December 31, 2009

A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969)

LAST DECEMBER, DASH AND I had fun watching a childhood favorite of mine, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown. Based on that success, I decided to share another Charlie Brown flick with him: the Peanuts gang’s first full-length feature, A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

After a disastrous attempt at kite-flying and his baseball team’s 99th loss in a row, Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) starts feeling that he’s a born loser. But that feeling changes when Linus (Glenn Gilger) convinces him to enter the school spelling bee, and he wins. As he advances to inter-school and national spelling bees, can Charlie Brown shake his loser ways once and for all?


All the trademark Charlie-as-loser scenarios from the classic Peanuts comic strip make appearances in A Boy Named Charlie Brown: his failed kite-flying, featuring the toothy kite-eating tree; his ill-fated attempts at pitching for his baseball team (and his clothes flying off from line drives); and his need to seek advice from Lucy’s Psychiatric Help booth.

The script by Peanuts creator Charles Schulz is accessible to kids but doesn’t talk down to them (though a couple of segments are longer on dialogue than action or laughs). My favorite line: After Charlie Brown is clocked in the head by a line-drive baseball, someone shouts, “Does anybody know first aid?” Lucy’s response: “It’s probably not serious. Second or third aid will do.”

The soundtrack features original songs by Rod McKuen (whose poetry and music were popular at the time), as well as the trademark Peanuts score by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Some of the animation styles leave no mystery to the fact that the film was made in the late ‘60s: Several sequences dabble in psychedelic color schemes, transitions, and type fonts.

Because of the plot, there’s a lot of word-spelling leading up to the finale – so if your kids aren't careful, they may learn something before it’s done (hey, hey, hey).

A couple of debits: The film loses some steam between the second and third acts, especially due to a B-story of Linus looking for his lost blanket after he and Snoopy visit Charlie Brown in the big city. And an extended, trippy sequence of historic/artistic people and places – set to Schroder playing a Beethoven piece – seems, while visually inspiring, a bit out of place.

In the end, Dash and I agreed: While Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown was better, A Boy Named Charlie Brown was good and worth watching.


What did Dash think?
If Dash’s laughter is any indication, A Boy Named Charlie Brown still holds up 40 years later. From the first scene he was laughing, and continued to do so at a pretty consistent pace throughout the film.

Will your kids like it?
I highly suspect they will. Some very young kids may drop out after a certain point (like they do with many full-length movies), but kindergartners and older should find it quite enjoyable.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
I think she’ll find A Boy Named Charlie Brown to be not only a cute, harmless, entertaining movie for the kids, but a trip down Memory Lane for herself as well.


A Boy Named Charlie Brown
* Director: Bill Melendez
* Screenwriter: Charles M. Schulz
* Stars: Peter Robbins, Pamelyn Ferdin, Glenn Gilger, Andy Pforsich, Erin Sullivan, Christopher DeFaria
* MPAA Rating: G

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December 21, 2009

Black Christmas (1974)

FILMMAKER BOB CLARK IS PROBABLY most well-known as the director of the holiday classic A Christmas Story (1983). But a decade earlier, he also directed another yuletide favorite among film buffs: the seminal slasher Black Christmas.

As a college sorority house empties for Christmas break, the remaining sisters must suffer the disturbing rants of an obscene caller. Meanwhile, a madman breaks into the attic of the house and starts picking off the sisters one by one. In addition, sorority sister Jess (Romeo & Juliet’s Olivia Hussey) must deal with her pregnancy by boyfriend Peter (2001’s Keir Dullea) and considers an abortion (which Peter opposes).

Before dying in a car crash in 2007, Clark arguably created classics in three different genres: holiday (A Christmas Story), teen sex comedy (Porky’s), and with Black Christmas, horror.

Clark relies largely on sound (or lack of it) to ratchet up the film’s tension:
  • The obscene calls: a nightmarish medley of giggling, hissing, screaming, and wailing – with mentions of “Billy” and “Agnes” and what sounds like different voices of a man, woman, and child
  • Beyond church bells and Christmas carolers, Clark uses virtually no musical score except for a dull, rippling echo at key points in the film
  • The silence in many scenes, where lesser filmmakers would shove in an overdramatic score, is completely unnerving

Of course, what’s seen is just as terrifying:
  • It’s one of the first slasher films to use generous point-of-view of the killer (four years before Halloween)
  • The recurring scene of first victim Claire (Lynne Griffin), suffocated by a dry cleaning bag and propped in a rocking chair in the attic as the killer’s first trophy
  • An unsettling killing inside the sorority house, interspersed with child carolers singing right outside the front door
  • A glimpse of the killer near the end that I won’t spoil here (though it’s now kind of synonymous with the film)

The sorority house is its own character, with long hallways, ornate wood railings, and stairways and hallways with sharp turns or dimly lit ends – preventing the viewer from seeing what (or who) might be around the corner or hiding in the darkness.

Black Christmas also includes a twist near the end that’s become a clichéd horror punchline, but one that originated here and still gives a shiver when revealed. And the final tracking shot, silent except for the ticking of a grandfather clock, is as scary as anything that came earlier in the film.

If you’re a horror fan, you owe it to yourself to see Black Christmas. It’s a great slasher film that’s largely forgotten or underappreciated outside of fans of the genre. It also has one of the greatest taglines ever: “If this picture doesn’t make your skin crawl…it’s on too tight!” Well, it did make my skin crawl – then it crawled under my crawling skin and has stayed there ever since.

  • Hussey’s sorority sisters include Margot Kidder (Superman II) as the resident boozehound, plus SCTV’s Andrea Martin.
  • Hussey would revisit horror several years later, playing Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho IV (1990).
  • Regarding the jarring “echo” sound mentioned earlier: Composer Carl Zittrer created the score by tying forks, combs, and knives to the strings of his piano so the sound would warp as he struck the keys. He distorted the sound further by putting pressure on the reels of his audio tape machine to make it turn slower. (Source: IMDb)

Will your kids want to watch it?
Very little blood is actually spilled in Black Christmas, but there so many other elements to scare (and scar) young viewers: The creepy and highly obscene phone calls, the long shots of empty and foreboding hallways, the images of the victims…it’s a formula that’s highly likely to ruin what is probably your kids’ most beloved holiday. In short, keep it away from children, but teens (and maybe tweens, your call) should find it to be enjoyably terrifying.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If you can convince her to watch it, Black Christmas may be an opportunity for her to snuggle closer to you during the holiday season. Did I say “snuggle?” I meant, “cling tightly in fear.”

"Y'know, I wouldn't have to scream like a maniac
if you'd put the phone to your ear..."

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December 17, 2009

Don't leave me now...

Apologies, faithful FilmFather real job and the Christmas rush have put a dent in my time to review films lately.

But please keep checking in. I should have some new reviews up very soon.

In the meantime, props to anyone who can identify the above movie.

December 5, 2009

The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982)

WITH THIS REVIEW COMES a new segment at FilmFather: Trashterpiece Theatre.

I’ve been having trouble trying to define, in one sentence, what qualifies a film for this label. I felt like just saying what that judge said years ago when asked to define obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

I’ve ultimately narrowed it down to this: Trashterpiece Theatre reflects films that go beyond guilty pleasures. For example, they could be:
* Highly watchable exploitation movies
* So-bad-they’re-good B-movies
* Mainstream movies that are delicious junk food for your brain

In short: They’re great movies to watch, but may not be great movies per se.

Our inaugural film for Trashterpiece Theatre: 1982’s The Sword and the Sorcerer.


The city of Ehdan is ruled by merciless King Cromwell (legendary character actor Richard Lynch), but there are plans for a rebellion led by Lord Mikah (Simon MacCorkindale), Ehdan’s rightful heir. However, Cromwell thwarts the rebellion, captures Mikah, and throws him in his dungeon.

