This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Tall Guy (1989)

"Great! Two people...on their the middle of the afternoon...and not tired."
"Ideal circumstances for Scabble."
-Kate Lemmon & Dexter King

Jeff Goldblum has played many interesting roles during his career. Probably his most famous are the scientists he played in The Fly (1986) and Jurassic Park (1993). In between those two classics, though, Goldblum portrayed the title character/narrator of this British romantic comedy.
He plays an American actor named Dexter King, who has made a living for himself in England playing second banana to acclaimed but egotistical stage actor Ron Anderson (Rowan Atkinson). In addition to having a boss who loves only himself (and shouts down anyone who so much as talks without his permission), Dexter has an unsuccessful track record when it comes to romance. The only person he can vent to is his nymphomaniac landlady, Carmen (Geraldine James).
One day, Dexter contracts hay fever and, upon going to the doctor, instantly falls for a nurse named Kate Lemmon (Emma Thompson). This prompts him to ignore his fear of getting shots so he can talk to her. After some initial shyness, he finally asks Kate out, & she accepts.
Their first time sleeping together is probably the funniest sex scene ever filmed as the couple roll around so much, they knock many things in Kate's room down onto them. Their fun also leads to Dexter missing out on one of his scheduled evening shows, which, in turn, gives Ron a reason to fire him. By this point, though, Dexter's new positive outlook prompts him and Kate to simply retaliate by painting a mustache on Ron's picture which hangs outside his theater.
Dexter eventually finds work again by playing the lead in a musical version of The Elephant Man, which is simply titled Elephant! During production, though, he jeopardizes his relationship with Kate when he succumbs to the advances of a married costar, who says she's been a fan of his from his work with Ron.
Kate's best moment is when she puts the pieces together of this little get-together on the musical's opening night. Her clues are simply the way Dexter and the other woman react to each other, rather than the usual comedy cliches of finding a love letter or seeing an incriminating picture. With that, Kate promptly leaves him, sending Dexter back into his depressed state even though he now has a degree of artistic respectability under his belt.
His depression turns to anger, however, when, on the eve of another performance, Dexter sees on TV that Ron is dating Kate. He implusively leaves before the curtain rises and goes to confront Ron in another funny scene. Needless to say, Dexter & Kate make up soon afterward.
This was the first filmed screenplay written by Richard Curtis, who would later gain fame as the writer of such comedy classics as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999), and Bridget Jones's Diary (2001).
Although the ending was basically inevitable, the movie has plenty of funny moments. Goldblum is perfect in the lead and displays sweet chemistry with Thompson, who made this film shortly before becoming a star (& an Oscar winner) with Howard's End (1992). Atkinson is also appropriately unlikable in what is basically a 'straight man' role for him, far from his character Bean (coincidentally, Curtis wrote the script for the 1997 Bean movie, as well).

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

-Lt. Zachary Garber

As unfortunate as this sounds, if anyone knows about this film today, it's only because of the surprisingly dull remake it received in 2009. The original, though, has everything the remake desperately lacks: genuine thrills, interesting characters, a script that remains faithful to the John Godey novel of the same name, & plot twists that don't make the viewer ask "WTF?" The only thing the remake had for it was the star power of Denzel Washington & John Travolta in the leads, which is why it was quite surprising that that film proved as lousy an idea as the remakes to The Omen (2006) or The Fog (2005). Like The Wild Geese (1978), this is a film that really couldn't be made in the same way today because a good amount of the running time is set establishing characters and settings before any shocks come at the viewer. Lt. Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) is with the NYC Transit Police, which looks after the city's subway system. His day starts out on an unenviable note when he's assigned to give a tour to members of the Japanese transit authority, whom Garber mistakenly assumes don't understand English. That's when the title train is suddenly hijacked by four armed men. These men identify themselves with code names, specifically names of colors. The leader of the quartet is the crafty Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw). His confederates are former train engineer Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), the obiedient Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman), and the trigger-happy former Mafia hit man, Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo). Once they disconnect the head car from the rest of the train, they announce their demands to the command center: $1 million is to be delivered to them in one hour, or one hostage a minute dies. Garber and Blue then spend much of the film's screen time bantering with each other as the former tries to squeeze as much time out as possible to save the hostages. What makes this film interesting, though, is that both men spend almost as much time contending with the difficulty of their own people. Garber has to deal with the indifference of control room operator Frank Correll (Dick O'Neill), while Blue's patience is tested by Grey's insubordination (which Blue satisfactorily resolves at the film's climax). Eventually, Grey and Brown are killed before Blue and Garber briefly meet face-to-face after Blue is about to kill one of his hostages who was, in fact, an undercover policeman. This single scene with Matthau & Shaw shows two great pros at work, as does the final scene when Garber tracks down Green. Another plus to the film is David Shire's musical score, which sets up the excitement from the title sequence on, much like Keith Emerson's music for Nighthawks (1981). What's even worse than the remake, though, was the this film's director, Joseph Sargent, despite great credits such as this film as his first, Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), has become known in recent years as the director of the dreadful Jaws: The Revenge (1987).

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Without a Clue (1988)

