Monday, October 31, 2005

 

Horror Film's Anthem

It’s Halloween night and I have just finished watching John Carpenter’s Halloween for the umpteenth time (an almost annual ritual on this night) and it reminded me of my interview with Carpenter. During it, I asked him how he came to use the Blue Oyster Cult song “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in the film. He related how creepy he thought the song was, a song essentially about suicide, and thought it would add to the texture of the film. In Halloween, we hear it in the background (from a car radio) as Laurie and her friend Annie drive around and smoke some pot on the way to their babysitting jobs. It clearly foreshadows the deadly events that are about to unfold. The song has since become the most-used song in horror films. It can be heard over the closing credits of the Peter Jackson film The Frighteners, starring Michael J. Fox. It is also played in the beginning of Mick Garris’ epic TV adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand as the camera pans over a sea of dead bodies at a top secret military lab and realize the deadly virus has escaped. Wes Craven put an acoustic version of the song in Scream, which, like Carpenter’s use, cleverly foreshadows upcoming events.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

 

Masters Of Horror

It’s the night before Halloween and I have another list on my mind. I recently read that the new Showtime series “Masters of Horror” – an anthology of one-hour horror films, made by some of the leading directors in the genre today -- was born from a series of dinner meetings these directors had in L.A. over the course of months. So, it got me to thinking: Who are the best horror directors of all time. Here’s my top five:

5) Tobe Hooper: His film debut, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and his wonderful team-up with Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist alone put him on this list.
4) James Whale: The subject of his own movie biography Gods and Monsters, Whale is truly the father of the gothic horror film. The imagery he created in Frankenstein and its superior sequel Bride of Frankenstein exist in gothic horror films to this day.
3) George A Romero: His film debut Night of the Living Dead is not only a claustrophobic horror masterpiece, it also has a strong social subtext about minorities’ place in a community. Creepshow, his team-up with Stephen King, is great visceral horror, just like the comic book mentality that inspired it. Dawn of the Dead is a horror epic, taking the audience through a series of emotions as the apocalyptic reality of the story creeps in. Also of note: The Crazies, which seems more relevant now then it did when it was filmed.
2) Wes Craven: A Nightmare on Elm Street and the monster Freddy Krueger came to us via Craven. And just when the series seemed to have no more life, he created Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, a horror version of Fellini’s 8 ½. Following that, Craven gave us the self-referential Scream and its knowing, winking sequels, making us laugh and scream a the same time. This year he released Red Eye. A true master of the genre.
1) John Carpenter: His masterpiece, Halloween, like a fine wine, is richer with every repeated viewing. The initial shock value may lessen, but the real terror beneath bubbles to the surface. How brilliant was it to set this film on Halloween when anyone can don a mask and walk the streets unfettered? It is also infused with classic motifs (such as bell tolling = death). It is the prototype by which all inferior “slasher” horror films are measured. Carpenter’s cannon also includes the classic ghost story The Fog, the Stephen King adaptation of teen alienation Christine, and the superior remake of The Thing.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

 

Treasure Chest for Indie Lovers

Just turned up another treasure on the Internet. This one is for lovers of independent films of all kinds, including: documentaries, shorts, and features of all genres. The site -- www.indiepix.net -- has a growing database of rare films that you'll never find in Blockbuster. The site was created by a group of entrepreneurs with collective expertise in home video, information technology, and media arts -- all of whom were (and are) committed supporters of independent film. Born from their desire to create a connection between emerging filmmakers and potential audiences, this non-traditional, yet non-exclusive, approach offers tailored packages for filmmakers who wish to make their works available for purchase on DVD though the website. Based out of New York City, the site describes itself as "kindred spirits to the array of specialized indie film distributors and production companies who believe in the creative quality and resonance that is associated with many non-studio endeavors." I browsed through the site, and was excited by the selection available -- titles I've never heard of, but ones that sounded utterly intriguing to me. Film lovers need more sites like this.

Friday, October 28, 2005

 

A Walken Gem: Just Around the Bend

Here's one that got away. I have been an admirer of Christopher Walken's work on screen ever since his brilliant Oscar-winning performance in The Deer Hunter. Since then, Walken has chosen many roles that are slightly left of center and built a career of honest, moving and often very funny character portrayals. In the video store the other day my eye caught sight of Walken's image on a DVD box for a film called Around the Bend. I had not heard of it and decided to rent it. Really glad I did. I strongly recommend to all Walken fans that they make an effort to seek out this film and watch it. And for those of you who are not familiar with Walken's work, check this out and see why he has built such a dedicated following. Few actors can deliver a line with the cadence of Walken. Few actors seem so real on screen. I don't want to say too much about the film. You should discover it as I did, with no expectations. But I will say, Around the Bend is a unique road film that brings together four generations of men in a family with secrets. When they are revealed...they're not earth-shattering, but honest and real (not movie real) in a way that touches you. In fact, I kept thinking of Midnight Cowboy when I was watching Around the Bend. That's high praise. Walken is allowed the space to do what he does best. Without the burden of a complex plot, Walken breathes life into his character, and gives us another reason to anxiously await his next appearance on screen.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

 

Films as a Force for Good

Check this out. This is the kind of film festival I love discovering. The Buckeye Ranch Film Festival (www.buckeyeranchfilmfest.org) -- sponsored by the Buckeye Ranch, a private, nonprofit mental health care network in central Ohio -- is a showcase and competition that invites students from around the world to submit short films that depict their day-to-day struggles with violence, substance abuse, drinking, smoking and eating disorders. You can view the featured films of the 2005 competition on the festival's website. Dying to Be Thin deals with the issue of eating disorders. Is This Love? tackles the topic of violence within a relationship. Choices spotlights drug abuse in high school while A Night to Remember looks at drinking and drug abuse on a prom night with dire consequences. Other fun items on the website include short behind-the-scenes documentaries on these films and a cool interactive quiz called "The Director's Cut," with multiple-choice questions for the aspiring filmmaker. Winner gets to download the poster for this year's festival as wallpaper for his/her computer. It's always refreshing to see the medium and art of film used as a force for good. Here's hoping the program has a long and productive run.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

 

Exorcist: The Beginning vs Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist

Head-to-head competitions from almost identical films isn't anything new in Hollywood. Witness the glut of "teenage-boy-switches-body-with-man" fantasy films from 1987/1988: Like Father, Like Son; Big; Vice Versa; and 18 Again. Penny Marshall's Big, starring Tom Hanks, was the clearly the big winner. That was followed in 1988/1989 by Stephen Fears' Dangerous Liaisons and Milos Forman's Valmont -- both based on the novel Les Liaisons Dangereues. (Production delays on the Forman film prevented an actual head-to-head showdown in theaters, and the Fears film went on to multiple Oscar nominations including Best Picture.) Then, in 1992, Hollywood gave us the battle of the Columbus films: Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise vs Christopher Columbus -- The Discovery. But never before have I heard of a competition like the current one between Exorcist: The Beginning and Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist. Director Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver) was originally hired to direct this fourth installment in the Exorcist series. With nearly the entire film completed, production company Morgan Creek removed Schrader as director and replaced him with director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2: Die Harder) who proceeded to recast and reshoot much of the movie. Harlin's version was released theatrically by Warner Bros. in 2005 as Exorcist: The Beginning. Then, just in time for the DVD release of that film, Warner Bros also released Schrader's version OF THE SAME FILM as Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. Both films star Stellan Skargard as the young Father Merrin, who uncovers a deeply buried evil on an archaeological excavation in Kenya (remember the desert scenes in beginning of the first Exorcist?) Both films were shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. Both are based on the story written by William Wisher and Caleb Carr (although Exorcist: The Beginning also gives a screenplay credit to Alexi Hawley). Both films are executive produced by Guy McElwaine and David Robinson. Both have music by Trevor Rabin (although Dominion has additional music by Angelo Badalamenti). Both have costumes designed by Luke Reichle and both are co-produced by Wayne Morris. All making for the strangest head-to-head competition in Hollywood to date!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

 

What is the Most Influential Adult Movie of All Time?