To rescue Mikah and revive the rebellion, his sister Alana (Kathleen Beller) hires Talon (Lee Horsley) and his band of mercenaries. Armed with a kick-ass, three-blade sword (whose outer blades shoot from the handle), Talon accepts the mission with one demand as payment: Anna must sleep with him after he rescues Mikah.

Talon also has a personal interest in the mission: Many years ago, Cromwell killed Talon’s father, King Richard (Christopher Cary) and took over Richard’s kingdom.


Director Albert Pyun’s track record of bad films has few equals (see a partial list of his films in this article), yet he delivers The Sword and the Sorcerer with all the intentions of a big-budget spectacular – from the opening sequence setting up Talon and Cromwell’s grudge to the fantastic free-for-all finale at Cromwell’s castle.

Horsley plays Talon with a swagger that falls somewhere between John Wayne and Errol Flynn. He’s unrepentant in his words and actions, yet you root for him as the film’s hero.

The dialogue is delightfully cheesy, filled with campy humor and smirk-worthy one-liners – including many innuendos about men’s swords (their size, raising them, etc.)

To the film’s credit, David Whitaker’s triumphant score adds some integrity to the melodramatics, and there are many elaborate sets that occasionally give the film a feel of epic scope.

Watch for supporting roles by Murphy Brown’s Joe Regalbuto as one of Talon’s mercenaries, and Night Court’s Richard Moll as a brutal sorcerer.

After the end credits, the film announces the adventure will continue with Tales of an Ancient Empire, a sequel that’s “coming soon.” Well, I guess 28 years still counts as “soon” because Pyun is currently (finally!) filming the sequel, starring Kevin Sorbo, Christopher Lambert, and Horsley. (Follow the film’s production at its official site.)

The Sword and the Sorcerer is a delicious slice of ‘80s Velveeta, complete with everything your inner 14-year-old boy could want: swords, sorcery, boobs, gore, action, and adventure. It’s currently out of print, so your best bet is one of the links at the bottom or pray for a DVD/Blu-Ray re-release when Tales of an Ancient Empire comes out. Either way, this Trashterpiece is worth seeking out.


Will your kids want to watch it?
Given my earlier reference to your inner 14-year-old, it’s probably safe to say that younger boys will want to watch The Sword and Sorcerer if they see the poster or any clips online. But despite the cheese factor of the film, it has a lot of unsavory content that younger viewers shouldn’t see: an attempted rape, soldiers burned alive, stabbings, impalings, torture, crucifixion, random nudity, and both hearts and tongues torn out. It’s bloody good fun, but use discretion around kids and young tweens.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
This really feels like one for you to enjoy with other male brethren, but in a group environment I bet she could get caught up in the fun.

You think that’s bad? You should see what they did the M, C, and A guys.

The Sword and the Sorcerer
* Director: Albert Pyun
* Screenwriters: Tom Karnowski, John Stuckmeyer, Albert Pyun
* Stars: Lee Horsley, Kathleen Beller, Simon MacCorkindale, Richard Lynch, Richard Moll
* MPAA Rating: R

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Buy The Sword and The Sorcerer (VHS) at >>

December 1, 2009

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)

MUCH LIKE THE FILM ITSELF, I’m going to jump right into my review of Shoot ‘Em Up without any setup…

On a dark city street, a pregnant woman is chased by gunman, who both run by Mr. Smith (Clive Owen) as he sits on a bench, munching a carrot. Smith begrudgingly gets himself involved in the situation, killing the gunman – then he’s forced to deliver the woman’s baby while fending off a huge crew of armed thugs led by Mr. Hertz (Paul Giamatti). During the shootout, the mom is killed but Smith escapes with the baby. With the help of his hooker friend Donna (Monica Bellucci), Smith tries to figure out why the woman was wanted by the henchmen – and why they want the baby dead as well.