"Moriarity knows I'm the only match for his evil genius."
"Are you sure he's not trying to kill me?"
"Of course not! He knows you're an idiot."
"Thank God!"
-Dr. John Watson & Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic character Sherlock Holmes has had many cinematic adaptations to his name practically since the beginning of the cinema. One of the most famous adaptations were the ones made by Universal in the 1940s with Basil Rathbone as Holmes, although, curiously, only the first of these (1939's The Hound of the Baskervilles) was an offical adaptation of a Conan Doyle Holmes story while the rest had more contemporary settings (Rathbone's Holmes battles Nazis, for one thing), similar to the recent series Sherlock which also has the great detective and his aide, Dr. John Watson, in a modern-day setting.
Other memorable Holmes adaptations include Hammer Films' take on Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) in which Peter Cushing played Holmes and was the first Holmes movie in color. Sadly, Hammer's plans for more Holmes adaptations fell through. The 2009 Sherlock Holmes was also memorable with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law making a surprisingly good team as Holmes and Watson. There were even episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation devoted to Holmes.
Hands down, though, the best of the Holmes adaptations was the British television series starring Jeremy Brett as the detective. This series, which ran from 1984 to 1994, was a big hit across the world and is the closest to the spirit of Conan Doyle's series. It was during the run of this series that Without a Clue was released. Like the Brett series, this took place at the latter half of the 19th Century. This film, however, was a comedy with a unique twist: Holmes was merely a figurehead and Watson was the one who really solved the crimes behind the scenes.
As the good doctor (Ben Kingsley) explains to his editor (Peter Cook), he helped an investigator solve a murder some years ago, but gave credit to a fictitious detective because Watson was aspiring for a job at a prestigious university and feared that crime-solving on the side would diminish his chances of obtaining such a position. As it turns out, Watson didn't get the job but did get an audience wanting to know more about Holmes. To that end, he hires an actor named Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine) to play Holmes, who basically takes all the credit for the detective work Watson does and writes down for the Strand Magazine. To the public, including the jealous Scotland Yard inspector Lastrade (Jeffrey Jones), Holmes is the best detective in the world and Watson is just backup.
When the film opens, though, Watson begins to be wary of "Holmes" due to the latter's excessive ego, which is matched by his excessive womanizing, gambling, and drinking. Watson, at one point, kicks him out of his Baker Street flat, but basically comes crawling back to him when Lastrade informs him that the government wants Holmes to solve a mystery threatening the British Empire's economy.
The mystery involves the disappearance of a treasury employee and the trail eventually leads them to Prof. Moriarity (Paul Freeman), who knows that Watson is the real genius while Holmes is a moron.
When they attempt to capture him, Watson is seemingly killed, which eventually prompts "Holmes" to solve the case on his own.
Caine and Kingsley are a wonderful match and many of the film's laughs come from them. Holmes fans may even view Watson's apparent death as a case of art imitating art as Holmes apparently died in The Final Problem only for public pressure to force Conan Doyle to resurrect him in The Empty House (although The Hound of the Baskervilles was published in between those two stories). The film also reflects the love/hate relationship Conan Doyle had with his creation. For years, he wanted to wash his hands of Holmes and be known for other work, just as Watson wants to be rid of Holmes and be known as "John Watson- The Crime Doctor." In both cases, though, public demand just wouldn't allow it. Rumor has it that Conan Doyle was knighted only after he promised the King he would resurrect Holmes.
While some may not be surprised at the outcome of Watson's apparent demise or the involvement of femme fatale Leslie Giles (Lysette Anthony), this is a delightful, ambitious take on a classic literary figure which simply came at the wrong time.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974)

"This is God's blade, forged for your black heart."
-Captain Kronos, vampire hunter

Hammer Studios revolutionized the horror genre in the 1950s and 60s the same way Disney revolutionized animation in the 1930s and 40s. However, by the 1970s, the studio was in financial straits due, in part, to rival studios putting out more revolutionary movies. The studio would be completely disbanded by the end of the decade. Many Hammer films during that time were simply routine followups or knockoffs of their classic Dracula and Frankenstein films. One exception to that was Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter, which is a simple but exciting tale about, obviously, a vampire hunter who inhabits the same sort of 'long time ago...' setting as Christopher Lee's Count (although the film never specifies when it takes place). The title character, played by Horst Janson, is a former military man who now roams the countryside hunting the undead. He is called upon by his former comrade-in-arms Dr. Marcus (John Carson) to investigate the death of a young woman, who has been drained both of her blood and her youthful looks. With his faithful assistant Prof. Grost (John Cater), Kronos heads off to a nearby village were other women have met similar fates after they were approached by an unknown, cloaked figure. En route, the pair gain an ally in a beautiful gypsy girl named Carla (Caroline Munro), who becomes romantically involved with Kronos. He eventually tells her that the vampiric deaths of his mother and sister were the catalysts for his penchant for hunting vampires. Eventually, the trio track down the vampire responsible for the current deaths; one Lord Durward (William Hobbs) at his lush castle. In the film's exciting climax, Kronos and Durward duel to the death. Kronos, while not exactly enchanting, is still an easy-to-side-with protagonist, and Janson's performance is a large part of this film's appeal. The moment in which he and Grost attempt to kill Marcus (at his own behest) before the vampire bite he received turns him into a vampire is both humorous and whince-inducing. In addition, the Kronos/Carla romance is quite sweet, basically because it isn't played out in the same predictable and arbitrary way that other romances in films (thrillers or otherwise) are. Hammer had hoped that this would be the first in a new film series for them. Sadly, the company's financial problems led to limited distribution for this film, which, in turn, decreased the chances of seeing Kronos in future installments. But, while To the Devil...A Daughter (1976) may have been the last Hammer film, I'm calling Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter the last GREAT Hammer film.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Nighthawks (1981)

"You'll go to a better life."
-Heymer Reinhardt, aka Wulfgar

As I'm sure most people already know, Sylvester Stallone went from completely unknown to world-famous practically overnight thanks to the film Rocky (1976), the simple but uplifting story of a down-on-his-luck boxer who gets a shot at the big time. Stallone not only played the title role but wrote the script. In fact, every studio in Hollywood offered him generous money for it. Stallone eventually agreed to sell it to MGM on the condition that he could play the title role. This was a bold move as all the studios were hoping for a big name star in the lead, but an unknown like Stallone was more fitting because it added to the feel-good nature of the film, as his struggles reflected those of Rocky Balboa. With his new-found stardom, Stallone starred and even directed films which, to be blunt, sucked. Both F.I.S.T. (1978) and Paradise Alley (1979) left much to be desired and, one could say, represented an omen of things to come (more on that shortly). It was all but a given that the inevitable Rocky II (1979) would meet with inevitable (financial) success. Otherwise, Stallone wouldn't have another role that matched the success of Rocky until 1982 with the drama First Blood. With that movie, his character, Vietnam veteran John Rambo, entered the consciousness of filmgoers to the same extent that Rocky Balboa had. Just before First Blood, however, came Nighthawks, an exciting police drama in which Stallone plays unorthodox NYC detective Deke DaSilva who, with his partner Matt Fox (Billy Dee Williams), is enlisted by Interpol to track down international terrorist Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer), who has made his way to the Big Apple after his recent act (his first scene in the film has him bombing a department store in London) leads to his description being fed to authorities across Europe. With the assistance of his associate Shakka Holland (Persis Khambatta), Wulfgar undergoes plastic surgery in Paris (& promptly kills the surgeon afterward to avoid possible disclosure) before heading across the Atlantic. The film really gets going the moment DaSilva first lays eyes on Wulfgar in a nightclub, where the latter had previously befriended a single woman in order to obtain a hiding place for his weaponry. He later kills the unfortuately lady in question when she stumbles onto his hardware. As with other films, this one is made more exciting by its musical score. From the title sequence to the film's conclusion involving DaSilva's ex-wife (Lindsay Wagner), Keith Emerson's score sets the stage for the intensity to come. This would be as well-known a gem as Rocky and First Blood had real life not intervened on the eve of its release. On March 30, 1981 (the film was released in April), John Hinckley, Jr. attempted to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan. Although the President recovered and Hinckley was sentenced to life imprisonment, Universal Studios (which distributed Nighthawks) became nervous and elected not to give the film much promotion. Hence, this film never had the chance to be as embraced, let alone have followups, as Rocky and Rambo did (although given how each of their subsequent followups became more and more ridiculous, maybe that was for the best). Stallone continued to be financially successful, but his ventures outside the boxing ring or the war zone brought simply pans from the critics to the point were he was later declared the worst actor of the century in some circles. I must confess, I viewed him in this manner for a time as well, but if you remove the dreadful comedies from his filmography-such as Rhinestone (1984) and Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot (1992)-and even some of his other action pictures-like Cobra (1986) and Over the Top (1987)-and focus on memorable flicks such as Nighthawks, Cliffhanger (1993), and Cop Land (1997), you begin to realize that Stallone has talent. It's simply talent that, more often than not, finds itself in the wrong picture.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Wild Geese (1978)

