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Horror-Wood Blog-a-thon: Stranger Things (Season 1)

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Stranger Things court NetflixOf all the TV shows that have debuted in recent years, nothing has compared to how much appreciation Stranger Things has gotten. Created by the Duffer Brothers, this grand throwback to everything 1980s feels more a time capsule of the decade. Coming from someone who is an easy prey for 1980s era movies, this series channels every 1980s pop culture trope/reference in existence and somehow weaves perfectly them together. One minute, it feels like Steven Spielberg is directing it, then it pulls something supernatural from a Stephen King story or includes teen drama from a John Hughes movie. For a series that offers so much, I didn’t think all these plot lines would somehow be tied together.

tumblr_inline_oac2ra1nhr1t6ym0o_1280Everything is centered on the disappearance of a kid named Will (Noah Schnapp) whose very vanishing triggers a domino effect of story. One minute, his mother (Winona Ryder) thinks found a way to communicate with her son through electricity, then suddenly the local police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) uncovers a bizarre conspiracy linked to Will’s disappearance. Even thought it all sounds complex on paper, this whole thing is easy to follow as we jump from one character to the next. Each plot thread either adds more clues to the odd things happening in town or helps the viewer get more acquainted with the people in the area.

boys-and-eleven-radio-roomThings get more complicated when a group of Will’s friends find a girl named “Eleven” (chilling performance by Millie Bobby Brown) who has telekinetic powers beyond belief and may hold the key to finding their missing friend Will. As expected, this is where most of the Spielberg-E.T. cliches kick in with the creature being hidden in the house as the thing tries to understand the world outside. But, there comes a set of fresh elements to keep it interesting. For one, Eleven looks like a normal girl and has the opportunity to hide within society. It gives the character more open freedom to act among people which is kind of a scary thought. Imagine if Carrie had the chance to mingle in a modern high school and you didn’t know she had these powerful abilities like channeling other worlds or destroying things with her mind. How would a normal human being be able to know she has the will to bend reality when they look like a normal person?

The John Hughes elements are centered around one of the boy’s sisters (Natalia Dyer) who pines for the hot jock and, you can sort of see where it goes. In laws of predictability, there is an outcast of some form she feels bad for, but believes he deserves help and it causes her boyfriend to act like a complete jerk about it-Again, you can clearly see where it goes. However, what you don’t except is the jock to actually turn around and even be some form of help at the end. At one point, he becomes useful in a fight against this bizarre monster near the climax and it shows that maybe he’s not that bad as you think.

21-stranger-things-steve-nancy.w1200.h630That’s what I love the most about this series. It keeps adding all these twists and turns keeping you second guessing about what’s coming next. For every new turn in the story, you just can’t help but wonder how it will all end. Even with things like the “big bad government agents,” which is a tiring cliche, Stranger Things knows how to use this well by showing how more devious they can be. Not since E.T. have I felt this trope can really pose as a huge threat. These are people that will do anything to keep a huge secret, even if it means faking a death or holding a family hostage.

There’s so much more I wish I could talk about, but it’s best for you to see Stranger Things for yourself. With season 2 around the corner, now would be a good time to catch up and see what everyone’s been praising about. For an 8 episode season, it’s really worth your time, If you like small tows with big mysteries like Twin Peaks or throwbacks like Super 8, this is worth the nostalgia trip. I’d go into deeper detail on why so much of it succeeds, but then I would have to ruin a good bulk of the plot your meant to discover. The best I can say is for anyone who grew up on a childhood diet of Spielberg, John Carpenter and Joe Dante with a small pinch of Stephen King’s writing, this is for the older crowd who grew up on those elements.

Stranger Things VHS Blu Ray DVD1On a side note, I should bring to light of the show’s recent Blu-Ray/DVD release. Target held an exclusive “special collector’s” edition where the packaging resembles an old VHS tape. Once the slipcover is removed, the discs are housed in a container that resembles a VHS tape with a “Be Kind Rewind” sticker for added nostalgia. It’s a nifty idea, but there is one major drawback. All you get is the entire first season on both Blu-ray and DVD in a fancy packaging…and that’s it. No audio commentaries from the Duffer Brothers, additional supplements or even a single behind the scenes featurette.

Stranger Things VHS Blu Ray DVD2Fans might be disappointed in the lack of extra material, but at least the first season can be seen in some physical form outside of the digital medium. The other additional plus is for people who don’t have Netflix can actually check this series out. Well for $24.99, it’s not a bad deal seeing this form of packaging is perfect for a show like this. However, it leaves you feeling there should be more to explore after binge watching a show like this. Considering there will be 3 more seasons (including the next one coming this Halloween) afterwards, it leaves one to wonder if there will be this “complete series” release. For now, I’m pleased to had this one in my collection, but this show deserves much better when housed in a grand box like this.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Night Gallery

Rod Serling is a name many associate with The Twilight Zone. A classic anthology series that dives into the psychological aspect of human kind through science fiction. It made a lasting impact that spans generation after generation with timeless messages and the ability to sneak pass taboo subjects one would never suspect to see. After Twilight Zone‘s run, Serling was itching for another series that would act as an extended successor to his famed sci-fi series. The result was something spine-tingling, but also mismatched and tied with a campy ribbon.

Night_Gallery_Rod_Serling1Night Gallery was a compromise between network and producer control to the point it feels similar to the famed Twilight Zone, but different. Here, the tone of the stories go for more dark fantasy targeting the supernatural and occult. Unfortunately, it never became the series Serling hoped for considering the clashes between the show’s intended psychological tone and Producer Jack Laird wanting to go in a different, lighter direction. There is still enjoyment to be had as a third of the scripts were written by Serling himself and some segments are worth checking out. While none had the timeless feel or haunting flavor of the Zone, Night Gallery offered a good bulk of variety.

Each episode, with the exception of season 3, are an hour-long and each segment varies in length. Some range between 10 to 20 minutes long while wrapped around with 2 to 5 minute comic “blackout” sketches. With the advent of DVD, we have the ability to jump around the see these segments on their own or perform a mini-marathon of the ones we are more curious in.

