Joe Dante Is Awesome

the burbs poster Joe Dante is the kind of director who was wildly influential on me as a kid, though I only realized it recently. After enjoying The Hole so much I decided to look at his filmography and saw that he made a ton of movies I loved as a kid that are still awesome to this day.

Of course I knew that he did Gremlins and Gremlins 2, which were probably my first monster movies, but I didn’t know he was the brain behind a movie like Innerspace which I haven’t seen in probably two decades, but loved when I was younger. I also had no idea that he helmed five episodes of Eerie, Indiana, another show that had a huge impact on me. Long before I was into actual horror, I was sitting on my living room floor staring at this wonderfully weird show with eyes wide open.  And, man, how good was Matinee? I’ve only seen that movie, but now that I actually know who William Castle is, I need to revisit it.

With that kind of revisiting mentality, I did what was natural and opened up my unwieldy DVD binder and got flipping. First I watched another Dante classic from my childhood that introduced me to all kinds of horror, suspense and haunted house tropes while also playing with them and turning them on their heads. Of course, I’m talking about The ‘Burbs, the director’s 1989 suburban horror suspense comedy starring Tom Hanks, Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern, Corey Feldman, Rick Ducommun and Henry Gibson.

Here’s the gist. Hanks’ Ray is on vacation and wants to just relax in his neighborhood, but his wife Carol (Fisher) wants to go to a lake. Of course, that winds up being the least of Ray’s problems as his paranoid neighbors Art (Ducommun) and Rumsfield (Dern) start convincing him that their new neighbors, the creepy Klopeks, might have killed their other neighbor. All of this leads Ray and his pals down the road of madness (though funny madness) as they become obsessed with finding out where the potential bodies were buried.

I saw this movie long before things like Rear Window or House On Haunted Hill which do get borrowed from, at least in tone if not direct plot points. Dante’s able to weave actual scary elements along with cartoonish comedic bits that make this film not only unique, but a joy to watch. There are still parts of the film that get in my head and make my skin crawl a bit and then the next moment I’m laughing. And a lot of that comes from Dante and company taking the mundane — having weird neighbors — and making it feel epic. It helps that Hanks is so good at conveying that regular guy normality as well as the pushed-to-the-limits nature of the character, something he displayed in The Money Pit too.

While watching the movie I also realized that I’ve wanted to live on a street like this my whole life, one where neighbors actually talked to each other and would join forces in this kind of insane endeavor (or watch from the sidelines like Feldman’s Ricky does).

piranha_poster From The ‘Burbs, I immediately went to Piranha, a film I saw for the first time thanks to the excellent Shout Factory offering from a few years back. My second viewing brought to mind many of the praises I had the first time around, most of which revolve around the fact that what was probably originally intended as a straight-up Jaws rip off, turned out to be a lot more than that. I don’t think I’d bust out the word masterpiece to describe this movie, but I do think Dante did a whole lot of awesome work with something that could have been just another cash grab.

One of the elements of Dante’s work that I appreciate is the variety of the material. I haven’t seen his first full-length movie Hollywood Boulevard, but he went from a drama to a fairly low budget horror flick like Piranha and then onto what I assumed was the larger budget The Howling. From there he did everything from the Gremlins flick to Masters Of Horror episodes and Looney Tunes: Back In Action to Hawaii Five-O episodes.

I’m pretty excited to check out Boulevard and the more kid-oriented Explorers, both of which are on Netflix Instant. I’d also really like to revisit The Howling ( usually I don’t like werewolf movies), Matinee and also Innerspace. I’ve even heard a few good things about Small Soldiers, so let’s add that to the must-see list too.

Anyone who can keep making quality films for 40 years deserves all the accolades in the world, especially when he or she can make a series of movies and shows with all different kinds of themes and settings. Those are the kinds of artists that inspire me and the ones I hope to be like.

Just Watched Toy Story 3 (2010)

This is the conversation I have with the missus every single time a Pixar movies comes out.

