Film Review: Trading Places (1983)

Also known as: Black or White (working title)
Release Date: June 7th, 1983 (limited)
Directed by: John Landis
Written by: Timothy Harris, Herschel Weingrod
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliot, Paul Gleason, Kristin Holby, Bo Diddley, Jim Belushi, Al Franken, Tom Davis, Frank Oz, Giancarlo Esposito

Cinema Group Ventures, Paramount Pictures, 116 Minutes

Review:

“I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me, and it was all because of this terrible, awful negro!” – Louis Winthorpe III

Since I watched The Blues Brothers a week ago, I wanted to revisit this movie, as well. I’ve been on a John Landis comedy kick, as of late.

Like The Blues Brothers, this was one of my favorite comedies, as a kid, because it featured two comedic actors I loved and still do.

While these aren’t my favorite roles for either Dan Aykroyd or Eddie Murphy, they’re still iconic and the guys had tremendous chemistry. So much so, I had always whished for a sequel to this. I kind of hoped it would happen after this film’s villains had cameos in Coming to America, which saw them potentially get their lives back.

Speaking of the villains, played by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, they were superb and charismatic for being total pieces of shit. They contributed just as much to the greatness of this picture as the two leads.

However, I also have to give a lot of credit to Denholm Elliot and Jamie Lee Curtis. The two of them rounded out the group of protagonists and formed a solid team alongside Aykroyd and Murphy, as they fought to take down the two rich bastards that were going to completely destroy them.

The story sees a commodities broker have his life ruined by his two bosses over a one dollar bet. That bet sees someone from the furthest end of the social hierarchy take his place to see if he can overcome his environment and succeed at the level that a man born into privilege could.

Essentially, Aykroyd and Murphy play switcheroo but neither are aware of why. Once they find out, they decide to work together to teach the villains a hard lesson. In the end, they outwit them at their own game and walk away with their fortune, leaving them broke.

The film does a pretty amusing job of analyzing “nature versus nurture”. While it’s not a wholly original idea and has similarities to the classic The Prince and the Pauper story, it at least makes the switching of lives involuntary and with that, creates some solid comedic moments.

Even though this isn’t specifically a Christmas movie, it takes place over the holiday, as well as New Year’s, and it’s a film I like to watch around that time of year.

Trading Places has held up really well and it feels kind of timeless even though it is very ’80s. It’s story transcends that, though, and the leads really took this thing to an iconic level, making it one of the best comedies of its time.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other John Landis comedies, as well as other films with Dan Aykroyd or Eddie Murphy.

Film Review: To the Devil A Daughter (1976)

Also known as: Dennis Wheatley’s To the Devil a Daughter (Netherlands), Child of Satan (US VHS title)
Release Date: March 4th, 1976 (UK)
Directed by: Peter Sykes
Written by: Chris Wicking, John Peacock, Gerald Vaughan-Hughes
Based on: To the Devil A Daughter by Dennis Wheatley
Music by: Paul Glass
Cast: Richard Widmark, Christopher Lee, Honor Blackman, Nastassja Kinski, Denholm Elliott, Michael Goodliffe, Anthony Valentine, Eva Maria Meineke

Terra-Filmkunst, Hammer Films, 95 Minutes

Review:

“It is not heresy, and I will not recant!” – Father Michael Rayner

This has been a film I’ve wanted to see for years but I was never actually able to find it on VHS or DVD when I was still buying those things. Granted, I’m leaning back towards owning physical media again after some recent shenanigans by studios and streaming services but that’s a totally different article.

Anyway, this actually exceeded my expectations for it and it kind of sucks that Hammer was already fading away by the time this was released.

The movie features Christopher Lee, one of Hammer’s two greatest actors, but it also features the legendary Richard Widmark, Indiana Jones’ Denholm Elliott, Goldfinger‘s Honor Blackman and a very young Nastassja Kinski before she would go on to give stellar performances in Cat People and one of my favorite films of all-time, Paris, Texas.

While this is sort of your typical Antichrist movie, it stars Lee as an evil priest and Kinski as the daughter of the Devil. Kinski plays a nun and she’s been raised and protected by her father, who was forced into a pact with the evil priest and the Devil. However, he wants to keep his daughter away from her evil destiny and sends her to Widmark, a renowned demonology writer, who uncovers what’s happening and sets out to conquer the Devil and his top minion.

For a mid-’70s low budget horror flick, this is really well acted but, as I’ve already pointed out, it had a stacked cast.

What works most for this film is its atmosphere and the general creepiness of it. It also features some neat practical effects that make some moments in the film a real mindfuck. Needless to say, I was impressed by what the filmmakers were able to do with so little in regards to the production’s resources.