For those who want a better idea of what Serling’s true vision of the show could have been, it’s best to turn to the full-length TV movie which served as a pilot. The feature length episode harvested three stories which echoed a lot of Serling’s trademarks from the ghoulish concept to the haunting twist ending. The general consensus is that only the first two segments are good, while the last one is really weak. To which I say, they are very right.

nightgallery03The first one titled “The Cemetery” stars Roddy McDowall as a greedy relative that subtly murders his uncle for the estate. However, a certain painting of the house shows a cemetery nearby. Every time the relative passes by, the image keeps changing. Sometimes, it shows a coffin rising up from the grave while other times it shows a corpse walking to the house. The performances in this one are really good as McDowall starts to question his own sanity and it builds to a great double twist.

night-gallery-season-1-0-eyes-joan-crawfordA good start is followed-up with “Eyes” which has Joan Crawford as a shrewd millionaire that is blind and longs to see again. She goes as far to blackmail a doctor to perform an illegal procedure to restore her sight. Not a strong segment, but Joan’s performance as the heartless lady and a lot of the technical work makes this one stand out. Many fans remember it more for being the debut of Steven Spielberg’s directing career. Every shot is just pure eye-candy and handled very well from the lighting and even the build-up when the woman’s sight is restored. And what she gets in the end is so well-deserved, that it must be seen to be believed.

Night Gallery Escape RouteLastly, “The Escape Route” is probably the weakest one to conclude on. A Nazi fugitive is on the run to escape from his brutal past. He engages in some paintings which are used as a literal open window. Somehow, he has the ability to enter one without any given explanation. His sights are set on a painting that allows him to boat down a calm river, but he ends up on a different path. It’s a very paper thing concept that doesn’t go anywhere and it feels underwhelming compared to the previous segments. Nothing is established about this “transportation” power and there’s not much to support it either.

While the TV movie has its share of moments, the series itself is worth a nice binge watch as well. With the clash of different tones, some stories work and others don’t. Sometimes they offer a good shock while others feel like a watered down Charles Addams cartoon. Each one still offer a nice range of variety and some replay value here and there. To give a rough idea of the different macabre Night Gallery has to offer, here is a short list of the episodes I personally recommend seeing:

vlcsnap-2015-06-17-19h47m17s585The Dead Man – A hypnotist has the ability to make a young man look sick with a simple trick. He attempts to use a certain incantation to make it look like he’s dead, but is unable to bring him out of the trance. It also doesn’t help there is an affair going on between the hypnotist and his partner’s girlfriend hinting a possible revenge, until you learn the magic man might not have used the right cue…

night-gallery-season-1-2-the-little-black-bagLittle Black Bag – Burgess Meredith plays a drunk hobo that used to work as a doctor, but is slumming the streets with his money hungry friend (Chill Wills). They come across a black bag from the future that has medical equipment far more advanced than anything in the modern era. The doctor wants to use it for good while his friend prefers to exploit the advance medical kit for fast cash. It’s a great argument over what is best for the greater good and what’s best for your own needs.
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Certain Shadows on the Wall – A brother is haunted by the shadow of his dead sibling who is cast upon the wall. Every time he tries to paint it over, it remains unchanged. A nice twist on the “Tell-Tale Heart” story with some great build up.

 

 

night-gallery-season-1-6-theyre-tearing-down-tim-rileys-barThey’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar – Clocking in at over 40 mins, this is the longest Night Gallery segment, but also the most sentimental of the bunch. Written by Rod Serling, a plastic sales director endures his twenty fifth anniversary of employment with sorrow. Meanwhile, a local bar, he used to attend, is being torn down as ghosts start to form every time the guy passes by. It serves as an open window to what this guy’s life was like as he wishes to revisit the past and do things different. Themes like this have been explored in “better” Twilight Zone episodes like “Walking Distance.” However, this is an exception for the bittersweet ending and some great character moments between our protagonist and the modern world he is not accustomed to.

ngearthquake01The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes – A young Clint Howard plays a boy who has a own TV show where he gets to correctly predict the future. His powers are unlimited as he can address things from upcoming natural disasters to missing people being discovered. But what happens when you get an apocalyptic vision and don’t know how to address it to the world? As far as child acting goes, Clint does a great job playing the charming, yet innocent feel of his character. He knows how dangerous his powers can be and is left with the hard choice of know how to deliver the worst of bad news knowing how consequential it will be.

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Phantom of What Opera? – One of the shorter segments that’s worth seeing just for Leslie Nielsen’s performance as the Phantom of the Opera. His appearance in the series pre-dates his first comedic performance in Airplane! so you can see it first here. Not much else to say except its a short but funny recommendation.

 
Night Gallery 2-3 Flip Side SatanThe Flip Side of Satan – Arte Johnson takes on a one man performance as a disk jockey assigned to a station in the middle of nowhere. He’s given records to play that contain organ music and strange sounds without any indication of who the listeners are. It’s hinted he had an affair with his agent’s wife and contains an ego so inflated to the point he hangs onto his radio legacy dearly. But as it turns out, there’s something stranger afoot when the radio station won’t let him leave…
night-gallery-season-2-5-silent-snow-secret-snow-300x224Silent Snow, Secret Snow – Narrated by Orson Wells, this is one of the most unique adaptations of Conrad Akin’s story about a kid’s fight to keep his imagination alive. He can’t focus in school and feels distant from his family every day. All he can think about is snow and daydreams it constantly. Not one of the easiest stories to adapt, but they nail it perfectly here.

 
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A Question of Fear – Leslie Nelisen takes on a serious role as a man who claims he’s cured of fear. This is taken into a bet where he has to spend the night in a haunted house and faces all sorts of strange events. I won’t say anything else about this one, except that for everything that happens, there is a logical reasoning to its occurance. The double twist at the end will really leave you speechless.

 
night-gallery-season-2-7-brenda-300x223Brenda – One of the most bizarre “Beauty and the Beast” stories about a quirky girl that befriends a monster. The creature looks like a shaggy Snuffleupagus crossed with Swamp Thing, but we feel some kind of a connection between these two. On first watch, I was bewildered by the off tone delivery.  After much thought, I’ve come to see it as a nice metaphor for growing up and entering adulthood. It’s not a good segment by any means and it can get weird, but it ends on a charming note that’s enough to recommend.

