An American Werewolf in London


Don't you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

Don’t you just hate it when you wake up naked in the woods?

(1981) Horror Comedy (Universal) David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, Frank Oz, Don McKillop, Paul Kember, Michele Brisgotti, Mark Fisher, Gordon Sterne, Paula Jacobs, Nina Carter, Geoffrey Burridge, Brenda Cavendish, Michael Carter, Lila Kaye, Paddy Ryan, David Schofield, Brian Glover, Sean Baker, Rik Mayall, John Woodvine, Anne-Marie Davies. Directed by Jon Landis

sixdays2016-5

In the early 1980s the werewolf genre underwent something of a renaissance, with gaggles of new films that redefined the genre, including The Howling, Wolfen, Teen Wolf and this horror comedy. Landis, the director of Animal House, used the excessive gore of the period to offset the droll comedy which mostly was character-driven and while it wasn’t a huge hit, it has become an iconic film of its era.

David Kessler (Naughton) and his buddy Jack Goodman (Dunne) are on a walking tour of Northern England. The weather is cold (it’s England, after all) and the hospitality less than exemplary. As they walk out on the moors after an unsettling experience in the pub of a small village, they are attacked by an extraordinarily large wolf. Jack is killed and David badly injured.

David is brought to a London hospital where he is befriended by nurse Alex Price (Agutter) who once David is discharged, puts him up in her apartment since he literally has nowhere else to go. Soon David begins to have disturbing visions and unexplained things begin to happen to him. He wakes up naked in the zoo in an exhibit of wolves, for example, with no memory as to how he got there.

Worse, he’s seeing visions of his buddy Jack who informs him that they weren’t attacked by an ordinary wolf – it was a werewolf that killed him and now David has become one himself. He is also being haunted by the ghosts of his victims who are urging him to kill himself. David is understandably reluctant to do it – he and Alex have fallen deeply in love, after all, and he has a lot to live for but his new condition could endanger the life of the woman he loves. What is he to do?

This is in every sense of the word a horror classic. It is terrifying throughout and even though Landis keeps a light touch, there is always that air of menace and impending tragedy hanging over the entire film. He sets up the werewolf kills beautifully and doesn’t imbue them with camp. Landis clearly has a deep respect for not only the Universal horror films that inspired this but also the British Hammer horror films, although curiously the things that are Hammer-inspired tend to work the least well in the film.

Naughton at the time was best known for a series of commercials for Dr. Pepper in which he danced and sang “I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, She’s a Pepper, We’re a Pepper, Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper too? Dr. Pepper, drink Dr. Pepper…” Look ‘em up on YouTube if you want to see them. At the time they were pretty popular. There were some who thought he was destined to be a huge star, but it didn’t happen – this was really the nadir of his acting career. Still, he acquits himself well and makes a pretty solid tragic hero. He’s no Lon Chaney however.

Agutter, an Australian actress who also had some notoriety playing the romantic lead in Logan’s Run five years earlier is also strong in her performance. While people scratched their heads that a seemingly pragmatic nurse would invite a total stranger to live with her after knowing him only as a patient (hey, it was a different era), the character is strong and sexy.

Dunne – who went on to a career as a pretty decent director – gets the lion’s share of the great lines. Most of his screen time takes place after he’s dead and it’s a bit of an in-joke that with each scene his appearance gets more and more gruesome. Jack and David have a bit of an early bromance going on and the interactions between them feels natural and unforced; it’s one of the best attributes of the film.

The gore here can be over-the-top, particularly for modern audiences that really aren’t used to it. People sensitive to such things are advised to steer clear; although the comedy does offset it somewhat, some of the scenes of mayhem and murder are pretty intense. The transformation scene in which David morphs into becoming a werewolf is absolutely amazing – even 35 years later. It is one of the best sequences of it’s kind ever filmed and in many ways is the crowning achievement of the great Rick Baker’s career and one in which he deservedly won an Oscar for.

