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Thunderbirds are go (1966)

I’m practically speechless.

I had a vague awareness that there were British television shows that used marionettes back in the 60s and 70s, and they had achieved something of a cult status. I saw (and loved) Team America, a film which Trey Parker and Matt Stone said was inspired by Thunderbirds (and the other “supermarionation” shows created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson), but I had never seen any of it for myself. Until today. Good Lord, what took me so long.

If you haven’t seen Thunderbirds are go, you can watch it on Netflix streaming. I think you can also pickup the DVD from Amazon for about $5. Go. Go right now. I’ll wait here…

Did you see that? No, you weren’t imagining things. It really happened.

The Thunderbirds made the jump to the big screen in 1966 with Thunderbirds Are Go, more or less an extension of the television series. The story follows an intrepid team of adventurers called International Rescue made up of retired astronaut Jeff Tracy and his five sons (Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John). They live on a secret base (“Tracy Island”) and go about saving the world in their various, kick-ass vehicles, called, variously, Thunderbird-1 (hypersonic rocket plane), Thunderbird-2 (transporter aircraft), Thunderbird-3 (Single Stage to Orbit spacecraft), Thunderbird-4 (submarine) and Thunderbird-5 (a space station).

Let me just pause here and say that it’s the vehicles that are the real stars of this movie. The Thunderbird models are totally cool. It sort of reminded me of other shows I watched back then – like Emergency! – that were really more about the trucks than the characters. Johnny and Roy were entertaining, but we really tuned in to watch the firetrucks.

The film begins with the maiden launch of “Zero-X,” the first manned rocket ship to Mars. If you think I’m kidding about the vehicles being the stars of this movie, take a look at the incredibly (sometimes painfully) slow and deliberate launch sequence of Zero-X. They know how cool that ship is, and they’re going to take all the time they need to show you every inch of it.

The initial launch is sabotaged by a recurring Thunderbird villain called The Hood. He sneaks aboard the ship in order to take photographs of the top secret technology and his foot is caught in the hydraulics of the wings. He manages to extract his bloody foot in time to parachute to safety, but not the Zero-X can’t recover and crashes into the ocean before it can leave earth’s atmosphere.

Please let me remind you that this is all done with marionettes.

When a second launch is scheduled, it is determined that International Rescue will be hired for security. They board their various ships and, with the aid of international socialite turned spy Lady Penelope, ensure the launch is a success, thwarting a second attempt by The Hood.

Then, because they realized it was a movie and it needed to be longer than an hour, they threw in a dream sequence featuring a song by Cliff Richard and the Shadows, who were apparently famous in Great Britain at some point. It’s weird, disjointed and beautiful. I was practically in tears.

Zero-X makes it to Mars only to be attached by fireball-spitting rock snakes. Yep. Best line in the movie: “We are being attacked by life forms we do not understand.”

They barely escape with their lives and return to earth when the unthinkable happens: a mid-air collision with their landing wing cripples the Zero-X. It’s plummeting to earth with no way to eject. It’s up to International Rescue…IF they can make it in time!

My God this movie made me happy. My son and I were in hysterics. How did I miss this? There are a bunch of shows with amazing titles created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson with using Supermarionation: Supercar, Fireball XL5, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons….just when I thought there was no reason to own a TV anymore.

I already ordered the DVD box set of Thunderbirds.

I’ll be out waiting by the mailbox.

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Knight & Day (2010)

The first time I ever had cotton candy I loved  it.

If memory serves, I was at a Detroit Tiger’s game. My Dad bought me a bag of pink cotton candy and I inhaled it in a matter of moments. It was astonishing to me how the candy vanished in my mouth before I had the chance to chew or even swallow it. It was entertaining as well as tasty.

When it was over, I felt a little unsatisfied and vaguely sick. Soon I had completely forgotten that I’d even eaten anything and was asking my Dad for a hot dog.

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Iron Monkey (1993)

I tried to watch Ben Hur.

