June 30, 2009

The Secret of NIMH (1982)

I WENT INTO The Secret of NIMH already a non-fan of director Don Bluth. His animated films, which are marketed largely to children, are high on scares and depressing scenes. (I’ve heard that his 1989 film All Dogs Go To Heaven is such a crippling sobfest that I refuse to go near it, either with Dash or on my own.)

Still, G-rated options for this past week were slim, so I picked up The Secret of NIMH at the local library and hoped for the best.

• Widowed mother mouse Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman) lives on a farmer’s land, when she realizes that Moving Day is approaching (translation: her family must find a new home because the farmer will be plowing the land the mice inhabit). Problem is, her youngest son Timmy (Ian Fried) has pneumonia; if she tries to move him, he’ll die.
• After risking her life to speak with the wise Great Owl, Mrs. Brisby is told by the owl to seek help from the mysterious (and mystical) rats in the nearby underworld – led by Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi) – to get help moving her entire home, with Timmy safe inside.
• Among the rats, Mrs. Brisby meets dashing charmer Justin (Peter Strauss), who helps her in her quest, as well as the evil Jenner (Paul Shenar), who has plans to kill Nicodemus and take his place as leader.

• Much like Bluth’s other films (The Land Before Time, An American Tail), The Secret of NIMH carries a dark tone throughout its story. The settings are dreary, flat, and gloomily lit, with backdrops and scenery that look like elaborate, detailed paintings rather than integral parts of the animation.
• Speaking of NIMH’s story, it’s an odd mix of mystical lore based on a scientific mishap (NIMH stands for National Institute of Mental Health). It plays like Lord of the Rings meets Watership Down, but much less effectively than either of those films.
• Justin’s appearance adds some life into the second half, but not enough to keep the viewer’s interest. And God bless him, but Dom DeLuise is largely unfunny as a wacky crow who tries to help Mrs. Brisby with her plight.

In my opinion, there’s an inherent problem with Bluth’s films: They’re too mature for small kids to enjoy, and too childlike to engage adults. I know there are many fans of Bluth’s work, and how he supposedly brings realism to children’s films. All apologies to those people, but after The Secret of NIMH, I’m taking Bluth’s films out of our rotation.

To be blunt, Dash deserves better.

Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5)

What did Dash think?
Watching The Secret of NIMH with Dash took a lot of explaining and multiple hits of the pause button to do so. And just like Scooby-Doo and the Samurai Sword, he fell asleep before the ending.

Will your kids want to watch it?
The Secret of NIMH is a textbook example of what used to pass as G-rated fare; it would easily be rated PG if it was released today. Some examples of why:
• The ominous glowing eyes of the Great Owl and Nicodemus
• Sad, frightening shots of lab animals in cages and being given injections
• Justin mutters “Damn!” when a plan goes wrong
• Mrs. Brisby cuts herself trying to escape a cage
• A major character is crushed to death
• Jenner strikes Mrs. Brisby
• Several rats literally die by the sword in the film’s climax

In short, there’s too much peril and scariness to make The Secret of NIMH enjoyable for little kids. Keep it away from the pre-K crowd, and show it to kindergartners and early gradeschoolers with caution.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Don’t waste her time. There are so many better animated films you could share with her.

"Do you have a Kleenex, dear? I think I have something on my nose."

The Secret of NIMH
• Director: Don Bluth
• Screenwriters: Don Bluth, Will Finn, Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy
• Stars: Elizabeth Hartman, Derek Jacobi, Dom DeLuise, Hermione Baddeley, Shannon Doherty, Wil Wheaton, John Carradine, Peter Strauss, Paul Shenar, Ian Fried
MPAA Rating: G (but easily would have been PG if released today)

Buy this movie for less at Half.com >>

June 24, 2009

Let The Right One In (2008)

IN HIS GREAT BOOK Five Stars!, author and Filmcritic.com founder Christopher Null says to never read other critics’ reviews of a film before you review it; it’ll influence and compromise the integrity of what you write.

