Thursday, March 31, 2011

My Cinematic Alphabet

Taking my cue from a post at the terrific Rupert Pupkin Speaks blog (who in turn got the idea from the equally great, I've decided to put together a list of 26 favorite films, each beginning with a unique letter of the alphabet. This is by no means a list of what I consider the best films, more a list of favorites which have impacted me personally over the years. Even so, this was a tougher list to put together than I originally thought it would be. I found myself kicking so many great films to the curb in favor of sentimental favorites that I may find myself making another list sometime soon so I can include some the greats that I left off this time.

A is for Annie Hall

B is for Breathless

C is for Caligula

D is for Diner

E is for The Exorcist

F is for A Fistful of Dollars

G is for Godzilla

H is for Hair

I is for Invasion of the Body Snatchers

J is for Jaws

K is for King Kong

L is for The Last Temptation of Christ

M is for Mulholland Drive

N is for Nashville

O is for Once Upon a Time in the West

P is for Pink Flamingos

Q is for Q

R is for Repo Man

S is for Suspiria

T is for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

U is for Under the Volcano

V is for Vertigo

W is for War of the Worlds

X is for X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes

Y is for Young Frankenstein

Z is for Zulu

I'd love to see other folks try their hands at such a list. If you feel up to making one of your own please let me know so I can check it out.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: The Sorcerers (1967)

The tragically short career of director Michael Reeves consisted of only three films. THE SORCERERS was the second and the first to examine the theme of the addiction of power and the effect that power has on those it is used against.

Boris Karloff play Professor Marcus Monserrat, an elderly medical hypnotist living in near poverty with his wife, Estelle. Monserrat has been making a meager living since being stigmatized by the press as a fraud. He hopes to make his comeback by introducing his latest invention to the world: a machine that will allow a subject to be controlled remotely while enabling his or her experiences to be experienced by others. To test the device Monserrat lures young man about town Mike (Ian Ogilvy) to his apartment with the promise of a new and exciting experience. Mike is hypnotized, told to forget ever meeting Monserrat and given the suggestion to go for a late night swim with his girlfriend, Nicole (Elizabeth Ercy). The experiment is a success and Monserrat and Estelle are thrilled to be able to see and feel Mike's swim as if it were happening to them. Monserrat want to go public with the device, thinking it will be a boon invalids by allowing them to live richer lives. Estelle, however, sees it as a way to attain the luxuries she has been denied all these years. She forces Mike to steal a fur coat and becomes addicted to the thrill of him almost being caught by the police. She becomes immersed in a battle of wills with her husband, who realizes how dangerous her thirst for power has made her. She continues to place Mike in ever more dangerous situations, eventually forcing him to become a serial killer, until Moserrat is forced to take drastic measures to stop her.
THE SORCERERS is an exciting, unique film. It's probably the first film to deal with the concept of virtual reality, beating the at least superficially similar STRANGE DAYS to the punch be almost thirty years. It's also relentlessly downbeat. Once Estelle is given her first taste of control over Mike she is not only unable to stop, but unwilling. She never for a moment takes into account the effect her actions are having on Mike, who is suffering blackouts and doesn't understand why he is feeling the compulsion to do terrible things. Her hunger for control over Mike leads to an inevitable bad end not only for herself, Monserrat and Mike but also for everyone around them. This is a theme that Michael Reeves would return to in his next film, THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968), starring Vincent Price as an inquisitor who holds the power of life and death over those he comes into contact with.
This film also provides Boris Karloff with one of his last great roles. Even at the age of eighty he manages to be a commanding presence on screen. It's a shame his character has very little to do in the second half of the film. Karloff would make one more great film, Peter Bogdanovich's TARGETS (1968), before heading to Mexico to make grade-Z dreck until his death in 1969. Ogilvy is also very good in a role that requires him to go from someone who is in absolute control of every situation to someone who becomes convinced he is no longer in control of his behavior. The film also features an early appearance by Susan George as an ex-girlfriend of Ogilvy's.

As mentioned, director Michael Reeves would go on make one more film, THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which is generally regarded as a masterpiece. He would be found dead of a barbiturate overdose in 1969 at the age of 25 while in pre-production on his fourth film. It was a untimely end to a most promising career.
For more overlooked films go here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: Americathon (1979)

For more overlooked films go here.

There are two types of overlooked film. One is the small gem which perhaps didn't have a huge marketing push and fell through the cracks, waiting to be discovered by an appreciative public. The other is the type of film that never had a chance at an appreciative audience, misfires that can only be thought of fondly by the families of the people that made them. This, my friends, is AMERICATHON. directed by Neal Israel and based on a play by the Firesign Theatre's Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, this is a movie that should have been a whole let funnier than it is.

Set in the far-flung future world of 1998, an out of control energy crisis has left the US bankrupt, leaving people to live in their park cars instead of driving them and forcing the US government to borrow $400 billion from the country's wealthiest citizen (played by Chief Dan George) in order to keep the country afloat. When the government is given thirty days to repay the debt, President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) puts on hold his plans to raffle the tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the highest bidder in order to televise a national telethon (an Americathon, if you will) in order to raise the money. 

This premise should have been a launching point for the kind of ensemble sketch comedy that Israel showed some talent with in his previous film, TUNNEL VISION. Instead, we get subplots involving the telethon's hapless producer (Peter Reigert) and a  sabotage attempt by a coalition of Arab states and Israel (called the United Herab Republic) who want to own the US once it's foreclosed upon. 

Israel fumbles the ball here at every opportunity. The cast tries hard but it has no chance when fighting against the leaden pacing and obvious jokes. The one bright spot is Zane Buzby as Mouling Jackson, a Vietnamese punk rocker with whom the President becomes infatuated. Her performance has an energy and excitement the rest of the film lacks. It's a shame the movie is such a dud since the subject matter is certainly topical. It could have had a new lease on life if it were just, you know, funny. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: The Mysterious Monsters (1976)

For more overlooked films go here.

Going to the movies as a child in the mid to late 1970s it was impossible to avoid the documentaries of Sunn Classic Pictures. They would sweep into town, saturating the TV with ads the convinced every kid in town that they HAD to see the film, only to disappear by the next weekend. Sunn specialized in documentaries about fringe subjects: The Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, ancient astronauts, ghosts and even conspiracy theories surrounding Abraham Lincoln's assassination were typical fare. I saw them all and I was a true believer. However my favorite Sunn doc was THE MYSTERIOUS MONSTERS, which exploited the at the time fascination with Bigfoot. I remember talking my brother into taking me to see and he hasn't let me forget it to this day. When I was given the opportunity to see this again after 35 years I thought it'd be fun to see how it holds up.

The film begins with a post-MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE/pre-AIRPLANE Peter Graves somberly looking into the camera and telling the audience that MYSTERIOUS MONSTERS could very well be "the most startling film you will ever see." Yikes. We're then shown an unfortunate actor in a ratty Bigfoot suit walking through the woods. Graves then gives us the history of Bigfoot and informs us that science is discovering new species of animals all the time. Just because we haven't seen one up close doesn't mean it's not out there, close by. Maybe in the theater seat right behind you? 

We then get a short detour to Scotland, where Graves tells us about the Loch Ness Monster. We see all the usual still photos and motion picture footage of Nessie. We see a team of scientists explore the loch before coming back with the motherload: an underwater photo of what looks like a giant fin! Graves mentions this as proof positive of the monster's existence and if Nessie is real then so is Bigfoot, right? Makes sense to me.
Back in the Pacific Northwest we get to see lots of reenactments of people's encounters with Bigfoot. For a creature who is supposedly wary of humans it sure does seem to enjoy wandering into folk's yards, smashing their living room windows and at one point even knocking on the front door.  We're then treated to the scientific portion of the film, where audio recordings of the film are analyzed and determined to not come from any known animal. "It's probably Bigfoot," Graves concludes. People are subjected to hypnosis and polygraph tests to make sure they're not lying. Of course they wouldn't lie! After all, all of those giant footprints have to have come from somewhere. The film ends with Graves surmising that Bigfoot may be a distant cousin of man or maybe even the missing link. He suggests that since they appear to be peaceful, solitary creatures (apart from all the window smashing) we should just all learn to get along. 
So is MYSTERIOUS MONSTERS worth a watch? It really depends on your feelings towards the Bigfoot phenomenon, since I don't think this movie is going to change anyone's mind either way. When we saw it back in '76 my brother was convinced he had wasted several dollars as well as two hours of his life. I was convinced that Bigfoot was living in our yard. All in all I felt the movie held up well based on what I can remember of that first viewing. Parts of it are pretty silly and it's conclusions may be suspect but it's an entertaining documentary which at least pays lip service to providing scientific proof regarding the subject. After all, it must be true. Peter Graves would never lie to me.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: The Great Silence (1968)

For more overlooked films go here.

Director Sergio Corbucci was a master of the spaghetti western craze that swept through Italy and Spain in the 1960s and '70s. He directed several classic westerns during this period including MINNESOTA CLAY 1964), COMPANEROS (1970) and most famously DJANGO (1966), which became an international hit, spawning one official sequel and dozens of in name only imitators. In 1968 he made THE GREAT SILENCE, one of the grimmest of the spaghetti western cycle and also one of the best. 

In 1898 Snow Hill, Utah a blizzard is raging  that is causing the townsfolk to turn to crime in order to feed their families. This turns out to be a blessing for a gang of bounty hunters led by the sadistic Loco (Klaus Kinski), who are becoming rich murdering the outlaws and cashing in the bounty. Enter Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a mute gunslinger who is willing to avenge the deaths of the townspeople - for a price. When Pauline (Vonetta McGee, in her first film) hires Silence to kill Loco in retaliation for the death of her husband a game of cat and mouse is set into motion culminating in a shootout from which only one man will walk away.

Corbucci goes to great pains to point out the similarities between Silence and Loco: they both kill for money ($1,000 to be exact) and neither is willing to shoot first. Their motivations, however, couldn't be more different. Silence is avenging an injustice performed on his family as a child while Loco is shown to enjoy the pain he inflicts, using his position as a legal bounty hunter to get way with killing while getting paid for it at the same time. Since Silence never speaks and therefore is something of a blank slate through much of the film it's the character of Loco that propels the dark mood of the film. We see from the beginning that he's a bad guy and, of course, a little crazy (hence his name) but it's not until late in the film that we get to see just how psychotic he really is, leading to one of the darkest and most disturbing climaxes in western history. It's also a very chilly film, with the blizzard itself becoming a major character. You'll shiver along with the characters in the film. Much credit goes to Corbucci for this since the film was shot outside Rome during the summer months.

THE GREAT SILENCE was never released theatrically in the US. Instead, an American remake was planned but was never produced. It took until 2001 for the film to finally receive a home video release in the States.