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Hell’s Bells – A short but amusing segment were John Astin (original Gomez Addams) plays a hippie who gets in a car crash and is sent to Hell. While in the waiting room, he anticipates the usual fire and brimstone, but is in for a shock to learn not everyone’s view of the dark place is really the same…

night-gallery-season-2-11-pickmans-model-monster-hp-lovecraft-300x224Pickman’s Model – A great adaptation of the H.P Lovecraft story where an artist creates ghoulish paintings of a monster in each of them. A student of his art class grows fond of his macabre style and tries to know him better. This one is notable for the Emmy-nominated special effects as the creature seen here is actually made from the same molds as those used for the Creature from the Black Lagoon costume. A true hair-raiser about the dangerous value of life imitating art.
coolairyo3Cool Air – Another perfect adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft classic. A scientist has found the secret to extend life beyond death, but has a certain problem. The man has a certain condition where he has to be contained in a room that needs to be below 50 degrees freezing. A woman takes fancy of him, despite the cold temperature, and you really feel the chemistry between these two. It makes this segment’s ending all the more tragic when you see the most gruesome reveal on why he’s encased himself from the world outside. It’s beautifully shot, brilliantly acted and concludes in a very bone-chilling manner. My absolute favorite of the series.

night-gallery-season-2-21-the-sins-of-the-father-richard-thomas-300x224The Sins of the Fathers – In one of the most unsettling of the Night Gallery stories, a bunch of peasants in the Middle Ages seeks for someone to be a “sin-eater” for their funeral. Basically, they make a huge feast, in representation of the dead one’s sins, and said “sin-eater” has to consume all the food in front of the dead corpse. It all boils down to a hungry teenager who is unsure how to act it out, seeing he is new to the “business.” And personally, I will just leave it at that. The overall experience of watching this one is really uncomfortable knowing how much famine and plague existed during this time period. And yet, everyone sacrifices what tasty goods they have for this one ritual they entrust their belief in. There’s also a gut wrenching twist at the end which I dare won’t give away that adds to the lesson there are some fates worse than death we are bound to in life. Surprisingly, the cast and crew go out of their way to create such a shocker, even right down to using a lot of money for the sets and costumes. In the end, it’s well worth it. Only recommended for those with a literal strong stomach.

ngcaterpillar31The Caterpillar – A British man wants to escape his boring life, but finds it more dull than before while staying in a Southeast Asian country. He schemes to get a neighbor he lives with murdered, so the “widow” he lusts can be his. Arrangements are made to get a killer earwig placed in his rival’s ear, but unfortunately, the deadly insect ends up with the wrong person. I won’t say who gets the thing, but this segment is a true testament that what scares us are the things we don’t see. There is never an image of what this “caterpillar” looks like, but a great description and tons of gruesome make up work convince us how much pain the victim is going through. This one will make you think twice about the bed bugs at night.

All in all, Night Gallery is imperfect at times. But when it knows to deliver, it really can. What really depends on a good series is a great writing team and creative ideas. I can’t say everything about this anthology series was A+ material, but it knows when to be entertaining. Give this series a watch and judge for yourself.

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: Jaws

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MV5BNDcxODkyMjY4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTk5NTc5MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_There is no real reason to describe what makes Jaws so good. And not to mention the amount of history it left behind. This came out in 1975 when the term “blockbuster” started to mean something and launched the career of director Steven Spielberg. Based on the novel by Peter Benchley, it took a simple concept and ran with it. In fact, it almost feels like two movies in one; a basic slasher and a fishing movie. Man vs. nature while we question if this is a basic act of nature or just an normal occurrence over exposed.

The story is a very simple one and not too hard to follow. A small town named Amity Beach is prepping for a big 4th of July celebration when a shark attack changes all that. At first, the mayor (Murray Hamilton) tries to cover it up but sadly it fails seeing more attacks occur. Things get heated to the point someone has to stop the shark and it get left in the hands of Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider). Thankfully, he isn’t alone as by his side are the quirky oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and the spiritual yet sinister Captain Quint (Robert Shaw).

From the scene when the first shark attack happens, it has you hooked. The idea of something simple as anything happening in the big ocean reaches a connection. We all love to visit the ocean and yet we fear it. Jaws plays on these two consciousness knowing that an attack from a big fish couldn’t be possible but yet opens that possibility. This is mostly because a lot of the time you never see the shark. A clever idea and came from an accident when the mechanical shark puppet wouldn’t work. It resorted to Spielberg using point-of-view shots and music to give a basic cue to audience when the shark appears. It works because it allows the imagination of the viewer to play out as terror from the deep surfaces on the swimmers for lunch.

jaws-1And when we do see the shark, its satisfying. Again, we don’t see much and I feel that is a huge strength for the movie. Once Brody and the gang are out on the ocean, anything goes in the world of the shark. Knowing how powerful this beast can be, we wonder just how well this thing could be stopped while each of the shark hunting trio take turns in trying to use their expertise to destroy the water beast. It’s this section of the film that really gets engaging. After teasing and showing how destructive this sea monster can be, we let our heroes come in and save the day.

Jaws also has a great cast too with so many great performances that are too much to mention. Roy Scheider is great as the every man hero Brody as we connect with his family life and ethics. He fears for the safety of the people while trying to question his ethics. This comes into play later when he is at sea and tries to fit in with Quint and Hooper. At first, he tries to be rational despite having his ideas ignored. Without giving too much away, it appears the pay off at the end is that any given person will come forth with a simple solution that might work. And in some cases, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know how deadly a shark can be.

jaws_primaryI also love how Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss play off each other as Hooper and Quint. It feels like student vs. mentor but not in a cliched way. Hooper at first appears to be cocky and really plays up the comic relief. But during his stay at Amity Beach and in the final moments, he proves to be a reliable source seeing his knowledge of sharks comes into play at the right time. Quint, on the other hand, believes that science needs to take a back seat considering his view of ocean life and seeing it his way. He almost has a spiritual sense to it even when he recounts his time on the Indianapolis. A scene that will go down as one of the best in cinema history hearing Quint’s horrifying tale of the secret mission gone wrong.