"Do I have to ask how it went?"


"I thought not."

-Lt. Shawn Fynn & Col. Allen Faulkner

Most films which involve a group of (usually) men embarking on a do-or-die mission just cut right to the chase in terms of action. When I first saw this film, I was surprised not only at how much time is devoted to planning the mission, but at how much this film keeps the viewer's interest despite the fact that there are no explosions.

The film involves a British mercenary, one Col. Allen Faulkner (Richard Burton), who is recruited by renowed banker Sir Edward Matheson (Stewart Granger) to infiltrate central Africa to rescue African president Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona) from the dictator who recently overthrew him.

Faulkner agrees on the condition that he can recruit his two top aides for the mission: Capt. Rafer Janders (Richard Harris), a tactician who is now a single father, and Lt. Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore), a pilot and confirmed bachelor.

After some persuasion, Janders agrees, but problems arise with Fynn after he murders the nephew of the local mafia boss for having him transport heroin which resulted in the death of a young girl. This particularly brutal moment leads to a contract on Fynn which Matheson is later able to lift so Faulkner can recruit him.

The film is basically halfway over when the trio recruit other men including South African nationalist Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger), who is familiar with the uncharted, hostile territory the men will be traveling through. Not long after the men find Limbani, they realize they've been set up when Matheson's behind-the-scenes talks with the government leads to the men's getaway plane abandoning them.

The team eventually manage to find other transportation away from the hostiles, but not before several of them, including Janders, Zimbani, and Coetzee, are killed.

This leads to the satisfying epilogue in which Faulkner confronts & then kills Matheson.

As I noted before, the film is basically half over before the mission actually begins. Hence, it would be tough for this film to be made (at least in the same way) today. Indeed, what makes this film good isn't the action but the nice cast. Moore, at the time, was riding high in his acting career as he had just starred in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), the third and, for many (including me), the best, of Sir Roger's Bond outings. This film also gave Burton's career a nice shot in the arm as his previous film was the dreadful Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).

Another plus is the nice message of racial brotherhood the film presents. The Coetzee/Zimbani scenes nicely evolve from racial hatred to respect as the film progresses.

This film was successful in several countries. It wasn't in the US, though, because the movie's distributor, Allied Artists, had finanically collapsed by the time of the film's release. Hence, it received limited American distribution.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Peeping Tom (1960)

"Imagine...someone coming towards you...who wants to kill you...regardless of the consequences."
-Mark Lewis

As I noted in my review of The Beguiled, Play Misty for Me was an ahead-of-its-time thriller which may have an entry on this blog were it not for the fact that its star and then-novice director, Clint Eastwood, hadn't already become a world-famous actor. But Misty was overshadowed in its year of release by a more famous but equally potent thriller, Dirty Harry. The irony here, of course, is that Eastwood also starred in that film, which remains, arguably, his most famous. Nonetheless, the fact that he starred in two thrillers and a period piece which stretched his acting muscles and fulfilled his lifelong dream of directing all in the same year ensured that westerns were just one genre Clint excelled at.

In his book Clint: A Retrospective, Richard Schickel notes in his review of Misty that, in the years since the film's release, audiences just kept rediscovering it, especially when the overrated Fatal Attraction (1987) lifted elements from it.

However, that would not be the case for Peeping Tom, a film which, like Misty, was ahead of its time and overshadowed by another thriller in its year of release. In this case, the 'other' thriller was Psycho. Both films were quite controversial upon their releases, with Tom being released three months before the Hitchcock film. One major difference, though, is that Hitchcock was already world famous by the time he made Psycho. Hence, all the controversy which surrounded his film ended up simply enhancing his career and made Psycho the template by which all movies involving psychopaths-and even some that don't, such as Jaws (1975)-have since been judged. Tom, however, was directed by one Michael Powell, who, while having a few strong films, such as The Red Shoes (1948), under his belt by 1960, didn't have the name recognition of Hitchcock. As a result, his movie was all but lost and, while Clint would go on to win two Oscars for directing, Powell would have great difficulty finding work for some time after Tom's release.

The title character is Mark Lewis (Carl Boehm), a photographer and aspiring filmmaker. His specialty is photographing lovely women, which, as the film progresses, becomes a dangerous obsession when he begins murdering his subjects with a knife on one of the tripod legs of his camera. Like Norman Bates, Lewis is a shy man who befriends a kind woman. In Lewis's case, it's his neighbor Helen (Anna Massey). Lewis reveals to Helen that, as a child, his father (a renowned psychologist) would subject him to experiments designed to test the human nervous system, while his father recorded the reactions. Lewis also tells her that he's making a documentary and, eventually, she sees his handiwork on film, which details the murders he's commited. However, Helen's more fortunate than the other women Lewis has come across when the police arrive just as she's about to become the latest victim. Lewis then commits suicide with his own tripod knife and the camera running on him.

Other connections to Hitchcock in this film include the film's title sequence, which is reminiscent of the one in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). In a way, Hitchcock returned the favor when, upon seeing the controversial reaction to Tom, elected not to have a press screening for Psycho.

