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, 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.