Jaws as a whole feels like two movies in one. We get the typical slasher film as the shark stalks and kills its victims while the final half plays off like a fishing trip gone wrong. Your so embedded into these characters that you want to see them put an end to the terror of the sea and beaches. For as long as this movie has been around, surprisingly it does manage to scare people away from swimming in the ocean. And its not hard to see why considering something simple as the open sea can be a deadly creature to deal with. I also have full bragging rights to say I was able to see this on a drive-in theater screen this summer and can say this movie still packs punch, laughs and thrills. The experience alone of seeing a classic on a nostalgic favorite screen is enough for me to give this a high recommendation and remind viewers that even the most basic concept can make for an effective and unique motion picture.

“Jurassic World” thrills expectations

Jurassic-World-poster-MosasaurusAs the first shot of an egg hatching was shown, I felt “Jurassic World” would be a different movie all together. Compared to the awe of seeing a baby Raptor hatch, the feeling here is more terrifying and unsettling. For those who knew what happened in the first film, we expect chaos and destruction like Pandora’s box opening again to the world. Sure enough, this entry raises the stakes with plenty of action and adventure to keep you on the edge of your seat. However, for every good movie, it has those rough spots.

The first half of the movie focuses on building its main heroes but it feels between rushed and cliched. Brothers Zach and Gary are sent off to visit their aunt who runs the new theme park. Needless to say, I would be thrilled to be going to a place full of extinct creatures but it seems like Writing 101 is taking the old “siblings who want nothing to do with each other” routine. Even more awkward is exposition of a possible divorce that really comes out of nowhere.

Bryce Dallas Howard is their aunt Claire who lets them run almost freely around the park as she makes her usual rounds. In a sense, I should be annoyed how this character acts for the first 20 minutes as they play the workaholic card but at least it doesn’t last too long. But midway, a jarring transition of her character turns into an aunt that cares while trying to one up Chris Pratt in being the dominate action hero.

jurassic-world-pratt-howardBeyond that, everything sails on fine as it builds and builds to a satisfying roller coast ride. First implication is Chris Pratt as Owen Grady, an expert on Velociraptors who trains them to act like dolphins at SeaWorld. He easily commands the screen while trying to show how smart of a character he can get. He’s not just some animal trainer but understands animal instincts enough to know how they work.

Second implication is the new I. Rex who is really a hybrid monster of many “mystery meat” parts. While some of these aspects get revealed in the final act, they mystery of this monster is still intact by never describing what animal genes are in this beast. Needless to say, when ever he is on, you already feel a frightening presence that matches that of the Predator as the creature remains one step ahead. Unlike the first film, when someone gets munched and it looks cool, the body count is so high that it really brings a darker stride which only makes things more complex.

jurassic-world-super-bowl-10Instead of 5 or 8 visitors in the park, we get thousands of theme park customers who only wish to have a good time from seeing predatory attractions being fed to a small petting zoo full of baby dinos. These moments are so good its hard not to laugh and appreciate the creativity. In a sense, this feels more like a commentary on animal amusement parks and less about tampering with science. Yet, its set in a new direction as we question just how much effort does one have to go to bring a dead dream to life and see it all crumble again.

I guess I was easy to forgive the faults of the first third because things get better. As I. Rex stomps around and tears the park a new one, we wonder just what is going to be offered that we haven’t seen in the previous films and no stone is left turned. The problem with the sequels I feel is that they tried to offer something new but either had little characters to care for or a story that didn’t have enough meat on it. Here, we get so many twists and turns that we wonder how it will all end.

Sadly, I wish I could describe the satisfying conclusion that so easily vanquishes the sequels. It doesn’t trump the power of “Jurassic Park” but enough to show the franchise will be in good hands. As we get such an epic display that makes up for the lackluster entries and makes us question why didn’t the writers come up with something like that. It is this reason alone that makes me give it a high recommendation to see.

Jurassic-World-12As I walked out of the theater, I almost felt like a kid again with my love and appreciation for the first move and its creative whim. Here, nearly every thing was satisfying and didn’t miss a beat. Had the first half of “Jurassic World” focus more on developing characters as opposed to the environment they get placed in, it would have been a grand sequel. But still, there’s enough material to at least let me say its an explosive popcorn film that snowballs into an unexpectedly entertaining summer blockbuster. Already this and “Mad Max: Fury Road” are in a good run for its money to who is the better summer film. If you can, I best say do a double feature with both and you will get your ticket money worth. As John Hammond would say, spared no expense.

A Walk In the “Park”: A Look Back at the “Jurassic Park” Franchise – Part II

MV5BMTYxNjY1NjE2OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNzE0MDc4._V1_SX640_SY720_So now we come to the sequels. First off, The Lost World: Jurassic Park was actually based on a sequel Michael Crichton wrote but bears some heavy differences. I remember seeing this movie and hyped for it after seeing the teaser in a theater. I loved the T. Rex and the park so I had high hopes. One night, it was paired at the local Tri Town Drive-In Theater (which sadly doesn’t exist anymore) along with Warriors of Virtue. Say what you will about both, the fact that I saw movies outdoors from my parent’s car is good enough nostalgia.

I was lucky to stay awake for both films. I remember being ok with Warriors but really excited for Lost World. And when the second film finally started, I was hooked from the opening scene after than came eye candy. However, once we drove away as the end credits rolled, I just kept thinking to myself about the dinosaurs in the movie rather than if I enjoyed it or not.

It wasn’t till years later when I was 11 or 12 that I would finally get the first two movies on DVD, as it coincided with the third film. I always made this tradition to watch Lost World on Memorial Day and Jurassic Park on its release day in June as a way to commence summer vacation. I kept doing this until the idea of getting up early in the morning to pop in a movie got old and tiring. But I still remember watching Lost World and admiring the scope while appreciating the action scenes. However, something kept me from saying it was better than the first movie and I didn’t know why.

When I was in high school, I finally got around to reading the original Michael Crichton novels both movies were based on and surprised at the huge differences. While I have nothing against Crichton and will admit he is a unique writer, the only drawback was how the science elements were described like a biology textbook. It seems like in my view he didn’t want too much suspension of disbelief and kept adding explanation after explanation to patch up plot holes.