Roger Ebert probably said it best in his review of this film when he noted that the film makes us voyeurs in that we sit and watch their lives unfold, making Tom similar to Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). Powell takes it in a different direction here, though, by having the director of Lewis's films, Lewis himself, actually killing the people in his films and recording their reactions, which is what horror directors basically do, although their 'victims' are assured a return trip.

While this disturbing film never got the acclaim Psycho did, it was saved from obscurity in 1978 when Martin Scorsese agreed to put up the money to give the film a wider release. Interestingly, when Powell died in 1990, he was married to Thelma Schoonmaker, who is known for her wonderful film editing of many of Scorsese's films.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The Terminal (2004)

"Are you coming or going?"
"I don't know. Both."
-Amelia Warren and Viktor Navorski.

By the turn of the millenium, Steven Spielberg's clout had risen to the point where, like Alfred Hitchcock before him, he had become the true star of his films, regardless of who was acting in them. Filmmaker Jamie Stuart once wrote: "Like Stanley Kubrick, (Spielberg's) imprint is felt in multiple genres and time periods." Indeed, like Kubrick, Spielberg has left memorable marks in diverse film genres: horror, science fiction, war, period pieces, and comedy.

Spielberg's first film which could be classified as the latter was the great-looking, well-cast, but laugh-free 1941 (1979). His next attempt proved more successful with Catch Me If You Can (2002), a wonderful (and, at times, sexy) film in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a con artist being pursued by an FBI agent, played by Tom Hanks, who previously worked with Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan (1998). What made Catch Me a classic was that it had laughs but also an emotional core at its center. Although DiCaprio's character forges checks to live the good life, he is instantly likable and sympathetic. The relationship which forms between his character and Hanks's gives the film a unique twist.

Spielberg's next film was The Terminal, which reunited him with Hanks. Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a native of the fictitious country Krahkozia, who is traveling to the US. Upon landing at the JFK airport, he learns of the coup which occurred in his native land while he was in the air and, while his family is fine, his passport has now been rendered obsolete. Hence, he is unable to leave the airport to go to any country (including the US) until the political red tape is cleared up. Although scared at first, Viktor eventually takes it upon himself to treat the airport like his own home, including making money by doing odd jobs such as maintenance. This leads to friendships with the airport staff, one of which, the caterer Enrique (Diego Luna), enlists Viktor's aid in helping him win the heart of security officer Dolores (Zoe Saldana).

Viktor, likewise, develops romantic feelings for beautiful but emotionally troubled airline stewardess Amelia Warren (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who has an unfortunate penchant for being involved with married men. Viktor making the airport his own slowly but surely gets on the nerves of its director Frank Dixon (Stanley Tucci), who makes several attempts to remove him. One such attempt is by depriving him of making money for food, but Enrique gives him a hand there. A later attempt involves attempts to deport Viktor (once the crisis in Krahkozia has been resolved) out of spite, but another employee Rajan (Kumar Pallana, who gets most of the funny lines in this film) stops those plans by literally running in front of the plane meant for Viktor.

If the film has a flaw it's the slow pace it seems to adapt once Viktor is told that he can leave the airport. While he may want to see where he stands with Amelia by that point, I would think he'd at least want to make an international phone call or two to his native land to talk to his family. One thing I've always liked about this movie is the relationship between Viktor and Amelia, which is sweet but doesn't end with them getting married, as other, more predicable comedies would do. Viktor is unhappy that she is continuing her relationship with a married official but the smile they exchange in their final scene is nice. I've always hated it when people accuse Spielberg of being too sentimental and this sub-plot proves that he can do something different on a dramatic level. Hanks and Zeta-Jones are as charming as ever.

To me, Hanks and Spielberg are as great an actor/director combination as Kubrick and Peter Sellers or Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. It is also amusing how Dolores is revealed to spend her spare time at Star Trek conventions. I've always wondered if Saldana's role in this film was a factor in casting her as Uhura in Star Trek (2009). Hands down, though, the best part of this film is the terminal of the title. The non-CGI set was the work of set designer Alex McDowell, who did the believable science fiction sets for Spielberg's Minority Report (2002), and it's as wonderfully detailed and eye-popping as, say, Blofeld's volcano in You Only Live Twice (1967) and the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980). Why none of those films won, or were even nominated, for the Oscar for art direction, I'll never know.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Horror Express (1972)

"Are you telling me that an ape that lived 2 million years ago got out of that crate, killed the baggage man and put him in there? Then locked everything up neat and tidy and got away?"

"Yes, I am! It's alive! It must be!"

-Doctor Wells and Sir Alexander Saxton

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing did numerous films together. Although their most famous teamings were with Hammer films, they also did a number of non-Hammer movies. Indeed, their first teaming was in Laurence Oliver's Hamlet (1948), although they shared no scenes together.

As Hammer began its slow decline in the 1970s, Lee and Cushing were still in demand, mostly in the horror field. One film which proved memorable was this Spanish production. Interestingly, Lee, Cushing, and their co-star Telly Savalas were the only ones on the production who spoke English.

Lee plays Sir Alexander Saxton, a respected anthropologist who, in 1906 China, heads back to Europe on the Trans-Siberian Express with his latest find: the frozen remains of a primitive humanoid creature.

He is joined on the train by his nosy colleague/competitor Dr. Wells (Cushing) and his sarcastic aide Miss Jones (Alice Reinhart). Wells attempts to see what Saxton has unearthed by bribing the baggage man into taking a look inside the crate the find is in. Not long afterward, the baggage man is found dead in the crate and the relic is nowhere to be found.

Wells and Saxton put their differences aside in order to locate the creature, which they assume has been thawed out and on a rampage. These suspicions prove correct when it kills several men who work for the train's security officer, Inspector Mirov (Julio Pena).

A unique twist is when Saxton and Wells inspect the baggage man's body and realize that the creature kills people by essentially draining their minds, causing the victims' eyes to become completely white, as if they were boiled and their brains to become "smooth as a baby's bottom," as Miss Jones puts it. This leads the protagonists to theorize that the creature is, in fact, an extraterrestrial who first arrived on our planet in prehistoric times.

The creature eventually takes over the body of Mirov after he seemingly guns it down. This enables the creature to kill the Siberian authorities led by one Captain Kazan (Savalas) when the train makes a stop once news of the murders is wired to them.

