Tuesday, April 5, 2016


It’s been 39 years since the words “May the force be with you” were uttered. During that time we’ve had two sequels and then gone back to see the earlier portions of the story of STAR WARS told on three more films. Some were good, most were great. We were witness to an unspeakable evil and the birth of a new hero. There was magic when that first film came out, an unexpected mega-giant of a film franchise where story always came first. That legacy carries on as we venture into a new set of heroes combined with the old.

So the story first. On a mission to get information back to the resistance, pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is captured by the First Order but not before he passes that information on to his droid, BB-8. As the First Order kills everyone in the village Poe was in, one of the Stormtroopers (later named Fin and played by John Boyega) develops a conscience and wants nothing more than to leave the Order. And so he helps Poe escape.

Fin and Poe crash with Fin the only apparent survivor. He looks for help and comes across Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger of parts who has found BB-8. As the First Order attacks the planet, Rey and Fin jump into the only spaceship in the port to escape, a beat up old piece of junk that we fans immediately recognize as the Millennium Falcon.

They get away only to be captured by a freighter no doubt trying to collect the bounty on their heads. But when the doors open who should appear but Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca. Which of course leads to yet another encounter with several parties that Solo owes money to resulting in the release of some terrible creatures he has captured and another barely making an escape moment.

We learn as the movie continues that with the demise of the Empire the dark side has given rise to a new group, the earlier mentioned First Order. Led by the Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) this group is still at war with the resistance which is still led by Gen. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). Snoke’s main enforcer, a replacement if you will for Darth Vader, is one Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the son of Leia and Han. Kylo was trained by Luke only to destroy the rest of the Jedi Knights in training which caused Luke to blame himself and leave everyone behind. The information BB-8 possesses is a map to Luke and both the resistance and the First Order want to find him. Toss in a new death star on steroids, a few spaceship dogfights and a lightsaber duel and you have a welcome addition to the series.

The extras on this package will keep you busy for hours. Included are a full length documentary on the making of the film called SECRETS OF THE FORCE AWAKENS. Also are featurettes that include one with a table read by the cast, the creations of BB-8, crafting the creatures in the film, the development of the lightsaber duel, a look at John Williams creating movie for the seventh time in this series of films and a look at ILM and the effects team. Deleted scenes have also been included. Best of all is that the digital version of the film included you can watch the movie anywhere, any time. That’s always a worthwhile bonus.

Now that we have the story and extras out of the way let’s talk about this movie. As a fan let me say it delivers on all levels. It’s great. It inspires. It does all the things that every one of the previous films has done but leaves behind the things fans didn’t like about episodes 1-3 and returns the things we loved about 4-6.

The first of those is the hero. Some might consider a hero to be a person who picks up a gun at the right time. But as this film shows there is more to being a hero than that. A hero is someone who has a cause, a cause that he/she is willing to fight for and lay down their life for. This film has an abundance of heroes, old and new. It’s nice to see a film in today’s world that presents a hero for what they should be.

The movie has a tremendous story that at times feels like a rehashing of sequences from previous films while being its own movie at the same time. It feels great to see the old characters brought back to tie into the earlier films and at the same time the new characters are ones that there is little doubt we will develop the same affection for with each new movie. The effects are mind boggling, as always the best of the best and most up to date to be found and yet the movie doesn’t rely on just the effects.

There is something much more to this movie that isn’t seen on the screen. That’s the love for these movies, for these characters, that is felt by every single person who has grown fond of the films. I saw this film in the theater and I think I enjoyed it more this time around, not having to learn who was who.
But there was one thing that happened while watching it this time that happened on my first viewing. That was a feeling of joy at seeing these people reunited again, of seeing those familiar things like the Millennium Falcon on screen and realizing that these stories, this mythology, will carry on.

When I first saw that spaceship I kind of teared up. When Han and Chewbacca appeared the same thing happened. And at various times throughout the film, as the story of their son, of Luke leaving it all behind and with the last shot in the film (I won’t spoil it for those that haven’t seen it) as well as one of the most devastating sequences that happens shortly prior to that I felt that sense of wonder I had as a young child seeing a movie that was larger than life unfold before my eyes for the first time. That wide-eyed amazement we all felt the first time we saw something that big on the screen. It gives me hope that there is a chance young people will grow up with stories like these yet to be told. What better legacy to leave with a series of films that began with the subtitle “A New Hope”. A definite add for your collection. 


Lately it seems that the word immigrant has taken on a whole new meaning. Politicians from both sides of the aisle seem determined to either demonize immigrants or cast them into sainthood. The reality is that immigrants made this country what it is today. And for those politicians perhaps they should consider that it wasn’t all immigrants but legal immigrants that helped form this melting pot. So what better time to release a film about an Irish immigrant who comes to America and finds love?

BROOKLYN is just that, a sort of throwback to those romantic films of the past fueled by romance, love and affection rather than simple lusts and hookups. Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis Lacey, a young woman who leaves behind her mother and sister in Ireland with the hope of creating a better life for herself in the United States. Sponsored by a local priest Eilis sets sail for America with no idea of what to expect. Fortunately she ends up bunking with a young woman who has been through the ropes already.

Upon arrival Eilis takes up residence at a boarding house the priest set her up in Brooklyn, watched over by matriarchal Mrs. Keogh (Julie Walters). She and withdrawn, Eilis gets to know the other girls living there as well as the rules Mrs. Keogh establishes. In order to take care of herself the priest has also arranged a job for Eilis in a big department store. At first she finds this job difficult because of her shyness as well as a serious bout of homesickness. All of that changes when she meets Tony (Emory Cohen).