After examining both, I admitted to appreciating the film adaption of Jurassic Park over its novel for various reasons. The biggest being how Hammond’s character is made out to be a greedy jerk and not the kind man that just wants to create something unique and grand. The Lost World, on the other hand, I found more interesting in its novel than I did with its film. There were certain ideas and aspects I find more unique than what as attempted in the movie and wished it was closer to the source.

With the advent of the Internet, I would later discover just how much hate this sequel gets dumped on. Left and right, there would be a mixed opinion or someone slashing into it. It wasn’t like riding on the bus and talking about it while giving a sigh that the same person appreciates what you like. This was all over the world. So, I decided to re-watch the blockbuster I still had a heart for and see how well it held up. I can confirm that its nowhere near as good as the first but I still can’t find the fire to say its a bad movie like everyone else. However, what I can admit is that after watching it again, my feelings towards Lost World is leaning towards between average and mediocre.

Z3The whole story revolves around another island where Hammond (Richard Attenborough returning for a cameo) bred the dinosaurs free from human interference. Dubbed “Site B,” he hopes to show the good value of preserving the island compared to his greedy nephew Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard) who wants to exploit the site for his company’s profit. It’s here we get a bizarre environmental message that doesn’t feel fleshed out. At first, the idea of observing the dinosaurs on the island seems like a good solution but it gets thrown out the window when Ludlow’s group steps foot on the island to capture the prehistoric beasts for a zoo in San Diego.

It already sounds like a promising idea but then we get characters that just feel uninteresting or feel out of place. Jeff Goldblum returns as Ian Malcom and they do something I find weird with his character. Instead of the awkward theorist, they try to make the character some form of action hero and it doesn’t work. I think Jeff is better when he is doing characters with big egos like in David Chronerberg’s The Fly or just basic comedy. Here, he has to sprout one liners and perform these stunts we would see better suited in a Die Hard entry. I can understand the difficulty of jumping through a building or performing in a chase scene, but it feels like Goldblum is having a hard time trying to be the next Bruce Willis than do his own thing. Once in a while, there is a funny line while other times it feels phoned in.

The rest of the characters I could barley remember. Vince Vaughn is in there somewhere, Pete Postlethwaite is very entertaining as a hunter with a character arch that doesn’t pay off as much and everyone else I barley can recall that much. Its a shame because I like the idea and even the novel spent a great deal going over the technical aspects and flaws of Site B. Here, its just a standard jungle adventure film.

JPTLWRexRoarSanDiegoThe positives that hold me back from being mad is the technical work and the action scenes. When watching the scene with the T. Rex couple attacking the van, I flashed back to when I first saw it at the drive-in and thinking how menacing it was seeing two rexes for the price of one. It’s a well shot movie seeing Steven Spielberg returned to the director’s chair but there are moments when he feels uncertain about the direction of the story. One good example is the ending. Originally from what I heard, a Pterodactyl attack at a helicopter was to occur but instead changed to have a T. Rex running down the streets of San Diego. Even today, I will admit its still an epic ending but it feels off with the jungle feel of the movie.

The dinosaurs are back but there isn’t much awe to them. They act like monsters running about and feel more of a danger than a wonder. Every time I think of this movie, I feel it focuses on the predators more than the herbivores. Most of the movie is shot at night and there are these green jungle color palettes throughout the movie that rob the original’s light blockbuster affair. There are times it feels like a 1990s remake of the famed silent film The Lost World where explorers visit a new island, see dinosaurs and bring one back for civilization but runs amok. I feel Spielberg was trying to create an action film along the lines of that but still trying to keep the darker material of the novel. It was a noble attempt but I can’t say its the worst. Bottom line, its a guilty pleasure.

Jurassic_Park_III_PosterJurassic Park III is the one I don’t have too much to say one because I never saw it in theaters. So my nostalgic view is from when I got the DVD as a Christmas gift. Keep in mind, 2001 was not a good year for blockbusters and it shows from Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake. But, it was our first DVD player and it was nice to have a few new movies about for our first foray into digital home video.

As for JP III itself, there’s aspects of it that just don’t work for me. I’m glad they got Sam Neil back to repirse his role as Alan Grant but his excuse to return to the island doesn’t work. He’s tricked into helping a divorced couple find their lost son who apparently found himself on the island after a parasailing incident. William H. Macy and Tea Loni play the separated parents and their chemistry didn’t gel for me. They just argue most of the time and show little romance between the two. I understand they are supposed to be divorced but you could at least do something interesting with it.

It also doesn’t help they are stuck on Site B which frustrates Alan seeing he’s never been there. Even more, they load more dinosaurs along with a Spinosaurus to replace the T. Rex (literally) and raptor with feathers on his head. Compared to the previous movies, nothing really stood out to me. It was the same old thing as these creatures get treated like something out of a B movie and less like animals acting on instinct.
While it has a shorter running time, Jurassic Park III just doesn’t have a reason to exist and its obvious throughout the whole movie. But I can’t say its a complete lost. Once in a while, there can be a cool scene like with the Pteranodon cage but others just build without pay off like the first Spinosarus chase. It tries to be heavy and big but comes off as stale and anti-climatic by the end. I remember thinking how much they couldn’t end this series with an entry like this coming off as lazy than passable.

JP-WhenDinosaursRuledAs I write this, the new Jurassic World is already out and I’m sure people have a lot to say about it. If some say it will save the franchise or be another dumb entry, I’m still hyped to take another venture into the park. At the moment, I would like to give out my thoughts on what I expect from this entry considering how dear this franchise is to me. I hope we get dinosaurs that are awesome but awe-inspiring at the same time. Characters that are fun and have a great amount of development packed into them. And of course, chaos. Pure crazy chaos. If it doesn’t live up to my expectations, I’ll still appreciate the experience. Because that’s what going to the movies is all about. Being with a great audience and sharing what you remember the most. I think that is what I take away from this franchise the most. As skippable as the sequels are (with the exception of Lost World being ok in my books), I will never forget my first venture to the park and how grand of a roller coast ride it was remembering a simple time in my childhood when dinosaurs really ruled the world…

A Walk In the “Park”: A Look Back at Jurassic Park (and its sequels) – Part I

1.-Jurassic-Park-OriginalSummer of 1993 was a big year for cinema history. It was a turning point for moviegoers when film could push further boundaries with the available technology and transport them to new worlds. From into an action movie or deep into an alternate universe, audiences were given a great opportunity no matter how good or bad these movies got. And then Jurassic Park happened and changed everything.

