John Barry: A Wordless Poet Dies

johnbarryOn January 30, 2011, iconic – and very prolific – composer John Barry passed away, after being in ill health for some time.  He was seventy-seven years old.  There is little doubt a great many will be saddened at the loss of one of film’s truly cherished friends.
Barry was an emotionally introspective and poetic composer whose haunting themes and pulsing atmospheric rhythms gained him far reaching notoriety.  He was also a five time Oscar winner (BORN FREE – both score and song; THE LION IN WINTER; OUT OF AFRICA; DANCES WITH WOLVES), a Grammy winner (DANCES WITH WOLVES), and two time BAFTA winner (The Lion in Winter and the Academy Fellowship).  In addition to his many other nominations he was nominated for 11 Golden Globe awards, taking home a win for OUT OF AFRICA. Though his work was far from limited to the genre, he contributed several excellent scores to science fiction, fantasy, and horror films – including, of course, several Bond films.
Born John Barry Prendergast in 1933, this son of a movie theater owner in York, England, would grow up to become a sentimental favorite composer of film and film music fans all over the world.
On a somewhat personal note, I was strongly affected by his work when I was very young; it was Barry who instilled within me a deep love for film music that has been with me most of my life.  My parents had a collection of record albums that included an interesting mix of musical genres and within that mix were two quite specific albums that captured my attention: GOLDFINGER and YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, two very famous James Bond scores.  At the time I was too young to really know anything about James Bond, but once I discovered these two treasures I was altogether captivated.  I even wrote my own stories to some of my favorite TV shows at the time and recorded my little dramas onto cassette using these two albums as the ‘scores’ for what I considered my ‘radio dramas.’  For me there has always been an acute connection to Mr. Barry’s work.  And in this I know I am far from alone.
Barry would go on to score eleven of those Ian Fleming-based secret agent films and in so doing would cement a very solid position in the history of his profession.  Musician-composer Monty Norman did score the first Bond film, DR. NO; however, Barry arranged and performed the version of the 007 theme heard in the film, which arguably would become the most famous theme music in the history of cinema, as well as one of the most re-recorded.  (Some have speculated that Barry actually composed the theme — although the piece is credited to Norman. It certainly fits Barry’s style like a glove.)
In a 1996 interview with Film Score Monthly, Barry credited big band leader Stan Kenton with the inspiration for the Bond style.  “I think the genesis of the Bond sound was most certainly that Kentonesque sharp attack,” he said, pointing out Kenton’s brassy sound and notes that hit extreme highs and lows.
THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS would be his final Bond installment in 1987, and in 2006 when asked by the The Sunday Express of London why he never scored another in the series he replied, “I gave up after (that).  I’d exhausted all my ideas, rung all the changes possible.  It was a formula that had run its course.  The best had been done as far as I was concerned.”
Though he is perhaps best known for the work he did on the Bond series, those scores are merely a fraction of his body of work.  He would eventually write the music for well over a hundred productions.  And in that there would be television, stage and radio – not to mention very personal efforts – that would beckon him to put pencil to music sheet.  For instance, in 2006 he would work with ten well-known tenors on an album titled HERE’S TO THE HEROES.  In that effort lyrics were written by lyricist and friend Don Black for Barry themes and a very pleasant, well-selling listening experience was the result.
barryJohn Barry was one of the most romantic film composers of his or any generation.  Even his action cues have a romantic, moody quality which beg multiple listenings.  And several films owe much of their critical and audience liking to his sweeping, moving style.  OUT OF AFRICA and DANCES WITH WOLVES are two clear examples.  These scores simply ascend with a lush beauty that instantly envelopes the viewer/listener and conjures something in the heart that refuses to be denied.
Many composers, especially modern ones, have a style that, although not bad, can be fairly easily interchanged.  Barry, however, was wholly himself.  No one has ever sounded quite like him.  And though he has on occasion been criticized for works which sound too similar, he consistently turned out material that continues to delight, stimulate and yet at the same time sooth the soul.   The imagination of audiences and listeners of his music will continue to bloom as time marches on.
We all have our inspirations in life and Kenton wasn’t the only influence on Barry’s.  In fact, it all inadvertently started with his father and those theater chains.  As a teen Barry operated the projectors in some of those movie houses and fell in love with cinema and especially its music.  He cites composers like Bernard Herrmann, Erich Korngold and Max Stern as some of those who worked their magic on him.
Once bitten by the bug Barry went on to study piano and composition, and then played trumpet in dance bands and later in a military band.  Eventually he formed his own successful band, The John Barry Seven, and wound up playing backup for a popular BBC program.  The band’s style was rather jazzy and sassy, which was just what the current crop of directors was looking for.  He began getting film engagements and with FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (the Bond producers didn’t forget his stylish DR. NO contribution) in 1963, and ZULU and GOLDFINGER (which pushed the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night off the top spot of the album charts and won Barry a gold disc) in 1964, he was off and running in cinema.  Eventually he would go on to score potent and very memorable works for films like MIDNIGHT COWBOY; THE LAST VALLEY; WALKABOUT; MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS; ROBIN AND MARIAN; KING KONG (from 1976); THE DEEP; HANOVER STREET; THE BLACK HOLE; RAISE THE TITANIC; FRANCIS; BODY HEAT; HIGH ROAD TO CHINA; Francis Ford Coppola’s THE COTTON CLUB (which won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental); Oscar nominated CHAPLIN, and the list goes on and on.
His work for a modestly budgeted fantasy film in 1980 called SOMEWHERE IN TIME helped place that film in cult classic status.  Starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, it didn’t garner much attention from audiences or critics upon its initial release, but its video release and airing on television gave it new life, with many thanks due to the beautiful melodies Barry wrote for it.  It is one of his most beloved works.  This is the type of almost spiritual elevation he could bring to a motion picture.
Director Sydney Pollack once said, “You can’t listen to his music without seeing movies in your head.”  It is hard to imagine a better compliment, or epitaph, than that for a film composer.

Galaxy of Terror: DVD Review

click to purchase
click to purchase

GALAXY OF TERROR is exploitation, pure and simple – I mean, if you’ve got a giant-maggot-on-naked-woman rape scene in your film it nothin’ but, baby.  And before going any further, it’s only fair to point out that this observer doesn’t normally go in for the likes of it.  Such is generally of the cheap, tawdry, banal, and even sleazy sort, so it’s not really my cup of tea.  GALAXY OF TERROR is all of the above; therefore, it stands to reason that I would find it particularly irritating.  But we’re a strange lot, we humans.  Thus, it is a curious state I find myself in when having to admit to you all that I found a certain degree of fun in watching it – both in 1981 and now via its new Blu-ray DVD release.  I can’t say I really stand behind it, but it does have its pluses.  It’s also perfect fodder for drive-in theaters (ah, the good ol’ days).
Aside from giggles, I remember very little from my first viewing of the film.  In fact, the only solid memories that have stuck with me over the years are:

  1. As a teenage boy I thought that Joanie Cunningham (Erin Moran) had grown into something kind of cute.
  2. Something no young boy would likely forget – the maggot rape scene.

