence that is as intense as they come. And this heightened level of suspense only gets stronger as the movie progresses (a dinner sequence set in a fancy restaurant may be the most WTF moment of 2020). By the time the end credits rolled on The Invisible Man, I was both mentally drained and thoroughly entertained. Rating: 9 out of 10

Moon of the Wolf (1972) – This 1972 made-for-TV horror / mystery is better than its crappy title would lead you to believe. David Jannsen plays the sheriff of a small Louisiana Bayou community, where a string of recent, grisly murders has some people believing a werewolf is on the loose. Bradford Dillman has a supporting role as the town’s most prestigious resident, and Barbara Rush is his sister, who recently returned home after spending a few years in New York City. Also joining in on the fun are Geoffrey Lewis (as the brother of the first victim) and Royal Dano (as a backwoods yokel). The cast does a decent job (Janssen’s understated performance makes him a likable hero), and the mystery surrounding these homicides is what carries damn near the first 50 minutes or so of this 74 minute movie. The final scenes, when the werewolf is front and center, are effectively tense (especially a sequence set in the jail house), and while the ending is a bit of a groaner, it doesn’t spoil what went before it. Rating: 7 out of 10

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 29, 2021

Blonde Venus (1932) - Josef von Sternberg’s Blonde Venus created headaches for the MPAAD before the cameras even started rolling. Marlene Dietrich stars as Helen, a German stage performer who meets and falls in love with American Nick Faraday (Herbert Marshall), whom she marries. Shortly after the birth of their son, Johnny (Dickie Moore), Faraday becomes very ill (a result of radium poisoning), and must travel to Europe if he’s to have any chance of being cured. In need of money to pay her husband’s mounting medical bills, Helen returns to the stage and becomes an overnight sensation, adopting the persona of a temptress and calling herself the Blonde Venus. It’s during one of her performances that she meets millionaire Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). Spying a way to get some quick cash, Helen essentially prostitutes herself by becoming Townsend’s lover, and earns more than enough money to cover the cost of Nick’s treatment. All goes well for Helen and her son… until Nick, cured of his illness, unexpectedly returns home. When von Sternberg originally submitted the script for Blonde Venus to the MPAAD, he was immediately ordered to revise it. In fact, the script would go through three different revisions before finally getting the green-light. Even still, Blonde Venus, with adultery and prostitution at its center, raised a few eyebrows upon its release, It stands today as a textbook example of a director making concessions to the censors, yet still managing to tell the story he set out to tell in the first place. And with excellent performances throughout, coupled with the “Von Sternberg Touch”, it’s also a classic that everyone should seek out. Rating: 9 out of 10

The Cleansing Hour (2019) – There were times when I almost switched off The Cleansing Hour; the story of a social media-obsessed priest (Ryan Guzman) whose staged online exorcisms draw big audiences, The Cleansing Hour was so bland and by-the-numbers at the start, with obvious characters and trite dialogue, that I thought I was wasting my time watching it. I’m glad I hung in there, though, because the second half of the film (which – surprise! – features an actual possession) was much more intriguing, and even though there were still predictable elements (and some less-than-stellar special effects), I was finally tuned in, and couldn’t wait to see how it all played out. The ending was even better, taking the entire tale in a darker direction than I anticipated. It’s not groundbreaking by any means, and some viewers are bound to lose patience with it just like I almost did. But don’t bail on it… The Cleansing Hour does get better. Rating: 6 out of 10

Counterblast (1948) – After escaping from prison, Nazi doctor Karl Bruckner (Mervyn Jones) - aka the “Beast of Ravensbruck” - murders a British scientist (Anthony Eustrel) and assumes his identity. Posing as said scientist, he takes up residence in a small English town and, with the help of Dr. Paul Rankin (Robert Beatty) and Tracy Hart (Nova Pilbeam) – neither of whom are aware of his true identity – Bruckner begins working on a vaccine to protect his fellow countrymen from a virus that the Nazis plan to unleash on the world. A British-produced spy thriller with a dash of sci-fi mixed in, Counterblast proved more entertaining than expected. Jones is quite good as Bruckner, and what I found truly interesting was that, despite being the film’s lead and the person we spend the most time with, there’s never a moment in the movie when we’re rooting for his character! From start to finish, we want to see Bruckner get his comeuppance. Though not quite as good as Jones, Robert Beatty is nonetheless effective as the lab assistant who comes to suspect his boss is hiding something, and I enjoyed seeing a grown-up Nova Pilbeam (she played the kidnapped daughter in Hitchcock’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much), who shines as the intelligent yet naïve Tracy (her romance with Beatty’s character is handled well, and we want to see a happy ending for the two of them). Director Paul L. Stein manages to generate some real tension throughout, even if things do get a bit choppy at the end. Definitely worth a watch (Counterblast is in the public domain, so tracking down a copy shouldn’t be difficult). Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 27, 2021

