Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The Black Cauldron

The original tagline was "Get Boned!" (not really)

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "The Black Cauldron" (Disney, 1985). In the ancient land of Prydain, an evil sorcerer called "The Horned King" (John Hurt) is slowly taking over,

Republicans: "Seems like a good dude!"

his bandit hordes and mythical creatures seeking out magical items and riches all with one goal: To find The Black Cauldron, a powerful ancient relic that can be used to raise an army of the dead.
Yes, the McGuffin this time is a giant heavy metal object. 

All he needs is a lead… Meanwhile, a young assistant pig keeper named Taran (Grant Bardsley) has dreams of being a mighty warrior, seeing his current situation as beneath him.

He has been charged by his master Dallben the Enchanter (Freddie Jones) to watch over a single pig, Hen Wen.
ONE PIG! One TINY pig!

Dallben, an enchanter with a magic pig he can't bother to take care of himself.

One day Hen Wen begins to act unreasonably frightened, scaring young Taran. Dallben reveals to Taran that Hen Wen has the ability to act as a scryer, showing events far away or even the future!
Hen Wen begins to tell the future.

Using Hen Wen's abilities Dallben discovers that The Horned King has discovered Hen Wen, and so he sends Taran with the pig into the forest to hide while he figures out their next move. Immediately, Taran gets distracted and loses sight of Hen Wen. Distraught, he runs into Gurgi (John Byner), a talking small furry creature who appears to be starving and who steals an apple from Taran before offering to help him find the pig.
Gollum by way of Fiverr.

They discover Hen Wen being dragged to The Horned King's castle, where Taran goes to get his pig, only to get captured and forced to reveal the pig's power to find The Black Cauldron.
ONE JOB. You had ONE JOB. 

Taran manages to help Hen Wen escape but is thrown into the dungeon for his trouble. He soon meets a princess named Eilonwy (Susan Sheridan), a plucky young girl with a magical glowing bauble,
"Don't ask me, I'm just a girl! Tee-hee!"

and Fflewddur Fflam (Nigel Hawthorne), a bard with a magical lyre (that ironically loses strings whenever Fflewddur lies).
A liar with a lyre.

Escaping the old castle with the help of a magical sword that Taran finds, the rag-tag group decides to find Hen Wen and The Black Cauldron before The Horned King does!
To be fair, the sword does all the work.

Some background

This is sort of the "black sheep" of the Disney family. It was an unmitigated failure. The total budget ballooned to over $44 million, and its total ticket sales worldwide amounted to less than $22 million. Disney apparently optioned "The Chronicles of Prydain" book series by Lloyd Alexander all the way back in 1971 but had an extremely troubled production. That pushed the original 1980 release date back five years. There were a lot of reasons for this, not in the least of which was that there was a power struggle for the visual style of the film which resulted in much of the original work being thrown out. Further problems were brought on by a new studio chairman (Jeffrey Katzenberg -- before he left to help found DreamWorks) who insisted that the film's ending be severely re-cut to edit out much of the gruesome undead army.

Some good

There's a lot to like about this film. While it looks a bit rough in spots (possibly due to the new crop of animators Disney used on this project, including future director Tim Burton), it's actually quite dynamic, with many action scenes featuring surprisingly complex camera movement and characters moving in 3D space. The cast is pretty good as well, with John Huston (who voiced "Gandalf the Grey" in Rankin/Bass "Hobbit" animated movies) acting as the narrator for the introduction. John Hurt's performance as The Horned King (who "Dungeons & Dragons" players will immediately recognize as a lich) drips with menace and bile. The backgrounds are appropriately run-down and natural, like you would expect in a medieval landscape.

Or a heavy metal album cover.

The ending sequence is the most surprising aspect of this film, the undead army being spooky, horrible, and terrifying, with some implied deaths as well.
Don't watch with young kids.

Some bad

It's not all good, though. There's plenty of bad things to sift through here, starting with Taran. Grant Bardsley plays the character fine, but the character is unlikable, being a daydreaming entitled incompetent whiner that we're stuck with throughout the film; BUT… He does learn his lesson by the end of the film, and that's something. As I mentioned before, for all the flash and dynamic aspects of the animation, it does look rather rough, with pencils showing through much of the paint. The story is crowded and unconventional. I know that it's trying to follow the books, but we're introduced to characters at a breakneck speed while others drop in and out of the film at random times.

The three witches are over-the-top, and brief.

