Saturday, May 19, 2018

An Offbeat Coming of Age Story

Every once in a while, I like to champion a little known film which may have escaped the notice of most viewers. This time out, I'm recommending a little movie called Son of Rambow (2007), a film by writer-director Garth Jennings & producer Nick Goldsmith, who also teamed up for the big screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 2005. Son of Rambow is the story of two British school kids: Lee Carter, the requisite bad boy, and Will Proudfoot, a quieter and more introverted young man, whose family belongs to a strict religious sect called the Plymouth Brethren. Due to his family’s beliefs, Will is not allowed to watch TV or see movies. When the two boys become friends after being thrown together by circumstance, Lee invites Will to star in a movie he’s making, inspired by First Blood (1982), the first cinematic appearance of RamboAfter seeing the Sylvester Stallone action film at Lee's house, Will agrees to participate in the project.

Bill Milner & Will Poulter in Son of Rambow
The two boys work on the film using video equipment they secretly borrow from Lee’s older brother, who’s something of a bully. Will hides their activities from his widowed mother, who’s struggling with her decision to leave the Brethren, and start a better life for her family. The boys' ideas for the movie become even more ambitious, and the rest of the school, including some French exchange students, become involved in the project. Lee intends to enter the finished movie in a young filmmaker’s competition. As their friendship grows stronger, both Will & Lee will find themselves tested, as their personal lives interfere with the film they're making. Both boys must grow up a lot faster than they thought. Can their friendship survive this experience? Will the movie get finished, and will anyone get the chance to see it?

Son of Rambow is a charming, likable story with a gentle and quirky sense of humor. In some ways, you can compare this film to the character driven, whimsical stories of director Bill Forsyth, who wrote and directed Gregory’s Girl (1981) and Local Hero (1983)Son of Rambow is a coming of age story that has some genuine laughs, a few tears and it still manages leaves you smiling at the end. The movie gives you a real sense of the 1980s timeframe in which the story is set, with believable and relatable characters. The cast is very good, with both Will Poulter as Lee and Bill Milner as Will giving wonderful performances. I highly recommend checking out this film, which is based on writer-director Jennings and producer Goldsmiths own childhood experiences in the 1980s. This is one of those "under the radar" type of films you'll definitely enjoy, and find yourself recommending to friends after seeing it. Son of Rambow is available on DVD. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer:

Sunday, May 13, 2018

A "Fantastic" album from Elton John

Here's a link to my latest article at Culture Sonar, the marvelous arts and entertainment site. It's a retrospective piece on one of Elton John's best records, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, which wasn't just an album, it was an event. You can read all about it by following this link: Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 5, 2018

"Lost In Space" Arrives on Netflix

A family of space explorers board a ship called the Jupiter 2, as they begin a mission to start an Earth colony at Alpha Centauri. Along the way, they encounter some deadly detours, courtesy of a powerful robot and a crafty saboteur. Sound familiar? The baby boomers among you will recall this as the basic setup for creator-producer Irwin Allen’s beloved television series, Lost In Space, which featured the adventures of the Robinson family. The original show ran from 1965-1968, and gained a whole new group of fans through syndicated reruns. The series was rebooted as a 1998 feature film, which was somewhat successful at the box office, but strayed a bit from the original concept, and alienated many longtime fans. In 2004, the WB network produced a pilot for a new series, entitled The Robinsons: Lost In Space. The project was directed by action maestro John Woo, but it never aired, and the series wasn't picked up by the network.

Now Netflix has produced a new version of the show, and it’s an enjoyable, old-fashioned science-fiction tale, written by Matt Sazama and Burke Sharpless. This time around, the Robinson family is part of a larger mission ship, the Resolute, which is filled with colonists searching for humanity’s new home after a disaster has caused the Earth to experience serious environmental issues. An alien vessel attacks the Resolute, and those aboard are forced to evacuate to a nearby planet in their smaller craft, which are called Jupiters. While stranded there, the Robinsons and their fellow travelers must survive in a hostile alien environment, and contend with the machinations of a stowaway who’s appropriated the identity of a doctor named Smith. Oh, and there’s also a huge alien robot who’s befriended young Will Robinson; but this particular robot has a dark side.