Erin Moran
Erin Moran

Joanie had indeed grown up, but I didn’t find her quite as alluring this time around.  I noticed something else about her this time too: her performance wasn’t very interesting.  I saw too many moments in which she seemed to have trouble putting all those years of being on a television stage as Joanie Cunningham behind her.
The maggot scene, however, is still a wild & wacky concept, yet it too seemed tamer and less dramatic than my memory had put it.  Still, it probably remains the most provocative moment in GALAXY OF TERROR, and it is certainly the scene most other folks remember as well.  Without a doubt, the cast and crew find it most interesting to reminisce about.  The commentary (found on the Blu-ray edition) makes that quite clear.  Everyone seems to remember it humorously and even fondly.  Taaffe O’Connell, who played the maggot’s victim, was particularly jocular about it all and seemed to cherish her reflections of it and its cult status.
Aside from Moran and the maggot, however, there wasn’t a single thing about the plot or characters that I could conjure up in my memory.  A testament to the film’s somewhat forgettable nature, no doubt.  The plot itself is an easy-to-see-through rip off of ALIEN, which had made a huge critical and box-office splash just two years earlier.  Oh, sure, one or two crewmembers refer to it as an “homage,” but it’s a rip off.
Galaxy of TerrorWhile on an intended rescue mission to the planet Moganthus, the crew of the starship Quest finds itself being pulled down to the planet by an unknown energy force.  Now, not only must they search for survivors of a lost mission, but they must also find the origin of the energy field that pulled them down and disable it so that their ship may achieve a successful lift off (a la the Death Star’s tractor beam scenario in STAR WARS).  The next thing you know, the crewmembers start getting picked off one by one.
“Inspiration” aside, this much can be said for GALAXY OF TERROR: it does have a fairly intriguing psychological concept at its core.  The Quest’s crewmembers are supposedly attacked and killed by things drummed up from the fears within their own subconscious.  That’s all right as far as it goes; yet the script is sloppy and generally unimaginative, and the direction does little to improve on its weaknesses.  With a budget of only about $1,000,000 one could argue that the filmmakers could only do so much, and to a certain extent that is true.  Nonetheless, there are moments that counter or betray the psychological aspects behind the issues at hand.
Let’s just take two quick examples.  First, there is Taaffe O’Connell’s character.  Roger Corman is the one who actually came up with the concept for her demise (he knew it would generate buzz and help sell the movie both domestically and overseas).  In his mind, she was supposed to have personal psychological issues in connection to sexual intimacy, not to mention a healthy dislike for little slimy worms (based on a line she throws out somewhere in the script), thus the reasoning for her rape by the giant maggot.
Yet no where in the film does her character demonstrate any negative issues regarding sex or men.  In fact, when the ship first launches and a fellow crewmember (played by a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund) doesn’t have a chance to buckle himself in she calls him over, pulls him into her open lap, and wraps her legs around him in a very suggestive manner.  The moment is supposed to be a bit of sexual innuendo joke (something that’s even light-heartedly brought up within the commentary), but it goes solidly against what is supposed to be a key psychological hurdle for O’Connell’s character.  We may just be talking about a B-picture here, but even B-pictures need to remain honest to their intended nature.
We have a similar problem with the conflict at the end of the film.  The late Edward Albert’s character (earnestly played by him, by the way) finally learns that everyone is being destroyed by their own fears and that once this is realized and one’s fears are controlled the plaguing dangers will vanish.  This allows him to “pass the test,” as it is put to him.  Yet, just a few minutes later he is confronted by the creatures conjured up by the minds of his fellow crewmembers who have met with grizzly fates and by the dead crewmembers themselves.  His only defense is to try to physically confront them and ward them off.  Again, this seems in direct conflict with what he just learned and the “test” that he just passed.
If you think I’m spending too much time concerning myself with what I see as weaknesses within a minor exploitation piece (and admittedly, I’m sure I didn’t care about them as a teen), I’ll do you a favor and stop there – except to point out that England’s character is simply forgotten about toward the film’s end, demonstrating more careless lack of concern.  Be assured, however, that there are many other points one could pick away at.  Even director Bruce Clark admits that the script is somewhat poorly fleshed out.
Ray Walston
Ray Walston

But hey, if you can set all that in the closet and if you can get passed a truly awful electronic score by Barry Schrader (he decided he wasn’t cut out for a life as a composer after GALAXY OF TERROR and wisely decided to step away from it), and if you’re in the mood to watch a low-budget sci-fi horror flick in which a crewmember’s head implodes (specifically a sitcom star’s), and in which maggots rape women, then this just may be the right bit of exploitation for you.  Besides, many of the visuals are better (and crisper on Blu-ray) than one would expect from such a small film from its era, so you should be able to have some fun with those as well.  Everybody’s favorite Martian (Ray Walston) is in it, too.  And as a footnote to you James Cameron fans, he served as the film’s production designer.  Word has it that he was quite inventive, intense, and worked day and night on it.
Some may think me a fool to make this final note, but given a smart, psychologically based script (I mean really handled so this time) and a solid studio budget and a good team behind it, the concept for GALAXY OF TERROR, dare I say it, could be well suited for a reimaging.  There, I said it.  Now you can watch it and see what you think.
The Blu-ray edition includes these special features:

  • A rather nice, in-depth making-of doc;
  • PDF version of the script;
  • Fairly extensive photo gallery;
  • Textual pop-up trivia facts on the movie;
  • Commentary by maggot rape victim Taaffe O’Connell, creature & makeup crewmember Alan Apone, creature & makeup crewmember Alec Gillis, and production assistant/commentary moderator David DeCoteau.

All in all, the features are a thoughtful, extensive look at this nearly thirty-year old exploitation picture.  They certainly add some extra welcome fun to this guilty pleasure. … Taaffe O’Connell definitely thinks so on both counts.
GALAXY OF TERROR (New World Pictures; 1981; 81 min.) Directed by Bruce D. (B.D.) Clark.  Screenplay by Marc Siegler and Bruce (B.D.) Clark.  Outline by William Stout (uncredited).  Produced by Roger Corman.  Co-produced by Marc Siegler.  Production Design by James Cameron and Robert Skotak.  Art Direction by Steve Graziani and Alex Hajdu.  Visual Effects Supervision by Tom Campbell.  Cinematography by Jacques Haitkin and Austin McKinney.  Music Composed by Barry Schrader.  Edited By Larry Bock, R.J. Kizer and Barry Zetlin.  Cast: Edward Albert, Erin Moran, Ray Walston, Bernard Behrens, Zalman King, Robert Englund, Taaffe O’Connell, Sid Haig, Grace Zabriskie, Jack Blessing, and Mary Ellen O’Neill.  MPAA Rating: R for language, violence, gore, and one hell of an odd rape scene.
Galaxy of Terror Galaxy of Terror Galaxy of Terror: Robert Englund Galaxy of Terror-Picture1