There are some serious gaps in my film knowledge. Some of them a little embarrassing considering how many movies I’ve seen and how much I love film. Ben Hur was one of the bigs. So I set the DVR and grabbed it off TCM.

Couldn’t get through it. Made it about halfway. I’d say I’m ashamed, but I honestly think it’s just over-rated, over-hyped tripe.

And I tried a couple other movies lately with similar results. One I was really looking forward to was Kelly’s Heroes. Clint Eastwood AND Don Rickles AND Archie Bunker. I was practically guaranteed a good time. Didn’t get it. Bored. Hopeless. Kojack screaming and chewing scenery until I was half asleep.

When I start to lose faith in the power and majesty of cinema, there is only one prescription: Kung-Fu.

Do you watch Kung-Fu movies? A shocking number of people do not. I thought, for one brief moment after the sudden and unexpected popularity of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that American audiences were ready to embrace the genre and shower it with the love and affection is deserves. It was not to be. It has returned to geek-cult status alongside Godzilla and Anime.

If you liked Crouching Tiger, watch Iron Monkey. Crouching Tiger wasn’t a random fluke. There is a whole big pile of wonderful, exciting, hilarious, moving, gorgeous Kung-Fu movies out there. Iron Monkey is one of them.

The plot is Batman mixed with a bit of Robin Hood. Young Wong Fei-hung  travels with his father to a small town where there’s a corrupt governor and oppressed peasants and Shaolin monks and an evil imperial officer and a masked vigilante called the Iron Monkey. Fei-hung’s father, Wong Kei-ying is accused of being the Iron Monkey after he is attacked in the streets and demonstrates his considerable fighting skills. Kei-ying is soon coerced into capturing the Iron Monkey in order to free his son from the clutches of the corrupt governor.

Of course he eventually joins forces with Iron Monkey kicks the crap out of everybody. Even the guy who can kill you with his sleeves.

Kung-Fu movies just make me happy. The good ones. Like anything, there’s a load of garbage out there. You just have to avoid it. Anything with “American” added to the title should be avoided. “Ninja” in the title is usually trouble.”American Ninja” is about as bad as it gets.

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Paranormal Activity (2007)

Comedian Jim Gaffigan has a great bit about seeing movies long after everyone else has.

“Have you seen ‘Heat?'”

“Yeah, like five years ago.”

“But I want to talk about it now.”

So that’s me. Totally. And you’ll have to forgive me for being four years behind the rest of you in seeing Paranormal Activity. But I just saw it last night. And I want to talk about it now.

I, of course, heard about it. Every few years a small, cheaply made horror picture comes along and makes a boatload of money and turns the genre on its head. Blair Witch before this, Halloween before that. One thing they all have in common: The hype gets turned up to volcanic levels until it’s nearly impossible for the little movie to live up to expectations. Which is one of the reasons I like to wait a long time before watching. By the time I get around to seeing it, I have few expectations to contend with – except to try to discern what made it so popular in the first place.

Not that I can avoid commentary completely. I knew some people claimed it was one of the scariest movies ever made, while others told me it was stupid, boring and not scary at all. Sounded like a perfect example of over-hype followed by failed expectations.

And that’s about what I got.

The plot is simple enough (as it usually is in successful horror movies. The characters shouldn’t have to explain to the audience what’s happening in a horror movie. I’m looking at you, Final Destination 2). A young couple, Katie and Micah start to video tape themselves – especially when they’re asleep – to try to explain some noises, flickering lights and other paranormal phenomenon they’ve been experiencing. It’s soon revealed that it’s not their house that’s haunted, but Katie herself. She’s had these problems on and off her entire life. A psychic is consulted who urges them to take the haunting seriously, and seek further help. Micah ignores him and tries to communicate with the entity himself via Ouija board. Bad idea.

It’s in the sub-genre of ‘found footage’ horror movies, a la Blair Witch (not the original found footage flick, but easily the most famous). The entire movie is essentially watching the video tape the couple made of themselves. It’s cleverly shot and works most of the time. There are moments, of course, where it makes little sense that the camera would be on or pointed in the right direction, but it’s easy enough to ignore.