To the Devil A Daughter is sort of bittersweet in the fact that it’s so surprisingly good and it showed that Hammer was evolving with the times but it wasn’t enough to save the studio from having to focus more on television and not future feature films.

However, the damage was already done, as this was a co-production with a German studio. Because of that, despite this being a financial success, the profits had to be split with the other company.

While Hammer has never actually died off, this does feel like a worthy sendoff to the once great studio.

After decades of hibernation, Hammer started making films again in recent years.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: other occult horror films with Christopher Lee or put out by Hammer or Amicus.

Film Review: Toy Soldiers (1991)

Release Date: April 26th, 1991
Directed by: Daniel Petrie Jr.
Written by: David Koepp, Daniel Petrie Jr.
Based on: Toy Soldiers by William P. Kennedy
Music by: Robert Folk
Cast: Sean Astin, Wil Wheaton, Keith Coogan, Andrew Divoff, Denholm Elliot, Lou Gossett Jr., George Perez, T.E. Russell, Shawn Phelan, R. Lee Ermey, Jerry Orbach (uncredited)

Island World, TriStar Pictures, 111 Minutes

Review:

“Great, the school gets taken over by terrorists and I’m still on pots and pans.” – William “Billy” Tepper

I thought this movie was pretty badass when I was twelve years-old. I mean, it’s still okay but it hasn’t stood the test of time very well. Plus, I think at twelve, I still believed that being a real G.I. Joe was an obtainable life goal.

Toy Soldiers like Red Dawn, Iron Eagle and The Rescue before it, sees its teen stars pick up arms to take down some corrupt, evil motherfuckers.

In the case of this film, the teens’ military school is taken over by a Colombian drug cartel because the cartel’s leader’s daddy is being held captive by the United States government. The reason he chose the school was because the son of one of the U.S. government officials is enrolled there. However, he was pulled out of the academy just before the evil shitheads arrived. So the bad guys already suck before the ball really gets rolling.

Anyway, we see a pretty solid cast of Sean Astin, Keith Coogan and Wil Wheaton (before he totally sucked) work with their other buddies in an effort to stop the drug cartel and take their school back.

The adult officials in the movie are also pretty solid, as they’re played by Louis Gossett Jr. Denholm Elliot and R. Lee Ermey.

Seeing this now, almost thirty years later, all the film’s extra excess of cheese is very apparent. Sure, I noticed it when I was a pre-teen but having just come out of the ’80s, cheesiness was still at the forefront of American pop culture. So was patriotism and kicking foreign ass, as we had just won the Cold War, conquered mainstream communism and were embroiled in the first Gulf War. Also, for kids my age, we had guys like Hulk Hogan, Sgt. Slaughter and “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan preaching to us about the awesomeness of Americana. Don’t talk to me about Slaughter becoming an Iraqi sympathizer because that wasn’t real, you imagined it.

So the movie is still enjoyable in spite of its goofiness and its awkward stars trying so hard to be tough guys. It’s hard to buy into, especially when you see little Willy Wheaton shooting a machine gun on the steps of the school, only to be gunned down in an effort to give this meaningless movie more meaning.

As mindless entertainment goes, you could watch much worse. This is a pretty forgettable film but it had some good young actors for its time. I only wish it would’ve been retooled into a Pauly Shore movie because that would’ve taken it to a whole other level.

Rating: 6.25/10
Pairs well with: other teen soldier movies like Red Dawn, Iron Eagle and The Rescue.

Film Review: The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

Also known as: Blood Zone (Japan English title), Method for Murder, Waxworks, Sweets to the Sweet, The Cloak (segment titles)
Release Date: February 21st, 1971 (UK)
Directed by: Peter Duffell
Written by: Robert Bloch, Russ Jones
Music by: Michael Dress
Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Denholm Elliot, Ingrid Pitt, Jon Pertwee, Joss Ackland, Nyree Dawn Porter

Amicus Productions, Cinerama Releasing Corporation, 102 Minutes

Review:

“That’s what’s wrong with the present day horrorfilms. There’s no realism. Not like the old ones, the great ones. Frankenstein. Phantom of the Opera. Dracula – the one with Bela Lugosi of course, not this new fellow.” – Paul Henderson

I know that I’ve stated a few times before that I’m not a big fan of anthologies but sometimes there are those rare exceptions like Creepshow. Well, this is one of those rare exceptions.

