Category Archives: movies

The Island at the Top of the World (1974)

Our son was four when we started this blog, and while he remembers many of the programs and movies that we watched in its first couple of years – in part from repetition – many others have faded away. That’s the nature of memory of preschoolers; we all have a few solid memories from age four and five, but it takes more than a single viewing of even an exciting movie that a kid really enjoys to sink in during the years when there’s so much else in the world to absorb and remember. And if it’s a movie that I got from the library, then there’s no opportunity for repetition.

So since some other action-adventure films in the Jules Verne tradition and style – the various takes on Journey to the Center of the Earth and In Search of the Castaways – have largely faded from his memory, Disney’s 1974 adaptation of Ian Cameron’s novel The Lost Ones wasn’t nearly as familiar and old hat to him as it was to his parents. We had never seen this film before, and yet we kind of did.

One thing I really appreciated: this film gets in gear immediately. I was talking with an old pal about the unbearably bloated Godzilla: King of the Monsters this weekend and told him how I just missed ninety minute movies. I checked the running time, saw this movie was only an hour and a half long, and breathed a happy sigh of relief. The characters and situations are introduced on the go, and all the background events necessary to get the expedition started are explained as we’re moving along with them.

Island stars David Hartman as a turn-of-the-century scientist. And yeah, it’s the same guy who’d later host Good Morning America forever, which might’ve sparked the same oddball reaction from me as when people in Britain learn that the longtime Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves had been in Doctor Who for a year in the sixties. Donald Sinden plays the millionaire looking for his missing son, Jacques Marin is the captain of an airship, and Mako, who guest-starred in everything in the 1970s, plays an Eskimo guide.

So was it any good? It certainly didn’t do anything new, and every plot beat, from the lost civilization to the gods being angry to characters who we thought were dead showing up again to the only female having a heart of gold to help our heroes, was one we’ve seen before. The science was absurd and the movie keeps confusing archaeology with anthropology. But it still unfolded at a pleasantly brisk pace, and kept the kiddo excited and surprised, and it gives us lava, explosions, hidden passages, whirlpools, and dangerous animals. If you’ve never seen it before, or if you’re young enough that you might as well not have, then it’s a splendid picture.

This post has been written amid the remarkable distraction of our son watching The Avengers for the tenth time.

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

I think I’ve probably seen Nausicaä – or at least 85% of Nausicaä – more times than I’ve seen every other Miyazaki movie combined, but I’ve never seen it on a big screen before tonight. There’s one off the bucket list.

Nausicaä is Miyazaki’s prog rock movie. He started developing it in the late 1970s, around the time he was working on the TV series Future Boy Conan and going through some issues with the rise and fall of civilizations, cycles, rebirths, that sort of thing. This feel is enhanced by one of my favorite scores to any movie, ever. Joe Hisaishi spends parts of this film channeling Rick Wakeman and other parts channeling Nick Rhodes. Hisaishi has scored all of Miyazaki’s movies since this one, and they are all wonderful and memorable, but there’s such an odd mix of styles in this movie that it stands out as the most unique and weird. It kind of has to be heard to be believed.

When I was fifteen and sixteen, I inhaled this film. I had a copy of the original English language dub, which was called Warriors of the Wind, and I watched it constantly. To the disgust of purists, Warriors was edited by twenty minutes, down to a lean 100, so that after it finished its theatrical run, New World Pictures could sell it to TV stations for a two-hour slot. So sure, tampering with Miyazaki is eee-eeeevil, but that original voice cast was so much better than the one they got to perform the contemporary dub. It’s not just that Patrick Stewart just phoned in his lines and sounds like he wasn’t in the same country, never mind the same studio, it’s that everybody in the original sold the hell out of it.

The original English voice for Nausicaä – well, they renamed her Zandra, and I can’t defend that and won’t try – was Susan Davis, who was the original English language voice of Pippi Longstocking in Fred Ladd’s dubs. She was perfect. There’s a scene in the Warriors cut where Nausicaä slides backward on the shore of a lake of acid. She’s been shot twice and her ankle, wounded and bloodied, slides into the acid and she lets out a scream that still makes me shiver. This new girl sounds like she stubbed her toe.

This might be where the purists might add that I could just watch the subtitled version, and they’re not wrong, but our son is still too young to happily go along with reading movies. Once he’s ready, I’ve got some subtitled Dr. Slump cartoons for him. I’m still steamed those aren’t dubbed.