I have to say I liked it. I didn’t think it was particularly scary, but it was certainly creepy. I like the ‘slow burn’ style of shooting a horror picture. It starts with some unexplained noises. Katie’s keys end up in the middle of the floor. They capture Katie getting out of bed and staring at her boyfriend for hours – an event she has no memory of. It’s effective. Sometimes silence and waiting is scarier than rapid-fire cutting with severed limbs flying through the air.

Events escalate and quickly spin out of control. I was expecting it to ramp up to a final,  horrifying climax. and it tries to, but ultimately fails. The final shot was so jarringly over the top, they lost me. The filmmakers should have been brave enough to remain subtle all the way to the end.

That aside, it’s worth a look. At least to see what all the fuss was about.

Think I’ll pass on the sequels.

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This is my Mom’s favorite horror movie. When I was a kid I used to love staying home sick – especially when I wasn’t actually sick. Usually my Mom and I would watch her “stories,” (Days of our Lives and Another World), but there were also occasions when we watched old horror flicks together (one of the Hammer Dracula incarnations kept me sleeping with the bathroom light on for a couple years), but Creature from the Black Lagoon was her clear favorite. When Universal released the DVD a few years ago, she gave it to me for Christmas.

The Creature has joined the lexicon of Universal Monsters, and is just a recognizable and iconic as the others. What’s interesting about the Creature (“Gill Man” as he’s known to fans) is A) He’s the only monster that’s not human (or was once human) and B) He didn’t arrive in theaters until more than 20 years after Dracula (’31), Frankenstein (’31), the Mummy (’32) and over ten years after Wolf Man (’41). So he’s the new kid on the block, and in a certain sense, the only true “monster.”

The story (in case you’ve somehow missed it) has to do with a geological expedition to the Amazon that uncovers a fossilized hand of a man/fish creature from the Devonian period. A return expedition is quickly mounted in the hope of recovering the remainder of the skeleton. What they find, of course, is a the homicidal Gill Man, who falls in love with the only woman on the team. Mayhem, spear guns, fish paralyzer and hilarity ensue.

It was originally shot in 3D, so all manner of crap pokes out of the screen at you, but I won’t go off on a rant here (see “House of Wax” for 3D ranting). It doesn’t get in the way of the enjoyment if the picture, which is substantial. I’ve read some complaints that the film is dated and moves too slowly, but I’d argue it holds up well. There’s a quiet tension that builds throughout. The scene of the Creature mirroring Julie Adams as she takes a dip in the Lagoon is still effectively creepy, and the underwater battle between the Gill Man and the doctor is still thrilling.

What’s most surprising in my view is the level of violence in a G-rated movie from 1954. The Creature kills a lot of people. We’re shown twisted corpses strewn about the campgrounds. Members of the expedition are set on fire and drown and have their necks broken, and the camera does not shy away. Dr. Reed (the protagonist) at one point plunges his knife repeatedly into the rampaging Gill Man. Fun for the whole family.

Creature from the Black Lagoon is clearly horror canon, and not to be missed. There are a couple sequels that aren’t terrible. In the first they take the Creature to live at Sea World (excellent idea) and if you watch carefully you’ll spot a young, uncredited Clint Eastwood.

It’s a fine film, and worthy of my Mom’s affections. Especially fun to watch if you’re laying on the couch and pretending to be sick.

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House of Wax (1953)

House of Wax stars Vincent Price in one of his most iconic roles, sculptor Henry Jarrod. Price is probably the American actor most synonymous with the horror genre, and watching this move it’s easy to see why. Even though this is one of his first horror roles, he brings an unnerving malevolence to the character of Jarrod: a good man driven to madness, revenge and ultimately murder. He shows Jarrod as a truly sympathetic villain who cared passionately for his art and refused to defile it for commercial reasons, only to have it all stripped away by a man who was supposed to be his partner and friend.

