Archive for October, 2016

Scenes of the Houdini Museum (on the 90th Anniversary of His Death)

Posted in EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Magicians/ Mind Readers/ Quick Change, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , on October 31, 2016 by travsd

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90 years ago this very night, Harry Houdini shuffled off this moral coil. I happened to find myself near the Houdini Museum today, so I popped in to remember him (it’s located in the Fantasma Magic Shop, across the street from Penn Station.) Here are some snaps I took:

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This bust, modelled from life, was removed from Houdini's grave monument in Queens

This bust, modeled from life, was removed from Houdini’s grave monument in Queens

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For more on Houdini, magic, and vaudeville consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

Four of the Three Musketeers: A Valuable New Book About the Marx Brothers

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Comedy, Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers, PLUGS with tags , , , on October 26, 2016 by travsd

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I was too busy getting married on October 15 to notice the big news that THIS masterwork had finally come out. Rob Bader provided a privileged few of us with some memories to last a life time at Marxfest…like a comedy star Columbo he ran down some answers to questions that most of us figured would be forever lost to time. Now it looks like his big book has hit the stores. Trust me, if you’re a fan, this won’t just be the kind of book that comes out once in a blue moon — this book contains original research that, for a fan, is once-in-a-lifetime. Valuable, valuable contributions to the study of the Marx Brothers, vaudeville and early 20th century theatre in general. This is one I can’t wait to read. Get it here: https://www.amazon.com/Four-Three-Musketeers-Brothers-Stage/dp/0810134160

In Which I Get My Witch On from “The Witch”

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , on October 26, 2016 by travsd

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Last year, when I read the terrific nonfiction book The Witches: Salem 1692, my over-riding takeaway was that I’d love to write a horror screenplay that worked off the mindset and belief system of the people who testified at the witch trials, the people who actually believed in witches. Almost all witch movies tend to be silly toothless comedies (Hocus Pocus, The Witches of Eastwick) or tedious stories of Satanism from the 60s and 70s (usually made by AIP, Hammer or the Italians) where the payoff at the end of 90s minutes of boredom is that the nice people one has suspected all along are in the basement dressed in cowls and chanting in Latin. To date my favorite witch movies have been The Wizard of Oz (the villainess in which is so archetypal and comes to us so young it triggers nightmares in the lizard brain), I Married a Witch (which though it is technically a screwball comedy manages to evoke a dark, dream-like and Halloweeny atmosphere) and above all Haxan, which is the only movie heretofore that features the terrifying imagery that I want, but has the drawback of being a silent Scandinavian documentary nearly a century old.

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The imagery in Haxan, like the testimony in Stacy Schiff’s book, is drawn from primary sources…and what people back then said they saw, or thought they saw is terrifying: baby killings, bathing in blood, levitation, hags in the forest, visitations from demons disguised as animals. I very much thought I’d like to see a period movie where people believed these things could happen because they were true. But it turns out I don’t have to write this movie. Robert Eggers made it last year. A few days ago we watched his debut feature, The Witch, and I am extraordinarily impressed — I can’t imagine that it’s not a movie I’ll watch annually for the rest of my life. Not just because it accomplishes what I’ve just described, but for a long list of reasons beyond that. On a personal level it hits my sweet spot. It’s set in the Massachusetts of 1630; characters refer to “the plantation” which we may assume to be Plymouth, though it is never thus specified. Just as one of our scariest ghost stories also happens to be a Yuletide yarn (A Christmas Carol), this scary witch tale has thematic connections to Thanksgiving. As someone with deep ancestral connections to the Pilgrims, it speaks to me.

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But so much more than this, because if the director had done a lousy, cursory job I wouldn’t give two hoots about the movie. Eggers’ film is awe-inspiring. Everything about it. His background is as a production designer for theatre and film, and he has brought to the table here a level of careful research and attention to detail that is rare and glorious to behold, from the rich, Jacobean language of the screenplay; to the thick Yorkshire accents of the principal characters, to the religious, social and moral attitudes of those characters; to the design and architecture of every building, household object, and costume. Shot in the wilds of Ontario, it’s one of the few films I’ve seen that truly makes you feel like you are in the isolated frontier of 17th century America, a time when ten miles from the Atlantic ocean may as well have been the Amazon rain-forest.

