It’s the Time of the Season!
The Easter-Passover season has drawn upon us. And, as such, we make note of this moment as a time for reflection.
Whether at a church or a temple, a synagogue or a mosque, or wherever one goes in order to be alone with one’s thoughts; to pray for a loved one or to ask forgiveness for one’s transgressions; whether you’re attending a wedding ceremony, a funeral for a friend, or a baptism for a newborn babe — all these activities are a requisite part of the daily cycles of life we humans are regularly asked to participate in. And most of them tend to follow a religious practice of some sort.
That being the case, obtaining spiritual sustenance is something we’re all called upon to do in one form or another. In point of fact, religion comprises a large portion of who we are as individuals, which also reflects how we were raised as children. Henceforth, it becomes difficult to separate our faith (or its lack) from our inner selves, whether we’re fervent practitioners or doubting Thomases.
Whatever name one chooses to call these beliefs, or whatever faith we decide to adhere to and follow, in the movies religion is most often characterized by a fascinating mix of the familiar with the foreboding, and the ridiculous with the sublime.
We know there is good in the world. But oftentimes the good cannot co-exist without the presence of its opposite number, evil, as writer-director M. Night Shyamalan forthrightly pointed out in his film Unbreakable (2000), a cinematic ode to comic-book lore. Here, the presence of evil is portrayed by the least likeliest character, an individual so fragile and accident prone it’s amazing he can get out of bed without crushing himself to death. He is pitted against the forces of good by a clueless stadium guard in a green hoodie and baseball cap.
This singular battle for the soul — for either the dark or the light side of life to prevail — is the basis for most films about religious faith or that use religion in some way, shape or form, as their underlying theme or tone.
Let it be known, however, that “evil” as such is not always depicted in so-called traditional forms, nor is it nearly so obvious to the untrained eye as the presence of a pointy-tailed, horned-and-hoofed fiend would tend to be. Nevertheless, the Evil One’s multiple manifestations and head-on clashes with the Almighty and His followers are what make up the stuff of movie legend.
Considering the importance of religion in people’s lives, let me offer this brief overview of scenes and descriptions from a variety of motion-picture appearances of gods, devils, sinners and saints, in addition to cinematic treatments of Jesus and our old pal Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, or whatever moniker may strike your fancy, and his celluloid cohorts, as they’ve been portrayed on the silver screen throughout the years.
Physical and Not-So-Physical Manifestations
All right, then, we know who or what Satan is. He’s so easy to spot, isn’t he? Why, he’s the guy with that evil glint in his eye, right? But beyond that, he tends to sport those ignominious horns atop his shiny forehead as well as that prominently spiked tail. Correct?
Oh, how wrong we are!
Sometimes the Devil is shown as an innocent six-year old child. He’s called Damien in Richard Donner’s creepy The Omen from 1976 (and in John Moore’s 2005 remake), a serious little boy not even his mother could love. There’s mischief afoot (and that portentous-sounding soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith) whenever the tiny tyke is caught traipsing about the household. The simplest of childhood toys — a tricycle, for instance — can become a deadly weapon in Damien’s hands.
In the sequel, Damien: Omen II (directed by Don Taylor and Mike Hodges), he’s just turned thirteen and attends a military academy. Nothing so ominous about that. It’s the actions that swirl around and about him that make this moody teenager a powerful antagonist in the long run. The boy’s agents can be a Rottweiler dog or a surly maidservant, at other times an innocuous black crow.
He can change shape and transform himself into a bat, mist, or fog, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992, with the vampire as a main stand-in for Satan; or even as a deviled-ham icon of himself.
In Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), he’s a big, badass dude, aptly named Darkness, with stereotypically long black nails, along with standard-issue hooves, horns, and tail to match, topped off with a huge cleft in his pointy chin and that blood-red body suit, under makeup artist Rob Bottin’s layers upon layers of latex. Played to the robust hilt by the ever-so-charming Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) on two-foot-high stilts, this “devil of a fellow” is far livelier (and far, far sexier) than the wet-behind-the-ears Tom Cruise, a goody-two-shoes groundskeeper with the garden-hose appellation of Jack Sprout (or shall we say “the little green giant”?).
On the positive side of the ledger, Jesus Christ, the saints, and other lesser mortals are viewed in slightly more humdrum fashion, which is befitting of their, shall we say, more human aspirations.
Whether they’re played by a young Jeffrey Hunter who is tempted for forty days and forty nights by an unseen voice in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), or the more gaunt-looking Max von Sydow in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) who converses with a beady-eyed and nervously twitchy Donald Pleasence in the vast, open plains of Monument Valley, Utah, the Messiah has traditionally been envisioned as having Westernized European features, i.e. tall, blond and blue-eyed looks — in other words, your above-average, all-American kind of guy.
Where did this representation come from, if the historical Jesus himself was purported to have been a denizen of the Middle East? Chalk it up to the middle-aged H.B. Warner in movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille’s silent version of The King of Kings (1927). Although the first recognizable images of Christ appeared in ancient artifacts as far back as the Byzantine period, producer-director DeMille has been credited, for good or for bad, as having laid his hands on a project where his leading man was forbidden from reaching out for the sauce (Warner was a confirmed alcoholic) under threat of expulsion from Hollywood Paradise.
In one of the most extraordinary sequences of all religious films, DeMille combines the Devil’s temptation of Christ with the age-old story of the woman caught in adultery, followed closely by the expulsion of the moneychangers from the Jewish temple. It’s a masterly episode, told in purely visual terms, with Jesus bending down and writing in the spilled temple salt (salt of the earth?) words that implicate the woman’s accusers with their own sins. No casting of stones here!
Later the Devil, dressed in black to Jesus’ all-white robe, offers him the kingdoms of the world if he would only fall down and worship him. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Christ intones, after repeatedly striking his chest. “It is written: ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord, thy God — and Him only shalt thou serve’.” The Devil beats a hasty retreat. The iconographic image that DeMille has conjured up recalls his early upbringing in the Presbyterian church, as well as the influence of art history (with reference to such figures as William Blake and Henry Fuseli). Note the Devil’s positioning vis-à-vis Christ, similar in many respects to painterly representations of Virgil guiding the poet Dante to the Inferno.
Sometimes Christ is not really seen at all (at least, not in full frontal view) but merely hinted at, as in Twentieth Century-Fox’s overly reverential The Robe (1953) or in M-G-M’s Ben-Hur (1959). In the former, the Messiah is voiced by actor Cameron Mitchell who forgives the populace for crucifying him, while the heavy-lidded Victor Mature as the slave Demetrius looks on in anguish; in the latter opus he’s performed by opera tenor Claude Heater. No singing was involved, although we do get a good look at Heater’s backside, along with his broken body during the dolorous Crucifixion sequence, thus giving credence to the film’s subtitle, A Tale of the Christ.
Switching to the top dog, God as the Burning Bush speaks to Moses (Charlton Heston) in respectfully hushed tones in DeMille’s spectacular Technicolor wide-screen remake of The Ten Commandments (1956). At the giving of said Commandments, His portentous voice booms forth loudly after reciting each of the ten rules for life and good. In the Burning Bush sequence, Heston provided the reverent voice of the Lord — slowed down, of course, to a somber snail’s pace. But in the later Commandments scene, the task of uttering God’s lines was handed over (so rumor tells us) to DeMille’s publicist and biographer, actor Donald Hayne.
While never fully substantiated or revealed at the time of the film’s release, DeMille felt he had plenty of justification for his use of Heston’s baritonal timbre by citing the Biblical passage where Moses insisted the Lord spoke to his mind. It would have scared Moses out of his headgear if he had been forced to listen to someone else’s voice (we now quote the classic Bill Cosby routine where Noah is called on by the Lord to build Him an ark: “Riiiiiiiight …. Who is this, really?”).
A Matter of Life and Death
In Terry Jones’ monstrously irreverent, politically incorrect feature Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), Death and its finality are represented by a rather fearsome, sickle-carrying Grim Reaper, interrupting a happy gathering of typically jolly British country types (“Hello Grim!”) as they become privy to the startling news that they will succumb to food poisoning that very night, and that this will be their last supper together.
The Swedish-born Max von Sydow reappears as a disillusioned medieval knight returned from the shock of the Crusades, playing chess opposite a black-cowled Bengt Ekerot as Death (the Devil, you say!) in the Oscar-winning drama The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman. The game is over at last when the knight deliberately knocks down one of the pieces, to which Death takes full advantage of. He comes to claim his prize as the knight is about to enjoy his own “last meal,” in a scene reminiscent of Monty Python.
Fifteen years later, Von Sydow stopped by the doorstep again to play the aged Catholic priest Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s 1972 supernatural classic The Exorcist, with Jason Miller as the sympathetic and troubled Father Damien (there’s that name again) Karras. Both are tempted by the demon (or devil or spirit, or what-have-you) that has buried itself deep inside the possessed twelve-year-old body of the girl Regan (Linda Blair).
In the exhausting exorcism scene towards the end, Father Merrin suffers a fatal heart attack. Taking over for the dead priest, Father Damien makes the ultimate sacrifice by offering himself to the demon, thereby rescuing Regan from the Evil One’s clutches.
Expanding his range of colorful film characters, Von Sydow was also the avuncular ferryman known as the Tracker in Vincent Ward’s surrealistic What Dreams May Come (1998). A New Age Charon for the Nineties, the Tracker paddles borderline delusional Robin Williams and charismatic Cuba Gooding Jr. (as his reincarnated son) over the gruesomely grisly Faces of the Damned (in other words, the River Styx in Greek mythology) in order to rescue Williams’ wife from perpetual purgatory.
(End of Part One – To be continued….)
Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes
Confession is Good for the Soul
Two priests — one young, one old — are in the midst of performing the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism in a suburban Georgetown home. The temperature in the room has gone down to 30 below zero Fahrenheit. As the priests repeat ad nauseam the ancient phrase, “The power of Christ compels you!”, they sprinkle holy water over the free-floating form of a twelve-year-old girl. But instead of healing her, the water makes deep gashes in the girl’s skin, as she continues to bellow and roar in anguish.
The shocking events that follow are all part of director William Friedkin’s two-hour fright-fest The Exorcist, one of the most chilling and suggestive examples of horror ever committed to celluloid. Written by novelist William Peter Blatty, who adapted his own 1971 bestseller for the screen and worked as one of the producers, the film begins, innocently enough, at an archeological site somewhere in Northern Iraq.
The elderly Father Lankester Merrin (a wrinkled up Max von Sydow in old-man makeup) suspects an old “enemy” has been let loose on the Earth in the form of an ancient relic — a powerful demon, to be exact. To his horror, Father Merrin realizes that sooner or later he will have to come to grips with this evil force, their final confrontation taking place in the climactic exorcism scene described above.
Back in Georgetown, a troubled younger priest named Father Damien Karras (a somber and dark visaged Jason Miller) is approached by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a desperate actress and single mother whose twelve-year-old daughter Regan (the fresh-faced Linda Blair) is experiencing, shall we say, dramatic physical and behavioral changes — an “extreme makeover” no child would want (and no mother could love).
Distressed and at the end of her rope — and far from being religiously inclined — Chris literally begs Father Karras to perform an exorcism on the girl, but Karras is not so easily convinced. To start with, the priest has doubts about his own faith, and worries if exorcism is the right path to take. After seeing Regan “in the flesh,” sort to speak, Karras decides to seek the Church’s advice and aid in combating the vile menace that’s taken over Chris’ little girl. That’s where Father Merrin comes in, the experienced exorcist of the title.
Demonic possession is the winner-take-all game — and the devil, or something claiming to be the devil, plays for keeps. Regan’s transformation from a cute and playful youngster into a projectile vomiting, filthy-tongued monstrosity (“Your mother sucks cocks in hell” is one of the film’s classic lines) serves as the special FX centerpiece to the drama, one of the scariest features we know.
