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May 15, 2016

THE LAST 10 FILMS I WATCHED - May 13, 2016

I have been a loyal subscriber to Film Comment for almost 20 years now.  I first discovered the magazine during a lunch break while at a Driver's Education course in 1990.  It was the March/April issue (the publication is bi-monthly) and James Stewart was on the cover.  I was instantly taken in by the smart film writing, and for a while in High School I referred to it as my "Film Snob" magazine, especially when anyone saw it sitting next to the newest issues of Premiere or Entertainment Weekly.




One of my favorite features that has been added in recent years is when they have famous people list the last 10 films they've seen.  It's a great moment when you see someone like Werner Herzog list The Avengers alongside classic and foreign films (note, I'm making up that example, I forget if Mr. Herzog has even done a list or if he listed The Avengers on it).

So in the spirit of the Film Comment column, I am going to randomly do the same thing and post the last 10 films I have seen with the exception of expanding the entries with my thoughts on the films.  I find going back and looking over the last few titles is a great way to see where I've been cinematically, as well as also reveal gaps (minor or otherwise) in my film-viewing journey.

Starting from the tenth and working my way to the most recent.



THE SAPHEAD 

1920
Directed by: Herbert Blache and Winchell Smith
Scenario by June Mathis based on the original play The Henrietta, and the play by Victor Mapes and Winchell Smith

Buster Keaton is the 1920s version of a playboy.  He's young, he's spoiled and he's in love. An ambitious yet crooked investor working for the family business frames Keaton for his illegitimate affair - and child - ruining his impending marriage to his sweetheart. When left in charge, the investor tries to bankrupt the company for his own gain, however he doesn't account for Keaton who has just purchased a seat at the New York Stock Exchange who foils the plan in the typical comedic fashion.




This silent picture was restored with two versions of the film on a Kino Lorber Blu-ray Disc.  The final sequence has all the madcap hilarity that make silent pictures so fascinating and memorable, with Keaton unknowingly foiling the devious plot, forever keeping that famous stone face of his intact. 

Thanks to the passage of time, it's interesting to think about this Stock Market themed comedy that was released a mere nine years before the 1929 crash that resulted in the Great Depression.  Seeing the happy-go-lucky investors and stock traders that in a few short years will be anything but.



SWORD OF THE BEAST

1965
Directed by Hideo Gosha
Written by Hideo Gosha, Elizaburo Shiba

A Samurai is tricked into betraying his master, and is then hunted by the vengeful clan members.  During his flight, he comes across another Samurai who along with his Wife is stealing gold for their clan from a rival clan.  Corruption and betrayal are everywhere as these men who live by a strict code find very little honor surrounding them.



Much grittier than a Kurosawa picture, this Samurai story is a bit disjointed in spots, but in the end takes an unexpected turn.  The opening sequence of a woman distracting the protagonist with sex in a field is very racy, especially for a film of this period.

While not up to the quality of a Kurosawa film (and it';s hard not to compare because let's face it, Kurosawa's work is the gold standard) this presents a different take on the Samurai tale than you may be used to.




THE CASSANDRA CROSSING

1976
Directed by George Pan Cosmatos
Screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz & Robert Katz and George Pan Cosmatos, based on a story by Robert Katz and George Pan Cosmatos

The Cassandra Crossing qualifies as a gift from the cinematic gods for me.  I randomly came across the Blu-ray Disc (from Shout! Factory, a double feature with The Domino Principle which will make an appearance on this list shortly).

From the director who nine years later would direct Rambo: First Blood Part II, then later Tombstone, this thriller starts on a high note and charges full steam ahead, going off the tracks (pun intended) in spectacular fashion - in a good way.




A pair of Swedish terrorists attempt to blow up a hospital, and accidentally expose themselves to a deadly, biological weapon.  One of them gets out alive, and makes his getaway on a train bound from Geneva for Paris.  Burt Lancaster is an American General charged with stopping him, and keeping the disease contained at all costs.  Aboard the train is famed neurosurgeon Richard Harris along with his on-again-off-again ex-wide Sophia Loren.  They are joined by heiress Ava Gardner who has boy-toy Martin Sheen in tow, Lee Strasberg as an watch peddler and O.J. Simpson as a "priest".