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While the experience is never less than gripping, the plot is simple: the head of a Puritan family (Ralph Ineson) runs afoul of the authorities over a matter of doctrine. Rather than change his beliefs, he moves his small family (wife and five young children) outside the plantation stockade and starts a farm in the distant wilderness. Almost immediately, horrible bad luck starts to strike in wave after wave, most of it apparently centered around the family’s oldest daughter (Anya Taylor-Joy). According to their belief system, Satan and witchery are afoot, and while the daughter appears the most obvious suspect, the father bears a certain amount of blame for the family’s misfortunes himself. I won’t reveal who the titular witch is, or what forms the horned one takes, but just know that, as in powerful classics such as The Exorcist and The Omen, the devil and his minions do prove to be quite real. And several audacious, unthinkable things happen all in a row. Most directors would be afraid to “go there” — Eggers goes there again and again, and with total effectiveness, because we believe it.

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At any rate, Eggers knows how to do horror as well as he knows how to do history and we await his next movie with keen anticipation. I am delighted to read this morning that it is a remake of Nosferatu. 

One Week from Today: W.C. Fields for President!

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Indie Theatre, PLUGS, SOCIAL EVENTS, W.C. Fields with tags , , , , , , , on October 25, 2016 by travsd

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Tuesday, November 1, 7:00pm: W.C. Fields for President!

You may not have heard, but we’re in the middle of a Presidential election season! Well, not the middle so much as near the end of a process that has been going on for about a year and a half. And after all that winnowing, all that thinning of a very large pack, the American people in their wisdom managed to select two candidates whom large numbers of their fellow Americans just can’t stand!

It’s time to take a break from all the madness. Which is why I hope you’ll join us one week from today for W.C. Fields for President, a mock campaign event starring the eponymous screen comedian, as played by Glen Heroy of PBS’s CircusW.C. Fields for President is based on the humor book Fields for President, which was written by the comedian and published just in time for the 1940 Presidential election. The original edition looked like this:

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Then it was republished in the early 1970s, just when Fields’ popularity was experiencing a resurgence. In the mid ’80s I got a copy of that edition, and it was highly influential on me. My edition looks like this:

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And, lastly, just a few weeks ago it was recently re-released with a new forward by Dick Cavett). Ultimately that (and the current election) are what precipitate next Tuesday’s event. Every shelf should have one. Buy your copy here. 

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Here’s me and W.C.’s only granddaughter Dr. Harriet Fields at our planning meeting a few weeks back (a.k.a Through the Looking Glass):

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The present show was adapted from the book, and is directed by me, Trav S.D. It stars Glen Heroy of PBS’s Circus and will feature special guests, including Lauren Milberger, as Gracie Allen (who also ran a comedy Presidential campaign in 1940). 

Our event is going to be held at the Lambs — the historic theatrical club, of which one of the most famous members just happened to be…W.C. Fields. Here is Heroy rehearsing at the Lambs, only yesterday:

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And by rehearsing, I mean playing pool. The Lambs is located at  3 West 51st Street, 5th floor. A suggested donation of $10 supports The Lambs Foundation. Attendance is limited, please RSVP to Kevin Fitzpatrick, kevin [AT ]fitzpatrickauthor.com.  Again, it takes place Tuesday, November 1 at 7pm.

W.C. Fields for President is part of Fields Fest, a festival of talks, screenings, walking tours and other events celebrating the life and career of W.C. Fields. For more on Fields Fest and some of our other events, go here. Fields Fest is our follow up to the highly successful Marxfest, which took place in May of 2014. 

Lewis and Dody: Hello Hello Hello!

