Wednesday, August 31, 2022

#2,808. Cooties (2014) - Infection Triple Feature


A word of warning: Cooties is a violent movie. What’s more, much of its violence is inflicted upon children. Kids are beaten, bitten, and brutalized throughout the film, with some toddlers suffering injuries so severe they’re sure to make you cringe.

And believe me… you will smile every time one of these nasty little bastards bleeds!

Written by Leigh Whannell (Saw) and Ian Brennan (the television musical Glee) and co-directed by Jonathan Millot and Cary Murnion, Cooties stars Elijah Wood as Clint Hadson, a wannabe horror novelist. To make ends meet until his book is published, Clint takes a job as a substitute summer school teacher in his hometown of Fort Chicken, Illinois. His first day, he reunites with former classmate Lucy (Alison Pill), also a teacher, and meets co-workers Wade (Rainn Wilson), Tracy (Jack McBrayer), Doug (Leigh Whannell), Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad), and Vice Principle Simms (Ian Brennan).

Unfortunately for Clint and the other teachers at Fort Chicken Elementary, their Monday afternoon is about to get… strange.

It all starts when fourth grader Shelly Linker (Sunny May Allison) eats a tainted chicken nugget, which contains a virus that turns ordinary kids into cannibalistic psychos. The virus spreads like wildfire throughout the school, trapping Clint and the others inside. Now, this ragtag group of educators has no choice but to work together to avoid being eaten by their students.

Cooties is a horror / comedy that delivers plenty of both. The over-the-top characters are always good for a laugh, with dialogue that will have you in stitches (It’s Doug who first notices something odd is going on in the playground, and alerts his fellow teachers with the matter-of-fact line “Oh, look! Carnage!”). Especially good are Rainn Wilson as macho gym teacher Wade and co-writer Whannell, whose Doug is both the smartest (he’s the one who figures out how the virus spreads, and why it only affects kids) and weirdest of the group (when we first meet Doug, he’s reading a book titled How to Have a Normal Conversation).

That said, the film’s absolute funniest moment comes courtesy of star Elijah Wood, when his Clint introduces himself to the class by writing his name on the chalkboard!

When it comes to the horror, it’s the kids’ turn to shine. Particularly menacing is Patriot (Cooper Roth), a foul-mouthed wiseass who, before transforming into a flesh-craving maniac, planned to join the marines on his eighteenth birthday. Roth does a fine job turning Patriot into Cooties’ most unlikable character, and the rest of the young cast, hidden behind some pretty gnarly make-up, bring a childlike innocence to the carnage they unleash, using eyeballs as marbles and skipping rope with one poor victim’s innards.

Which brings us to the blood and gore, which Cooties has in abundance. From something as simple as a bite on the cheek to the more complex devouring of a teacher, the gore effects throughout Cooties impressed the hell out of me, and took the horror to a completely new level.

Toss in a few genuinely tense moments (including one with a little girl on a tricycle) and a handful of effective jump scares, and you have a horror / comedy that doesn’t sacrifice one in favor of the other. Cooties had me laughing and jumping at the same time.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Monday, August 29, 2022

#2,807. Contagion (2011) - Infection Triple Feature


More than 1995’s Outbreak, more than Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, more than Kinji Fukasaku’s underrated 1980 film Virus, Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion scared the hell out of me. Not only does it demonstrate how quickly, and how easily, a deadly virus can spread across the globe, but it also shows, in horrifyingly detail, the often-chilling reaction of ordinary people when faced with their own mortality.

Days after returning home from a business trip in Hong Kong, Minneapolis resident Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) dies from an unidentified illness. That same day, her young son also dies, and while Beth’s husband Mitch (Matt Damon) seems immune to the sickness, it isn’t long before more infections are reported around the world.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, headed by Dr. Ellis Cheevers (Laurence Fishburne), is quick to respond to the escalating threat, and within hours Dr. Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) is dispatched to Minneapolis to gather information and assess the potential for further infections.

With the number of sick soon growing exponentially in the U.S. and abroad, theories and reports of government conspiracies flood the internet, with blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who has himself made a side deal with a homeopathic company, leading the charge.

Before long, people begin to panic, looting grocery stores and pharmacies and fighting amongst themselves. All the while, Cheevers and his peers, including Dr. Ally Hextall (Jennifer Ehle) and Dr. Leonora Orantes (Marion Cotillard), are doing everything in their power to identify the virus and, if possible, develop a vaccine to prevent its spread.

But time is not on their side, and with the death toll rising into the millions, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not this deadly disease can be stopped before it wipes out half the world’s population.

Feeling like a big-budget disaster film, Contagion covers a lot of ground during its 100+ minutes, from government strategy meetings to the chaos that eventually spills into the streets of every major city. Mitch and his daughter Jory (Anna Jacoby-Heron) witness the mayhem first-hand when, at the height of the pandemic, they try to pick up some groceries, only to find the store overrun with looters and the shelves nearly empty.

Even more frightening is the film’s opening sequence, in which we follow several of the infected - in Hong Kong, Macau, Europe and the United States - before they themselves even know they have the virus. These infected hop on public transportation, eat at restaurants, and go about their daily routine, potentially spreading the virus simply by touching a glass or a doorknob. Paced perfectly, Soderbergh does a tremendous job building the tension in these initial moments, cluing us in, without having revealed anything in particular, that a very dangerous situation is brewing, and a good many people are going to die.