Toy Story 3: An Observation on Critical Carping

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Let’s face it, boys and girls: sequels do not exactly increase the pedigree of a solid, successful original film.  With the exception of, say, AFTER THE THIN MAN, THE GODFATHER II, THE EMPIRE STRIKE BACK, and a few others, they tend to do more harm than good, tainting the brightness of the first. Still, every now and again, a little gem bucks the history of the system.  TOY STORY 3 is just such a little gem, a critical and box office champ that has become the second highest-rated film in’s history and grossed over $225,000,000 at the domestic box-office in its first ten days. Still, this hasn’t prevented a few critics from reflexively sharpening their long knives.
In a way, you can almost understand their attitude. It is a fact in the standard world that the third time around is definitely not a charm. (JAWS 3D, anyone?) And Pixar’s successful streak is unprecedented: they haven’t had a dud since they debuted the very first  full-length CGI animated movie (the original TOY STORY) back in 1995. The simple law of averages seems to suggest they would drop the ball with this second sequel.  So you can bet that the assassins were poised for the kill.
They should have waited for another target, however, With TOY STORY 3, Pixar has navigated the sequel pitfalls with grace, charm and smarts not once, but twice (TOY STORY 2 is actually Rottentomatoes’ all-time highest rated film).  Now, this isn’t to say that the franchise loses nothing in a third outing – it does lack some of the strength and originality of the first two outings – and one could pick on a few things here and there, but as a third go-round it still stands pretty firmly on sequel ground.  So methinks jabs seem more like critical carping.
TOY STORY 3 completes a near perfect arc.  The original TOY STORY (one of the best animated movies of all time) gave us heart and depth that we don’t often see in animated features – with themes such as the fear of losing someone’s love and being replaced by something new and tantalizing.  TOY STORY 2 dealt with the concern of being played out, worn out and broken, only to be discarded once one has been “beaten up,” as it were.  It also touched on the theme that is entrenched within the third film: What happens when a toy is outgrown?  TOY STORY 3 builds on this idea to its final, touching conclusion.
Of course, these are all metaphors for life itself.  There is not a one of us who cannot relate to love, loyalty, loss, and fear of rejection, abandonment, replacement and so on. This is a main reason why so many people can connect to and enjoy these movies.  Another is simply the love, care and grasp of material that the Pixar team exhibits when making its films.  There wasn’t a single child in the theater during the time period I saw TOY STORY 3 –  a strong testament to Pixar’s universal themes and creative integrity.  Yet it was still easy to sense the connection and the fun everyone was experiencing while watching the movie.  One could even hear sniffles toward its close.
Pixar’s films are International phenomenons.  In the end, they do speak to us all (well, most of us).  It takes a pretty cynical soul to completely reject the creative spirit and intuition that Pixar’s exceptionally talented band of brothers and sisters brings to any given project it produces.  The world of film would be in a much sadder realm were it not for them.  When I watch a Pixar production I am constantly reminded of so many of the reasons why I fell in love with the medium of movies in the first place.
Not every single living soul agrees with this benign line of thinking, however.  Two particular critics have definitely been thrust into the spotlight for their polar views.  Armond White is a reviewer (more a critic, I would say) who betrays an air of haughty superiority, as if he enjoys thrusting a dagger into a well-loved film.  To his vituperate way of thinking, TOY STORY 3 is  “so besotted with brand names and product-placement that it stops being about the innocent pleasures of imagination – the usefulness of toys – and strictly celebrates consumerism,” but then he holds up a messy, exploitive piece like JONAH HEX, exclaiming that “without a $50 million ad budget to make JONAH HEX seem important, the media feels free to trash it – doing so exposes their collusion with marketing and refusal to read film for personal reflection.”
Such a position is just plain silly, to be quite frank.  History is replete with enthusiastic critical and audience acceptance of little films that could.  Now, I cannot say whether Mr. White takes controversial positions to generate attention, or if he is completely genuine with his views, but he acts as if he is in a college debate class and reflexively needs to take the unpopular side of an issue so that he can impress us with his rhetorical skills.
Cole Smithey is another critic who has taken a more negative viewpoint of TOY STORY 3. Smithey claims TOY STORY 3 “sends all the wrong messages,” and he reproaches the film for its lapse into what he sees as an inappropriately dark area.  To this I would counter that Mr. Smithey may not remember his childhood all that well.  I can assure him that the imagination and methods of play of children can be every bit as dark as anything portrayed in TOY STOY 3.
Smithey doesn’t understand why people think his C+ rating is so negative, writing in a later self-defense, “As with everything else in the American media, there’s no room for nuance in today’s court of public opinion; it’s all or nothing. My review was being sniffed at like it was a box of Cracker Jacks with no prize. Although I’d made fifteen points about specific problems I had with the film, some readers seemed unable to grasp a single criticism.”
Well, now, there’s a difference between understanding and accepting. Perhaps the real reason people object is that, within the body of his “nuanced” review, Smithey makes not a single positive comment on the movie. His comments on TOY STORY 3 and his follow-up comments about the reaction to his words show him to be every bit as black-and-white and snippy in his views as any of those against whom he rails.
A third film critic named Jeremy Heilman weighs in on the negative side as well.  His views are more understandable in their “been-there-done-that” perspective.  On that score he – and the others – have a point.  Many of the themes have been touched on before.  But as I said, they come to a rather natural full-circle that ties up the trilogy.  Still, reading between the lines it feels as though Heilman has a bit of a Pixar grudge too (he doesn’t like the fact that they may cast a type of shadow on the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki).
I’m not here to say “How dare these guys show any negativity toward the great gods of Pixar Studios!”  On the contrary, I fully support their right to make any honest observation they see fit. (After all, I doggedly bucked popular opinion on ALIENS, TERMINATOR 2, TITANIC, AVATAR, among others. No I don’t hate James Cameron; I just don’t think he’s very honest in relation to the execution of his stories and characters.)  Besides, Pixar sure doesn’t need me to come to its defense.  What I do question, though, is the possibility that they either had an axe to grind or were simply lying in wait, ready to poke any holes they could the third time around.  As fresh as the first it is not.  But as a threequel it is so much better than most.  And this is the pleasant surprise to which our trio of critics should be a bit more willing to concede.
Mr. Smithey claims to be quite sincere about his sincerity.  Mr. White, on the other hand, seems to be more ticked off at humanity.  There, is no doubt, reason to feel negatively about us particular bipeds, but there must be more honest and constructive ways to show it. We cannot all be “non-thinking children and adults,” as Mr. White essentially says of those who enjoyed the film.  No, in this third and final TOY STORY, almost everything comes together just about as well as one could hope for (with a few exceptions).  The time between the films is just about right, too.  With the years that have gone by, Andy has grown up and is moving away to attend college.  This prompts him to seriously consider: What is to become of the needful things that must now be set aside?  His fondness for his old toys remains (as it has with so many of us), but he cannot take them away to some tiny student dorm and into a completely different type of life.

No longer needed by Andy, the toys end up at Sunnyside Day Care.
No longer needed by Andy, the toys end up at Sunnyside Day Care.

Regardless of what our detractors say, this plot line offers a nice, natural trajectory in connection with the life of a child-turned-young-adult and a handful of beloved toys; it provides a proper, heartfelt note on which to end this charming, silly symphony that is TOY STORY.  And certainly by the movie’s end, Pixar shows they know that this should be and will be its fond full-length farewell to one of the most beloved animated film franchises in the medium’s history.  The group at Pixar has treated it with love, tenderness and care from the first fame of the first film to the last frame of the last film.  There may have been a small trip up here or there along the way, but to ask for much more than was delivered is to demand almost more than mere mortals are capable of.
Heck, all I really know is that Comic Book Guy would dig it.  That’s good enough for me.
TOY STORY 3 (Pixar Animation Studios/Full Circle Releasing/Walt Disney Pictures; 2010; 103 min.) Directed by Lee Unkrich.  Screenplay by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, and Michael Arndt.  Produced by Darla K. Anderson and John Lasseter.  Production Design by Bob Pauley.  Direction of Animation by Michael Stocker.  Supervision of Animation by Bobby Podesta and Michael Venturini.  Music Composed by Randy Newman.  Edited By Ken Schretzmann.  Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Betty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris, John Morris, Jodi Benson, Emily Hahn, Laurie Metcalf, Blake Clark, Teddy Newton, Bud Luckey, Beatrice Miller, Javier Fernandez Pena, Timothy Dalton, Lori Alan, Charlie Bright, Kristen Schaal, Jeff Garlin, Bonnie Hunt, John Cygan, Jeff Pidgeon, Whoopi Goldberg, and R. Lee Ermey.  MPAA Rating: G for general audiences.

Transylmania (2009) Unrated DVD Review

Transylmania (2010)Dear God in heaven, what have I done to myself?!  I just threw away two precious hours of life watching a “horror comedy” (at least they tell me it is so) called TRANSYLMANIA.  I feel like…well, doing what three dopey characters do ad nauseum during one particular obnoxious, uh, vomit scene.  I also wanna take a shower.  And if you’re older than ten and smarter than two, I’d be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that you would feel just about the same.
TRANSYLMANIA’S DVD back sheet – and I’m referring to the newly released “unrated” version – states that the childish schlock fest clocks in at ninety-seven minutes, but the trusty ole DVD player rang it up at one hour and thirty-two minutes.  No matter, I suppose, because regardless of the actual time count, the movie felt as if it would never end.
Before dumping any further, however, let me point out that TRANSYLMANIA did have its pluses.  I can tell you that most of its cast did what it could with what was available and did so earnestly.  I don’t know if I’da had the cojones to do some of the mind-numbing tricks a few were asked to do.  I use the word ‘tricks’ because it felt as if some of those poor folks were doing little more than whoring themselves, especially those who had to take off most of their clothes and prance around for no other genuine reason than to titillate the more sophomoric (can I change that to freshmoric?) in the audience.  The directors (the Hillenbrand brothers, who are best known for National Lampoon’s DORM DAZE and DORM DAZE 2) would tell us no, there was a ritualistic reason for what they were doing, yada-yada-yada.  Bull crap!  The movie is a frat boy mentality production if ever there was one, and if anything else was truly the intent, you blew it, kids.