Filmed on location at Georgetown University near Washington, D.C., and at Fordham University in the Bronx (where yours truly went to school!), the lead actors underwent unbelievable pain and suffering to produce this much heralded masterpiece of the shock genre. The book, while richer in detail and background information (it was on the New York Times Best Seller list for over a year), was appalling enough for readers; but the film version transcended the normal boundaries of the printed page to deliver a gut-wrenching punch to the solar plexus at every opportunity.
Yet its main strength remains the ironclad script, Blatty’s first serious success for the screen after early attempts with director Blake Edwards. He went on to direct The Exorcist III (1990) based on his book Legacy, but none of the subsequent sequels approached the original’s visual flair or dark, satanic tone. The story follows an inevitable arc that leads to the ultimate discovery of who the devil’s true victim is in the end. Kudos as well to director Billy Friedkin (The French Connection) for getting his cast to undergo almost as much physical torture and discomfort as their fictional counterparts.
The end result is gripping storytelling at its edge-of-the-seat finest. In addition to the superb technical aspects — by makeup man Dick Smith (Amadeus), and effects wizard Marcel Vercoutere — the sound plays an absolutely integral part in the overall production design, thanks to Robert Knudson and Christopher Newman (both Oscar Winners), and especially Mexican sound technician Gonzalo Gavira of El Topo fame.
Jason Miller, who was also a fine playwright (That Championship Season) as well as comedian Jackie Gleason’s son-in-law, proved a wise choice for the role of Damien Karras, a man burdened by guilt over the neglect of his elderly mother; while Max von Sydow, who was then in his early 40s, made an excellent elder exorcist. Their faith in the power of good is put to the supreme test in the all-important exorcism sequence.
Along with Burstyn and Blair, this quartet of key players brings a convincing presence to everyday individuals thrust into a maelstrom of horrific events few of us can cope with or ever imagine experiencing. Because of their utter believability, taking whatever was thrown at them in stride (they were locked up for days in an ice-cold room cooled by industrial-strength air conditioners), that exorcism episode retains its devastating power 40 years after the fact. Lives are lost, sacrifices are made — and good eventually triumphs over evil, but not in the way one would come to expect.
The fine supporting cast includes veteran Lee J. Cobb as kindly Lieutenant Kinderman (the subject of Exorcist III), Jack MacGowran (who died shortly after completing his part) as Burke Dennings, William O’Malley (an actual Jesuit priest, who served as technical adviser on the project) as Father Joe Dyer, and Rev. Tom Bermingham, another real-life priest, with Kitty Wynn, Vasiliki Maliaros, Titos Vandis, Peter Masterson, Barton Heyman, and Wallace Rooney. The electronically enhanced voice of the demon was mouthed by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge (albeit by ex post facto credit).
And, yes, that really was thick green-pea soup that Linda Blair sprayed all over Jason Miller’s face. The urban legend that audience members had fainted and thrown up in theater aisles at the time of the film’s release is based on documented fact. We dare you to see it with the lights out! Go on … do it …
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a devoted fan of science-fiction movies. I also happen to love fantasy and horror flicks. The good ones, that is – not the schlock that nowadays passes for quality.
A few years back, I decided to take this devotion a step further by compiling a list of my favorite (and not so favorite) features in each genre. Many of these films are in my personal collection; others I’ve been exposed to only in theaters or on TV. Still, I couldn’t wait to tell others how I felt about them; in other words, what I found fascinating and enlightening, dull and boring regarding, intriguing and diverting about each one. I needed to share my views with like-minded readers, to see if my thoughts made any sense.
Well, here are those thoughts, updated and in semi-alphabetical order (for the most part). If there’s a favorite film out there I haven’t accounted for, feel free to put in a plug for it. As Robert De Niro once said to a clueless Jonathan Pryce, in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil: “We’re all in this together, kid.”
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
We begin our list with Stanley Kubrick’s timeless visionary epic, a film that’s solemn and slow moving, stately and portentous to the ninth degree, but a bona fide sci-fi classic nonetheless. The elegance, serenity, majesty, and, above all, mystery of space travel are preserved here in all their widescreen splendor. Now tell me: has any sci-fi feature of the last 40 years been more fully realized on celluloid than Kubrick’s acclaimed masterpiece? The work that went into the final product is truly breathtaking. The story: highly evolved super-beings deposit their calling card on Earth (and on the Moon), in the form of a large, rectangular-shaped black monolith. With the object’s ability to implant suggestions into their brains, primitive man-apes are taught to use rudimentary weapons in order to gain dominance over their foes, as well as their harsh environment. The evolution of these man-apes into Homo sapiens leads to the next phase of development, with man literally branching out into new worlds — both physically and metaphysically — far beyond his own. But what does it all mean? The ambiguously written screenplay by director Kubrick and science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, after his short story “The Sentinel,” explores cosmic questions of the specie’s origins, its ultimate purpose, and inevitably, its fate. Keir Dullea is astronaut Dave Bowman, and Gary Lockwood his colleague Frank Poole, two of the dullest space travelers this side of Jupiter. It’s left to the HAL-9000 super-computer to supply the missing “human” element. With William Sylvester, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, and the flat, matter-of-fact speaking voice of Douglas Rain as HAL (no, it was not a takeoff on the acronym for IBM). Kubrick hired composer Alex North to do the background scoring, but went with a more eclectic, pre-recorded classical soundtrack instead (Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra and Johann Strauss, Jr.’s On the Beautiful Blue Danube, are among the orchestral delights) to serve as a commentary on the loneliness and mysticism of space exploration; he also trimmed his epic of about 20 minutes of redundant footage due to excess length. Despite the director’s penchant for authenticity, the scene of the scientists inspecting the monolith on the Moon drew criticism from, of all people, the original scenarist Clarke, who claimed the men were not bouncing around on the surface as they would normally be in life — so much for realia on the big screen. It’s on nearly everyone’s top-ten list of the best films ever made, and continues to exude a strong influence on modern movie-makers, to include Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and J.J. Abrams. Each successive generation finds new meaning in the work, and with reason. No matter how one feels about 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s still the ultimate trip worth taking.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Exemplary A & C comedy, with Universal Pictures reuniting several of its patented movie monsters for this engaging romp. Co-starring Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., Lenore Aubert, Glenn Strange, Jane Randolph, Charles Bradstreet, Frank Ferguson, and the voice of Vincent Price. The plot involves Chick Young (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur Gray (Lou Costello) finding Count Dracula (Lugosi) and the Frankenstein monster (Strange) alive and well and living (?) in the state of Florida. Dracula is about to revive the monster for his own fiendish purposes. He enlists the aid of sexy scientist Sandra Mornay (Aubert) as an all-too willing accomplice in his scheme. Their plan: to put Wilbur’s brain in the monster’s body (yikes!). Before this nightmare can take place, Wilbur is rescued by his pal Chick and the always-nervous Lawrence Talbot (Chaney), who chooses that inopportune moment to transform into the Wolf Man. Oh, and there’s also a surprise “visit” by the Invisible Man (Price) at the end. Riotous farce with great FX for the period, amid the studio-bound sets. The boys share a fine rapport with their guests — in particular Lugosi, who was nearing the end of his black-caped career. It’s hard to tell if his pasty-faced countenance was due to makeup or his debilitating drug habit (well documented in Tim Burton’s equally worthy Ed Wood). Appropriately eerie score by Frank Skinner, reused innumerable times for Universal’s subsequent monster pix. Abbott and Costello regulars Bobby Barber and Joe Kirk appear in small bits. Directed by Charles Barton, who oversaw many of the boys’ Hollywood forays. Keep your ear cocked for Lou’s flubbing of a line (“I’m telling you , Abbott” instead of “Chick”) as they look for Dracula in the cellar.
Rather loosely based on the hoary B-picture It! The Terror From Beyond Space, this outer-space horror show provides fine chest-bursting thrills and solid shock value for the buck — albeit in slow doses. It’s more than your average monster-on-board-a-spaceship epic: with its gleaming slickness, oozing drool, and, quite unexpectedly, acid for blood, the Alien takes on overtly sexual overtones. Penetration (in all its myriad forms) is taken to the ultimate extreme — but that’s the “point” of it. It’s what our unfriendly, neighborhood Alien represents: Ripley’s (and the crew’s) scariest and most nightmarish wet dream. There’s artistry afoot, though, with credit largely due director Ridley Scott for his fine sense of the subtle: few movie-makers of his stature (at the time) have used silence to such a tension-inducing degree. When the chills do come, they literally jump out at you. Swiss artist H.R. Giger’s horrific phallic symbol is so grotesque and so disgusting, it’s beautiful. The visual effects are by Carlo Rambaldi, who went on to work on the more benign E.T. The Extraterrestrial, and other features. The young Sigourney Weaver all but steals the show as Ripley (but do pull up those panties, dearie). Co-starring top-billed Tom Skerritt as Captain Dallas, Ian Holm as the secretive science officer Ash, with Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, and John Hurt as Kane. The nerve-tingling atmosphere and claustrophobic sets became famous in their own right as the “wet subway” look — a big plus, as is the gigantic spacecraft Nostromo (the name taken from a Joseph Conrad novel) and the voiceless computer Mother (shades of Norman Bates in Psycho). Kudos to Jonesy the cat for some purrfectly good scenes. The score is by Jerry Goldsmith, with an added dose of Howard Hanson towards the end. No need to tell readers how influential this film has been; it spawned a whole industry of alien-type splatter movies, and (to date) three sequels, three derivatives, and one prequel. Time has softened many of its original gross-out effects, but be warned: there are many violent and disturbing scenes for the impressionable among us – including those “twitchy” androids out there (and you know who you are!).
Oh my goodness! Instead of one horrific Alien to challenge the senses, now there’s a whole slew of them. This non-stop, slam-bang action-packed sequel is from director James Cameron (Terminator, Piranha II). It stars Sigourney Weaver repeating her Ripley role from Alien, along with new crew members Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton (hilarious), Carrie Henn, Jenette Goldstein, William Hope, and real-life drill instructor Al Matthews. One of the writers was noted action director Walter Hill, and the novice James Horner did the anvil-crunching score (with themes recycled from his earlier Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan). In this one, the Aliens not only become Ripley’s worst nightmare, they’re now every audience member’s as well. As one of the space grunts Hudson so casually observes, it’s a “bug hunt.” That it is, but what a bug they hunt! Many small details pay homage to war films, in general, and the Vietnam War experience in particular. Case in point: the little phrases written on the space marines’ hardware and helmets (“Fly the Friendly Skies,” for one). Ripley’s mechanized battle with the gigantic Alien Queen becomes an elemental struggle for survival between two mothers defending their brood. It looks forward to a similar showdown in Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and backward to the classic fight with the giant spider in Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. Not the best of the breed, by any means, but without a doubt the most pleasing to date. Followed by two inferior “sequels,” if that’s the proper term: Alien3 and Alien Resurrection.