Cataclysm (1980) – Also released as The Nightmare Never Ends, this cinematic dreck had three different directors, which might explain why it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Cameron Mitchell stars as a police detective investigating the murder of his neighbor, a concentration camp survivor who, prior to his death, asserted that a jet-setting, twentysomething playboy (Robert Bristol) was also the Nazi commandant who murdered his family some 40 years ago! Turns out, this guy isn’t your average playboy / former Nazi; he’s actually a demon from hell! The film (if you can call it that) also focuses on a writer (Richard Moll) whose newest book, God is Dead, has stirred up quite a bit of controversy. The writer’s wife (Faith Clift) is a devout Catholic, and believes the book will only bring them trouble. She’s even convinced the nightmares she’s experiencing are a warning that Satan is near. How do these two storylines connect to one another? Beats me... and I’ve seen the damn thing! The performances are dismal (even the usually reliable Mitchell and Moll are wooden at best) and the story so choppy and confusing that you can’t make any sense of it. Scenes from this movie were supposedly pieced together to form a segment for the 1985 horror anthology Night Train to Terror. Well, I’ve never seen Night Train to Terror, but here’s hoping they used as little of this movie as possible. Rating: a generous 2 out of 10

Field of Lost Shoes (2014) – Director Sean McNamera’s Field of Lost Shoes is a well-realized, though overly melodramatic motion picture centering on of an actual incident from the American Civil War, where young cadets from the Virginia Military Institute fought and died in the 1864 Battle of New Market. The cast is impressive; though he appears in only a few scenes, Tom Skerritt makes an impression as Ulysses S. Grant, as does Jason Isaacs, who portrays General John C. Breckenridge, commander of the Confederate forces at New Market. Also quite good is Keith David as Moses, the slave and chief cook at the Institute, and the younger cast members, including Luke Benward, Zach Roerig, and Josh Zuckerman, do a fine job as the cadets called into action. In addition, the settings and costumes are quite good, and do their part to bring this era convincingly to life. Alas, the movie is a bit too sentimental at the end, and it’s assertion that many cadets were anti-slavery is undoubtedly a fabrication, added to make its central characters more sympathetic. Field of Lost Shoes has its positives (in addition to the performances and production design, the battle scenes are thrilling), but as an historical account of a real-life, tragic moment in American history, it falls a little short of the mark. Rating: 6 out of 10

French Quarter (1978) – An incredibly bizarre yet surprisingly intriguing exploitation film, French Quarter stars Alisha Fontaine as Christine, a young woman who, after the death of her father, heads to New Orleans in search of employment. When her new job as a stripper / waitress doesn’t pan out, Christine decides to move back home, but first follows the advice of the barmaid Ida (Virginia Mayo) and visits a voodoo priestess, who proceeds to drug the poor girl. While knocked out, Christine has a dream in which she’s a hooker in the Jazz Age, whose virginity is about to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Though she works for Countess Willie Piazza (Mayo again), Christine –named “Trudy Dix” in her fantasy – meets and falls for talented jazz pianist Kid Ross (Bruce Davison), who would like nothing more than to rescue his new love from her chosen “profession”. Aside from Davison and Mayo (both are quite good), the acting in French Quarter is weak; even Fontaine falls flat more often than not as the lead. I also thought it was a bit odd that, while in a drug-induced state, Christine dreams not only of herself and Kid Ross, but concocts a number of side stories involving her fellow whores, including Coke-Eyed Laura (Ann Michelle) and Big-Butt Annie (Lindsey Bloom), who get into all sorts of mischief on their own. Yet despite its flaws and the occasional exploitative moment (there’s a lesbian scene that pops up out of nowhere, adding nothing to the story), French Quarter gets points for originality, and for offering something a bit more interesting than the standard fare. Rating: 6 out of 10

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 25, 2021

Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) - A Finnish musical / comedy directed by Aki Kaurismaki, Leningrad Cowboys Go America is a road movie of sorts, centering on a band from a rural district of Siberia whose shifty manager drags them to America , forcing them to play a variety of nightclubs as they travel from New York City to Mexico. It’s a quirky, sometimes darkly funny expose of a less-than-average band that learns to play everything from country to Rock and Roll (depending on the audience), and doing so just well enough to get paid (though it’s quite telling that the band is never invited to perform a second night). Though more amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, Leningrad Cowboys Go America did feature a few moments that made me chuckle (the band’s “traveling companion” is a former member who froze to death in Siberia during an outdoor rehearsal). This movie spawned a series of films, and the band even toured together for a while. Also, keep an eye out for director Jim Jarmusch, who makes a cameo appearance as a used car salesman. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) – James Cagney delivers a fine performance as silent film star Lon Chaney, taking us from the actor’s early vaudeville days and his tumultuous marriage to dancer Clara Creighton (Dorothy Malone) through to his screen career, when his skills with a make-up brush landed him a number of memorable roles (most notably the title characters in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera). There are times when Man of a Thousand Faces crosses into schmaltzy melodrama (especially the scenes involving Chaney’s relationship with his son Creighton, aka Lon Chaney Jr.), but it’s handled well enough, and Cagney’s performance, coupled with a strong supporting cast (Jane Greer is quite good as Chaney’s second wife Hazel, though it’s Malone’s turn as the self-centered Clara that stands out) and some nifty recreations of moments from the actor’s more noteworthy films do their part to make this a worthwhile biopic. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