Our son was mainly in it for the fox squirrel. He had a great belly laugh when three old codgers steal a tank, and he joined in with the rest of the theater chuckling when a soldier tries to rally his troops to kill the planet’s best swordsman, but the cute animal is all he wanted to talk about afterward. There’s probably a plush cuddly toy if he wants to save his allowance. They’ve merchandised everything else with Miyazaki’s name on it.

He didn’t like it as much as Castle in the Sky and Marie didn’t like it as much as Spirited Away and I didn’t like it as much as Warriors of the Wind, but I got to see it on a big screen and it was beautiful. Fathom Events has another good lineup this year. We’re going to see three more new-to-him films in this year’s Ghibli Fest by some of that studio’s other directors. Might watch Totoro again, too. Hard to pass that one up on a big screen…

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Willow (1988)

You can add Willow to that long list of fantasy films from the eighties that I never cared to see at the time, and like most of them, it turned out to be more entertaining than I expected. Directed by Ron Howard from a story by its producer, George Lucas, it’s a movie that many people I’ve known have seen and enjoyed. Glad to see they weren’t wrong.

But our kid… he completely loved this. It’s a movie with lots of chasing and lots of fighting and he loved them all, especially a scene where Warwick Davis and Val Kilmer – and the baby that they’re protecting – are rocketing down a snow-covered mountain on a runaway sled. There’s also a recurring gag about a sorceress who was transformed into a rodent many years ago, and Willow’s attempts to reverse the spell just results in her changing into different animals. That went over extremely well.

The sorceress had been stuck in that body by the evil magic of a wicked queen played by Jean Marsh. She had been Princess Mombi in Return to Oz a couple of years before and would play Morgaine Le Fay the following year; I suppose this was Marsh’s Witch Period. Marsh has kind of a one-note character, though. The heroes, led by Davis and Kilmer, along with a couple of three inch-high “brownies” and, once she decides to betray her evil queen mother, Joanne Whalley, are much, much more interesting. This isn’t a movie for those of us who like compelling villains, but the swordfighting, mayhem, and wit are good enough.

I was also surprised by how dark this film starts. Our heroes are protecting this baby because a prophecy says that she’ll overthrow the evil queen, and before the titles have finished, the mother is executed and the midwife who spirited her away is eaten by wild dogs. The baby floats far downstream to a village of little people – the great Billy Barty is the village’s wizard and apparent leader – and eventually, the villagers decide that they need to find some humans to whom they can return this kid. Since Willow and his family found the child, he gets tasked with taking it to the Daikini (humans), before any more wild dogs get its scent and rampage through their homes.

I was pleased that I was able to predict just one single thing this movie did. Granted, I really try not to spend any little gray cells on guessing where stories will go the first time that I watch a film, as I prefer to be caught up and taken for a ride, but I figured the guy with the skull helmet was going to kill the guy with the beard, and that was it. At one point, a spell goes awry and there’s a monstrous, two-headed fire-breathing thing that Ray Harryhausen would have found acceptable raining nine kinds of hell on an army of evildoers, and I couldn’t have been happier. I’d say that was two hours well spent, but our son says that was two of the most awesome hours ever.

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Captain Marvel (2019)

My knowledge of Marvel’s actual comic books extends to a bit just beyond the original Secret Wars, plus Grant Morrison’s 2004-ish run of New X-Men. The character of Carol Danvers has never occupied very much of my headspace within that. During one of those periods where – I think – her fans would tell you that her writers were just screwing with the character to be meaninglessly cruel, her powers got stolen by Rogue back when Rogue was a villain. This was when Rogue was drawn to be deliberately ugly instead of a supermodel. So Carol occasionally showed up in Uncanny X-Men when I was occasionally reading it, with a new power set and the name Binary.

About fourteenish years ago, I had a lot of extra cash and briefly entertained myself by buying most of Marvel’s line of Essentials reprints, and DC’s similar Showcase Presents. I bought the Ms. Marvel collection and I’m not sure why I kept it, except out of morbid curiosity over the unbelievably awful ending. Apparently the whole “Binary” business came about from X-Men writer Chris Claremont taking perfectly understandable objection to a previous writer being so clueless about what to do with a strong female lead character that he had her get brainwashed and pregnant while the Avengers stood by thinking how nice it was that Carol finally found someone to settle down and birth some babies with. A later writer decided that what Carol really needed was to become an alcoholic.

