Monday, November 29, 2010

Have Yourself A Movie Little Christmas by Alonso Duralde

Written by Musgo Del Jefe

Let it be said first and foremost, in the spirit of full disclosure, that Musgo loves film guides. It really borders on an obsession. My love of reading about films dates back to my youngest days and the TV Guide. One of the best sections of the non-listings was "This Week's Movies" by Judith Crist. I remember the subtle way the movies were described and reviewed at the same time in very conversational paragraph form - letting you know which of the 8-10 movies airing on network TV would be worth watching during the week. I can see today how that style has overtly influenced my own writing about film.

As my movie-watching possibilities expanded with the arrival of cable and VHS, my movie-review reading increased also. The local video store was full of potential favorite films but I needed a way to see beyond the hype on the covers of the packages. That's where my obsession with film guides began. There are two distinct types of guides in my collection - the comprehensive guide (one that lists the movies with brief descriptions and maybe a star rating) and the depth guide (one that compares fewer movies - often limited around a theme and offers a more in depth review). Each of them have their place and time.

For years, my basic go-to book was the simple Leonard Maltin yearly guide. I remember the years when it jumped from 750-800 pages to up near 1000 pages and now way beyond. Not much on cross referencing but for basic info about a film and a very brief review, it couldn't be beaten. In the years since - I've grown to love both the Halliwell guide and the Videohound Golden Movie Retriever guide. They approach the films the way I like to use the books - with lots of lists and indexes. If I like an actor or director or movies about alien cops - I want to be able to find other similar movies and read quick little reviews.

So when the opportunity to branch out and review a book came Musgo's way and it was a film guide, I jumped at the offer. This holiday season, Limelight Editions has released a guide to Christmas-themed movies - Have Yourself A Movie Little Christmas by Alonso Duralde. He has put together an interesting more in-depth guide - covering around 125 movies with each listing having roughly a page-long descriptive review of the film followed by some Fun Facts. The author tries to find a unique niche by expanding the traditional definition of a Christmas film to include films that are set or even only partially set around the holidays. Each chapter is built around a theme - Christmas Comedies, Holiday Horror, Christmas Classics, etc. The best way to review a book of reviews is to take a look at a couple examples.

Christmas Holiday (1944) (reviewed in "Movies For Grown-Ups") I will give Mr. Duralde instant cred for including this often forgotten film in his reviews. As he states, based on a W. Somerset Maugham novel, it is a great film noir holiday film. Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly play against type in this more serious film but the "holiday as healing" theme is still universal. I agree with the author that a DVD release is due and that's what a good film book can do - put that bug in your mind until you see it come available years from now.

Less Than Zero (1987) (reviewed in "Movies For Grown-Ups") Less impressed at this addition to the same section. The movie is set in Los Angeles over a Christmas vacation from college for the Andrew McCarthy character. But unlike other films set during the holidays, none of the film's themes revolve around the spirit of the holidays. I don't even recall the scenes of Christmas in L.A. to be particularly memorable.

Love Actually (2003) (reviewed in "Christmas Comedies") I appreciate the inclusion of this film as a holiday comedy. It is set during the Christmas holidays in London but the strong British cast and director Richard Curtis (Bridget Jones' Diary, Four Weddings) often makes people rank this as a Chick Flick or love story over a Christmas film. The movie is either loved or hated by many - for such a polarizing film, I would have liked the author to take more of an opinionated stand. Here he simply admits that while being "arguably indefensible" that it's "shamelessly entertaining".

Meet John Doe (1941) (reviewed in "Holiday Tearjerkers") Another movie that seems to have left the holiday genre over the years. This Frank Capra flick starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck compares favorably to even It's A Wonderful Life in the way we are left with the carry the spirit of Christmas with you throughout the year message. Once again, a good review book will remind you of a film that you may long have forgotten and need to see again.