Now you can have a smart blockbuster and still cram as many action scenes as you wish. The ability to blend practical effects with digital work seamlessly. While smart and unique characters along with a solid story is a constant issue, we still get a rare gem once in a while like last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and my personal favorite Guardians of the Galaxy. But when you really think back, a lot is owed to Jurassic Park for pushing that momentum. Sure, a lot of summer movies before the dino-flick where big hits, but when you really think about it, this Steven Spielberg classic perfected it.

To understand how much this franchise means to me, let me take you back to a time when I was young and into dinosaurs. Everyone at that time was just insane for these prehistoric creatures and we didn’t know why. Some say it was the leftover B-movies of the 1980s, many could point to Don Bluth’s Land Before Time as sparking interest while others say it was the ABC sitcom Dinosaurs. Regardless, I remember being curious about these extinct monsters and wondering how they would have lived back then.

My only view to this was in children’s movies like Land Before Time and We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story. There were cartoony with the exception of Land Before Time skewing for drama. But most of what I saw had walking and talking dinosaurs as opposed to the beastly beings I was eager to see. It wasn’t until I was 5 years old that I finally would see the popular dinosaur blockbuster and my mind was blown.

At last, I could finally view these long gone creatures in their primal view and marvel at them. True, it was no kid’s film but I knew at the time it was only a movie considering what I watched for a while. It was a huge change of pace and I always wondered how they were able to use animals that don’t walk the Earth. Well, as I got older and began to appreciate movies, I was amazed to see the technical craft they put into making the film. Keep in mind, CGI was new at the time and the never ending possibilities were growing. In my teen years, I began to appreciate the effort more than the movie and just how the blend between an anamatronic T.Rex and a digital one were edited so seamlessly.

Well, 20 years after seeing this movie for the first time and after a revisit, I can proudly say this is my “Star Wars.” Of course, the space epic holds a place in my heart as much as everyone, but Jurassic Park is to me a movie that really grows with you. As a kid, you wonder at the magic and question how it was done. As a teen, you start to see behind the curtain and appreciate the craft. As an adult, you marvel at not just how well done the special effects hold up but also the characters and story.

Helicopter-Ride-to-Jurassic-ParkI think my favorite character has to be John Hammond played by Richard Attenborough, the elderly tycoon who put together the idea of creating a theme park island full of dinosaurs. Many could argue he is a Scottish Walt Disney that is chasing the dream and even point to Frankenstein as a person who wishes to bring something back to life. Today, I actually see him more as a sane Dr. Moreau. Really think about! A man who crafts these creatures on an island for all to see, he has a set hosts that question the morals of what he is doing and still believes in the idea even his guests think otherwise.

The biggest difference here is that Hammond is not trying to break new ground or is even greedy. My favorite scene I always point to for evidence is when he talks to one of the paleontologists about his feelings for the park and how he once had a fake flea circus in the past. He goes on to explain how his flea circus was mechanical and fooled the kid’s into thinking it was real. It shows a sympathetic side but even a tragic one. No matter how much he wants to give back with something believable, he doesn’t realize the damage in front of his eyes. From extinct creatures in a new world to even placing people in harm’s way, he chases a dream that keeps getting hampered by reality.

Jurassic-Park_Kitchen2Two paleontologists, Alan Grant and Ellen Sattler  (Sam Neil and Laura Dern) act as our focus of reality. Like the viewer, we delight in seeing these creatures in awe as much as they convince us the power of seeing a brachiosauraus in front of our eyes. But when we learn how the dinosaurs are crafted thanks to cloning and using frog DNA for missing spots, we start to question John Hammond’s morals along with the disadvantages of dinosaurs in a zoo. And surprisingly, we see all these elements play out from not knowing what type of plants are safe to even understanding the animistic instinct of a T. rex. Even before things get out of control, we already see that things are from a sick Triceratops and worker casualties trying to get the Velociraptors in containment.

The rest of the characters hold up as well with some exceptions. Jeff Goldblum plays a mathematician named Ian Malcolm whose theories range between interesting to questionable when going on about chaos theories. The only thing that makes him entertaining enough is Jeff’s awkward performance as he proposes on theory after another and either laugh how ridiculous they are or at the skeptical nature of the character.

Then, we have Hammond’s grandchildren, Lex and Tim. Yes, I am aware they were in the Michael Chrichton novel this is based from, but both characters are ok. I don’t have a huge qualm with child acting as long as it’s done right. These two have quirks that get used later on from a dinosaur expert and a computer whizz. Though at times, I feel like they are there to attract the kid audience but it still works. Some viewers might be bothered to see two youngsters in danger but they make up for it by having them be smart and not dumb cliches like in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Honestly, there is so much to talk about this movie that even this blog post can’t do much justice. The dinosaur effects are incredible and still hold up to this day along with key set pieces. The T. Rex attack is classic but my personal favorite has to be when the Velociraptors chase the heroes around the main building. It starts off intense and just builds and builds as we change from one room to another as our leads try to outsmart these clever predators. Bottom line, this movie really knows how to put you on the edge of your seat and engaged at the screen.

jurassicpark_BIGJurassic Park meant a lot to me as a kid and still does as an adult but in a different light. Back then, it was the first movie I can think of that realistically portrayed dinosaurs in their own habitat. No cheesy monster movies and no cartoons. I didn’t care much for the story and plot but found myself enjoying everything around it. A smart decision was having the T. Rex attack and Dennis’ encounter with the Dilaphosaurus play without background musical score. It really adds to the awe factor as we don’t know if we should take this is a mesmerizing moment or quiver with fear on the sofa.