I watched this again recently and have to admit that it actually holds up pretty well. A lot of movies from that era feel dated, but this one is pretty timeless. It remains one of those movies that pops up every so often and when you re-watch it, you wonder why it’s been so long since you’ve seen it. There are a few who don’t care for the film but it remains a favorite for a lot of horror buffs and cinema fans to this day.

WHY RENT THIS: The by-play between Naughton and Dunne is realistic and fun. The film’s transformation scene is perhaps the best ever filmed. Naughton and Agutter give credible performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Hammer horror influences don’t really fly as well as they might.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence/gore, disturbing images, sexuality, foul language and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Make-up Effects, a category established in 1981. It remains the only film directed by Landis to win an Oscar.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The original 2001 DVD includes outtakes (without sound) and interviews with Landis and Baker. The 2-Disc Full Moon Collector’s Edition DVD from 2009 as well as the Blu-Ray includes a featurette on Baker and the documentary Beware the Moon in addition to the original content.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $62M on a $10M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Howling
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness concludes!

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier


Captain American Express Shield: Don't leave home without it!

Captain American Express Shield: Don’t leave home without it!

(2014) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Gregory St-Pierre, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones, Emily VanCamp, Maximilliano Hernandez, Jenny Agutter, Garry Shandling, Bernard White, Callan Mulvey, Branka Katic. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo

The buzz on the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been intense with fanboys eating their own livers in anticipation of its release. Well, now that it’s finally out, does it live up to the hype?

Yup. Steve Rogers (Evans) a.k.a. Captain America a.k.a. Cap is still trying to adjust to life in the 21st century after having been frozen solid since the Second World War. He keeps a to-do list (which varies depending on which country you’re seeing the film in) that includes cultural touchstones, historic events that took place during his hibernation and things to try that just weren’t available back in 1944. He checks stuff off the list – in between missions for SHIELD to save the world or at least keep it safer.

While rescuing a ship hijacked by pirates Steve and his partner Natasha Romanoff (Johansson) a.k.a. The Black Widow discover some data being uploaded to a satellite array that is heavily encrypted. When he delivers it to Nick Fury (Jackson), the head of SHIELD, all Hades breaks loose. It soon becomes clear that SHIELD has been infiltrated and Steve isn’t sure who to trust – Fury, who has lied to him constantly? The Black Widow whose past is shrouded in mystery? Alexander Pearce (Redford), the security council member whom Fury reports to? And what of the Winter Soldier, an equally mysterious assassin who seems to have all of Cap’s strength and agility?

I’m being deliberately vague on the plot simply because I don’t want to spoil the twists and turns that decorate this film, although to be honest if you really want to know more detail you can find it elsewhere on the Net. The movie has been described as a superhero movie with a secret identity as a ’70s Cold War espionage thriller. What that doesn’t tell you is that it takes the best elements from both genres and does them up perfectly.

The Russo brothers ratchet up the paranoia and suspense and keep it in the red zone throughout.  Astonishing action sequences are interspersed with expository sequences that will keep you guessing as to who can be trusted – and who can’t. Some of the turncoats in the film will shock longtime followers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe although some will make sense upon reflection.

There are still plenty of fans who are uneasy with Evans as the iconic Captain, but he does his best work here, capturing Cap’s uneasiness with the grey areas that SHIELD is dwelling in and having a hard time reconciling his 1944 morality with the moral morass that is 2014. He’s got the build and the athleticism to pull off the fight sequences but he doesn’t pull off the charisma and leadership that I always imagined someone like Steve Rogers would possess. Then again, it’s doubtful that any actor could.

We get to see even more of Jackson as Fury and he shines as you would expect. Johansson also has an expanded role but we really don’t find out a ton about her character which is as you might expect; I get the sense that they are planning a Black Widow feature down the line and will probably explore the character in greater depth then.

