Movie Review – “The Lion in Winter” (1968)

 

 

If words could kill, “The Lion in Winter” would be the most brutal film ever made.

 

Imagine if “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” was set during mediveal times and concerned a “King Lear” type story. That should give you an idea of how uncomfortable “The Lion in Winter” can be, while still being a wordsmith like William Shakespeare. Every word uttered in this film is carefully calculated to be an emotional dagger right into our characters’ hearts, as every one of them is overcome with a lust for greed and power.

 

In the age of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), he has now become an old man and still has not choosen who will be the next King. So for Christmas, Henry invites his whole family for the holiday, including his estranged sons, the rough and selfish Richard (Anthony Hopkins), the cold and calculating Geoffrey (John Castle), and the inexperienced and naive John (Nigel Terry), as well as his wife Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), who Henry has imprisoned for the last few years. Henry also invites the young king of France (Timothy Dalton). Henry says he will use this time to decide who will be the next king, mostly leaning towards John since he’s the only one Henry likes even if he would be terrible king, while he also tries to make amends for his past sins, all while abusing his power as king over all of them.

 

 

 

“The Lion in Winter” is mostly a game of chess played through words and subtle manipulations of others, played by King Henry and Eleanor. They both have much larger schemes than either wants to show, especially Eleanor who takes every opportunity to goad Henry and show him that he is not as powerful or as perfect as he thinks. Both take absolute delight in knocking the other down a peg, while both scream at the top of their lungs to see who is the loudest.

 

This is done masterfully through Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn’s performances, as they show the deeper parts of Henry and Eleanor’s love-hate relationship as well as how much they need each other. These are both cruel, greedy people who want the other acknowledge their brilliance, yet they adore one another because they force the best out of each other. This comes during their quieter moments when the two reflect on when they first met and how their love and need for each other has evolved over the years. Tormenting each other with power plays and mind games has changed their relationship into a furious struggle to maintain dominance, and they would not have it any other way.

 

Overall, “The Lion in Winter” is a lot of fun, if only for the wordplay, devestating insults and the relationship between Henry and Eleanor. This feels like a medival tragedy only Shakespeare could have written, so it is amazing that writer James Goldman could create such a fascinating screenplay. The pacing is a bit slow at times, but the tension during the final act is absolutley worth it.

 

Final Grade: B+

 

Movie Review – “White Zombie” (1932)

 

 

Show of hands – Who wants to watch a film about a Haitian voodoo master killing innocent people and then bringing them back to life as mindless zombies who just kind of stand around looking like their dog just walked away and may not be coming back, with almost incomprehensible dialogue and black face? No one? That does not surprise me in the least.

 

“White Zombie” stars Bela Lugosi shortly after he made it big with “Dracula” as the voodoo master with a Satan-like goatee and eye brows that would make Groucho Marx jealous. The best thing about his character is his name – Murder Legendre. More parents need to name their children ‘Murder’ just as a social experiment, especially when you have a last name that sounds like ‘Legendary.’ That is the best ridiculous movie character name I’ve heard since Chiper Rage from “After Earth.”

 

The memorable image of “White Zombie” is of Lugosi’s creepy stare right into the camera. Though the film uses it so often that feels less terrifying and more like Lugosi is giving a weird look to the guy who took the last of the fried rice at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Then there are times where Lugosi has to do this stare for extended periods of time, or has to literally walk into the camera, or has to have the camera zoom in on him for about a minute.

 

 

 

I’m starting to get the impression this movie did not have a whole lot going for it outside of Lugosi’s face.

 

“White Zombie” falls into the same category as obscenely silly horror films like “The Brain the Wouldn’t Die” or movies that you would see on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” It is a harmless movie that is extremely dated and is mostly just good for laughs nowadays. It is the best movie to perfect your Bela Lugosi impression, if you are into that.

 

Final Grade: D+

 

Movie Review – “Brief Encounter” (1945)

 

 

There’s a certain charm to movies that were restricted due to war efforts, especially European films made during World War II. The 1946 French version of “Beauty and the Beast” is possibly the best example of that, with its grand fantastical scope while being made under Nazi occupation, while others like “Rome, Open City” and the entirety of the Italian Neorealism film movement changed the way on-location filming was handled.

But British filmmakers handled it differently from the French and Italians. In France, they most made films to distract from the war and take the audience away from the pain. Italy embraced that pain and suffering, showing just how terrible war can be on the common man. But the British chose to focus on telling grounded yet sympathetic stories where our cast of characters often find hope in a bleak world where love seems lost.

One of the best examples of this is David Lean’s “Brief Encounter,” a tale about Laura (Celia Johnson), a married woman trying to lead a normal life in the middle of WW2, whose life becomes far more complicated when she has a chance encounter with a complete stranger, Alec (Trevor Howard). The two slowly but surely fall in love and this leaves Laura in a difficult position with her husband and children.