Across the board, the cast is superb, with Fishburne, Winslet, Law, and Damon leading the way. Also good in support is Bryan Cranston as Rear Admiral Lyle Haggerty of the U.S. Public Health Service Corps, and Elliott Gould as Dr. Ian Sussman, who ignores orders from the CDC to destroy his samples of the virus and makes the first major breakthrough with regards to its structure.

As incredibly unsettling as Contagion is for the majority of its runtime, it is the film’s final scene, where Soderbergh flashes back to how the virus began, that will keep you up at night. It is something so simple, and so very possible, that you will wonder, as I did, if it might be happening somewhere in the world this very minute. We dealt with a major pandemic in 2020, and it was terrible. Is something even worse looming on the horizon?
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, August 27, 2022

#2,806. The Cassandra Crossing (1976) - Infection Triple Feature


A star-studded disaster film in the same vein as The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake, director George P. Cosmatos’ The Cassandra Crossing floods the screen with action and intrigue aplenty, and while some of what transpires might come off as a bit silly, the movie has an energy that’s positively... well, infectious!

A trio of terrorists attempts to blow up a high-security lab at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. There’s a brief shootout with the building’s security, during which a container housing a deadly experimental virus is struck. One of the terrorists (played by Lou Castel) manages to escape and make his way to a nearby station, where he sneaks onto a train headed for Stockholm.

Also on board this train are doctor Jonathan Chamberlain (Richard Harris); Chamberlain’s ex-wife Jennifer (Sophia Loren); socialite Nicole Dressler (Ava Gardner) and her boy-toy Robby (Martin Sheen); a federal agent posing as a Reverend (O.J. Simpson); a nanny (Alida Valli) and her young charge; Concentration camp survivor Herman (Lee Strasberg); a conductor named Max (Lionel Stadler), and nearly a thousand other passengers. What none of them realize is the stowaway terrorist has been infected with a virus similar to the pneumonic plague, and the longer he is permitted to roam free, the more danger there is of an outbreak.

To prevent the virus from spreading any further, Colonel Stephen Mackenzie (Burt Lancaster) of U.S. Military Intelligence, working inside WHO headquarters with doctor Elena Stradner (Ingrid Thulin), re-routes the train to Poland, where it must pass over a dilapidated bridge known as the Cassandra Crossing before reaching its final destination.

The moment the opening titles end, The Cassandra Crossing is off and running, with a well-staged showdown between the terrorists (who have discovered that the U.S. Army is conducting germ warfare experiments in a neutral country) and the WHO security forces. The tension continues to mount when the surviving terrorist, clearly infected with the virus, boards the train, where, after hiding out in the baggage car (and stealing water from the cage of a Basset Hound), he takes a stroll, infecting a number of other passengers including a young singer named Susan (Ann Turkel).

Once they’ve tracked the terrorist’s whereabouts, Mackenzie contacts Dr. Chamberlain by radio and informs him of the potential danger, essentially putting the doctor in charge on the situation. Scenes in which the sick are identified and quarantined (surprisingly, Dr. Chamberlain takes hardly any precautions when dealing with the infected) are followed by more harrowing sequences, when army personnel, wearing Hazmat suits and brandishing automatic weapons, board the train and force everyone to turn over their personal belongings. It’s one of several moments in which The Cassandra Crossing draws a not-too-subtle parallel between U.S. forces and WWII-era Nazis. Even the train’s re-routed destination is a former Concentration Camp in Janov, Poland, the very camp where Lee Strasberg’s Herman lost his wife and children during the war.

Along with the tension and intrigue, The Cassandra Crossing offers up plenty of drama as well, from Chamberlain and Jennifer bickering early on to the revelation that Robby has been using Nicole as a front (and an unwitting one at that) to smuggle drugs across Europe. And if all this isn’t disturbing enough, there’s the added worry of a bridge that might very well collapse the minute the train tries to pass over it!

The story and situations are, at times, over-the-top, as are some of the performances, and there are moments that will have you rolling your eyes in disbelief. In one of the movie’s more ridiculous scenes, a helicopter flies overhead and drops a basket by rope, fully expecting Chamberlain and Jennifer, who are leaning out of the speeding train, to grab hold of it and place the body of the infected terrorist inside!

But the film moves along at a brisk pace, and there are a handful of nerve-racking sequences mixed in as well. So while The Cassandra Crossing may not rank among the elite of ‘70s disaster films, it’s far from the worst!
Rating: 6 out of 10

Thursday, August 25, 2022

#2,805. Gargoyles (1972) - Cornel Wilde Triple Feature


Gargoyles has a few things going for it, chief among them the excellent make-up effects by a young Stan Winston, working on his very first film. But there are individual scenes in this 1972 made-for-TV horror movie that also stand out, executed perfectly by director Bill Norton and his crew.

Scientist / researcher Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde) and his daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt), a photographer, tour the Southwest to research a book Dr. Boley is writing on Demonology. Their first stop is at a roadside attraction owned and operated by Uncle Willie (Woody Chambliss), who shows Dr. Boley and Diana what he claims is the actual skeleton of a gargoyle, an ancient race of creatures sent to earth by Satan to do his bidding. At first believing the skeleton is fake, Dr. Boley and Diana have a change of heart when Willie’s “Desert Museum” is attacked from the air… by gargoyles!

As father and daughter scramble to find a safe place to hide, the lead gargoyle (Bernie Casey) and his minions are doing what they can to track the good doctor down, all the while protecting their eggs, which, once hatched, could result in gargoyles becoming the dominant species on earth.

Not all of the make-up effects in Gargoyles are perfect. Some of the creatures look exactly like what they are – actors in a suit. Bernie Casey’s gargoyle, however, is damn near flawless, and the combination of his sinister appearance and creepy-as-hell voice (enhanced by a sort of echo effect) helped land Winston his first ever major award, a 1973 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup (which he shared with Del Armstrong and Ellis Burmen Jr.).