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Music, Singers, Stars of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Sam Lewis (1885-1959), today best remembered as a tin pan alley songwriter, who co-wrote such classics as “How You Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”, “My Mammy”, and “Sitting on Top of the World”. At a certain point he was partnered with a guy named Jack Altman, but for most of his career he was teamed with dialect comedian Sam Dody. Lewis and Dody were also billed as The Harmony Boys and The Two Sams.  They starred in a show called Hello, America on the Columbia Burlesque wheel in 1918. In vaudeville they introduced the Bert Kalmar and Harry Puck songs “Kiss Me (I’ve Never Been Kissed Before)” and “Where Did You Get That Girl?”(both 1913)  and the 1917 patriotic number “Homeward Bound” by Johnson and Goetz.  They are best known for a single novelty song “Hello Hello Hello”, which became their signature. They played the Palace with their act in the mid 1920s.

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Marie Loftus: The Sarah Bernhardt of the Music Halls

Posted in British Music Hall, Irish, Singers, Singing Comediennes, Stars of Vaudeville, Variety Theatre, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2016 by travsd

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 Marie Loftus (1857-1940) was known as the “Sarah Bernhardt of the Music Halls” . Born in Glasgow to Irish parents, she grew up near the Scotia Music Hall, which is where she began dancing as a young girl. As a singing single she first appeared at Brown’s Royal Music Hall by age 17. Within three years she had made it to London. Loftus possessed a stout, buxom figure which was of a sort very much in vogue with Victorian audiences at the time. Like many music hall singers, her repertoire contained suggestive material that some frowned upon. But she remained popular in her native Glasgow, even as she became a national star on the London stages, both in music hall and as a Principal Boy in Pantomime. Her fame became international when she began to tour American vaudeville and the halls of South Africa. By the 1890s she was earning 100 pounds a week. Her daughter Cissie Loftus (1876-1943) would prove just as famous.

To find out more about these variety artists and the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

The Horror and Sci Fi of Steven Spielberg

Posted in Horror (Mostly Gothic), Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , on October 22, 2016 by travsd

As TCM is screening Jaws and its sequels tonight I thought it would be interesting to look at Steven Spielberg’s work in horror, fantasy and science fiction in isolation. As I opined in my earlier post, though Spielberg makes films in other genres, such as war films, historical dramas and the like, with a couple of notable exceptions, his strongest suit remains the one he started out in. This survey will look at both his television and film work, and works he produced as well as ones he directed. This is my second in a series of posts about horror films by mainstream New Hollywood directors not normally regarded as “horror directors”. The first was about John Landis. I am also planning similar ones about Francis Ford Coppola and Brian De Palma. (If I don’t get to them this year, look for them next October!)

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Night Gallery episodes (1969-1971)

Two of Spielberg’s earliest directorial credits were on Rod Serling’s Night Gallery series, less horror per se than stories in the writer’s patented “weird tales with an O. Henry twist” tradition. Amazingly, the 21 year old Spielberg’s first professional directorial assignment was “Eyes”, a segment in the 1969 Night Gallery feature length pilot starring none other than Joan Crawford as an evil, rich blind woman who pays a desperate gambler (Tom Bosley) for his ocular organs (she’s blackmailed a doctor into performing the unsavory operation). The rub is that she will only enjoy sight temporarily (she’s that evil) and the twist is that when she opens her new eyes after the operation it is evening — in the middle of a power black-out.

Two years later, Spielberg was asked back to direct a second episode, entitled “Make Me Laugh”. This one is a riff on the Midas myth. Godfrey Cambridge is a comedian who wishes for the unfailing gift of making people laugh. A swami (Jackie Vernon) gives him more than he bargained for. Now no one will stop laughing at whatever he says, even when he’s serious! Tom Bosley plays his agent, and Al Lewis a club owner. Both these episodes were penned by Serling himself. Spielberg’s gratitude for his career having been launched in such a fortuitous manner would be evident in his tributes Twilight Zone: The Movie and Amazing Stories a decade later.