So in the last decade, some creative teams who want to actually portray the character as heroic and inspiring, led by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, have apparently turned this mess of a character into something that a younger and more clued-in fanbase has loved. I haven’t read any of these comics, but they certainly sound a trillion times more interesting and more sympathetic to their audience than anything that was done with the character when I was a kid. And it’s this version of Captain Marvel – the one who flies jets for the Air Force and doesn’t wear a black bondage costume – who’s been incorporated into the Marvel movies, played by Brie Larson, and we all found it hugely entertaining.

The movie is set thirteen years before Iron Man, in the days of dial-up connections and Blockbuster Video, and it dots a bunch of Is and crosses a bunch of Ts you didn’t think needed noting. It gives us the early career of Ronan the Accuser and one of Clark Gregg’s first assignments as Agent Coulson. It answers all sorts of questions about Nick Fury and who he’s been willing to trust. They’ve got this digital de-aging business down to such an art that it looks like Samuel L. Jackson made this film immediately after he made Pulp Fiction in 1994.

Most importantly, though, this gives us a great character, one who has some confusion, but a great deal of confidence and incredible power. Like T’Challa and the cast from Wakanda, she’s here to inspire a wider and a more diverse audience than the narrowly-focused world of comics-based stuff typically does. I’m really looking forward to seeing her interact with the other heroes in next month’s Avengers film, and as for our favorite seven year-old critic, we saw the movie and had lunch and went by Payless to get some new shoes as the chain enters its dying days, and he picked himself out a pair of red sneakers with Carol’s logo on them.

Photo credit: LAist

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Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

A few months ago, I amused myself by “wondering” in print here whether we would be able to get caught up with these movies before the release of Captain Marvel in a few days. This was never really in doubt, but my plan to blog about each of the last several was stymied because I just didn’t have much of anything to say about most of them. The kid has adored all the mayhem, of course, and he’s been rewatching them whenever he has some free time.

Like most seven year-olds, he’s criminally impatient, and by the time we reached the cliffhanger ending to the surprising and silly Ant-Man and the Wasp, he’d had the time of his life – again – and now he’s hopping with a mix of anxiety and frustration that he must wait eight whole weeks to see what will happen to Hank, Janet, and Hope, and whether Scott will be trapped in the Quantum Realm forever. You know, like the rest of us.

I found Avengers: Infinity War horribly unsatisfying the second time around. The bleak climax is no point to end on; the movie is badly, badly lacking a rising, thunderous cliffhanger to lead us into the next adventure. I left the theater last year in a sour mood because of the missed opportunity, and seeing Ant-Man and the Wasp six or seven weeks later lifted my spirit tremendously. It’s a fun and inventive movie, full of surprises. The tone’s just right. It’s lighthearted and takes serious situations seriously, while finding goofy and unexpected ways around the obstacles. And that car chase in San Francisco is a real beauty.

I read that Michael Douglas was advocating for an eighties-set movie starring himself and Michelle Pfeiffer as the original Ant-Man and the Wasp. Marvel’s been understandably cagey about their plans beyond this summer, but as much as I enjoy Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly together, I can totally get behind that. Fingers crossed for 2020!

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Black Panther (2018)

I was pleased to see that last year’s Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture. I have no idea whether it is – I average about five a year, basically – but it is extremely entertaining, and unlike several of the Marvel movies, it holds up completely and totally the second time around. I think there’s only one genuine flaw in the script, and that’s the bit where T’Challa swears to W’Kabi that he will either kill or bring back their enemy Klaue. A lead character says something like that, he might as well just keep talking. “And I will fail in this, driving a wedge between us that will take the climax of the movie to resolve.”

I’ve got another complaint: we don’t see nearly enough of Wakanda, and that’s a credit to director Ryan Coogler and a team of amazing production designers who make the city look like the most amazing place on the planet. There’s a shot that lasts about one second of a street vendor grilling some meat. I want to taste it. Can you imagine Anthony Bourdain doing a Parts Unknown about Wakanda? Wouldn’t you want to live in this world?