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) (reviewed in "Holiday Horror") This film is another reach for a holiday film. It happens to be set with the background of a group of orphans spending the Christmas holiday at the Forrest estate - run by the totally crazy Shelley Winters. It's a really great creepy film that plays better at Halloween than at Christmas. I don't recall Christmas being more than a catalyst to move the plot forward. That doesn't take away from the genius of the film and its watchability. But it's hardly fair to put it up against Silent Night, Deadly Night or Black Christmas in the genre.

The book has an Appendix of recommended Christmas films not included in the main part of the book. Some of these I'm left wondering what connection to Christmas they may have in any way. There is an index of names and of titles, in case you are trying to find a specific listing.

Does it all work? A little but it leaves you wanting more. There are far too many films with direct relations to the holidays that could be reviewed with more common standards. As I read a number of the reviews - especially within a sub-genre - I wasn't sure that each film was being judged against the others. Instead it felt as a detached group of opinions. If multiple people were reviewing these films, that would make more sense. The fun of reading a book of reviews by a single person is getting to know their standards and how they compare to your own. It is hard to compare Eyes Wide Shut to Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, but if you have set forth your criteria in a series of reviews it can be done. I like the Fun Facts section but I'd love more pictures and maybe more info on DVD or Blu-ray releases of the films. Instead of an Appendix at the end of the book that seems disjointed - I would have offered a list at the end of each chapter of films not included under each heading and which ones were noteworthy.

As a whole, it's not a bad addition to your film guide library. It's not the last holiday movie guide you'll need but it has its place.

Article first published as Book Review: Have Yourself A Movie Little Christmas by Alonso Duralde on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Scooby-Doo Where Are You! - Season One, Volume Four: Spooked Bayou

Written by Musgo del Jefe

Musgo and Scooby-Doo have a relationship dating back to little Musgo's earliest Saturday morning memories in the early 1970s. For the past few years, my review path has crossed my old friend for the past five movie releases. Some have been positive like Chill Out, Scooby-Doo! and others not so much like Scooby-Doo! Abracadabra-Doo. But what these movies have all had is the ability to take the past and move the story forward for a new generation. I've had mixed responses on their success in these areas but at least they are trying to move it forward. With new live-action films, new video games, the new animated films and a continuing run of new TV shows - I found it interesting to see a collection of "classic" episodes arrive in the mail.

This DVD collects four episodes of the original series that started it all. Since the show has been such a constant prescence on television since it debuted in 1969 - many don't realize that the original incarnation Scooby-Doo: Where Are You! only lasted two seasons - producing a mere 25 episodes. Episodes of this series have been widely available on VHS for decades and the complete first and second seasons were released on DVD in 2004 and will get a new box set release this November. So beyond the review of the product on the disc, the real question is "Why break the series down into smaler chunks?" Is it for the impulse buying at a lower price point at the big box stores? Is it an attempt to confuse the customer who may already own more complete collections? This is Volume 4, so my assumption is that whatever the marketing ploy - it's working.

Volume 4 collects four episodes on to one disc - picking up where Volume 3 left off. Included are episodes 13 - 16 of the first season. Presumably this will be a six-volume set that will allow the consumer to complete collection of the episodes included on the complete DVD sets. For parents, the four-episode collection is a nice length because it's roughly equivalent to the length of one of the Scooby-Doo movies (clocking in at 88 minutes).

"Which Witch Is Which?" - The punny subtitle of this collection comes from the setting for this mystery. This was one of the episodes I looked forward to in repeats more than almost any other. There's a great combination of elements at play here that make this the star of the disc. The group are returning from a fishing trip and get lost in the swamp. The Southern bayou is ripe for ghost stories and they would revisit it later in an animated film for another great story - Scooby-Doo! On Zombie Island. The plot leads us into a weird little village for clues and some voodoo and then back out into the swamp. This mystery is one that should be on everyone's top-episodes list for Scooby-Doo!

"Go Away Ghost Ship" - A rather tame episode in general after such a promising set-up. The villain here is Redbeard The Pirate. I'm not a fan of the character design but his ghost ship is interesting. Shaggy and Scooby play a bit more of a comedic role in the episode and the mystery ends up being very typical of the series. In fact, I think that the whole "you did it for the insurance money" scheme wasn't nearly as prevelant as I remember but this episode doesn't help.