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L.A. 2017 (1971)

Spielberg’s first feature length script was presented as an episode of the series The Name of the Game. It is set in a then-future Los Angeles where everyone lives underground due to air pollution, and America is now a fascist-corporate state where the police are all psychiatrists. The cast includes numerous old-guard Hollywood vets, including Gene Barry, Barry Sullivan, Edmond O’Brien, Paul Stewart and Joan Crawford. We’ll be returning to the subject of this telefilm in a couple of months for reasons that should be obvious from the film’s title.

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Duel (1971)

Widely regarded as Spielberg’s first “masterpiece”, one of the best tv-movies of all time, and the film that put Spielberg on the map. Duel was an ABC Movie of the Week written by the legendary Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Shrinking Man, The Night Stalker, numerous Roger Corman collaborations, as well as a Twilight Zone vet).  It concerns a motorist (Dennis Weaver) who is being run down by a malevolent trailer truck driver on an isolated stretch of desert highway. The driver is never shown, so the truck itself begins to take on an identity like some sort of Moby Dick like predatory creature animated by the devil himself, an impression magnified by the psychological toll the ordeal begins to take on Weaver. The streamlined shape of this telefilm is especially impressive. It is all harrowing action, just a ride from beginning to end, paving the way for much of Spielberg’s later work.

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Something Evil (1972)

I have informally retitled this early telefilm Something’s Missing. At this stage of his career Spielberg was still just a journeyman tv director. While Duel happens to be pretty great, Something Evil is more in line with a lot of his early work — straightforward storytelling with a few artistic touches here and there. He is struggling with a not-very-compelling story, and one that was done to death in the early 70s: a family moves into a house that is inhabited by the devil. This one is helped by an interesting angle: it is set in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania and the events revolve around what happens when you tamper with those painted witch pentacles that the Pennsylvania Dutch put on barns to ward off evil. And it is likewise made more watchable by a cast that includes Darren McGavin (who’d done The Night Stalker pilot the year before, though the series wouldn’t be launched until 1974, Sandy Dennis, Johnny Whitaker (fresh off of Family Affair), Ralph Bellamy, and Jeff Corey as the obligatory creepy old codger and caretaker. Much that happens is “unseen”, possibly in Sandy Dennis’s mind, and that gets to be tiresome after a while, but there are also scenes where those unseen forces move stuff around, anticipating the terrific scene before the toddler is abducted in Close Encounters. And there’s lots of early mother-child stuff that register as the beginnings of Spielberg’s career-long thematic preoccupation with that theme.

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Jaws (1975)

As we wrote in our earlier post, we consider this Spielberg’s best movie bar none. Though it doesn’t seem to often be characterized as such nowadays (probably because Spielberg rapidly became known as an all-around Hollywood auteur), Jaws is a straight-up horror film and was certainly marketed and received as such when it came out. Unlike most graphic horror movies of its day (or any day, really), it is extraordinarily strong on character. The movie would have already been extremely effective as an amusement park ride strictly on how it is shot, edited and scored. That’s basically what people were lining up to buy tickets for in 1975 — the bloody spectacle of seeing people get gobbled up by a great white shark. But what gives Jaws its real staying power as a classic are the performances by Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfus, Robert Shaw and (the sometimes neglected but very important) Murray Hamilton (the mayor). People quote lines from the film. Shaw’s performance will intrigue me to the end of my days — he put a LOT into this role. Not just the film’s most harrowing scene where he is unable to stop himself from slowly sliding into the shark’s open mouth and then shrieks in a way that we imagine is almost TOO realistic…but also subtler stuff, like his drunken monologue about his ordeal after the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. And above all, Spielberg’s genius in making the shark a “character” (I believe the robot’s nickname was “Bruce”). Most “animals gone wild” films fail on multiple levels. This one succeeds superlatively, both as horror and as a story about people.

