Monday, November 29, 2021

#2,669. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966)


The Cold War may be over, but the laughs in this 1966 Norman Jewison comedy are timeless!

A Russian submarine has accidentally run aground near a small Island in New England. The sub’s Captain (Theodore Bikel) sends nine of his men, including Lt. Yuri Rozanov (Alan Arkin) and sailor Alexei Kolchin (John Philip Law), on a reconnaissance mission to locate a powerboat big enough to tow them out to sea. Stopping first at the home of writer Walt Whittaker (Carl Reiner) and his wife Elspeth (Eva Marie Saint), the Russians then make their way into the nearby town.

Unfortunately, the Russian patrol next encounters postmistress Muriel Everett (Doro Merande), who alerts switchboard operator Alice Foss (Tessie O’Shea) that the Russians have invaded! Alice immediately calls police chief Link Matthews (Brian Keith), who, though skeptical, tells her to contact his deputy Norman (Jonathan Winters) and a couple of others.

Of course, being the town gossip, Alice can’t help but spread the news that the Russians have invaded, and before long everyone has gathered in the town center, determined to defend their homeland.

The cast assembled for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming may not be as star-studded as Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but it isn’t far behind. Along with those already mentioned, the movie features Paul Ford as a gung-ho ex-military officer who assumes control of the civilian “militia” and former silent star Ben Blue as the town drunk.

The entire cast gets in on the fun; Reiner generates his share of laughs as Walt Whittaker, the first to encounter the Russians and the only one who realizes they aren’t a threat, while Alan Arkin shines as the Soviet officer besieged on all sides by panicky Americans. There’s also a sweet romantic subplot, in which John Philip Law’s Alexei falls for the Whittaker’s babysitter, Alison (played by newcomer Andrea Dromm), and the final showdown between the submarine and the townsfolk has a surprising - albeit very satisfying - conclusion.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Saturday, November 27, 2021

#2,668. Sweet Charity (1969)


Bob Fosse’s Sweet Charity is a grand and glorious musical / comedy, a supreme piece of entertainment starring Shirley MacLaine as the title character, a New York dance hall girl named Charity Hope Valentine.

Poor Charity has never been lucky in love; in the opening scene she is mugged by her boyfriend Charlie (Dante D'Paulo), who grabs her purse and then pushes Charity into a lake in Central Park. Still, Charity’s life is never dull. At one point, she even spends an evening hanging out with Italian movie star Vittorio (Ricardo Montalban).

Charity’s best friends Nickie (Chita Rivera) and Helene (Paula Kelly), who work alongside her at the dance hall, tell Charity that she needs to keep her head out of the clouds. But Charity believes strongly in the power of positive thinking, and is convinced Mr. Right is out there, just waiting to be found.

“Mr. Right” does eventually materialize in the form of an incredibly nervous insurance adjuster named Oscar (John McMartin). After a few weeks together, Oscar tells Charity that he can’t live without her, but will his opinion of his new girlfriend change once he realizes what she does for a living?

Bob Fosse infuses Sweet Charity with style to spare; damn near every scene offers something fresh and exciting (the entire sequence with Vittorio - which includes a late dinner inside his luxury apartment - is a visual feast). In addition, the musical sequences in Sweet Charity are out of this world. MacLaine’s rendition of “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, which she sings throughout her platonic date with Vittorio, is wonderful, yet my favorite number is “Hey Big Spender”, in which Charity’s co-workers at the dance hall try to entice a new customer.

Shirley MacLaine is bubbly as all hell in the lead role, and you can’t help but root for this oft-naïve character as she scours the city in search of her soulmate. Also strong are Rivera and Kelly as the down-to-earth pals, while McMartin is quirky and likable as Charity’s significant other. Yet as good as the main cast is, it's Sammy Davis Jr., appearing briefly as an incredibly hip Reverend, who steals the show.