But with Let The Right One In, this was hard to do. Reviews were everywhere about how great this film is – that it put fresh blood, so to speak, into the vampire genre.

So as best I could, I mentally set aside what I’d read and pressed Play...

• Outcast Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) is a bullied 12-year-old who’s obsessed with violent crimes (he even keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings of horrendous headlines). One day, new neighbors move into his apartment complex: a man and a 12-year-old girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson).
• After a few awkward encounters, Oskar and Eli become friends. What Oskar eventually discovers is that Eli is a vampire, and the man is Renfield to Eli’s Dracula – helping get her the blood she needs to live.
• Eventually, Eli kills on her own and gets sloppy, catching the eye of a neighbor during one of her attacks. Will her cover be blown? Or will Oskar protect her, no matter what?

• Director Tomas Alfredson, along with cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, has created a visually beautiful film – albeit a largely quiet, slow-moving one (featuring a sparse, quiet score by Johan Söderqvist). The film is full of long, hanging shots of still beauty, and there’s minimal action for the first two acts – truthfully, there’s minimal action for a drama, let alone a supposed horror film.
• Hedebrant and Leandersson play their parts well, using insecure body language and timid conversations to convey their awkwardness and isolation from the rest of the world.
• And while most of Right One does play out rather quietly and methodically, there are several powerful scenes – including, with no exaggeration, one of the most awesome scenes I’ve witnessed in a long time.

My initial reaction to Let The Right One In was, “bore-riiiiing” – a plodding pace with lots of “isn’t this beautiful?” cinematography. But the more I thought about it, I now feel it’s a pretty good movie, and here’s why…

To say Right One is a horror film is misleading and incorrect. More accurately, it’s a burgeoning love story between two young misfits, one of whom just happens to be a vampire. If you take that mindset going into the film, you’ll end up with a more satisfying experience.

Swedish, with subtitles.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Will your kids want to watch it?
You may have kids who think “cool” when they hear “vampire movie,” but be forewarned that Right One is rated R for good reason. Despite the long stretches of scenery and dialogue, there’s plenty of graphic violence: People are dismembered, burned alive, have their neck snapped, hung upside down from a tree and bled from their slit throat, and have their blood sucked by a very hungry Eli. There’s also a brief glimpse of a bottomless Leandersson as she changes clothes.

Will your FilmMother like it?
If she can get past (or is okay with) the bloodletting and occasional gore, as well as the extended scenes of inaction, the budding relationship between Oskar and Eli may very well pull her in and keep her engaged in the film.

Creepy...looks like something I'd see at It's Lovely! I'll Take It!

Let The Right One In
• Director: Tomas Alfredson
• Screenwriter: John Ajvide Lindqvist
• Stars: Kåre Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Ika Nord, Patrik Rydmark
• MPAA Rating: R (some bloody violence including disturbing images, brief nudity and language)

Buy this movie for less at Half.com >>

June 19, 2009

Scooby-Doo and the Samurai Sword (2009)

MY RELATIONSHIP WITH the Scooby-Doo gang has been a rocky one lately. On a leap of faith, Dash and I watched the direct-to-video movie Scooby-Doo and The Loch Ness Monster, and surprisingly we loved it. Then we got burned on the next Scooby d-to-v release, Scooby-Doo: Pirates Ahoy!

Now, there’s a brand new d-to-v Scooby film with the potentially awesome title, Scooby-Doo and the Samurai Sword. I searched in vain to find it at our local video stores or On Demand…then found it in the “For Sale” box at our local library for just $1.

Maybe that should’ve tipped me off…

The Scooby gang arrives in Tokyo, Japan so Daphne can enter a martial arts tournament at an ancient temple that houses a martial arts school. (Who knew she had the “chops?” HEY-o!) They arrive just after the Ghost of the Black Samurai broke out of a local museum in search of the Scroll of Destiny, which (wouldn’t ya know) resides at the temple hosting the tournament.