With more and more victims to its name, the creature is ultimately able to resurrect them all as zombies before Wells, Saxton, and a few others manage to destroy them all by separating themselves from the bulk of the train as it plummets down a cliff.

Lee and Cushing are as charismatic a team as ever here and the 'body taken over' motif and the fact that the creature is not a prehistoric man but an extra-terrestrial who arrived on earth many centuries ago no doubt inspired the direction John Carpenter took his great version of The Thing (1982).

I also liked the theme music by John Cacavas, which is whistled over the main title sequence and by several of the characters during the course of the film.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Wish Upon a Star (1996)

"Me? I'm Alexia. Alexia Wheaton."

-Hayley Wheaton.

I don't know exactly which was the first movie involving two people who find they now inhabit different bodies, but the first one I remember seeing is Freaky Friday (1977), a delightful Disney comedy in which Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster play a mother & daughter who don't see eye to eye but learn to love and appreciate each other more when, one Friday the 13th, they simultaneously wish each was the other-and get their wish. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that it got remade in 2003, but the only saving grace of that version was Jamie Lee Curtis's funny work as the mother (I always thought it was cool that Clarice Starling was the daughter in the original and Laurie Strode was the mom in the remake).

Although Friday may not have been the first film of its type (heck, the final episode of the original Star Trek series has Kirk swapping bodies with one of his former flames as part of her plot to command the Enterprise), it seems to have become the most influential as most other films since with a simliar theme have used the device for comedy; the best of the lot being the wonderful Tom Hanks comedy Big (1988). A unique variation on this theme, though, was Face-Off (1997), a jolting, exciting thriller in which John Travolta is a detective who switches places with his son's murderer, played by Nicholas Cage.

Wish Upon a Star, which premiered on the Disney channel (back when there was only one), takes the comedic route. Alexia Wheaton (Katherine Heigl) is the self-absorbed reigning beauty queen of her high school. She's more concerned with her looks than her studies. Her younger sister Hayley (Danielle Harris) is her opposite. She's a shy girl who's moving up in the academic world.

One night, Hayley sees a shooting star and, observing Alexia with her boyfriend Kyle (Don Jeffcoat), whom Hayley secretly loves, makes a wish that she was Alexia.

Perhaps the film's funniest scene is when both girls wake up the next morning and scream upon viewing each other in the bathroom. It doesn't take long, though, before Hayley views this as a chance to get close to Kyle and experience the glamor of her sister's life, while Alexia hates being in what she calls "this measley, little body" and unsuccessfully attempts to get the wish reversed.

When Alexia discovers that Hayley experienced her first kiss with Kyle, she attempts to get even the next day by dressing provocatively at school, to which Hayley retailates by making out with Kyle in front of the whole student body.

Their behavior shocks both their psychologist parents (Scott Wilkinson and Mary Parker Williams) and their stern principal (and former policewoman) Miss Mittermiller (Lois Chiles), who promptly disciplines them. This prompts the sisters to stop their feud and actually remain in the other's bodies a little longer in order for Hayley to improve Alexia's grades and Alexia to help Hayley in matters of romance, specifically with their shy neighbor, Simon (Matt Barker).

This film is certainly not perfect. Alexia reveals that she broke up with Kyle the night before the body switch but he seems a bit too willing to take her back. Likewise, when the sisters return to their original bodies, I always wondered why it occurred immediately after their wish when the inital switch took overnight.

However, this is still a sweet film, mainly because the two lead actresses are clearly having fun. Heigl and Harris are both engaging. This was before Heigl became a big star (which eventually segued into her playing the same character in the same kind of romantic comedy over and over again). Its most touching moment occurs when Alexia reveals their switch was made possible due to her wishing she was Hayley,because of her sister's clear focus of where she was heading, at the same time Hayley made her wish.

Although their parents may leave a bit to be desired in the parenting department (they decide to adapt a hands-off approach to parenting after the switch occurs), it's easy to like both Alexia and Hayley Wheaton.

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

"Rex, do you believe in evil?"

"As an idea."

"Do you believe in the power of darkness?"

"As a superstition."

"Now there you wrong. The power of darkness is more than just a superstition. It is a living force which can be tapped at any given moment of the night!"

-Duc de Richleau and Rex van Ryn

Great Britain's Hammer Film Studios gained fame in the 1950s with its adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula, specifically by becoming the first to make films of those tales in color. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) was the studio's first hit, becoming to the studio what "Steamboat Willie" became to Disney in that it gave the studio the cachet needed to develop other projects. The next film, Horror of Dracula (1958), was an even bigger hit. Both films starred Peter Cushing (as Dr. Frankenstein in the former and Van Helsing in the latter) and Christopher Lee (who played the Monster and Dracula), both of whom became the most famous of all the talented people associated with Hammer.

By the late 1960s, the studio was still going strong and Lee was urging its executives to make an adaptation of at least one of the books written by his friend Dennis Wheatley. However, the content of Wheatley's books (inspired by real-life black magic cults) made the Hammer executives nervous as they believed censorship in England wouldn't permit such a book to be filmed. Eventually, the studio capitulated and the result was this film.

Unlike many of his other films, Lee is, for once, on the side of good here. He plays Duc de Richleau, a respected aristocrat who learns that his friend Simon Aron (Patrick Mower) has become involved in black magic cult. With his knowledge of the occult and the aid of his friend Rex van Ryn (Leon Greene), de Richleau attempts to rescue Aron before his soul is claimed by the cult's leader, the mysterious Mocata (Charles Gray).

The film's best moments occur when Mocata attempts to thwart the duo's efforts. This leads to the climax in the home of their friends, the Eatons, where they must endure a night of black magic attacks before they finally emerge triumphant.

As with Horror, a major factor to this film's effectiveness is music of James Bernard. It's as powerful as the more famous musical scores for Suspiria (1977) and Halloween (1978).

Hammer adapted another of Wheatley's books eight years later with To the Devil...A Daughter (1976), also starring Lee, only this time as a merciless priest who is in league with (who else?) the Devil. This film is watchable (and even gained some notoriety for the nudity displayed by Lee's co-star, a teenage and then-unknown Natassja Kinski), but the climax is unbelievably hokey. Unlike Rides Out, which received praise from many religious groups and Wheatley himself, Daughter proved less than memorable save for the fact that it became the last horror film from Hammer. The studio, by the end of the 1970s, was dissolved due to business factors as well as the current state of the horror field, which saw competitors putting out classics such as The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Jaws (1975), while Hammer seemed content with simply churning out sequels to their Dracula, Frankenstein, and Mummy films.