Michael B. Jordan plays an amazing villain with frightening and very real motivations, and his great flaw is that he can only see Wakanda as a source of weapons and violence. He doesn’t pause to see how beautiful the land and its people are, and how remarkable their technology is. His character’s father once told him that the sunsets in Wakanda are the greatest in the world, and he doesn’t remember until his dying minute.

I think Black Panther is just a great film, full of backstory and love and it feels so real in every scene. I certainly think this is among the most entertaining of the Marvel movies, thanks in large part to the excellent cast and the terrific sense of design and wild tech. Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o are wonderful as former lovers brought back together by duty. Letitia Wright is so fun as the scene-stealing genius Shuri, and if you don’t finish this movie wishing for a spinoff or a miniseries where Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya argue about whose turn it is to walk the rhinoceros, I dunno what to tell you.

I haven’t read very many Black Panther comics. I mainly saw him in the pages of Fantastic Four and The Avengers, and the villain was invariably M’Baku, and thank heaven they reworked him for the movie. The comic Man-Ape was a clown, an embarrassment, and M’Baku and his separatist tribe are anything but. I like Winston Duke’s character a lot. In fact, the sooner they can get this sequel into production, the happier I’ll be. There won’t be room for Forest Whitaker or Michael B. Jordan’s characters outside of flashbacks, but it doesn’t even have to be an action-adventure superhero epic. Just give me weird tech stuff, the Dora Milaje hammering their spears into the ground, and Chadwick Boseman’s fabulous performance as a flawed king moving past his father’s mistakes. We’ll be back in Wakanda in seven days for the next Marvel movie, but they didn’t spend enough time there, and the body count is heartbreaking. I want two hours in this place.

Oh, and third quibble: and if we could have a little less of Atlanta pretending to be London next time, and the High Museum of Art pretending to be the Museum of Great Britain, that’d be great.

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The Great Race (1965)

This blog’s got a few years in it yet, but it’s not going to go on forever. Somebody asked me if I had a conclusion planned. I do, and there will be a couple of clues to readers that we’re almost there. First, we’ll catch up with Doctor Who. Although, if they insist on committing unforced errors like taking an entire year off right when the show becomes a mainstream popular hit again, that might be later than sooner. Another is that we’ll watch one of the last films on the agenda: 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Two years after that classic was released, Blake Edwards directed a mammoth, 160-minute comedy that clearly has a lot of Mad World in its DNA, along with at least two actors. I saw it, or most of it, a million years ago on TV and forgot almost the entire thing, but remembered a few of the great gags. I think it’ll stick with our son a little better. He says it’s the funniest movie he’s ever watched.

The center of The Great Race is the rivalry between the nefarious, black-clad Professor Fate, played by Jack Lemmon and the practically perfect gentleman good guy The Great Leslie, played by Tony Curtis. They are daredevils, escape artists, and showmen, only the Great Leslie is incredibly competent and barely acknowledges Fate. You may know Fate from his later career in Hanna-Barbera cartoons. He’s the inspiration for Dick Dastardly from Wacky Races and later shows, with Peter Falk as the proto-Muttley. Things get off to a clear start in the opening scene, where the Great Leslie puts together a big stunt involving a hot air balloon, and Professor Fate intercedes by wheeling in a massive crossbow with an enormous red bolt. It’s so thunderously cartoonish that it tells the audience that some pretty epic slapstick is on its way.

Professor Fate enters into the greatest automobile race ever conceived, from New York west to Paris via Siberia, in another attempt to steal Leslie’s thunder. Also in the race, suffragette Maggie DuBois, played by Natalie Wood. After browbeating the editor of The New York Sentinel into giving her a job, she has to arrange to report on the race from every step of the way, and be in Paris when the winner crosses the finish line. Along with a cast of great character actors like Marvin Kaplan, Larry Storch, and Keenan Wynn, and with music and a couple of songs by Henry Mancini, there are some ridiculous hijinx between the two cities.

And yes, it’s very, very funny. There’s a scene set in Professor Fate’s castle home which Maggie invades for an interview. It started with a few chuckles over Fate playing an organ with broken thumbs and escalated into pausing the film because we were laughing so hard. Fate’s home would demand pausing your DVD player even if the scene wasn’t a triumph, because it’s one of the most amazing sets ever. Imagine building a set as intricate and detailed as, say, the living room of the Addams Family for all of two minutes of screen time. Later, Larry Storch plays a gunslinger with three compadres, and their entrance into an old west saloon also had me in stitches. Storch and Curtis trade fisticuffs here. Six years later, Storch would play the only American guest star in Curtis and Roger Moore’s wonderful show The Persuaders!.

The Great Race starts to run out of steam in its final third, when the racers get to some Nosuchlandia in southeastern Europe and they get involved in a Prisoner of Zenda situation masterminded by Ross Martin as an evil baron. The only real flaw up to that point was abandoning all the other racers incredibly early on, but the Zenda subplot is long enough to feel like an entirely different film, and while Lemmon is amazingly funny as Fate, he’s far less so as the drunk heir to the throne.

On the other hand, Curtis and Martin enjoy one of the cinema’s all-time great swordfights. The minutes they spend with these two, starting with foils before moving to sabers, are completely amazing. Regular readers have probably caught that I love a great swordfight. This is one of the best. And on the other extreme, the Zenda sequence ends with a food fight involving hundreds of pies that is so over-the-top and so intricately choreographed that it took four days to film and had every member of the cast ready to shove the director in an oven and bake him in a pie.

So The Great Race is like a lot of Blake Edwards’ work: it’s flawed, but very, very funny. I read that in the mid-seventies, Edwards wanted to make one of those later, far-from-funny Pink Panther films into a three-hour calamity like this. I think that could possibly have been much better than the mess that he finished with (The Pink Panther Strikes Again), but then again, The Great Race could have been pruned by twenty minutes and I bet our kid would still say it was the funniest movie he’d ever seen.

Today’s feature was a gift from Matt Ceccato and his wife, writer Nan Monroe, and I invite you all to check out her webpage and buy some of her novels and collections of short stories! If you would like to support this blog, you can buy us a DVD of a movie that we’d like to watch one day. We’ll be happy to give you a shout-out and link to the site of your choice when we write about it. Here’s our wishlist!

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Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

When I was a kid, there were a few elements of the Spider-Man world that aggravated me, in that little kid way, so much that I didn’t often buy Spider-Man’s comics. There was Aunt May, who somehow convinced herself that Peter was a sickly boy and was always in danger of getting the flu or something, and there was Flash Thompson, who seemed too stupid to be a believable irritant.

Part of me, today, thinks most of the comics had moved past them by the late seventies, when I might have been looking at the spinner rack in the drugstore for books to buy for 35 or 40 cents, but there were also so many Ditko and Romita reprints floating around that I never knew what I’d end up buying when I bought a Marvel comic. I was kind of a dumb kid in that regard. Well, in many regards. But it took me until middle school to realise that Batman and Batman’s Detective Comics were two separate books. Marvel was even more confusing to me at age eight.

And then there was the Vulture. Spider-Man seemed to have a rogues gallery full of the most pathetic menaces, and the Vulture was the dopiest of them all: an old guy with wings. In 1963, I understand now, Marvel didn’t have very many characters who could fly. But their universe grew, and this bozo, who should have been left behind as a one-off, somehow stuck around, pretending to be a threat.

So one of the reasons I enjoy Spider-Man: Homecoming so much, apart from it having such a beautifully crafted script that fits in so neatly to the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe and being so well cast, is that it effortlessly redeems all three of these characters. Flash Thompson is a jerk, but a smart guy who all Peter’s friends and classmates enjoy. The Vulture has motivation and alien technology to make him dangerous. And Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May is the perfect mom – or aunt – for the modern age. Her worry that Peter might have been on the Staten Island Ferry, when we have no reason to think that Peter has ever ventured anywhere outside Queens before he met Tony Stark, is totally believable and true. Why didn’t Peter check himself in as safe on Facebook? Doesn’t he know May would be worried sick?

The whole film is full of delightful punctuations that make the experience a complete joy the second time around. I loved Donald Glover’s character advising Spider-Man that he really needs to get better with interrogations. I loved Michael Keaton’s face as he figures out who’s in his back seat. I loved Zendaya just being a harmless pest for no good reason. I loved Bokeem Woodbine – who was one of the best elements of the marvelous second season of Fargo – slowly figuring out his new weapons. I didn’t mind the product placement from Lego about another Disney property (corporate synergy!!). And it has the best post-credits scene of any Marvel movie. It’s a delightful, joyful movie, and one of the best in the series.

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