Altered States (1980)
Eccentric genius or certifiable madman? That’s the question to be asked, in this faithful film version of Paddy Chayefsky’s science fiction novel, one of British director Ken Russell’s least scandalous screen adaptations of a literary work. The film’s biggest mystery, however, is why author Chayefksy had his name removed from the credits; it follows the outline of his book almost to the letter. Oh well, egos… William Hurt, in his smash screen debut, plays a research scientist who experiments with mind-altering drugs and isolation tanks, which transform him into a primal man-ape — sort of the evolutionary process in reverse. Blair Adams is his concerned spouse, while Bob Balaban (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and Charles Haid (Hill Street Blues) go at each other’s throats as their loudmouth friends. The final denouement is a bit of a letdown, but then again so was the novel’s. Superior FX and excellent Rick Baker makeup make this modern-day Jekyll & Hyde story a rare example of intelligent science-fiction blended with horror elements that works on an intellectual, if not exactly visceral level. It refuses to condescend to its audience, treating the subject with utmost seriousness. The atonal score is by John Corigliano, his first for the movies. He went on to do several more, including Revolution and The Red Violin. Not for all tastes, and definitely not for the kiddies (there are some steamy sex scenes to watch out for), but an absorbing film experience all the same. A must in widescreen color.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
Highly controversial since its premiere in the late seventies, Apocalypse Now is now considered a post-Vietnam War era classic. While not exactly that — Oliver Stone’s Platoon fits this bill better, we believe — there’s still no denying its intoxicating power and influence. It’s a downer of a movie, all right, yet it remains one of the most potent, dreamlike, and surreal war films ever made. Director Francis Ford Coppola literally went mad trying to keep it all together; the almost insurmountable problems he and his cast and crew encountered (and tried to overcome) while filming on location in the Philippines are vividly captured in wife Eleanor’s award-winning documentary of the shoot, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse. The story, rather loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s dense novella Heart of Darkness, concerns the search for renegade megalomaniac Army Colonel Walter Kurtz, who has set himself up as a deity somewhere in the Cambodian jungle. Tightly wound Special Forces Captain Benjamin Willard, played by the young Martin Sheen, is sent upriver to seek out and destroy the mad colonel, and thus put an end to his charade. Only, which is the worst charade: what Kurtz is attempting to do, or what the U.S. Army hopes to accomplish by killing him? The question is put forth and answered, somewhat. Many penetrating and harrowing moments throughout. There are so many great things in it (the Air Cavalry’s charge to the strains of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, the USO show in the middle of nowhere, the Do Lung Bridge sequence, the tiger “attack” in the dense wood), it’s almost a sin to bring up its myriad problems, the major one being the presence of an overweight (and unintelligible) Marlon Brando as the mysteriously cryptic Colonel Kurtz. Engulfed almost entirely in shadows, Brando’s rambling readings of his lines provoke more bewilderment than enlightenment. The other problem is the episodic nature of the plot. Still, there are some dynamic performances amid the chaos, especially from Sheen (who replaced Harvey Keitel, and had a near-fatal heart attack during mid-production), Robert Duvall as the surf-loving warmonger Colonel Kilgore, Dennis Hopper as the hyper-kinetic photojournalist, Frederic Forrest as Chef, young Laurence Fishburne (he was only fourteen) as Clean, Albert Hall as Chief, Joseph Bottoms as surfer dude Lance, and G.D. Spradlin and Harrison Ford in smaller roles. Coppola himself appears as the news reporter who tells Sheen to look away from the TV camera and go about his business while explosions resound all around him. Vittorio Storaro did the superb cinematography, and Walter Murch provided the enveloping soundscape — with a nod to Brazilian jazz percussionist Airto Moreira. Try to avoid the Redux version, which only pads the story unnecessarily. The original is the one to see.
Batman Forever (1995)
Val Kilmer took over the role of Gotham City’s brooding crime-fighter in this fairly successful if exceedingly loud third entry in the series. Here, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne explores the dark night of his own soul, as he dates a nubile shrink (luscious Nicole Kidman), while battling two new super-villains: the riotous Riddler, played to rubber-faced perfection by the ultra-kinetic Jim Carrey; and the repulsive Two-Face, given a slightly lower-octane performance by Tommy Lee Jones. There’s too little of him and more than enough of Carrey to go around. Superb production values and spectacular action sequences galore, all enthusiastically staged in excruciating slow-motion by new helmsman Joel Schumacher. The music, by Elliot Goldenthal, is in the style of Danny Elfman’s earlier scores for the first two films, but with a nocturnal life of its own. Also in the cast are the irreplaceable Michael Gough as dedicated manservant Alfred, Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon, and Chris O’Donnell as Robin, the Boy Wonder. He and Kilmer share an interesting boy-man relationship, with more than a hint of homoerotic overtones. (Hmm… check out the nipples on that bat costume, fellas!) This version is certainly better than the previous ones, but there’s something unsettling about a hero who comes off as darker, and gloomier, than the foes he’s pursuing.
Batman & Robin (1997)
With former ER regular (and gorgeous hunk) George Clooney as the third Batman, expectations ran high for the series. Unfortunately, it hit a brick wall with this over-complicated, over-produced effort, directed with sledgehammer subtlety by Joel Schumacher. Elliot Goldenthal wrote the thunderous music score. Where previously Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer played the Dark Knight as troubled and moody thirty-somethings (in that order), Clooney is a more mature, misty-eyed type, especially when fretting over the (supposedly) terminally-ill butler Alfred, played by straight-laced Michael Gough. Bruce Wayne’s relationship to Robin has become less crackling as well, though Chris O’Donnell is still winning in the part. He’s given a good deal of the grunt work in this version, along with Alicia Silverstone as a preppy California-style Batgirl. Dressed as a walking wedding cake and tossing off dry one-liners (“Niiiiiice”) at the drop of an icepick, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the villainous Mr. Freeze, who decides to wreak vengeance on the dynamic duo after the accidental death of his wife. He’s joined by the vampish Poison Ivy, languidly played by Uma Thurman in a raggedy Robin Hood outfit with leaves. Neither star can save this train wreck from the home-theater black hole, where it’ll probably serve as excellent surround-sound demo fodder. There are huge, ear-shattering explosions, but it’s all for naught. We learn more than we care to about Alfred’s early love life and precious little about anyone else. The whole thing is overlong by two-and-a-half hours. Former wrestler and ex-governor of Minnesota, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, appears in a bit part, if anyone’s interested…
Blade Runner (1982)
Stunning production design and exemplary art direction. That’s Blade Runner for you, a film that’s been influencing the look of science-fiction fantasy films — and those with apocalyptic impulses — for more than a generation, to include the likes of cyberpunk (The Matrix series), anime (Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Metropolis), and other forms of mass entertainment. The Warner’s Studio had a tough time figuring it all out, though. Initially, it marketed the feature as a combination murder mystery-cum-film noir detective story, with Harrison Ford’s monotonous voiceover as a perfunctory commentary on the action (or the lack of it). The redundant narration was later dropped, much to everyone’s relief, as were a few reshuffled scenes, for the re-released 1993 director’s cut. This is now the preferred way to see this mind-boggling sci-fi epic. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novella Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it’s set in a rain-drenched, futuristic Los Angeles in which, among other things, the denizens have adopted a newfangled street slang (anyone for Esperanto?). So-called “Replicants” from an off-world mining site have gone haywire (what else is new). They’ve returned to Earth to seek out their creator in order to prolong their shortened lives. For you see, they all have built-in four-year lifespans — and time is running out. Ford plays Rick Deckard, a kind of maverick bounty hunter who appears to be on the lam himself (he’s the Blade Runner of the title). But from what, we’re not exactly sure. He meets up with the Replicants, principally pleasure model Pris (a gymnastically inclined Daryl Hannah) and the philosophical Roy Batty (rugged Rutger Hauer). He then eliminates them. That’s the plot! Sean Young plays an android or clone (or something), with flavorful turns by William Sanderson, Joe Turkel as the thick-lensed creator, and Edward James Olmos, Joanna Cassidy, and Brion James. The highly regarded synthesizer score is by Greek New Age specialist Vangelis. Ridley Scott directed, and brilliantly, I might add. Needs repeat viewings to fully appreciate the incredible depth of detail that went into the making of it. The production was designed by Syd Mead, who also worked on Cameron’s Aliens and Disney’s Tron. Mesmerizing and hypnotic, to say the least. A highlight is Hauer’s poetic speech at the end, which succinctly summarizes his existential views of humanity. There are sly commentaries about who is more deserving of a chance at life, the Replicants or the humans, and what it is that makes us human. Overall, a fascinating, thought-provoking picture, with a well deserved cult following.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
The very conceit of inserting the name of its original author into the title might lead viewers to expect a more faithful rendering of this oft-filmed horror tale (which it is). Except that it, too, includes more than a few embellishments to Stoker’s Gothic romance (the prologue and battle with Moslem Turks for one, and Minna Harker’s attempted seduction of Van Helsing for another) that do not appear in the novel. No matter. English actor Gary Oldman is the long-lived, blood-sucking Count Dracula, here disguised as Romanian Prince Vlad. With his long hair parted down the middle, wistful expression, low-key delivery, and tinted blue eye-shades, he’s a dead ringer for Ozzy Osbourne! Anthony Hopkins is that old vampire slayer, Professor Van Helsing, playing him to the hysterical hilt as well as in a constant state of manic flux. Winona Ryder is Minna Harker, and she’s one of the best things in the picture. Her youthful radiance and dark good looks contrast markedly with that of her counterpart Lucy Westenra, played by sexy redhead Sadie Frost. Keanu Reeves strives mightily to maintain his British accent throughout, but manages only to imbue Jonathan Harker with a high degree of detachment, in addition to varying shades of hair color — an egregiously bogus performance. Another Brit, Richard E. Grant, is terrific (as always) in the smaller but no less showy part of Dr. Jack Seward, slightly expanded from the book. Bill Campbell is fine as the Texan Quincy Morris, as is Cary Elwes as Lucy’s betrothed, Lord Arthur Holmwood. Both characters are customarily eliminated in most versions of the story. Singer-actor Tom Waits plays an even loonier Mr. Renfield than Dwight Frye ever did: Waits takes the art of insect-eating to new heights (or depths, depending on one’s viewpoint), while longtime character actor Jay Robinson (The Robe) has a bit part as his boss. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who uses every conceivable film artifice imaginable to convey the story in purely cinematic terms. The screenplay is by James V. Hart. There are gorgeous color schemes and atmospheric set designs. It’s quite impressive, really — both aurally and visually — with excellent Foley effects, art direction, and costumes (by the late Eiko Ishioka). Hard to believe it was all filmed on a sound stage. The drama lacks thrust at key moments, and tends to drag a might before the wham-bam finale, done as a fast-paced horse chase. But the powerful, romantic score of Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, which alternates his orchestra with choral and percussive effects, aids immeasurably. Recommended, but with reservations.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977-80)
Together with Star Wars and Superman, this picture practically defined the term “blockbuster” at the box office in the late 1970s. Alien visitors are about to arrive on Earth. They advertise this fact by implanting sounds and images in the minds of everyday citizens of where they’ll be gathering (stop me if you’ve heard this before). We get to meet two of them up close and personal. They’re played by Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon, who typify your average middle-class folk dragged unwittingly into something a hell of a lot bigger than they (or we) could possibly imagine. This film brought all sorts of kudos to writer-director Steven Spielberg, who has never been satisfied with the end result. Spielberg was even compared to Stanley Kubrick for his visionary themes and technical precision (they later became fast friends, with Spielberg taking over the uncompleted A.I. Artificial Intelligence project from him). The compliments are somewhat exaggerated, but the film itself is quite impressive to look at. The brilliant FX are the work of Douglas Trumbull, who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey a decade earlier, and the cinematography is by Vilmos Szigmond. The DVD/Blu-ray Disc releases incorporate all existing versions of the film, as well as additional deleted scenes, to form a more complete “Special Edition” of one of the best science-fiction fantasies of recent times. It’s far from perfect, however. There are some discernible lapses in the story line, especially concerning the Dreyfuss character, and the dialogue borders on incoherence (the dinner table sequences are especially trying). The added scenes do help to bring a clearer narrative focus to the whole, but the parts are still a bit fuzzy. It’s as if Spielberg were reluctant to spend time on the more down-to-earth aspects while itching to get on to the big finish. And what a finish it is! The appearance of the alien mother ship still takes one’s breath away with its awesome grandeur. John Williams’ powerful score figures prominently here; indeed, the film owes much of its success to his instantly recognizable main theme, which incorporates the Disney tune, “When You Wish Upon A Star,” towards the end. Speaking of that ending, the “Special Edition” takes the viewer inside the mother ship, but in truth it’s more buildup than actual payoff. Others in the cast are Terri Garr as Dreyfuss’ harried wife, Bob Balaban as an interpreter, French director François Truffaut as Lacombe (an offbeat bit of casting that works — why not a foreigner in charge? After all, he’s alien, too), little Cary Guffey (Dreyfuss’ real-life nephew) as Barry, and J. Patrick McNamara as the Project Leader. There are small roles for future stars Carl Weathers and Lance Henriksen. It’s more a case of show over substance, but what substance there is is choice!