The Wolf House (2018) – A vibrant, fascinating animated film produced in Chile, The Wolf House introduces us to Maria (voiced by Amalia Kassai), a young girl who escapes from a German religious cult and seeks refuge in an abandoned house. There, she befriends two pigs, which are also hiding out, but neither Maria nor her new pals are safe because a hungry wolf (Rainer Krause) is prowling just outside , ready to make a meal out of them all. A stop-motion movie co-directed by Joaquín Cociña and Cristóbal León, The Wolf House was inspired by actual events; the cult that Maria flees is based on a commune in central Chile, founded in 1961 by former Nazi Paul Scahfer and rumored to have abused some of its younger members. This fact alone brings an added layer of intrigue to The Wolf House, but it’s the animation itself – chock full of imagination and not afraid to take the story in some dark directions – that will keep your eyes glued to the screen (rooms morph, as do several characters, and you’re never quite sure what you’ll find when the action switches from one locale to the next). A truly brilliant piece of work! Don’t miss it! Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Friday, July 23, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 23, 2021

Host (2020) – Along with its many strengths, director Rob Savage’s Host will also one day serve as the perfect time capsule, showing future audiences what it was like to live through the hell that was the COVID pandemic of 2020; characters are sequestered at home, communicating with each other by way of an online Zoom meeting, and when they go out, they wear face masks. On top of that, Host is also a damn effective horror movie. A group of friends, with the help of a medium (played by Seylan Baxter), holds an online séance and inadvertently summons a malevolent spirit. There are some intensely creepy scenes in Host, and with a running time of just under an hour the movie never loses any of its steam. Host is a supernatural tale for the modern age, and will have you poised on the edge of your seat. Rating: 9 out of 10

Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000) – Produced by Turner Classic Movies, this 2000 documentary focuses on the life and career of silent film star Lon Chaney, whose remarkable skills with a make-up brush earned him the nickname “The Man of a Thousand Faces”. We learn about Chaney’s upbringing, and how his expertise at both pantomime and communicating with his eyes were in part due to his parents (both of whom were deaf mutes). In addition we’re shown the physical extremes that the actor went to for many of his roles (the make-up he devised for his portrayal of the title character in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera must have been extremely uncomfortable). Directed by Kevin Brownlow and narrated by Kenneth Branagh, Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces features interviews with family members (including archival footage of his famous son, Lon Chaney Jr., recounting stories from his childhood) as well as clips from many of the actor’s most notable films (though known for playing monsters, Chaney’s portrayal of Sgt. O’Hara in 1926’s Tell it to the Marines so impressed the Corps that they made him an honorary Marine). This is a must-see for cinephiles looking to delve into the actor’s filmography (an undertaking I highly recommend). Rating: 9 out of 10

They Nest (2000) – Ordered to take a leave of absence by his hospital’s administrator, recovering alcoholic Dr. Ben Cahill (Thomas Calabro) heads to the crappiest island in Maine, where he recently purchased a vacation home. Soon after his arrival, Cahill discovers that a highly aggressive, carnivorous insect has somehow made its way to this sleepy little inlet, and is multiplying quickly… by laying its eggs inside the locals! Calabro is hit-and-miss as the lead (he’s so goofy at times that we wonder how he ever became a surgeon in the first place), and the first half hour or so of the movie, when Cahill is being tormented by Jack Wald (John Savage), the previous owner of his house, fell flat. Once the bugs take center stage, however, They Nest hits its stride, and there are a handful of gross yet effective sequences throughout (especially when the bugs “burst out” of their human hosts). The supporting cast, including Dean Stockwell as the sheriff and Kirsten Dalton as Cahill’s love interest, is solid, and the finale (by which point the bugs have evolved) is a real nail-biter. Rating: 7 out of 10

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 21, 2021

The Dark and the Wicked (2020) –With their elderly father on the brink of death, Louise (Marin Ireland) and her brother Michael (Michael Abbott Jr.) take a few days off from work to help their mother (Julie Oliver-Touchstone) on the family farm. Far from welcoming them with open arms, however, dear old mom, who is convinced she and her husband are being tormented by a demonic entity, tells Louise and Michael that they shouldn’t have come. And it isn’t long before the two realize just how right she is! The Dark and the Wicked has its share of scary moments (including one very unnerving shower scene), but it’s the sense of dread that writer / director Bryan Bertino maintains throughout, and the feelings of helplessness and isolation that his characters are forced to deal with, that will linger long after the movie is over. Living up to its title, The Dark and the Wicked is indeed a very dark film, and the wickedness that torments its characters remains an enigma throughout, making it all the more terrifying. Rating: 9 out of 10

Eaten Alive (1976) – Tobe Hooper followed up The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with this 1976 outing, which in many ways looks and feels as if it exists in the same universe as his 1974 horror masterpiece. Neville Brand plays Judd, the proprietor of a rundown motel who has a nasty habit of killing his guests with garden instruments before feeding them to his pet crocodile, which he keeps in a dirty pond just outside. Also along for the ride are Carolyn Jones (of Addams Family fame) as the Madame of the local whorehouse; Robert Englund as a horny good ‘ole boy named Buck (his first line was lifted almost verbatim by Quentin Tarantino for a key scene in Kill Bill, Vol. 1); and William Finley and Chain Saw’s own Marilyn Burns as an incredibly unhappily married couple. As good as the supporting cast is (which also includes veterans Mel Ferrer and Stuart Whitman), it’s Neville Brand who steals the show. As played by Brand, Judd is almost completely insane, mumbling to himself and losing his temper at the drop of a hat. In fact, I’d have no problem believing Judd was a cousin of TCM’s Sawyer family. A gritty creature feature (the croc has a voracious appetite, and feeds quite often throughout the movie), Eaten Alive is a movie that rarely gets it’s due, and stands alongside Texas Chain Saw, Salem’s Lot, and Poltergeist as one of Tobe Hooper’s strongest films. Rating: 9 out of 10

Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) – Writer / director Kazuki Ohmori’s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is an entertaining Kaiju movie that blends sci-fi and action into the mix (there’s even a World War II battle scene). With the help of their time-traveling spaceship, visitors from Earth’s future – the year 2204 to be exact – return first to 1992, then to 1944, all in an effort to prevent Godzilla (who will supposedly destroy Japan in the near future) from ever existing. But are the visitors truly trying to save Japan, or do they have another motive for being there? The third film of the series’ Hesrei era (which started with Godzilla 1984) and the 18th Godzilla movie overall, Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah can be a bit goofy at times, but unlike other films in the series the story is just as interesting as the monster attacks; before the end credits roll, Godzilla (Kenpachiro Satsuma) and King Ghidorah take turns playing hero and villain, and an android from the future (Robert Scott Field) is an obvious nod to Robert Patrick’s character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (which was released earlier that same year). Like most Godzilla films, the effects can be cheesy, the dialogue trite, and some of the film’s lighter moments might make you cringe (a scene with two U.S. servicemen that also pays tribute to Steven Spielberg had that effect on me). But if it’s pure entertainment you’re after, this one delivers. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Monday, July 19, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 19, 2021

Gretel & Hansel (2020) – Oz Perkins, who also directed the excellent 2015 film The Blackcoat’s Daughter, breathes new life into a beloved fairy tale, with visuals that accentuate the movie’s foreboding tone. Turned away by their mother (Fiona O’Shaughnessey), Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and her younger brother Hansel (Samuel J. Leakey) make their way through a dark forest in the hopes of finding a new life for themselves. Their journey is interrupted, however, when they stumble upon a small house in the middle of nowhere, owned by an elderly woman (Alice Krige), who invites the siblings to stay for as long as they want. But Gretel quickly realizes their host is not who she seems to be, and that she and Hansel may be in very great danger. The performances are exceptional; Lillis and Leakey do a fine job as the title characters, and Krige is especially strong as the witch. Yet what makes Gretel & Hansel as engaging as it is are the visuals (a series of dream sequences, in which Gretel roams through the old woman’s house, are both mesmerizing and profoundly creepy), as well as the movie’s overall tone (from start to finish, it maintains the vibe of a very dark fairy tale). Not to be missed! Rating: 9 out of 10

November (2017) – Director Rainer Sarnet’s November is a film that demands to be seen more than once. Set in a 19th century Estonian village, this black and white film is steeped in fantasy, so much so that you might not take it all in on a single viewing. Liina (Rea Lest-Liik) is in love with Hans (Jorgan Liik). To win his affections, she seeks the help of Minna (Klara Eighorn), a witch, but the question remains: can true love survive in a place inhabited by demons and monsters alike? Despite its occasionally bleak tone (as well as one or two frightening scenes), November works as both a dark comedy and an engaging fairy tale (the locals use Kratts, man-made automatons brought to life via black magic – to help them steal from their neighbors). It may not be the easiest film to comprehend (again, a second viewing will probably help), but I can guarantee that, with so many fantastical elements, November will never once bore you! Rating: 8 out of 10

Spitfire (1942) – Leslie Howard not only starred but also produced and directed Spitfire (aka The First of the Few), a WWII propaganda film about the life of R.J. Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire fighter plane. For years, Mitchell’s specialty was high-speed planes that competed for the Schneider Trophy (an annual competition for seaplanes and flying boats). That all changed in 1930, however, when he and his wife Diana (Rosamund John), along with good friend, pilot Geoffrey Crisp (David Niven), vacationed in Germany, where, during a meeting with fellow designer Willy Messerschmidt (Erik Freund), Mitchell was shocked to discover Germany had broken the Versailles Treaty and was building warplanes. Using a brand new engine provided by auto maker Henry Royce (George Skillan), Mitchell ignores the warnings of his doctor and works long hours designing what would become the Spitfire, a fighter plane that played a major role in Britain’s fight against the Nazis. Howard does a fine job portraying Mitchell as a mild-mannered aeronautical expert (though the real Mitchell was supposedly much more volatile), and Niven is equally strong as his favorite test pilot. Spitfire also boasts some energetic action scenes (the early race sequences are fairly exciting), and while the melodramatic ending might feel a bit overdone, it’s not nearly as over-the-top as what you’d find in other propaganda movies from this era. In a sad yet ironic twist, this was Leslie Howard’s last film; he was killed in June 1943 when a plane he was traveling in was shot down by Nazi fighters over the Bay of Biscay. Rating: 7 out of 10