In Boogie Nights -- P.T. Anderson's 1997 fictional account of real-life adult movie star John Holmes -- Jack Horner, the aging adult-movie director, played by Burt Reynolds, in an Oscar-nominated performance, laments the fact that adult films are no longer shot on film, but rather on video. He harkens back to a time when he considered his work art. Of course, much has been written about whether such films merit any recognition as art. Still, there are a handful of titles from the late 60s and 70s -- the period to which Reynolds character is referring -- which caught the attention of the movie-going audience at the time, and somehow, are still remembered to this day. So, I wonder, what is the most influential adult film in cinema history? Is it -- I Am Curious (Yellow), the once notorious 1967 Swedish import that caused such a stir, in its day, copies of the film were held by customs? (It's considered by many today to be a somewhat boring mess of Euro-political babble, and candid sexuality, that is tame by current standards.) Is it -- Behind the Green Door, the 1972 film, directed by the infamous Mitchell brothers, that made Marilyn Chambers -- the wholesome model on Ivory Snow detergent boxes -- into an instant adult star? Is it -- Deep Throat, the 1972 film, so famous in its time, that it attracted a steady stream of celebrity audience members; was joked about on-air by Johnny Carson; used as a nickname by Woodward and Bernstein for their infamous "deep background" informer in the Watergate scandal; and documented 33 years later by Ron Howard's production company, Imagine Entertainment, in the film, Inside Deep Throat? (The film is reported to have made $600 million as of 2002.) Is it -- Debbie Does Dallas, the 1978 film that spawned a successful, mainstream, off-Broadway musical in 2002? Or is it -- Caligula, the 1979 film produced by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, and reportedly the most expensive adult film ever made. It was written by Gore Vidal; took four years to complete; starred such A-list actors as Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole and John Gielgud -- and played in mainstream theaters throughout the country. So? What's your opinion? Let me know.

Monday, October 24, 2005

 

Separation of Church and....Theater?

It's been an interesting news year for Sony Pictures. First, the studio bought MGM/UA (and its two biggest franchises -- James Bond and Rocky). Then, it rejected a new comedy from Albert Brooks (Brooks claiming the studio found the word Muslim in the title potentially offensive; the studio claiming that the film simply wasn't funny). Next, the studio reved up its new franchises, announcing a new blond-haired James Bond for Casino Royale and a sixth Rocky film -- Rocky Balboa. Now comes word, that last week, Sony Pictures opened the new film Left Behind: World at War in 3,200 churches across the United States, but not one commercial theater. Newspaper reports cited that the studio recognized the growing trend towards large churches with professional-quality projection and sound systems. Hmmm. It's interesting that another Sony division, Sony Electronics, has been working diligently for years to place its projectors and sound systems in these same churches. Another reason Sony chose to go the church route, according to the report, was a huge jump in church attendance from just 25 years ago. Back then, fewer than 50 churches in the United States attracted more than 2,000 people each week. Today, more than 1,200 churches can claim attendance of 2,000 or more people weekly. Still, the move by Sony Pictures seems oddly calculated to help it's sister division gain access to more churches and sell more equipment. (Of course, the divisions of Sony have never been known to be that synergistic, so maybe I'm wrong.) It could simply be a marketing gimmick -- any blip in the normal routine of things gets coverage. (Witness this posting!) The film, starring Oscar-winner Lou Gossett, Jr., is an end-of-the-world rapture story, complete with an anti-Christ. (The Omen films and Stephen King's The Stand were similar stories that never played in churches.) However, the power of a church-going audience has proven itself to be formidable. In 2004, the faithful were responsible, in large part, for The Passion of the Christ grossing nearly $700 million worldwide and going on to becoming one of the top ten money-makers of all time. So, should concession stands be set up in the vestibules? Perhaps, instead of homilies and preaching, ministers could offer their congregation a movie review during services.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

 

My Birthday Wish List for Movies

Today's my birthday, so I decided to post a birthday "wish list" of things I'd like to see more of and less of in movies. Let me know how many of these things you agree or disagree with:
- Less bad Robert DeNiro and/or Al Pacino films. More good Robert DeNiro and/or Al Pacino films. Remember when almost every film released with one of these actors was a "must see" event? I'd like to feel that feeling again.
- Less derivative horror films that talk down to their audience. More clever and intelligent horror films that make the audience think.
- More DVD box sets of my favorite films, jammed with great behind-the-scene extras, tid-bits, trailers and commentary (hours and hours of them).
- Less sequels, period.

- Less remakes, period.
- More films by today's great (relatively) new visionary directors: Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky and P.T. Anderson.
- More intelligent writing and character development, as was seen in this year's Batman Begins, Sin City and The Upside of Anger. (GIVE JOAN ALLEN THE OSCAR!)
- More great documentaries, especially from director Michael Moore. So, in short, more Moore documentaries.
- Less concern on when the Oscars are televised and more concern on honoring the best films and performances. (GIVE JOAN ALLEN THE OSCAR!)
- More reasons to go to a theater to see a film -- rather than just being willing to wait to see in my living room.
- Less popcorn and soda in every serving size and smaller prices to buy them.
- More competent staff at theaters (who know how to run a projector and sound system).
- More films by John Carpenter, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese.
- More animated short films in theaters.
- More live action short films on DVD.
- Less copies of bad movies at Blockbuster and more copies of great films at Blockbuster (especially vintage foreign, classic underground and today's independent films).
- More critics who have a sense of history and comparison to the classics when it comes to film, and less critics who haven't seen/remember/or know any movies prior to The Breakfast Club.
- Speaking of which...a film reuniting the members of the 1980s Brat Pack and giving them interesting characters to play, at their current age, would be really cool.
- It would be cool to see movies at Radio City Music Hall again!
- It would also be cool if the Motion Picture Academy would simply...GIVE JOAN ALLEN THE OSCAR!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

 

Will the Real Michael Myers Please Stand Up...

Four days ago, I listed Halloween as the best horror film ever made. (see Movies on My Mind: 10/18/05, "The Ten Best Horror Movies of All Time") Then, I remembered director John Carpenter once saying, in a magazine interview, how many people it actually took to bring The Shape, Michael Myers to life in that film. Nick Castle is generally though of as the actor who played The Shape, but when we first meet Michael, on his way to killing his sister on Halloween night, we are forced to see the world through his eyes, as the camera follows the action from behind the mask of Michael's Halloween clown costume. Michael's hand that we see reaching for a large knife from the kitchen drawer, is actually the hand of the film's co-writer and producer (the late) Debra Hill. Outside the Myers' house moments after the murder, when Michael's father removes the clown mask, the six-year-old Michael is played by child actor Will Sandin. For most of the film, it's Castle behind the mask, except for the scene in which Laurie Strode hides in a closet and Michael attacks. For that scene, the film's production designer (and co-editor), Tommy Lee Wallace (who, like Castle, would go on the direct feature films of his own) donned the mask to play The Shape, since he knew the best way to destroy the door. When Michael's mask is pulled off near the end of the film, it's not Castle's face we see but rather actor Tony Moran. When The Shape is finally forced backwards off a second-story balcony by gunshots from Dr. Loomis (the late Great Donald Pleasence), it's stunt man Jim Windburn wearing the mask. In the end, six performers collaborated to play one bogeyman.

Friday, October 21, 2005

 

Two Little Rascals Pass Away

With in the last month, two of Hal Roach's legendary "Little Rascals" have passed away. On September 25, Thomas Ross Bond, who played Butch -- who would constantly bully Alfalfa and the rest of the gang -- died of heart failure at the age of 79; and today, Gordon Lee who played Porky -- Spanky McFarland's little brother, and Buckweat's best friend -- died of cancer, at age 71. I was introduced to the Our Gang film shorts when they were repackaged as The Little Rascals, for television. As a child, I was a faithful viewer of these televised black-and-white backyard adventures. (Now, on DVD, my son has developed a liking for the Rascals as well.) At the time, of course, I had no idea that these films had once played in movie theaters, or that the Our Gang short, entitled Bored of Education, had won the Oscar for Best One-Reel Short Subject in 1937. I also didn't "get" the clever lines, clearly intended to amuse adults in the audience. Such as in Shrimps for a Day, when a little orphaned girl, invited to the home of the orphanage's benefactor, runs away from a goose chasing her in the backyard, it prompts the benefactor's daughter to turn to her boyfriend and say, "Oh Dick, imagine a little girl being afraid of a goose!" (wink wink) Over the years, it was always fun to spot a Rascal, now an adult, in other movies. My father pointed out the small role played by Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer in the film It's a Wonderful Life. (Remember the dance scene in the school? Look for him in a key role.) Matthew 'Stymie' Beard showed up in The Buddy Holly Story and the TV miniseries Backstairs at the White House. The Rascals were given renewed interest when Eddie Murphy spoofed the character of Buckwheat on Saturday Night Live in the 80s, which led to the Rascals' first (and only) feature film (with an entirely new cast of children) in 1994, directed by Penelope Spheeris. Bond, who died in September, quit acting in 1951 (after playing Jimmy Olsen in two Superman movies in the 40s), and worked in television as a producer/director. Lee, who died today, became a schoolteacher and lived in Colorado, until he retired, and moved to Minnesota to be closer to his son. The actors who played the Rascals are almost all gone now, but thanks to Hal Roach, and his Oscar-wining collection of film shorts, they will always remain the independent-minded, resourceful gang of children planning their next bit of backyard mischief.