As an adult, it’s almost like returning to your favorite amusement park and reminiscing about the rides you went on while discovering something new. There’s really no reason to keep explaining why I hold this movie so dear to me and is one of my top favorites. We get likable characters, amazing monsters and a unique premise that is cheesy but plausible on the big screen. I loved it as a kid and will cherish more as I grow older. But little did I know…there was more to come…

TO BE CONTINUED!

Horror-Wood Blog-a-Thon: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Horror-wood

 

The movie that captivated hearts...and gets no play around Halloween on TV

The movie that captivated hearts…and gets no play around Halloween on TV

I’m surprised to say not one person has thought of the idea of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. being suited as a movie for Halloween. Yeah it has elements that make it the perfect movie for kids and family but when you really start to look at it, it does have the feeling of being a movie to pop on during the spooky season. After all, the iconic fly over the moon shot has to feel at least exciting yet Halloween-ish. Now granted, its not because there’s a scene where trick or treating is involved but the whole movie from tone to narrative wise feels perfect for the season. Don’t believe me? Let’s break it down a bit.

We have the opening scene when E.T.’s kind arrives on Earth. Its played up for wonder with an eerie tone. Its interesting to see visitors from another planet but at the same time, it feels unsettling. The fact that the creatures are kept in the shadows and there’s not a single spoken word of dialogue makes this opening intense but with awe. Sure they are not here for an invasion but are more like intergalactic botanists that have who knows how many alien plants collected. But even then, we don’t know if they are good or just examining the planet for a possible invasion.

Elliot (Henry Thomas), Gertie (Drew Barrymore) and Michael (Robert MacNaughton) look over their new found friend

Elliot (Henry Thomas), Gertie (Drew Barrymore) and Michael (Robert MacNaughton) look over their new found friend

Anyway, the aliens leave when a group of people come close by but unfortunately one of them gets left behind. It seeks refuge in a nearby town where in a nearby home, a 10-year-old boy named Elliot is really having a tough time. His sister Gertie is mischievous yet simple minded and his older brother Michael likes to make fun of him of lot. Worse, they are going through a huge divorce with their parents and its effecting everyone. The idea of someone being young at that age and having a hard time coping with an issue like that can be really tough. In short, Elliot’s life is a mess.

But sure enough, he starts noticing that something other than a coyote exists in his backyard and this is when things get really good. Again, the build-up to E.T.’s reveal is genus. All we get are hands and shadows that again make us wonder if this being from outer space is here for explore or a danger. Well, as you can imagine, it turns out he’s not a bad being after all but there is that sense that we don’t know what to expect from him. Sure he’s kind-hearted but with the ability to levitate objects mentally, bring flowers back to life and connect through other people it only makes you wonder what does he use these abilities for. It adds to the mystery while not demystifying it too much.

Elliot and E.T. wait for the arrival of his ship

Elliot and E.T. wait for the arrival of his ship

The real monsters are the human characters. E.T. is plopped in a world with troubled families and scientists that are fascinated with the discovery and will go as far to entrap a house just to study him. The scene where a group of government agents dressed as astronauts that “quarantine” Elliot’s house is one of the most scariest moments I’ve seen in a family film. The idea of being safe in your own home and have it invaded by your own people (let alone, the government) is a really frightening image and always freaked me out as a kid.

Its funny how Steven Spielberg originally wanted to do a sci-fi horror where a group of aliens terrorize a farm but elements of it changed when he felt that it would be interesting if the aliens were really explorers. Either way, that change was for the best seeing how many invader movies the 1980s would later get. E.T. maybe sweet and heartwarming but it knows when to ground itself into reality while also taking some risks along the way. Its not shy to kill off a character or even afraid to place of heroes in danger. The fact that these kids have no idea how to watch after a 6 foot alien is interesting yet frightening. How would you know its come to make peace or how do you know it arrived to make war? It only adds to the mystery to the character.

From the climatic end that got everyone riding bikes

From the climatic end that got everyone riding bikes

E.T. is really about childhood. Spielberg’s movies often have a running theme about separation or working together as a family. Here, its a bit darker considering Elliot is trying to find a way to deal with the separation of his father and with the discovery of this alien he eventually learns to love and let go at the same time without giving too much away. I also like how its all from the perspective of kids. A lot of the times, we barley see any faces from adults and when we do, its either they have relevance to Elliot or the story. The performances of Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore are so investing that we really feel like this is what the world of a kid is like. Originally, there was a scene when Elliot meets up with the principal of his school played by an unseen Harrison Ford playing up to the idea of how this is from the view point of a child and how something big like seeing the principal is simple yet intense. The scene was cut (and rightfully so) but clips are on a laserdisc available documentary. With so much attention devoted to an adult character, it would have ruined the view point all together seeing this is Elliot’s world and its our focus.

There is another character played by Peter Coyote, nicknamed in the credits “Keys,” who is smartly seen from the waist down till later on we see his face. This government agent at first is played up to be a villain until we realize he has similar dreams in seeing if other worldly creatures exist. It humanizes him a bit too much seeing the build-up in the first half but I think it works. We go from what could have been a cliche villain to a sympathetic character who has childish dreams like Elliot. The only thing I feel that is weird is how later on he talks to Elliot’s mom played by Dee Wallace as if there’s a hinting romance. Its brief but at the same time, it does feel a bit shoddy.

A deleted scene where Elliot examines E.T. more. Restored in the 2002 cut with a CGI model, it was placed on the Blu-ray as a bonus feature and rightfully so

A deleted scene where Elliot examines E.T. more. Restored in the 2002 cut with a CGI model, it was placed on the Blu-ray as a bonus feature and rightfully so

And yes, I am aware of the 2002 re-release version with the updated effects and stuff. I actually had the advantage to see this at my local drive-in theater and if you want my thoughts, I’d say stick with the original cut. At times, the updated effects did look unique back and did fix a few things up like the flying stiff bike riders and some of the floating objects. But even as a kid, I was bugged by how the Carlo Rambaldi puppet was replaced at times with a CGI model. Granted, it did manage to get a few more expressions but there was a unique charm to the anamatronic that brought it to life more than even the CGI model did. When E.T. mentions how his kind will come get him in broken English, you can’t tell if he’s happy or sad about it. The 2002 version robs this charm by making it clear about how home sick he is. There’s also the two added scenes where Elliot examines E.T. more in the bathroom and Gertie bumping into the mother on Halloween night which are cute but they don’t add much to the narrative. I’m not jumping on the bandwagon and saying the original cut is the one that must be seen. But I will say that while I do prefer the original edit, there were some things that I did appreciate that got fixed but there were only minor things like certain effect shots here and there. Bottom line, there was no reason to re-edit E.T. because its perfect that way it is.

Even he's ready for Trick or Treating...

Even he’s ready for Trick or Treating…

Anyway, back to my point, E.T. deserves to be labeled a Halloween movie because it not only has the elements of one but when you think about it, Halloween was a special time for kids. It puts us in the right mindset when we were young and dreamed of being adventurous. We all had similar things we wanted to do like how we wanted to meet creatures from different worlds or go on an epic adventure. Its charming while also knows when to be subtly dark at the right moments. In fact, a lot of our childhoods weren’t always perfect. At times, there was good stuff while at times there was stuff we had to go through that was unbelievably harsh to us as kids but as an adult we accept it as something of the norm. Its been hailed for years as a masterpiece, its one of my all-time favorite movies and you can see why. So if you want to take a break from all the usual monster movies and have something charming but not too sugary-sweet, I’d say pop this in around the bewitching hour for some memorable charm and heart.

Rental Corner: “Empire” is crimminally underrated

A lost gem

A lost gem

Even after a few hours after watching “Empire of the Sun,” I feel its beginning to haunt me. Images of Steven Spielberg’s 1987 war drama are floating in my mind from the attack on Shanghai to the scenes in the prisoner’s camp with young Jim struggling to keep his youth from slipping to the harshness of the war and those around them. How can one film already make such an impact on me you ask? Well, you would be surprised.
Based on J. G. Ballard’s semi autobiography novel of the same name, James Graham, a young upper class school boy played by Christian Bale (yes, that Christian Bale) becomes literally lost in a sea of Japan’s battle to take over Shanghai International Settlement and eventually witnesses the horror of war that slowly diminishes his fantasy of it. His investment in airplanes keeps him trudging on and his fond view of pilots that guides his view through a depressing and episodic journey.

Most notable is a scene after the attack where he’s running around “surrendering” to Japanese troops who just shrug him off or see it as a joke. This is reality. Not a fantasy anymore. The streets that were filled with astounding hotels and amazing sights is close to rubble and being overcome by troops and urchins of the streets that try to take advantage of his possessions.

Not long after, he befriends an American Solider name Basie (John Malkovich) who looks like an aviator that the kid has dreamed of but during the film, we slowly see his true colors. Even the audience is duped by his “Artful Dodger” like nature as he tries to sell the kid’s teeth at one point and nearly abandons him as they are no good. The expectations are played around a lot as we don’t know if we should sympathize or hate him. In the end, we are drawn to our own conclusion as the stereotypical war image we see of him earlier is slowly stripped away to nothing more but an empty shell that has some kindness but not enough to deem him a hero.

Even pushed further is the depiction of the Japanese soldiers that hold Jim and a bunch of British and American refuges captive in a prison camp who at times respects some honor Jim responds back with and other times either test his faith or simply view him as a simple bystander. A perfect example is a moment when the general is destroy some of the camp in distraught over an attack on their harbor and is about to destroy the windows to the hospitals. As the doctor tries to prevent it, Jim instead smashes two of them and the general ceases the raid. Why does he do this? Does this mean he thinks Jim has some respect for him? Or was it just the thought of another American doing his work enough to please him? This is mirrored later when he beats Basie for a bar of stolen soap that Jim gave him and the kid tries to do the same thing but instead is fallen to a deaf ear. Moments like this really play with the viewer’s expectation and surrounding of the world. Is this all good faith or is it just action that means little or nothing?

Empire of the Sun is a beautifully filmed feature that I can’t do justice to. Even many have noticed the dream-like quality that carries out as Jim goes through the harsh moments while holding to every bit of innocence. This is brought further when Jim wonders if life is a dream by God or is it the other way around. The curiosity of a child that is even seen slowly eroded further when he sees the true horror of war. I don’t want to give anything too much away but by the end, you really start to feel the same amount of trauma creep into you that he gets.

The only problems I have is the theoretical aspect with Empire. Jim’s constant asking on the existence of God gets a bit redundant and is never given a good payoff. I curiously asked the significance until a certain key scene near the end when he questions it again that has some relevance but moments like that serve either little payoff or none at all.

Also is the transition from its dynamic moments to the light-hearted affairs midway. After much powerful imagery, when we take a five-year jump, it feels oddly uneven for a short bit as we see Jim’s established trading network and relationship with the captives. It’s not a bad scene but it nearly took me out of the movie for a moment for its sheer whimsy. After a long-range of powerful scenes in the tarnished streets and seeing people in reserves close to death, this is what we get. But after that, the film slowly trudges back its to roots that were placed in the beginning so you could argue that it was showing Jim in his prime before the negativity hits him again, but it felt a little off to me.

Even after that, the stuff that comes is nearly equally powerful to what we got earlier. There’s a moment when Jim watches a ceremony take place with a couple of Japanese aviators that causes him to break down and salute them. They look at him with curiosity but not enough to look back and return the honor or even cease his amazement. Let me tell you, not since E.T. have I shed a tear at a moment like this that captures the overall image of the film. In fact, the whole rest of Empire holds up really well and I never felt this emotionally attached to a Spielberg film in a long time or even cried more than once at it.

I really wish more people would check this one out and thanks to its Blu-Ray release, it looks marvelous in HD. This is up there with the Hudsucker Proxy and Pink Floyd’s The Wall as the kind of movie that deserves to be seen a huge screen. Its gripping, powerful, epic and showcases the director’s own view of the war and the tragedy it brings. It’s a coming of age story about the innocence of one boy and its struggle to hold on to it even he knows at some point, it has to be given up. And even as I write this, I’m fortunate to say a lot of it will haunt me to remind how much of our childhood doesn’t stay with us for long.