Like the videogame genre it’s named after, writer/director Michael DavisShoot ‘Em Up is a largely unrealistic yet awesomely trippy thrill-ride. All that’s missing is the first-person POV and the hand holding a gun in the lower corner.

The action sequences are almost too much to take in, but in a good way. (Kudos to the whiz-bang choreography of Peter Pau and editing by Peter Amundson.) You’ll laugh at the ridiculousness of each burst of action, but you’ll stay smiling afterwards because – admit it – it was also pretty awesome.

Shoot ‘Em Up does have its human moments. Smith’s traumatic backstory gives a rationale for his involvement, and the film will give any father a mix of emotions: The man inside you will eat up the action, yet your paternal instincts will feel for the baby (example: a tender scene where Smith takes off his sock to make a cap for the infant).

Other strong points: Giamatti is deliciously, charmingly scuzzy as head baddie Mr. Hertz (something tells me his first name is Dick). And the action scenes feature a high-speed soundtrack to match the mayhem, with songs by Nirvana, Motorhead, AC/DC, and Motley Crue.

In its easily digestible 86 minutes, Shoot ‘Em Up offers a dark, entertaining take on the classic Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoons: riotous levels of chaos and mayhem, cheesy yet funny one-liners, and ingenious and outrageous ways out of no-escape scenarios. Make this a double-bill with 2008’s Rambo, and your craving for all-guns-blazing carnage will be satisfied for a long time to come.


Will your kids want to watch it?
With its video-game style, fast action, and massive amounts of gunplay, it’s easy to see why Shoot ‘Em Up would attract kids (read: boys) of any age. But while the film does take its violence to an almost cartoonish level, it shouldn’t be viewed by children below high-school age:
* Countless shooting deaths (we’re talking dozens), dismemberment, torture, and several lethal uses of a carrot
* A newborn baby is in peril numerous times
* Some sexual, S&M, and fetish goings-on at a brothel, plus an explicit love scene between Owen and Bellucci that gives new meaning to coitus interruptus

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
If all the manly shooting and posturing in Shoot ‘Em Up isn’t enough to turn her off, see the aforementioned baby peril – the kid’s in danger of being shot, dropped, abandoned, or run over at different stages of the film. All signs point to you watching this alone or with buds.

Nobody puts my baby bottles in a corner...

Shoot ‘Em Up
* Director: Michael Davis
* Screenwriter: Michael Davis
* Stars: Clive Owen, Monica Bellucci, Paul Giamatti, Stephen McHattie, Greg Bryk, Daniel Pilon
* MPAA Rating: R (pervasive strong bloody violence, sexuality and some language)

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November 26, 2009

Thomas & Friends: Hero of the Rails (2009)

WHEN HE WAS YOUNGER, Dash was a semi-regular follower of Thomas & Friends. He watched the TV show on PBS and had a handful of DVDs as well.

And while he still enjoys playing with Thomas trains and track sets, he hasn’t watched the show in a long time. So I was concerned about his interest when I popped in the new movie, Thomas & Friends: Hero of the Rails.


One day while hauling freight, Thomas heads down a dead-end stretch of track and discovers an abandoned, broken-down Japanese steam engine named Hiro, who used to be “master of the railway.” Fearing that Hiro will be scrapped if anyone finds him in his current condition, Thomas promises to secretly bring Hiro new parts to make him useful again. Thomas’ biggest obstacle in helping Hiro? A new addition to the Isle of Sodor: the bigger, faster, modern, and arrogant train Spencer.


With Hero of the Rails, gone are the model sets and limited facial expressions of the trains from previous Thomas adventures. It’s now all CGI – which surprisingly stays very faithful to the original TV show, but now with the added bonus of fluid facial movements and moving mouths, walking and talking townfolk, and more action from crash sequences.