 

Give Joan Allen the Oscar.

I know -- as far as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is concerned -- the two most intense months of movie releases are still to come, but as far as I'm concerned, the brilliant actress Joan Allen, who has proved time and time and time again, what amazing range and acting talent she possesses, deserves the Academy Award for Best Actress this year for her wonderful, subtle, mannered and nuanced performance as Terry Wolfmeyer, a woman who must come to terms with the sudden disappearance of her husband, in The Upside of Anger. Sure, the last two months of the year may end up producing flashier performances and even more "socially-minded" performances by women, but I strongly doubt that any of them will match the utter brilliance with which Allen becomes her character in The Upside of Anger. It is extremely rare (Al Pacino in the The Godfather and Godfather Part II is a great example) that an actor can so convincingly become the character being portrayed. And at that moment, it's not acting any more, so much as it is being. Allen's daring performance is simply unmatchable this year. I say daring, because few actresses would dare to play a character as unlikable, at moments, as the character of Terry Wolfmeyer, someone with real emotions, not movie emotions. Allen makes us believe that Terry is real. Not a character in a movie. Someone who lives and breathes and thinks and feels and stumbles. Allen has been nominated for the Oscar three times before -- twice for supporting actress in Nixon (1995), and The Crucible (1996) and once for lead performance in The Contender (2000). Now, she deserves to receive it. Attention critics: support this role with your honors and remind the Academy of the kind of performance for which Oscar was created. Bang the drums for Allen. Make sure she receives what she has long deserved. She is without a doubt, one of the finest actresses working today.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

 

From Fire to Fizzle

When I started my film journalism career, there was a short list of film directors I wanted to interview: John Carpenter (I did, on his 50th birthday), Martin Scorsese (haven't yet), Francis Ford Coppola (we traded faxes when I was writing an article on Dracula), David Lynch (I'm convinced I spoke to him briefly when I interviewed a producer girlfriend of his, and he answered the phone, but I never really interviewed him), and Hugh Hudson. Hugh Hudson? Yes, Hugh Hudson. With a background in helming British TV commercials, he's directed six features in 20 years, but hasn't been heard from in five. His first feature came out of nowhere to take the industry by storm. Chariots of Fire was a very British, very mannered, very reverent (and, some would say, very boring) film of two Olympic runners from an upper class university dealing with social issues of the day. When it was released in the United States, critics hailed it as the new Rocky. It became a surprise boxoffice hit; spawned a number one chart single -- with its instrumental score by composer Vangelis -- and became an even bigger surprise on Oscar night when it trumped Warren Beatty's Reds to win the Best Picture Oscar. So, Hudson's next film was eagerly awaited. Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan Lord of the Apes was supposed to do for the King of the Jungle what Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins did for the Caped Crusader -- namely, treat the main character with a level of seriousness not previously given it. Although nominated for three Oscars (including one for Rick Baker's amazing ape make-up), the film didn't really succeed in doing what it promised. Andie MacDowell's screen debut as Jane was deemed so wooden, her voice was dubbed by Glenn Close; while Christopher Lambert's performance as Tarzan, at times, proved to be unintentionally comical. Still, Hudson gave it a great effort, and I was excited to hear his next project was an epic tale of the American War for Independence, with Al Pacino in the lead. It was called Revolution. And it flopped. For all of its scope, Revolution didn't quite gel. Shortly after the film opened, I finally got the opportunity to interview Hudson -- but it was about his return to directing TV commercials. Still, we managed to talk film as well, and discussed how the studio had forced him to cut Revolution extensively before its release, and the fact he was was slated to direct Reversal of Fortune before it was handed to Barbet Schroeder (and resulted in an Oscar win for its lead actor, Jeremy Irons). Hudson's next three films -- Lost Angels (starring Adam Horovitz of The Beastie Boys), My Life So Far (released 10 years after Lost Angels), and 2000's I Dreamed of Africa (with Kim Basinger, fresh from her Oscar win for L.A. Confidential) -- generated no heat. His last film was five years ago. Nothing is slated. Has the career that started with a Fire ended with a fizzle? I hope not. I want more from Hudson.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

 

Rocky Balboa is Back!

A sixth installment of the Academy Award-winning Rocky series was announced this week. As a fan of the Rocky movies, I was thrilled, but it came as little surprise to me. Here's why. Earlier this year, Sony (who a few years ago went to court with MGM/UA over the rights to the James Bond film series, and lost) simply bought MGM/UA, and essentially bought with it, two franchises that studio owned: James Bond and Rocky. So it's not a shock that the studio would want to fast-track its two most recognizable brands as quickly as possible. Just prior to the announcement of a sixth Rocky, the studio sent minor shock waves through the industry with its choice of blond-haired English actor Daniel Craig to replace Pierce Brosnan as the next James Bond in the upcoming Casino Royale. Then, hot on the heels of that announcement came the news that they would green light the next Rocky. It will have been 16 years since Rocky V and 30 years since the series began, before the latest installment, entitled Rocky Balboa will hit the screens. Sylvester Stallone, who created, wrote and starred in the Rocky series (as well as directing three of the five films), has been trying for years now to get a sixth film made. Earlier this year, as Sony was preparing to buy MGM/UA, Stallone launched is own health and fitness lifestyle magazine, Sly and began publishing excerpts from his unproduced sixth Rocky script in it. The timing was great. Heightened public awareness (due to Stallone's Sly marketing move) combined with Sony's purchase of MGM/UA, opened the door to the latest sequel. Word has it that the film opens with Rocky a widower (whether Talia Shire will return is still unclear), living in Philadelphia, and down on his luck. An opportunity arises for Rocky to return to the ring, and when word gets out, a media frenzy ensues. Will this truly be the final chapter of the series? One wonders. Having just obtained the franchise, will Sony let it end at one new feature? Regardless, I will be there on opening night, ticket in hand to see number six.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

 

The 10 Best Horror Movies of All Time

Still feeling very Halloween-ish. Yesterday I wrote about some of the cool monster match-ups in the movies over the years, and it got me to thinking about horror films in general. I love horror films (so did my father) and I grew up on a steady diet of them on TV and then in theaters. There was a point, in my teenage years, when I would go anywhere, to any theater, to see the latest horror film that opened that week. (And back then, before the dawn of homevideo, a new low budget horror film DID open every week.) So, I saw some of the best and worst horror films ever made. Following is a list of what I think are the best -- listed from 10 to 1:
10) An American Werewolf in London (1981): Some may consider this too much of a black comedy and not enough of a horror film, but I disagree. Laughter and screaming are closely related and director John Landis was masterful in manipulating the audience into doing both with this film. It features the best werewolf transformation scene ever on screen (and won Rick Baker his first Oscar for make-up). Plus, the nightmare sequences in this film are still the best jump-out-of-your seat moments in horror cinema.
9) Friday the 13th (1980): As I said yesterday, this film introduced audiences to the monster Jason Voorhees, but he's not the killer in this first film in the series. He does show up just in time to give us one last jolting scare. Friday the 13th truly began the cycle of the "80s horror movie franchise," while others (like A Nightmare on Elm Street) followed. At its core, it's a classic horror movie. Teenagers alone in the woods on a rainy night...and then the lights go out.
8) Frankenstein (1931): In many ways, this film is the iconographic horror film. Grave-robbing. A mad scientist. His hunchback assistant. A gothic tower, on a rainy night. And a creature brought to life from pieces of dead bodies and a psychotic's brain. Once you see it, the images are forever in your memory, even if it's been spoofed endlessly since.
7) The Ring (2003): It had been years since I saw a good horror film, and then The Ring came along and creeped me out of my skin (which isn't that easy anymore, having seen so many horror films to that point). The surreal images of this movies are edited so cleverly you start to lose the line between reality and the horror that lies beneath. See it alone and then I dare you to go into that back room, with the lights out.
6) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973): I don't care how many people tell me it was funny after they saw it, I know deep down in their guts, (and that's where this film aims --the guts) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the first from director Tobe Hooper) scared the hell out of them. Based on the real life crimes of Ed Gein, the movie is relentless; and what makes it so scary is that all of the crazies in the film (including Leatherface himself) play it straight. This is their day-to-day life -- and we are being given a bird's-eye view of the carnage.
5) Poltergeist (1982): When I first saw this film, I was in awe. It's a masterful combination of Steven Spielberg fantasy and Tobe Hooper horror. What a ride! Poltergeist opened the same summer as Spielberg's own E.T the Extraterrestrial, John Carpenter's The Thing and Paul Schrader's Cat People. What a summer! But for me, this film was at the center of it -- all at once fascinating and terrifying. Jerry Goldsmith's score and ILM's effects have never worked together better. In my opinion, the all time greatest ghost story.
4) The Exorcist (1973): What makes this film work so well for me is director William Friedkin's ability to tell it straight. The Exorcist came out in a decade of gritty moviemaking, when films, in general, felt more real. Especially films by Friedkin, who had already won the Oscar for directing The French Connection two years before. Endlessly spoofed since, but it was the number one I-dare-you-to-see-this-movie movie at the time. Catholic guilt personified. It doesn't want to make you jump as much as it wants to crawl under your skin and stay there. The first horror film ever nominated for Best Picture. It won the Oscar for Best Screenplay.
3) Bride of Frankenstein (1935): Before The Godfather Part II came out, this was considered by many to be the best sequel ever made. And it's easy to see why. All of the elements of the first film are back, plus, a haunting score (missing from the first) and the creepy Dr. Pretorius (wonderfully played by Ernest Thesiger) -- a second mad scientist who forces Dr. Frankenstein to create a mate for his first monster. Peppered with truly touching moments, and a brilliant performance by Boris Karloff, this film should be watched as a double feature with Frankenstein. It's also the film to introduce the infamous lever (if pulled) that destroys the entire lab!
2) Psycho (1960): Alfred Hitchcock, himself, said he considered this a black comedy. But, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was to follow a decade later, the characters here play it straight. (It only becomes an in-joke after you've seen the film.) Also based on the real-life crimes of Ed Gein, which inspired the Robert Bloch book upon which this film is based, Psycho is the granddaddy of what would become known, by the 80s, as slasher films. Coming when it did, at the end of the 50s, Psycho was, for many, the first glimpse anyone had seen of graverobbing, cross dressing, or mass murdering -- still Norman Bates couldn't look more normal. Think about this film next time you take a shower. What was that noise you heard on the other side of the curtain?
1) Halloween: Director John Carpenter, when he made this film, learned from Hitchcock that less is more. It's a testament to this film's power to scare you that so many viewers thought they saw more blood than they actually did. Like Psycho, much of the terror here is in the waiting and the helplessness you feel for the characters being slaughtered. Carpenter didn't need blood. He relied on classic elements of horror as well. The feeling of being alone. The notion of the bogeyman waiting outside your door. The darkness. And he sets it all on Halloween night, after building and building and building the suspense for the audience to that point. When The Shape attacks, it's almost a relief. The score, also by Carpenter, is simply one of the best ever written for a film. Forget the needless sequels that followed. In my opinion, Halloweeen is the most brilliant horror film ever made.

Monday, October 17, 2005

 

Monster Match-Ups

As Halloween approaches, I was thinking about some of the great movie monster match-ups. Universal Studios had built a profitable franchise of horror films (and characters) with Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolfman. In 1943, Universal decided to team-up two of its popular monsters for the first time in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. In the film, Bela Lugosi (who originally played Dracula in the 1931 film, and was offered, but turned down, the role of the Frankenstein monster that same year) finally plays the monster. The concept was so popular with moviegoers, two years later, in House of Frankenstein, it was a monster "battle royal" as the studio brought back not only the Frankenstein monster (now played by Glenn Strange) and the Wolfman but also Dracula (played by John Carradine), the mad scientist (played by Boris Karloff, who originally played the Frankenstein monster in the 1931 movie after Lugosi turned it down); and an Igor-like hunchback assistant (played by J. Carroll Nash). This monster teaming would be spoofed four years later in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. (They also meet Dracula -- now played by Bela Lugosi again -- and the Wolfman, in the same film.) The Universal Studios monster movies are by now iconographic. When people think of Frankenstein, Dracula or a werewolf, they think of the images of those creatures created in these movies.
The next great movie monster match up would come from Japan. The Toho Studios had made a fortune with Godzilla, a movie about a prehistoric 500-foot lizard brought to life in the atomic age due to post-war bomb testing. The social commentary of Godzilla was soon lost as the studio began to introduce a new monster for him to fight in each subsequent movie in the series. In 1962, Godzilla faced his most legendary battle when he took on King Kong in King Kong vs Godzilla. It was billed as "The most colossal conflict the screen has ever known!" This film is a real guilty pleasure of mine. While not a great movie, there is something about its schlockiness that I just love. Of course the filmmakers kinda threw caution to the wind since King Kong is supposed to be a 40-foot gorilla and Godzilla, a 500-foot fire-breathing lizard. Not really much of a match up. But the writers took care of that. Kong not only grew, but got stronger when he munched on electrical wire. The new, bigger, badder Kong could stand toe-to-toe with Godzilla and give a good fight. And fight they did, destroying scores of buildings along the way.
In the 1980s, a new crop of movie monsters were developing. Leatherface of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shape from Halloween has already hit the screens when, in 1980, Paramount Pictures and Sean S. Cunningham created Friday the 13th and introduced audiences to the murderous and deformed, hockey mask-wearing Jason Voorhees (although he didn't start actually wearing the mask until the third film in the series). In 1984, New Line Cinema and Wes Craven (former filmmaking partner of Sean S Cunningham -- the two made Last House on the Left together) countered with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which gave moviegoers the razor gloved-wearing, dream-invading bogeyman, Freddy Krueger. Throughout the 80s and 90s, both franchises produced scores of sequels. When it was announced that New Line had picked up the rights to Friday the 13th from Paramount, a pairing of these movie monster giants seemed inevitable. Fans of both series talked endlessly of a team-up, online and at conventions, until finally, in 2003, it was "winner kills all" in Freddy vs. Jason. The two monsters fought on each other's turf (while still having time to do away with scores of teenagers) and gave fans of each series their money's worth.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

 

How Many Movies Can You Fit on the Head of a Pin?

Last week, Apple announced the launch of its Video iPod. My reaction: Who cares. Apple calls it the "evolution of the revolution," but I couldn't disagree more. I understand the appeal of the original iPod -- being able to download thousands of songs digitally to a light-weight, portable device for easy listening. But that was audio. Where a soundwave comes from, before it enters your earphones is essentially irrelevant. With film, size matters. Hell, there are certain movies I don't even want to see reduced to the size of a TV screen, so getting them down to the dimensions of a matchbook cover hardly excites me. I only wish the same was true of the scores of people who will rush to own this latest technology. I can't help thinking of Norma Desmond's reaction in Sunset Blvd. when questioned about her current popularity. "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big." She responds, "I am big. It's the pictures that have gotten small." No kidding. Sadly, she was right.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

 

The Suck/Blow Machine

At the climax (pun, semi-intended) of Spaceballs, Mel Brooks' 1987 spoof of Star Wars films, he spends a considerable amount of screen time, and, it appears, a fair amount of money to essentially set up one long joke. Here it is: Planet Druidia is under attack from the evil emperor Skroob and his right hand man Dark Helmet. They want Druidia's air. So, they transform one of their Spaceball space stations -- located over Planet Druidia -- into a Mega Maid (a metallic robot that looks like the Statue of Liberty with a maid's outfit and a vacuum cleaner). As a finger flips the Mega Maid switch to on, Operation: Vacu-suck commences and the Maid begins to suck up Druidia's air. (Can you see where this is going?) Brooks cuts to reaction shots of Skroob, Helmet and Col. Sandurz as they, in unison, cheer Mega Maid on: "Suck. Suck. Suck" Eventually, Lone Star (a combo character of Star Wars' Luke Skywalker and Han Solo) and Barf (the movie's Chewbaca) use the power of the Schwartz to reverse Mega Maid's actions. Then comes the pay-off: Skroob turns to Dark Helmet and asks, "What's going on?" Helmet turns to Sandurz and demands to know, "What's going on?" And Sandurz says, "It's Mega Maid. She's gone from suck to blow." (Rimshot, please.)
Well, I hadn't seen the suck/blow machine in a movie again for almost 20 years, until this weekend, when I took my children to see the new G-rated, claymation adventure of the loveable wacky inventor Wallace and his faithful dog Gromit in Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Living in a town obsessed with its annual giant vegetable competition, Wallace and Gromit are now running Anti-Pesto, a security firm that protects the neighborhood's gardens from hungry rabbits. The invention at the center of their operation is the Bun-Vac 6000, a machine that (you got it) "sucks up" pesky rabbits, into a giant jar for safe keeping. Wallace even boasts, "It's capable of 125rpm -- that's rabbits per minute." Better than a half dozen times, the camera makes sure to pan by or zoom in on the machine's control panel where we see notice that in addition to the "Suck" button, there is also a reverse button for "Blow." I appreciated the joke, but wondered two things: 1) Was it necessary at all? I mean, my children are too young to get it, but pre-teens might, and is that a good thing? And, 2) did the buttons need to be shown as often as they were? I (and, I presume, other adults) got the joke the first time or maybe the second, or even the third time. Why hammer it home?
Anyway, that now marks the second time (at least that I know of) the suck/blow machine (not counting Paris Hilton, of course) has appeared in a film. Will there be a third?

Friday, October 14, 2005

 

Spike Heads South

Brooklyn-based director Spike Lee -- who has never shied from controversy in his features School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), and Get on the Bus (1996) or his Academy Award-nominated documentary, 4 Little Girls (1997) -- has announced that he will head south to storm-ravaged Louisiana to do a documentary on the political and social fallout from hurricane Katrina, and the government's response to it. I have always thought Lee to be a talented filmmaker (albeit, at times, a racist one). And I was in agreement that Do the Right Thing deserved a nomination for Best Picture the year it was released. (Lee was nominated for writing it.) But on first blush, the Katrina project seems as if Lee is going to New Orleans with a racially-motivated agenda already in place. Perhaps he will be surprised by what he finds when he arrives. Perhaps he will be able to present a fair and balanced film document of the reactions on all sides to the hurricane. Perhaps. But in a post-Michael Moore world of highly subjective documentaries, I tend to think that Lee's film will push a pre-determined agenda -- to the exclusion of balanced reporting. Such a film will certainly stir things up, but to what end? Is it Lee's intention to heal racial issues or pour salt on opened wounds? Guess we'll find out soon enough.

 

His Final Frontier

Today, it was announced that the cremated remains of Star Trek actor James Doohan -- who died in July 2005, at age 85 -- will be launched into space on Dec. 6, in accordance with his last wishes.(Commercial space flight operator, Space Services Inc., will perform the service aboard its Explorers Flight.) For more than 30 years, Doohan portrayed the chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise, Montgomery "Scotty" Scott -- on the original Star Trek television series in the 1960s, and in seven Star Trek features. I have never been a Star Trek fan (although I did enjoy Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan quite a bit). The announcement of Doohan being "beamed up," got me to thinking about his final press conference at a Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, not long before his death. The convention was billed as a tribute to him, but it was simply a disgrace. I heard the audio from this press conference. Doohan was obviously in the final stages of Alzheimer's disease and could barely piece two words together. He showed no evidence of understanding any question asked of him, and his voice was little more than a frail whisper. How his family or his handlers could allow this, is beyond me. Perhaps the event of his being sent into space will erase the shameful memories of that convention for some, but I think there has to come a point in the life of a celebrity when the public spotlight is no longer appropriate -- no matter how much money is attached to the deal.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

 

Subliminal Messages in Movies: Real or Urban Myth?

As legend has it, in the summer of 1957, at a movie house in Fort Lee, NJ, James Vicary (who had already conducted a number of unusual studies of female shopping habits) placed a tachistoscope in the theater's projection booth, and while the film Picnic was playing, he flashed a couple of different messages on the screen --"Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat Popcorn" -- every five seconds. The messages each displayed for only 1/3000th of a second at a time, far below a viewers' threshold of conscious perceptibility. The result, according to Vicary, was an amazing 18.1% increase in Coca-Cola sales, and a whopping 57.8% jump in popcorn purchases. This, Vicary argued, demonstrated the awesome power of what his termed "subliminal advertising" to coerce unaware buyers into making purchases they would not otherwise have considered. (A subliminal message is a signal in the form of a picture or sound that is designed to pass the normal limits of perception. That means that people perceive it with their subconscious while not perceiving it consciously.) However, when forced to repeat the experiment under close study, the results were nowhere near the same, and Vicary eventually confessed that he had falsified the data from his first experiments. Some critics have since expressed doubts that he actually conducted his infamous Ft. Lee experiment at all. However, the media (and the public) only paid attention to the sensational original story, and the minimal coverage given to Vicary's later confession was ignored or quickly forgotten. And so was born the concept of "subliminal messages." Do they really exist? Have filmmakers put such messages in their movies? The debate continues to this day, but here are some of the more famous cases involving films:
The Exorcist was one of the first films of note to bring subliminal messaging issues to the attention of the public. Some viewers found the experience of watching the film so intense, claims soon arose that director William Friedkin used numerous special sound effects and a number of "quasi-subliminal inserts" to add to the film's "fear quotient" and to influence the emotional reactions of viewers. These claims were never substantiated.
At least three Disney movies -- Aladdin, The Lion King and The Little Mermaid -- were reputed to have incorporated 'subliminal messages' before they were supposedly withdrawn and reissued. In the film Aladdin, does Aladdin actually whisper, "Good teenagers, take off your clothes," as was claimed, or is he saying "Good Kitty. Take off."? Does a dust cloud in The Lion King, actually spell the word SEX? (Or was it the team in the special effect department having fun abbreviating the term Special Effects -- SFX?) Or does it even exist in the film at all? Did a four-year old from New York (or Louisiana), actually notice this while watching a video version of the movie and tell his mother (or aunt) about it? In The Little Mermaid, does a minister officiating a wedding actually show an bulging erection in his tights? Or is it his knobby knee? In September 1995, the American Life League -- a Virginia-based right-to-life group which had already been boycotting Disney because of the film Priest since April of that year -- began an intense publicity campaign against these animated Disney films which they claimed contained "subliminal sexual messages." The media ate it up and soon a woman from Arkansas named Janet Gilmer filed a lawsuit against The Walt Disney Company and Buena Vista Home Video, also claiming that Disney had inserted subliminal sex messages in its films. She dropped her lawsuit two months later.
More recently, in the movie Fight Club, there is a knowing wink to the idea of subliminal messages in film. The main character of the film is an insomniac who takes a job as a movie projectionist. As an act of rebellion, he splices frames of pornographic material into the movies he shows. But, did David Fincher, the director of Fight Club, do the same? Did he insert nudity into the film subliminally to punch it up, as some have claimed? Moreover, does the poster to Chevy Chase's 1981 film Modern Problems show him subliminally masturbating? Does the poster for the Academy Award winning Best Picture of 1979 Kramer vs Kramer subliminally depict Dustin Hoffman wanting to punch young Justin Henry in the face? Does the poster for this year's Beauty Shop show Queen Latifah subliminally performing fellatio (with a strategically placed blow drier)? The intriguing nature of this (supposed?) practice will keep conspiracy theorists and folks who believe that playing a certain Beatles album backwards will tell you "Paul is Dead" arguing its existence for years to come. What do you think?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

 

With This Film I Thee Wed

A good friend and I were talking about film yesterday and he asked: "Why is it, you suppose, so many people like to see weddings in movies?" And I thought for a minute and said, "For the same reasons they like to go to weddings. To escape." Think about it. Some women start planning their wedding day for more than a full year before the date. Hell, some start planning it when they're 12! That's a lot of planning (and a lot of stress) for ONE DAY! And the majority of the time, yes, the majority of the time...the marriage does not last. So, the wedding ceremony and reception are a bit of a sham. And what about that white dress? Hmmm. White, huh? OOookay. Still, friends and family come to weddings to celebrate a "lifetime" of happiness for the couple. And they come to escape their (perhaps troubled) realities. They see the white dress and think..this is pure. They hear the vows and think...this is forever. They listen to the sappy I-can't-live-without-you lyrics and they get sentimental. They dance, eat the free food, and drink a lot of the free alcohol and think...this is a great party!! That's why wedding movies are so popular. People go to the movies for the same reason -- to escape reality. So wedding movies are a double whammy! Witness the rash of successful recent (and not so recent) wedding films: The Wedding Crashers, American Wedding, The Wedding Date, The Wedding Singer, The Wedding Planner, My Best Friend's Wedding, Runaway Bride, The In-Laws, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Muriel's Wedding, Father of the Bride, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. These are all romantic comedies, by the way. None of these films show the reality beyond the wedding day itself, as for example, director Michael Cimino did so brilliantly in the first half of his Oscar-winning Best Picture The Deer Hunter. In that film, we see the harsh underpinnings of the wedding reception. The bride is pregnant. The husband is about to go off to Vietnam. The in-laws are worried sick. The guests at that wedding party are escaping a reality too. But the difference is, we see the reality as well. Not so in the recent crop of wedding films. Will the pendulum swing back? Not as long as these films keep making over $100 million.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

 

Indie Films Alive & Well in the Berkshires

I just returned from my annual visit to the Berkshire mountains of northwest Massachusetts and southwest Vermont. This area, which has long embraced writers and artists such as Herman Melville, Norman Rockwell and Nathaniel Hawthorne, has now become a haven for independent filmmakers who are trying to reach a wider audience. Throughout the region, theaters and film festivals are giving indie films a chance. Peter Biskind, the former editor-in-chief of American Film magazine (and my former boss) lives in upstate NY, close to the Berkshires, and has been active in trying to grow support for such films through festivals such as FilmColumbia (www.filmcolumbia.com), which he helps program. Best known for his book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock-n-Roll Generation Saved Hollywood," Biskind more recently has written "Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film." Other festivals include the Williamstown Film Festival (www.williamstownfilmfest.com), the Northampton Film Festival (www.niff.org) and, a bit further south, near the Catskills, The Woodstock Film Festival (www.woodstockfilmfestival.com). A handful of theaters in the Berkshires are also embracing independent films. These include the Crandell Theatre (www.crandelltheatre.com) in Chatham, NY; Images Cinema (www.imagescinema.org) in Williamstown, Mass.; The Triplex Cinema (www.thetriplex.com), which offers both independent films and higher profile commercial films in Great Barrington, Mass; and the summer-only Little Cinema at Berkshire Museum (www.berkshiremuseum.org) in Pittsfield, Mass. An official Berkshire Film Festival is being planned for next year (possibly to be held at The Triplex) in the southern Berkshire region. It seems natural to me that an area with such a long history of inspiring artists would now open its arms to leading edge filmmakers.

Monday, October 10, 2005

 

Movie Posters by Norman Rockwell

As a dedicated fan of Norman Rockwell's work, some years back, I was surprised to learn that in addition to his now-world famous Saturday Evening Post covers, Rockwell was also occasionally commissioned by Hollywood studios to illustrate a movie poster. I love movie poster art, so, to discover that Rockwell, whose work I also greatly admire, had illustrated movie posters, was a real treat for me. His posters are easy to recognize since he didn't differ his artistic style for these works. Rockwell created six movie posters between 1941 and 1966: The Magnificent Ambersons (1941), Orson Welles' first post Citizen Kane film; The Song of Bernadette (1943), which won Jennifer Jones the Oscar for Best Actresss; Along Came Jones (1945), a western spoof staring Gary Cooper; The Razor's Edge (1946), which was nominated for Best Picture; the Jerry Lewis classic Cinderfella (1960); and the 1966 remake of John Ford's Stagecoach. Each poster proved to be a successful marketing tool and some have even become prized among collectors. (I own a Cinderfella poster.) Movie posters not drawn by Rockwell but clearly influenced by his style of illustration include Funny Farm, The Great Outdoors and the perennial holiday favorite A Christmas Story.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

 

Castle Film: King of 8mm Movies

Before DVD, before VHS, if you wanted to own a piece of Hollywood in your home, you bought the Castle Film version of your favorite Hollywood movie or cartoon. Did you, or your family, own a Castle Film? Mine did. Rummaging through an antique store in Vermont this weekend, I stumbled across a Castle Film of a World Series from the 1940s. For a time, Castle Film was the leading manufacturer of 8mm movies. Then I remembered, when I was a boy -- after my family would watch home movies flickering on the small movie screen from our 8mm projector -- my mother would thread through a silent, 12-minute version of a classic Abbott & Costello film. This was always a treat -- even though, on Sunday mornings, I could (and would) watch an entire Abbott & Costello film (complete with sound) on TV. Castle Film was founded in 1924 by Eugene Castle and originally distributed 16mm movies -- mostly newsreels and sports highlights -- by mail order and in photography stores. In the 1930s and early 1940s, the main Castle product was "soundies" -- kind of the music videos of its day. In select bars and restaurants, for a dime, a customer could, for example, view a soundie of Glenn Miller's orchestra playing its latest hit. In 1947, and very successful by then, Castle sold his company to United World Films. Soon after this deal was inked, another company stole the rights to the "soundies" and Castle Film needed to scramble for content. The new owners soon made a deal with Universal Studios to release scenes from some of their movie musicals on 16mm, and excerpts from other Universal movies including Abbott & Costello films, classic monster movies, and Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker, etc) cartoons on 8mm. In addition, Castle continued to produce newsreels and travelogues. A Castle Film came in two versions: the 50-foot reel (which was 3-4 minutes long) and the 200-foot reel (which was 12-16 minutes). The concept of the Castle Film was kind of antiquated to begin with: full length features were being edited down into silent shorts (complete with dialogue cards)! Still, families around the country gobbled them up and hit its peak in the 1960s. By the 1970s, demand for this type of home entertainment waned as 8mm equipment sales were in sharp decline. Soon, the advent of home video (in the early 1980s), and now DVD, completely overshadowed this quaint form of home entertainment.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

 