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Transmuting fear to wonder

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) 

As a UFO buff in my childhood, I was obsessed with this movie when it came out. Its brilliance is in the turning on its head the old 50s “alien invaders from outer space” genre, and plugging it into 70s concerns. While the flying saucers thrill us with fear for most of the movie, that feeling gets transmuted to innocence and wonder by the end, and in essence paranoia and secrecy (by the government authorities) becomes the enemy. So many chilling moments in the film. Richard Dreyfus alone on a country road being “measured” or “read” by the aliens. That terrifying scene in Melinda Dillon’s house when the toys and appliances come to life and despite her best efforts her baby is kidnapped. The scene where the dude who is running with them to Devil’s Tower gets gassed. And the then-revolutionary realization of the aliens, obviously informed by modern eyewitness accounts by people who claim to have encountered aliens, making it seem, in an odd way “realistic”.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels (1981, etc) 

Raiders is obviously a tribute to the old mystery and adventure serials of the 1930s and ’40s, a form which was closely related to horror. In fact, almost all of the classic horror actors also starred in these kind of mystery and suspense pictures, usually as the villains. Raiders gives us scares both natural (spiders, snakes, headhunters, Nazis) and supernatural (mummies, ghosts and an Angel of Death with the power to melt the faces of villains and turn his henchmen to dust). Temple of Doom has black magic and crocodiles. The Last Crusade, like Raiders has Nazis and booby traps, but also the magical Holy Grail. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has the titular telepathic item, from the head of an alien, a nuclear bomb, and a hill of fire ants.

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E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982)

The outlines of this film certainly make it a science fiction story, but in reality it’s too warm and fuzzy to be much but a kid’s movie, though widely regarded as a classic one. I was much disappointed to discover that though when I saw it upon its first release. Though it has some thrills in the early beats, ultimately it’s a “family film”, which of course is perfectly valid if you like that sort of thing.

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Poltergeist (1982)

This one was produced by Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, though by all accounts (and it seems evident from the final product) Spielberg maintained an iron grip on the production, essentially directing the thing himself by making Hooper do everything he wanted.  With its fetishization of suburban living it looks like a Spielberg film. As with E.T., the promising title produced inevitable disappointment in me. I was a ghost buff. A film with the ballsy name Poltergeist damn well better be the archetypical poltergeist tale, which this one is anything but.  Your basic poltergeist yarn centers on an unhappy, awkward adolescent, whose violent energy attracts and fuels mischievous spirits who perform what are basically acts of vandalism. The one scene in the film that reminded me of that is the memorable scene where the kitchen furniture moves around of its own accord. But the rest of the movie is cockamamie — an exercise in ineffective excess and dumb ideas. It’s TOO Much. Ghosts in the tv. Some sort of dimensional door in the closet. An evil tree. An evil clown doll. A mysterious psychic little person. The physical theft of children by whatever-this-is. I find none of it scary because its just a bunch of claptrap and nonsense not rooted in anything. However, I do find the movie interesting and effective in a completely different way — as satire. It’s very rewarding to watch nowadays from that perspective. There is much about Reagan’s America here. Selfishness and privilege, and ultimately greed. The characters are all suffering because the subdivision was built on graves. The spectacle of JoBeth Williams dumped into a flooded basement full of muddy corpses is indeed one of the most powerful images in the film, both as satire and as horror.

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Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

Co-produced with John Landis, and co-directed with Landis and Joe Dante. Spielberg’s contribution to this tribute to Rod Serling’s landmark tv series is a predictably warm and fuzzy tale of senior citizens longing for youth called “Kick the Can”. It was based on an episode from the original series.

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Gremlins (1983)

Spielberg was executive producer of this silliness, written by Chris Columbus and directed by Joe Dante. I’ve never been a fan, it’s too dumb to be scary and yet I wouldn’t describe it as funny either. Like Close Encounters, E.T., and Poltergeist though it shares an obsession with suburban tract housing.