Amicus is often times confused with Hammer Films, as they were another British studio that made horror pictures in the same era and used a lot of the same stars. They did have a tendency to make a lot of anthology pictures though, where Hammer focused more on classic monsters in the same vein as the Universal Pictures horror films of the ’30s and ’40s.

This one might be the best of Amicus’ horror anthologies, which are really hit or miss for me.

love that we get to see Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in another film, which happened over twenty times in their careers. They don’t share screen time here, unfortunately, as both men star in different stories within this anthology framework. But each is the star of their own segment.

Additionally, we get to see a segment starring Denholm Elliot a.k.a. Marcus Brody of Indiana Jones fame, as well as Jon Pertwee, most famous for playing the third incarnation of the Doctor on Doctor Who. It doesn’t stop there though, as we also get to enjoy the wonderful Ingrid Pitt, a true British scream queen, and Joss Ackland, who I love in just about everything.

While this stacked cast does a lot to make this film work and to legitimize it in a sea of horror from the era, it is the stories and the actual connection that they have that makes this a really enjoyable feature.

This is a small and confined feeling film, as just about every scene takes place in the same house. Each segment focuses on a different owner of the house and how this haunted property finds a way to effect them and bring out their fear.

We have a story about a writer going insane, seeing his imagined killer coming to life. We then get a story that involves a wax recreation of a dead love. Then there is one about a young girl that is a witch who terrorizes her overbearing father. And finally, we get my favorite segment that sees a legendary horror actor come into possession of a mystical cloak that turns the wearer into an actual vampire. There is also a chopped up segment that strings all the tales together.

I wouldn’t say that this is the best horror film put out by Amicus but it is the best one I’ve seen in awhile. That being said, it is in the upper echelon of their pictures and pretty damn enjoyable all around.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other British horror films from Amicus and Hammer from the late ’60s/early ’70s.

Film Review: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Release Date: May 24th, 1989
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Jeffrey Boam, George Lucas, Menno Meykes
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Harrison Ford, Denholm Elliot, Alison Doody, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover, Sean Connery, River Phoenix, Alexei Sayle, Alex Hyde-White

Lucasfilm Ltd., Paramount Pictures, 128 Minutes

Review:

“You lost today, kid. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it.” – Fedora

I remember the day that I saw this film in the theater upon its release. It kicked off the summer of ’89, which was a massive time for movies and still, hands down, one of the best summer blockbuster years of all-time between this, BatmanGhostbusters IILethal Weapon 2Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Licence to KillThe Karate Kid, Part IIIFriday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, The Abyss, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. That summer also gave us great non-blockbusters like Weekend at Bernie’sUncle BuckWhen Harry Met Sally…Sex, Lies & VideotapeDead Poets SocietyDo the Right ThingUHFTurner & Hooch and Parenthood. 1989 could actually be my favorite movie year ever but I’d say it’s tied with 1984.

With all that competition and with a lot to live up to following two previous Indiana Jones movies, The Last Crusade had a lot on its shoulders. Not to worry though, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were still on their A-game and this one had a real familiarity to it, after Temple of Doom was a stylistic and narrative change from the original movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Not only does Indy return but we get to see some familiar faces from Raiders. Denholm Elliot’s Marcus Brody returns and actually goes on the adventure this time. We also get to see John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah again and he is also more directly involved than he was in Raiders. The big cherry on top is the inclusion of the original James Bond, Sean Connery, who played Indy’s father. It is also worth mentioning that this started with a great sequence featuring a teenage Indiana, played by River Phoenix. The sequence was so good that it inspired a long-running television series, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

The film’s cast is rounded out by Julian Glover, who played an Imperial general in Empire Strikes Back, as well as a Bond villain opposite of Roger Moore in For Your Eyes Only. We also get a cameo by British comedian Alexei Sayle, who was one of the creative forces behind one of my favorite shows of the ’80s, The Young Ones. The female lead is played by Irish model Alison Doody, who probably had the least impact of any Indy girl but still held her own in a cast that boasted immense talent.

The other aspect of familiarity with this picture, other than the cast, is that Indy is pitted against the Nazis once again, in a race to find a Holy treasure that also features a big desert action sequence. However, the tank Indy faces off against, as well as the Nazi colonel, are much bigger threats than the Nazi convoy from that famous Raiders chase sequence.

With the first three Indiana Jones movies, it is hard to dislike anything. All three of them are perfection. While Temple of Doom is my favorite, The Last Crusade and Raiders of the Lost Ark are both amazing.

In fact, this is the best cinematic trilogy ever made and yes, I still consider these three films a trilogy even though a fourth one, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was released after a nineteen year hiatus. That one was a step down in quality but it certainly wasn’t as big of a step down as Star Wars when it came back with the prequel films.