Molly Parker as Maureen Robinson (Photo Courtesy of Netflix)
The cast is headed by Molly (House of Cards) Parker, who is terrific as scientist Maureen Robinson. Toby (Die Another Day) Stephens plays her husband John, here recast as a former Navy Seal and, in a gender switch on Jonathan Harris’ iconic (and comic) villain from the original series, actress Parker Posey portrays the sly and scheming Dr. Smith. Also aboard are Ignacio Serricchio as pilot Don West (whose character is reinvented here as a con man and lovable rogue) and Taylor Russell, Mina Sundwall and Maxwell Jenkins are the Robinson kids: Judy, Penny and Will, respectively. The family’s relationships are interesting and the young performers are quite good, never slipping into that annoying kid mode that has plagued many shows of this type. The series is extremely well cast, and while some reviewers have taken exception to Posey's offbeat performance, I think she's quite effective as the manipulative Smith, who will go to any lengths for self-preservation. In fact, Posey and Parker have some great scenes together in during the season.

The ten episode revival pays homage to the original in ways that will delight fans, but also goes off in some intriguing new directions. One of the best things about this revival of Lost in Space is that it’s a fairly straightforward space adventure saga, and it's quite entertaining on that level. The show offers enough action, narrow escapes, plot twists and turns and likeable characters to interest viewers seeking an old school science-fiction story. The show also retains the family friendly vibe of the classic series. The special effects and production vales are impressive, and the excellent direction by genre vets such as Neil Marshall and David Nutter guide the solid cast through their paces. I tried to stay relatively plot and spoiler free for this piece, so you can enjoy the show (and discover its merits) on your own. Lost In Space is definitely worth seeking out for fans and newcomers alike. The series is currently streaming on Netflix. Here’s a link to the trailer:

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Keep Reading “Keep Watching The Skies!”

Does the phrase Klaatu barada nikto evoke fond memories of watching The Day The Earth Stood Still? Can the mere mention of science-fiction films such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, This Island EarthThem! and The War of The Worlds bring a smile to your face? Then there’s a book on the subject you simply must read. It’s the late Bill Warren’s incisive, thoroughly researched study of the genre: Keep Watching The Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. The book focuses on films produced between the years 1950-62, the first golden age of the sci-fi movie. Originally published in two volumes in 1982 & 1986, the updated & combined “21st Century Edition” was released in 2009, and is still in print. This massive tome covers everything from bona fide classics such as It Came From Outer SpaceInvasion of the Body Snatchers and Forbidden Planet to less honored (but still enjoyable) titles like Invisible Invaders, Devil Girl From Mars & Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Warren grew up during the time of many of these films original release and he saw many of them on the big screen, and has remarkably sharp recollections of them. He offers a personal (as well as historical) perspective regarding each film he reviews in the book. While his criticisms of some of the genre’s less successful efforts can be a bit harsh, his informative and illuminating writing is a delight to read. His passion for these movies is infectious. Warren’s extensive coverage of these films includes a wealth of facts on actors, directors, screenwriters and crew members, along with detailed information about production history, script changes and even discusses alternate versions of the films. Each movie gets its own entry, in alphabetical order, and there are several helpful appendices offering further information that’s not featured in the main volume. There are also some great illustrations, photos and film poster reproductions featured throughout the book.

While it’s length (over 1000 pages) may seem daunting, it’s the kind of book you can savor a little at a time; you’ll find yourself moving throughout the book to read about your own favorites, and then returning to check out some more entries on films you may not have seen. Keep Watching The Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties is an indispensable guide to one of the most enduring of film genres. If you’re a fan, you’ll truly appreciate Warren’s insightful and entertaining analysis of these movies. While you may not always agree with his assessments, you’re sure to learn something new about these films and the people who made them. The book is available in a print edition, as well as an excellent, affordable e-book version, which is the one I used to prepare this review. Highly recommended. And remember, as Scotty the reporter said at the end of 1951's The Thing "Keep watching the skies!"

Saturday, April 7, 2018

H.G. Wells Rocks (No, Really...)

Here's another piece I did over at Culture Sonar, the fantastic arts and entertainment site. This time, it's all about a landmark record combining H.G. Wells, rock & roll and..... Richard Burton? Couldn't happen, you say? Well, it did back in 1978 with the release of the double album Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of War of The Worlds, a rock opera that featured Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy and Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues. Read all about it by following the link below the image.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Sherlock Holmes Crosses Over Into...Hell?

Sherlock Holmes has faced all manner of challenges in his long career, but it’s safe to say he’s never encountered enemies quite like the ones he meets in Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell. In this frightening tale, the consulting detective encounters the Cenobites, originally introduced in author Clive Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart, and later featured in the Hellraiser film series. The story takes place after Holmes’ defeat of his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty. The great detective has grown bored and needs a new challenge. Watson is concerned for his friend, as the detective's keen mind and laser focused intellect seem to be going astray. Holmes needs a new challenge. When our heroes are engaged to investigate a man’s mysterious disappearance, it leads them to a sinister organization known as the Order of the Gash. The trail also leads to a mysterious puzzle box with supernatural properties, which may open a portal to other dimensions, and perhaps the gates of Hell itself.