Based on Fosse’s own hit Broadway play (which was, in turn, inspired by the screenplay for Federico Fellini’s classic movie Nights of Cabiria), Sweet Charity is very much a product of the 1960’s (from the costumes right down to the lingo), yet its entertainment value is timeless. Give Sweet Charity a chance, and I bet you’ll love it as much as I do!
Rating: 10 out of 10

Thursday, November 25, 2021

#2,667. Unhinged (2020)


The very idea of road rage makes me uneasy; the fact is you never know who is driving the car next to you, or what they’re capable of, so it’s never a good idea to intentionally piss any driver off, for any reason.

And as we discover in director Derrick Borte’s intense 2020 thriller Unhinged, it might not take much to push that other driver over the edge.

Rachel (Caren Pistorius) is having a bad day. For starters, her lawyer and best friend Andy (Jimmi Simpson) has informed Rachel that her ex-husband Richard (voiced by Andrew Morgado) wants sole ownership of the house they once shared. If that isn’t bad enough, she’s late getting out the door, which - along with making her son Kyle (Gabriel Bateman) late for school a third time - results in her being fired by her most important client. Then, to top it off, she has an altercation with another driver (Russell Crowe) at a red light, who is none too happy when she refuses to apologize for her actions.

And if this man has anything to say about it, Rachel’s day is about to get a whole lot worse!

We know from the opening scene that Crowe’s character is out of control; also recently divorced, he breaks into his former house, murders his ex-wife and her lover, then burns it to the ground. Unfortunately, Rachel doesn’t know this, and by the time she realizes she has crossed the wrong person, it’s already too late. The lengths to which this guy goes to get back at Rachel will have you on the edge of your seat (as if the opening sequence wasn’t enough to clue us in on his state of mind, there’s a crazy scene at a gas station that proves he’s lost all control).

Unhinged never lets up; both director Borte and the film’s writer, Carl Ellsworth, keep the tension at a fever pitch throughout, filling the movie with one W-T-F moment after another (there’s an insane sequence involving Crowe’s psychopath and Rachel’s brother Fred, played by Austin P. McKenzie, yet even this is merely a precursor for what’s to come). Pistorius is strong as the frenzied Rachel, yet it’s Russell Crowe who delivers the film’s most intense performance, playing what is easily the darkest character he’s portrayed since 1992’s Romper Stomper.

And it’s because of him that Unhinged is guaranteed to shake you.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

#2,666. The Epic of Everest (1924)


This documentary, shot on-location by Captain John Noel, is a filmed record of the now-infamous 1924 British Mount Everest expedition, during which mountaineers George Mallory and Sandy Irvine disappeared without a trace.

Relying heavily on intertitles, The Epic of Everest offers a full account of the journey, tagging along with the explorers when they entered the village of Phari-Dzong on the border of the Tibetan Plateau before making their way to Everest itself, where the British adventurers set up several campsites and made three different attempts to reach the summit, a height of almost 29,000 feet (8,800+ meters). The third and final attempt ended tragically when Mallory and Irvine never returned, and were presumed dead (their disappearance sparked a debate that raged for decades, with many wondering whether or not they became the first men to reach the summit before perishing).

The Epic of Everest is mostly a dry, straightforward account of the expedition; the opening shots of Mount Everest, interspersed with title cards that wax poetic about nature and the indomitable spirit of man, run on far too long, and the scenes in Phari-Dzong, though interesting, aren’t exactly kind to the indigenous population (one title card in particular referred to the fact that the locals never bathed). As for the expedition itself, a majority of the sequences were shot from a distance away, and feature little more than the explorers walking to and from their base camps.

Yet as routine as the first hour or so is, the final third of The Epic of Everest will have you on the edge of your seat. The most stirring scene occurs when Noel’s camera, shooting up the mountain, spots Mallory and Irvine high atop Everest, some 4,000 feet away, the last time anyone would see them alive.