Oren Skoog
Oren Skoog

Oh, wait, I’m sorry, I was supposed to be pointing out the film’s more positive moments.  Uh, where was I?  Oh, yeah, the actors.  Eh, that’s about all I can say there.  The directors, however, go out of their way to praise their actors, especially two of them (Oren Skoog and Jennifer Lyons), who have to play two different characters each.  The director’s audio commentary emphasizes Skoog and Lyons’ strong talent in changing so many details of posture, voice/accent, facial expressions, and movement in general.  I say, “Hey, that’s what actors are paid to do.”  It should be part of their training.  Any actor who can’t rise to such challenges to an affective degree ain’t worth their salt.
Oh, jeez, there I go again, dumping in the middle of pointing out pluses.  Think positive.  Thiiiiink positive.  All right, let’s see, what else?  They actually shot the film on location; that was kind of cool.
Okay, I can also state that there was some pretty decent cinematography by Viorel Sergovici.  In fact, Mr. Sergovici probably brought more to the production than most.  Several shots had a lighting scheme that you could certainly tell took thought and work.  Once in a while there was a nicely framed shot as well, evoking memories of more entertaining (horror) films from the past.
Jennifer Lyons
Jennifer Lyons

Oh, and the editor, Dave O’Brien, didn’t allow shots to linger on too long for the most part.  He cut things in a manner that kept the momentum of a given scene bouncing along.  The girls were light on the eyes too, but that there be about it, ladies and gents.
Let’s get to the plot.  It can be wrapped up simply by saying a group of college kids go to Romania for a semester of…education…and wind up fighting vampires.  I can just hear the pitch now: “It’ll be great!  It’s ANIMAL HOUSE meets YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN meets VAN HELSING!  It can’t fail!”
Speaking of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, there’s one particularly obvious and irritating riff (or homage, as the directors would put it) on that brilliant Mel Brooks movie.  Anyone who remembers the film will recall how the horses would whinny every time a character mentioned the name of the spooky castle servant Frau Blucher.  It was a wonderful joke that Brooks and team built as the film went on.  In TRANSYLMANIA, the Hillenbrands decided they’d do the same thing, but this time the horses…well, fart whenever someone mentions the name of the university these kids are going to attend.  And it’s handled as nothing more than a silly throw away joke – not that it deserved to be handled any other way.
If that doesn’t give you an idea as to where this movie is coming from, then I’m not sure what would.  The Hillenbrands would say that what they were going for overall was a Molierean or Shakespearean farce.  Excuse me?  What?  Um, maybe a viewer can see the kernels of the ideas from which they wanted to work – and from whence they ripped them off – and the thing is a farce, all right, but there it ends, folks.
Transylmania (2010)
Musetta Vander plays Teodora Van Sloan, named after actor Edward Van Sloan, who co-starred in the 1931 DRACULA - one of TRANSYLMANIA's many references to better, classic horror films.

Nonetheless, in commentaries, the co-directors more than once reference influences such as Shakespeare, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, Danny Kay, and even THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI.  For younger filmmakers, they do know a bit about film and stage history, but in their commentary it’s almost as if they’re still smarting from the bashing TRANSYLMANIA received at the box-office, not to mention most reviewers, and are trying to prove that they do have some sort of artistic intellect and that there was purpose behind their pranks.  Well, they may not be stupid, but their movie sure is.  I will say that to listen to them speak sincerely about their influences and what they were attempting was rather fascinating, given the essence of what their project ultimately is.
It’s astounding to me, sometimes, how a picture like this gets green-lit when it’s so difficult for most scripts – good ones – to get anywhere in Hollywood.  And it’s a bit baffling that a seasoned producer would look at such a project as this and say to him or herself, “I think we’ve got a solid foundation for a hit.  Yes indeedy, folks’ll dig it, and we’ll pull in some capital bucks.”
Now, just in case I left any doubt in your mind as to whether I liked TRANSYLMANIA or not, let me be perfectly clear: hell no! And unless you have no decent sense of taste and are simply dying to see the return of some of the DORM DAZE characters, then those two plus precious hours you lose in watching this piece of !&$#@ after reading this ‘honest and objective’ review are your own damn fault.
Okey-dokey, in happy conclusion, I’ll tell you that the special features on the DVD – which is where this movie should’ve wound up from the start – include a commentary by the directors and actors that comes off like a bunch of pals laughing at things only they think are a hoot while they reminisce about what fun they had making their home movies.  There is also an alternate opening and ending, deleted and extended scenes, all with commentary (just in case you didn’t already get your fill watching the movie), a gag-blooper reel that’s every bit as unentertaining as the film itself, a behind-the-scenes piece that’s little more than an extended trailer, and then there is an official trailer, and some previews for a few other movies.
Oh, but back to that gag reel for a moment – at one point actress Natalie Garza (who plays straight-laced Lia) is asked to look or turn her head right.  She has to stop and think seriously, then ask herself which way is her right.  Now, I don’t want to slam on Ms. Garza; after all, maybe she was debating between her right and stage right.  Or maybe she’d been working fifteen hours with nary a break and was getting punchy.  The point is that the moment of questioning seemed very apropos to me.  I couldn’t help thinking that the only people who should get a bang out of this thing are those who can barely tell their left from their right.  Hey, but no offense meant to the schlock lovers out there.
Transylmania (2010)Look, it’s not enough to be inspired by iconic films or entertainers, and then laugh at – and also try to justify – your own sense of cleverness over what you’ve just done.  There is a reason why icons are what they are and crackpot entities like TRANSYLMANIA are what they are.  No, it’s not enough to shout “I’m doing this with purpose, with thought!  Hear me roar!”  The makers of TRANSYLMANIA cobble together elements from this or that (even Busby Berkeley musicals for cryin’ out loud!) and think that it’ll make a great stew.  But in the end it’s just glop.
TRANSYLMANIA (Film Rock/Hill & Brand Entertainment/Full Circle Releasing/Sony Pictures: theatrical release, December 2010; DVD release April 2010; 97+ min.) Directed by David Hillenbrand and Scott Hillenbrand.  Screenplay by Patrick Casey and Worm Miller.  Produced by Radu Badica, Sanford Hampton, Viorel Sergovici (Romanian producer).  Co-produced by Jenna Johnson and Kim Swartz.  Production Design by Jack Cloud.  Set Decoration by Karin L. McGaughey.  Special Effects supervised by Jor Van Kline.  Visual Effects supervised by Eran Barnea.  Music Composed by Carlos Villalobos.  Edited By Dave O’Brien.  Cast: Oren Skoog, Worm Miller, Patrick Casey, Jennifer Lyons, Tony Denman, Patrick Cavanaugh, Paul H. Kim, David Steinberg, Natalie Garza, Nicole Garza, Musetta Vander, James DeBello, Irena A. Hoffman, Claudiu Trandafir, Radu Andrei Daniel, Simon Petric, Dorin Andone, Dorina Lazar, Desiree Malonga, Radita Rosu, Adriana Butoi, and Corneliu Jipa.  MPAA Rating: R for crude and sexual content, nudity, drug use, language and some violence.