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 17, 2021

9th Company (2005) – Based on a true story, 9th Company is set in the late 1980s, and follows a collection of Soviet soldiers from basic training through to their participation in one of the bloodiest battles of the Afghanistani war. Directed by Fedor Bondarchuk (who also appears in the film as the battle-weary Khokhol), 9th Company starts off strong, with training sequences that are both humorous and intense, then kicks the drama up to full blast once the recruits arrive in Afghanistan (a scene involving a troop transport plane is as poignant as it is shocking). It’s the film’s final sequence, however - a reenactment of the defense of Hill 3234, when 9th Company and a handful of others were surprised by hundreds of Mujahideen rebels - that you won’t soon forget. With carnage aplenty, this battle is as disturbing as they come, and puts an exclamation point on what had already been a riveting motion picture. Rating: 9 out of 10

All the Kind Strangers (1974) – This made-for-TV film has quite the cast! Stacy Keach stars as Jimmy, a photojournalist driving cross-country from New York to California. While in Tennessee, he offers to give young Gilbert (Tim Parkinson) a lift home, and once there is introduced to Gilbert’s family, including his older brothers Peter (John Savage) and John (Robby Benson), his mute sister Martha (Arlene Farber), and his other siblings. Jimmy is also introduced to “Ma” (Samantha Eggar), after which he begins to suspect that there’s something unusual about Gilbert’s family. But will he discover the truth before getting caught up in the kids’ twisted fantasy world? Featuring early roles for Savage and Benson (the latter of whom also performed the film’s title song), All the Kind Strangers is an engrossing thriller that teeters on the brink of horror (though it never really crosses over into that genre). From the moment Keach’s Jimmy arrived at Gilbert’s remote farmhouse, I was hooked. Things do get a bit repetitive in the last act, but not to the point that it took me out of the movie, and at only 74 minutes it’s an easy watch. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Rain (1932) - Based on a popular play, which was itself based on a short story written by W. Somerset Maugham, Rain was first brought to the screen in 1928, a version that starred Gloria Swanson. Swanson (who had purchased the rights to the play in the hopes of turning it into a vehicle for herself) agreed to alter the story to placate head censor Will Hays, who originally refused to grant permission for her to film it. The resulting movie, Sadie Thomspon, was a successful, if watered-down adaptation of the original story. It wasn’t until 1932 that director Lewis Milestone would bring the meat of Maugham’s morality tale to the screen, this time featuring Joan Crawford in the lead role. Rain is the story of Sadie Thompson (Crawford), a prostitute who finds herself stranded on a South Seas Island in the company of overtly religious missionary Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston) and his wife (Beulah Bondi). In an effort to divert Sadie from her path of destruction, Davidson does everything in his power to turn her into a God-fearing woman, only to surrender to his own demons in the end. Initially declared an attack on religion by its critics, Rain is an extraordinary film, thanks in no small part to the outstanding, and quite erotic, performance turned in by Joan Crawford. With this film, Maugham’s story finally got the treatment it deserved. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 15, 2021

Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)

A French action movie about a secret society and the monster they unleash on a small village. Set in the late 18th century, Brotherhood of the Wolf features moments of pure sophistication; aristocrats sit around a big dining table, dressed in their finest, and discuss politics, society, the monster, etc., etc. But Brotherhood of the Wolf also contains scenes of abject terror, like when the monster attacks a peasant woman as she attempts to retrieve her lost lamb. The CGI is in line with what was being turned out in the early 2000s, which means it doesn’t hold up (the monster’s first attack - set in a small house in the woods - reveals the limitations of the time), but it’s not so bad that it detracts from the overall experience. Brotherhood of the Wolf is a total blast, and a flick I always enjoy revisiting.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

I, Tonya (2017)

A 2017 biopic centering on Tonya Harding, a former ice skating champion who is today more notable for the role she played in a 1994 attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. Margot Robbie delivers a bravura performance as the erratic Harding, and was nominated for dozens of awards for her work here, including an Oscar and a Golden Globe. As for the movie itself, it is simultaneously funny and heartbreaking (you’ll laugh out loud one minute, and be in tears the next) and the stylish direction of Craig Gillespie keeps it engaging throughout. Also strong is Allison Janney as Harding’s bitter, less-than-supportive mother (Janney won an Oscar that year for Best Supporting Actress, which was well deserved).
Rating: 9 out of 10

Shadow (2018)

Filmmaker Zhang Ymou has been on my radar for well over 20 years. In the ‘90s he turned out deeply moving dramas (Raise the Red Lantern, To Live), then in the early 2000s focused on historical action films, combining gorgeous imagery with amazing, martial arts-inspired sequences (Hero, House of Flying Daggers). His 2018 film Shadow, centering on the intrigue generated by an ancient Chinese monarch (played by Ryan Zheng), combines elements of both; a movie set hundreds of years in the past with beautiful action sequences that is also an intense character study, as well as an effective romantic drama. This one has it all, and I recommend you not only watch Shadow, but Zhang Yimou’s entire back catalog as well.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 13, 2021

Birds of Passage (2018)