"Spooky Space Kook" - Another episode with a promising beginning that just doesn't deliver. The Mystery Machine runs out of gas again - that thing must have like a two-gallon tank - they were always running out of gas in the country. There's a mysterious craft that could be a "space ghost". The plot could really have been played up with more of an alien angle. There's not much of a mystery and the clues aren't nearly as interesting as many other stories.

"A Night Of Fright Is No Delight" - This is another strong episode for the disc. The concept of Scooby-Doo being named an heir by millionaire Colonel Beaureguard Sanders and having to spend a night in his scary mansion with four other heirs is part horror film and part Agatha Christie mystery. The plot would be recycled in a few different variations for future films and TV episodes. This version is everything I want in a 22-minute mystery - quick set-up, fun characters (lawyers called Creeps and Crawls!), a mystery with clues that make sense if you are paying attention to detail and a fun ending.

Two of the four episodes on this disc represent some of the best that this first season of Scooby-Doo: Where Are You! has to offer and that makes it worth the price right there. But at the expense of a full set? No, not at all. This is a show that pays off by watching multiple episodes - not just the same ones over and over. There's joy in seeing the patterns over a whole season and from one series to another.

The disc includes an episode from the recent series Shaggy & Scooby-Doo Get A Clue called "Lightning Strikes Twice". It's a decent episode but it pales next to the four on the disc and extremely so in the animation style. Why not include another episode of the original series? Or why not include something from Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated - the latest series?

If you must divide up your Scooby-Doo! purchases - this might be the way to go but remember - there's so many mysteries out there to solve. Our gang has been at it for over 40 years. Use this as your appetizer if you must but I encourage you to buy the whole meal.

“Green Ghosts”

Article first published as DVD Review: Scooby-Doo Where Are You! - Season One, Volume Four: Spooked Bayou on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

I AM (2010)

Written by Hombre Divertido

This faith-based film was distributed to churches for preview purposes prior to its release to the public on November 2nd by 20th Century Fox. This also allowed for many people to pray for its success, as it is bound to struggle without divine intervention. Like a preacher who is trying too hard and eventually loses his audience due to overselling the message, I Am is over written, over produced, and far too often over acted.

This story of the impact of not abiding by the Ten Commandments, and the implications there of, is extremely loosely played out in modern-day Southern California in a film that tries far too hard to look like C.S.I. (Christian Scene Investigations).

It is clear that writer, director, and actor John Ward had the best intentions, and certainly the technical ability, but just because you can does not mean you should. The philosophy of keeping it simple seems to evade Mr. Ward here as "I Am" attempts to weave multiple stories together, and fails on too many fronts. Said stories, which include a terminally ill billionaire (Christinna Chauncey) who wants to be cryogenically frozen, an up-and-coming lawyer/politician (John Ward) who is dating a woman (Amy Holland) with an illegitimate child, an aging rock star (former Major League Baseball star and one of the producers of the film Todd Zeile) who is tormented by the death of his son, and several others that are not as clearly defined, fail to come together in any logical fashion and leave the audience trying to understand how they are tied to the commandment that is displayed on the screen as the story progresses. The ending reveal of the mysterious character is far too obvious in comparison to the web of stories woven throughout.

Getting any film made these days is an accomplishment, and having it be faith based is even more challenging, and thus Ward and his team are to be commended. They would most likely agree that if the film reaches one person, they have made a difference. Hopefully, Ward and his team will continue in their efforts, and perhaps next time focus on the simple aspects of storytelling and attention to detail (the city is Marina Del Rey not Ray), and less on what our current television-watching society thinks is entertaining.

The DVD includes an opening introduction by Ward and Zeile in which they express a hope that the film will prompt conversation. The film is sure to leave the audience talking, but it may not be the specific topics that the filmmakers had hoped for.

Recommendation: I Am looks flashy and has a good soundtrack and thus may feed an audience starving for such fare. It also may frustrate most audience members, but said frustration may lead them to ask important questions. Ultimately, the film lacks continuity and is full of one-dimensional overdone performances. Sadly, in the case of I Am, you shouldn’t.

Article first published as DVD Review: I Am on Blogcritics.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


Written by Mugo del Jefe

Musgo should know better. When you ask for companies to empty their vaults, sometimes you get just what you asked for. The Warner Archives Collection may be one of the more wonderful things that a company has done for the movie lovers in the past decade. Instead of milking some of their more obscure releases for anniversary editions or part of holiday promotions, they've made no-frills editions of the movies available online as made-to-order DVDs. This has been a boon to those of us who have scoured used VHS racks for previously out-of-print films. This collection has given us Brewster McCloud, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark, Bad Ronald, Slither, and Americathon. These films wouldn't survive on the shelves at a major retailer but they find their homes on the Internet.

The same company that has released Goober & The Ghost Chasers and Funky Phantom collections has recently released two episodes of a lost show from the Seventies - Legends Of The SuperHeroes. For those of us old enough to remember - the name is a way that NBC tried to link these two live action episodes back to the Super Friends cartoons airing on Saturday mornings. In January 1979 when these episodes aired the Super Friends was an hour long Saturday morning show featuring Challenge Of The Super Friends as the second half hour - still one of the most entertaining of the incarnations. At the same time, the early Seventies creations of Sid and Marty Krofft including H.R. Pufnstuf, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, and Land Of The Lost were still finding audiences on daytime and Saturday morning television through syndication. Out of this odd mixture of influences came two specials - The Challenge and The Roast.

The specials aired on consecutive Thursday nights on NBC in January of 1979. As an 11-year-old, young Musgo immediately found the ads for these shows in his TV Guide. They promised live-action versions of superheroes that I hadn't seen except in comics or cartoons. At the time, there were repeats of the Batman live-action series and there was Wonder Woman. That was the beginning and end of DC characters I could see in "person" on TV. And my big screen Superman was still a year or two away.

The Challenge is an hour-long traditional comic book story. The Justice League of America consisting of Batman, Robin, Flash, Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, Black Canary and Huntress are gathered to celebrate the retired Scarlet Cyclone's birthday (a great bit on Superman). At the same time, the Legion Of Doom (Mordru, Solomon Grundy, Riddler, Weather Wizard, Dr. Sivana, Giganta and a funny moustached Sinestro) unleash a deadly bomb that will blow up the Earth in one hour. The plot has our heroes spreading out to find the bombs, losing their powers, having a chase on cool '70s-era jet skis, and trying to disarm the bombs with seconds to spare.

The Roast is a gathering of the superheroes at a celebrity roast hosted by Ed McMahon. There are several side skits that have little to do with the roast including an entertainment-style report by Rhoda Rooter, a song by Mordru, and a stand-up routine by Ghetto Man.

Both specials are shot on videotape with a very obvious laugh track to simulate a live audience. The special effects are largely done with a green screen and sound effects. They have the same feel as the ones being used on the Krofft shows of the day including Wonderbug, Bigfoot and Wildboy, and Dr. Shrinker. Green Lantern and Sinestro's rays from their rings could be right out of an episode of Magic Mongo. The look of videotape does not go well with the stylized world of comic book heroes. It's disconcerting to see Batman and Robin battling Solomon Grundy at a gas station while cars pass by and onlookers from the Italian place across the street look on.

The acting is another interesting combination. There are familiar faces from the Batman series - Adam West and Burt Ward play Batman and Robin again, as does Frank Gorshin as a very disinterested Riddler (check out his belly as he lounges in his chair in The Challenge). And then there's the odd casting like Charlie Callas as Sinestro. I never imagined Sinestro with a Wise Guys Brooklyn accent. The best casting might be Howard Morris as Dr. Sivana. The character usually battles Captain Marvel as an evil genius. But here Howard, best known as Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show plays him completely over the top in a way that only would be matched by an early Robin Williams.

The roast is where the show really can't find its mark. It runs more like another Krofft product - The Donny & Marie Show or other variety shows of the day - more than it resembles a Dean Martin Roast. Ed McMahon is a perfect straight man but in many of the skits it's clear that no one in the cast is up to the level of Johnny Carson to take advantage of his skills. There's a skit with William Schallert as the Scarlet Cyclone. It's one of the more cleverly written skits on the show and even with Schallert's talents it just screams for Johnny Carson or a Jonathan Winters to play this elderly character.

It's not surprising that these two episodes never turned into anything more. The ratings were horrendous and it disappeared quickly. But as with most things related to superheroes - especially the big names like Batman, the show became a thing of legend. Copies of it from really bad VHS copies circulated at comic conventions for years. People were curious to see what they had missed and people who were 11 years old at the time remembered it fondly 20 years later. But in its DVD glory here - the memories become too real. What looked presentable on a grainy, fourth-generation VHS copy - looks just as grainy and bad on DVD. The show hasn't aged well, even as a cult item, there's little to recommend. There's a tiny excerpt of a deleted scene and outtakes and even that feels accidentally left on the disc.

But play on Warners. This is what we asked for. Warts and all. If every one of Legends Of The SuperHeroes helps to unearth more classics like Macabre and the upcoming Classic TV Christmas Collection then bring it on. And now Musgo must fly away like Ghetto Man . . . "Kareem!".

Available only at the

Article first published as DVD Review: Legends of the Superheroes on Blogcritics

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Rocky Horror Picture Show - 35th Anniversary Edition

Written by Mugo del Jefe

Musgo has had a life long love affair with movies. Not just a single movie but movies as a proper noun "movies". Some of the earliest memories I have start with the phrase "let's go to the movies". Even today it still can raise the hair on my arms. In my youth - for sake of argument let's call it mid-'70s through late-'80s - movies were usually experienced in a theater. There were TV shows that existed on the small screen and older, classic films on TV, but the theater was where you went to experience the films. The memory of seeing a movie in a theater is so much more than just the movie. When I saw The Great Mouse Detective at a Saturday afternoon matinee, my mother and I ate lunch on the top floor of Jacobsens and walked the Kalamazoo Mall. When I saw Raiders Of The Lost Ark on opening Friday night, my mother and father took me to the Pizza Hut on West Main and we went to the arcade afterwards. And so it was on an October night in 1984, a Saturday very close to Halloween when I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show at a midnight showing with a live cast from New York in costume at the Bijou. I can recall that night in that theater like it was last week.

When I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show - 35th Anniversary Edition being released on Blu-ray, I knew I had to give it a spin. I've seen the movie about five times in the theater but probably hadn't attended a screening since 1987. The packaging of the disc caught my eye right away. It's not the predictable cover shot of Tim Curry (although I wonder why they didn't go with the iconic lips) - it was the verbiage on the back that promised to "recreate the Midnight Movie experience in your living room."

The Midnight Movie has been around in one form or another almost as long as there have been movies. But I feel like the decade leading up to the proliferation of VCRs was part of a Golden Age of the Midnight Movie. Growing up, a Midnight Movie on TV meant a really horrible film hosted by a local personality or an Elvira. But a Midnight Movie at the theaters was usually synonomous with cult films. These were films that were usually low budget and appealed to the teenager or college crowd (who else was going to films at midnight?) and would attract viewers to come back multiple times. In the Kalamazoo area, almost every theater had a selection of films that played at Midnight. For years, it was Eraserhead, The Evil Dead, Liquid Sky and the three that played seemingly forever - Heavy Metal, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Pink Floyd The Wall. But the undisputed king was The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The movie, released in 1975, had been playing the midnight circuit for at least seven years by the time I first saw it. All of the interactive moments were explained to me before I entered the theater as a "virgin". I was handed a water pistol, some toast, some rice, and playing cards. The interactive feature of the film was what brought people back. It was an event. You could participate as much or as little as you wanted. You could dress in costume, bring props, shout out lines, and dancing was encouraged. The reward for attending multiple times wasn't to find out more about the movie - it was the interaction with other fans. It's in that way that it's moved beyond movie to experience that has kept it playing in theaters to this very day.