Indiana Jones is an incredible franchise and really, I love Indy more than I love Star Wars because the series had three consecutive pictures that were as good as a movies could ever be. Sure, you might want to argue that Citizen Kane or The Godfather or The Shawshank Redemption are better films. But were they this fun while being this damn good? Hell f’n no!

Rating: 10/10

Film Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Also known as: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (after the release of sequels)
Release Date: June 12th, 1981
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman
Music by: John Williams
Cast: Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, Paul Freeman, Ronald Lacey, John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliot, Alfred Molina, Pat Roach

Lucasfilm Ltd., Paramount Pictures, 115 Minutes

Review:

“You and I are very much alike. Archeology is our religion, yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods have not differed as much as you pretend. I am but a shadowy reflection of you. It would take only a nudge to make you like me. To push you out of the light.” – Dr. René Belloq

Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the greatest films ever made. It was kind of cool seeing it on the big screen for the first time, which leaves Temple of Doom as the only Indy film I haven’t seen in the theater now. Indiana Jones is also my favorite film series of all-time. Yes, I even loved that Crystal Skull one that everyone feels the need to bitch about.

While Temple of Doom is my personal favorite (and an unpopular opinion), I can admit that Raiders is actually a better film. Everything about it is just right.

The casting was perfect and I can’t imagine how the film would have turned out had George Lucas had his first pick, Tom Selleck. Indiana Jones is Harrison Ford’s role and unlike James Bond, no one would probably ever accept someone else as the character. Granted, several actors played a young Indy but both River Phoenix and Sean Patrick Flanery did a fine job as the character outside of his normal form. Harrison Ford will always be the adult Indiana Jones but I am sure that Disney will somehow milk the franchise into oblivion at some point and then forever.

The chemistry between Ford and Karen Allen is wonderful and out of all the Indy ladies, she was the only one to eventually come back and marry America’s favorite adventurer. Rightfully so, by the way, as the relationship between Indy and Marion is, by far, the greatest romance in the series and a natural fit for both characters and both actors. While Karen Allen has been in several great films, she will always be Marion to me and probably to everyone.

Paul Freeman is perfection as Indy’s adventuring archaeologist nemesis René Belloq. It is unfortunate that Belloq dies, as he would have been a great villain to carry on in the series. In fact, there was a planned origin story for Belloq in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the 90s TV series, but the show was cancelled before those stories were filmed.

Ronald Lacey was another villain and possibly the most frightening in the entire series as the reptilian-like Toht. He was a Gestapo interrogator dressed in black and always ready to torture Marion in vicious ways. Luckily, she is spared from anything that the evil Toht had planned.

Raiders also introduces us to John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah and Denholm Elliot’s Marcus Brody, two characters that would return and get more screen time in The Last Crusade.

This is the perfect adventure film. While it is obviously inspired by the serials of old, it brings that formula into the modern era and reinvigorates what was a dead genre, at the time. This, alongside the original Star Wars trilogy, tapped into the great storytelling style of those seemingly ancient serials. It would have been cool to see what other films from the old school serial style that Lucas and Spielberg could have done in addition to Indiana Jones and Star Wars. Maybe something along the lines of a superhero series like the Phantom or the Shadow could have worked well before their not-so-great 90s versions came out.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is what going to the movies is all about. At least in the summer blockbuster sense. They don’t make movies like this anymore and even though this was a massive film in 1981, it is much smaller than the grandiose CGI spectacles of today. The practical special effects keep the film grounded in reality and make it feel much more authentic and genuine than say, the Transformers film series, the Marvel stuff, a Zack Snyder flick or a Roland Emmerich “destroy the world” type of picture. The most recent version of The Mummy, which is close in subject matter, pales in comparison to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

A lot of the film’s magic isn’t just the work of Spielberg, Lucas and the wonderful cast, a lot of credit goes to the score that was composed by the movie music maestro John Williams. Say what you will but movies today just don’t have soundtracks and iconic themes like those composed by Williams. Can anyone even remember the theme from Iron Man? At least Wonder Woman had a pretty unique theme that stands out but it is just one film in a sea of modern movie making mediocrity.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is a motion picture that did everything right. It should always be held up, above the vast majority of tent pole movies, as an example of what films like this should be. It shouldn’t be copied but it should be cherished and looked at for inspiration. Everyone from my generation knows it but as new generations are born and as movies are becoming nonsensical extinction level event CGI festivals, the greats like Raiders aren’t as appealing to younger generations that want bigger, louder, faster, more, more, more!

Rating: 10/10