Set in the Wayu-controlled region of Columbia, Birds of Passage spans two decades (the 1960s to the 1980s), bringing to life the origins of drug trafficking in that country. Co-directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, Birds of Passage is beautifully shot, with many scenes set in remote areas of Columbia, and it’s the film’s consistently startling imagery that makes it worth checking out. The performances aren’t the strongest: according to Gallego and Guerra, who were married when production on this movie began and divorced by the end of it (10 years later), 30% of the cast featured non-professionals, most indigenous to the region (and it shows). But as a crime film and a time capsule of that country’s tumultuous history, Birds of Passage is an absolute winner.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

My two favorite genres (horror and westerns) meld together perfectly in writer / director S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk. Kurt Russell plays the sheriff of a small town who leads a rescue mission to save his deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) and local physician Mrs. O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons), both of whom were abducted by a particularly brutal tribe of cave-dwelling Native Americans. The cast - which also includes Patrick Wilson (as Mr. O’Dwyer), Matthew Fox, David Arquette (as a drifter who inadvertently leads the natives to town), Sid Haig, and Richard Jenkins (as the sheriff’s elderly, not-too-bright “back-up” deputy) - is strong, as is the setting (the movie was shot at the Paramount Ranch in Malibu, California). Yet it’s the Native American tribe at the center of it all, called “Troglodytes” by the townsfolk, that makes Bone Tomahawk as memorable as it is (later scenes set inside the Troglodytes lair are positively terrifying). Ranks alongside The Burrowers, Near Dark, and John Carpenter’s Vampires as one of the finest horror westerns ever produced.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Why Don’t You Just Die! (2018)

A sharply funny, immensely violent motion picture, director Kirill Sokolov’s 2018 Russian film Why Don’t You Just Die is an absolutely wild ride! Police Detective Andrei Gennadievitch (Vitaliy Khaev) is having a bad day. For starters, Matvei (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) - the boyfriend of Andrei’s daughter Olya (Evgeniya Kregzhde) - is trying to kill him. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Andrei’s longtime partner Yevgenich (Michael Gor) is also gunning for him. Will Andrei survive the onslaught? A copious amount of blood is spilled in Why Don’t You Just Die, most flowing from poor Matvei, who, despite being in way over his head, somehow manages to weather Andrei’s storm of brutality time and time again (what happens to Matvei is beyond belief, and there’s a scene involving a drill that’s particularly hard to watch). In addition to the violence, director Sokolov’s kinetic, stylish approach brings a sense of fun to the proceedings; he shoots the various showdowns between his characters as if they were in a Sergio Leone western (right down to the Morricone-influenced soundtrack). This one is not to be missed!
Rating: 9 out of 10

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 11, 2021

The Elephant Man (1980)

David Lynch directed this black and white period film inspired by a true story. John Merrick (John Hurt) is a badly deformed man living in Victorian-era England. As the movie opens, Merrick is being exploited as a sideshow freak. A surgeon (Anthony Hopkins) takes pity on him, rescues Merrick from the circus, and introduces him to the world of high society. But did John Merrick simply abandon one manipulative existence for another? The Elephant Man is gritty and disturbing, yet also quite beautiful (Merrick visits the theater at one point, and is changed by the experience). The performances are extraordinary, especially John Hurt’s, who disappears behind layers of makeup, fully embodying this tragic individual. The Elephant Man was produced by Mel Brooks’ Brooksfilms, and it is amazing.
Rating: 9 out of 10

For Sama (2019)

Co-directed by Waad Al-Kateab, who personally shot most of the footage, For Sama centers on a hospital in war-torn Syria. Along with its unflinching look at the day-to-day violence that rocks the country, this documentary was intended as a video diary of sorts, undertaken to show Al-Kateab’s infant daughter, Sama, why she and her husband Hamza (the girl’s father) remained in Syria, putting their entire family in harm’s way. For Sama features plenty of gruesome imagery (we see first-hand the brutality inflicted on the citizens of Aleppo, many of whom are children), but the movie is even more gripping as a personal drama; Al-Kateab, a journalist, and her husband, a doctor, were also members of the resistance that fought for Syria’s independence, meaning they’d be immediately put to death if captured. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, For Sama is a devastating motion picture; it is really powerful stuff.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Pain And Glory (2019)

Pedro Almodovar is one of those filmmakers whose work always catches me off-guard. It happened in 2002 with Talk to Her and now it’s happened again with Pain and Glory, which in many ways is Almodovar’s most personal film. Antonio Banderas plays an aging director who has lost his muse, but finds himself drawn back into public life, with some startling consequences. This film is beautifully crafted, with excellent performances throughout, and I found myself thinking about it for days. It’s damn near a masterpiece.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Friday, July 9, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 9, 2021

68 Kill (2017)

A risqué, sometimes flat-out offensive, but oh-so entertaining comedy / crime film written and directed by Trent Haaga, about the theft of a lot of money and a guy who has nothing but bad luck with the ladies. Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) has one hell of a crazy night thanks to his out-of-control girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord) and $68,000 in stolen cash. 68 Kill was reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s ‘80s classic After Hours, with Chip falling victim to a number of women as his night from hell spins further and further out of control. It’s a crazy movie, and I really had a great time watching it. Highly recommended!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

In the Bedroom (2001)