 

 

“Brief Encounter” is like if “Mrs. Miniver” was made on an extremely limited budget and did not have the benefit any big name stars, instead relying on realism and film noir-like lighting and sets. Laura desperately tries to run her life like the war does not exist, but it is taking a colossal psychological toll on her. Without ever showing a bullet or bombshell explosion, this movie emphases how bleak and empty life is when there’s someone so close by that wants to exterminate your way of life.

Yet at the same time, the film offers a ray of hope and optimism with Alec, who makes every moment matter. The relationship between these two feels genuine, especially when you see the utter joy Alec brings to Laura’s life.

I’d recommend “Brief Encounter” over “Mrs. Miniver” because of how authentic and genuine Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard’s performances feel, as well as David Lean’s superb use of camera angles and lighting. The film is minimalist, but that certainly gives it a distinct charm.

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” (1961)

 

 

This is one film that gets better the less you think about it and the absurd premise. Science and reality are thrown out the window for entertainment’s sake, but “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” handles this by balancing difficult moral decisions with impressive special effects.

 

One of the richest and intellectual minds in the world, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pidgeon) has designed the most advanced nuclear submarine the world has ever seen, the Seaview, including going to unthinkable depths in the arctic sea. Nelson plans to see how long the Seaview can last underwater without radio contact, but after a few days of underwater testing, the Seaview is forced to the surface when the ice caps around them start to break down. The crew finds that the sky is on fire and the surface temperature at the north pole is nearly 120 degrees and rising.

 

The crew arrives in New York City to find that the whole world is experiencing this deadly heat wave. Scientists have estimated that the Earth will become uninhabitable for any life within three weeks. One Russian scientist proposes that just two days before that time, this heat will just go away and everything will return to normal thus humanity should do nothing but wait. But Nelson and the crew are against this plan and come up with their own fire a nuclear missile into the atmosphere at just the right moment in just the right place, from the deepest point of the Earth just before all life is wiped out.

 

The governments of the world refuse to approve this plan, which leads Nelson to take drastic actions and steal the Seaview and her crew, as they make their way towards the Marianas trench near Guam in an attempt to save humanity.

 

 

 

The main theme of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” is power and how much one man should have of it. Nelson not only builds a one-of-a-kind submarine that outclasses everything the military had built up to the point, but he takes it upon himself to save the world from an event that he feels only he can stop. Anyone else is inadequate or not intelligent enough to carry this burden in Nelson’s eyes. He betrays the advice and authority of the United Nations to go on this mission, and even challenges the integrity and courage of the Seaview’s crew, feeling that they will be the downfall of this mission and thus ending all life on the planet.

 

Nelson’s power is questioned further when they rescue a scientists stranded on the ice, Alvarez, who spouts on about how this heat wave is God’s will and that he has chosen to end all life on the planet Who are we to go against the will of God? Yet, despite all this, Nelson pushes forward to prove that man has the power to make his own destiny, despite the will of others.

 

Robert Sterling plays Captain Lee Crane, who runs the Seaview and her crew, but is constantly battling Nelson’s decisions, especially with how he treats the crew and constantly puts the ship in danger, like when the sonar and radar go out and this leads the ship into a mine field they didn’t see coming. Sterling plays to the emotional side of the film, always understanding and compassionate towards his crew while focusing less on the mission, while Nelson is the cold, logical yet twisted side, always one wrong calculation away from breaking but has to keep his eyes on the goal at all times.

 

This makes the character struggles the most interesting part of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” especially as the film reaches its climax and the odds keep staking against them. Certainly worth checking out if you’ve got nothing else to check out.

 

Final Grade: B-

 

Movie Review – “House on Haunted Hill” (1959)

 

 

“Do you remember how much fun we have when you poisoned me?”

 

This is the line that perfectly encapsulates the lunatic chaos of “House on Haunted Hill” and upgrades it from being just another B-movie with laughable special effects to a confident horror film about psychological warfare and greed.

 

The line of dialogue is spoken by Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) towards his wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), both of whom clearly despise one another and what they’ve resorted to, just to get what they want. This quote, and the playful banter they have about their attempts at murder, makes it clear that they’ve tried to kill each other multiple times in the past and want nothing more than to be done with their spouse. Frederick, a wealthy playboy, has been married three times, with the fate of his previous wives being unclear. Annabelle only married Frederick for his money and thinks she’ll get a lot more if he dies unexpectedly.

 

The two share how they would go about killing the other in a kind yet off-putting demeanor, like how Frederick could accidently shoot and kill Annabelle with a champagene bottle cork and how that would make a great headline in the papers. These two get a sick enjoyment out of torturing the other, and it seems to have brought them closer than ever before, as they share a few intimate moments in the creepy, supposedly haunted, mansion they rented for the evening.

 

 

 

Annabelle wants to throw a party in this haunted mansion, but Frederick decides to spice things up. He invites five very different people to the mansion, all in desperate need of money, and tells them if they can spend one night in this mansion then he’ll give each of them $10,000. Once inside, Frederick locks the doors and gives the key to the servants, who at one point warns a guest to get out before “he kills you too.”