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Amazing Stories (1985-1987)

I LOVED this tv series, created and executive produced by Spielberg. Every Sunday, I would annoy my family by switching the tv audio settings to “stereo” so it would play through the speakers for maximum aesthetic impact. Spielberg came up with most of the story ideas himself, and the episodes were directed by him and other major directors like Martin Scorsese, Bob Clark, Clint Eastwood, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis, DannyDeVito, Tobe Hooper and Paul Bartel. It was thrilling to have something so high quality on network television. Like all such “weird tales” anthology shows, some episodes are horror, some fantasy or science fiction, some merely have an ironic twist.

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Arachnophobia (1990)

Spielberg was executive producer of this enjoyable bug movie, starring hundreds of large, deadly spiders and Jeff Daniels as a small town doctor who suffers from the titular condition. Much smarter and more rollicking than this kind of movie usually is.

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Jurassic Park and sequels (1993, etc) 

The original Jurassic Park is near the top of my favorite Spielberg films, and is easily the king (the T Rex, if you will) of all “Lost World Dinosaur” movies, a minor horror subgenre that goes back to the days of the silents. This is thanks to the relentless research and impeccable realism of the special effects, and (as with Jaws) the three dimensional characters. Nearly every moment in this film is riveting and memorable, and many are terrifying. Each succeeding sequel gives diminishing returns of course, which is not so very unusual.

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The Haunting (1999)

Spielberg executive produced this widely panned remake of the 1963 Robert Wise film based on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House. Starring Liam Neeson as a scientist who invites several people (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, Owen Wilson) to a haunted castle under the pretense of a “sleep study” — which turns out to be a fear study. But soon Neeson’s contrived spookery gets overwhelmed by ACTUAL spookery since the house is really haunted. As an added bonus — the caretakers are Marian Seldes and Bruce Dern. 

Like "The Wizard of Oz", but grim and cheerless!

Like “The Wizard of Oz”, but grim and cheerless!

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

An interesting experiment, half Stanley Kubrick and half Steven Spielberg, and all cold and lifeless. I only saw it the once, when it came out, but I found it so bleak and black, visually impressive but with nothing really to latch on to, not just for comfort, but at all.

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Minority Report (2002)

Based on Philip K. Dick material, and like much of hiss writing, is less science fiction and more like a futuristic mystery/crime story. Here Tom Cruise is a detective who has been accused by two out of a committee of three psychics of committing a murder in the future. He escapes in order to find the third psychic (who provided the titular report) and clear his name. While it’s full of interesting technology, neither the story nor the star are my cup of tea at all.

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War of the Worlds (2005)

I thought this movie was incredible and that Spielberg nearly achieved the impossible — out-doing the original 1953 screen adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, which is one of my favorite movies. Spielberg’s vision of the alien craft, the sound they make, their rays, their effect on humans, the behavior of crowds, are all riveting. I especially loved the first half of this movie; I’ll undoubtedly watch it many more times. What ultimately spoils it for me is the casting of the soulless cipher Tom Cruise as the star, and a screenplay with so much toxic energy in it. It’s enough that people have to battle aliens. I detest the current Hollywood Orthodoxy that every movie needs to carry the additional baggage of patching up families at the same time they save the planet or whatever.

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Super 8 (2011)

Spielberg co-produced (co-wrote the story for) this J.J. Abrams film, which is funny, because it is such a tribute to both Close Encounters and E.T. I especially loved it because in the same year the film is set (1979) my friends and I (the same age as the kids in the film and the same age as Abrams) made a Super 8 feature movie of our own. (Ours was a James Bond style spy story). The alien aspect was less interesting to me, but still gave me nostalgic feelings due to the obvious relationship to the aforementioned films.

Jurassic World (2015) was executive produced by Spielberg, and his most recent relevant credit. He also has announced films out through the end of the decade, although most of them look like bullshitty sequels. It has been over 20 years since his last horror masterpiece (Jurassic Park) and a decade since his last horror near-masterpiece (War of the Worlds). And while I very much enjoyed his recent historical dramas like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, I’d equally love to see if he can pull out at least one more mind-blowing thrill ride.

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