Price owns this tightly constructed movie that also features a creepy and offbeat performance by Carolyn Jones (Morticia from the Addams Family), a mute Charles Bronson (I admit I prefer him mute) as well as an unmasking scene nearly as famous as Chaney Sr. in Phantom of the Opera. For 50s B-Horror, you can’t do much better than this.

It was one of the first 3D films made and it helped start a craze that lasted for much of the decade – a very similar 3D craze to the one we’re experiencing now.

I bloody hate 3D. I admit that part of the problem is me. I can’t see it. I wear glasses, so when I go see a 3D movie, I have to wear glasses over my glasses. I don’t know if that’s why, or if it has something to do with what’s wrong with my eyes in the first place, but I can’t see the effect. I see depth okay, but nothing comes out of the screen at me. My kids love it, and are always reaching out to touch what appears to be just in front of them. I do my best not to get a headache, and usually fail.

But here’s my real problem with 3D movies, and it doesn’t matter if they were made in 1953 or 2003: The paddleball. Somewhere in the middle of House of Wax, there’s an asshole with a paddleball. The ONLY reason he’s in the movie is because it’s 3D. I can’t tell you exactly how many paddleballs I’ve seen in 3D movies, but it’s a lot. And if it’s not specifically a paddleball, it’s some other random prop or awkward movement wedged into the film for the sole purpose of having something pop out of the screen. Nothing takes me out of a story faster than a paddleball.

And not only that, but is there a crappier toy on the planet than the paddleball? I remember distinctly being given a paddleball at different times during my childhood. They always broke after exactly three minutes of flailing around with it having exactly no fun. You were left with a lame rubber ball and a wooden paddle to hit your brother with.

I’m anti-paddleball. In film and and in life.

But House of Wax is awesome and you should watch it.

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The Circus (1928)

I’m a new convert to Charlie Chaplin. I never saw his movies as a kid. I watched a lot of Laurel & Hardy one-reelers (my Dad’s favorite) and I tracked down Buster Keaton on my own. I of course knew who Chaplin was, and was familiar with his now ubiquitous Tramp character, but I was not aware how truly brilliant he was. My loss. I have a lot to catch up on.

The plot of the film is simple: The Tramp is mistaken as a pickpocket and in an attempt to escape the police, becomes the featured attraction in a traveling circus. He’s a huge hit, and the ringmaster hires him as a janitor and sets up situations where the Tramp doesn’t realize he’s part of the act.

Chaplin soon falls in love with the ringmaster’s step daughter, Merna, who is being abused by the ringmaster. The Tramp is soon competing for her affections with the tightrope walker, Rex.

I can’t really get over how beautiful this picture was. It was so funny, and so sad and just brilliantly done. I caught it on Turner Classics, and in the introduction they said Chaplin didn’t have a script when he started the shooting, but knew he wanted to make a movie about the circus, so he had his production designers start building sets and props and pieced together the story as he went.

If you think you can’t be entertained by a silent movie, I urge you to give this one a try. I laughed out loud several times. There’s a repeated gag with an angry donkey that hates Chaplin for some reason that’s hilarious. And the scene where he takes to the tightrope to impress Merna (concealing a secret harness) had me on the floor.

Chaplin went through a second divorce, a studio fire and his mother dying during the shoot, which might explain the melancholy ending. I didn’t really expect him to win the girl, but I was surprised by the tragic turn at the end. Chaplin was one of those crying-on-the-inside clowns, I guess.

It was also his last silent picture. Knowing this, the scene of the circus train leaving him behind at the end spoke volumes.

Chaplin won his first Academy Award for The Circus. Well deserved. It’s up on the list of my all-time favorites.

The Circus has recently become famous because of an apparent time traveler caught on film. In the 2010 DVD release, there is bonus footage the shows the LA premier in 1928 where you can (supposedly) see a woman using a cell phone as she leaves the theater. As urban legends go, I’m particularly fond of this one. If you haven’t seen the video, it’s worth watching.

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