Malice in Wonderland – DVD Review

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MALICE IN WONDERLAND ain’t your mama’s (or Lewis Carroll’s) version of the tale.  No, this one, which has recently been released on DVD here in the States, has a decidedly mod sensibility to it, complete with plenty of words of the ‘F’ persuasion, city-boy attitude, near music video mentality, and a trip down the rabbit hole that’s drug-induced (but how much is left to the viewer). It all boils down to an idea without the maturation needed to tie it up in a neat, appealing package.
A modern-day black London cab driver named Whitey (Danny Dyer) accidentally smacks into our heroine (Alice, played by Maggie Grace) and gives her a strong something to help with the bump on her head and the amnesia from which she’s suffering. Well, as you can guess, this starts the journey for the fair-haired lass.  Of course, said journey is a semi-weird one, scattered with semi-weird souls, and Alice has to figure out how to extricate herself from this screwy world. 
Apparently, it’s a world in which everyone seems to want to get in on a big bank score, so they’re all trying to get a bloke named Harry Hunt (Nathaniel Parker) a special birthday gift, so he’ll feel inclined to include them in a majorly massive bank heist that will make any involved instant millionaires.  Everyone appears to talk about it freely and openly too, so it seems only logical that the authorities would get wind of things and prepare for it.  There is no hint of this, however.  But I suppose that isn’t too important for our story teller’s purposes, so let’s move on.
MALICE IN WONDERLAND is actually a British fantasy, with Alice being the sole person of non-British persuasion in it.  She’s an American – who probably shouldn’t want to go back to Britain any time soon after this strange, awkward, and uneasy trip across the pond.  The point is that there simply doesn’t seem to be much of true interest in this version of WONDERLAND.  And poor Maggie Grace utters lines like “So, who is this stupid Harry, anyway?” as if she were a none-too-mature teen.  She makes many of her deliveries with about as much confidence as a child.  She’s not an unattractive young lady, but – and I’m sorry, Maggie – her performance looks almost like something out of a high school play (her Young Artist’s Award for MURDER IN GREENWICH and ensemble cast Screen Actor’s Guild Award for LOST notwithstanding).
At times, MALICE IN WONDERLAND feels akin to a student film production, one with a budget and maybe a little more time.  Sample the editing: it’s not as snappy as it should be.  If you’re going to create a tripped out fantasy, you might as well go all the way in manipulating the viewer’s senses.  The efforts here really don’t seem too courageous in that regard, and many things move at a lesser clip than feels right.  A little bit of the George Lucas “Faster and More Intense” style of direction and cutting (at least from his earlier days) could’ve helped a might.  Inappropriate pacing hurts some performances in a piece of this nature more than in some other genres.
Aside from Maggie Grace, the performers aren’t too bad (in fact, some, such as Danny Dyer, are known and liked in certain circles), but their performances still feel a smidge stilted, because no one seems to have a solid handle on the flow this type of film requires.  This off-kilter pace – involving direction, acting and editing – leads to a slightly awkward feel throughout, which means most of the intended fun just isn’t there.
In addition, no one is really intriguing enough to spend eighty-seven minutes with.  MALICE IN WONDERLAND is rather like watching strangers go through an odd experience without ever being seriously engaged in who they are or what they’re doing.  And the trippiness lacks that intended bit of glee one expects from a travel into Wonderland.
Then there is the aspect of Alice falling in love with Whitey.  It’s wholly unbelievable and completely artificial.  At the outset, Alice is running away because her mom and dad (well, step mom & dad, as it turns out) want her to marry a well-placed German gent.  But during her trip she falls for a scruffy looking cabbie who’s trying to get in good with that bank robber so he can get accepted into the thief’s next gig.  Now he sounds like a catch.  But that’s the more minor issue.  The biggest problem is that feeling of falsity, which is always a very bad sign.
Malice In Wonderland (2009)If you cannot create a compelling world for your plot, with equally compelling characters who need to wander through said world, then you’ve got yourself a big problem.  This low-budget variation on the Alice story is not filled with any of the wonder of Lewis Carroll’s envisioning, but then neither is the big-budgeted, big studio version directed by Tim Burton filled with much of it, so I suppose MALICE IN WONDERLAND is in strong company in its failure to take the high road.
The features on the DVD include a standard making-of doc, which also fails to engage or offer reason for its existence; some behind the scenes photos; and previews of other Magnolia home entertainment properties.  So if the film leaves you thinking “So what?”, then the special features will probably have you asking “What for?”  You probably have more important things on which to spend your time.
MALICE IN WONDERLAND (Mark Williams Films;  2009; 87 min.) Directed by Simon Fellows.  Screenplay by Jayson Rothwell.  Produced by Albert Martinez Martin and Mark Williams.  Co-produced by Larry Collins and Charles Salmon.  Production Design by Lisa Hall.  Art Direction by Luke Stevens.  Special Effects supervised by Jason Troughton.  Visual Effects supervised by Paddy Eason and David Wahlberg.  Music Composed by Christian Henson and Joe Henson.  Edited By Roy M. Brewer Jr. and James Melton.  Cast: Maggie Grace, Danny Dyer, Matt King, Nathaniel Parker, Christopher Patterson, Bronagh Gallagher, Anthony Higgins, Steve Haze, Dave Lynn, Gary Beadle, Amanda Boxer, Garrick Hagon, Paul Kaye, Matthew Stirling, Alan Mckenna, Fiona O’Shaughnessy, Steve Furst, Pam Ferris, Charlotte Mae McGuinness, Candace Macon, Lin Blakely, Sandra Dickinson, William Tapley, David Blakeley, Alice Blake Lee, Bo Bonsu, Tony Cook, and Davis Frost.  MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content, drug use and brief violence.

Favorite Nightmares from Elm Street: Saxon, Skeletons, and Severed Heads (oh my!)

John Saxon's character dies in a battle with Freddy
John Saxon's character dies in a battle with Freddy

For my favorite nightmare from Elm Street, I’m gonna go with NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS, mainly ’cause it’s got a guest appearance by John Saxon and I got a soft spot for the guy. He co-starred in the first Hollywood film I ever worked on, MY MOM’S A WEREWOLF, and though he was a rather quiet, reserved fellow, I personally thought of him as calm and patient. I never saw him get upset around the crew.
But to focus on the less personal, I also got a kick out of the battle in the junkyard with the stop motion Freddy skeleton. It’s jiggy, man! And how can you not like the decapitated head of Kristen’s (Patricia Arquette) mommy dearest (Brooke Bundy) telling her that she always spoils things whenever mom brings home a beau?