Movie of the Month Club

Since this year is moving so quickly, I thought it would be fun to research if there has been at least one movie title for each month of the year. I came up with some pretty interesting finds:
January Man (1989): What a cast! Kevin Kline, Susan Sarandon, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Harvey Keitel , Danny Aiello , Rod Steiger , and Alan Rickman. The film was written by Oscar-winner John Patrick Shanley who was still riding the high of the successful Moonstruck. Unfortunately this uneven comedy/crime drama didn't make it until February.
February (2003): From Thailand, this film tells the story of Kaewta a dying woman who wants to escape a painful past and spend her last four months in New York. When she arrives, she has an accident erasing her memory. And, when she meets a mysterious man while in NY, Kaewta embraces the chance for a new and beautiful life. But she doesn't realize her happiness can last only for four months.
23rd March 1931: Shaheed (2002): Directed by Guddu Dhanoa, this epic from India recounts the tale of freedom fighter Shaheed Bhagat Singh, who died at the age of 23 opposing the British occupied rule of his country. Shades of Gandhi.
Enchanted April (1992): Nominated for three Oscars, including Best Screenplay, this enchanting film, directed by Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) answers the question: What affect can a trip to sunny Italy have on four women who rent a chateau on a remote island off the coast?
Seven Days in May (1964): This John Frankenheimer film was tailor made for the dark days of the Cold War, but it still rings true today. An unpopular President (Frederick March) faces a coup from within the government, even though he's just managed to pass a Nuclear Disarmament treaty through the Senate. Kirk Douglas is the Marine Colonel who warns him, and Burt Lancaster is the popular head of the Joint Chiefs who may be behind it. But who can be trusted? Who indeed.
June Bride (1948): Sparks fly in this Bette Davis comedy when a foreign correspondent is offered a job at Home Life, a women's magazine, only to find that the editor is his old flame (Davis). To top it off, they both go on assignment to Indiana to cover the Brinker family's "typical American wedding." But things aren't quite as perfect as they seem!
Christmas in July (1940): In this classic Preston Sturges comedy, an office clerk (Dick Powell) -- who loves entering contests, and hopes of one day winning a fortune and marrying the girl he loves -- goes on a shopping spree (buying presents for all his family and friends) after his co-workers cruelly fool him into believing he's just won a $25,000 grand prize.
August (1996): Directorial debut and starring vehicle for Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) in an adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, set in Wales. Hopkins also wrote the score.
September (1987): Set in Vermont (but shot completely on a sound stage in NY), this lesser Woody Allen feature attempts to recapture the intellectual, angst ridden flavor of his earlier film Interiors.
October (1928): Sergei Eisenstein's reconstruction of the Russian Revolution, based on John Reed's "Ten Days That Shook the World." Warren Beatty would later explore this same story in Reds.
Sweet November (1968): A woman (Sandy Dennis) takes a new lover every month in an attempt to give him greater confidence and help him repair his life. But November's guy decides he wants to marry her. Remade in 2001 with Charlize Theron in the lead.
December (1991): In 1941, in the wake of the bombing of Peal Harbor, five college students discuss what to do with their lives.

Friday, October 07, 2005

 

Film School 101 for Blockbuster Employees

Here's a suggestion: Viacom should make it mandatory for all of its Blockbuster Video employees to pass a film quiz before being hired, otherwise require them to undergo six months of corporate training in basic film history, film appreciation and film theory. Blockbuster customers should not know more about films than Blockbuster employees. It should not be acceptable for a Blockbuster employee to look at a customer with a blank stare if asked about a film that was released more than six months ago. When Blockbuster Video roared onto the scene, it effectively shut down 99.9 percent of all the independent video rental stores (many of them run by people who had a love and/or knowledge of film), therefore the DVD rental chain should be held to task and require its workforce to appear somewhat intelligent about the films it carries. A few other quips: Why are so many seminal films not carried by Blockbuster? I mean shouldn't every major film by Hitchcock, Coppola, Kubrick, Capra and Chaplin be a given? How can Blockbuster carry the sequels to certain films but not the films themselves? How is it that Fellini's 8 1/2 is in the drama section and not the foreign film section? Is it acceptable that Kurosawa's epic Ran (which is both a drama and foreign) is stuck in the action section, opposite Godzilla films? Who decides this?

 

Capote's Screen Legacy

With Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, now in theaters (having beaten the similarly plotted Have You Heard? to the screen) and receiving rave reviews, it got me thinking about the legacy Truman Capote has left on film. Capote, many may know, led an extravagant, celebrated, and outrageous lifestyle. Breakfast at Tiffany's, his popular 1958 novel of New York socialite Holly Golightly, became a film in 1961, starring Audrey Hepburn and directed by Blake Edwards. It was nominated for five Oscars (including one for Hepburn's performance) and won two for composer Henry Mancini (including one for the song "Moon River"). That same year, along with William Archibald, Capote adapted the famed ghost story by Henry James, "Turn of the Screw" into the film The Innocents, also to much acclaim. In 1965, with his landmark book of a murdered Kansas family and its killers, In Cold Blood, he pioneered a new literary genre, the Nonfiction Novel. The following year, that story went on to become a brilliant film directed by Richard Brooks. It earned four Oscar nominations, including Best Director and Best Screenplay. Capote was at the peak of his celebrity in 1966 when he hosted what would become known as the highlight of social events for years to come -- the famous Black and White Ball. But his natural talent for weaving truth with fiction and his unflinching descriptions of his friends soon led to his rapid descent in popularity in the social circles. In the 1970s, reportedly an alcoholic and drug addict, he had become somewhat of a caricature of himself, showing up regularly at the famed disco (and drug Mecca) Studio 54 and, numerous times -- as a curiosity -- on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Except for his acting debut in the campy send up of fictional detectives Murder by Death in 1976, Capote and his work was largely absent from the screen in the 70s and 80s. It was not until almost a decade after his death of a drug overdose on August 25, 1984, that his work began to be rediscovered. In 1992, actor Robert Morse (best known for the film How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), reprised his stage performance as Capote in the one-man play Tru (written by Jay Presson Allen) for an American Playhouse production, and won the Emmy for Outstanding Actor. Other films based on Capote's work soon followed including: One Christmas (1994) also notable as Katherine Hepburn's last film; The Grass Harp (1995), based on Capote's 1951 novel; Other Voices, Other Rooms (1995), based on his first novel; a remake of In Cold Blood (1996); and A Christmas Memory (1997), based on a story he wrote in 1966. The film rights to the Capote novella, "Hand Carved Coffins" were held by producer Dino De Laurentiis and the project was offered (in the 80s) to directors Michael Cimino and David Lynch but to date, it has not been made into a film. The character of Truman Capote will show up on screen again next year in the films Have You Heard? (which, like the film Capote, also follows the writer's investigation of the murders that would lead to his penning the book "In Cold Blood") and The Hoax, directed by Lasse Hallstrom.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

 

Madagascar Penguins in A Christmas Caper

For my money, the best thing about Dreamwork SKG's animated feature Madagascar (which opened in theaters in the Spring of 2005) were the penguins. If you saw the film, I think you'd know why. They literally stole the show every single time they were on screen: They had the best lines and -- for me at least -- provided the film's funniest moments. Do you remember them popping out of a hole, after thinking they had burrowed halfway across the globe (using plastic spoons!), only to realize they ended up in the Marty the Zebra's pen, at the same zoo? Skipper the Penguin: "Hey, Quadruped. Sprechen Sie Englisch?" Marty: "I sprechen." Skipper: "What continent is this?" Marty: "Manhattan." Skipper: "Hoover Dam! We're still in New York! Dive! Dive! Dive!" And, as he slowly descends back down the hole, Skipper -- making circular motions with his hands in front of his face -- says, in a hypnotic tone, "You didn't see anything!" (My six-year-old son does the BEST imitation of this scene -- and it cracks me up every time!) How about when the penguins are caught in Grand Central Station? ("We've been ratted out boys. Just smile and wave, boys; smile and wave.") Or when they finally arrive in Antarctica and see the barren, wind-swept, iced-over land that it is? ("Well, this sucks!) Hilarious.
Tomorrow, A Christmas Caper, a short animated film featuring the Madagascar penguins will open along with Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The short is directed by Gary Trousdale (who helmed the only animated feature ever to be nominated for Best Picture -- Beauty & the Beast and, what I believe to be one of Disney's finest animated films -- The Hunchback of Notre Dame).
A Christmas film? Now? Well, I was in Home Depot today (better than three weeks before Halloween) and the store's Christmas display was up and running. Let's face it. The holiday starts earlier every year. Anyway, I'm excited to see my favorite characters from Madagascar in their own short. Hell, I'm excited that an animated short is actually opening in a theater. Perhaps with the recent increase in animation production in Hollywood, the animated short film will return to its rightful place -- in theaters, before a feature. (Hey, if this happens, maybe the Motion Picture Academy won't have to look to foreign animated shorts -- as it has for years now -- to find worthy nominees come Oscar time.) Nick Park, the director of Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, won two of his three Oscars for shorts featuring these characters (The Wrong Trousers in 1993, and A Close Shave in 1995). Do you remember seeing them in a theater when they came out? How about his first Oscar winner, Creature Comforts? No? Hmmm? Maybe my penguin friends will lead the way back! But remember, "You didn't see anything!"

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

 

Ride 'Em, Then Watch 'Em!