Redford is magnificent as Pearce. We don’t get to see a lot of villain roles for Redford but he inhabits this one. Wisely, as most great movie villains do, he doesn’t see himself as a villain but as a hero, saving the world from itself. If you remember his movie Sneakers think of the role as a cross between his role and the villain role played by Ben Kingsley.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention Anthony Mackie. He plays Sam Wilson, a decorated paratrooper who is befriended by Rogers and becomes his ally known as the Falcon using a flying suit. His camaraderie with Evans is genuine and the two make a formidable onscreen team. Who knows, maybe a feature starring the Falcon is in the cards down the line.

The Russos chose to use practical effects whenever possible, meaning there isn’t a whole lot of CGI but when they do use it, it’s magnificent. The massive helicarriers look absolutely real as does the Triskelion building that serves as SHIELD’s Washington DC headquarters.

The question is usually with films like this do you need to be fans of the comic books in order to make sense of the goings on? The answer is no, although it would be extremely helpful if you’d seen the preceding Marvel movies, particularly Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers. Those who are completely unfamiliar with the comics and the previous movies and wish to view this as a stand alone movie, you should be good following most of the action although there will be references whizzing overhead that you just won’t get. Don’t fret; they aren’t there for you. Still, even if you aren’t a comic book geek or a superhero junkie, you’ll find plenty to like here. Definitely one of the best superhero movies ever – and likely to be one of the best movies you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing action and suspense – the perfect blending of both. Keeps you on the edge of your seat for the entire movie.

REASONS TO STAY: Loses steam during some of the expository sequences.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action which means plenty of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice narrating the Smithsonian exhibit for Captain America is Gary Sinese.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/14/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mission: Impossible

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Front Man

Burke and Hare


Burke and Hare

Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg find out it’s tuna casserole for lunch again.

(2010) Horror Comedy (IFC) Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, Christopher Lee, Ronnie Corbett, Hugh Bonneville, Jenny Agutter, Bill Bailey, Jessica Hynes, Stuart McQuarrie, Michael Smiley, David Hayman. Directed by John Landis

 

New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger characterized this movie, loosely based on real life murders committed in Edinburgh in the 19th century, as an American director using English actors to portray Irish immigrants committing murders in Scotland (I’m paraphrasing here) which, as Genzlinger opines, leads to a bit of schizophrenia of tone.

William Burke (Pegg) and his associate William Hare (Serkis) are having a spectacular run of bad luck. Times are hard in 19th century Edinburgh; while the best medical universities in the world are here, most of the city is stuck in squalor as the citizens of Edinburgh try to meet ends meet, most with the same lack of success that Burke and Hare are experiencing.

At the same time there is a rivalry going on in the medical schools. Doctors Robert Knox (Wilkinson) and Alexander Monro (Curry) have been going at it tooth and nail as they use cadavers to teach students the wonders of the human body. However, cadavers aren’t easy to come by and Knox is paying top dollar for fresh corpses and thus Burke and Hare discover a wonderful business opportunity for themselves.

At first they pretty much stick to grave robbing but the problem is that people aren’t dying fast enough to keep Knox properly supplied, so Burke and Hare, being entrepreneurial sorts, decide to help them out a bit. Soon the money is rolling in and Hare’s wife Lucky (Hynes), a sensible sort, helps her husband and his partner out with the business. Burke, in the meantime, has become smitten by actress – or prostitute, which Hare points out isn’t much of a distinction at the time – Ginny Hawkins (Fisher) who yearns to put on an all woman version of Macbeth and Burke is determined to finance the show in order to win the heart of his new beloved.

Still, murdering people for their cadavers is sort of frowned upon and the law is soon on their tails. You can imagine what happened next – or you can look it up in Wikipedia. The movie is kind of close to what actually occurred in the end.