Along with its monsters, Gargoyles features several stand-out moments, all of which enhance the inherent horror in its story. I was especially impressed by a nighttime scene in which Dr. Boley and Diana are speeding away from Willie’s museum, only to be attacked by a gargoyle that had dropped onto the roof of their car, tearing it to pieces as its potential victims attempt to shake it loose. Equally strong is a sequence in which two gargoyles track Boley to a roadside motel and surprise him and Diana as they are lying in bed. And while the final showdown in the gargoyle’s lair, situated deep in a desert cave, is hit-and-miss (on their home turf, the creatures just don’t seem as threatening), it does end the movie on an exciting note.

The performances are quite good. Wilde and Salt make for likable leads, but its Woody Chambliss (as the nearly-senile Willie) and Casey (as the evil gargoyle) who steal their respective scenes. Also appearing is a young Scott Glenn, who plays Reeger, a biker who agrees to help Dr. Boley during a key scene in the movie's final act.

All this, plus the film’s frantic pace and Robert Prince’s effective (if slightly overused) musical score, helped turn Gargoyles into one the most memorable TV horror movies of the seventies.
Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

#2,804. Shockproof (1949) - Cornel Wilde Triple Feature


The fact that Douglas Sirk directed Shockproof was enough to pique my interest. The master of melodrama, Sirk helmed such classics as All That Heaven Allows, Written in the Wind, and Magnificent Obsession, and the thought of him bringing his unique touch to a film noir was intriguing, to say the least.

Throw in a screenplay penned by the great Samuel Fuller, and you have a movie firing on all cylinders, a gritty crime drama with a splash of romance.

Jenny Marsh (Patricia Knight) has just been paroled from prison, where she served five years for murder. Her parole officer, Griff Marat (Cornel Wilde), is tough on Jenny, but helps get her life back on track, setting Jenny up with a new job and a place to stay.

Things take a turn for the worse when Jenny’s old flame, gambler Harry Wesson (John Baragrey), comes calling. Harry was the reason Jenny ended up in prison (she shot a man to protect him), yet she still loves the sap.

Hoping to keep the two apart, Griff hires Jenny to act as caretaker for his blind mother (Esther Minciotti). Before long, Griff and Jenny develop feelings for one another, but will a jilted Harry allow the two to live happily ever after, or does he have a plan to break them up once and for all?

Knight and Wilde, who were actually married at the time this movie was made, both deliver strong performances; the tension that exists between their characters in the opening scene, when Griff is laying out the rules for Jenny’s parole, slowly dissipates as they spend more time together, and we hope Jenny will dump Harry and stay with Griff.

Then something happens that sends the story off in another direction, with Griff doing things he never imagined he would, all in an effort to keep Jenny from returning to prison. While Sirk works his magic in the films first half, building the relationship between his two main characters, Fuller’s knack for drumming up tension comes into play in the second half, and because we were witnesses to their blossoming romance, we root like hell for Griff and Jenny when things go south, even when they’re breaking the law.

I wasn’t too wild about the ending (which, apparently, was re-written, much to Sirk’s and Fuller’s dismay), but Shockproof still proved to be the perfect blending of writer and director, taking on the distinct personalities of both to deliver a movie that will tug at your heartstrings one minute and drag you to the edge of your seat the next.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Sunday, August 21, 2022

#2,803. Leave Her to Heaven (1945) - Cornel Wilde Triple Feature


Leave Her to Heaven is a beautiful motion picture. Shot in Technicolor, it won an Academy Award for Best Color Cinematography, and there are images so glorious they will surely take your breath away.

Story-wise, though, this 1945 film is far from exquisite, relating a tale of desire, obsession, even murder in a way that is guaranteed to shake you. Leave Her to Heaven is a motion picture you won’t soon forget.

Following a chance encounter on a train, writer Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) and rich girl Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) quickly fall in love. Ellen goes so far as to break her engagement to lawyer Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) so that she and Richard can be married.

Living together at Richard’s lakeside lodge (known as “The Back of the Moon”), the lovers are happy for a while. But Ellen’s jealousy soon overcomes her, and she seeks to destroy every other relationship in Richard’s life. Nobody is safe from her wrath, not Richard’s handicapped brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) or Ellen’s own adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain), and even the couple’s unborn child proves a potential threat!

Across the board, the performances in Leave Her to Heaven are adequate at best. Though nominated for an Academy Award, Tierney is merely serviceable as the out-of-control Ellen, while Wilde, Crain, and the rest are satisfactory, though not spectacular (the lone stand-out is Vincent Price as the jilted lover / attorney, whose role is expanded later in the film).

Where Leave Her to Heaven distinguishes itself is in its presentation (there is striking imagery throughout), which is contrasted at all times by the bleak nature of its story. On the surface, Ellen appears to be the perfect wife. She supports Richard in his writing endeavors, and helps take care of his invalid brother Danny. But time and again, Tierney and director John Stahl clue us in on the fact that Ellen is a very selfish person, and does not intend to share her husband with anyone; a scene set on the lake, when Danny is swimming as Ellen looks on in a rowboat, is as dark as they come.