The Holmes of this story is as obsessed with solving a mystery as he’s always been, and his quest leads him down a more twisted road than he’s ever taken. But will Holmes triumph over the dark forces he’s facing, or be overcome by them? The first half of the novel (like many of the duo’s adventures) is narrated by Watson, but the good doctor and the great detective himself alternately tell the second half of the adventure, when their journey takes them to the very depths of Hell, where they meet a legion of eerie beings who could consume their very souls. Once the true face of the leader of these demonic forces is revealed, it turns out to be someone well known to our heroes. That familiar face is now in command of these evil creatures, and plans to use them to conquer and control multiple worlds.

At first glance, combining Arthur Conan Doyle’s intrepid Holmes and Watson and the shadowy denizens of Clive Barker’s fiendish Cenobite universe might seem like an odd pairing, but author Paul Kane melds the two worlds brilliantly. He creates an atmospheric and shudder inducing tale that manages to stay true to the hallmarks of both fictional universes. The novel is peppered with easter eggs and subtle nods to both franchises. Kane is a leading expert on the horrifying world of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, and is a bona fide Holmes fan to boot. While some traditional Holmes fans may find Sherlock Homes and the Servants of Hell strays a bit too much into the horrific for their tastes, those who enjoy a ripping good yarn will be very glad they went along on this terrifying adventure with Holmes and Watson. The book was originally published in 2016, and is available online and at local retailers such as Barnes & Noble.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Visiting the "House on Haunted Hill"

Have you ever been invited to a (haunted) house party? That's the plot of House on Haunted Hill, a delightfully spooky fright fest from 1959. Produced and directed by William Castle, the movie stars Vincent Price as millionaire Frederick Loren, who invites five people to spend the night at a supposedly haunted house. If you survive the night in this terrifying place, you get $10,000. All of the attendees need the money Loren's offering for one reason or another. He hands out fun party favors such as handguns that are stored in little coffins! One of the guests is Watson Pritchard, who knows a great deal about the shall we say, colorful history of the house. He warns everyone that it's a very bad idea to stay the night. In addition to Price, the cast includes veteran character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. as Pritchard, Richard Long (of TV’s The Big Valley & Nanny and The Professor), and Julie Mitchum, sister of actor Robert Mitchum.

Director Castle was well known as a flamboyant showman who used unique gimmicks to sell his films. During screenings of The Tingler (1959), there were vibrators installed under the seats that induced shocks when the title creature was on screen; for 13 Ghosts (1960), patrons used special ghost viewers to see (or remove) the spirits from the screen. In House on Haunted Hill's theatrical showings, a skeleton seemed to float right out of the film at the audience in a process called Emergo. These ideas worked like a charm for Castle, who had a tremendous amount of financial success with his films. His movies were aimed primarily at teenagers, who ate them up like the candy from the theatre's concessions stand. His autobiography was called Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare The Pants Off America. 

A gathering of guests at the House on Haunted Hill
House on Haunted Hill is truly the kind of B film they don’t make anymore. The movie features ghosts, blood dripping from the ceiling, secret rooms, skeletons in the basement, and heads with no bodies as part of the scares and shocks. But is there a non- supernatural reason for some of the weird goings on in the house....could our suave host know more than he's telling? Price is at his witty, menacing best and gets most of the film’s choice dialogue, though Cook also gets to deliver some, like "Only the ghosts in this house are happy we're here" and the film’s memorable closing line. This is a matinee movie for the ten year old in all of us; it sounds kind of old fashioned and goofy in the age of "found footage" horror films and endless sequels to movies like Saw, but that's exactly why it's such great fun. 

The film was remade in gorier fashion in 1999 with Geoffrey Rush, but that version can’t hold a candle to the original. The movie is available in various DVD and Blu-ray editions (including a colorized version) and for digital download as well. So warm up the popcorn, and settle in for some silly, scary fun. And here’s another piece of suggested viewing: The 1993 Joe Dante (Gremlins) film Matinee is a story about a B movie producer (played by John Goodman) who premieres one of his monster films in a small Florida town during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Goodman's character is an affectionate homage to Castle. Matinee is also worth a look, especially for fans of classic 50s and 60s sci-fi, horror and fantasy films. Here’s a link to the trailer for House on Haunted Hill