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Science fiction film noir, and one of the very best of its kind. An immediate movie classic, which, despite its Cold War origins, has not aged a single day since its premiere. An alien emissary from space comes to Earth bearing only goodwill. He also brings with him a dire warning, but his intentions are misunderstood by a paranoid society unwilling to listen or to compromise. Impatient with the usual authority figures, the gentlemanly alien Klaatu escapes his Washington, D.C., confinement to learn for himself what makes these mysterious Earth creatures tick. Michael Rennie is the cultivated (and veddy British) Klaatu. He’s joined by sympathetic office worker Patricia Neal as Helen Benson, Billy Gray (before his Father Knows Best period) as her inquisitive son Bobby, and soon-to-be popular sci-fi staple Hugh Marlowe (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) as Tom Stevens, who fingers the alien for capture by the U.S. Army (darn those pesky diamonds!). The film also features character actor Sam Jaffe (in a proto-Einstein hairdo) as the scholarly Professor Barnhardt, Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee in the Andy of Mayberry series), Olan Soulé, Carleton Young, Fay Roope, Freeman Luske, and real-life news personalities Drew Pearson and H.V. Kaltenborn. The role of the menacing robot Gort (a truly awesome creation) is played by seven-foot-four-inch Lock Martin, who was an usher at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He had to wear two different metallic costumes, one for the front view and one for the back, due to a conspicuous, non-photogenic zipper running down the length of each costume. Former movie editor Robert Wise directed in clinical, almost documentary-style fashion, while Bernard Herrmann provided the spare, minimalist score. His use of the theremin (two were featured on the soundtrack) gained widespread exposure for this exotic-sounding instrument. Keep alert to the many Christian and allegorical references spread throughout the script, i.e., Klaatu’s “resurrection” near the end, and his earthly alias (“Mr. Carpenter,” get it?). The original short story, “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates, was considerably altered for this movie adaptation. The basic plot line was semi-reworked as well for the 1999 animated feature The Iron Giant. Stay away from the Keanu Reeves remake, or face obliteration!
This long-awaited release of one of the seminal literary classics of science fiction gets a much-needed-yet-perplexing screen adaptation from director David Lynch. Even fans of Frank Herbert’s dense work were dismayed at the resultant mishmash of Middle Eastern philosophies, corporate greed, and sixties pro-environmental concerns. The plot revolves around the manufacture and exploitation of mélange, a kind of “spice” found only on the planet Arrakis (Iraq?), and much coveted throughout the universe for its miraculous “psychic” properties (mind expansion, outer space travel, good vibes, what-have-you). The film’s problem is the presence of too many underdeveloped characters and story lines in a two-hour-and-seventeen-minute time slot. It has little narrative clarity, with much of the dialogue spoken in endless onscreen voiceovers, a tiresome device more at home in the world of Shakespeare. Kenneth McMillan’s disgusting portrayal of the villainous Baron Harkonnen is a fierce presence throughout and spot-on casting, to boot, as is that of the young Kyle MacLachlan, in his movie debut, as the messianic Paul Atreides. The rest of the international cast, including Juergen Prochnow, Francesca Annis, Freddie Jones, Sian Phillips, Richard Jordan, and Max von Sydow, try mightily to overcome the pervasive dreariness of the surroundings, to little avail. Also left adrift are veterans Jose Ferrer and Dean Stockwell, newcomer Sean Young, Linda Hunt, and a pre-Next Generation Patrick Stewart as weapons master Gurney. As the Baron’s nefarious nephew Feyd, rock singer Sting has what amounts to a virtual walk-on (“I will kill him!”), but he’s top-billed all the same, a clear case of caveat emptor. The droning, moody background score is by American rock group Toto, with a brief assist from Brian Eno, who composed the Prophecy theme. Snore… The special effects are nothing to brag about and surprisingly sub-standard considering the funds that were poured into this mess. But at least the all-important giant worms are impressive. Indeed, the strangest effect of all comes from the weird apparition known as the Navigator, which resembles a free-floating epiglottis (I thought it looked more like a giant vagina, but that’s for my analyst to decide…). The film does retain a certain cult following. However, it’s hideous to look at and fairly incomprehensible to all but those intimately familiar with the novel. The DVD/Blu-ray editions feature an additional hour of footage used in the TV-showing of the story. It’s credited to the pseudonymous Allan Smithee. Good luck with that!
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Sensitive and scarred, the impressionable Edward (played by heartthrob Johnny Depp) is the scissor-handed Figaro for the laid-back California set (actually, Central Florida), in a beautifully crafted, sentimental, and mostly enjoyable film, despite some crude language and forced humor. It’s a modern parable of Tim Burton’s pet hang-ups of having grown up in middle-class suburbia. Depp has his best role ever as the misunderstood boy-monster, a walking textbook of physical deformities and psychological debilities, but with a cookie-cutter-shaped heart of gold. Winona Ryder is equally winning as his would-be girlfriend, the blonde cheerleader Jill. Dianne Wiest is wonderfully ditzy as the perky, never-say-die Avon lady, Alan Arkin is fine as the easygoing head of the household, and an all-but grown-up Anthony Michael Hall is cast (against type) as Ryder’s spoiled brat of a jock boyfriend. Cathy Baker (The Right Stuff) is a howl as Edward’s sex-starved next-door neighbor, who just adores Tom Jones, a recurring Burton motif (see Mars Attacks!). And horror-movie icon Vincent Price has a field day as Edward’s elderly inventor, who tries to teach him the finer points of table etiquette, while his half-formed hand twitches nervously nearby. In that, Edward’s a Quasimodo for the nineties, an atypical success story driven to fits of anger and violence by the very townspeople he earlier had befriended — fair-weather friends is more like it. It’s an allegory of our own equal fascination with, and fear of, anything different or abnormal. Danny Elfman’s lovely and evocative score, with celesta and boys choir in the foreground, is beautifully sung and played, a major factor in the movie’s long-term popularity and success. Worth comparing to Burton’s next opus, the Henry Selick-directed stop-motion feature The Nightmare Before Christmas, of which it shares a similar production design and art direction. It’s early Tim Burton at his emoting best.
The Exorcist (1973)
Two priests — one young, one old — are in the midst of performing the Roman Catholic rite of exorcism in a suburban Georgetown home. They repeat the phrase, “The power of Christ compels you!” ad nauseam, as they sprinkle holy water over the free-floating form of a twelve-year-old girl. The shocking events that follow are all part of director William Friedkin’s two-hour fright-fest The Exorcist, one of the most chilling examples of horror ever committed to film. Written by novelist William Peter Blatty, who adapted his own 1971 bestseller for the screen and worked as one of the producers, the movie begins, innocently enough, at an archeological site in Northern Iraq, where the elderly Father Lankester Merrin (a wizened Max von Sydow in makeup) suspects an old “enemy” has been let loose on the Earth in the form of an ancient relic. To his horror, Merrin realizes that sooner or later he will have to come to grips with this evil force, their final confrontation taking place in the climactic exorcism scene above. Back in Georgetown, a troubled priest named Father Damien Karras (a somber and dark visaged Jason Miller) is approached by Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn), a desperate actress and single mother whose daughter Regan (the fresh-faced Linda Blair) is experiencing, shall we say, dramatic physical and behavioral changes — an “extreme makeover” no child would want (and no mother could love). Chris begs the Father to perform an exorcism on the girl, but Karras has doubts about his own faith and worries if that’s the right thing to do. After seeing Regan “in the flesh,” he seeks the Church’s aid in combating the vile menace. That’s where Father Merrin comes in, the exorcist of the title. Demonic possession is the winner-take-all game here – and the devil plays for keeps. Regan’s transformation from a cute and playful youngster into a projectile vomiting, filthy-tongued monstrosity (“Your mother sucks cocks in hell”) serves as the special FX centerpiece to the drama. Filmed on location at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and at Fordham University in the Bronx, the lead actors underwent unbelievable pain and suffering to produce this masterpiece of the genre. Kudos to Mr. Friedkin (The French Connection) for getting his cast to undergo almost as much physical torture and discomfort as their fictional counterparts. The end result is gripping storytelling at its edge-of-the-seat finest. In addition to the superb technical aspects (by makeup man Dick Smith, and effects wizard Marcel Vercoutere), the sound plays an absolutely integral part in the overall production design, thanks to Gonzalo Gavira of El Topo fame. Featuring Lee J. Cobb as kindly Lieutenant Kinderman, Jack MacGowran as Burke Dennings, William O’Malley (an actual Jesuit priest, who served as technical adviser on the project) as Father Joe Dyer, and Rev. Tom Bermingham, another real-life priest, with Kitty Wynn, Titos Vandis, Peter Masterson, Barton Heyman, and Wallace Rooney. The electronically enhanced voice of the demon was mouthed by veteran actress Mercedes McCambridge. The urban legend that audience members had fainted and thrown up in theater aisles at the time of the film’s release is based on fact. We dare you to see it with the lights out! Go on!!!
Walt Disney set about making this animated cartoon-cum-concert feature as a bold, innovative experiment. Audiences and critics alike were somewhat baffled by it, however, and never able to grasp the work for what it was: a highly stylized (and unique) interpretation of popular concert set pieces. Some expected a Silly Symphony-style entertainment, what with the insertion of Disney’s most famous creation, Mickey Mouse, into Paul Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” along with those tutu-wearing hippos and dancing ostriches from “The Dance of the Hours” sequence; they were put off by the artsy-fartsy pretensions of it all. Highbrow sensibilities aside, it was a radical new departure from the usual studio-crafted frivolity. Well-known composer, music critic, and radio raconteur Deems Taylor was selected as the narrator-host for the conception. He comes across as stiff and standoffish, but this was probably due more to his nervousness and unfamiliarity with the film medium. Leopold Stokowski conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra, and was a wise choice for the project, since he was a pioneer in the advancement of recorded sound. He helped shape the “Philadelphia Sound,” and was already an internationally recognized personality when Disney recruited him for the musical portions of the program. The majestic profile and baton-less conducting style were his trademarks, as well as the imperious presence — all in evidence in the finished work. He was also credited (erroneously it turns out, according to Neal Gabler) with giving the film its unusual title (“It’s a fan-ta-sia”). His influence can be felt in the orchestrations, especially the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain” sequence, in addition to the tinkering on Ponchielli’s “The Dance of the Hours,” the Nutcracker Suite by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (completely rearranged), the Pastoral Symphony of Beethoven, and the Bach-Schubert “Ave Maria.” It all reflects Stokowski and Disney’s joint vision, and was a most fortuitous collaboration of these two titans of opposing media. That it all worked as well as it did is simply fantastic! Some of the animation sequences go beyond mere storytelling and straight into the realm of psychoanalysis (for example, the primeval battle of triceratops and tyrannosaurus in “Rite of Spring”; the dark demon Chernobog, modeled after Bela Lugosi, in the nightmarish “Night On Bald Mountain”). Only Pinocchio matches it in originality and insight. Indeed, nothing the studio did thereafter has ever approached it.
Fantasia 2000 (2000)
The inspiration of Walt Disney’s nephew and heir apparent, Roy E. Disney, was the guiding force behind this updated version of the animated concert film Fantasia from 1940. In place of famed conductor Leopold Stokowski, we have longtime Metropolitan Opera maestro James Levine leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He lacks Stokowski’s dramatic flair and onscreen flamboyance, but surpasses him in musical articulation. The recorded sound is spectacular and natural sounding in 6.1-channel Dolby Digital Surround. The perfunctory introductions (called “interstitials”) by hosts Levine, Steve Martin, Itzhak Perlman, Quincy Jones, Penn & Teller, James Earl Jones, Bette Midler, and Angela Lansbury, serve as natural pauses between the numbers, but distract more than they unite the disparate elements. The Mickey Mouse version of Dukas’ “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from the original has been kept. Although it’s a classic, and beautifully hand-drawn, its inclusion is a tad unsettling due to the differences between early and modern design techniques. It stands apart from the other sequences in both looks and sound — this is not a criticism, just an informed observation. Donald Duck finally gets a segment of his own, helping the biblical Noah populate the Ark, in Sir Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance Marches.” The other set pieces are well chosen and superbly done via computer-generated imaging and traditional line drawing. The film features the abstract expressionist Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, the surrealistic flying whales of Respighi’s “Pines of Rome,” the wonderfully interpolated Steadfast Tin Soldier story of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2, the delightful yo-yo playing flamingos of Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals,” the ecologically-influenced Firebird Suite of Igor Stravinsky, and the Al Hirschfeld-inspired “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence, marvelously drawn and perfectly executed. Whatever one’s opinion about highbrow entertainment, it’s a welcome return to form to what the studio does best — which is, to provide extraordinarily adventurous animation to the masses. The only complaint: it’s much too short.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Initially a formula-B programmer, this precursor to subsequent big-screen sci-fi opuses emerged as a prestige production at MGM — and is head-and-shoulders above the usual bug-eyed monster movie from the fifties. It influenced such works as diverse as Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien, Close Encounters, The Terminator, and many, many more. Based primarily on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, it combines elements of classical mythology, Freudian psychology, and the three laws of robotics, to form its story of brainy philologist Professor Morbius, stranded on planet Altair IV. Left to his own devices, Morbius harnesses the planet’s elementary force in order to set up a private domain for himself and his comely daughter. When an investigating intergalactic space patrol invades his pet aradise and attempts to take him back to Earth against his will, Morbius unleashes the planetary force in true mad scientist-gone-amok fashion. Disney special-effects artist Joshua Meador designed many of the animated sequences, and also drew the Id Monster. Two actors, Frankie Carpenter and former Little Tough Guy Frankie Darro, played the mechanical sprite Robby the Robot, whose voice is supplied by Marvin Miller of the TV-series The Millionaire. Prosaically directed by Fred McLeod Wilcox, it stars Walter Pidgeon as Morbius, Anne Francis as his daughter Altaira, Leslie Nielsen (in his serious-acting phase) as the dry Commander Adams, Warren Stevens as Doc, Jack Kelly as Lt. Farnum, Richard Anderson as Chief Quinn, Earl Holliman as the Cook, and James Drury as Strong. Forbidden Planet is frequently cited as one of the best examples of intelligent science fiction writing ever committed to film. It’s a little static in spots and some of the dialogue is a bit childish. Still, it’s a milestone in its use of a futuristic, non-orchestral score (called “electronic tonalities” in the opening credits) by novices Louis and Bebe Barron. Filmed in the ultra-CinemaScope widescreen process, the beautiful matte paintings, sets and cyclorama are a must in glorious Technicolor.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Extremely faithful (too faithful, perhaps) rendering of J.K Rowling’s wonderful children’s novel about the young wizard, Harry Potter, and the discovery of his new-found magical abilities. When he learns of his powers, he’s sent off to hone them at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Many memorable moments, including the congregation of owls scene at the Dursley’s, Hagrid’s door-busting entrance, the fog-enshrouded ride to Hogwart’s, the fabulous Quidditch match, the troll attack in the girl’s lavatory, and the encounter with the Dark Lord in the Forbidden Forest. For the adults, there’s outstanding acting by a veritable Who’s Who of Her Majesty’s supporting players, including Richard Harris as Professor Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as Minerva McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as Rubeus Hagrid, and Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, the snooty Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher. There’s even a cameo by that old scene-stealer, John Hurt, as Mr. Olivander, purveyor of fine wands since 362 B.C. For the kiddies, there are star-making turns by the young Daniel Radcliffe as Harry, Rupert Grint as his redheaded buddy Ron Weasley, and Emma Watson as the bookish Hermione Granger. A flavorful score by the veteran John Williams, destined to become a classic, is pure icing on this frothy concoction, directed in grand style by Chris Columbus. The same sensibility that gave us such literary classics as David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and, in particular, Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days (doesn’t Draco Malfoy remind you of the recalcitrant Flashman?) is at work here, and only deepens one’s admiration of, and appreciation for, Rowling’s genius for invention. Some scenes are a bit too intense for younger viewers, especially the entrance of the evil wizard Voldemort. Otherwise, this is fine family entertainment and very highly recommended.
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
In content and in style, it’s a rehash of J.K. Rowling’s first novel. In this second film adaptation of young Mr. Potter’s adventures at Hogwart’s School of Magic and Witchcraft, the Dickensian flavor and boarding school ethic are kept intact, as well as the dark tone of the original. Although far less suspenseful, it’s worth watching for the wonderful repartee of seasoned pros Kenneth Branagh as the foppish Professor Gilderoy Lockhart, and Jason Isaacs as the malevolently unctuous Lucius Malfoy. Isaacs is hardly in this one at all, but steals every second of screen time he’s in: he brilliantly underplays his part to superb effect, a terrific casting coup. Daniel Radcliffe, as the titular hero, has noticeably matured since his last outing, as has the aptly named Rupert Grint as best pal Ron; however, both have grown comfortably into their respective roles. Emma Watson as Hermione has far less to do this time around, but makes due of the reduced screen time quite nicely, thank you. Also providing delicious takes are the returning Richard Harris (in his last screen appearance) as Dumbledore, Maggie Smith as the sad-eyed Professor McGonagall, Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid, and Alan Rickman as the suspicious Professor Snape. The actor who plays the villainous Tom Riddle (and shall go nameless) is ineffectual, but blame the novel for that. His role is grievously underwritten. Some of the special effects are good, if far from original, especially Dobby the house-elf, the enchanted flying car, and the nighttime spider attack (not at all as scary as it ought ot be). Errol, the Weasley’s scatterbrained owl, is definitely a hoot, though. In all, a good sophomore effort by director Chris Columbus, but the novelty is wearing off, and it goes on for much too long.
Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles (1994)
Fans of Anne Rice’s Gothic romance were both pleased and perturbed with this cinematic version of her book, which stars four of Hollywood’s young hunks in differing roles: Brad Pitt as the melancholy Louis, Tom Cruise as his companion and nemesis Lestat, Christian Slater (in the part originally slated for River Phoenix before his untimely passing) as the Interviewer, and Antonio Banderas as the mysterious Armand, the Father of All Vampires. Twelve-year-old Kirsten Dunst all-but steals the show with her petulant portrayal of child-vampire Claudia. Her brazenly cold-blooded waif sends shivers down the spine. Stephen Rea is good as a theatrical fop, and the costumes and sets, especially the Grand Guignol Théâtre des Vampires and underground Parisian catacombs, are atmospheric and incandescent. The film is one long and supremely sad symphony of death, however, devoting a major portion of running time to what it’s like to live as one of the undead. For instance, the realist Lestat veers markedly from the comic to the sadistic in the blink of an eye. His counterpart, Louis, expresses remorse with self-loathing at what he has become, while the doll-like Claudia’s insatiable thirst for blood makes her the vilest and cruelest of the lot. One of the film’s themes is that of vampires playing house, a dysfunctional family threesome vying for a “normal” home life as they suck the life out of others. Despite many blood-soaked and stomach-churning scenes, including graphic neck bites and grisly rat-squeezing cocktails (slurp, slurp), Interview with the Vampire has an anemic story line that nearly drains the movie of life. The excellent score is by Elliot Goldenthal, a major contribution. The opening movement of mournful voices, with the viola da gamba on the soundtrack and a boy soprano intoning the Libera me (“Deliver me”) sets the mood of despondency and despair, harkening back to Bach and the Baroque era. It returns late in the picture after the horrifying demise of Claudia and her newly transformed “mother.” The cinematography is overwhelmingly dark and follows the prevailing brownish color pattern, a visual metaphor for decay. Stylishly directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), who brings a postmodern AIDS sensibility to the proceedings — an idea not at all present in Rice’s original work but fascinating all the same — the film became a box-office hit, despite the bleak story line and downbeat script.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
There was a time when producer-director Frank Capra’s bleak look into a dystopian middle-America was shunned by critics and audiences. After years of neglect, however, it eventually built up a solid following via frequent public television screenings. James Stewart is wonderful as Everyman George Bailey, stuck in a rut in small-town suburbia but forever longing to break out of its restrictive confines, only to discover that life is “wonderful” just as it is. Donna Reed adds a homey touch as his patient wife Mary, a warm-up for her later TV-outing in The Donna Reed Show. Every employee’s worst nightmare, curmudgeonly town banker Lionel Barrymore, is the perpetually scowling Scrooge-like Mr. Potter, who makes George’s life a living hell — or is it the other way around? Many memorable moments throughout, with fine performances from the large and colorful cast, including Henry Travers as befuddled angel second-class Clarence, H.B. Warner as the alcoholic druggist Mr. Gower, Beulah Bondi as George’s mom, Thomas Mitchell as absentminded Uncle Billy (“I’m all right, I’m aaaaaaaaalll right”), Gloria Grahame as the tarty Violet, Ward Bond as Bert, Frank Faylen as Ernie (!), and Samuel S. Hinds, Frank Albertson, Mary Treen, Lillian Randolph, Sheldon Leonard, Todd Karns, and others in supporting roles. Every part is perfectly cast, and there are numerous personal touches where one senses Capra slyly winking at his audience. Two tiny examples: the permanent look of disdain displayed by the manservant who pushes Potter’s wheelchair around; and the overly flirtatious exchanges between Violet and George. Endearing and heartwarming from beginning to end, it’s really a dark, noir-tinged nightmare of amazing acuity. George’s justly famous dream sequence near the end, where he imagines what life in his hometown would be like without him, has a staggering power to move, even after so many repeat viewings. The character’s slow descent into a bottomless pit, and his pained expression of dread at the horrible realization of what has transpired, are absolutely unforgettable. The film proved to be a test-run for Stewart’s strenuous work in such pictures as Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, Vertigo, and others. The spare score is by Dimitri Tiomkin. For once, the director has invested his film with more spice than nice, despite the cornball contrivances (for example, the opening scene in Heaven, and the all-too cheery finale). Essential viewing nonetheless.