Todd Field’s powerful drama about a middle-aged married couple, played by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek, whose son (Nick Stahl) begins seeing an older, recently separated woman (Marisa Tomei). The woman's estranged husband (William Mapother) is the jealous type, and comes from the town’s most influential family. It proves a recipe for disaster, and before the film’s halfway point, a tragedy occurs. From there out, the story takes some very dark turns. Wilkinson is great as the laid-back dad who accepts his son’s relationship, while Spacek plays the loving mother who nonetheless objects to the romance. This is not an easy movie to watch; it will take you down some troubling roads, and the final scene is one that stayed with me for days. It’s really strong stuff. In the Bedroom was nominated for five Academy Awards that year, for Best Picture, Best Actor (Wilkinson), Best Actress (Spacek), Best Supporting Actress (Marisa Tomei), and Best Screenplay. It’s a movie you won’t soon forget. Check it out
Rating: 9 out of 10

The Red Shoes (2005)

An uber-creepy South Korean horror flick about a seemingly possessed pair of red (make that pink) shoes and what happens to the young mother (Kim Hye-Su) who finds them on the subway. Director Kim Yong-Gyun’s The Red Shoes is a supernatural tale, but also a mystery, and I liked how its story unfolded. The lead character isn’t always the most likable person in the movie (and she does something early on to cement her status as an anti-hero), but that doesn’t stop us from being invested in what happens to her and her young daughter.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 7, 2021

Alone (2020)

A remake of the 2011 Swedish film Gone, Alone gets off to an incredibly tense start; hoping to get on with her life following a recent tragedy, Jessica (Jules Wilcox) packs her belongings into a trailer and heads north. On her way, she has a run-in with another driver (Mark Menchaca), who seems to pop up everywhere she goes. It isn’t long before Jessica realizes she’s in very great danger, and will have to fight back if she wants to stay alive. The performances delivered by both Wilcox and Menchaca are strong, but it’s the tension that director John Hyams generates that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Even when the movie veers off into predictable territory (scenes featuring a third character - a hunter played by Anthony Heald - are effective despite the fact we know how they’re going to play out), Hyams keeps the tension ratcheted up as high as it can get, resulting in a thriller that consistently thrills.
Rating: 8 out of 10

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was a film of such power that it actually succeeded in bringing about social change. Based on a true story, Paul Muni shines in the role of James Allen, a World War I veteran who leaves the promise of a comfortable job to seek his fortune on the open road. Unfortunately, his travels land him in the wrong place at the wrong time; James is arrested for petty theft, a crime he did not commit, and is sentenced to serve out his term working on a chain gang, where conditions are intolerable. He eventually escapes and returns home to crusade against a legal system that would allow an innocent man to face unspeakable tortures. The Hays office, which took it upon itself to police the “morals” of Hollywood productions, thought it best to protect the sanctity of the American justice system, and asked Warner Brothers to remove several scenes showing John Allen being beaten by his guards. The studio refused, and the resulting film, which to this day remains as shocking and effective as ever, so stunned audiences that the state of Georgia discontinued its use of the chain gang as a punitive measure.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

New York, New York (1977)

I know what director Martin Scorsese was trying to do with this film, which is to pay homage to the classic musicals of Hollywood’s heyday. Unfortunately the result is a very mixed bag. At the close of World War II, Jimmy (Robert De Niro), a cocky saxophonist, meets and falls in love with Francine (Liza Minnelli), a lounge singer, and we follow the two as their love affair navigates the rocky terrain of show business. The opening sequence, set in a dance club on V-J Day, is phenomenally staged, and Liza Minnelli shines whenever she’s belting out a tune. On the flip side, we have Robert DeNiro, giving a performance I found surprisingly uneven, at times even downright foolish, and because of this I simply couldn’t accept that a romantic spark would have ever ignited between these two individuals in the first place. In most romantic films, you’re asking ‘when’, as in when will the two leads finally discover they’re perfect for each other? With New York, New York, I was asking ‘why’? And in a film that’s entire two hour and 40 minute run time depends on this storyline, this is a really big problem.
Rating: 5 out of 10

Monday, July 5, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 5, 2021

Alice (1988)

This 1988 Czechoslovakian film is a unique take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Combining live-action with stop-motion animation, director Jan Svankmajer weaves the extraordinary tale of Alice (Kristýna Kohoutová), a young girl whose farmhouse transforms into an amazing, bizarre, sometimes dangerous world before her very eyes. Alice is incredibly imaginative, with some darker elements that are in line with the source material (at one point, Alice has to fight off skeletal creatures, and is even briefly transformed into a living doll). Alas, the film’s more disturbing moments might prove a bit much for younger audiences, to whom the movie was clearly aimed (I can see this giving some kids nightmares). Still, it’s a fascinating watch.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Maiden (2018)

An inspiring documentary that centers on Tracy Edwards, who in 1989 assembled the first ever all-female crew to sail in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, which takes its competitors on a 33,000 mile, months-long journey to practically every continent. Featuring interviews, archival footage (Edwards had a video camera mounted on the back of her boat) and contemporary news reports, Maiden takes us on one hell of a journey, and we experience all of the highs and lows (not to mention the dangers) that Edwards and her team encountered on the open seas. It’s really an uplifting motion picture, and you root like hell for this amazing group of ladies from start to finish.
Rating: 9 out of 10

The Substitute (2007)