Ultimately, the true miracle of The Epic of Everest is that it exists at all, recording for posterity a historic event, and ensuring that George Mallory, Sandy Irvine, and the entire 1924 expedition will never be forgotten.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Sunday, November 21, 2021

#2,665. Blue Crush (2002)


I know I’ve said it before, but I’m a sucker for surf movies, and even a by-the-numbers sports drama like Blue Crush offers enough to satisfy this particular craving.

Anne Marie (Kate Bosworth) is a promising young surfer whose career stalled a few years back when she almost drowned. Now entered in the Pipeline, one of Hawaii’s most dangerous surf contests, Anne Marie, with the help of best friends Eden (Michelle Rodriguez) and Lena (Sanoe Lake), is in training for the big event.

But with an absentee mother, the would-be surfer finds herself caretaker of a troublesome younger sister (Mika Boorem), and a whirlwind romance with NFL quarterback Matt Tollman (Matthew Davis) has Anne Marie rethinking her priorities.

It’s a standard Hollywood story (with an ending that’s even more so), but director John Stockwell manages to capture the energy and excitement of big-wave surfing, and the hip-hop soundtrack only adds to the intensity of it all (an early montage, set to Blestenation’s update of Bananarama’s "Cruel Summer", is especially memorable).

It may not be unique, but Blue Crush hit the spot, and has me jonesing for summer to return!
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Friday, November 19, 2021

#2,664. George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (1984)


Written and directed by his son, George Stevens Jr., George Stevens: A Filmmakers Journey is a detailed biography of - and a loving tribute to - one of Hollywood’s most accomplished directors, the mastermind behind such classics as A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant, and The Diary of Anne Frank.

Cinephiles are sure to get a kick out of the rare, behind-the-scenes color footage taken on the set of 1939’s Gunga Din (photographed by Stevens himself) but it’s the sequences detailing the acclaimed filmmakers’ service in World War II (he filmed the massive landing on D-Day) and his defense of colleagues during the McCarthy era that truly stand out.

But more than anything, George Stevens: A Filmmakers Journey is a time capsule of old Hollywood, featuring interviews with (among others) Katherine Hepburn, Frank Capra, Cary Grant. Joel McCrae, and John Huston, all recounting the glory days of Tinseltown and one of the men that made them so memorable.

If you love movies as much as I do, you’ll adore this documentary!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

#2,663. Edward II (1991)


A postmodern take on Christopher Marlowe’s classic Elizabethan play, Director Derek Jarmon’s Edward II transforms one of England’s most tragic figures - the Plantagenet king Edward II - into an advocate for gay rights.

Following the death of his father, Edward II (Steven Waddington) ascends the throne of England, and his first act is to recall his friend and lover Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan), who had been exiled.

Once back in England, Gaveston exacts revenge on those who supported his banishment, and in so doing angers many of the King’s advisors, including the militant Mortimer (Nigel Terry), who conspires with Edward’s neglected Queen, Isabella (Tilda Swinton), to depose the king and gain control of the realm.

Lifting dialogue straight out of Marlowe’s play while at the same time setting the story in modern day England, Jarmon lets his imagination run wild, utilizing sparse set pieces (to put the focus squarely on the characters) and even inserting a very cool musical sequence into the mix (Annie Lennox of The Eurythmics appears as herself, singing Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye” as Edward and Gaveston dance together in the background).

Throughout Edward II, Jarmon remains faithful to Marlowe’s depiction of Edward while also shining a light on homophobia, a hot-button issue as prevalent today as it was in 1991. With strong performances all around and a clever approach to the material, Jarmon’s Edward II is not to be missed.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Monday, November 15, 2021

#2,662. Skin Walker (2019)


There are a handful of actors who - when I see their names in the credits - get me so giddy that I can’t wait to watch their movie. Udo Kier (Mark of the Devil, Shadow of the Vampire) is one of them. Even if the film itself isn’t that great (I’m looking at you, Mother of Tears), I usually enjoy Kier’s performance.

Case in point is writer / director Christain Neuman’s Skin Walker.

Skin Walker is not a good movie. In fact, I don’t know if it’s a “movie” at all; it’s more a collection of random sequences, strung together in no particular order, and even by that standard it’s an incoherent muddle.

Regine (Amber Anderson) returns home to attend the funeral of her much-despised grandmother (Marja-Leena Junker). After a brief but tense reunion with her father (Kier), she finds herself dealing with the traumas of her past, including the death of her deformed half-brother Isaac.

But the deeper Regine delves into her family’s secrets, the more unstable she becomes.

Told entirely from Regine’s perspective (and, minor spoiler, she’s as nutty as a fruit cake), Skin Walker is a psychological horror film, but as I stated earlier, there’s zero structure here; what starts out as slightly confusing evolves into “What-the-hell-am-I-watching” insanity by the halfway point.

It’s a shame, too, because the performances are decent and the production design, as well as Neuman’s stylistic approach to the material, is at times amazing (the sets, coupled with the occasionally jarring camera movements, are what kept my interest).

In the end, though, Skin Walker was just too befuddling to be worth the 87 minutes it demanded.
Rating: 4 out of 10

Saturday, November 13, 2021

#2,661. Snatchers (2019)


In 1996’s Scream, movie aficionado Randy (played by Jamie Kennedy) laid out the basic rules for surviving a horror film, the first of which was “Don’t have sex”. It’s sage advice; in most ‘80s slasher flicks, the characters that did the nasty often ended up on the wrong side of a machete.

But not even Randy could have predicted the insanity that occurs in 2019’s Snatchers when high school student Sara (Mary Nepi) has sex with her boyfriend Skyler (Austin Fryberger). In a bizarre turn of events, Sara discovers the very next day that she’s pregnant. In fact, she’s so pregnant that, a mere 24 hours after sleeping with Skylar, she goes into labor!

Clearly, there’s something otherworldly at play here, and with the help of her former best friend Haley (Gabrielle Elyse), Sara hopes to get out of this mess before her doting mother (J.J. Nolan) catches wind of it. But when Sara gives birth to a giant insect, it sets in motion a series of events that may ultimately destroy her home town, and maybe even the world!

A fun, funny sci-fi / horror mash-up co-directed by Stephen Cedars and Benji Kleiman (both of whom also penned the screenplay), Snatchers features lots of snappy dialogue (filled to its breaking point with teen slang) and some truly impressive practical effects (especially late in the film, when we finally discover what’s really going on).

Occasionally crude yet also kind of endearing, Snatchers was an absolute blast!
Rating: 9 out of 10

Thursday, November 11, 2021

#2,660. Dracula (1979)


John Badham’s Dracula is, without question, the most romantic of all the movies inspired by Bram Stoker’s famous tale. 

Like 1931’s Dracula, this version was based more on the 1924 stage play than the novel itself, and stars Frank Langella as the Transylvanian Dark Prince, who, as the movie opens, has just arrived in Whitby, England. 

After moving his belongings (a few coffins filled with earth) into the dilapidated Carfax Abbey, Count Dracula introduces himself to his neighbor, Dr. Jack Seward (Donald Pleasance), caretaker of the local asylum. Residing with Dr. Seward in his clifftop mansion are his daughter, Lucy (Kate Nelligan), and Lucy’s sickly friend Mina Van Helsing (Jan Francis). 

Soon after Dracula’s arrival in Whitby, Mina falls critically ill and dies. Upon hearing the news, Mina’s father, Professor Abraham Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier) visits Dr. Seward, and discovers that his daughter’s death was caused not by disease, but by Dracula, a vampire. 

What’s more, if they don’t act quickly, it’s quite possible that Lucy will be the Count’s next victim. 

Langella is suave and oh-so charming as the title character, making it easy to see why women are attracted to him. In addition, Langella’s Dracula is more of a tragic figure; the famous line about the “Children of the night” is altered slightly in this telling, with the Count observing not how “beautiful” their “music” is, but how “sad” it sounds. 

The supporting cast, led by Sir Laurence Olivier (who was very ill at the time), is also quite good, and the production design is top-notch (the gothic set pieces are beyond impressive). And while this Dracula may not be as consistently horrific as other versions, Badham and company do throw in the occasional eerie scene (Van Helsing’s run-in with his daughter in the catacombs is especially creepy).
Rating: 9 out of 10

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

#2,659. The Devil's Advocate (1997)


Taylor Hackford’s The Devil’s Advocate is a downright seductive motion picture, enticing its audience with smart dialogue, fascinating characters, extraordinary performances, and a pace that’s as crisp as they come. 

Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) is a lawyer from Gainesville, Florida. A former prosecutor and current defense attorney, he’s never lost a case. Not one. And that perfect record catches the attention of John Milton (Al Pacino), the most powerful lawyer - and one of the most powerful men - in New York City. 

Milton offers Kevin a job, and before the young go-getter knows what’s hit him, both he and his wife Mary Ann (Charlize Theron) are living in a luxury apartment with a great view of the city. 

 Even in New York, Kevin proves unbeatable, but Mary Ann senses something is wrong with the entire set-up, and that Milton is not who he seems to be. As for Kevin, he’s too busy raking in the cash to notice anything out of the ordinary. That is, until his world starts crashing down around him. 

Al Pacino is brilliant as the charismatic Milton, a guy with more than a few dark secrets, but I was really impressed with Keanu Reeves’ turn as the hotshot lawyer who, over the course of the movie, goes from “up-and-coming” to “already arrived”. The supporting cast (especially Theron as the confused wife and Connie Nielson as Kevin’s sexy co-worker) is also strong, and the courtroom scenes, even when they’re brief (which many are), have an undeniable energy to them. 

A first-rate thriller that dabbles in horror, The Devil’s Advocate is top-notch entertainment.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Sunday, November 7, 2021

#2,658. Once Bitten (1985)


Once Bitten is so damn goofy, but at the same time it’s also kind of endearing. 

Nine years before he rose to superstardom in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb & Dumber, Jim Carrey played Mark Kendall, a sexually frustrated high schooler whose pretty but chaste girlfriend Robin (Karen Kopins) refuses to put out. One night, his two pals Jamie (Thomas Ballatore) and Russ (Skip Lackey) convince Mark to try his luck at a singles bar, where he’s picked up by a gorgeous blonde known only as “The Countess” (Lauren Hutton). 

What Mark doesn’t know is that The Countess is a 400-year-old vampire who, according to tradition, must drink the blood of a virgin three separate times before All Hallow’s Eve. And unfortunately for him, Mark is the guy she’s chosen to be her next Halloween snack! 

The comedy in Once Bitten is often sophomoric (think a mediocre TV sitcom), though I did laugh out loud at the locker room shower scene, where Jamie and Russ try to “examine” Mark for a possible bite on his inner thigh. In addition, Carrey shows flashes of his future brilliance (especially late in the movie, when he begins to “change”), and Hutton makes for a very sexy vampire. In fact, the scenes featuring Hutton and her effeminate servant Sebastain (played by the always great Cleavon Little) are my favorite in the film, and the energy dips noticeably whenever The Countess isn’t on-screen. 

As vampire comedies go, I still prefer Love at First Bite to Once Bitten, but this 1985 offering isn’t without its charms.
Rating: 6 out of 10

Friday, November 5, 2021

#2,657. Damnation (1988)



That is the word that continuously pops into my head as I sit here reflecting on director Bela Tarr’s 1988 black and white film Damnation. Yet there are aspects of the movie that are anything but beautiful.

Set in an unspecified Hungarian town - a working-class city littered with dingy bars and urban decay - the story that makes up Damnation (what there is of a story, anyway) centers on a lonely guy named Karrer (Miklós Székely B.), who has fallen in love with another man’s wife: a mournful lounge singer (Vali Kerekes) who performs nightly at the Titanik Bar, one of several that Karrer frequents on a regular basis. After arranging to get the singer’s husband (György Cserhalmi) out of town for a few days, Karrer makes his move.

From this simple premise, Tarr has crafted a singularly unique motion picture, one that utilizes long, uninterrupted shots which first establish a setting (a night club, a bedroom, a rain-soaked street, etc), then, by way of the meticulous manner in which Tarr moves his camera (and it is almost always in motion), takes us deeper into each scene to expose so much more (we often hear noises in the background, the source of which is only revealed when Tarr and his camera go searching).

The dialogue is introspective, designed not so much to further the story as to divulge each character’s state of mind (“I like the rain”, the singer tells Karrer at one point, “I like to watch the water run down the window. It calms me down. I don't think about anything. I just watch the rain”), and the dreary locales (the Titanik is dimly lit, and Karrer’s abode is situated next to a coal mine), coupled with the stark cinematography of Gábor Medvigy, set a melancholy tone that never lets up.

Damnation is, without question, an arthouse film, and it is a thoroughly engaging one.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

#2,656. Love Express: The Disappearance of Walerian Borowczyk (2018)


It was 1978’s Behind Convent Walls that introduced me to the movies of Walerian Borowczyk, and I was instantly hooked. Both The Beast and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne strengthened my respect for the filmmaker, who skillfully blended such time-honored genres as comedy, drama, and romance with pure, unadulterated erotica.

Love Express is a 2018 documentary that delves into the great director’s work, from his early days in animation (shorts that inspired, among others, Terry Gilliam and Neil Jordan, both of whom are interviewed in this movie) to his output in the 1980s, by which point he had been branded a sleaze merchant (he was hired to direct Emmanuelle V, but walked off the set following an argument with an actress).

Borowczyk’s penchant for the erotic would ultimately be his downfall; with The Beast a box-office sensation, producers hounded him to include nudity and sex in every film going forward, while others refused to hire him because of his reputation as a smut peddler. To watch this movie is to see that Walerian Borowczyk was so much more than the cinematic community gave him credit for, and when left to his own vision, was capable of producing greatness.

Featuring clips, behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with those who worked with and admired Barowczyk, Love Express stands as a testament to his abilities as a filmmaker, and a tragic account of a talent that never was permitted to shine as brightly as it could have.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Monday, November 1, 2021

#2,655. Elizabeth (1998)


Elizabeth I, Queen of England from 1558 to 1603, has been portrayed many times on film, including twice by my favorite actress, Bette Davis (1939’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and 1955’s The Virgin Queen). 

Yet when I picture Elizabeth in my mind’s eye, she looks exactly like Cate Blanchett, and director Shekhar Kapur’s 1998 movie is the reason why. 

Following the death of her half-sister Mary (Kathy Burke), Elizabeth (Blanchett) ascends the throne and immediately finds herself surrounded by enemies, chief among them the Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston), who fears the new Queen will return England to the “heretical” Protestant faith. 

Elizabeth’s most trusted advisor, Lord Cecil (Richard Attenborough), insists that she marry the French Duke of Anjou (Vincent Cassel) and produce an heir, despite the fact she is already in love with Lord Dudley (Joseph Fiennes). 

Though protected at all times by Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), who acts as the Queen’s bodyguard, Elizabeth is in constant danger. Will she survive long enough to unify England, or will her enemies win out in the end? 

 Of course, we know the answer to that question: as stated above, Elizabeth reigned for damn near 45 years! Yet thanks to Blanchett’s tender performance and Kapur’s solid direction, the tension in Elizabeth is tangible, and like Walsingham and Lord Cecil we constantly fear for the Queen’s safety (it doesn’t hurt that the always-impressive Eccleston makes for such a formidable foe). 

Alexandra Byrne’s extravagant costumes and Peter Howitt’s set pieces go a long way in making Elizabeth feel authentic, but the film’s power lies in Blanchett’s performance, and the convincing manner in which she transforms “The Virgin Queen” from a demure young girl into a confident, powerful monarch.
Rating: 9 out of 10