Tony is a plumber who comes from a large Italian family. Although both come from different backgrounds the attraction is mutual and soon they are as serious a couple as can be found. Eilis meets Tony’s family and they are taken with her. The movie does a great job of showing their love developing rather than have things move at light speed. You believe in the affection that bonds the two of them together.

But thing change suddenly and Eilis is called back to Ireland. With plans of this being a short visit things alter those plans along with more than a few nudges from her mother. As the visit lengthen Eilis finds herself attracted to a young man in her home town named Jim (Domhnall Gleason). Eilis carries secrets with her tear at her, as she must come to terms with decisions made in the past and to be made. Just what decision she will make will affect not just her life but the lives of those around her.

The movie is entertaining from start to finish. Not once does this movie become one where you find yourself staring at the clock, checking to see how much longer the movie is or grabbing the remote to fast forward. It engages you as a viewer and holds you captivated by the story of a young woman who not only discovers love but does so with two different men. How she comes to the decision she does by the end of the film is a satisfying conclusion to a movie that not only keeps you watching but makes you consider the lives of so many who came to this country all those years ago.

While every performance involved in this film is superb it is that lead role of Eilis as performed by Saoirse Ronan that holds the movie together. Not once do you think this is an actress in a role. She captures the very essence of Eilis from early on in the film until its end. At only 21 years of age she has already rung up a number of outstanding performances in several films. She may have lost the Oscar this past year for this performance but I would be willing to bet the elusive award will find its way into her hands eventually.

The movie is one of the best nights I’ve had in some time watching films to write about. As I said earlier I never once found myself looking for something else to do or somewhere else to be. I was too caught up in the story of this young woman in search of something better. My guess is that you will be as well. This one is not just a movie that you’ll watch and forget, but one that you might want to add to your shelf.

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I remember the first time I ever saw this film as a child on a late night horror hosted program. Called HORROR HOTEL (the name given the film for its American release) it was one that stuck with me years after I had seen it. Whenever I saw it was on TV I made a choice to watch it again if possible. I’d seen it released on DVD in various packages and from different companies but knew that most of them were low quality releases for the film so I never bothered. I pleased to now say that a definitive version of the film is available and includes some fantastic extras with it.

If you’ve never seen the movie it starts off with a young female college student named Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) looking into witch trials in American history. Willing to do extra credit she takes the advice of her professor Driscoll (Christopher Lee) to visit a small village called Whitewood where he came from. 300 years ago Elizabeth Selwyn was burned at the stake there for witchcraft and he tells her she could find plenty of information on the topic there, suggesting that she stay at The Raven’s Inn run by a Mrs. Newless (Patricia Jessell). As viewers we immediately recognize Mrs. Newless as Selwyn, the witch burned at the stake years ago and seen in a short prologue at the beginning of the film.

Strange things begin to happen immediately and it isn’t long before Nan is soon marked to be a sacrifice to a coven of witches that still remain in Whitewood. Before that can happen Nan’s brother Richard (Dennis Lotis) shows up in town as well in search of his sister. He is befriended by a blind priest and his granddaughter Patricia (Betta St. John) who runs a local store. Richard and Patricia soon become enamored with one another as she helps him try to find out what happened to Nan. Having befriended Nan when she arrived even Patricia is wondering what’s going on. Before the film ends witches will rise, a coven will threaten non-members and a twist will reveal itself.

What makes this film work on all levels is the atmosphere it creates from the start of the film. The town of Whitewood is creepy as all get out, with a low lying mist forever working its way across the ground. It seems as if daylight has never reached this village and the odds of it ever doing so again are slim. Add to that the eerie factor on display from events that happen throughout, from dancing guests that disappear to strange individuals who can be found in the town to the fact that the priest has a church with no one in attendance and you get the impression early on that this is not a town to remain in for long.

The appearance of Lee in the role of the professor, a man who takes the subject he teaches seriously, lends a certain amount of horror credibility to the entire film as he had played Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Mummy in the previous 3 years. His time on screen is short but valuable in establishing many moments of the film. Jessell does an amazing job of moving from mad to subtly threatening in her role and adds to the overall creepiness onscreen.

Although over 56 years ago (!) the film holds up amazingly well. Made at a time just before people began to honestly fear a resurgence in devil worship and cults between the Manson family and the release of THE EXORCIST, the movie uses both themes to instill fear in the viewer. I’m sure there was some fear of both prior to the film’s release but at the time movies had no problem using those themes to create a horror tale. While that continues today most are wary of using either for entertainment purposes and more people are fearful of watching films like this than at that time. That this film can still make you feel dread and concern over the topic is a testament to the power it has.

VCI has released the film before but this Blu-ray version offers a pristine transfer of the film, the best I’ve seen to date, as well as numerous extras to go along with it. The film itself offers both the U.S. version as well as the lengthier British version. Extras include an archival interview with Christopher Lee and a behind the scenes interview with Lee when he was signing autographs for a previously released VCI edition released in 2001. There is a new audio commentary track by Bruce G. Hallenbeck (a British film authority and contributor to LITTLE SHOPS OF HORRORS MAGAZINE), liner notes by Mike Kenny, a trailer for the British title of the film and a gallery of photos that include lobby cards, stills, posters and more.

If you loved this film as a child or having discovered it on TV years after it was released then by all means you’ll want to check out this edition of the film. As I said it retains the creepy factor after all these years, might still inspire a nightmare or two and is the best version of this movie that can be found right now. The folks at VCI have outdone themselves with this release. All that’s missing is a horror host to introduce the film to take me back to my youth.

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