The Great Mouse Detective – DVD Review

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On Tuesday, April 13, 2010 Walt Disney Pictures re-released THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE on DVD. This one’s called the Mystery in the Mist edition, but it’s not quite clear why. Aside from the new digital transfer and a couple of new short features – granted, one involves solving a cookie jar theft (the misty mystery?) – there is little “new” under the sun. And you won’t find it on Blu-ray either. Frankly, aside from the digital transfer, it may almost be preferable for some to go for the 2002 DVD release instead because it offers several animated shorts that the latest version does not (and yes, the older release includes the ‘making-of’ documentary found on the new DVD).
So, why the relatively simple release and no Blu-ray edition? It couldn’t be because Disney figured the movie wouldn’t generate all that much interest, could it? All right, that’s just a subjective speculation, but for the sake of those who purchased the new DVD we hope that Disney isn’t planning some ultimate (Blu-ray) edition a year or so down the line.
Perhaps the aforementioned observation betrays a slightly negative attitude toward the movie that rests mainly with this reviewer rather than the majority of folks. After all, its standing on has it resting quite comfortably at 80%. However, one should take a look at the number of reviews from which that statistic arises; it’s a mere 15.
Still, the film was received fairly positively during its initial release and it is said that its moderate success gave the then new heads of Disney enough confidence to go ahead with a more ambitious project called THE LITTLE MERMAID. Well, we all know what happened after that, so if THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (dubbed THE ADVENTURES OF THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE during a theatrical re-release) led to the precious slate of Disney releases that followed it, then I bow deeply to it on that count.
Yet, I must admit that the apparent charms of the film left me somewhat unmoved. It’s one I never had that much interest in during its initial release (thus, I missed it) and nothing really drew me to it over the years (so I never made an effort to watch it until this new digital release popped up). And to be wholly honest, I can see why. If THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE were produced – just as it is – today, then I would argue that it would find itself on the Disney Channel rather than in theaters. Aside from the current CGI movement, it simply doesn’t seem hold the punch necessary for a successful theatrical run. Oh, it’s a sweet enough little piece, I suppose, but it feels a little stilted when compared to today’s current crop of animated films. You may not call it fair to compare it with more recent animated projects, but remember, I had the same attitude toward it in 1986.
The whole thing feels a bit watered down. It may be that the fact that it had four directors and no less than 10 credited writers had something to do with softening its feel and pace. Too many cooks with their own particular palate to satisfy? It felt – and to some degree even looked – like a higher-end traditionally animated Rankin/Bass production more than it did a Disney feature. Now, that’s not meant to be too much of a slight. I like most Rankin/Bass productions. However, it does make THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE seem less…theatrical.
Here’s just one example of what I’m pointing out here: The very accomplished Henry Mancini scored the film, but his music is surprising listless. It plays more like simple background music and accompanies moments in which is not needed, which only adds to the feeling that it is more filler than anything else.
One might argue that this score came a mere eight years before his death and that he was winding down. But, in 1992 he would score TOM AND JERRY: THE MOVIE and that entry into his aggregate of work would be considerably livelier. So again, it makes one wonder whether there were too many cooks in the kitchen, requiring less spice in order to serve a more general type of viewer. At any rate, the Mancini point is indicative of the trouble with the entire movie.
Still, the idea is a cute one. Based on a series of children’s books by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone, it takes the world of Sherlock Holmes (that character known here as Basil of Baker Street and voiced by Barrie Ingham) and shrinks it down to the rodent arena. A young mouse (Susanne Pollatschek) witnesses the kidnapping of her father (Alan Young, sounding more than ever like his character in 1960’s THE TIME MACHINE) by a somewhat handicapped bat who works for an evil, power-hungry rat named Ratigan (who is the equivalent of Holmes’ arch nemesis, Dr. Moriarty, and is voiced by the always pitch-perfect Vincent Price). Soon after the game is afoot. The problem is that the game is rather bland.
Nonetheless, it served co-writers/co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker well; it and previous effort THE BLACK CAULDREN (which didn’t do well and received poor reviews) helped get their feet wet and honed their skills. Proof is in the pudding, as they say, because they went on to take leading positions on THE LITTLE MERMAID, ALADDIN, HERCULES, the underrated TREASURE PLANET, and THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. Burny Mattinson – one of the ten writers – went on to work on the stories for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, ALADDIN, THE LION KING, the also underrated HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, MULAN and TARZAN.
Another interesting tidbit is that THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE was the first Disney film in which its animators incorporated computer-generated imagery into their traditional cell animation. The clock tower sequence involves a deadly chase through the gears of London’s giant Big Ben clock. The mice and rat are traditionally rendered, but the gears and the angles we see as the chase ensues through them are generated via computer, offering angles and a rollercoaster type of view that might not be possible otherwise. This technique would later be put to greater publicized use in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, THE LION KING, etc.
Watching animator Phil Nibbelink describe the process and its effect in the ‘making-of’ short feature on the DVD is almost as fun as any scene in the movie itself. His “animated” demeanor and obvious excitement over the new creative tool is infectious. It’s a joy to watch his pleasure in connection to what he does.
There are a couple of other features on the DVD worth noting too. There is the standard Disney sing-a-long, of course, but there is also a nice history primer in relation to the profession of detective work. It’s a quick, fun way for kids to learn a little something.
The other tidbit younger ones will get some fun out of is the sleuth test video short. Again, it’s something that gives the younger set a chance to use some cognitive reasoning.
The Great Mouse Detective (1986)Of course, one is also subjected to the ads – uh, that is, coming attractions for other Disney product, specifically some Blu-ray releases. Of note to TOY STORY fans, however, is a nice trailer for TOY STORY 3. That oughta wet a few appetites; it did mine, anyway.
The final verdict: THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE is certainly no great work, nor is it as good as some others – notably the likes of Siskel & Ebert – have touted, especially in hindsight. Even the sound editing and sound transfer for the new disc were unimpressive. Nonetheless, it has its creative moments and even involves more obscure trivia connected to Holmes lore such as canine companion Toby, who showed up in Arthur Conan Doyle’s second Sherlock Holmes novel, THE SIGN OF THE FOUR.
And perhaps most meaningful of all, it allowed those involved to cut their teeth on it, and then move on to help make history with future critical and public favorite works.
THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (Walt Disney Pictures/Silver Screen Partners II; 1986; 74 min.) Directed by Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, David Michener, and John Musker. Screenplay by Peter Young, Vance Gerry, Steve Hulett, Ron Clements, John Musker, Bruce Morris, Matthew O’Callaghan, Burny Mattinson, David Michener, and Melvin Shaw. Based on the “Basil of Baker Street” book series by Eve Titus and Paul Galdone. Inspired by the “Sherlock Holmes” book series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Produced by Burny Mattinson. Art Direction by Guy Vasilovich. Visual Effects by Dave Bossert, Mark Dindal, Tad A. Gielow, Ted Kierscey, Rolando Mercado, Patricia Peraza, Steve Starr, John Tucker, and Kelvin Yasuda. Music Composed by Henry Mancini. Edited By Roy M. Brewer Jr. and James Melton. Cast of Voices: Vincent Price, Barrie Ingham, Val Bettin, Susanne Pollatschek, Candy Candido, Diana Chesney, Eve Brenner, Alan Young, Laurie Main, Shani Wallis, Ellen Fitzhugh, Walker Edmiston, Wayne Allwine, Tony Anselmo, Melissa Manchester, Frank Welker and Basil Rathbone. MPAA Rating: G for everyone.

Universal Soldier: Regeneration – DVD Review

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First off, let’s not try to pretend that UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION is anything more than something for the boys-with-toys set to get off on. Director John Hyams (Peter Hyams’ son) makes little effort to mask this fact. He’s a big fan of mixed martial arts – he even directed a documentary on the subject – and it definitely shows. The man also hired MMA fighters as actors (Andrei ‘The Pit Bull’ Arlovski and Mike Pyle to name a couple), so right off we kinda know where this project’s mindset lies.
The story goes like this: Liberation fighter commander Topov (Zahary Baharov) is trying to liberate the fictional territory of Pasalan. To achieve his ends, he and his team take over a nuclear power plant and its nearby town. They rig the plant with explosives and Topov makes his demands – the imminent release of all 227 political prisoners currently held captive, along with the complete independence of Pasalan – claiming that if these demands are not met in full he will blow up the plant, “generating an explosion causing a radiation cloud 100 times stronger than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan.”
To make matters worse, there’s a new, improved model of UniSol out there on the bad guy’s side – thanks to renegade Dr. Colin (Kerry Shale) – who’s kicking butt on those brought in through the U.S. military to stop the terrorists and their smashing machine. There are four of these new generation UniSols on the good guy’s team, but they’re no match for the robotic ueber UniSol (think TERMINATOR with real flesh & bone).
Meanwhile, Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and a Dr. Sandra Fleming (Emily Joyce), who is somehow reminiscent of a Japanese anime character, are simply trying to mind their own business as they attempt to reintegrate Luc into society through a privately funded program (which we learn nothing about). But of course, no matter how hard the two try to pull poor Luc out of his connection to the Universal Soldier program, the “theys” out there drag him back in.
Dolph Lundgren & Jean-Claude Van Damme - together again
Dolph Lundgren & Jean-Claude Van Damme - together again

Oh yeah, just in case you’re dying to know: good ol’ Dolph Lundgren is brought back for this one, too, as a cloned version of sergeant Andrew Scott from the original movie. Now, if you’re a fan of cheesy actions flicks and if you had fun with the first UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, then you’ll get a kick (sorry about the pun) out his bit in this installment. But he’s shoe-horned into the story and brings little meaning to things, as he exits nearly as quickly as he enters.
Now, as with other UNIVERSAL SOLDIER installments (most of which I have not seen), this one won’t exactly win any awards, but it does have a couple of things going for it. One is the hand-to-hand combat action. It’s nicely choreographed and has a thumping “sense” of realism to it, even though it’s preposterous, if that makes much sense. Watching it you don’t feel as though you’re watching stylish cartoon action from, say, the recent G.I. JOE release. Observing these guys is like watching a couple of brick walls smashing up against each other; there’s a visceral, raw quality that’s to its credit.
Another positive aspect is the manner in which Hyams shoots his action. He uses a steadicam most of the time instead of a standard hand-held camera and the audience can actually see what’s going on. In other words, we’re not forced to sit through ADD style camera work and extreme close-ups that make us struggle in futility to decipher the action. I don’t know about you, but this viewer finds little more frustrating than going to watch an action film, and then not being able to tell who is hitting whom, let alone who’s winning.
Peter Hyams (CAPRICORNE ONE, OUTLAND) is also on hand for this one, but he leaves the directing chores to his son while he focuses on his duties as the film’s Director of Photography. John admits that he initially wanted to stay more with a darker, colder look, but his father talked him in to warming things up a bit at various points. Probably a good call, too, because the film is somewhat claustrophobic and takes itself pretty seriously, so something is needed to offer a change of pace in terms of mood and character. After all, this ain’t no SAVING PRIVATE RYAN or SCHINDLER’S LIST.
Although it’s probably better than most of the others in the UNIVERSAL SOLDIER franchise, it does have that issue of taking itself a little too seriously. Van Damme merely looks tired and depressed from beginning to end. And when the script does inject attempts at humor, the jokes comes off as more insipid than anything because of its overall deadly serious tone. There’s a scene in which one UniSol gets a two-inch pipe rammed right through his head, yet he still maintains the capacity to see, think and speak. In the commentary, the filmmakers laugh heartily and exclaim that it is a great moment, but in a supposedly serious film it’s just lame. It belongs in a bad late ‘80’s Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
Speaking of the commentary, what we have on the UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION DVD is that – with John Hyams and Dolf Lundgren – and a fairly brief making-of doc. The doc is almost surprisingly pleasant to watch. In so many “making-of” features we simply get the talent involved explaining the story and praising each other’s “talents.” But this one actually lets the viewer follow a short while as the team explains its purpose and methods.
The commentary, on the other hand, comes off as a couple of fight fans mainly talking about how cool and physical their fighters-actors are as they go on about the stunt work. Oh sure, there’s an observation now and then about this or that, but those are few, and Dolf even interrupts a discussion about shot coverage and editing to focus on his entrance into the movie; then the two chuckle like school boys during those moments. The commentary really adds to the boys-with-toys vibe of the movie; one feels as if watching something made by jocks with cameras, rather than something from a team interested in being creative and wanting to tell a truly good tale. And frankly, Lundgren comes off a bit mono-syllabic and stoned; he sounds like, well, Rocky Balboa.
Still, at one point Hyams makes an interesting observation about not having that much of an interest in video games, but that his film plays out very much like one because, even though he doesn’t play much, he does like they manner in which games are generally laid out visually. He makes obvious use of that style in REGENERATION.
Comparing the commentary in UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION to that of the original film (with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Dean Devlin, and Roland Emmerich) suggests that the new team is much more interested in pound and grind instead the craft of filmmaking. (One can tell that the first team just gets off on movies in general.) This isn’t really meant to short change Hyams, who grew up in the business under his father’s wing and graduated from a respected art school. He doesn’t have too many features under his belt yet, so the jury’s still out – although the fact that UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION went straight to DVD says something.
When all is said and done, like TERMINATOR SALVATION, UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION may make for better late night TV viewing on a Friday or Saturday night rather than any rebooting of a franchise.
Jean-Claude & Andrei Arlovski
Jean-Claude Van Damme & Andrei Arlovski

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER: REGENERATION (Foresight Unlimited/Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 2009; 97 min.) Directed by John Hyams. Screenplay by Victor Ostrovsky. Produced by Craig Baumgarten, Moshe Diamant, and Peter Hyams. Executive produced by Mark Damon and Courtney Solomon. Production Design by Philip Harrison. Art Direction by Rossitsa Bakeva. Special Effects Supervision by Ivo Jivkov. Visual Effects Supervision by Joseph Oberle. Music Composed by Kris Hill and Michael Krassner. Edited By Jason Gallagher and John Hyams. Cast: Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Andrei Arlovski, Mike Pyle, Corey Johnson, Garry Cooper, Emily Joyce, Zahary Baharov, Aki Avni, Kerry Shale, Yonko Dimitrov, Violeta Markovska, Stanislav Pishtalov, Marianne Stanicheva, John Laskowski, Trayan Milenov-Troy, Jon Foo, Danko Jordanov, and Dian Hristov. MPAA Rating: R for pervasive strong brutal violence and some language.

How to Train Your Dragon – Review

How To Train Your Dragon (2010)

“Thank you for nothing, you useless reptile.” 

That’s a quote by Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) from DreamWorks’ new CGI animated film HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.  And I, uh, have to fess up and admit that those words were similar to my sentiments when I first saw the trailer for this one.  I didn’t care for the look of the animation and  the story seemed pretty run-of-the-mill if one swaps out the dragon for a dog or some other kind of pet.  In fact, the main reason I went to see it was because my wife wanted to go.
Okay, that there’s the full admission of my…well, judgmental attitude toward HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON.  But hey, I’m big enough to admit it publicly.  You see, if I’d been right I’d probably be boasting about the strength of my senses.  But instead, I’m having to pull my foot out of my mouth.  HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON, as it turns out, is a thoroughly enjoyable movie.  It’s also got a nice, thoughtful message for young and old alike (even though it’s far from new, it plays out well).  So there it is: John 0, DreamWorks team 1.  And I’m happy to say so.
It’s a funny thing, but while watching DRAGON it felt as if it’s central message of “Hey, these beasties aren’t at all what we thought they were.” was poking me in the chest and saying, “Get it?  This pre-judging thing ain’t so hot.”  Okay, okay, I got it.  Still, in my defense I’d just like to say that I was softening up and coming around during the first two minutes.  I found myself having fun with Hiccup’s style of narration, and the animation style was already beginning to work for me.  In the context of the production design and story, it was coming together nicely.
The story itself, which is based on the 2004 book of the same name by Cressida Cowell, is all about our young Viking friend Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, who’s not so Vikingy as he and dear old dad (Gerard Butler) wish he was.  You see, dad is the ueber-brave sort and a famed dragon slayer (the winged creatures are thought to be evil and nasty wretches), not to mention the leader of the Viking clan; while junior falls into the woebegone category.  He desperately wishes to become a respected dragon slayer in his own right.  His dream is to become the first Viking to bring down a member of the oh-so elusive and dangerous Night Fury breed.  Surely this would cement his desired stature within the clan.  To that end he develops a weapon to help him do just that.  And he does!  Trouble is, no one sees the dragon go down, and certainly no one is willing to listen to him about his accomplishment.
He knows he saw it go down, however, and sets out to find the evidence of his triumph.  Eventually he does come across the beast – which crashed thunderously in the woods – and finds it still ensnared in the rope webbing from his weapon.  He summons up the nerve to examine it and “take its heart back to dad,” but he just can’t bring himself to kill it.  Instead he helps it out, Androcles-and-the-Lion-style and cuts it loose from its trappings.  The dragon quickly pins him down, but does not kill him either.  It merely snarls and darts off, smashing into things as it tries to make its getaway.
Eventually, Hiccup realizes that its tail was damaged and that it cannot fly properly any longer.  Feeling pity and guilt – and a certain sense of curiosity – he tries to befriend and help creature.  The two wind up bonding, and Hiccup discovers that dragons are not at all what everyone has thought them to be.
If you’ve seen the trailer, yes, Hiccup has a crush on a young lass (voiced by America Ferrera) and there’s a subplot involving their relationship.  Needless to say, she’s supposed to be cute in her own way – hip, tough and all the rest of it – but this is one of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON’s more conventional aspects, so I won’t belabor it here, except to say that even it was likeable enough to be rather merry.
There are also some fun dragon facts that Hiccup learns and uses to non-violently subdue his winged attackers during some dragon slaying classes that he finds himself in.  But I’ve given you enough spoilers so we’ll end the synopsis right here.
All you really need to know is that if your attitude toward HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON was similar to mine, then drop it and go see this entertaining, smart, and even quaintly wise little movie.  Oh, and don’t skimp out on the 3-D because you think the film’s not worth it.  It is.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (DreamWorks/Paramount Pictures 2010; 98 min.) Directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders.  Screenplay by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders.  Additional writing by Adam F. Goldberg and Peter Tolan.  Based on the book by Cressida Cowell.  Produced by Bonnie Arnold.  Co-Produced by Michael A. Connolly.  Executive produced by Kristine Belson and Tim Johnson.  Production Design by Kathy Altieri.  Art Direction by Piere-Olivier Vincent.  Visual Effects Supervision by Craig Ring.  Music Composed by John Powell.  Edited By Maryann Brandon.  Cast of Voices: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig, Robin Atkin Downes, Philip McGrade, Kieron Elliott, and Ashley Jensen.  MPAA Rating: PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language.

The Book of Eli (2010)

Book of Eli-Movie (2010)

“In the time before…”

Back in January of 2010, a movie hit theaters and began with those rather clichéd words.  And it feels to us as if we’re talking about an ancient allegory, too.  We missed THE BOOK OF ELI when it initially hit theaters, but we’re catching up with it now.  Well, at least we’re getting to it before it journeys all the way to DVD.
The tale is a post-apocalyptic one in which our intrepid hero (Denzel Washington) feels called upon by a higher power (you know Who) to make a years-long journey to get a very important book (you know what) to a specific destination for a very important purpose.  You see, in this squalid future, there is perhaps only one of these books left (not too many other books either), and it must be protected and preserved at all costs.  So then it follows, of course, that there is a bad guy (Oldman) who wants to get his hands on the book for his own nefarious purposes.
As for the cause of mankind’s state in the film, who really knows?  We just screwed up big time, blew everything to hell, and really damaged our ozone layer, radiating ourselves and scorching the Earth in the process.  Yep, things they be a mess…in more than one aspect.
This reviewer can remember the good ol’ days when he was a young’un and rode bikes about 8 miles into town with his best bud one summer day to catch the a nifty little sleeper called THE ROAD WARIOR (1982).  Didn’t know much about it, other than the fact that it was a low-budget Aussie film with some no-name, hungry actors, and it promised some hip action for those with the thirst.  Well, it turned out to be an extra fun surprise, not to mention a star-making little jaunt for some actor named Mel Gibson and a director named George Miller.
Twenty-nine years and countless post-apocalyptic films later, it would be nice to be able to say the same for THE BOOK OF ELI; but alas, such just ain’t the case.  With a couple of A-list actors in the leads, there be no hungry no-namers to jump onto the scene.  With a budget of at least $80-million, the low-budget, devil-may-care spirit is out, too.  And with the post-apocalyptic genre having been beat to death with both good and bad whips, this somewhat plodding effort doesn’t bring much to viewers that’s different or entertaining.  However, with a ‘B’ or ‘C’ cast and some shakier production values on the technical side, it might make for good (translated schlocky & entertaining) midnight TV fodder on the likes of CREATURE FEATURES – another neat little blast from the past where just those kinds of movies ended up, to the joy of puberty-stricken teens all around.
Now, this is not to say that THE BOOK OF ELI boasts no positives.  When you’ve got a charismatic lead with the talent and gravitas of Denzel Washington, you bring instant strength to just about any film.  And Washington delivers here as well.  In fact, he’s the main reason for watching a stale piece like ELI.  It sure isn’t for Gary Oldman, who hams it up pretty good, even in the quiet moments.  And it isn’t for screenwriter Gary Whitta’s script, which does nothing to enlarge the genre or give us interesting – or at least fun – characters to hiss or cheer.  Mr. Whitta comes from the world of video gaming and video game journalism.  It shows in THE BOOK OF ELI, which feels rather like a game concept transposed to the big screen.
In addition to the positive contributions from Washington, there are a couple of other factors at work: one is the technical flair brought to bear by cinematographer Don Burgess.  It may not be ground-breaking, but the gritty, monochromatic imagery is an effective and appropriate approach to the film.  Another is the stylish direction of the Hughes brothers (except for some silly slow-mo’s).  They have a sense for tone and action, but they lack the ability to guide a writer who needs guidance and tell a compelling story.  In the end, it’s too bad that the pieces don’t come together to form a cohesive whole.  One senses missed opportunity and potential.
But back to Denzel Washington for a moment.  He brings a laudable reverence to his character’s spiritual beliefs without being preachy (more on that in a minute); it’s just too bad the rest of the film is too muddy in its development and too dopey to match such heart-felt care.  Through it all, fortunately, it remains clear that Washington cares, and admittedly, that alone is kind of refreshing.
As pointed out, there is a religious element to THE BOOK OF ELI, but it exists primarily as an element of the story, not to proselytize.  Regardless of the fact that a few have labeled the film as preachy (e.g., Kim Newman from Empire Magazine), it is not.  The titular book and the main character’s faith in the words contained therein are the MacGuffin used for the story’s progression, but the journey hardly equates to preachiness.  If such is what a viewer feels, I would submit that it comes from his or her own baggage, not from anything intrinsic to the film.
After all, in one of the movie’s more lunkheaded but predictable machismo moments, our heroine (Mila Kunis) passes on a logical life-choice and the message contained in the book, in order to go back to what she just spent most of the movie trying to get away from (presumably to go get her mother?) .  And Oldman’s character is interested in the book as a means to manipulate and control the masses – not for any truth in it that he believes should be adhered to.
In the end, there is a nice little twist – if you accept that divine intervention is involved; however, we’re left thinking that, although elements are intriguing or entertaining on one level or another, this post-apocalyptic world wasn’t mapped out thoroughly enough before committing it to celluloid.  As for this reviewer, give him book worm Henry Bemis in the TWILIGHT ZONE episode “Time Enough at Last,” based on Lynn Venable’s short story of the same name.; now there be some slick, ironic and entertaining end-of-civilization storytelling.  And there’s certainly the other post-apocalyptic tale released not too long before THE BOOK OF ELI.  You know the one I mean?  It involves a bleak, thoughtful trek down THE ROAD.

THE BOOK OF ELI (Alcon Entertainment/Warner Bros. 2010; 118 min.) Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes.  Screenplay by Gary Whitta.  Produced by Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove, Joel Silver, and David Valdes.  Executive produced by Susan Downey, Erik Olsen, Steve Richards, and Richard D. Zanuck.  Cinematography by Don Burgess.  Production Design by Gae S. Buckley.  Art Direction by Christopher Burian-Mohr.  Costumes by Sharen Davis.  Special Effects Supervision by Yves De Bono.  Visual Effects Supervision by Jon  Farhat, Justin Jones, Allan Magled, Chris Wells, and Edson Williams.  Music Composed by Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, and Claudia Sarne.  Edited By Cindy Mollo.  Cast: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits.  MPAA Rating: R – for some brutal violence and strong language.