One amusing note: this film was originally released in the US with the generic title The Devil's Bride because the studios felt that American audiences would've expected a western under its original title.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Hill (1965)

"So, what's the charge? Failing to obey an order? Or drunk in charge of a cigarette lighter? Oh, you crazy bastard! You'd prop up dead men and inspect them if you was ordered to!"

-prisoner of war Joe Roberts

Sean Connery had become a superstar by the middle of the 1960s thanks to his role as James Bond. This superstardom was assured with the release of the third Bond picture Goldfinger (1964), a wonderfully stylish thriller which many view as the definitive James Bond film.

Connery, however, took pains to assure the world that Bond was only one role he was capable of playing. To that end, in between cinematic assignments as 007, he chose roles which were quite different from Bond. One of the most memorable of these was his role in Marnie (1964) which is probably the most unique of all of Alfred Hitchcock's movies as it isn't so much a thriller as it is a character study involving psychology. This low-key presentation didn't generate much attention for Marnie upon its initial release, but, over the years, the movie has generated a more positive reputation.

Perhaps the best of Connery's non-Bond work in the 60s, though, came with his role in this Sidney Lumet picture, which was sandwiched in between the Bond pictures Goldfinger and Thunderball (1965), and, like Marnie, became overshadowed by Bondmania.

In a British military prison in Libya during WWII, Connery portrays Joe Roberts, one of five newly arrived prisoners. The others are Jacko King (Ossie Davis), Monty Bartlett (Roy Kinnear), George Stevens (Alfred Lynch), and Jock McGrath (Jack Watson).

Upon their arrival, the quintet are immediately introduced to the unfriendly staff sargeant Williams (Ian Hendry) and his right hand R.S.M. Wilson (Harry Andrews), who describes to them the hill of the title; a man-made hill which the prisoners routinely scale with full backpacks in the scorching sunlight. This daily ordeal becomes too overwhelming for Stevens, who eventually dies while escalating the hill.

Williams's decision to cover Stevens's death up prompts the remaining four to begin quietly rebelling against him. They unofficially designate Roberts as their leader due to his familiarity with Williams. The more considerate medical officer (Michael Redgrave) and sargeant Harris (Ian Bannen) also begin expressing their disapproval of Williams's tactics. Roberts hopes to use their influence to bring Williams to justice properly. However, while Bartlett becomes indifferent to what his fellow prisoners are going through and attempts to ingratiate himself to Wilson, King and McGrath make no secret of wanting to take matters into their own hands, despite Roberts's warnings that such action would simply undermine their own position. The ending illustrates how powerless everyone in the prison truly is.

As Connery had become a superstar, it's not surprising that he received above-the-title billing. He received glowing reviews from film critics, thus proving for all time that his acting wasn't simply limited to playing James Bond.

In additon to his acting talent, though, what ensured that Connery would go on to be an acclaimed artist is his willingness to share the spotlight with other actors, with this movie perhaps being the first example of that as all the other actors here are equally great. Davis, in particular, has a great moment in which King protests his treatment by walking around the prison wearing only his underwear.

The film has an appropriately gritty, uncomfortable feel to it, due in part to it being shot in the Spanish desert. The black-and-white photography adds to the intensity.

Like Marnie, this film is viewed as a classic today & it also paved the way for similar dramas such as Midnight Express (1978) and Brokedown Palace (1999).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Bloody Judge (1970)

"Justice is a terrible thing, Palofox. But justice must be done!"
-Judge George Jeffreys

The films of Jess Franco aren't exactly regarded as high art, as much as they are exploitation. These films, from 99 Women (1969) to The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969), while attaining a cult following, have never propelled him to the same acclaim as other directors such as Alfred Hitchcock or Steven Spielberg. This could be attributed to the fact that Franco's films are notoriously low-budget, along with the emphasis on sexually and even human depravity which runs throughout much of his filmography. Even Franco's well-intended version of Dracula (1970), while more faithful to the Bram Stoker novel than Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), suffers from sloppy editing (that seems to be the problematic issue with film editing: It's either undeniably brilliant-like in 1975's Jaws-or it's unbelievably shoddy).

The Bloody Judge, however, illustrates what Franco can do when given a strong budget. It also has Christopher Lee (who worked with Franco numerous times, including his Fu Manchu and Dracula films) in one of his best roles as the title character. This film's obvious influence was Witchfinder General, with this movie taking place about 40-50 years afterward. Like Vincent Price's Matthew Hopkins in that film, Lee's character was a real-life figure; one George Jeffreys, who served under King James II when England was in the midst of civil war. Also like Hopkins, Jeffreys believes that his horrific acts are for a greater good. Unlike Hopkins, though, Jeffreys doesn't roam the countryside seeking witches or potential traitors to the crown. Rather, he spends much of the film holding court, condemning people to death for treason and/or sorcery. Although Lee is terrifying when pronouncing sentence, his scenes outside the courtroom are also interesting. In numerous scenes, Jeffreys has moments of discomfort brought on by kidney stones, which, in the 17th century, were untreatable. This condition eventually takes his life as he lays in prison once James II is overthrown. Jeffreys's brand of justice is delivered by his executioner Jack Ketch (played by Howard Vernon, who has the same look that Boris Karloff had in 1939's Tower of London), who brutally tortures those convicted before they are publicly executed.

Many of these victims are female, and it is these scenes of violence, nudity, and even lesbianism which have led many to treat this with the same indifference as Franco's other films (shockingly, the film got a PG rating). A friend of mine even called it The Devil's Rejects (2005) done as an historical drama. This indifference was exemplified when it was given the absurd title Night of the Blood Monster for its US release. While The Conqueror Worm gave the false impression that Witchfinder General was an Edgar Allan Poe tale, it still rightfully reflected that movie's emphasis on death. In the case of Franco's film, though, the title change made it sound like a generic monster movie, instead of the period piece it is. Another reason this film stands out in Franco's filmography is that the battle scenes are nicely done. One of Franco's first jobs was filming the second unit for Orson Welles's Chimes of Midnight (1966), which itself had memorable battle scenes, which makes his fine work in this portion of the film particularly fitting. Bruno Nicolai's musical score is another great aspect to the film, as it is appropriately dramatic without being over the top. While DVD has thankfully restored this film to its complete glory in recent years, this film, like Witchfinder General, would certainly have a better reputation had its director been more, shall we say, mainstream.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

State of Grace (1990)*

"What is it you want, Frankie?"
"I don't gotta want something all the time, do I?"
"I never knew you when you didn't."
-Kathleen and Frankie Flannery.

Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) set the benchmark for all gangster movies. Each one which has come in the years since has been compared to it in one way or another. That's a reason why this film was overshadowed upon its initial release by The Godfather Part III as well as Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Like Coppola's gangster epic, this is a story of mobsters with the underlying current of family and loyalty. Sean Penn plays Terry Noonan, a fellow who returns from Boston to his childhood haunts in Hell's Kitchen, where he's happily reunited with his best friend Jackie Flannery (Gary Oldman) and Jackie's brother Frankie (Ed Harris). Unbeknownest to them, however, Terry is now an undercover cop sent to bring down their criminal organization before they can strike a deal with the neighboring Italian Mafia. At the same time, Terry rekindles his romantic relationship with the Flannerys' sister Kathleen (Robin Wright) who, like Diane Keaton's Kay in The Godfather, doesn't want anything to do with her family's business practices (to that end, she works at a hotel on the other side of the city). She makes it clear to Terry that she won't be with him if he plans to go along with Frankie and Jackie's dealings again. The acting is great all around, but Penn, whom I've always regarded as one of the most intense actors of our time, is the one who sells it. His self-conflict as he contends with betraying the guys he's known & loved since childhood are completely believable. At one point, he interrupts his lovemaking with Kathleen by screaming, "I'M A F***ING JUDAS COP!" This self-torment intensifies when he realizes that Frankie, unbeknown to Jackie & Kathleen, has killed another childhood pal of theirs (John C. Reilly). Even when Terry flat out tells his superior (John Turturro) that he quits the force, he knows that it's not that easy. Terry knows that the only way out of his situation is to see it through. *Thanks to Macphist0 at for recommending that I review this film.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Beguiled (1971)

"You beast!"
"That's right, but I don't run a school for young girls. And I just thought these girls might like to know what kind of woman runs this place!"
-Martha Farnsworth and John McBurney.

Just before he began his directing career the same year with Play Misty for Me (a superlative, ahead-of-its-time thriller which itself may have been relegated to the status of a little-known gem were it not for the fact that its then-novice director had already achieved worldwide fame as an actor), Clint Eastwood starred in this Civil War film which is, for all intents and purposes, the first great drama he did which was neither a western nor an action film. Add to that the fact Dirty Harry was released after Misty, thus making 1971 a very good year for Eastwood.
Here, he plays a Union soldier, one John McBurney, who is wounded behind Confederate lines. He is discovered by a young girl who is instantly taken with his rougish charm (although the audience learns via flashbacks that he's not the innocent victim he claims to be) and guides him back to her girls school in Louisiana, which is devoid of men as they are all on the front lines.
As he's nursed back to health, he propositions -and is propositioned by- some of the students, who aren't quite of legal age, as well as their sensitve school teacher, Edwina Dabney (Elizabeth Hartman) and even the stern headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page).
Things take a turn for the worse when Edwina sees John with one of the students one evening and, in a fit of rage, pushes him down a flight of stairs, fracturing his leg. Martha then uses this opportunity to basically assume power over him by unnecessarily amputating the wounded appendage. One of the film's best moments is the look of terror on Eastwood's face when he sees that he no longer has two legs. As far as I'm concerned, that moment marked the beginning of Clint proving that he wasn't simply an onscreen 'tough guy.'
Equally great is how John, having gained both Edwina and Martha's confidence when he first arrived, discovers Martha's incestous relationship with her late brother. The audience (but presumably none of the characters) also learns of her romantic feelings for Edwina. It also doesn't take him long to realize that their servant (Mae Mercer) isn't really that as she's treated equally and is as educated and as opinionated as the rest of the ladies in the school, which, in this time period, was a big no-no.
This leads to the great dramatic moment when John basically airs Martha's dirty laundry in front of the rest of the school. Hence, a delicous battle of wits forms between John and these women. They could easily hand him over to the next Confederate patrol that happens by, but he could expose their secrets at that point as well.
There is no way that this could end except tragically. This downbeat tone turned many viewers away in 1971, as they expected Clint Eastwood to triumph. Today, however, The Beguiled can be proudly seen as the precursor to Eastwood dramas such as Honkytonk Man (1982), Mystic River (2003), and even Unforgiven (1992); dramas in which, even if someone experiences triumph, nobody truly wins.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Kenny & Company (1976)

"It's simple. First, you go to the store and get some special pills, and then you get a girl. And then you go home and get nude. And then, you put a pill in your mouth spit it down her throat while you're kissing her. And then it goes into her stomach and grows into a baby."
-Sherman, explaining how babies are made.

Don Coscarelli is best known for directing the movies Phantasm (1979) and Beastmaster (1982). Before those films, he made this coming of age film with a few of the same actors who would later appear in Phantasm. Although this film was a huge hit in Japan, it, surprisingly, was barely distributed in the US, despite being released by a major studio (20th Century Fox, in this case). Unlike many other coming of age films, this isn't innundated with hit records or pop culture references to invoke memories of a specific time period. Kenny's activities include making his own special racer, which he uses on a steep hill in his suburban neighborhood. In a way, this is like a live-action version of the comic strip Peanuts. The title character and narrator (played by Dan McCann) is a likeable boy who, like Charlie Brown, goes through the various trials and tribulations of childhood, including a crush on a girl in his class and being bullied (in Kenny's case, the bully is a jock named Johnny who's been in reform school, rather than girls like Lucy). Fred Myrow's musical score is also reminiscent of Vince Guaraldi's work for many of the Peanuts TV specials. Myrow would also do the atmospheric score for Phantasm. Unlike Peanuts, though, the adults here are seen and are articulate. One of these is Kenny's kind teacher, Mr. Donovan (Reggie Bannister), who takes part in the kids' games at recess. Another is Kenny talking to Mr. Brisk, a senior citizen the other kids basically ignore because of his age and the stories they have come up with because of that. He also has discussions with his kind parents about various topics such as the purpose of insurance and the decision to put Kenny's dog to sleep. There are also elements of the great family film A Christmas Story (1983), in that the film takes place during the four days leading up to Halloween, which, like Christmas, has always been a joyous occasion for kids. Much of the film has Kenny interacting with his mischievous pal Doug (Michael Baldwin) and their younger pal Sherman (Jeff Roth), whom Kenny & Doug sometime view as a nuisance (they even play a prank on him early in the film after he ruins a project they are working on); a view that's tempered when they are invited to his memorable birthday party (an occasion which they are able to ride an elephant) and when he shows them one of his father's issues of Playboy. This is ultimately a wonderful movie because the kids are reminiscent of ourselves growning up, with all the good and bad that came with it. Coscarelli said that he and his young actors approached this project like it was summer camp, and the results show onscreen, with the performers acting naturally throughout. Other coming of age classics such as E.T.-The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Boyz N the Hood (1991) are said to have been shot in the same manner.