After some heard-it-before one-liners from Scooby and Shaggy, and clever nods to Enter the Dragon and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Samurai loses its strength – and the attention span of the viewer – fast. By the second act, we’re lectured at length about all kinds of convoluted Japanese folklore that’s too much for kids to follow, let alone adults.

Don’t get me wrong, it all sounds really cool – The Black Samurai, the Scroll of Destiny, the Green Dragon, the Sword of Doom – but coolness quickly gives way to information overload. (It’s as if screenwriter Joe Sichta completed a course on Japanese mythology right before penning his script, and he’s eager to show us what he learned.)

Samurai was so hard to stick with, not even the robot ninjas (that’s right: robot ninjas) could keep our interest.

This movie literally put both of us to sleep before the third act. That gives it the dubious honor of being the only movie besides Valiant that we didn’t finish before providing a review.

And I don’t intend on watching the rest…not even for a Scooby Snack.

Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5)

What did Dash think?
I don’t know, let me wake him up and ask him. Dash…Dash…?

Will your kids want to watch it?
Possibly…everybody’s tastes are different. In addition to DVD, Samurai is currently running on Cartoon Network. Maybe catch it on TV for free rather than renting or buying the DVD. That way, if nobody in your household likes it, no big deal…though there’ll still be the small manner of 90 minutes of your life you’ll never get back.

Will your FilmMother want to watch it?
Doubtful, even if she has nostalgia for Scooby-Doo. For worthwhile viewing of newer Scooby adventures, have her watch the aforementioned Scooby-Doo and The Loch Ness Monster.

I SAID, not even for a Scooby Snack!!

Scooby-Doo and the Samurai Sword
* Director: Christopher Berkeley
* Screenwriter: Joe Sichta
* Stars: Frank Welker, Mindy Cohn, Brian Cox, Grey DeLisle, Kelly Hu, Casey Kasem, Kevin Michael Richardson, George Takei
* MPAA Rating: G

Buy this movie for less at Half.com >>

June 17, 2009

Intermission: Whooga

Got an email from someone at Whooga, a site that sells sheepskin boots. She said that if you enter the promotion code FILMFATHER during your checkout, you'll save $30.00 on your order.

June 8, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (1974)

LIKE MOST PEOPLE MY AGE, my first exposure to legendary actor Robert Shaw was his role as Quint in Jaws. But his previous film, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, is one that any fan of Shaw’s should also check out – not just for Shaw, but for a well-crafted heist/thriller with great performances, believable plot, and an unmistakable point (and location) in time.

• From the film’s opening – featuring composer David Shire’s marching drumbeat and staccato horns, coupled with the stencil font of the credits – Pelham screams “1970s New York crime drama” (in a good way).
• After being introduced to a bunch of working stiffs at the New York Transit Authority, we watch four men step onto the Pelham 1 2 3 subway train – all with identical hats, coats, glasses, and mustaches.
• The men – comprised of team leader Mr. Blue (Shaw), ex-transit worker Mr. Green (Martin Balsam), loose cannon Mr. Grey (Hector Elizondo), and stammering young gun Mr. Brown (Earl Hindman) – take the train and its 18 passengers hostage. Their demand: One million dollars. And for every minute the ransom is late, they’ll shoot a hostage.
• Trying to negotiate the situation at the transit command center is lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau), who uses stall tactics, occasional humor, and a few white lies to keep Shaw and his team at bay.
• Meanwhile, it’s up to the mayor (Ed Koch lookalike Lee Wallace) to decide whether to pay the ransom – and if so, can it be delivered in time?

• Director Joseph Sargent effectively captures the ‘70s grittiness of New York City, from the screech-filled platforms of the subway system to the un-PC work environment of the Transit Authority.
Shaw is amazing to watch. His Mr. Blue never gets rankled during the standoff (he passes the time doing crossword puzzles). His tone and facial expressions remain constant and in control, even when aspects of the heist turn tragic or he’s dealing with the growing tension between himself and Elizondo’s Mr. Grey. (Blue vs. Grey: a play on Civil War colors? Discuss.)
Peter Stone’s screenplay (adapted from John Godey’s novel) does a superb job of tying all aspects of the story together, leaving little room for loopholes or what-ifs. He creates a thrilling yet believable atmosphere and plot, making you feel like the events in the film could actually happen.
• The supporting cast, from the transit workers to the unnamed patrons of the Pelham subway car, all do a commendable job in creating an environment dripping with Noo Yawk attitude. Special kudos to Tom Pedi for his hilariously profane turn as “Fat Kaz” – a grouchy transit supervisor who, when told to watch his language in front of a woman, replies, “How the hell can you run a goddamned railroad without swearing?”

Odds and ends:
• The color-coded names of Shaw and his team undoubtedly influenced Quentin Tarantino when naming his crew of criminals in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs.
• Earl Hindman, aka the stuttering Mr. Brown, found fame two decades later as Tim Allen’s facially obstructed neighbor Wilson on TV’s Home Improvement.
Pelham is name-checked by the Beastie Boys in their 1994 hit “Sure Shot.”
• The name of an actor who plays a subway guard? Jim Pelham.
• Watch for Jerry Stiller (Seinfeld, King of Queens) in a supporting role, plus a bit part by Everybody Loves Raymond's Doris Roberts as the mayor’s wife.

A remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 opens this Friday (June 12), and I’m rooting for it for a couple of reasons:
• It’s written by Brian Helegand, co-writer of FilmFather Favorite L.A. Confidential.
• Fellow dad-blogger John Wildermuth worked on it as first assistant director and associate producer (read my interview with John here).

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is the kind of filmmaking indicative of its era – a gritty crime drama with just enough levity and camaraderie to create a fun, satisfying film experience.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)

Will your kids want to watch it?
Older kids (teens) may think it’s a cool concept, and if you think they can handle gun violence and a colorful array of profanities, then they should be fine with it. I’d keep pre-teens away from it, though.

Will your FilmMother like it?
If she likes thrillers, crime dramas, or any of the stars listed above, she should enjoy the movie. Otherwise, make it one to watch alone or with the guys (or older sons).

Ah, the lost art of the movie poster...
anybody else miss one-sheets like this?

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3
* Director: Joseph Sargent
* Screenwriter: Peter Stone
* Stars: Walter Matthau, Robert Shaw, Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo, Earl Hindman, Dick O’Neill, Jerry Stiller
* MPAA Rating: R

Buy this movie for less at Half.com >>

Interview with John Wildermuth, First Assistant Director, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

FILMFATHER: As a first assistant director (AD), what are your roles and responsibilities?
JOHN WILDERMUTH: Someone asked me that once and I simply said I’m responsible for helping the director by managing the crew. A producer was nearby and said, "Are you kidding? He tells a crew of 300 mooks what to do every day!"

As a first AD, I’m the director's right hand. The director is responsible for overseeing all of the creative aspects of making a film, and it’s my job to help him or her realize their vision. I’m responsible for making sure everything and everyone is there for each scene. I begin two to five months ahead of the start of photography, breaking down every scene in the script and creating a shooting schedule. It’s like a giant puzzle that’s continually changing and evolving as locations are found and actors are hired.

On Pelham I had five months of prep, beginning with a two-week scout of New York City locations with [director] Tony Scott, executive producer Barry Waldman, production designer Chris Seagers, and location manager Janice Polley. We started with an MTA track safety class so we could scout subway stations and tunnels with active trains all around us. I also worked on hundreds of versions of the schedule as we continued to scout and figure out how to shoot each scene in the most exciting and efficient manner.

Once principal photography begins, I’m by Tony’s side every minute of the day, helping manage all the elements needed to shoot the scenes on the schedule. I have a staff of 10 ADs and production assistants to help speak to the crew and direct all the background action, cars, and stunts. Often, the script is being re-worked and I continue to change the shooting schedule to accommodate any revisions. For Tony, I type up notes each night to help him prepare for what we’re shooting the next day.

FF: What’s the biggest difference between the new version of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and the 1974 original?
JW: The original Pelham is a quintessential New York film and set the template for action movies that continues to this day. It’s a classic film, but today's audiences are different and Tony was looking to do a "re-invention" rather than a traditional remake.

The new Pelham takes place in a post-9/11 New York City. There are no longer Transit Police [like in the original Pelham] because the NYPD now has authority over the MTA. Also, Denzel Washington did not want to play a cop. Tony is notorious for his extensive research, and he’s always looking for real people to base characters on for his movie. Denzel's character is an MTA executive under investigation for taking a bribe on new train contracts. He's demoted to a train dispatcher pending the outcome of the investigation, and he just happens to be on [duty] when the call comes in that Pelham 123 has been taken. John Travolta's character is also based on a real person, a smarter and more dangerous man than the classic Robert Shaw character. I won't say any more because I don't want to give away too much.

FF: In addition to being an AD on Pelham, you’re also an associate producer. What additional responsibilities come with that?
JW: This was my seventh film with Tony, and my involvement in his projects is on a much deeper level than just being an AD. Most films today have an executive producer, the hands-on person overseeing the project from start to finish. Usually, this person is a former AD, having learned the nuts and bolts of filmmaking from the ground up. Although I desire to direct my own movies, I do help produce [the films I work on], and the associate producer credit is a recognition of the role I play on Tony's films.

FF: You mentioned you’ve made seven films with director Tony Scott (including Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, and Domino). What draws you to work with him so often?
JW: Tony is the most challenging director I’ve ever met. He’s also the hardest-working director in Hollywood. I’ve been drawn to him time after time because he challenges me to be at the top of my game every single day. The experience I’ve gained standing at his side and helping him make his movies for 14 years has given me a lifetime of experience from one of the modern masters. I’m planning on using that experience to direct my own films and follow in my mentor's footsteps.

FF: At your blog, you often write about time spent on film locations versus time spent with your kids when you’re home. How hard is it balancing the two?
JW: When my children were young, it was hard to be away from them, but it was also easier for them to come with me. I was still married to their mother and, for example, on Spy Game they came and lived with me in London for six months. As they get older, I’m finding it increasingly challenging to be away from them. They are 10 and 12 now, and it’s painful to go so long without seeing them. I’ve tried to take several months off between projects in recent years to give me more of a balanced life, as movies with Tony are 7-day-a-week jobs. I’m doing a movie now which shoots in Vancouver – a shorter project with a director who doesn't work 7 days a week and is allowing me time to fly home to Los Angeles on some weekends.

FF: Your IMDb page says you worked on 1992’s School Ties. My wife has a huge crush on Chris O’Donnell, so she’d kill me if I didn’t ask what he was like on the set.
JW: Chris was great, a super-nice guy! I was able to re-schedule some scenes so he could go to New York to audition for Scent of a Woman, and you know the rest. I'm happy that he’s gone on to have so much success, because I think he really deserves it.

FF: What’s your next project? You mentioned on your blog last month that you were scouting locations for a movie based on the Marmaduke comic strip…
JW: Yes, I’m working on Marmaduke; we start filming in July in Vancouver with some scenes to be shot in southern California in September. We’re using real dogs, and the visual effects team from Beverly Hills Chihuahua will animate their mouths to make them talk. It’s a lot like a 1980s John Hughes movie, with the dogs playing out their high school scenes at a local dog park. This movie is way outside the box for me, but my kids have been asking me for years to work on a kids’ film and I just couldn't pass up the opportunity. The movie comes out around Easter 2010 and I’ll write about my experiences on my blog this summer.

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 opens Friday, June 12.


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