Boy, did I have fun with this movie! The story of a group of school kids who believe their new teacher (Paprika Steen) is an alien from outer space, director Ole Bornedal’s The Substitute is a sci-fi / horror / comedy that plays like a mash-up of The Bad News Bears and Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty. The kids in this class - and there are a fair number of them (we get to know a dozen or so quite well) - have their own distinct personalities, and actress Paprika Steen, who plays the teacher / suspected alien, is extraordinary (there are moments you despise her, especially when she’s pointing out the weaknesses of each kid in front of their classmates). In addition to its characters, The Substitute has some very strong scenes (one in particular, where the kids are being forced by their parents to go on a school field trip, had me laughing out loud), and delivers both the comedy and the horror (with some nifty special effects to boot). I can’t recommend it enough; The Substitute is one of my favorite new discoveries!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 3, 2021

Apollo 11 (2019)

Director Todd Douglas Miller’s engrossing documentary took me deeper into the July 1969 moon landing than any film or TV special I’ve seen before. Apollo 11 does, indeed, contain footage that’s been featured hundreds of times over the years (the countdown and liftoff, Neil Armstrong’s “One Small Step For Man”, etc), but you see these now-iconic images in an entirely new light when coupled with the behind-the-scenes workings we’ve rarely (or in some cases never) witnessed, including a number of fascinating conversations between the astronauts and mission control. Apollo 11 shows us, in great detail, how many hundreds of people it took to make this amazing accomplishment a reality. It’s an extraordinary documentary.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Deliver Us From Evil (2009)

The story of a young father and the nightmare that befalls his family when he moves them into his childhood home, writer / director Ole Bornedal’s Deliver Us From Evil is a gut-punch of a movie. It is stylish, well-acted, and shot in the picturesque countryside of Denmark, but it is the raw, hard-hitting power of its story that will haunt you, and the depths to which its characters sink that will stay with you for days. One character’s complete transformation - the result of a tragedy that befalls him - is what sets everything in motion, and my jaw dropped when I saw the chaos he touched off as a result. And the shocks didn’t stop coming; the brutality that this movie explored is not to be taken lightly. I am definitely recommending Deliver Us From Evil, but with a warning. It will shake you!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Timecrimes (2007)

Timecrimes is an intense, fascinating thriller from director Nacho Vigalando about a man named Hector (Karra Elejalde ) who takes an unexpected leap backwards in time. Karra Elejalde is effective in the lead role, gathering up our sympathies for his plight even when his character’s actions are dubious at best (especially towards the end of the film, when events spiral out of control). Yet what I found most appealing about Timecrimes was its pacing. Vigalando is in no hurry to get us from point A to point B; the story reveals itself slowly, layer by layer, taking the viewer down one path, then another, and then another, each more intriguing than the last. Aside from effectively building tension, this pacing keeps the audience in tune with what’s happening (there are enough twists and turns that, in the hands of a less patient filmmaker, things might have gotten confusing), and sets us up perfectly for some of the movie’s bigger surprises. Timecrimes is occasionally shocking, usually exciting, and entirely satisfying.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Capsule Reviews - July 1, 2021

The Aviator (2004)

A biopic on the life of millionaire Howard Hughes, Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator has a lot going for it, not the least of which is a stellar performance by Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. It is an amazing portrayal; when DiCaprio is on screen, the electricity flows, and The Aviator certainly benefits from the fact that he is on-screen most of the time. Whether he’s barking out orders to his subordinates, tangling with actress Katherine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett, in an Oscar-winning turn) or going up against the United States Senate, Dicaprio’s Hughes is a force to be reckoned with. Along with his incredible confidence in his own abilities, we see the other Howard Hughes as well; the man so overcome by his fear of germs that they could reduce the mighty tycoon to a quivering mass in an instant. Even here, DiCaprio does not falter, giving us a Hughes trying his best to maintain some dignity as he suffers through his crippling personal horrors. Having worked with the actor a number of times (including Gangs of New York, The Departed, and The Wolf of Wall Street), it’s easy to see why Scorsese once dubbed Leonardo DiCaprio his ‘next DeNiro’; this guy man can flat-out act!
Rating: 9 out of 10

The Boy Who Cried Werewolf (1973)

A 1973 release directed by Nathan Juran (who helmed one of my favorite Ray Harryhausen movies, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), The Boy Who Cried Werewolf is about a young boy (Scott Sealey) whose father (Kerwin Mathews) is attacked by a werewolf, then slowly transforms into one himself. At times the film has the look and feel of a TV movie, and the father-son relationship is well explored. There’s also a side story about a group of religious hippies in the woods that is both funny and effective (especially when they have their own encounter with the monster). The werewolf make-up isn’t the best, but the story more than makes up for this shortcoming.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Honeyland (2019)

This is a Macedonian documentary about a female beekeeper forced to cope with some new neighbors, who not only try to duplicate the success she’s had but also threaten her very livelihood with their carelessness. Honeyland was shot over the course of three years, during which time filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov gathered hundreds of hours of footage. There’s no narration… we the audience are tossed headfirst into this setting, and that stylistic choice goes a long way in pulling us into this world. Honeyland is an extremely engaging motion picture, and was nominated by the Academy for both Best Documentary and Best Foreign Language Film.
Rating: 9 out of 10