In true Thomas fashion, Hero of the Rails practices and (quietly) preaches valuable moral and life lessons, including helping those in need, friendship, teamwork, and dealing with bullies. (The snarky cynic in me sensed a political subtext about being a useful member of society: the fear that you need to prove you’re useful – a la frail, elderly Hiro – so you don’t get “scrapped.”)

With the makeover Thomas & Friends gets with Hero of the Rails – animation instead of models, each train with its own voice rather than the narrator’s – some will say, “It’s about time,” while others may say Thomas has jumped the shark. That debate aside, Hero of the Rails is an enjoyable film for kids, and adults may actually find it entertaining because of the makeover, not in spite of it.


What did Dash think?

Dash didn’t care that Thomas and crew were now all CGI. In fact, he enjoyed Hero of the Rails more than he ever liked the TV show, laughing several times (I even laughed at a scene). In the middle of the film, out of nowhere, he declared, “This is a pretty cool movie.” He also offered his opinion on braggart Spencer: “He’s really a snob.”

Will your kids like it?

Hero of the Rails should appeal to any kids 7 or younger. Boys may be the primary audience, but there are several strong female trains in the film to appear to girls.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?

I think she’ll find Hero of the Rails to be watchable for adults, and an entertainingly fun film for young kids.

What?! There's people on this isle?!

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November 22, 2009

The Legend of God’s Gun (2007)

THE BACK OF THE DVD BOX for The Legend of God’s Gun declares the film to be (their caps) “A GRINDHOUSE ROCK-N-ROLL SPAGHETTI WESTERN!!!”

Well, any movie that tries to fit itself into that many hip genres automatically gets me suspicious – suspicious that the film will try too hard (or not hard enough) to meld all those film styles into one cohesive, enjoyable film.

Something about an avenging, gun-toting preacher (Bobby Bones), a reluctant sheriff (Mike Bruce), and a goofy bandito named El Sobero (Kirkpatrick Thomas).


The Legend of God’s Gun incorporates a lot of the elements from the grindhouse and spaghetti western genres: bad, jumpy cuts and quick zooms; grainy, washed-out footage; bad looping of dialogue; acting that feels like everything was a first take; a tinny, mono soundtrack; and abundant use of a split-screen.

But while it’s kitschy and fun to watch older grindhouse and spaghetti western movies today, everything about The Legend of God’s Gun quickly feels like less of an homage and more of a gimmick.

Even the worst flicks from those two genres have a basic premise to hook the viewer. Writer/director Mike Bruce (also starring as the aforementioned sheriff) should’ve been less concerned about paying tribute to his favorite genres and more focused on a linear, compelling story.

Despite cool poster art and a great tagline (“You are about to leave this earth with many regrets”), The Legend of God’s Gun is a chore to sit through. Even at only 79 minutes, it will frustrate the most die-hard grindhouse and spaghetti western fans. And with most of the cast being rock stars by trade (from bands such as Brian Jonestown Massacre, Spindrift, and The Morlocks), it adds fuel to the argument that musicians make bad actors.

I’m fully aware that The Legend of God’s Gun is an independent film, and with that can come sacrifices in budget and production value. But that’s no excuse for the dips in quality that plague it. At times, it feels less like an independent movie and more like an experimental student film.

The Legend of God’s Gun achieves a dubious double-whammy: It manages to both overshoot and undershoot in its attempts to honor two classic genres – and in the end delivers an unwatchable film.

Will your kids want to watch it?
I’d say keep children away from The Legend of God’s Gun – not because of its objectionable content, but because it’s a horrible film. On the subject of the former: multiple shootings, adult language, a scene of necrophilia, Colt and some lady friends get high in an opium den, and a brief glimpse of bouncing boobs.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Do not let her watch this film, even if she thinks she wants to.

I wish a had a pencil-thin mustache

The Legend of God’s Gun
• Director: Mike Bruce
• Screenwriter: Mike Bruce
• Stars: Bobby Bones, Kirkpatrick Thomas, Mike Bruce, Julie Patterson, Scott Dyeswell
• MPAA Rating: N/A

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