This movie isn't one to be judged by its plot. But it would be a mistake to overlook the filmatic merits here. The story is an adaptation of a stage play but it effectively uses the film medium to its fullest. It starts off with all the trappings of a classic horror film - at a wedding, the best man Brad's (Barry Bostwick) fear of marriage is represented by a graveyard, ravens, and a brewing storm. That leads directly into the first song, "Dammit Janet" that tells us we're in a parody. The song isn't true classical musical style - the music is much more a takeoff on the type of music of the Elvis or beach films of the '60s. The music style throughout references back to the late '50s and early '60s. Throughout, there are nods to almost all of the horror genres - the rainy night leads to a haunted house, the Frankenstein motif of the Dr. Frank-N-Furter character and his "monster" Rocky, and the Dracula themes with Dr. Scott as a "Van Helsing".

By the time Riff Raff, Magenta, and Columbia start "The Time Warp" - that's the point where most viewers will decide they either love or hate this film. If you've held onto the hope that there will be any logical plot or rules in the universe of the film - they all fly out the door at that point. There's a nod to the viewer, there are breaks in character, and there's just plain fun going on. An unsuspecting viewer can be put off by the "no rules" attitude that the film takes. Others are excited by it. It's not surprising that the movie is produced by Lou Adler who would bring us Cheech & Chong's Up In Smoke during the same time period - another film that didn't follow any established rules. Directors like Robert Altman started this trend early in the '70s with the mixing of genres to the point that expectations and boundaries were always being pushed to the limit.

The cast is ultimately what makes this movie live on. Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter is irresistable. Tim owns the character, maybe from playing it so many times on stage before bringing him to the screen, and his charisma feels like something you can touch. His supporting cast in the castle - Richard O'Brien as Riff Raff, Patricia Quinn as Magenta and Nell Campbell as Columbia just play off his power. They never try to steal the scene - but they often play the role of the audience. In the brilliant dual scenes where Dr. Frank-N-Furter seduces both Janet and Brad separately - they are our eyes and ears, making the viewer feel like a voyeur instead of those just being a scene in a film. I found myself appreciating the performances of Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick as Janet and Brad even more than I remembered them. Their ability to play the horror portion of the story seriously keeps the movie from really flying off the track.

The Blu-ray version was worth waiting 35 years. The disc is made for the hardcore fan as well as the "virgin". The first thing I noticed was the 7.1 DTS-HD mastered audio and te 4K/2K remastering of the picture. The movie has had some old prints floating around and I've seen it in some terrible theaters. I remember seeing the LaserDisc version of the film in the late '90s and this blows that away by miles. You will be sold on the quality of the presentation from the first sight of Patricia Quinn's red lips and white teeth in the first shot and the first note of "Science Fiction/Double Feature".

Other new features include a number of galleries, the search for a 35th Anniversary Shadowcast, and some new karaoke tracks. Some of the repeated features gather from old LaserDisc and DVD releases from the 25th Anniversary. But the audio commentary with Richard O'Brien and Patricia Quinn is not to be missed for any fan. You get both the US and UK versions of the film (including the deleted "Super Heroes" musical number) and alternate openings (it was supposed to be B&W like The Wizard Of Oz) and alternate credits.

Does the disc "recreate the Midnight Movie experience"? Not in my living room. They set a big task for themselves. All of the components are there except for what makes the movie experience so great - the other people. The Midnight Movie experience doesn't exist like it did 25-30 years ago. Today's Midnight Movies are teen comedies like The Breakfast Club or The Goonies that can be watched on disc with your friends any day. The closest thing to that experience happens at Comic Conventions with cult shows like Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog or the "Once More With Feeling" episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a decent film to watch once. There are some really catchy songs and the horror parody holds up well still. But there are points where you find yourself just waiting for the next song - those moments are filled in by the crowd in-person but they drag in silence at home. This movie has become a "Time Warp" itself and I think that those who are initiated will absolutely fall in love all over again with this package. But "virgins" may ask what the hype was all about.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Rocky Horror Picture Show - 35th Anniversary Edition on Blogcritics.