Friday, January 15, 2010

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

"This never happened to the other fellow."
-James Bond-007

A brief recap for the few who may be unfamiliar with the world of James Bond. In 1953, Ian Fleming, a British journalist who had retired to Jamaica, wrote a novel entitled Casino Royale. This novel introduced the character of James Bond (code name: 007). The book was successful enough to allow Fleming to write more Bond stories. One year after its publication, CBS made a television adaptation of the novel for its anthology series Climax. Despite the appearance of cinema legend Peter Lorre as the villain Le Chiffre, the show was less than memorable.

Still, Fleming's Bond novels continued to sell well and further attempts were made to obtain the film rights to them. Those rights were sold in 1961 (the year JFK declared the Bond books among his favorites) to producers Albert Broccoli & Harry Saltzman. With financing from United Artists, the pair made Dr. No (1962), which was a delightful thriller in spite of its modest budget. The icing on the cake here was the pivitol casting of then-unknown Sean Connery as Bond. The film's success naturally warranted followups- From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), and You Only Live Twice (1967).

It was after the filming of Twice that Connery began to grow weary of his close identification with Bond. Hence, his departure from the role prompted a long, hard search for the right replacement. Ideal choices such as future 007 Roger Moore were unavailable. Eventually, Broccoli & Saltzman selected an Austraiian salesman/model named George Lazenby who, unlike Connery, had no prior acting experience. Nevertheless, his good looks & impressive work in action scenes convinced the producers that he was the man for the job.

The new Bond was introduced in the 6th Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which is noteworthy in the Bond canon as, in it, Bond, after tracking his nemesis Blofeld (Telly Savalas) to Switzerland where he intends to unleash his plans for bacteriological warfare on the world should the United Nations deny him a pardon for his past crimes, ends his seemingly perpetual bachelorhood by marrying a beautiful Spanish contessa, and then tragically losing her. This film is actually closer to its namesake novel than many of the other Bond films. Although he's sometimes a bit too low-key, Lazenby puts in an admirable performance as Bond, inspite of his lack of acting experience. His work in the piviotal final scene in which Bond grieves over the body of his dead wife (played by Diana Rigg) is especially good.

The best moments of the movie, though, are the beautifully crafted ski chase sequences. Set to John Barry's great musical score, they never fail to get the adrenaline pumping with each viewing. One of the most common complaints against this film resides in the moment in which Blofeld meets with Bond, who is posing as a genealogist who goes to Blofeld's Switzerland retreat to research the validity of Blofeld's request to be granted the title of count. They don't seem to recognize each other even though they met in the previous film. In fairness, though, Fleming had written OHMSS prior to YOLT so the fact that Blofeld doesn't recognize his nemesis at this moment in the film is actually faithful to the novel even if it isn't so much in terms of movie-to-movie continuity.

Unfortunately, what went on during the making of this film led to much of the general public dismissing it. A major factor which contributed to this was Lazenby's hasty decision to only play 007 in this film, believing the series wouldn't last much longer in the wake of classic 60s films such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Easy Rider(1969). Hence, this film is the 'odd picture out' in the Bond series with Lazenby the only Bond actor not to enjoy above the title billing.

This behind-the-scenes drama led to Connery returning to the role once more in the next film Diamonds are Forever (1971) before Moore began his Bond career with the eighth 007 pic Live and Let Die (1973). As for Lazenby, he has found success as a businessman who occasionally dabbles into acting, but, despite a nice send up of his 007 role in Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), his acting legacy has been basically as the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Witchfinder General (1968)

"By the way, do you know what they call me now? Witchfinder General; and there are those who think I should be appointed such for all of England-appointed by Parliament."
-Matthew Hopkins, witchfinder.

This film, while successful upon its original release, was relegated in US cinemas to midnight/drive-in screenings like Vincent Price's Edgar Allan Poe pictures. Indeed, its original US title was the somewhat-catchy The Conqueror Worm, the title of a Poe poem. Price's voice is even heard at the end credits of the US version reciting the poem (which is only half a page long). Had this movie received the Italicsame mainstream distribution as Rosemary's Baby, which was released the same year, it may have led to a Best Actor Oscar for Vincent Price, who portrays a villain that is the antithesis of the charming boogeymen he made his name on. One reason for this is that his character, one Matthew Hopkins, was a real-life witchhunter who traveled through 1645 England, during which time the country was engulfed in civil war, with his unscrupulous sidekick making money by torturing innocents accused of witchcraft. When one of his victims, a kind priest, dies as a result of such action, his niece and her lover seek vengeance. This film, like many others released during the late 1960s (and with 1968 arguably the most violent year of that turbulent decade), pushed the envelope in terms of onscreen violence. But the reason for this movie's greatness is the fact that it tackles the human capacity for violence head on. We find ourselves siding with characters who become as vicious as Hopkins.

Fans of the film have even had discussions about whether Hopkins could been seen as villainous or not. He's obviously motivated by money, but he always seems to be a nationalist when it comes to performing his acts.

This has actually become a topic of debate among those who have seen this film-Is Hopkins truly a monster or just doing his job? My take on this issue is that Hopkins is just as dangerous as many other real-life witchhunters of the period. Hence, he is not as sympathetic as the ones he deals with because it is his actions which prompts their own as the film goes on. The film also gained noteriety when its director, Michael Reeves, died at age 24 of a drug overdose not long after its release. His reported disrespect of Price during filming (Reeves's first choice for the role of Hopkins was Donald Pleasance but American International Pictures, the movie's distributor, insisted on Price) is believed to have influenced the actor's masterful performance, which Price himself would admit after filming wrapped. Reeves's death was truly a loss for the cinema as this, his third and final film, illustrated how he may have potentially become a cinema giant.