HER: Hey that new Pixar movie’s out.

ME: Eh.

Weeks pass.

HER: Let’s go see that new Pixar movie.

ME: Fine.

We see the movie.

ME: HOLY SHIT THAT WAS AMAZING, WHY DIDN’T WE SEE THIS SOONER.

She glowers at me, deservedly so.

I’m not sure what it is about these movies that I always forget how damn good they are when the next one comes out. I remember begrudgingly going to see Finding Nemo with some friends when I was visiting Columbus one time and coming out loving it. Same goes for Wall*E, though I think I was more interested in that one cause it had robots. Another reason I wasn’t really excited about Toy Story 3 is that I don’t think I’ve seen the second one all the way through. All I remembered was that they added the girl cowboy and the horse.

But, damnitall if Toy Story 3 isn’t one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time. Yes, best MOVIES, not best CGI movies. It’s that good. The thing that Pixar does better than anyone else in the movie making industry is taking the time to perfect the scripts. This one took something like two and a half years between script and storyboarding. That’s a lot of time to perfect a script and I’d say this one is as close to perfect as they come. Not a moment is wasted. And even when there seems to be a moment that IS wasted, you find out by the end it isn’t, so stop being such a negative Nancy.

For the record, we saw the 3D version. I’m not sure if it’s really necessary. It looked much better than Alice In Wonderland did, but it didn’t really add a whole lot aside from depth of field. I still think the Disney 3D is better than any of the other ones out there, including whatever Avatar used.

As you probably know by now, the story follows Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Hamm, Rex and the gang (paired down over the years between the second and third installments thanks to yard sales) as they deal with Andy going away to college. They end up on all kinds of crazy adventures which take some of them to a brand new house with a brand new kid and others getting the stuffing knocked out of them as the new bloods in a daycare ruled with an iron fist by a cuddly-looking teddy bear. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but the new toy characters both at the house and the daycare are a nice addition to the cast of characters without taking anything away from our heroes.

For those of you who might be thinking “But this is just a kid’s movie and I hear the ending is really sad, I don’t want to see it,” I say “See it anyway!” Yes, the ending is sad, but it’s a good kind of sad. Plus, there’s a ton of action in the last act of the movie that reminded me of how Peter Jackson’s King Kong didn’t let up for like 30 minutes (there’s the dinosaur stampede, then the bugs, then King Kong fighting T-Rexes, possibly not in that order, but it’s all intense). There’s also a great deal of comedy in the film that had me laughing out loud in spite of myself.

Oh, also, as far as I could tell the moral of the movie is “Never, ever get rid of your toys,” but the missus begs to differ. I think it’s because she’s sick of my He-Man, Ninja Turtles and Transformers toys taking up space in the storage unit.

Quick Movie Review: Angels & Demons (2009)

Here’s my brief history with Dan Brown’s books and the movies based on them. I read DaVinci Code back when it was a big deal after the missus (who wasn’t the missus back then) read it and passed it to me. I liked it. It’s a great, page turning adventure book. Then, of course, they made a movie, casting Tom Hanks which didn’t fit with my mental image of him. I didn’t see that movie, nor have I read its prequel Angels and Demons or its sequel The Lost Symbol (the missus as read them all). She mentioned she wanted to watch A&D, it popped up on Instant Watch and we weren’t doing anything so we checked it out. It’s pretty good.

A&D has a few things going for it that I liked. First off, the Large Hadron Collider plays prominently in the beginning story. It seemed to match up with what I had read about it, but I’m no expert. At least it looked cool. The movie also has Hanks who I kind of forgot I liked this much. Of course, it’s also got a ton of Catholic Church history, which I’m interested in as a lapsed Catholic who went through Catholic grade and high school, then studied the Church’s history in a few classics and history classes in college. It was fun hearing Hanks’s Robert Langdon talk about things I had studied to some extent. The story involves the Church calling Langdon in to help them find the four leading candidates for the next Pope and some antimatter from the Collider. The idea is that each candidate will be killed in an Illuminati-related secret place every hour until midnight when the antimatter case’s batter will expire and everything goes kablammo. Of course, it’s not that simple.

I did have a few problems though. First off, and this isn’t the movie’s fault, it wasn’t as fun as either National Treasure movie, which I love. Obviously, they’re different movies with A&D being a lot more serious and full of death, and I get that the NT movies came out to capitalize on the popularity of DaVinci Code, but I couldn’t help shaking the thought that I’d rather see Hanks in a National Treasure movie, being the cool fun guy, than being Langdon, who seems like a cool fun guy whose stuck in some pretty serious business. The other problem with the movie is that it’s a bit too long, which not only gave me time to get bored with the movie (how many times do they need to be sitting around not doing anything between murders?) AND start thinking about it too much. I’m not saying I don’t want movies to make me think, but with all the breathing room A&D gave me–and the knowledge that there was still a lot of time as they started racing towards the deadline–I knew something was up and figured it out pretty quickly. In fact, I not only figure out who the real bad guy was, but had the whole ugly affair sorted out with about 20 minutes left. Now, I like the feeling of knowing what’s going on before the characters do, but it shouldn’t take them so much longer to figure it out than me. It should be a few minutes thing. Otherwise you start wondering what the hell these people are in charge for anyway. Hell, if I’m just a freelance pop culture writer and I nailed it while the experts can’t, I’m bored and don’t care to watch anymore.

The missus said it seemed pretty close to the book, so I’ll probably steer clear for a while, though I am interested to read it. I’m looking for a book that really keeps me interested. I’m reading Terry Pratchet’s Soul Music right now which is really good, but for some reason, it’s not absorbing me. Anyway, watching this made me want to check out DaVinci Code again (the book). After she liked it to much I got the missus a version with images of the paintings and statues, which really helps because you’re not running to the computer every few pages. Anyone know if there are versions of Lost Symbol and A&D like that?

Conan’s Last Episode Of The Tonight Show

I’ll let Jimmy Fallon and The Roots explain how I feel about Conan leaving the air for seven months.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I’m sure like a lot of other people my age who remember Conan from way back when he first took over for Letterman on the late Show like myself, some of you feel kind of bad that you didn’t watch Conan’s Tonight Show more often. Maybe it would have helped. But the reality of the situation is that it doesn’t really matter. The way that TV ratings work is a mess that needs to be updated like whoa. Don’t have a Nielsen box? Then it doesn’t matter what you watch.

Anyway, mini-rant aside, the missus and I sat down to watch Conan’s last episode tonight and he killed it. After the monologue Steve Carrel came out as an NBC employee doing Conan’s exit interview, then Tom Hanks came out, Neil Young played (if you hadn’t told me it was him, I would not have recognized the man until he started singing), then Conan gave an impassioned speech to the audience about how much he’s enjoyed working with NBC (for about 20 years) and how he hates cynicism and then, the show ended with Conan playing “Freebird” on guitar with Will Ferrell singing, The Max Weinberg Seven, Ben Harper, Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top and Beck, who did not seem to know how to play “Freebird” and looked generally confused. Unfortunately he got cut off at the very end and couldn’t give his final goodbye and they didn’t post this clip on Hulu which is a bummer. Anyway, hit the jump for all the clips that did get posted. Continue reading Conan’s Last Episode Of The Tonight Show

Dragnet (1987)/Fletch Lives (1989) Double Feature

Today was a pretty busy day. I was thankfully so busy with freelance work that I still haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast I was on, nor was I able to go outside and enjoy the nearly 70-degree weather, but I was able to watch a few movies while I worked. I also got a chance to check out my brand new column on Maxim.com called We Like To Watch, which covers various TV shows you should check out. Anyway, the two movies I watched were Dragnet and Fletch Lives. I had never seen Dragnet before, but a few months ago I picked up a Tom Hanks 2-disc, 3-movie pack featuring Money Pit, The ‘burbs and it. After seeing the video at the end of the review on Maxim.com I figured I’d finally give it a watch.