Hen Wen, the main driving force for the first half of the film is absent throughout most of it, and almost entirely gone in the second half, for example. Other little touches (like Eilonwy's bauble) are presented without full explanation, and then seem to disappear when the animators have forgotten about them. Gurgi is presented as a sort of "discount Gollum" serving the purpose of the film's "cute marketable cash-grab," and I would hate him except that by the end of the film I actually felt something for him.
Oh, and these things. Pointless. Stupid. Marketable.

In short

Is it worth watching? Sure. It's one of those weird films where the highs never really reach the high that you want, the lows are never as bad as you expect them to be, and it's entertaining enough to be watchable -- but it's no classic.

Plus, nobody pets this wyvern's belly. He just wants to be a good boy!

Not for the very young

This movie is rated PG for scenes of undead mayhem, implied death, spooky imagery, and probably because Tim Burton worked on it.

Seriously, don't watch with kids unless you want them to sleep with the lights on.

Where can you watch it?

As of this writing, "The Black Cauldron" is available for streaming on Disney+.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024


A Tale of Two Connies

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "Coneheads" (Paramount, 1993). Alien interlopers Beldar (Dan Aykroyd) and Prymatt (Jane Curtain) have a malfunction on their spaceship while on their way to Earth to conquer the planet. The ship goes down in the ocean and the two are forced to swim to shore without weapons or the means to communicate with their home planet, Remulak. The two find that they know nothing about the local culture, but are forced to blend in until they can contact their superiors. Beldar uses his advanced technical knowledge to work as a TV repair man for Otto (Sinbad) and uses the opportunity to secretly construct a device to contact Remulak.

Ozzie and Harriet, if Ozzie and Harriet were immigrants. And horrific aliens.

He is informed that a space cruiser will be sent to Earth to pick up the two in seven "zurls" (which is apparently the equivalent of nearly two decades on Earth). Prymatt expresses concern and reveals that she is pregnant, to Beldar's delight. When Otto realizes that Beldar is an "illegal alien" he arranges a meeting with mobster Carmine (Adam Sandler) to get him some documentation.
Aw, he's so young! Also, not very funny.

Unbeknownst to everyone, the documents are being tracked by United Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents and their insane director, Gorman Seedling (Michael McKean).
This man is an absolute legend.

After the INS raids the aliens' trailer home, Beldar and Prymatt relocate to a new job (taxi driver) and a basement apartment, saving money to buy a home to raise their daughter in.
Driving Miss Drew-ey.

When the second INS raid fails and jeopardizes his promotion, Seedling makes tracking down the aliens his main priority. Beldar and Prymatt give birth to a baby girl and settle into successful suburban life, while their daughter, Connie (Michelle Burke) grows up as an earthling.
She's played as a normal girl in this interpretation, unlike the original sketches.

Can the family maintain their cover while waiting for rescue?

Some background

Wow this is *checks watch* THIRTY YEARS OLD NOW?! That can't be right. Why do my bones hurt?

This is based on the original Saturday Night Live sketches produced by Lorne Michaels and starring Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtain, and Laraine Newman (as the original Connie) all the way back in 1977. There was an effort made before to revive the property (in the 1980s they made some new sketches with Phil Hartman and Nora Dunn taking over for Aykroyd and Curtain), and also make the property more mainstream (see my review of the animated pilot). This film took that humble beginning and made it a blockbuster special-effects-laden film with a $30,000,000 budget (an astronomical amount in 1993)! The ads were everywhere, and it was one of the first times I remember the restaurant chain Subway really leaning into commercial promotions (a Subway restaurant is even prominently featured in a scene). This film had a gigantic cast of well-known comedians and soon-to-be-famous stars.

How big were the stars? This background character swimming coach is played by Ellen DeGeneres.

It's funny, the gags are very visual, and it got absolutely totaled at the box office, only bringing in just over $21,000.000 worldwide, failing to even meet its budget. Even today the film is listed as "rotten" on, absolutely hated by critics and fans alike.

The good

Surprisingly, despite is cold by-the-numbers corporate veneer, I don't hate this film. I don't know that you can fault the cast for how bad it was received, as it has an astounding amount of Saturday Night Live alumni and NBC sitcom stars in the cast, and every scene and bit part had me pointing at the screen and shouting, "ooh! I know that person!" It delighted me, especially since it makes the aggressive aliens of Remulak seem just as clumsy, overconfident, and incompetent as their earthling counterparts (my favorite joke is when starship Captain Orecruiser, played by Garret Morris, accidentally hits the moon while pulling away from Earth and just pretends like it's normal).

Even if you don't know who Garret Morris is, you've probably seen him in something.

I like the "immigrants are people too" message, but it's not really delivered cleverly or leaned on as much as it could be.

The bad

The film doesn't have very many twists, especially in this day and age, and really just leans into its B-movie tendencies, but while its laughs are usually obvious it rarely goes for the guttural gross-out humor of most "Happy Madison" films, of which this shares some sizeable DNA.

This horrific scene at the dentist is about as bad as it gets.

The one sore spot for me is the sexual aggressiveness of Chris Farley's character "Ronnie," as he almost assaults Connie at one point, but it is played off as "normal" and "romantic" later on.
This character isn't great, but is typical of Chris Farley at the time. 

This is rather shockingly one of the shortest movies I've ever watched, clocking in at just 86 minutes from beginning to the end credit crawl. It might be dragging a bit in spots which is why it seems longer, but I couldn't say for sure; it seems like a normal length film despite its hastened approach.

Go ahead, watch it with the kids

This movie should be okay for younger viewers. It's mostly just a family sitcom with a few light horror elements that are all played for laughs. There's no swearing, although there is a lot of alien sex-talk and innuendo, but as most of the dialogue in these scenes is made up of nonsense words younger viewers might not gather what the scene is referring to even if they understand the tone.

WARNING: May contain questionable levels of Spade.

Is it worth watching? Eeeeh… Probably not. If you're familiar with the cast of SNL and the liked the original sketches it is well worth seeing. It's pretty inoffensive overall, and you might just get a laugh or two, but don't expect biting social commentary or to bust a gut from laughing so hard.

Where can you watch it?

"Coneheads" is available to rent or buy on most platforms, and is can be streamed for no extra cost with YouTube Premium (which is where I watched it), as well as for free with commercials on some other providers (like Pluto TV) at the writing of this review.

Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Never Say Never Again

Again, Probably Saying It, Probably

What's it about?

Tonight's nostalgic pic is "Never Say Never Again" (Warner Bros., 1983). British secret agent 007 James Bond (Sean Connery) has become middle-aged, and despite being frequently put into "war games" by his handlers, he still longs for more active field work.

"I turned down Schtar Wars because I didn't underschtand it, so when they gave me thisch, I took it!"

His disappointing performance in the war games causes his superior, "M," to send him to a health clinic to recover from years of smoking and drinking. Meanwhile, at the headquarters for the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion (Sp.E.C.T.R.E.), leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Max Von Sydow) gives his lieutenants a situation report on the organization's current ventures.
Aw! Kitteh!

While at the health clinic, Bond observes another patient, U.S. Air Force Captain Jack Petachi (Gavan O'Herlihy) being abused by his nurse, Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera), who recognizes Bond and sends another SPECTRE henchman, Lippe (Pat Roach), to eliminate him.
Remember the bald muscle guy from "Raiders of the Lost Ark? Now he has hair.

After what is possibly one of the most memorable fights in any James Bond movie, Bond manages to kill Lippe (in a way that gave me nightmares as a kid) and report to his superiors.
This death may not seem overly horrific, but you didn't see what he had thrown in his eyes beforehand.

Jack Petachi, it turns out, has been drugged, bought, and blackmailed by SPECTRE to use a surgically implanted prosthetic eye to allow the criminals to steal two nuclear weapons from a test flight;
A novel (and more practical twist) on the "doppelganger" trope. 

if he doesn't do their bidding, they'll kill his sister, Domino (Kim Basigner). Once the deed is done, Blush kills Petachi while his sister is unknowingly held in captivity by SPECTRE second-in-command Maximillian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer).
He even has a front row seat to her jazzercise workouts.

Once SPECTRE makes their demand of 25% of every nation's gross domestic product, the leaders of the world go into a panic, and M is forced to put Bond back into service to track down Largo and put an end to SPECTRE's scheme. Can he do it? Of course he can. This is a James Bond movie, after all…

The strange case of Stavro

… Sort of. The production of the Bond films is fascinating, and a great example of intellectual property rights. I won't get into everything here, but in case you don't know, this movie is a re-make of another Bond story, "Thunderball," the movie version of which also starred Sean Connery as James Bond. At the time of "Never Say Never Again," the MGM Studio Bond film production was being handled by Albert R. Broccoli's Eon Productions with Roger Moore starring as Bond, but long-time Bond enthusiasts might have noticed that after the 1960s there is little-to-no mention of SPECTRE or Blofeld, and that's because of "Thunderball." See, "Thunderball" was originally a movie script developed by producer Kevin McClory, writer Jack Whittingham, and James Bond creator Ian Fleming. When the initial collaboration fell through, Fleming went on to write the novel "Thunderball" based on the work, but didn't credit McClory or Whittingham, resulting multiple lawsuits that eventually resulted in McClory taking back the rights to SPECTRE and related characters (which is why the Roger Moore Bond films switch to Blofeld-like industrialists -- but not specifically Blofeld -- as his antagonists of choice). After 10 years, McClory began to re-adapt "Thunderball," and this movie is the result of that messy break-up. It's also why the Eon Productions cast of James Bond regulars doesn't make it into the film (which is ironic, as most of that cast -- minus Connery -- appeared in the 1967 film "Operation Little Brother" reprising their roles, which stars Sean Connery's little brother Neil as the brother of the unnamed James Bond… I might have to cover that film too).

The good

So how does it hold up? This is easily one of my favorite Bond films. As a child, I must confess that I never made the connection to "Thunderball;" It was many years later while re-watching that I recognized that the villains' names were both "Largo," and the rest of the pieces fell into place. While Connery is essentially playing the same Bond (albeit much older), he's ever-so-slightly less misogynous in this film than the original (where he sexually assaults a healthcare worker -- here he just has a lot of inappropriate touching), 

He almost gets Domino's permission in this scene. Almost.

the new cast is mostly superior to the originals. In particular, Klaus Brandauer's Largo is scary, but in a more subtle, sinister way than Adolfo Celi's humorless eyepatch-wearing ogre in the original. Brandauer is funny, with a cherub-like face that makes him likable, but on a dime can turn his charming smile into a deeply psychotic grimace.
He seems insane at times, making him a terrifying villain.

Carrera's Fatima Blush serves the same capacity as Luciana Paluzzi's "Fiona" in the original film, but she plays the role with a bloodlust that is fueled by her inability to kill Bond, which makes her more formidable.
There is a visual pun where the more bond lives the less buttoned-down her appearance gets.

About the only character that falls flat for me is Basinger's Domino; while she is objectified almost as much as Claudine Auger in the original (lots of tight outfits and swimsuits), she doesn't seem to have as many lines and is just there to look worried and essentially do nothing other than act as a prop for the men in the scenes she's in.
"You're so tensche! Let me rub you with my handsch!"

Director Irvin Kershner, who might be best known for "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" (AKA "The Best Star Wars Movie Ever Made") is at the height of his powers here, with dynamic action scenes, frenetic chase sequences, and giving this movie and air of science fiction mixed with a bit of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" style set pieces.

This motorcycle chase is gripping!

The man knows how to create a set piece on a budget!

The Bond gadgets in this movie are much more subtle than in the Eon films, but in a way that adds to their real-world usefulness. This is the first appearance of the much-vaunted laser wristwatch, a Bond staple.

"Ach! There'sch a lascher in me wrischtwatch!"

The only "trick" motor vehicle in the film is Bond's motorcycle, which has a rocket booster and wheel bumpers -- that's it. There is an exploding pen, and later a rocket-assisted landing platform (which might be a callback to the utterly pointless jetpack in "Thunderball"), but little else. If nothing else, at least this version of James Bond has the good sense to wear a black wetsuit and black tanks when diving on a covert mission, unlike the original version where he wore -- and I am not making this up -- a bright orange wetsuit with bright white tanks when trying to be sneaky.
Even so, the underwater scenes are still visually comprehensive.

The bad

Still, as a not-quite-James-Bond film, there are things that you are going to miss:

Look, we're not even going to talk about what they did to the casino scene.

The aforementioned casting changes seem odd (perhaps most notably is that "Q" is not played by Desmond Llewelyn, and that saddens me)
"I came here looking for Q. Who the bloody hell are you?"

, but you also won't hear the iconic "James Bond: 007" theme written by Monty Norman. Gone also, for some reason or another, is the iconic Aston Martin DB5, replaced by a rather impressive-but-not-as-cool Bentley 4 1/4 Litre Gurney Nutting.
I mean, it's shiny. I guess.

It's a small price to pay, but it can be noticeable.

It's a James Bond film

This movie is PG. There's not a lot of swearing, and not a lot of blood, but people do die on-screen, and there are a few moments of casual racism (particularly to Middle Eastern people), but hey, they cast Bernie Casey as Felix Leiter, making him the first black man to portray the character over twenty years before Jeffrey Wright did in "Casino Royale," and he's awesome in this, so that's not nothing.

Blaze that trail!

Where can you find it?

This film is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime Video for no extra cost with the monthly subscription, so check it out if you're interested.

Mister Bond, meet Mister Bean!