Universal Studios built entire theme parks around its films. Jaws the ride. Back to the Future the ride. E.T. the ride. The GhostBusters live show. Kongfrontation. Even a musical stage show featuring the studios classic movie monsters. But there was a time when few, if any, could have imagined that rides would one day become films! Of course who better than Walt Disney, with its built-in brand attractions at Disneyland and Disney World to test the waters? In 1997, Disney used it TV showcase The Wonderful World of Disney to produce The Tower of Terror, starring Steve Guttenberg. Based on the highly popular Twilight Zone Tower of Terror thrill ride at the Disney/MGM theme park in Florida, the film is faithful to the attraction's story of how The Hollywood Hotel became haunted following a tragic elevator accident during its hey day. Oddly, for its first foray into a theatrical release of an attraction-turned-movie, Disney chose a ride that had been closed for seven years. The Mission to Mars ride opened in Tomorrowland at Walt Disney World Florida on June 7, 1975, and closed on October 4, 1993, but that didn't stop it from becoming a movie in 2000 directed by none other than Brian DePalma! The film did poor boxoffice, but the famed "Les Cahiers du cinema" magazine in France chose it as one of the 10 best pictures of that year. In 2002, based on an attraction at Disneyland called "The Country Bear Jamboree," The Country Bears hit theaters, aimed squarely at the youngest of audiences. The film follows the adventures of Beary (Haley Joel Osment) as he attempts to find and reunite the members of his favorite bear band for one final concert. Despite being able to enlist the talents of Don Henley, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Brian Setzer, Don Was and Christopher Walken, the film just plods along and also did not do well at the boxoffice. For its next attempt, Disney got it right. Based on the mildly adventurous boat ride at both Disneyland and Disney World, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, in the hands of director Gore Verbinski (The Ring) is one helluva ride. With numerous references to various scenes and elements of the ride, the film is both a fun ghost story and a wildly imagined adventure. It features grandly acted performances by Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush and Johnny Depp (who received his first Oscar nomination for the portrayal of pirate Jack Sparrow). The film received a total of five Academy Award nominations. Next up from Disney was The Haunted Mansion, based the beloved attraction of the same name. The film's attempt to cash in on Eddie Murphy's new found status as a family comedy star didn't seem to work as audiences, hoping for a film that would equal their memories of the attraction itself, expected more, and stayed away in droves. So what's up next? Well, no less than two sequels to Pirates is in the works. Will any other attractions become films? How about Space Mountain: The Movie? Or, The Great Tea Cup Adventures? I can hardly wait!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

 

O. Henry & Film

Edgar Allan Poe may be credited with having created the short story, but it was O. Henry (and later Rod Serling) who perfected it. O. Henry understood that a short story did not have the same literary arc as a full length story, and as such, it was best to have readers race to an end that gave them a surprise, a twist, something unexpected. O. Henry was masterful at this, and even though he wrote at the beginning of the 20th century, his stories are still being adapted today (more than 100 years later). More than 200 films have been made from O. Henry short stories. Perhaps his most famous is "The Gift of the Magi," a Christmas favorite of selfless love and giving within a marriage during the holidays. It was filmed numerous times (as early as 1909 and twice in 1978 -- once as a musical, and then again, starring Marie Osmond). The Honeymooners Christmas episode is loosely based on this story as well. Over time, it has become as important a story at Christmas time as "A Christmas Carol." O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief" has also been filmed many times, most recently in 1998 starring Christopher Lloyd and Haley Joel Osment in a version directed by Bob Clark (A Christmas Story) and written by Ed Naha (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) but perhaps most interestingly as Ruthless People, starring Bette Midler, Danny DeVito and directed by Jim Abrahams and David Zucker (the guys who made Airplane!). "A Retrieved Reformation" is another popular O. Henry story that's been adapted several times. My favorite version is the 1978 film directed by Hollingsworth Morse and starring Ken Berry and Elizabeth Baur. It was originally aired as an "ABC Weekend Special" and tells the tale of Jimmy Valentine, a recently released safecracker who is trying to keep his past a secret as he starts a new life. In 1952, the film O. Henry's Full House pulled five of his stories together: "The Clarion Call," directed by Henry Hathaway; "The Ransom of Red Chief," directed by Howard Hawks; "The Gift of the Magi," directed by Henry King; "The Copy and the Anthem," directed by Henry Koster; and "The Last Leaf," directed by Jean Negulesco. In some ways, features are not the best format for O. Henry stories, often padded to fill out the time he never intended for them to have. But, as long as student and professional filmmakers still embrace the short film, there will be no greater source of material than the magnificent short stories of O. Henry.

Monday, October 03, 2005

 

First Little Shop of Horrors, Then The Producers, Now Hairspray

Hairspray, the low-budget 1988 film from former underground director John Waters is on its way to becoming the third film in what, I think, is a fun trend: that of the non-musical film which inspires a Broadway musical which, in turn, is adapted into a big budget movie musical. Follow? Little Shop of Horrors kinda led the way. The original version (a cult favorite) was shot in just a couple of days by director Roger Corman in 1960. Twenty-two years later, songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken (the team who would go on to revive the dying Disney animation franchise with The Little Mermaid, Beauty & the Beast and Aladdin) thought it would make a great stage musical. In 1982, that version premiered to rave reviews and then went on to be adapted, in 1986, as a movie musical by director Frank Oz. The Producers, a non-musical comedy starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, won writer/director Mel Brooks an Oscar for screenwriting in 1968. In 2001, it was made into a Broadway musical, directed by Susan Stroman, and went on to set a new Broadway record, receiving 12 Tony awards (a clean sweep), including Best Musical of the Year. That outstanding success then led to the Stroman-directed film version of the musical, due out later this year, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick (both of whom originated their characters on stage). Hairspray followed The Producers to the stage in 2003 (with the brilliant casting of Harvey Fierstein in the role originated by Divine in the film). It also went on to win the Tony for Best Musical and is now coming full circle and being made into the movie musical version of itself. Cast and director are not yet finalized and a release date is tentatively being set for 2007. I'm interested in seeing which film might be next.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

 

Songs to Film?

Since the beginning of cinema. filmmakers have looked to other media as source material for films. Initially, books (specifically the classics) served this purpose. Soon, plays and musicals joined the fold. Eventually, TV shows, video games and even amusement park attractions were all used as fodder for films. Interestingly, scattered throughout, have been a handful of films that have used songs as their influence. A few spring to mind.
White Christmas: This film was a remake of Holiday Inn (which originally introduced the Oscar-winning Irving Berlin song). With so much brand equity built around the popularity of the song so quickly, the remake was named for it, even though the song isn't used in the movie until the very end!
Pink Floyd's The Wall: When the announcement was made that director Alan Parker was going to adapt this masterful album into a film based on a screenplay by Pink Floyd lead singer Roger Waters, I was expecting the best film ever made, since, at the time I believed (and still believe) that The Wall to be the greatest rock album ever recorded. Sadly, the film did not meet that expectation.
Tommy: The Who's rock opera in the hands of eccentric director Ken Russell is what it is. Very much of its time. Still, it gave us Elton John as The Pinball Wizard and Eric Clapton as The Preacher. And, did you know, John Lennon has a cameo in the film as well?
Love Potion # 9: This Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller song hit the charts in 1964, but it wasn't until 1992 that it became a film, faithful to the fun lyrics and melody, and served as an early vehicle for Sandra Bullock.
Can't By Me Love: This Beatles song-inspired comedy was directed by Steve Rash (who also directed The Buddy Holly Story).
Final Note: While David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Harold Becker's Sea of Love are not exactly inspired by the songs of the same name, can anyone who's seen these films think of those songs in the same way again? I can't.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

 

Tribute to VHS Movie Packaging at Wendy's

I popped into Wendy's today, for lunch with my children, and noticed that, with its Kid's Meals, the fast food chain had teamed up with Universal Studios Home Entertainment to offer various movie-related toys in boxes that were miniature replications of vintage (and I can't believe I'm using the word vintage to describe this) VHS packaging of five family films: An American Tail, Babe, Back to the Future, Beethoven, and Casper. (Did they do this alphabetically?) I have always been a sucker for a movie's poster art. Remember in the pre-DVD days, when VHS packages for children or family films came in oversized plastic boxes rather that the standard cardboard slipcovers? Disney used this all the time. And so did Universal, for certain titles, including those currently at Wendy's. Anyway, I thought it was a great promotion paying homage to established films rather than serving as commercial tie-ins for new, untested ones.

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