This is the product of Ealing Studios which produced some of the most well-known comedies in the history of British films between 1947 and 1957 (including Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob). This isn’t, strictly speaking, a comedy although it is funny in places (although the movie relies on slapstick a good deal for its humor which is fairly lowbrow for Ealing). It isn’t, strictly speaking, a horror film either although there are some grisly images. Hammer Films has nothing to worry about in other words.

Landis who in his prime directed some classic films like An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers and National Lampoon’s Animal House hasn’t directed a feature since 1998. This isn’t by any means going to be remembered as one of his better efforts but it actually isn’t one of his worst either.

Casting Pegg and Serkis (although at one time Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell were rumored to have been cast in their roles) is a good reason why. The two are perfect for the parts. Their byplay is natural and unforced. It’s what you might expect from a couple of men who have been friends and partners for years; they’re almost like an old married couple in places.

It helps that each of them has a romantic foil that keeps up with them. Fisher, a beautiful woman who has some pretty impressive acting chops, takes a quirky role and makes it believable. Too often these kinds of parts are written to be eccentric for their own sake and I think that to a certain extent that’s the case here (just ask yourself – does having Burke fall for an actress with Ginny’s aspirations add anything to the story that wouldn’t have been there if she was “normal”?) and only Fisher’s performance keeps it from being irritating. Hynes, whose work I hadn’t been familiar with, also does some impressive work here.

There are some mystifying changes to the historical facts which I understand often has to be done for dramatic purposes. However, Burke and Hare were notorious for smothering their victims, which was their preferred modus operandi. I don’t understand why that was glossed over other than to create slapstick opportunities having to do with the murders themselves. Ah well.

I do like the tone of the movie which isn’t overly serious despite its somewhat grisly subject matter. This isn’t a movie people are going to be rushing right out to rent but by the same token it isn’t one that should be ignored either. I would have liked a little more consistency and a few more laughs. However, this is worth a look if you’re out to check something you haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT THIS: Pegg and Serkis are fun to watch. Fisher is gorgeous and there’s a certain sly wink about the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks consistency. Plays fast and loose with the real story of the murders, some of which seems unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of disturbing images as you might imagine. There’s also a little bit of sex and a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actors David Schofield, John Woodvine and Agutter all appeared in An American Werewolf in London which was directed by Landis back in 1981.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.4M on an unreported production budget; sounds like it made a tidy profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Sell the Dead

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Out of Africa

Marvel’s The Avengers


Marvel's The Avengers

Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson are a bit grumpy because they didn’t get a nifty uniform.

(2012) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Gwynneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany (voice), Alexis Denisof, Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Harry Dean Stanton. Directed by Joss Whedon

 

Okay, take a deep breath now. It’s finally here, after five years of anticipation, of endless speculation, it’s here. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, assembled in one place. Comic book fans of all sorts have been squirming in their chairs for months waiting for this movie to make it into the multiplex.

The thing is, this isn’t a movie just for those who love superheroes. This is spectacle on an epic scale, with battles raging in the skies as well as in the streets of Manhattan. However, there is more to it with a bit of pathos as well as some sharp dialogue. For those wondering, you don’t necessarily have to have seen the preceding Marvel superhero movies, although it helps to have done so.

Loki (Hiddleston) has been released from his quantum exile by the Tesseract, a cube of immense power that SHIELD has been using to try to create a self-sustaining energy source. He immediately uses his spear to control Professor Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) who’s been consulting with SHIELD on the project, and Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Renner), an agent of SHIELD.

SHIELD director Nick Fury (Jackson) realizes that war has been declared on Earth by Loki – and he may have an army of alien beings behind him. The armed might of the world’s armies will be insufficient to stop what’s coming, so he is forced to recruit the most powerful beings on Earth to stop the threat – Iron Man (Downey), he of the powerful metal battle suit; Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist and expert on gamma radiation who when angered turns into a gigantic mindless beast that can tear about virtually anything without much effort, and Captain America (Evans), a soldier from World War II rescued from a decades-long sleep who was enhanced at the genetic level by a super soldier formula.

They are joined by the Black Widow (Johansson), an athletic spy and master interrogator and agent Phil Coulson (Gregg), Fury’s right hand – and eye in the field. They’re going to need all of them because with Hawkeye swinging for the other team, Loki is privy to all of SHIELD’s dirty little secrets.

The rest of the team is transported to SHIELDS heli-carrier, an airport carrier with gigantic helicopter rotors and the ability to turn invisible – yes, a cloaking shield! Eat your hearts out, Trekkers! In any case, Banner works on a device to track the unique but faint gamma radiation signature of the Tesseract. In the meantime, Loki is captured by Cap and Iron Man in Germany.

That brings Thor (Hemsworth) into the mix. Thor, Loki’s adopted brother, has noticed what Loki is up to and has had his father send him to Midguard (Earth) at some great cost. The intention is to bring Loki back to Asgard to answer for his crimes there. However, there is work to be done on Earth before that can happen – heading off the invasion that Loki has initiated, for one thing and the alien Chitaurs are not particularly interested in a gentle, benevolent rule. It will take the combined might of all of them to thwart Loki’s intricate plans and save the Earth from being subjugated by alien masters.

This is everything a superhero film is supposed to be; it captures the dynamics of each individual character and Whedon and writer Zak Penn extrapolate how the interpersonal relationships would work given their personalities and egos (which, to be fair, the comics have been doing for years). The result is a believably dysfunctional group of heroes who can be prima donnas and have their own agendas from time to time. Tony Stark (the alter ego of Iron Man) for example is highly suspicious of SHIELD’s motives and distrusts government, particularly after they forcibly tried to take away his work from him in the first two Iron Man movies.

Everyone gets to shine here, from the big guns (Downey) right on down to Gregg who has few scenes but makes the most of them. All of them, including Nick Fury (who hasn’t had much to do in previous films except for a good deal of expository dialogue) kick patooty, whether each other (as in  Thor-Hulk battle) or against the aliens (Cap gives the big green guy the orders “Hulk smash” and Hulk, grinning broadly, does just that).

It might have gone a little bit long (and waiting until the very end of the credits for the second extra scene might be a too much to ask) but all in all this is mind-blowing when it needs to be and visceral when it has to be. Watching Hulk smash is one of the great joys in life, as is seeing Cap’s leadership abilities come to life, or Tony Stark’s ego.

Nothing I say is going to dissuade people who want to see this from seeing it or those that don’t want to see it from avoiding it. If you don’t like superhero movies, if you find big loud action movies with Dolby sound and 3D glasses to be sensory overload, you’re going to be uncomfortable with this. HOWEVER if you don’t mind or actively love these things, you’ll be in your element here.

A note to parents: please don’t bring your kids along if they’re say seven or younger. The movie is a bit long for kids with short attention spans, it’s very scary in places and LOUD throughout. There was a moment when Hulk was roaring and I happened to be glancing at a little girl who couldn’t have been more than five years old covering her ears with a look of ABSOLUTE terror on her face. She had no business being there and you know it wasn’t her idea to go. Get a babysitter folks, or take them to see a Pixar film instead or be prepared to have an angry mob of people at the theater turn on you. This isn’t a little kids movie by any stretch of the imagination. If your kids aren’t able to handle a two hour movie at home, they probably won’t be able to handle it in a theater – and if you should know how easily frightened they are. The movie theater isn’t a day care center.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely well-choreographed action sequences. None of the heroes get short shrift.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a bit long for those with short attention spans.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence of the alien invasion sort, as well as a few fairly scary sequences. This is definitely not for children under, say, seven years old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie became the fastest to earn $200M at the U.S. box office – it only took three days to reach that milestone.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.The reviews are almost without exception positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men

STAN LEE LOVERS: The legendary Marvel Comics grand vizier shows up in his cameo during a montage of interviews of Big Apple residents being interviewed about the battle just fought on city streets.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade