Tuesday, January 29, 2013


I was fortunate to have the chance to see Bob Clampett speak years ago. Clampett was one of the men responsible for the classic Warner Brothers cartoons and helped create Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and later Beanie and Cecil. One thing he said always stuck with me. He said that during the censorship days of the Hayes Committee, the animators/writers would always sneak in jokes that would pass that adults would get and that children wouldn't understand. This made those cartoons something that adults as well as children could enjoy then. While not every animator these days follows that advice those behind HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA do and the result is a great movie that entertains children AND adults.

One hundred and eighteen years ago Count Dracula built a castle/hotel where monsters would find safe haven from the humans that hunted and tried to destroy them. Each year the monsters all gather to celebrate the birthday of Dracula's daughter Mavis. This year will be different though as Mavis' special gift is one left by her mother who died when she was born, to be opened on this particular birthday. Keep in mind 118 in Dracula years makes her in her late teens.

Mavis longs to leave the castle and roam the world to see what is out there. Inspired by a post card she found in her mother's belongings of Hawaii, she wants to see what her mother saw, to experience something behind the walls she's known all her life. Her father, knowing that humans would rather see her dead, wants her to say home though and will do everything in his power to insure she does so. He even goes so far as to allow her to visit a local village, not telling her something she'll only discover later about that village.

Mavis returns home and all seems to be going well until a stranger shows up. Jonathan is a backpacking teen on vacation roaming the countryside who accidentally stumbles upon the well hidden castle. He enters and finds everything he sees amazing until Dracula finds him. Trying to prevent him from being destroyed by the monsters (who think that all humans want to destroy them), Dracula puts Jonathan in make up and has him pose as a party planner there to help with Mavis birthday bash. When Mavis gets a glimpse of Jonathan, the first person she's ever seen close to her age, they both get a glazed look in their eyes and suffer a case of love at first sight.

But human and vampire have no chance for happiness in the eyes of good old dad, so he tries to keep the two apart. Dracula's parties have long since lost their luster and are boring even to the yearly attendees who include Frankenstein, the Mummy, Wolfman, Invisible Man and more. Jonathan livens this up with his youthful ways much to the chagrin of Dracula. Can the star crossed lovers make a go of it? Or will Dracula make sure that the Jonathan stays safe from the rest of the monsters who actually seem to like him almost better than Dracula?

It's a simple plot to begin with and ends up offering plenty of items that will inspire tons of laughter from young and old. The old versus new isn't played out to make one seem better than the other, just different. Dracula is not as bad as one would think watching this movie and his concern for his daughter and her happiness is the center piece to the film. The love between the two is one that should be a good point for families once you get past the whole vampire thing.

The visual gags here fill the film from start to finish. It's one of those movies that you'll probably want to watch more than once just to catch the jokes you missed the first time. The writing is well done and offers just as many jokes as the visuals.

The animation here is fantastic. It still amazes me to see individual hairs on something like Dracula or Mavis in bat form. The detail is crisp and clear and to think that technology has come this far is astounding. The voice work is done incredibly well with cast members like Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, Selena Gomez, Fran Drescher and Steve Buscemi.

HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA is a movie that the entire family can enjoy together. It offers plenty of laughs and a touching story of father and daughter. It also offers a great launch pad for parents who would like their kids to know what the classic monsters were like. Who knows, maybe it will even inspire some to get their kids to watch those classic Karloff and Lugosi films.

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As I sit hear typing, the soundtrack to this week's best bet is playing, loudly, on my PC. When I finished the movie I found I wanted to listen to these songs again. I'm sure that this will wear off eventually as all music choices seem to do after a few days. But while the music may change, the amazement I felt at watching this story unfold will stay with me forever.

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN is a documentary but please don't let that prevent you from watching this movie. So many are turned off to the term documentary and those that are lose so much by missing movies like this one. This is a story that will captivate you and uplift you by the end of the film. It's a story that begins sad and ends as story that inspires.

In 1970 Sixto Rodriguez released his first album. The producers of the album thought they had a hit. Here was someone from Detroit singing about the problems he saw, inspired by what was going on around him and they had helped make this album. With lyrics that brought Bob Dylan to mind, a voice that at times sounds like Phil Ochs, why wouldn't they expect great success. Unfortunately it never happened. Even when his second LP came out a year or so later, nothing. With those two albums released, Rodriguez disappeared.

Of course that was only in America. In other countries Rodriguez had a more interesting career and successful one. On South Africa this was when apartheid was going strong and young people were protesting against their government there. A bootleg of Rodriguez' album made its way to that country and spread like wildfire. In the songs found on the album a generation found a voice that spoke of things they were feeling. The government's response was to ban the playing of certain songs on the air which of course only made them that more popular.

That's a great story in itself. One would think it was enough. But that's just the first third of the story. That's how amazing this story is. Years go by and things change both in the US and in South Africa. When a CD reissue of Rodriguez' album was about to be released a record store owner was asked to write the liner notes. A questioned posed there inspired an investigative reporter to try and find out what happened to Rodriguez. Word was out that he had died. Stories ranged from him shooting himself onstage to lighting himself on fire before his audience. As the investigation continued, the writer was shocked to find that Rodriguez was still alive and well and living in Detroit.

Enough of a story right? But no! Found alive and well these same two men tried to let Rodriguez know just how influential his music had been to an entire generation. A record that sold so low as to make no notice in the states had sold over 500,000 in South Africa alone. So it was only natural that these same fans got Rodriguez to come to Cape Town to perform for those same fans. And perform he did...6 sold out shows to crowds to thousands of people.

The story of Rodriguez was interesting enough to inspire the director of this film. The success of the film was enough to interest the folks at 60 MINUTES who did a piece on his story, the only reason I didn't feel I was giving spoilers here in this review. But the truth is that just hearing the story, just knowing what happened, isn't near as interesting and amazing to learn as it is while watching this movie.

As with any musician there will be many who aren't crazy about each and every song but my guess is that when this movie is finished you'll be tapping your toe to several and more than likely be looking for a CD by Rodriguez. At the same time you'll wonder why his career didn't skyrocket here just like those who produced his albums thought.

The tale of Rodriguez is one that will touch your heart and have you amazed at this man as he is today. What he does with his newfound success is revealed at the end of the film. The saddest thing that could happen is for people to not discover the music of Rodriguez or the man behind it all. This is a beautiful film that tells the tale well and will hold your interest from start to finish.

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For those who aren't familiar with the name Sam Raimi my guess is you are aware of the movies he's made. Lately he's been associated with the first Spider-man trilogy starring Tobey McGuire. But long before that Raimi was a director whose first major film of note was THE EVIL DEAD, still one of the scariest movies ever made. That being said I guess it's no wonder that Raimi got into the producing side of the business. The latest film to find him in that seat is THE POSSESSION and it's one of the scariest movies I've seen in some time.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan stars as Clyde, a basketball coach recently divorced from his wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick). The couple has two pre-teen children, Hannah (Madison Davenport) is the older of the two and of course the standard troubled pre-teen. Em (Natasha Calls) is the younger of the pair and still has high hopes of her parents reuniting.  With a new man in her life that's highly unlikely.

On a weekend when Clyde has the girls staying at his place they stop at a yard sale where Em's eye is attracted to what appears to be an antique box with some writings carved into it. Of course she's allowed to buy this and then takes it home. It seems like a puzzle box with no way of being opened, but eventually Em does get it open. And that's when things begin to happen.

Small things at first like a single moth in a room. But that escalates when during the night a bunch of these moths show up in the bathroom while Hannah is there which leads them to Em's room which is filled to the brim with them. A phone call to an exterminator and a trip him ends this visit.

As the story moves forward Em begins to show signs of becoming different. Her parents think it's nothing more than her reaction to their recent split. But there's more to it than that. A fight at school is described as more than a simple altercation with Em showing a substantial violent tendency that has he withdrawing from her friends as well.

Clyde begins to suspect it has something to do with the box and takes it to school with him to have a colleague look it over. The friend reads the inscription which is in Hebrew and says that the box contains a Dibbuk, an evil demon whose spirit is said to be contained therein. Clyde considers this the possible reason for Em's outbursts and throws it away. When Em finds out, she makes it appear he's hit her and runs to rescue the box from where Clyde threw it away. She also causes Clyde to lose any and all custody of the girls.

More strange things occur and Clyde continues to seek a way to save his little girl. With more research he travels to meet with a group of Hassidic Jews and shows them the box. They are the ones who finally give him the information he needs to know about what the box actually is. But will they help him rescue his daughter or is she condemned to whatever evil was contained inside the box?

The film could seemingly boil down to being called a Jewish EXORCIST. But it's not quite the same. How the case is handled is much different. Yes, there are some similarities but on the whole the story is handled at a slower pace with quite a bit less of the gore effects. This story is more a battle of good and evil. It also deals more with the question of how far a parent will go to fight for his or her child and just what they are willing to accept.

There isn't a bad performance in this film. I've become a big fan of Morgan since his days as the father of Sam and Dean Winchester on SUPERNATURAL. His portrayal of Clyde here shows the concern of a real parent for his child and the hopelessness he feels once he discovers what is causing the problem. Sedgwick does a great job as well although her time onscreen seems somewhat limited. What time she does have is well played. Both Davenport and Calls turn in great performances for actors so young. Calls especially stands out as Em, showing the two characters contained in one body convincingly.

It's obvious from the box art for this DVD as well as the commercials that ran when it was in theaters (the ones that showed fingers trying to work their way out of Em's throat when she looked in the mirror) that this is a movie intent on scaring the viewer. I've seen plenty of horror films and this one actually did give me a start now and then. But more than just offering a few jump scares, this movie had you in its grip from start to finish. It didn't feel like it had wasted space or time spans that made you want to reach for the fast forward button. This movie keeps your attention till the end. And if you get scared along the way on this trip, then that's just icing on the cake.

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