King Kong (1933)
Known as the picture that saved a studio – RKO Radio Pictures Studio, to be exact – this granddaddy of all those big, bad stomping, monster-on-the-loose chomping fantasy epics is every bit the classic it’s cranked up to be. One of the greatest special effects extravaganzas of all time, King Kong did for New York what Godzilla would later do for Tokyo: that is, it immortalized a city, as well as almost single handedly destroyed it – in cinematic terms, of course. It also lifted Depression Era audiences to ecstatic heights. This box-office champion was the brainchild of two men, veteran movie-maker Merian C. Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack, both of who directed and produced the feature, based on an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace. For the stop-motion wizardry, Cooper turned to FX man Willis O’Brien (The Lost World), who in turn looked to model maker Marcel Delgado for the gorilla and dinosaur miniatures that figured so prominently throughout. Restless movie mogul Carl Denham (an overly enthusiastic Robert Armstrong) searches for the perfect angle for his next project. Upon meeting impoverished Ann Darrow (lovely Fay Wray, who bleached her dark hair blonde for the shoot), he impulsively decides to star her in his upcoming adventure flick. In the blink of an eye, we’re whisked away on a long sea voyage to… who knows where. Once our adventurers arrive on Skull Island, all hell breaks loose – quite literally, in fact – along with an enormous ape named Kong, dubbed by Denham “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” After knocking the giant gorilla out with gas bombs, the publicity-minded producer manages to ship Kong back to Broadway, where the monkey makes an unscheduled debut on the city’s streets and atop its tallest building. The sturdy cast is headed by Armstrong, who makes mincemeat out of his manic character. Wray is the all-time champion screamer, but don’t let that fool you — she is full of pluck and spunk to spare. Lantern-jawed Bruce Cabot is first mate Jack Driscoll, who falls in love with Ann after rescuing her from Kong’s monstrous clutches. Frank Reicher is the stern Captain Engelhorn, Sam Hardy the theatrical agent Weston, and James Flavin the second mate, with Victor Wong as Charley the Cook, Noble Johnson as the Native Chief, and Steve Clemento as the Witch Doctor. Look for cameos of Cooper and Schoedsack, who piloted the airplane that eventually brings the big guy down. Cooper was a World War I aviator who put his knowledge of flight to good use. He was also a pioneer in the three-strip Technicolor process. It would be a shame not to mention the powerful and highly influential movie score by Max Steiner, one Hollywood’s Golden Age best. No home should be without at least a DVD/Blu-ray disc copy of this superb film.
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Talk about a boy and his dog, this one’s a lame reworking of that familiar theme. In fact, it should have been re-titled Disney Goes to Hawaii via Social Services. In this case, the girl Lilo (voiced by Daveigh Chase), a lonely orphaned youngster with a sadistic streak — living in Hawaii and none-too-well cared for by older sister, Nani (Tia Carrere) — is in danger of being taken to a foster home by a humorless social worker. That night, Lilo “wishes upon a star” (sound familiar?) to bring her a plaything she can relate to. Suddenly, from deep space, comes what looks like a cross between a rag-eared koala with fangs and an irascible iguana. This creature, whom she calls Stitch, is one of the most unlikable and least cuddly critters the Disney artists have ever penciled. It’s totally lacking in charm, fuzziness or warmth. Programmed for destructive behavior (now there’s a modern twist for you), it’s not even kid-friendly, which, in view of the film’s target audience, sort of defeats the purpose, don’t you think? The humans show significantly more emotion than the norm for a Disney feature, as the plot drags on to its prefabricated conclusion, a pretty by-the-numbers chase sequence with the usual sappy resolution. Despite being beautifully hand-drawn, and with little computer-aided animation, the story never takes off either as family entertainment or as sci-fi fantasy. It’s far too serious for little tykes, with not enough fresh ideas to maintain our interest. The early scenes on a faraway planet with otherworldly aliens, including one that resembles an over-sized Charlie the Tuna, are colorful, and most of the voiceover work is eminently respectable. However, the usually dependable David Ogden Stiers is seriously hampered by an impenetrable Russian accent as Jumba, the alien-scientist who created Stitch. Ving Rhames is coolness personified as former CIA agent-turned-social worker Cobra Bubbles (don’t ask). Stitch is voiced by Christopher Sanders, Kevin McDonald is the one-eyed Earth expert Pleakley (shades of Mike Wazowski from Monsters, Inc.), Jason Scott Lee is Nani’s boyfriend David, and the ageless Zoe Caldwell does a guest shot as the Grand Councilwoman (or -thing). Very disappointing summer movie fare. Read a good book instead.
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s hugely popular trilogy about hobbits, orcs, wizards, elves, dwarves, and trolls, this first of three simultaneously filmed productions was lavishly lensed in New Zealand by fledgling kiwi director Peter Jackson. It took guts, money, and vision (not to mention nerve) to bring Tolkien’s rambling saga to the screen — and Jackson and his fellow co-writers, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, can be credited for having taken a brave first step with this outstanding entry. The plot revolves around the return of an all-powerful ring to Mount Doom where it was forged. Taking up this quest are a disparate group of nine intrepid travelers. The journey has been fleshed out in parts, and certain characters have been given greater prominence (Liv Tyler’s expanded part, for instance), or eliminated altogether (the much-lamented Tom Bombadil). Nevertheless, the plot is propelled forward by a multi-talented cast, including the statuesque Ian McKellan as Gandalf, owl-eyed Elijah Wood as Frodo (bearer of the One Ring), Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, and Cate Blanchett, rugged Viggo Mortenson, Sean Astin, Billy Boyd, Sean Bean, John Rhys-Davies, Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith of The Matrix series), the aforementioned Tyler, and the ever-effective Christopher Lee as the evil wizard Saruman. This was Lee’s second feature in a row, followed by his Count Dooku in Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Not bad for an octogenarian. There’s a literal cast of thousands, all good, in this grand screen entertainment. The excellent score, highly influenced by Richard Wagner’s mighty epic, The Ring of the Nibelung (a close cousin, story-wise), is by Canadian composer Howard Shore, with a little help from Enya at the end. Beautiful cinematography, stunning effects, and superb miniature work (all with the aid of the technical wizards at Weta Workshop), and a lovely evocation of Hobbiton by the set and costume designers, contribute to an exciting three hours plus (in the extended version, available on DVD and Blu-ray – highly recommended). It’s more robust and entertaining than Tolkien’s episodic novels were ever meant to be, but it’s still a bloody-good show. Three cheers for all (I’ll have a pint to go, please).
Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Monsters pop out of children’s closets, scaring them half to death in order to harness their screams into energy, thus powering the monsters’ modernistic city (how’s that for environmentally conscious?). Sounds like a great plot for a kid’s movie, right? And what a movie it is! The cartoon-friendly folks at Pixar Studios have developed this extraordinary idea into a delightful CGI feature about two friends at a giant corporation called Monsters, Inc., the big blue (IBM-pun intended) furry monster, James P. “Sully” Sullivan (voiced by John Goodman), and his ambitious one-eyed partner, Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal). The trouble begins when Sully inadvertently opens the wrong closet, and lets a little girl he calls Boo into the plant, who immediately makes her child-like presence felt. He and Mike spend the rest of the film trying to return Boo to her bedroom before the Monster Goon Squad hauls them away to be stripped and scrubbed. Exposure to little kids, you see, can be quite hazardous to the monsters’ health. Outrageous plot devices and snappy one-liners make this a fast-moving, heart-tugging tale for toughs and tykes of all ages. It drags slightly toward the end, but the endearing vocal and computer-animated performances of Goodman and Crystal, as well as Steve Buscemi as a (literally) slimy villain, and James Coburn as the head of the corporation, elevate it above the usual trite kiddie fare. The role of Roz is a riot, as are the “outtakes” at the end – a welcome Pixar add-on. While not as entertaining or as fresh as the Toy Story movies, it’s still a job well done by the Pixar crew. The big city-corporation idea bears comparison to Osmosis Jones.
The Mummy (1999)
Having nothing in particular to do with the classic Boris Karloff version from the 1930s, The Mummy is far superior technically to most films of the genre, but devoid of the requisite chills the story demands. It’s strictly tongue-in-cheek, played mostly for laughs. Many of the gags are more in the spirit of silly slapstick, or a Saturday-matinee kiddie caper, than a grisly horror tale — but that’s okay with us! The film stars Rachel Weisz as a bumbling British archeologist in search of the City of the Dead, John Hannah as her ne’er-do-well brother, and Brendan Fraser as a down-on-his-luck soldier of fortune. Kevin J. O’Connor plays the hapless servant Beni, Israeli actor Oded Fehr displays his matinee-idol looks as a defender of the dead, and Arnold Vosloo is the proto-wrestling incarnation of Imhotep. Also appearing is veteran character actor Bernard Fox as forlorn English pilot Winston (!), and Jonathan Hyde as a condescending Egyptologist. As an adventure yarn, it’s better than the misguided The Phantom of a few years back, or the underrated The Shadow, but not by much. Along with the latter, it shares an exotic score by Jerry Goldsmith, the resident dean of movie composers. Good computer graphics and miraculous transformations, however, do not a horror-movie make. There’s a feeling this whole show plays better at home, where the warm sunset colors and sweeping romantic vistas can be savored at one’s leisure. Still, there’s something likable, in a goofy sort of way, about the finished product, due primarily to the fine flair for fun shown by the energetic cast. The premise is suspect even in our cynical TV age, but don’t take it too seriously.
Osmosis Jones (2001)
A big vulgar, grown-up teenager movie, directed by the Farrelly brothers in the tradition of such barf classics as Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Animal House, but with a twist: part of the action takes place inside Bill Murray’s body. It’s this aspect, and the cartoon city within it, that’s most fascinating and winning. This marvelous animated metropolis is one long, continuous freeway, replete with its own arrival and departure port, speakeasy, mayor, press secretary, and single-cell police force. The animation is indeed original, colorful and imaginative. What’s missing is a truly engaging story to tie the ‘toons to their real-life counterparts: one longs for Jones and his cohorts to break out of Murray’s body and take the focus away from the obviously uncomfortable human actors. The voiceover work is commendable throughout, and features motor-mouth Chris Rock as Osmosis Jones, David Hyde Pierce as a cold tablet, William Shatner (lampooning his Captain Kirk persona) as the Mayor, Ron Howard as the opposition candidate, and a solemnly sinister Laurence Fishburne as the evil virus Thrax. Murray plays a more disgusting version of himself (now there’s an original thought), a slovenly Crocodile Hunter-type, who dearly loves his young daughter but fails to take proper care of his body’s hygienic needs. Chris Elliott plays his equally unkempt partner. It’s wicked in parts, more than a little gross at times, and blatantly predictable, too. Some truly hilarious scenes are interspersed with more mundane moments. While the film is not entirely a success, it can be recommended for older kids. Lots of crude noises and flatulence jokes galore for the easily offended (yours truly not among them).
The Right Stuff (1983)
Breaking the sound barrier, the dawn of the space race, and the Mercury Project, all rolled up into a solid, three-hour-plus Wild West road-show on rockets. The book by Tom Wolfe, on which the movie is based, is a detailed look into the early U.S. space program, starting with the story of maverick test pilot Chuck Yeager and the unsung heroes of jet flight, followed by the Mercury astronauts, their selection and training, and finally their individual voyages. The film pretty much follows the book’s outline. There are amazing recreations of the X-1’s solo flights seamlessly merged with actual newsreel footage of the historic launches. The inspiring music is by Bill Conti, with parts of Gustav Holst’s The Planets tossed in for good measure, and the outstanding photography is by Caleb Deschanel. Directed by Philip Kaufman (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Unbearable Lightness of Being) with real cowboy swagger and grit. The laconic delivery and matter-of-fact speech patterns of the protagonists are uncannily captured. Some critics see this as a Saturday Night Live sketch of the space race, with several important characters treated as buffoons. From all accounts, it really was like that. Wonderful sixties ambiance, uniquely and vividly portrayed. Note the flicking camera shutters every time the reporters appear. Should make a valuable companion piece to Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, which covers similar ground but in less satiric fashion. There’s a real reverence for space travel and the brave men, women and vision it took to conquer it. Themes we take for granted — loyalty, teamwork, the love and support of family, and doing what’s right in spite of insurmountable odds — are all present here in unforgettable vignettes. The entire film is movingly acted by a large ensemble cast that boasts Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Dennis Quaid, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Pamela Reed, Veronica Cartwright, Donald Moffat as Lyndon Johnson, Lance Henricksen, Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer in major and minor roles, along with the real-life Chuck Yeager as a barkeep. The narrator is the late Levon Helm, who plays Ridley and was The Band’s drummer for many years.
Perpetually gray rainfall, dark and dingy urban blight, neo-noir trappings, deranged human behavior, and insane delusional serial killings. These are just a few of the plot points covered in director David Fincher’s disturbing ode to Thomas Harris territory. In fact, it’s a shade less gruesome (by a nose, so to speak) than many an episode of The X-Files, but infinitely better written. A series of big city murders are being committed in which the killer follows the pattern of the seven deadly sins. He makes himself out to be the sole avenging angel of the gluttonous, the greedy, the lustful, the prideful, the slothful, the envious, and the wrathful. One thankfully never gets a real good look at the murders, but the way they’re handled and discussed — amid the overpoweringly murky images, the grainy camerawork, the disgusting trash-ridden sets and decor, and the prevailing feeling of oppression and hopelessness – are all given exemplary treatment by Fincher, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, and cinematographer Darius Khondji; the viewer has the eerie sensation that all is not well within this city. The surprise denouement is disturbing, but telegraphed slightly. Excellent work by Morgan Freeman, as veteran detective William Somerset (what, no Maugham?) on his last week before retirement, and cocky Brad Pitt as David Mills, the eager, hot-tempered rookie assigned to him. Pitt downplays his teen-idol tendencies to give us a real person behind the brashness, and Freeman’s total command of his poetry-spouting character provides keen insight into this tired, trapped old man. Gwyneth Paltrow appears as Pitt’s sweetly vulnerable wife, and R. Lee Ermey is Freeman’s boss. The mysterious killer (unbilled Kevin Spacey) only materializes at the end, but keep your eyes open, especially during the credits, as he appears throughout the drama in the least likely of places. Quite a mind bender, the film merits repeated viewings to decipher all of its carefully constructed clues. A winner, though not for the faint of heart.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds gets a modern makeover in this deliberately paced but more-than-effective suspense thriller from the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. One of its many virtues is the lack of elaborate special FX to distract viewers from the main story line. The plot involves mysterious crop circles found in Mel Gibson’s cornfield, but that’s only a cover: are enemy aliens really about to invade the Earth, or is it a form of mass hysteria? Director M. Night Shyamalan knows how to handle numerous tidbits of minutiae, piling on hint after hint in subtle and ingenious ways, until the viewer becomes unaware of the full extent of his manipulation. He also has a cameo in a key role as a neighbor harboring an uninvited house guest. Gibson plays a grieving, disillusioned ex-minister who needs a healthy dollop of faith to snap him back to reality after his wife is killed in a horrific traffic accident. He must learn to cope with the loss without his customary assurance and bravado. Gibson is filled with a coiled tension that manifests itself at key points in the drama, particularly during his son’s asthmatic attacks and in his family’s flight to the cellar. Joaquin Phoenix is particularly adept as his sad-sack brother Merrill, a former baseball pro who still knows how to swing a bat. The kids are wonderfully played by Rory Culkin (Macaulay’s little brother) and the adorable Abigail Breslin; the eerily subliminal film-score is by James Newton Howard, done as homage to the late master, Bernard Herrmann: there are noticeable traces of Psycho and Vertigo abounding in it. There are also numerous references to The Birds and other Hitchcock thrillers. A must-see for fans of the genre, despite a few protracted scenes. Stay with this one all the way, though, as you’ll be amply rewarded for the effort. It should play better on DVD and Blu-ray. Take the PG-13 rating seriously.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
A film that seeps into one’s subconscious at odd hours and times. Essentially, it’s a modern ghost story told in existential terms. Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (a laid-back Bruce Willis) tries desperately to help antisocial patient Cole Sear, a young boy with a most unusual problem: he sees dead people (no kidding!). Both learn their proper place in the world through a series of passive-emotional shrink sessions interspersed with ghostly visions. The film establishes its own ground rules, and wisely keeps to them. One of the few modern productions that’s as much a joy to see as it is to listen to, with many intelligent plot points to ponder. It’s cleverly written (one could say too clever by half) and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The sound design plays an integral part in the drama, as does the rich color scheme and gorgeous cinematography of Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs). James Newton Howard wrote the creepy musical score. Willis is superb as the child psychologist, and the talented Haley Joel Osment plays the boy, Cole. As actors, they have an amiable working relationship that gives their characters needed believability. The surprise ending will both shock and perplex, thus forcing you to go over the entire film from the beginning. Toni Collette plays Cole’s mom. Donnie Wahlberg (ex-New Kid on the Block) lost 40 pounds to play Willis’ crazed former patient, Vincent Grey. Glenn Fitzgerald is Cole’s teacher Stuttering Stanley, and Shyamalan appears unbilled role as a doctor (in honor of his parents, who are both physicians). An excellent effort by all concerned, and a big winner at the gate. See it, if you can, but not with small children: there are a few intense scenes scattered throughout.
Cult director Sam Raimi first tried his hand at a comic book superhero in 1990’s stylish Darkman. But the lead character’s tortured soul proved a bit too dark for movie audiences and Raimi’s own further examination. Stepping up to Marvel Comic’s classic action hero Spider-Man, he now gives us the back-story of the troubled teen web-swinger, first drawn in the mid-sixties by artist Stan Lee. Toby Maguire is just right as the geeky, would-be news photographer Peter Parker, who, when bitten by a genetically mutated spider, is transformed into the title character. He’s smitten with the lovely Mary Jane Watson, sensitively played by ravishingly red-haired Kirsten Dunst. Willem Dafoe is the nasty millionaire villain with a conscience, the Green Goblin; Rosemary Harris is Peter’s doting Aunt May, James Franco is his best friend Harry, and Cliff Robertson lends fine support as Spidey’s gentle Uncle Ben, whose tragic death is the main catalyst for our hero’s existence. High production values and state-of-the-art special effects, produced by veteran John Dykstra, add up to a satisfying big-screen adventure. It doesn’t receive a higher rating in my book due to two factors: one, the middling and somewhat derivative score by Danny Elfman, a big letdown after so many truly great ones for Raimi and Tim Burton; and two, the director has dipped his hand in this trough before with Darkman and The Evil Dead series. Raimi regular Bruce Campbell appears in a bit part as the ring announcer, and dearly departed pro wrestler Randy “Macho Man” Savage has an amusing cameo as the bone-crushing Bone Saw. The opening titles are imaginatively done in a style reminiscent of Saul Bass, a Hitchcock favorite. The bittersweet ending is true to its comic-book origins, and wraps up the story nicely – along with setting up the inevitable sequel. It could’ve been a rousing four-star chart buster; instead, it’s only a contender.
Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
After a hiatus of nearly sixteen years, producer-director George Lucas returned to his space-opera roots with this highly anticipated continuation of the story of Anakin Skywalker’s human origins. Was the wait worth it? Only die-hard fans will tell, for this version is long on plot but short on character development. When the computer-generated images become the main focal point – and real protagonists – of the convoluted plot, you know the series has been set adrift. Critics complained of the irritating nature of some of the characters, especially CGI-created Jar-Jar Binks, who comes across as a cacophonous Caribbean caricature. Personally, his computerized antics provide much-needed comic relief from the human torpor, chief among them the completely inept portrayal of little Anakin Skywalker by Jake Lloyd (Jingle All the Way). The young actor is totally out of his element, and seemingly incapable of displaying any emotion beyond pouting indifference. Blame for his performance in what is essentially the key role in the series should be placed squarely on Lucas’ shoulders: he’s abandoned the idea of directing people in lieu of interacting with pixels. He also forgot to create a real flesh-and-blood character for Lloyd to play. Amidst the over-abundance of special FX, some of which are truly spectacular (particularly the supersonic desert pod race), the other actors tend to flounder, especially the normally dependable Liam Neeson as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, Ewan McGregor as his young apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, Natalie Portman as Princess Amidala, Ian McDiarmid as Senator Palpatine (the future Lord Sidious), and Samuel L. Jackson, totally wasted as Mace Windu. A new CGI-drawn Yoda makes a brief and welcome appearance, but the highly touted villain Darth Maul, played by the athletic Ray Park (X-Men II) is weak, ineffectual, and completely lacking in true menace. The saving graces of this production are the marvelously flamboyant costumes (Trisha Biggar) and the outrageous hairdos, obviously inspired by Japanese Kabuki and Noh Theater; and the exceptionally rousing musical score by movie veteran John Williams, one of his recent best. Unfortunately, the film goes on too long, with enough subplots and over-complications for ten episodes let alone two more.
Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Much better (story-wise) than Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the second installment in the newly reinvigorated Star Wars saga is more interesting to watch, with movement and color in just about every frame. Indeed, the first 20 minutes or so are truly spectacular, but then the plot comes to a grinding halt as the forced romance between Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) and the post-pubescent Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is inevitably played out. Their onscreen relationship doesn’t ring true, and is treated as no more than a perfunctory plot twist. Viewers will be hard pressed to find any passion in their looks and embraces. The headstrong Anakin is just as irritating in Episode II as he was in Episode I; although he’s played by a much better actor, it’s still an ungratefully written part. The basic problem with the formula is that we already know, ahead of time, where this relationship is going and where these characters will end up; there’s no element of surprise to any of this. And the romantic music written by John Williams for Anakin and Amidala is just a warmed-over version of the Han Solo-Princess Leia theme, while the entire film score is a reworking of the best parts of The Phantom Menace, a major cop-out. Ewan McGregor continues to sound the right note as a continually maturing Obi-Wan Kenobi, who here displays his superior investigative skills. Whenever he’s on screen the film comes alive. Also featuring Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett, father to bounty hunter Boba Fett. There are more elaborate computer-generated images and special effects in this production than in any other in the series, including a very drawn-out (and derivative) battle sequence in a gladiatorial arena. But all this hardware is mind numbing. One longs for some relief from the noise and turmoil. Thank goodness it arrives, in the frail presence of Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) and the still athletic Christopher Lee as Count Dooku. Their climactic light saber duel is a highlight amid the awkward romantic lulls. Still, the Force is strong with this one: this effort is galaxies ahead of Episode I , despite the over-preponderance of plot. The dreaded Jar-Jar Binks has a walk-on in this sequel. Do I hear an “amen”?
Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
In a word, wow! Sci-fi auteur George Lucas completely redeemed himself, in this reviewer’s eyes, with this excellent third entry in the second Star Wars series (are you following me?). Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker, played once again by Hayden Christensen, finally turns to the dreaded Dark Side and emerges as Lord Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones), in what has to be the most satisfying of the three movies devoted to his origin story. Writer-director Lucas ties up all the loose ends – and winds up exactly at the point where Episode IV picks up – with an extraordinarily layered film that takes the saga to truly epic heights, a Greek tragedy with an unrelenting forward thrust so obviously lacking in his previous entries. All the emotional involvement that was so far missing is presented here in generous dollops. Natalie Portman shows welcome spunk as Padme Amidala, pregnant with Anakin’s twin children. As Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor emotes poignantly at the loss of his close friend and brother in arms Anakin, while Ian McDiarmid as the slimy Chancellor Palpatine (later the self-appointed Emperor of the Galactic Empire) seduces him to chilling effect in one of the series’ most remarkable scenes at the “space opera,” of all places, where Lucas and his daughter have a brief walk-on. The film both opens and closes in slam-bang fashion. The CGI-created General Grievous, a marvelous new bad guy (with a nagging tubercular cough, no less), lends excellent support, along with the returning Temuera Morrison as Commander Cody (a nod to the 1940s Rocket Man serial), Samuel L. Jackson as Mace Windu, and Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Jimmy Smits as Senator Organa, and the voice of Frank Oz as feisty Jedi Master Yoda. Anakin’s fiery finish was criticized for being ripped off from the finale to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, specifically the demise of Gollum at Mount Doom in Return of the King. Let’s hope Mr. Lucas decides to leave the series alone for now, and not try to tinker with it as he’s done with Episodes IV, V and VI. The stirring fanfare-like music of John Williams is preserved in all its stereophonic glory. Go grab a box of popcorn and enjoy, folks!