 

The guests are given “party favors” – a loaded gun, for protection of course. One of the guests reminds Frederick that these would not work on the dead, only the living, so the guns are just escalating the fear everyone is currently feeling. But is it fear of the ghosts or fear of each other?

 

“House on Haunted Hill” plays out like a cheaper version of “The Haunting,” with more emphasis on the thrilling moments instead of the psychological elements. Both films share the mentality that these mansions could be haunted by ghosts, and leave it up to the audience to decide if the ghosts are real or not. It is clear that this movie had a miniscule budget, due to its cheesy special effects that would make Ed Wood laugh out loud, but the film more than makes up for that with atmosphere, tension, and wonderfully creepy dialogue.

 

 

 

This movie is ultimately about the games that are being played by a handful of greedy, self-absorbed yet curious individuals. And when you have that many egos floating around, all of whom want something, the rules keep changing, especially for Annabelle who faines ignorance that this is not her party when Frederick corrupted her idea and turned it into a struggle for survival. Everyone in this situation is out for something, but only cares about themselves. It certainly does not help when one of the guests, Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook), constantly talks about the seven other murders that occurred in this house, or the tank of acid in the basement, or how the house is coming to kill them all.

 

While corny at times, “House on Haunted Hill” is a great haunted house tale with loads of atmosphere and character dilemmas to keep the entire film fresh and exciting. The relationship between Frederick and Annabelle Loren is the best part of the movie, especially how much they love to hate each other. The mystery of the house is basic but well handled in its simplicity, and it compliments the strange greedy personalities inside the house playing their games. This is one of the cheap horror movies out there.

 

Final Grade: A

 

Movie Review – “The Omen” (1976)

 

 

Imagine a sequel to “Rosemary’s Baby” if they decided to ramp up the violence and the idea of demons and satanic cults, and you would probably get something like “The Omen.”

While “Rosemary’s Baby” was more-so about the mystery of what was happening around Rosemary and the fate of her baby, “The Omen” is all-in on the fear and making you genuinely afraid that the Antichrist is coming and that the end of the world is upon us.

On the night that the son of American diplomat Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) is born, Thorn is told the baby died moments after the birth. With his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) unaware that their child was stillborn, Robert is convinced by a priest to adopt another new born child whose mother died during birth. The two raise their adopted son, Damien, in the United Kingdom, though Robert never tells Katherine that Damien is adopted.

But on Damien’s fifth birthday, things take a turn for the hellish when his babysitter throws herself off their mansion’s balcony. After this, Robert is visited by an Italian priest, Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton), who warns Robert that Damien must die in order to save him, his wife and the world from the Antichrist.

 

 

What sold me on the terror of this situation was the prophecy of the Antichrist, in particular how he would take over the world, and how it matched up with the life Damien was leading. It was a simple yet effective technique, since a five-year old couldn’t show demonic powers and the apocalypse by himself.

There was also this constant ominous atmosphere to Robert’s search for the truth, like he was always being watched by this entity that could strike him down at any moment. By that entity holds back, letting Robert uncover so much before doing anything about it. Is it because of the importance Robert must play in Damien’s growth? Or maybe because this force just loves toying with people and showing their lack of control in the world? Either way, this force looms over the entire film like a stalker, waiting for just the right moment to sink his claws into his prey and getting the most enjoyment out of it.

Overall, “The Omen” feels like a middle ground between “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist,” filled with mystery and intrigue, but also with the fear of a parent helpless to stop unspeakable horrors and monstrosities. With the satanic chorus, gothic architecture and ever-present demonic atmosphere, this does feel like one of the most evil movies I have ever watched.

Final Grade: A-

 

Movie Review – “Imitation of Life” (1959)

It is funny that I mentioned Douglas Sirk in my “An Affair to Remember” review, and then I watch my first film by Douglas Sirk in years shortly after that review. Going into “Imitation of Life,” I had no idea that it was a movie by Sirk, a director who certainly left his mark on the romantic genre and the portrayal of strong women that didn’t follow the norms of society back then.

“Imitation of Life” follows widowed mother Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), who takes in Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a black single mother, and her daughter, who has fair skin that passes for white and takes advantage of that at every opportunity. Both mothers do their best to make a living for their daughters and try to be someone that their daughters can look up to. As they grow older, their daughters drift away from them, especially Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who is tempted by the seedy side of town.

 

 

This is ultimately a film about motherhood, and all the triumphs and baggage that comes with it. The reason Lora and Annie work so well off each other is because of their determination to make the best possible lives for their daughters, but both eventually realize the insurmountable odds they have to face to get there; which is why they need each others strength. Lora’s devotion and patience combine with Annie’s kindness makes the pair the highlight of the movie.

To witness “Imitation of Life” is to appreciate all the effort and pains mothers must go through. To watch these women realize that they here, not just for themselves any longer, but to care and nurture another life.

Final Grade: B-