And man, this is a really weird movie (I should have guessed from the video), but I really enjoyed it. In addition to being a really funny movie (you’ve got prime Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd here), it also plays to my love of continuity. See, I’m not a fan of the original Dragnet, but I do appreciate that Aykroyd plays a relative of the original Joe Friday and that Harry Morgan reprises his role from the original series as now-Captain Gannon. By doing this they’re not dumping on or forgetting the original and it fits in with the rest. Not every adaptation can work like this, but I like when it does (they did something similar with the Sam Jackson Shaft movie). This one turned out to be pretty long, so hit the jump for the whole thing.

Anyway, like I said this is a weird movie. Aykroyd and Hanks are on the trail of this group called P.A.G.A.N. (People Against Goodness And Normalcy) who…well, they’re trying to do a bunch of bad stuff. I’ll be honest, some of the finer details of the movie might have been lost on me while I was working, but I do know that a lot of dudes were dressed up in goat legs while the P.A.G.A.N. leader threw a woman in a big pool with a giant snake. From there, Aykroyd, who plays the super-uptight and by-the-book officer in LA, comes a bit undone as Hanks’ loosened-up-ness rubs off and the case gets crazier and crazier.

One interesting thing about this movie is that it was co-written and directed by Tom Mankiewicz who mostly wrote more serious flicks like Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die and The Man With The Golden Gun along with uncredited runs on the scripts for both Superman and Superman II. Meanwhile, he directed one of my favorite comedies of all time Delirious. I think he’s a big reason the movie has such a fun feel since he;s clearly comfortable in both the action and the funny. And now for the video, which hopefully won’t make you want to NOT watch the movie. I give you Tom Hanks and Dan Aykroyd rapping:

I come by my love of the Fletch flicks and Chevy Chase honestly thanks to my dad. I distinctly remember renting both Fletches a number of times and watching with him. As I got older I bought both movies on DVD (and I think I might have had them on VHS too, but can’t quite remember). The DVDs are pretty paltry and I can’t believe they went with that weird cover for Fletch Lives with the snapshots instead of this hilarious and awesome poster painting here which I remember from the VHS cover.

Anyway, something about Dragnet made me think of Fletch Lives, I’m guessing it was the bigness of it and something about the P.A.G.A.N. “ritual” reminded me of R. Lee Ermey’s Jimmy Lee Farnsworth shenanigans. Whatever the reason, I had a great time watching Fletch Lives as usual. I’m not sure if someone who’s not a fan of Chase will like the movie, but I’m a huge fan of his characterization of Fletch, a man who uses words to get out of whatever crazy situation he finds himself in and comes out on top (eventually). Plus, he’s a writer so I of course love that. He even makes grammar joke in this one!

The plot finds Fletch heading down south to take over the plantation house his recently deceased aunt left him. As you might expect, things aren’t quite what they appear as Fletch runs into a Bible-themed theme park, someone who wants to buy his land, a dead girl he had sex with (before she died of course, this isn’t Weekend At Bernie’s) and the Ku Klux Klan. There’s a lot going on with the story and I probably would have missed a lot of the details had I not seen the movie a bunch of times.

Seriously, if you haven’t seen Fletch or Fletch Lives, just go do it. Right now. If I know, you can even borrow them. I like the movies so much I’ve gone on to read two of the Gregory McDonald books the movies were based on and have two more in my to read pile. On a completely different note, I found out that Fletch Lives director Michael Ritchie also produced and co-directed the weak slasher movie Student Bodies, which is pretty interesting.

You might notice that this post has a Saturday Night Live label on it. In addition to the fact the SNL alumns star in both of these movies, I also wanted to bring up one of the first things I ever noticed about the relationships between movies, actors and directors. That is that any movie starring a current or former SNL cast member usually has another one in at least a bit part. At first, from looking at the Dragnet credits, I thought my theory might have been busted, but it turns out that Dan’s brother Peter not only had bit parts on SNL, he was also a writer. In Fletch Lives, Phil Hartman has a bit part as the man running a lab. So, as far as I’m considered, the theory still stands (but I haven’t watched all of Chevy Chase’s or Bill Murray’s movies, which will surely kill my theory).

Train-ing Videos: The Money Pit (1986)

Hey cleaver title right? Train-ing Videos. See, it’s cause I watch them on the train. Anyway, today’s movie was the Tom Hanks/Shelley Long joint Money Pit which I got in a Tom Hanks 3-pack at Best Buy a month or so back that also includes The Burbs (awesome) and Dragnet (haven’t seen) for like $8. I’m a sucker for a deal, so I picked it up (which is also how I got Over the Top and Wet Hot American Summer yesterday for $5 each.

So, I thought I knew Money Pit fairly well, Hanks and Long buy a house that turns out to be a crap hole, things fall apart, they hire some people to fix it up, she maybe cheats on him with the maestro, they fight, (SPOILER), things work out and everything ends happily ever after. And that is basically what happens, but it’s the small things that made this already funny movie even more interesting.

First off, I don’t remember the beginning at all. I figured there was some stuff in the beginning, but didn’t remember the details. Long and Hanks are living in the apartment of her ex-husband (the maestro), a shady real estate dude tells Hanks he’s got a great place for super cheap, though it’s still pretty expensive. Yakov Smirnoff makes an appearance as the maestro’s assistant or something and is then never seen again. There’s also the matter of Hanks’ job, he’s a lawyer in the music biz, so there’s lots of funny little bits with a kid superstar and a band of crossdressing rockers.

My favorite little bit in here came with a brief appearance by an actor playing ping pong named Brian Backer who I recognized, but couldn’t place. I’m not really sure why he’s even in the scene, but it turns out that he was in The Burning! Speaking of actors I recognized but couldn’t place, the maestro is a big, blond German guy. My mind immediately went to one of the villains from Die Hard, but that’s just because I think every blond dude of a certain age was in that movie. Turns out I was right though, this is one of Karl’s few other movie roles.

I also really liked the cast of misfits who come together to act as their construction team. When they roll up on all sorts of crazy machinery flanked by huge muscle dudes and little people, it reminded me of the crazy circus people the Penguin hung out with in Batman Returns.

After the surprises were over I was left with all the scenes I remember from seeing this movie on TV: the staircase falling, them freaking out over running water (something I can relate to after my parents rennovated our downstairs when I was younger), Long openening the medicine cabinet to reveal a dude standing there, Hanks falling through the floor, but the rug traps him and, of course, the best laugh of all time (he’s got one of the top five laughs in the history of all time laughs):

But by far, my absolute favorite part of the movie is when Hanks does a damn fine Mr. Magoo impression, getting rocketed through the construction thanks to some pretty great gags. It’s a little over the top, but who cares? It’s fun. Plus he gets peed on at the end (kinda).

One thing I didn’t really like, though, was Shelley Long. I always preferred Rebecca on Cheers and, well, what else has she been in? You could just as easily have taken her out of Boston, plopped her in NYC, put a violin in her hand and call her something else. Sorry, Diane, I’m no fan. When things get heated between her and Hanks, I kept thinking “Ditch her and go after Kirstey Alley!” (remember this is 1986, not now).

Now for a few side points. The writer, David Giler, also wrote the story for Aliens, the script for Aliens 3 and apparently did an uncredited pass on Beverly Hills Cop 2. I like me some eclectic screenwriters. Also, the movie takes place in the city, so, as I have been doing for the past two or so months, I kept an eye out for any recognizable landmarks or streets (didn’t see any). I was also trying to figure out where their house was supposed to be located. I don’t think they ever say specifically where the house is, just that it’s an hour away from everything. According to the filming locations of IMDb, though, it was filmed on Long Island, which is kind of the opposite end of the spectrum from where I live. Oh well, a good time was had by all.