Mixing elements of melodrama and film noir, Leave Her to Heaven feels like the perfect mix of Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows) and Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), and while the final scenes are borderline ludicrous (the courtroom sequence at the end raises more questions than it answers), the blending of gorgeous visuals and dark themes carries Leave Her to Heaven to an entirely other level.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Friday, August 19, 2022

#2,802. Lightning Over Water (1980) - Biopic Documentaries


The opening image is of a lonely street in New York City, the date: April 8, 1979. A cab pulls up to the sidewalk, and a man exits the taxi. It is filmmaker Wim Wenders, recently arrived from California, on his way to visit his good friend Nicholas Ray, director of Rebel Without a Cause, Johnny Guitar, and a slew of others. Ray, it seems, is dying of cancer, and has very little time left.

Lightning Over Water is a collaboration between Wenders and Ray, a documentary in part because it chronicles the final days of a Hollywood legend, but also a carefully crafted drama in that it explores, via staged scenes, the greater question of life and death.

The ultimate goal of Lightning Over Water was to capture Nicholas Ray’s final days, yet as with many of Ray’s films, the approach is never straightforward or predictable. There are sequences throughout this 1980 film that blend reality with fiction, like when Wenders and Ray, along with Ray’s wife Susan and good friend Tom Noonan, attend a screening of The Lusty Men at Vassar. Shots are presented throughout this sequence of Wenders and his crew setting up the camera, and at one point during the screening, Wenders leaves the theater to talk with Ray, who is lying on a couch in the lobby (their exchange, though interesting, feels scripted). Noonan also contributes to the film via his video camera, which is always with him. His footage is occasionally edited into the movie, serving as a behind-the-scenes account of its development (he sometimes eavesdrops as Ray and Wenders set up shots and discuss what they will be doing next).

In a way, the addition of Noonan’s footage to Lightning Over Water reminded me of Ray’s own experimental film We Can’t Go Home Again, a project he and his students shot in 1973 while Ray was teaching at Vassar. Like that movie, Lightning Over Water features a number of intriguing bells and whistles: video and film combined; dream sequences; special camera effects; distorted images, etc.

Yet through it all, Lightning Over Water never loses sight of its objective: a cinematic diary covering the final days of a great director. Ray appears drawn and sickly through most of the film, and at one point, shortly after Wenders’ arrival, the camera looms over Ray as he awakens from a nap, coughing and rubbing his head, moaning and groaning as he shaves with an electric razor. At times, Ray’s mind is sharp, and he and Wenders have some fascinating chats about what it means to reach the end of your life, and the feelings that overtake you as you watch someone you love and respect slip away.

There are moments, especially later in the film, when Ray stumbles, forgetting a line or just staring off into the distance. Lightning Over Water is indeed a fascinating motion picture, but is can also be quite heartbreaking, making it an experimental film that is always evolving, yet can only have one possible conclusion.

I don’t consider it a spoiler to reveal that this “conclusion” does eventually arrive, and is presented in such a way that Wenders, Ray, and even the audience knows it’s about to happen, an uninterrupted shot of a man whose body has no more fight left in it. Nicholas Ray spent his life working tirelessly behind the camera, and it seems somehow fitting that, when the end came, he found himself on the other side of it.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

#2,801. Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick (1995) - Biopic Documentaries


In a late scene from Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick, Bill Wellman Jr., son of the great director William A. Wellman (the subject of this film), tells a story about the final weeks of his father’s life. Diagnosed with leukemia and having refused chemotherapy, William Wellman, realizing he had a short time to live, was resting at home when he turned to his son and said “Damnit Bill, don’t feel sorry for me! I’ve lived the life of a hundred men!”

Having just watched this documentary, I feel that the late Mr. Wellman was selling himself short. A pilot who did battle in the skies over France during World War I and a skilled filmmaker who never let the studios push him around, William Wellman lived the life of 200 men!

Directed by Todd Robinson, Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick is a biopic of award-winning filmmaker William A. Wellman, whose 1928 movie Wings won the first ever Academy Award for Best Picture. Starting with his early days in Brookline, Massachusetts (where he was born in 1896) and touching briefly on his service in France’s Lafayette Flying Corps during World War I, this 1996 documentary is at its best when delving into Wellman’s Hollywood career, during which he directed over 80 motion pictures.

Featuring interviews with noted celebrities like Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Nancy Reagan, Sidney Poitier, and Clint Eastwood (among others), Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick contains clips and behind-the-scenes tales from such classic Wellman films as Wings, The Public Enemy, Beau Geste, and The High and the Mighty while also peppering in stories of the director’s infamous battles with studio executives (rumor has it he once dumped an entire truckload of manure onto a producer’s desk).

An adventurer who never backed down from a fight, William A. Wellman was a forced to be reckoned with, and Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick more than does this legendary filmmaker justice.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Monday, August 15, 2022

#2,800. Ashes of Time (1994) - Spotlight on Hong Kong


Though it falls under the classification of a Wuxia film, which by its most basic definition is a martial arts-themed movie set in China’s distant past, 1994’s Ashes of Time is more a reflection of its director, Wong Kar Wai, than any subgenre or storytelling style.

Master swordsman Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) is a guy who gets things done. From his remote outpost in the middle of the desert, he acts as a broker of sorts, a go-between for assassins / warriors and those in need of their services.

Structured as an anthology spread across the seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, and back to Spring, Ashes of Time kicks off with Ouyang Feng being visited by his friend, Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-fai), a trained killer who, after drinking a magical wine, begins to lose his memory. Upon leaving Feng’s house, Huang encounters a blind swordsman (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), then the hot-headed Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin), who during their conversation draws his sword, cutting Huang.

Eventually, Murong Yang makes his way to Feng’s, looking to hire an assassin to finish off Huang Yaoshi for supposedly breaking his sister’s heart. A short time later, Murong Yang’s sister Murong Yin (also played by Brigitte Lin) also turns up, and begs Feng to instead kill her brother!

Once Autumn rolls around, the Blind Swordsman shows up at Feng’s desert abode looking for work. Diagnosed with an eye disorder that will render him blind by the age of 30, he hopes to raise enough cash to pay for his trip home, so he can once again see the cherry blossoms before losing his sight completely. All the while, a mysterious woman (Charlie Yeung), with nothing more than a basket of eggs and a mule to her name, implores Feng to help her get revenge on the bandits that murdered her brother (Feng refuses because the woman has no money to pay).

With winter setting in, Feng invites an unkempt beggar, Hung Chi (Jacky Cheung), back to his house and feeds him, doing so because he could tell right away that Chi is a talented swordsman. Ignoring the pleas of his wife (Li Bai) when she turns up at Feng’s unexpectedly, Hung Chi agrees to help the woman with the mule (for the payment of a single egg) and kill those responsible for her brother’s death.

The return of Spring sees Feng lamenting his lost love (Maggie Cheung), causing the master swordsman to undertake a journey of his own, and a heartbreaking discovery will result in his decision to leave the desert once and for all.

It’s interesting to note the book that inspired Wong Kar-Wai to write Ashes of Time, Jin Yong’s The Legend of the Condor Heroes, paints some of the movie’s characters in an entirely different light, starting with the lead, Ouyang Feng. In Yong’s novel, Feng was a straight-up villain, and though the events of Ashes of Time are set in an earlier time period than those in the book, we see traces of Feng’s darker side every now and again. At one point, he tries to convince the woman with the mule to take up prostitution in order to afford his services, and a late flashback in which he approaches his former lover (who ended up marrying his brother) reveals he is prone to violent outbursts. Yet Ashes of Time ultimately portrays Feng in a much more sympathetic light, not as a treacherous outlaw but a skilled assassin who regrets letting his one true love slip away.

Each and every character in this film is given a distinct personality and plenty of depth, and much like Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love, the events that play out in Ashes of Time never eclipse these characters or the emotions that drive them. This is especially prevalent in the Murong Yin / Murong Yang sequence, which hints at dual personalities and the destructive influence of unrequited love.

As with many Wuxia films, Ashes of Time does feature a handful of action scenes, the best being the Blind Swordsman’s battle against dozens of bandits (in the midst of which his eyesight begins to fail him). But as exciting as it can be, it’s the characters that will stay with you, making Ashes of Time a near-perfect blending of genre and director.
Rating: 9 out of 10

Saturday, August 13, 2022

#2,799. Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991) - Spotlight on Hong Kong


Terms like “blood drenched” and “exceedingly gory” don’t come close to preparing you for the experience of watching 1991’s Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. The blood and carnage in this movie is off the chain, and pitched at such a high energy that you rarely get a moment to catch your breath.

It’s the near future, and most of the prisons in Hong Kong have been privatized. Skilled fighter Ricky (Fan Siu-Wong) is a new inmate at one such facility, a prison run by a sadistic assistant warden (Fan Mei-Sheng) and controlled by a group of prisoners known as the “Gang of Four”, all of whom rely on violence and intimidation to maintain the status-quo.

But rest assured, if Ricky has anything to say about it, their reign of terror, as well as that of the warden himself (Ho Ka-Kui), will soon come to a bloody end!

Trying to decide which moment in Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is its most violent is an act of futility. Soon after his arrival at the prison, Ricky unleashes his own brand of justice on a bully named Wildcat (Lam Kai-Wing), who had been terrorizing an elderly inmate. As Wildcat is walking away from the scene, Ricky trips him, causing the surprised bully to fall face-first into a board of nails (we even see one nail enter his eye, not the greatest effect, but damn did it make me cringe all the same). Angered and humiliated, Wildcat eventually surprises Ricky in the shower, only to have his guts spilled onto the floor when Ricky punches a hole clear through him!

These aren’t even the film’s most violent sequences. While fighting Ricky, Hai (Frankie Chin), one the Gang of Four, tries to get the upper hand by grabbing his own intestines (which, like Wildcat’s, are now out in the open) and strangling Ricky with them!

As you can see, the violence and gore in Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is way over the top, keeping the movie true to the spirit of the manga series (which was published between 1988 and 1990) that inspired it. Many of its characters are equally as exaggerated. For a time, we think the assistant warden is the film’s most villainous character. He even tries to shoot Ricky at one point. That is, until we meet the warden himself, who is outlandishly devious and something of an experienced fighter himself (the final showdown between him and Ricky is one for the books). As for the “Gang of Four”, each rules a different wing of the prison and has their own unique power, which they use to keep the other prisoners at bay. Huang Chung (Yukari Oshima) has a punch that can stop a man’s heart, while Baishen (Wong Kwai-Hung) is an expert with needles, throwing them with perfect accuracy.

All of the performances are good, but standing head and shoulders above the rest is Fan Siu-Wong’s portrayal of Ricky, who, we discover early one, is in prison for murdering a drug lord (Lam Suet) indirectly responsible for the death of Ricky’s beloved girlfriend Keiko (Gloria Yip). A world-class fighter with a bad temper that he can’t always control, Ricky is a hero who can take as well as he gives; some of the film’s most violent scenes are when Ricky himself is injured.

Shying away from absolutely nothing and giving viewers more violence and gore than they can handle, Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is as entertaining as a movie of this sort can possibly be. But be warned: if exploding heads and entrails aren’t your thing, this is not the film for you. Everyone else, buckle up for one hell of a ride!
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

Thursday, August 11, 2022

#2,798. The Mighty Peking Man (1977) - Spotlight on Hong Kong


What The Mighty Peking Man lacks in special effects wizardry, it more than makes up for in pacing and balls-to-the-wall action scenes, with a smattering of “WTF” thrown in for good measure.

The Shaw Brothers’ take on King Kong, The Mighty Peking Man follows expert guide Johnny Meng (Danny Lee) as he leads a team of profiteers, including promoter Lu Tien (Feng Ku), into the jungles of India. Their objective is to track down and capture a giant ape that has been terrorizing the area, in the hopes of bringing it back to Hong Kong and turning it into a moneymaking attraction. But the team must deal with other dangers as well, including stampeding elephants and hungry tigers, forcing all but Johnny to abandon the adventure and return home.

More determined than ever to find the gargantuan ape, Johnny continues his trek, during which he meets a beautiful feral girl named Samantha (Evelyne Kraft), who, after being stranded in the jungle years earlier when her parents’ plane crashed, was raised by the giant ape!

Johnny manages to convince Samantha to coerce the ape, which she calls “Utam”, into accompanying them back to Hong Kong, where Utam is chained and put on display in Hong Kong stadium. But when Lu Tien tries to rape Samantha, it sends Utam, aka the Mighty Peking Man, into a rage that might spell doom for the entire city!

The Mighty Peking Man wastes no time getting down to business, opening with an earthquake in the Indian jungle that somehow awakens Utam, who then attacks a small village. Again, the effects are only so-so; as with Toho’s early kaiju films, Utam is a guy in a suit who attacks miniatures, and a lot of the action comes courtesy of mediocre rear projection (which is prevalent throughout the movie).

Yet there’s an undeniable energy to this beginning sequence, as well as many others. Even when Utam isn’t on-screen, the elephant stampede and tiger attack keep the audience’s adrenaline pumping, and when the story shifts to Hong Kong, the movie rarely stops to take a breath (along with Utam destroying the city, the authorities desperately search for Samantha, who escaped Lu Tien and ran into the streets in the hopes of calming the wild beast). The Mighty Peking Man also provides some background on its main characters via well-staged flashbacks, from Johnny’s doomed romance with an ambitious singer to the plane crash that stranded a very young Samantha in the jungle.

Again, the effects are (for the most part) borderline laughable, and some of the “strategies” used by the military in the last half hour to end Utam’s reign of terror will have you scratching your head; the decision to pump thousands of gallons of gasoline into the water pipes of a skyscraper seemed especially foolhardy. There’s also a batshit crazy romantic jungle montage, where Samantha flirts with Johnny by picking up a leopard and swinging it through the air!

But odds are the insanity and lackluster quality of such moments will barely register with you, because as cheesy as the movie can be, The Mighty Peking Man is consistently thrilling and a hell of a lot of fun.
Rating: 8 out of 10

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

#2,797. Yuma (1971) - Clint Walker Westerns Triple Feature


A 1971 Made-for-TV western starring Clint Walker, Yuma gets off to a familiar start. Sent to Yuma to clean up the town, Marshal Dave Harmon (Walker) barely has time to put his badge on before two drunk brothers, Rol (Bing Russell) and Sam (Bruce Glover), come barreling into town on a stolen stagecoach. Harmon attempts to arrest the brothers, at which point the hot-headed Sam draws on him, forcing the new Marshal to shoot him dead.

Turns out Rol and Sam are the younger brothers of Arch King (Morgan Woodward), a cattle driver and an important man in the territory. Naturally, Arch won’t be too happy to hear his brother Sam is dead, and folks figure Harmon will go the way of the other marshals, who haven’t stayed in Yuma for more than a week.

It’s certainly not an original storyline: a lawman crosses a powerful individual, setting up a showdown between the two. But then things in Yuma take an unexpected turn when Saunders (Robert Phillips) and Army officer Captain White (John Kerr) break into the jail house and free Rol, only to shoot him in the back - with the Marshal’s gun - when he runs out the front door. Saunders, who works for local businessman Decker (Barry Sullivan), hopes to pin Rol’s death on Harmon as well, but doesn’t realize that Andres (Miguel Alejandro), a young Mexican runaway who Harmon has been helping, was asleep on the jailhouse floor and heard the whole thing (because he only saw Captain White’s boots, Andres can’t identify either man).

When Arch King rides into town, we expect there will be fireworks. But he and Harmon sit down and talk, and King gives Harmon one day to find his brother Rol’s killers, or he’ll hold him responsible. So, Harmon visits a nearby military base (the boots Andres saw could only be army issue), then the local native reservation, and each time learns a little something about Decker’s business dealings.

With the help of Julie Williams (Kathryn Hays), who runs the hotel, and Mules McNeil (Edgar Buchanan), whose freight company has lost business since Decker’s arrival, Harmon carries out his investigation, and it’s here that Yuma distinguishes itself. Walker delivers his usual fine performance as the straight-as-an-arrow Harmon, and I found myself genuinely interested in the mystery he was unraveling. While the “who” is never in question for the audience (we know Saunders and Decker are behind the whole thing), we don’t know the “why”, and there’s even a twist at the end that caught me by surprise.

Production-wise, Yuma is every bit a TV movie, with bloodless violence and limited locales, and while there are certainly tense moments (especially the opening with the drunk brothers), this isn’t an action-packed western. Still, thanks to Walker and the film’s intriguing (though admittedly over-plotted) story, I ended up liking Yuma more than I anticipated.
Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Sunday, August 7, 2022

#2,796. More Dead Than Alive (1969) - Clint Walker Westerns Triple Feature


Vincent Price, whose name has become synonymous with the horror genre, plays a key supporting role in the 1969 western More Dead Than Alive. I’ll be honest… Price was the reason I wanted to see this one, but in the end, More Dead Than Alive had a lot more going for it than the performance of it’s second-billed star.

After serving 18 years for murder, infamous gunslinger “Killer” Cain (Clint Walker) is released from prison. A changed man, Cain vows to never pick up a gun again, but when he has a hard time finding honest work, he breaks that promise and teams up with Dan Ruffalo (Price), the proprietor of a traveling wild west show. As expected, Cain’s reputation draws audiences wherever they go, a fact that doesn’t sit well with Billy (Paul Hampton), a young sharpshooter who had been the star of Ruffalo’s show.

While Cain is hoping to make enough money to settle down with pretty artist Monica Alton (Anne Francis), Billy is out to prove to the world he’s better than Cain, even if it means challenging the aging gunman to a showdown.

Walker is perfectly cast as Cain, whose memories of his past deeds haunt him daily, while Price is equally strong as the smart businessman who knows how to make a fast buck. The big surprise - for me anyway - was Paul Hampton as Billy, the young upstart who goes from admiring Cain to despising him.

Believing at the outset that Cain is a legend of the old west, Billy grows disillusioned when Cain nonchalantly explains that most of his exploits, and indeed those of many of the west’s most notorious gunmen, were exaggerated at best, with little or no fact to back them up. What’s more, Billy is a much better shot than Cain. At one point, Cain, picking up a gun for the first time in years, struggles to hit the tree branch he’s using for target practice, whereas Billy draws and doesn’t miss with a single shot.

Cain may be the favorite among the crowds, but Billy believes he’s the real star of Ruffalo’s show, and his resentment grows stronger with each passing day. Hampton brilliantly conveys both the wide-eyed hero worship and the increasing frustration that make this character so engaging.

Those looking for an action-packed western will ultimately be disappointed; aside from the opening scene, which features an attempted prison break, More Dead Than Alive is mostly a character study, and like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Big Jake, a 1971 western starring John Wayne, this 1969 film tells the story of a changing west, when law books and commerce replaced lawlessness and open ranges.

Yet unlike Wayne’s Jake or Holden’s Pike, Cain welcomes these changes with open arms. Having shot and killed a dozen men, he harbors no fond memories of his past, which sometimes has a way of catching up with him. Whereas most men long for their glory days, Cain is happy they have passed him by, and wants nothing more than spend his last years with the woman he loves.

Because we only know the “new” Cain, after his wild days, we the audience are on his side, and it’s thanks to Walker’s heartfelt portrayal, with an assist by screenwriter George Schenck, that we care as much as we do for a gunslinger who personally sent twelve people to their graves.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Friday, August 5, 2022

#2,795. Yellowstone Kelly (1959) - Clint Walker Westerns Triple Feature


Inspired by the exploits of Luther Sage “Yellowstone” Kelly, who served briefly in the Union Army and later made a name for himself in Montana as a pioneer and trapper, Yellowstone Kelly is a serviceable if somewhat routine western from director Gordon Douglas.

After declining an offer to act as a guide for Cavalry Officer Major Towns (Rhodes Reason), Yellowstone Kelly (Clint Walker) and his new sidekick Anse Harper (Edd Byrnes) are abducted by a band of Sioux warriors.

It seems that a young Arapaho maiden named Wahleeah (Andra Martin) has been shot in the back, and the Sioux chief, Gall (John Russell), believes Kelly is the only man who can save her. Wahleeah is to become the wife of Gall’s hot-headed nephew Sayapi (Ray Danton), though it is clear Gall himself may have feelings for her as well. Kelly does as requested, and Wahleeah survives.

A few weeks later, as Kelly and Anse are settling in for the winter, a still-injured Wahleeah unexpectedly turns up. Having escaped the Sioux, she wishes to be returned to her own people, and begs Kelly and Anse to help her. Agreeing to shelter Wahleeah for the winter, it isn’t long before Kelly and Anse also develop feelings for the pretty maiden, bit will Kelly risk angering the Sioux by honoring Wahleeah’s wishes, or will he turn her over to Gall once Spring arrives?

Fresh off the success of his TV series Cheyenne, Clint Walker is quite strong as Yellowstone Kelly, a man who seldom speaks more than a few words and remains true to his principles. Edd Byrnes is equally good as Anse, Kelly’s inexperienced traveling companion, and both Claude Akins and Warren Oates turn up briefly as soldiers who give Kelly a hard time (and pay the price for it).

Written by Burt Kennedy and based on a novel penned by Clay Fisher, Yellowstone Kelly does a better job presenting the plight of Native Americans than other films from this era; reminding Major Towns of the treaty that exists between the U.S. government and the chiefs of the native tribes, Kelly refuses to help the military drive the Sioux from the territory. Unfortunately, this more sympathetic approach didn’t extend to the casting; Gall, Sayapi, and Wahleeah are portrayed by white actors in brownface, and while the performances aren’t bad, it’s a distraction nonetheless.

Still, with its picturesque western landscapes (the film was shot on-location in Arizona), a few decent action scenes (especially the climactic battle), and Clint Walker’s solid portrayal of the title character, Yellowstone Kelly is always entertaining.
Rating: 7 out of 10

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

#2,794. Harold and Maude (1971) - Hal Ashby in the 1970s


Nineteen-year-old Harold (Bud Cort) is preoccupied with death. Time and again, he stages fake suicides, driving his wealthy socialite mother (Vivian Pickles) to despair. It’s gotten to the point that she doesn’t even react when she finds Harold hanging from the neck in the dining room, or floating face-down in their large swimming pool. Aside from being fascinated with his own demise, Harold drives a hearse, and spends an inordinate amount of time attending funerals for perfect strangers.

It’s during these graveside services that Harold continually runs into Maude (Ruth Gordon), a 79-year-old free spirit who embraces life and all it has to offer. Though complete opposites, Harold and Maude strike up a friendship, and spend a great deal of time together. In fact, when his mother signs him up for a computer dating service, Harold sabotages each and every encounter with a potential girlfriend because he has fallen in love with Maude!

Though the humor is often dark, and its title characters make for one of the strangest romantic couplings in cinematic history, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude is surprisingly sweet. Hell, even with all the staged suicides and funeral services, I’d go so far as to say the movie is life-affirming, and the reason why (along with Cat Stevens' toe-tapping music) is Ruth Gordon.

Gordon is just about perfect as the carefree Maude, who, though quickly approaching her 80th birthday, is full of energy and willing to take risks. She is constantly stealing cars (after a funeral, she unknowingly swipes Harold’s hearse, then offers him a ride home), frustrating the police (especially a motorcycle cop played by an uncredited Tom Skerritt), and at one point poses in the nude for an artist friend (played by Cyril Cusack).

Gordon’s spirit and vivacity even rubs off on her co-star; though serviceable in those scenes when Harold is in the company of his overbearing mother, his psychiatrist (G. Wood), or his three blind dates (Judy Engels, Shari Summers, and Ellen Geer), Cort’s performance perks up whenever he and Gordon are together. Despite the 60-year age difference between their characters, we fully accept their love affairm, in part because we the audience find Maude every bit as engaging as Harold does.

Ashby’s second feature film, Harold and Maude has a few things in common with his 1970 directorial debut, The Landlord. Like Elgar, Beau Bridges’ character in that earlier film, Harold comes from a wealthy family, yet ultimately turns his back on that privileged lifestyle (though, unlike Elgar, Cort’s Harold has always been uncomfortable around his mother). And while it is definitely a comedy, Harold and Maude, like The Landlord, isn’t afraid to get serious once in a while. Particularly poignant is a brief, one-second glimpse of Maude’s forearm late in the film, which reveals something about the character that puts her entire outlook into perspective.

Funny, sad, romantic, and oh-so strange, Harold and Maude is a must-see!
Rating: 9 out of 10

Monday, August 1, 2022

#2,793. The Landlord (1970) - Hal Ashby in the 1970s


Having worked together on In the Heat of the Night, producer Norman Jewison (who directed Heat of the Night) and first-time director Hal Ashby (winner of an Academy Award for his work editing that 1967 film) once again tackled racial bigotry in 1970’s The Landlord, a comedy with plenty of heart that also delivered a very powerful message.

Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges) is a wealthy 29-year-old who, as the movie opens, is still living at home with his wealthy parents (Lee Grant and Walter Brooke). Deciding it’s time to strike out on his own, Elgar purchases an inner-city tenement house in Park Swope, Brooklyn, with the intention of evicting its black tenants and converting the building into a trendy new home.

His plans fall by the wayside, however, when Elgar gets to know his “renters” (who haven’t actually paid rent in months), including fortune teller Marge (Pearl Bailey), hair dresser Fanny (Diane Sands), Fanny’s revolutionary-minded husband Copee (Lou Gossett), and Professor Duboise (Melvin Stewart).

Elgar’s father chastises his son for not evicting the tenants, while his mother, Joyce, a self-professed “liberal”, panics when Elgar announces he’s fallen in love with black dancer Lanie (Marki Bey).

At times, The Landlord is a very funny film: when Elgar first drives up to his new home, he’s chased down the street - potted plant in hand - by Copee and a few others. Then, when he does finally walk into the tenement, Marge is there to greet him… with a shotgun!

Yet, despite this rough start, we eventually realize Elgar is much better off in his new surroundings than he was at home; Joyce proclaims time and again she believes in equality, only to change her tune whenever Elgar discusses his new life (when Elgar tells her about Lanie, Joyce - playing croquet at the time - stares at him as if in a state of shock, then tries to convince him he’s making a mistake).

Beau Bridges is excellent as the independently-minded Elgar, as are Lee Grant (as funny as she is tragic in the role of Elgar’s mom), Pearl Bailey (who steals every scene she’s in), Diane Sands (pulling off both sexy and sad, often in the same scene), and Lou Gossett (as the angry, mentally-disturbed Copee). Also good in supporting roles are Susan Anspach as Elgar’s hippie sister Susan, Robert Klein as Susan’s fiance Peter, and 10-year-old Doug Grant as Fanny and Copee’s son, Walter Gee.

Shining just as brightly as his cast is first-time director Hal Ashby; from the opening sequence (a quick montage of images, with Bridges occasionally breaking the fourth wall to address the audience directly) to the love scene between Elgar and Fanny (the entire set was tinted red, so that both appeared to be the same color), Ashby infused the film with enough style and creativity that you’d swear a seasoned pro was calling the shots. And while he certainly does a fine job with the film’s more comedic moments, it’s when things get serious (especially towards the end) that the "Ashby touch" takes full effect (a showdown between Elgar and Copee is as tense as they come).

Though undoubtedly a product of the era in which it was made (right down to the musical soundtrack), The Landlord, with its central theme of racial discord and love overcoming all, is as relevant today as it was in 1970. A time capsule that is also timeless, The Landlord is, 50+ years on, just as fresh as ever.
Rating: 9 out of 10