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.

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.