Everything that can go wrong, does, and is punctuated by a brilliant Jerry Goldsmith score as the train heads for Poland and a bridge that may or may not remain standing when it passes over it.

I was truly not expecting this movie to be so good.  It was a random grab from the library that turned into a surprise gem, and is about to join my collection.  The print is great, and this is one movie you won't want to miss out on.  Expect it to make my discoveries list at the end of the year.




HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA 2

2015
Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky 
Written by Robert Smigel & Adam Sandler

Sequel to the 2012 animated film that sees Adam Sandler as a vampire running a hotel for monsters whose daughter falls for a human, now sees him a grandfather trying to get the "fangs" out of his grandson who may or may not be a vampire.



Definitely not as charming as the first film, and falls under the "is-what-it-is" category.




THE DOMINO PRINCIPLE

1977
Directed by Stanley Kramer
Written by Adam Kennedy based on his novel

The second feature on the Shout! Factory Blu-ray along with The Cassandra Crossing was not nearly as good as the first feature.

Gene Hackman is recruited from prison by a covert government agency to carry out an assassination. When his actions result in the death of his bunk mate (Mickey Rooney), well things just begin spiraling out of control from there.




While not as sappy, preachy or heavy-handed as other Stanley Kramer pictures (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner anyone?), the film really doesn't amount to much of a paranoid thriller as the makers intended. Hackman, as always, is solid, and Rooney for his small part hit his marks beautifully.  Otherwise though, it is fairly forgettable.




MAZE RUNNER: THE SCORCH TRIALS

2015
Directed by Wes Ball
Screenplay by T.S. Nowlin, based on the novel by James Dashner

I like the first Maze Runner quite a bit.  It surprised me.  Yes, it was another dystopian thriller where teens must rise up and take their place as "the chosen ones", but it had some twists and turns and was a solid directing effort.




The sequel, well, not so much.  I didn't care about any of the protagonists and it felt like we've seen all these plot points (heading for a safe zone, freedom fighters, escaping a big bad) so many other times, and so much better in every other case.

There will be more of these for sure.  Hopefully it's a series that will end quickly and painlessly.




PADDINGTON

2015
Directed by Paul King
Written by Paul King from a screen story by Hammish McColl and Paul King
Based on the character crated by Michael Bond

Paddington is a picture I regret missing when it played in theaters, and seeing it on Disc I am regretting missing it even more.  A delightful family film that doesn't take itself too seriously, and stays pretty true to the source material. It's made even better by a scene-chewing Nicole Kidman.




It's worth noting the score by Nick Urata.




CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

2016
Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Based on the comic book by Mark Millar, and characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Another week, another superhero movie in theaters.  Unlike Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Civil War does practically the same story (government distrusts heroes, hero battles hero), but unlike the DC film, Marvel (as usual) gets everything right!




Sure the addition of Spider-man is bogged down by some obvious demands made from Sony in order for Marvel to get their superstar character as part of the MCU, but who cares.  While not as solid as The Winter Soldier, Civil War manages to tell an adult story while keeping the lighthearted tone of a comic book fable.  The battle at the airport alone is worth the price of admission.




INSIDIOUS: CHAPTER 3

2015
Written and Directed by Leigh Whannell

So another kid gets a nasty ghost haunting them after trying to speak to their dead mother.




The first two Insidious installments were pretty scary.  I remember having to turn the lights on during both of them and walking around to keep calm.  Chapter 3 has a been-there-done-that vibe to it, relying too heavily on the jump scares and not enough on actual story.  In the long run, this chapter ends up to be quite dull.




BODY HEAT

1981
Written and Directed by Lawrence Kasdan

Last but not least is a movie I have been intending for years to see, but somehow it took me this long.  I even purchased the Blu-ray Disc back in September intending to watch it that night, and well...didn't happen. That is until now.




Making up for lost time, this homage to Double Indemnity has lawyer William Hurt falling for, and being manipulated perfectly by Femme Fatale Kathleen Turner who is at her Film Noir best.  That sultry voice is just perfect for this type of film.

Hurt has a cocky intelligence about him that allows us to realize that this is one smart guy, who let himself be suckered by a beautiful woman.  It's a modern Noir that definitely has a reverence for the films that inspired it.