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A Stalin-Ordered Biopic, 13 February 2016

During the early part of his reign, Ivan the Terrible (Nikolay Cherkasov) faces betrayal from the aristocracy and even his closest friends as he seeks to unite the Russian people.

During World War II, with the German army approaching Moscow, Eisenstein was one of many Moscow-based filmmakers who were evacuated to Alma Ata, in the Kazakh SSR. There, Eisenstein first considered the idea of making a film about Tsar Ivan IV, aka Ivan the Terrible, whom Joseph Stalin admired as the same kind of brilliant, decisive, successful leader that Stalin considered himself to be. Aware of Eisenstein's interest in a project about Ivan, Stalin ordered the making of the film with Eisenstein as author-director.

Certain symbols are constantly repeated within the film; notable examples include the single eye which refers to truth. Eisenstein was clearly the master of Russian cinema during his lifetime, with no other director even coming close. Following his career is like reading the history of Russian cinema.

It is interesting to see this was something of a turning point. Eisenstein's early films, such as "Strike" and "Battleship Potemkin", are clearly propaganda in favor of the Soviet regime. This film is pro-Soviet in a sense (being endorsed by Stalin), but is also a great historical film in its own right. But it would be his last, as he would have a break with Stalin... and then die. Did Eisenstein begin to become disillusioned with the Soviet Union following the release of this film?

Miike Gets the Scream Treatment, 12 February 2016

A star, Miyuki Goto (Ko Shibasaki) plays Oiwa, the protagonist in a new play based on the ghost story Yotsuya Kaidan. She pulls some strings to get her lover, Kosuke Hasegawa (Ebizo Ichikawa) cast in the play, even though he's a relatively unknown actor.

Being a fan is a challenging business. For horror lovers, we like to say we are "John Carpenter fans" or "Wes Craven fans". And these are bold statements, because then you find yourself in a position where you have to defend the worst films these legends have made. Yes, although it is painful to say it, even Carpenter and Craven have made bad movies.

This becomes even more complicated with Takaski Miike, the only modern Japanese master of horror. He is incredibly prolific, meaning few have seen everything he does, and he has something of a wider range, not always sticking close to the horror genre. Even those who would be considered fans may appreciate some films more than others: "Audition", "Visitor Q" and "Ichi the Killer" are three big ones, and have almost nothing in common.

And now we have "Over Your Dead Body", the first film (to my knowledge) to be released by Scream Factory. What sort of Miike fan will this appeal to? We have a samurai story, some gore, and something of a story-within-a-story. Nothing as perverse as "Q", as violent as "Ichi", or as iconic as "Audition". And yet, this may be the most stylish Miike film yet, with possibly his best color palette to date. (I use "may be" and "possibly" simply because I have not seen every Miike film -- he has released a staggering 100 films in only a 25-year span!) Star Ko Shibasaki may be familiar to Japanese horror fans for her roles in "Battle Royale" and "One Missed Call". She has primarily worked in Japan, but did appear alongside Keanu Reeves in "47 Ronin". This film (Dead Body) is quite possibly her darkest yet, and although few Japanese actors become "horror icons", she ought to be considered one after this film. One scene clearly seems reminiscent of the controversial parts in Miike's "Imprint" (2006).

What is most striking about "Dead Body" is the shift of themes and tones. In the first half, we have a conventional story of two lovers who cannot be married because the potential bride's father disapproves. This sort of story could have come from Ozu or one of the other Japanese masters. And then things get increasingly strange, until we are firmly in Miike territory. (Again, not as strange as "Visitor Q", but still highly unconventional.) For those who love a nice slow burn, this is a great film with some decent gore and striking imagery. The Scream Factory blu-ray is, unfortunately, lacking in special features. The disc does have both English and Japanese audio, however, so whether you prefer subtitles or voiceovers, you will be able to watch in your preferred format. (If you speak Japanese, this works out even better and you avoid both.)

You Say Bad, I Say Classic, 12 February 2016

A psychiatrist tells two stories: one of a transvestite (Glen or Glenda), the other of a pseudohermaphrodite (Alan or Anne).

Ed Wood is often seen as a bad director, and this is often seen as a bad film (though not his worst). As I type this, IMDb gives it a 4.4 out of 10. Not atrocious, but still low. In my opinion, much too low.

Yes, it is campy and is bloated with stock footage and scenes of Bela Lugosi that make no sense. But it also happens to be fun. And even if the science is not necessarily correct (I have my doubts about "curing" transvestites), it does have a favorable and progressive approach to gender that had to be unequaled in 1953.

Missing (1982)
Essential Viewing, 12 February 2016

When an idealistic writer (John Shea) disappears during the Right Wing military coup in 1973 Chile, his wife (Sissy Spacek) and American businessman father (Jack Lemmon) try to find him.

After making many great political thrillers, especially "Z", we finally get one in English. Not that being in English is better than being in any other language, but it does mean it will get a wider audience in the United States. And having both Lemmon and Spacek attached certainly does not hurt.

The character played by Jack Lemmon comes off as kind of a jerk, at least for a while. But it is probably a more or less accurate portrayal, because how could any American at the time have suspected that Chile was as awful a place as we now know today that it was?

Mr. Deeds (2002)
Forget It's A Remake, 11 February 2016

A sweet-natured, small-town guy (Adam Sandler) inherits a controlling stake in a media conglomerate and begins to do business his way.

This film gets a bad rap because it is thought to be a bad remake. And sure, any time you compare an Adam Sandler movie to a Frank Capra classic, the Capra film is going to win. That is just common sense. But think of it not as a remake, but a new interpretation for a new audience. Some folks (myself included) may watch both movies, but some may only be interested in one or the other.

For what this is, it is not bad. The more mature Sandler is great. The juvenile humor is toned down, all the way to it only having a PG-13 rating. We do see a man's bottom, but otherwise it is just clean, folksy humor. Winona Ryder does alright as the leading lady. She is not a strong actress, but that is probably not what was called for in this particular picture.

Decent Sandler Comedy, 11 February 2016

Dave Buznik (Adam Sandler) is a businessman who is wrongly sentenced to an anger-management program, where he meets an aggressive instructor (Jack Nicholson).

Sandler has a special kind of humor, and it is one that has matured over the years. His classics will always be "Happy Gilmore" and "Billy Madison", but his follow-ups are pretty decent, too. This one has all the things we enjoy -- the juvenile humor, the excellent ensemble cast -- and adds in Jack Nicholson, so rarely ever makes a bad film.

One thing about Sandler's films is that he tends to keep the same ensemble but rotates the leading lady (other than Drew Barrymore). This time we have Marisa Tomei, which is a stroke of genius. Obviously she knows comedy (My Cousin Vinny), but has branched out to some serious drama. In this film, she straddles both and rally grounds the humor. Her character is indispensable.

Gordon Hessler Presents a 1980s Ninja Special, 10 February 2016

After a peace loving Japanese immigrant (Sho Kosugi) and his family become victims of a crime syndicate, a master ninja emerges.

Director Gordon Hessler had a great run going into the 1970s, working with Vincent Price, AIP and all those talented folks. Look at this three film run: "The Oblong Box" (1969), "Scream and Scream Again" (1970) and "Cry of the Banshee" (1970). Unfortunately, it seems to have been downhill after that, or at the very least, he was behind films that did not quite get the attention of these three.

Then comes 1985, where we have this unusual gem. A Japanese ninja film, set in America and directed by a Brit. It is quite an unusual blend, something you might expect from Cannon. Or perhaps Transworld, which would be correct.

This sort of over-the-top movie is despised by most critics (with good reason), but embraced by those in the horror and cult community. Joe Bob Briggs praised star Sho Kosugi as "the best kung fu man since Bruce Lee" and ranked the film high on his 10-best list for 1986. Briggs is my kind of reviewer, who knows good cheese when he smells it. Kosugi really was the defining ninja of the 1980s (with all due respect to a certain group of turtles).

Arrow Films has released the film on blu-ray, and have done a very fine job of it. We have a 1080p presentation from a transfer of original elements by MGM of the unrated version. yes, the unrated version, which means more of that wonderful scene with the burning elderly man! We have a brand new interview with Sho Kosugi, as well as an archive interview and Ninjitsu demonstration with Kosugi from the film's New York premiere.

I would love to have seen a an audio commentary from Kosugi, or perhaps something from Hessler, but he likely passed before Arrow got the rights. All in all, this is a great release and anyone who loves the days of renting action films based on their cover is going to appreciate what this gem has to offer.

An Essential 1990s Movie, 10 February 2016

Two wealthy step-siblings of an elite Manhattan prep school make a wager: to de-flower the new headmaster's daughter (Reese Witherspoon) before the start of term.

Having gone to high school in the latter half of the 1990s, this was one of those films that really defined a generation. All the big stars of the day were in it, and at least one 9Witherspoon) has one on to bigger and better things. At the time I was not aware that this was a remake of a 1980s film. I found it to be brilliant and quite deviously original.

I now know that it is a remake, but think no less of it because of this. In many ways, this film is even more powerful. John Malkovich did a fine job capturing what spoiled aristocrats can do, but it is all the more troublesome what spoiled teenagers can do.

Part Three, 10 February 2016

This final installment in Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy, follows Apu's life as an orphaned adult aspiring to be a writer as he lives through poverty, and the unforeseen turn of events.

The World of Apu has been influential across the world. In Gregory Nava's 1995 film My Family, the final scene is duplicated from the final scene of Apur Sansar. The film's influence can also be seen in famous works such as Martin Scorsese's 1976 New Hollywood film Taxi Driver, several Philip Kaufman films, and Key's 2004 Japanese visual novel Clannad. References to The World of Apu are also found in several films by European filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, and in Paul Auster's 2008 novel Man in the Dark where two characters have a discussion about the film.

Personally, I just do not see how this is one of those "perfect" films that scores 100% and rates high enough to be in the Top 250. I found it rather boring, as I do with most Indian films. What am I missing?

Z (1969)
Exceptional, 10 February 2016

Following the murder of a prominent leftist, an investigator tries to uncover the truth while government officials attempt to cover up their roles.

The film presents a thinly fictionalized account of the events surrounding the assassination of democratic Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963. With its satirical view of Greek politics, its dark sense of humor, and its downbeat ending, the film captures the outrage about the military dictatorship that ruled Greece at the time of its making.

Ebert spoke passionately about the film, saying, "It will make you weep and will make you angry. It will tear your guts out." And that is really what makes the film great. It spoke of the darker things going on in the late 1960s. A time of love and protest, yes, but also a time where political upheaval sometimes came with a violent price.

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