Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bowling for Columbine (2002).

The Scoop:
Whether you love Michael Moore or hate him, you have to admit that he's made a pretty powerful statement with "Bowling for Columbine." While taking its inspiration from the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., the film does not examine the particulars of the shootings so much as use it as a jumping-off point for a larger, thought-provoking mediation on America's gun culture.

This isn't the simple liberal screed Moore's critics might expect, since he admits at the beginning (much to the surprise of many, I am sure) that he owns several guns himself and is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. Ever the self-referentialist, Moore bookends his film with segments about his hometown of Flint, Mich., -- the first about local members of the Michigan Militia and the last about a school shooting involving two first graders. In between there are visits to Littleton (including a lengthy segment with the harrowing, unedited surveillance footage and 911 recordings of the Columbine massacre), Hollywood, Canada and even K-Mart corporate headquarters. Along the way, he allows a lot of voices to be heard, from people on the street, to corporate shills, to Columbine victims, to Marilyn Manson (who offers a surprisingly thoughtful response to those who blamed his music for the shootings). There is even a coda with a surprise interview with NRA president Charleton Heston, who unfortunately misses his chance at a little image rehabilitation be refusing to answer any of the tough questions.

Moore doesn't offer any easy answers, because the subject is far too complex for that, but a couple of culprits behind the problem jump out pretty quickly -- namely, the NRA's hardline leadership and the fear-driven news coverage of the modern media. He also tries to make a case for the culpability of the entire military-industrial complex, which, although it deserves blame for a lot that is wrong in the world, seems to be a bit of a stretch.

There are a few grandstanding moments (it wouldn't be a Michael Moore film without them) but they are kept to a minimum in favor of some good old-fashioned, non-partisan muckracking. It is perhaps Moore's best, most fully-realized film. It is certainly his most decorated, having won a bushel full of awards, including the Oscar for Best Documentary (which prompted a most memorable acceptance speech).

Best Bit:
James Nichols (brother of Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols) giving free rein to his psychosis. (Also, the animated history of U.S. paranoia is pretty good, too.)

Side Note:
At the time it was released, "Bowling for Columbine" became the highest-grossing documentary of all time. It only held the title for two years, though, when it was surpassed by Moore's next film, "Fahrenheit 9/11."

Companion Viewing:
"Roger and Me" (1989) and "Fahrenheit 9/11" (2004).

Links:
IMDb.
Official Site.
Truth about "Bowling for Columbine" by David Hardy.
A response to Hardy's piece.
Moore's reaction to pro-gun critics of the film.

Take a Look:
The trailer (And if you look closely at the beginning, you'll see that one guy from "Best Week Ever." Right on!):


Marilyn Manson discusses the reaction to the massacre:


A brief history of the United States of America:


Some more "highlights" from American history:

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).

The Scoop:
Okay, by this point it was just getting silly. This fourth installment in Universal's Frankenstein series started its long downhill slide in quality, mirroring the overall decline of the horror film genre in the 1940s.

This time around, there's yet another descendant of the mad doctor (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) trying to control the creature. Bela Lugosi is back as Ygor (despite the fact that he was killed at the end of the previous movie), and so is Lionel Atwill, although he's playing an entirely different character. Ralph Bellamy and Evelyn Ankers play the obligatory young couple. Since Boris Karloff wisely bowed out, the moster duties were turned over to Lon Chaney Jr., whose performance is an utter parody of Karloff's.

Hell, the whole movie is practically a parody of its predecessors. That didn't stop Universal from milking this cash cow, though -- this was followed by four more films in the series, which finally ended with a sputter with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein."

"The Ghost of Frankenstein" was written by Scott Darling (a rewrite of the original script by Eric Taylor, which the studio found too depressing) and directed by Erle C. Kenton -- genre veterans with filmographies that are long on B-grade quickies, but short on quality. The makeup and costume design leave a lot to be desired, too. But on the plus side, the film looks good, thanks to the efforts of art director Jack Otterson and cinematographers Woody Bredell and Milton Krasner.

Best Bit:
The monster trying to indicate that he wants to trade brains with a little girl. It is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds.

Side Note:
The film was released on a Friday the 13th.

Companion Viewing:
The rest of the series.

Links:
IMDb.
Monster Hunter.
1,000 Misspent Hours.
Moria.

Take a Look:
The heart-pounding trailer!


"You talk as though this is the dark ages!"


Ygor never learned that it's not a good idea to taunt the angry villagers who are armed with dynamite. At least he has a new BFF:

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Day of the Locust (1975).

The Scoop:
Nathanael West's 1939 novel about ambition and alienation in the golden age of Hollywood makes an excellent jump to the screen, thanks to director John Schlesinger and screenwriter Waldo Salt, who imbue the glamour of Tinseltown with the weight of biblical prophecy.

William Atherton and Karen Black are two hopefuls trying to make it in the movie business while pursuing a doomed romance -- Atherton's Tod Hackett is a set painter while Black's Faye Greener hopes to be an actress. Along the way they cross paths with the eccentric and doomed denizens who inhabit the periphery of stardom and pursue their shallow dreams. All this alienation, desperation and repression finally erupt in a harrowing, apocalyptic climax.

The performances are uniformly great, and among the supporting cast are such able veterans as Burgess Meredith, Donald Sutherland, Geraldine Page, Billy Barty, William Castle and others. The story's deliberate pace requires close attention at times, but it is amply rewarded. A stunning film. You'll never listen to "Jeepers Creepers" in the same way again.

Best Bit:
The final sequence at the movie premiere, still one of the most shocking and effective scenes put on film.

Side Note:
Sutherland's unbalanced simpleton is a memorable character, in more ways than one. The character's name is Homer Simpson, which is has become forever linked with Matt Groening's "The Simpsons."

Companion Viewing:
"L.A. Confidential" (1997).

Links:
IMDb.
Senses of Cinema.

Take a Look:
The trailer:


The final scene. (Warning, spoilers abound! Seriously, don't watch this unless you've already seen the rest of the movie. I can't stress this enough.):

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Black Scorpion (1957).

The Scoop:
"The Black Scorpion" is another big critter flick, in general pretty emblematic of the era. The one difference is that this time the stop motion creature effects were created by legendary effects master Willis O'Brien, near the end of his career.

A volcanic eruption in Mexico unleashes a plague of giant scorpions on the surrounding villages. The obligatory studly scientist guy (Richard Denning) fights them, accompanied by his Mexican sidekick (Carlos Rivas) and girlfriend (the luscious Mara Corday). Everything goes just about as you expect it would, with a little Anglo paternalism toward the locals along the way. O'Brien's work, some of the best of his career, provides all the high points; however, because producers Jack Dietz and Frank Melford saw their budget run out too quickly, several effects shots were never finished properly and were replaced with traveling matte silhouettes.

This one is strictly by the book, distinguished only by the high quality of "King Kong" auteur O'Brien's animation.

Best Line:
"This looks like a job for us!"

Side Note:
The following year, Corday would go on to be a Playboy Playmate.

Companion Viewing:
"Them!" (1954) and "The Beginning of the End" (1957).

Links:
IMDb.
B-Movie Central.
BadMovies.org.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Airport '77 (1977).

The Scoop:
Ah yes, the 1970s disaster film -- where old actors go to die. This time around (the third of the four "Airport" films), the old Hollywood warhorses making fools of themselves are James Stewart, Olivia de Haviland and Joseph Cotten, all with their glory days far behind them.

The plot involves a huge airliner full of important people that sinks to the bottom of the Bermuda Triangle thanks to a botched hijacking attempt. Also along for the ride with the aging vets are a host of younger stars such as Jack Lemmon, Brenda Vaccaro, Christopher Lee, Monte Markham, Lee Grant (in an absolutely insane performance) and, of course, "Airport" series stalwart George Kennedy.

All the clich├ęs (not to mention plot absurdities) are on parade. This film is very '70s -- intensely '70s, painfully '70s. It's cream puffs like this that the Zucker/Abrams/Zucker team were able to hit out of the park in "Airplane!" (1980). Becuase of them, it's so hard now to watch these movies with a straight face anymore. In short, this is an unintentional comedy classic.

Best Bit:
Son: "Who's that, Mommy?"
Mother: "That's your grandpa."
Son: "Have I ever met him?"
Mother: "Oh, once or twice."

Side Note:
The costumes were designed by old Hollywood warhorse Edith Head, also rapidly reaching the end of her career.

Companion Viewing:
"The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) and "Airport" (1970).

Links:
IMDb.
AirOdyssey.
Movie Mistakes.

Take a Look:
The thrilling crash scene:

Friday, September 12, 2008

First Man Into Space (1959).

The Scoop:
The pilot of the first manned space flight (played by Marshall Thompson) returns to Earth covered with an odd dust that causes him to go on a killing rampage. This somewhat interesting, though overly slow, cheapie from director Robert Day is one of the better of the late-'50s wave of films warning about the perils of the imminent age of manned space travel. Granted, given the quality of the other films of that ilk, that's not saying much. Still, it's an interesting look into the fears of the period, and worth a look for viewers with a soft spot for the genre. The plot was later liberally borrowed for "The Incredible Melting Man" (1975).

Best Bit:
The newspaper headline that refers to the title character as "The Highest Man in the World."

Side Note:
Although the film takes place on an American military base, it was shot in Great Britain. Usually this wouldn't be noticable on-screen, except that many of the base signs use British spellings.

Companion Viewing:
The even-worse "Night of the Blood Beast" (1958) and "Monster a Go-Go" (1965).

Links:
IMDb.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Valley of Gwangi (1969).

The Scoop:
One of the most endearing traits (among many) a B-movie can have is a brash spirit of experimentation. With lower expectations, filmmakers can try new things, throw mismatched genres together, take chances -- it can be fascinating to watch, whether it works or not. "The Valley of Gwangi" has just this sort of playful spirit. While it doesn't quite work, it is fun to watch anyway.

Want a western? Want a dinosaur flick? Want a turgid love story? Well, they're all here.

In this twist on the "King Kong" story James Franciscus stars as an American rodeo showman who discovers a hidden prehistoric valley in Mexico and wants to round up the dinosaurs for his traveling show. Gina Golan (Miss Israel 1961) and Richard Carlson are along for the ride, as are the always charming special effects of Rey Harryhausen, who brings Gwangi (a cranky T. Rex) and all his ancient playmates to life. It's one of those head-scratching, "What the hell were they thinking?" concepts that you just have to love, no matter much the execution might come up short.

Best Bit:
Dino fights!

Side Note:
The film was originally conceived as a follow-up to "King Kong," and there was even some footage shot before the project was scrapped. Some of that footage was recycled for "Mighty Joe Young" (1949).

Companion Viewing:
"The Land Unknown" (1957) and "King Kong" (1933).

Links:
IMDb.
Bad Movie Planet.
The Seventh Voyage.
Stomp Tokyo.

Take a Look:
The trailer:


The complete film is available in installments on YouTube, beginning here:

Friday, September 05, 2008

Topaz (1969).


The Scoop:
Much like he did with "Saboteur" years earlier, Alfred Hitchcock eschewed big box office stars to make this Cold War espionage tale. A pair of spies -- one American (John Forsythe) and one French (Frederick Stafford) -- team up to hunt for Soviet nuclear secrets in Havana during the Cuban Missle Crisis. The film is based on a Leon Uris novel (adapted by Samuel A. Taylor), which in turn was based on a true story.

Thanks to the changing times, Hitch was able to take advantage of Hollywood's looser restriction on sexual content, being more explicit with many of the things he only hinted at in his earlier films. And there are some good sequences detailing the nuts-and-bolts of espionage work. But beyond that "Topaz" cannot quite be considered the highlight of his late (post-"The Birds") period, and it is certainly not on par with his classics. This film is a must only for Hitchcock completists and Cold War spy buffs -- for everyone else, this is strictly optional.

Best Bit:
The cinematography during Juanita's death scene.

Side Note:
Hitchcock, a notorious perfectionist about his preproduction, continued to fuss with the script and storyboards during shooting. In fact, he shot three different endings, the only time he ever did so.

Companion Viewing:
"Saboteur" (1942) and "Torn Curtain" (1966).

Links:
IMDb.
Associated Content.
This Distracted Globe.

Take a Look:
I love the vintage "swinging" look of this trailer:


We found Hitch's cameo, so you don't have to:

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Wordled.

There's new content coming soon, I promise! In the meantime, here's the site rendered in Wordle (click to enlarge):



[via http://wordle.net/.]