Best super hero movie ever? You betcha! And a benchmark for all subsequent features in that most challenging of fantasy genres, the super-hero action flick. In the manner of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2001),whose tag line was “With great power comes great responsibility,” young Clark Kent (Jeff East – excellent, by the way, despite that ill-fitting wig) spills his guts to his beloved, gray-haired old foster mother (a sympathetic Phyllis Thaxter) after the sudden death of his foster father (dependable Glenn Ford): “All those things I can do, all those powers… And I couldn’t even save him.” It’s a heartbreaking moment. But the words come back to haunt him when the now mature Clark (a beefed up Christopher Reeve), in his normal guise as Superman, confronts an even more personal loss. His dilemma is resolved in one of the many fantastic special FX sequences that permeate the drama – done the old-fashioned way, of course, with optical, photographic, and manual techniques, including miniatures, wires, cranes, matte paintings, composites, and the like – in what surely was a supreme challenge for director Richard Donner and his talented crew. What struck most viewers the most was the overwhelming sense of joy prevalent throughout the production, credit for which must go to Donner for keeping everyone’s spirits up in what proved to be a long and tedious shoot. Reeve became an overnight sensation, and an idol to millions of fans the world over, for his admirable – no, stupendous – acting assignment as both the Man of Steel and mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent. Margot Kidder is perfectly cast as The Daily Planet’s ace news hound, Lois Lane. Although it was rumored they clashed constantly over their respective roles, she and Reeve hit it off like brother and sister, so we’re told. Gene Hackman gets to show his comedic side with a hilarious take on evil genius Lex Luthor, while Valerie Perrine as buxom girlfriend Eve Teschmacher and Ned Beatty as the oafish Otis provide firm support. Jackie Cooper is tough-minded editor Perry White, with Marc McClure as cub reporter Jimmy Olsen. There’s even a cameo by real-life movie critic Rex Reed. Back on planet Krypton, portly Marlon Brando is a most impressive Jor-El (he should be, for what Warner Brothers paid him), as are (albeit briefly) his arch nemeses Terence Stamp, Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran, whose stories are told in Superman II (shot simultaneously, but released two years later). Mario Puzo wrote the original screenplay, doctored up by David and Leslie Newman, as well as Robert Benton. And who could forget that memorable John Williams score, from a composer who’s provided us with so many countless screen classics. There’s even a hit song, “Can You Read My Mind,” spoken in voiceover by Kidder during that incredible flying sequence with Supie. After almost four decades it’s still a tremendous piece of moviemaking. Our favorite episodes are the overlooked ones in Smallville: beautifully realized by East, Ford and Thaxter, they’re a nostalgic slice of bucolic middle-American life from a kinder, gentler, and more compassionate time. The expanded edition adds little to what is already a must-see for the whole family.
The Thing (From Another World) (1951)
Quintessential fifties sci-fi, eerily mirroring the Communist threat of that period and echoing the American response to it. The film is in Howard Hawk’s inimitable “chatty” style, i.e., overlapping dialogue with staccato delivery, although the direction is credited to his assistant, Christian Nyby. Hawks deigned only to produce it. A flying saucer is found frozen in the Arctic Polar Region. Alerted to its presence, a salvage team of research scientists and military men head out to intercept it. They accidentally destroy the ship, only to find the alien passenger onboard is still very much alive (when thawed out, that is). The film provides a fair amount of suspense, but it’s too timid in its execution to furnish more than casual thrills. Certainly the Frankenstein-monster getup for the invader is a major faux pas. The Thing, played by James Arness in his salad days, is nowhere near as frightening or repugnant as it ought to be, considering the source material (John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There?”) and how it’s described on the screen. The camaraderie and forced bravado of the military men, along with their testosterone-driven tendencies toward combating the creature, are, quite naturally, understandable, in view of the times in which the film was made: science takes a back seat to sheer bluster and Yankee gung-ho ingenuity. The great ensemble cast features many familiar faces, among them Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, Dewey Martin, Robert Cornthwaite, George Fenneman, John Dierkes, Paul Frees, and Douglas Spencer, whose final call to “Keep watching the skies” is a none-too-subtle alert against future Red menaces. The theremin-based film score is by Dimitri Tiomkin. It’s not the classic some critics have made it out to be, but like Puccini’s opera Tosca, it’s a “shabby little shocker” that still packs a wallop.
The Thing (1982)
With Alien having rejuvenated the vogue for chest-bursting monsters and outer-space horror flicks, director John Carpenter undertook to remake the old fifties staple The Thing – this time with modern cinematic elements. Carpenter returns to the original idea of a shape-shifting being suggested by sci-fi writer John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There?” It told a tale of paranoia and loss of identity, but was written in the late 1930s, long before the threat of Communism and invaders from Mars would bug us out. While faithful to the original work “in theory,” and possessing top-notch special FX by the talented team of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston, the film is so enamored of gore and viscera it forgets to keep its mind on the main plot. The element of fear and suspicion is present throughout, but there’s so little insight into the characters that they serve as mere backdrops for the real showcase: the creature that erupts all over the screen is without a doubt the vilest, most repulsive-looking Thing imaginable. It reminds one of a giant Venus flytrap. After a while, though, it even starts to take on the comic mannerisms of Audrey II, the “mean green mother from outer space,” in the musical The Little Shop of Horrors, which robs it of its ferocity. The story takes place at an Antarctic research facility, where American scientists are investigating the strange deaths at a nearby Norwegian installation. Before long, the Thing they bring back gets loose and starts to take over the minds (and bodies) of the individual researchers. The rugged, all-male cast is headed by Kurt Russell at his swaggering best, Wilford Brimley sans the walrus mustache, and Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, Keith David, David Clennon, and others. Gut-wrenching scenes, along with a classic, pulsating electronic score by Ennio Morricone, are the pluses. The final confrontation leaves it up to the viewer whether this Thing has been vanquished or not. Strictly for lovers of elaborate effects. The Howard Hawks film was much more fun than this deadly-straight edition. Be warned: do not, by any means, let your kids see this alone (heck, I wouldn’t see it alone, either).
Real-life superheroes don’t really exist, but it sure would be nice if they did – and this film charts the thought-provoking possibilities of such an event actually occurring. Director M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to his surprise hit The Sixth Sense is an ode to the world of comic-book lore. He’s one of the few filmmakers out there who can afford to take his time in telling a good story, while giving us plenty of food for thought along the way. The low-key approach he brings to the subject is much appreciated and clearly in the style of his earlier success. The film has its longeurs but is nonetheless well made. We learn there can be no “good” in this world without the coexistence of “evil,” and that what we perceive as the status quo is often not what it seems, as the search for one’s rightful place in it can turn into a lifelong, often-times fruitless endeavor. The acting is splendid, especially by Bruce Willis as security guard David Dunn, Samuel L. Jackson (whose coiffure was modeled after that of abolitionist Frederick Douglass) as Elijah Price, Charlayne Woodard as his concerned mom, Spencer Treat Clark (Gladiator) as Willis’ hero worshipping son, and Robin Penn Wright as Willis’ wife. The score is by James Newton Howard, and the muted cinematography is by Eduardo Serra. The physical look of the production closely resembles the panels of an actual comic book, and offers a unique perspective on comic-book art and its recent manifestations on the big screen. It predates the current trend in superhero action spectacles (X-Men, Spider-Man, Watchmen, Iron Man and their ilk), while treating the story with a childlike innocence and reverence for its existential viewpoint. A fascinating concept, though not totally convincing. Give the director (who also wrote the screenplay) high marks for trying. He even has a bit part as a suspicious-looking sports fan.
Vanilla Sky (2001)
It’s déjà vu all over again – or is it – in this confounding film of psychobabble starring Tom Cruise (War of the Worlds) and his heartthrob of the moment, Penélope Cruz. Tom Terrific plays an egotistical publishing heir who’s involved in a life-altering traffic accident. Director Cameron Crowe and his main man teamed up again after the successful Jerry Maguire, to deliver an ambitious remake of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes (Abre Los Ojos). But the plot of this new version is much too dense to fully satisfy, and the film meanders precariously over frequently tread Hitchcock territory. The final revelation is a distinct letdown. It’s all too puzzling to be totally enjoyable (or plausible, for that matter), despite the stellar cinematography and wintry atmosphere. This type of thing was done better in countless other pictures, including Total Recall, Dark City, and the sterling early works of M. Night Shyamalan. Penélope Cruz, who co-starred in the original, is just plain awful. She’s like that tacky tie your uncle gave you for Christmas: you can’t wait to put her away once Tom’s out of the picture. The principal pleasure of this flawed production, however, is the dazzling, spitfire performance by Cameron Diaz as Cruise’s bitterly rejected former lover. She pulls out all the stops in this one, and enthralls the viewer with her sizzling onscreen presence. With the exception of Diaz, the other actors, i.e., Kurt Russell as a sympathetic (but aren’t they all?) shrink, Jason Lee as Tom’s buddy, and the androgynous Tilda Swinton, contribute little, given that it’s Cruise’s show all the way. He’s very good in it, though, sort of a warm-up for his role in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, which is a much better picture. The film just can’t make up its mind whether it’s social commentary, a murder thriller, or a good old-fashioned science-fiction yarn. It has a couple of steamy bedroom scenes and some fairly frank dialogue.
The most languid and least dialogue-driven film the great master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock ever directed, but also his most compelling. As the title suggests, Vertigo has an evocative visual pallet, with a fascinating opening title sequence designed by the great Saul Bass, along with a wonderful orchestral score of Wagnerian proportions (and pretensions) by veteran film composer Bernard Herrmann. On the whole, it’s a moral about unattainable obsessions, with an intensely driven, passionately felt performance by the unlikely James Stewart, as private detective Scotty; the gorgeous Kim Novak in a dual role as the women he “loves”; and Barbara Bel Geddes as Stewart’s wise-cracking, plain-Jane girlfriend Midge. Tom Helmore plays the suave and sophisticated Gavin Elster. A mesmerizing screen experience: you either love it or loathe it, but you can’t take your eyes off it. It’s more of an interesting movie experiment in the Hitchcock canon than a total success. It reflects the director’s skewed viewpoint vis-à-vis people’s interpersonal relationships and where they can ultimately lead to; and, as a result, is his most personal filmed statement. It did influence many future productions, and continues to gain a strong foothold on filmmakers’ imaginations to this day. The British magazine Sight & Sound recently hailed Vertigo as one of the best films ever made, toppling Citizen Kane from its lofty pedestal. Hypnotic, to say the least, it boasts one of Jimmy Stewart’s finest celluloid excursions ever. It was the last work he did for Hitch.
This endearing throwback to the Saturday-afternoon matinee crowd runs both hot and cold, story-wise. It concerns a little person named Willow Ulfgood, whose sole desire in life is to become a great wizard to compensate for his small stature. True to adventure films of this type, Willow gets his wish but in completely unexpected fashion. The wonderful Warwick Davis performance in the all-important title part is what carries this picture along, in addition to a totally infectious and completely natural ones by the twin girls (Kate and Ruth Greenfield) who play the redheaded little baby princess, Elora. Davis had previously been Wicket, one of the Ewoks in Star Wars — Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. His success in that feature earned him a shot as the lead in this action-oriented, samurai-saga wannabe, directed by Ron Howard. Howard has much more of a flair for large-scale productions of this type, and a better working relationship with his actors, than the visionary George Lucas, who handled the producing chores here. There’s an equally strong lineup of future aspirants, beginning with Val Kilmer and Joanne Walley, who later became a short-lived husband and wife team, and older established players Jean Marsh, Frances Sternhagen and Billy Barty. James Horner composed the rousing music-score with an abundance of classical connotations, especially from Felix Mendelssohn. Observant viewers should catch the many references (and striking similarities) to the Star Wars plot, in addition to recycled Germanic and Norse legends and the later film-work of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (Kagemusha — The Shadow Warrior, Ran), clearly a Lucas influence and afterthought. Although squarely aimed at the kiddy market, parents are strongly cautioned, as there are some scenes deemed too intense for young children. ☼
Copyright (c) 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes