Category Archives: movies

Stargate (1994)

We’re going to begin watching Stargate SG-1 here at the blog fairly soon. I’ll talk about it in more detail later, but I think it’s a program that starts out godawful, turns into a mostly good show, and eventually becomes tremendously entertaining. It’s based on a 1994 MGM film directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich. A lot of Emmerich’s hallmarks are on display here. He’s kind of made an art of spending an insane amount of money and resources on movies that would be every bit as stupid with a tenth of the budget.

Stargate isn’t a movie that I’d ever really watched before; it’s a movie that’s been on while I’ve been in the room. And I can now say that it is every bit as lazy and stupid as I feared. Nothing surprising happens in this film; it’s an action movie by the numbers. About the only thing in the story that I really liked was a gruesome bit where the hero’s about to get the drop on the villain, and the bad guy is instantly surrounded by more than a dozen human shields; little children bred to die for their boss.

As for the actors, I liked Richard Kind’s petulant performance as a translator on the Stargate project whose work gets bulldozed immediately as soon as the new whizkid on the team, Dr. Daniel Jackson, shows up. Jackson is played by James Spader and Col. O’Neill by Kurt Russell, and it’s a testament to how little they brought to the movie that I spent the full 130 minutes saying to myself that Michael Shanks and Richard Dean Anderson are both so, so much better than these actors in the same roles.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s an incredibly long setup to get to a faster-than-light wormhole to another galaxy. There, a small colony of humans whose ancestors were abducted from Egypt 10,000 years ago live as slaves to an alien who calls himself Ra. The Great White Saviors show up and save the day, showing the locals that their “gods” are mortal, and blowing up Ra and his pyramid ship with a failsafe nuke.

There’s a bit where Ra’s jackal-helmeted warriors sneak around and make mincemeat out of the redshirts left behind to guard the way home. Our son thought this scene was very frightening. He otherwise enjoyed the fighting and the shootouts. This is a very simple film without nuance or surprises, so it’s natural that kids would enjoy it. Everything here was done better once Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner got involved a couple of years later and made it into a TV show.

Not a lot better, mind you. It takes a long time to find its feet. More on that soon.

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Them! (1954)

I’ve told this story before, but here it is again: once upon a time, I decided that I’d love to show my older son Them! without telling him anything about it. I figured I’d get around to it one of these days, and waited so long that one day around 2005, he came back from the school library with a book about science fiction’s greatest monsters and yelled “Dad! Do you know this movie Them!? It sounds amazing!” That was a silly lesson in not putting off your plans. Culture has a way of spoiling surprises from the past.

I don’t know why I wanted him to see it without knowing what monsters the atomic bomb had brought up in New Mexico that hot summer of 1954. Surely every single person who has ever seen this movie did so knowing what it’s about. I just wondered whether the movie would be as effective if a viewer didn’t know. And I think now that the answer is yes.

I spotted a used Blu-ray of this movie a couple of days ago, snatched it up, and didn’t let our son see what I’d bought. I didn’t tell him the name of it until supper. And I got to watch him as he curled up with two blankets during the stunningly effective opening twenty or so minutes, as two New Mexico state cops come across two scenes of destruction and death in the desert. The only survivor is a small child in shock and unable to speak. Maybe it’s easy for a jaded moviegoer to dismiss all this character interplay as in the way of the special effects, but it’s so amazingly well-made. I pointed out to my wife that this film was made by Warner Brothers, and not American International or some Z-grade production company. Them! is what every monster movie of its day just wished it could be.

I wouldn’t swear that Warners didn’t spare any expense. It wears its remarkably large budget on its sleeve, but there’s still a dearth of speaking parts – I like James Whitmore and James Arness as much as the next guy, but this script honestly left the need to keep their characters involved after about fifty minutes – and they took as few people on location in the desert as was necessary. Spotted the Warner backlot just once. But otherwise, they went to town on this. There’s a lot of desert footage using two aircraft and a team of excellent actors who really sell the mystery and the horror of what’s happening, far better than everybody who appeared in the parade of B-movie imitators who followed in Them!s tracks.

And did it work? The kid was spooked out of his skull. The presence of all that formic acid in one victim’s body didn’t give it away. And when the camera finally reveals what the heck is going on, he jumped and shouted with a “Whoa!” He enjoyed everything, the frights, the explosions, the jeeps, the flamethrowers, and agreed that this is a great film. If you’ve got kids of your own, definitely show them this classic, but try to keep it under wraps before they go checking out books about monster movies.

Image credit: The Endless Swarm

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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Here’s an example of the real world interfering with the experience of watching a movie, and I think that’s okay to report that, because this is a blog about experiences and not a review blog. I had been looking forward to seeing Isao Takahata’s final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, for most of the year. It’s the last in this year’s Ghiblifest from Fathom Events, and if you missed it last evening, you can see it subtitled in many cities on December 18.

But then, you’ll notice the blog went dormant for a few days earlier this month. That’s because I had surgery on my spine. Since returning from the hospital, we haven’t all three been curled up on the sofa watching things together. Marie and our son have been curled up on the sofa, while I’ve been sitting up straight in a fairly comfortable chair, squirming because, after half an hour or so, it isn’t comfortable enough. And The Tale of the Princess Kaguya isn’t a short film, it’s nearly two and a half hours long. Two and a half beautiful hours, mind you – the film’s design deliberately evokes the picture scrolls where folk tales in Japan unrolled a thousand years ago, with expanses of white skies, careful drops of color for the leaves, and delicate, intricate linework for the figures – but that’s a long time for a fellow with little steel rods in his back to sit still.

With a palette and look that’s unlike any other movie in Ghibli’s library, Kaguya is an unusual standout that doesn’t seem to attract the attention of that studio’s American fans. Every other Fathom Events screening that we’ve attended, even of other Takahata films, drew a far bigger crowd than this did last night. The big names sell out, and even Arrietty was about two-thirds full. Last night it was just us and a group of about eight guys and girls in their twenties. What a shame; I hope more people see it tomorrow night, because it’s a beautiful experience.

The movie is an adaptation of a classic folk tale. An old bamboo cutter finds a tiny, doll-sized girl dressed as a princess inside a stalk. She turns into a human baby, growing very fast, and a second visit to the forest gives the old man gold and beautiful robes. He believes that whatever spirit brought them this child wants the couple to raise her as royalty. So he buys a mansion in the capital and hires servants to train her in the formality of proper behavior. When she comes of age, she is given the name “Kaguya” and attracts wealthy, noble suitors. But nobody asked her what she herself wants, or where she came from, or how long she’ll be staying on Earth.

Well, I completely loved it. I think it’s a gorgeous film and I love the way the style and the speed of the editing changes so radically at key points. It’s a classic fairy tale with an inevitable end, and so spending two and a half hours in the company of kind-hearted people with good intentions, rather than the five minutes it might take to just tell the story, means that the ending is very depressing despite its honesty and beauty. Our son thought it was extremely sad and it left him in low spirits for a while, but some occasional light gags and mild comedy kept his attention even though this experience was a little outside his wheelhouse.

And you’ll be glad to know that I was all kinds of sore but I made it out of the comfy Regal seat all right. We’ll go back to the same theater in a week and I’ll be in even better shape next time.

Image credit: Film Ireland

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Memory works through repetition and reminders, especially with kids. When I first saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I remember being so pleased that Indy mentioned his time running with Pancho Villa, which happened in 1916, as shown in a key episode of TV’s Young Indiana Jones. I probably watched that installment, which was shown as a TV movie on ABC called Young Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jackal, four or five times. Add in the trading cards and all the merchandise I picked up, and you have a pretty lasting memory. So I was really thrilled that this movie took a moment to embrace that show’s continuity. Crystal Skull was accompanied by some more merchandise. I picked up a great book called The Lost Journal of Indiana Jones. Most of his World War One time is omitted – classified, perhaps – but the Pancho Villa story is there, along with a smattering of other tales from that series.

Our son only saw the Villa story once, eighteen months ago, one lone adventure seen a single time and lost in a torrent of all these old shows we watch together. There aren’t enough hours in a day for a kid to rewatch every single thing that we’ve enjoyed together to the point that it all sticks. Not when he has his own super-favorites to rewatch, plus all the shows he enjoys on his own, plus Nerf guns and Lego bricks and video games and action figures and his parents driving him to museums and aquariums and scenic highways and restaurants. So Pancho Villa was lost and forgotten. I paused the movie with a smile because the continuity was important to me, but he didn’t remember it.

Later on, however, the Soviet troops are cutting through the South American jungle, clearing trees with a vehicle that instantly reminded him of the Crablogger in the classic Thunderbirds episode “Path of Destruction.” I’ve joked that he has probably watched that episode more times than I’ve watched everything Gerry Anderson ever made, combined. He’ll be reminded of the Crablogger whenever he sees anything remotely like it even when he’s my age.

And one day he’ll recognize actors, I’m certain. The kid’s watched Thor: Ragnarok almost as many times as he’s watched “Path of Destruction” and he still didn’t realize this movie’s principal villain, Cate Blanchett, is the same woman who played Hela. Darn kid.

Anyway, I like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull tremendously. I thought it was great at the time. Of the two principal bones of contention among the humorless, I completely loved the fridge escape, although I confess I did roll my eyes at Mutt in the vines. This time out, I loved the fridge even more, and the vines didn’t bother me a bit. About my only complaint is that I’d have liked for John Hurt’s character to recover his memory and wits earlier so we could see more of him in his right mind.

The kid had a complete blast, loving all the fights and the chases and the monkeys and the snake-rope and the billions of ants. As is his habit, he claimed that the very last gag of the movie – of any movie – was his favorite moment, though in fairness, Indy snatching his hat back from Mutt is indeed a fine gag. So it’s not the best, but I still adore it. There’s no shame in being the third-best Indiana Jones movie when Raiders and Last Crusade are so darn good, anyway. They’ve been promising us a fifth Indy film for ages. Disney seems to think it’ll be released in the summer of 2021. We’ll be there.

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Nancy Drew (2007)

The silly finger of coincidence hit our blog again this morning. I figured that a season of The Hardy Boys was incomplete without Nancy Drew, and I remembered enjoying the 2007 film version, which I took my daughter, then nine years old, to see when it was released, so I picked up a used copy and penciled it in for whatever ended up being the first Sunday after we started the Nancy-free third season of The Hardy Boys. The rest of the movie schedule fluctuates around anchors like this one, you see.

So last week, we dropped in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, meaning one of its California locations was fresh in my mind when Nancy and her twelve year-old pal Corky nearly get run down by some thugs while walking through the Griffith Park Tunnel. In Rabbit, that’s the tunnel that they used as the entrance to Toon Town. Plenty of films and TV shows have shot in that tunnel over the decades, most memorably Back to the Future II, but I’m impressed that we watched two of them a week apart.

Nancy Drew is a very California film and it’s very much of its time. In this iteration, Nancy is still a high school student and her father, played by Tate Donovan, wants a break from her sleuthing while they’re staying in Los Angeles for a few months on business. When it was released, my daughter had no experience of the character, but she saw TV ads by the bucket on all the tween girl shows that she watched on Nick. It’s really aimed at that audience, presenting a Nancy who’s an old-fashioned, overachieving fish out of water among all the fashion-obsessed, overdressed students at Hollywood High, and encouraging viewers to just be themselves. At one point, Nancy is forced to ask “Is there a law against common courtesy in Los Angeles?”

Meanwhile, there’s a mystery to be solved. Nancy arranged their accommodations in a decaying mansion that had belonged to a film actress who had died in the early 1980s, shortly after a mysterious months-long disappearance at the close of a fading career. Laura Harring plays the movie star in “old footage” and stacks and stacks of photos and covers of 1960s film gossip magazines. Last night, I grumbled about Universal’s art and props department just phoning it in for the third episode of Hardy Boys, but that probably just made me appreciate how much hard work Warners’ crew put into making this actress’s past seem real and vivid through scrapbooks, VHS tapes, and dozens and dozens of pictures.

So while Nancy starts ruffling feathers by looking into the distant past of 1980-81, she crosses paths with Bruce Willis, on location filming a period detective movie, and seeing the sights of Hollywood, and getting into car chases after the boy-who-really-likes-her, Ned Nickerson, drives her vintage Nash Metropolitan to LA for her to drive around while obeying the speed limit. The danger grows when Barry Bostwick, playing the most obvious villain you ever hissed, realizes that Nancy’s after a secret he wants to stay buried.

Naturally there are secret passages and old dark tunnels and big mean henchmen, and the movie’s perfectly inspiring for its young audience, and not just with its “be yourself” message. Our son was a little baffled by the clique business in the high school, but Nancy has a string-and-paperclip fishing line already wound around a pencil in her sleuthing kit, and after we got back from lunch, he wanted one of those for himself. You never know when you might need one of those to snatch some important documents from under the nose of an abandoned theater full of thugs.

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

In one way, this blog’s always been a race against time, showing our son classic movies before he stumbles upon them somewhere else, at a friend’s place or after school. I offered to show him Toy Story a couple of times and he always declined. Turned out he’d seen the movies a dozen times each in afterschool care already. Preserving surprises of any kind will get tougher and tougher as kids get older. Once upon a time, I was planning to one day show my older son the classic monster movie Them! and not tell him what it was about, only for him to come home from the library with a book about creature features. Eyes wide, he told me “This movie about giant ants sounds amazing!”

Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman have been forgotten and ignored by Disney for the last several years. Director Robert Zemeckis has speculated that Disney don’t like Roger’s shapely wife Jessica at all and are unlikely to approve a sequel or draw very much attention to the original. This worked in our favor; our son had never heard of the character or seen him anywhere.

So I drew him in last night by reminding him of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and the days of tough guy detectives in coats and fedoras, and then this morning, the movie cued and no hints from the menus or the DVD packaging, re-explained that how, once upon a time, before you saw the main feature at the movie, you’d see a cartoon first. Who Framed Roger Rabbit begins with a short called “Somethin’s Cookin’,” which had our son guffawing, and then at a critical point in the cartoon, Roger blows a special effect, a director yells “Cut!” and the camera pulls back to blow our son’s mind.

I love surprising my son this way. If you’ve got kids of your own, try your darndest to introduce them to the movie this way.

Roger Rabbit is celebrated for its mix of live-action and animation, but it wouldn’t work if it didn’t have a clever and entertaining story underneath it. It’s a delightful throwback to hard-boiled detective fiction, starring Bob Hoskins as a down-on-his-luck PI who’s descended into alcoholism since the death of his partner five years previously. Stubby Kaye plays the industrialist who gets murdered, and poor Roger, a big hearted dimwit of a cartoon character who only has great things to say about his fellows in the business, is set up for the fall. And of course Christopher Lloyd gets to steal the show as the menacing Judge Doom, who, thanks to some odd quirk of the California municipal code, has the power of life and death over all cartoon characters.

The result is a completely delightful movie, full of sight gags, very good acting, and how-the-heck-did-they-DO-that camera tricks. I’ve always enjoyed this film and really had a ball watching it with our kid. It’s a shame there probably won’t ever be a sequel, but fifteen years later, Warner released another live-action/animation hybrid, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which owes an astonishing amount to this film. It’s certainly not as unique or as original as Roger Rabbit, but it’s still a very fun ride and we’ll look at it one Sunday in 2020.

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Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)

The town of Collegedale is just up the road from us, and every year they have an event at their municipal airport where you get to go up in a tiny little plane – room enough for the pilot and three passengers – for about ten minutes for free. Well, there’s a long line, so it costs time, but you don’t have to take your shoes off for Homeland Security either. So our son was hopping up and down when we told him what we were doing that Sunday, and he waited with astonishing patience. Then we left the ground and the color left his face and he bit his lip and he didn’t start crying until we were down and safe, but he sobbed for longer than we were in the air. He was horrified, and he never, ever wants to get in an airplane ever again.

But watching other people crash in absurdly unsafe contraptions, that he’ll watch all day. I told him that I thought that since he enjoyed The Great Race so much he would also enjoy this, he beamed and asked, “Will there be sabotage? I hope there’s a bad guy who sabotages the other planes!” And indeed there is. The evil Sir Percy is played by Terry-Thomas, and while he doesn’t get quite as much screen time as Jack Lemmon did in Race – there are, after all, far more characters in this – he’s still a bounder and a very entertaining villain. At one point, he’s ready to trade punches with Stuart Whitman’s character. Whitman socks him in the nose instantly and I laughed for five minutes.

The backdrop for the movie is a London to Paris air race in 1910, arranged by a rich media tycoon, played by Robert Morley, to drive circulation of his paper and prove that Britannia rules the skies. “The trouble with these international affairs is that they attract foreigners,” he grumbles at one point. That’s a great line, but sadly, the greater trouble is that I have to break out the “unflattering cultural stereotypes” tag again, because the very broad caricatures, and the ugly slang that the posh British characters employ, is the only weak part of this otherwise very funny film.

I have to note that as much as our son guffawed and giggled, the movie’s prologue was possibly every bit as effective as the next two hours in making him roar with laughter. You’ve all seen some of that very old film footage of doomed-to-crash sky cars hopping up and down and that plane with a dozen stacked sets of wings collapsing in on itself? Well, this kid hadn’t. I figured that if he enjoyed the actual movie half as much as the old stock footage, it’d be a success.

Helping the movie along, there’s a great cast of familiar faces and even a familiar location. Robert Morley’s house is Fulmer Hall in Buckinghamshire, where John Steed was living in the second series of The New Avengers. I think we last saw the house just thirty days ago! And as for talent, Stuart Whitman and James Fox are the principal competitors and rivals, with Sarah Miles caught in a love triangle between them. Gert Fröbe leads what you might call the B-team of Prussian, French, and Italian competitors. And there are small roles for three big names of British TV comedy in the sixties: Benny Hill, Tony Hancock, and Eric Sykes.

Those Magnificent Men… never feels long at 138 minutes, but it certainly feels epic. It’s a big, ridiculous film full of stunts, practical effects, giant crowds of extras, gorgeous old cars and beat-up old airplanes. It’s also got a lovely recurring gag with one actress playing six different women of different nationalities. It’s dated, unfortunately so in a couple of places, but it’s still a very good and very funny film.

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The Mouse and His Child (1977)

Regular readers should know that we typically don’t watch bootleg films and TV shows for the blog. Trying to set a good example and all. But The Mouse and His Child has never been released in English on DVD, and I remember enjoying it as a kid, when HBO showed it frequently. There are bootlegs floating around with that omnipresent rainbow at the top of the screen that you’d get from VHS tapes, and this morning, I broke the rules and we watched it.

The movie was made in California by Murakami-Wolf Productions, the team behind many very forgettable 1970s TV specials, with some level of production or financial assistance from Japan’s Sanrio and, hidden right on the very last screen of credits at the end of the movie, Charles Schulz. I wonder what he brought to the table. Peter Ustinov voiced the villainous Manny the Rat, and Cloris Leachman and John Carradine joined him in the studio. It got a theatrical release in this country and was an HBO regular for most of a year. There were two VHS releases, but it’s been largely unavailable in English since the early nineties.

It’s actually a very strange film, defying a few of my expectations along the way. It’s sort of a proto-Toy Story, where tin toys come to life when nobody is looking. The protagonists are, interestingly, completely helpless without assistance. The Mouse and his Child are tin toys joined at the hands and they require somebody to wind them up in order to move anywhere.

Other than an eardrum-disintegrating song warbled by a little boy that tops and tails the movie, it’s pretty good. Our son enjoyed it, guffawing at some of the slapstick and curious what would happen next. I was intrigued by the filthy world of the story. It’s set in a city dump and the neighboring creek and pond, which are practically buried in trash and garbage that the animals have scavenged. The villain is a rat who uses wind-up toys to bring trash back into the dump for him to nebulously build some sort of empire. When the Mouse and his Child escape, thanks to a fatal mistake by one of his underlings, the villain becomes unreasonably obsessed with recapturing them.

I liked that there’s a level of danger in this film. One of the captive wind-ups is dismantled for scrap early on, and the henchrat I mentioned gets gobbled by a badger. The villain’s fate is prophesied, and so you’ll spend the entire movie waiting for a junkyard dog to show up and do him in. I was pleased that while the prophecy does come true, a dog does rise and a rat does fall, it doesn’t quite mean what we expect. There’s also one remarkably grisly moment when the villain loses his temper and the camera doesn’t show what he’s doing, but focuses on the bad guy as he realises that he has gone too far.

You’ll notice I’ve written more about the villain than the protagonists. That’s probably because the Mouse and his Child are so helpless and swept along by “destiny,” physically moved from location to location by other characters. They have an objective – the Child wants two other wind-ups to become his mother and his sister and his dad just agrees – but they’re largely incapable of doing anything about it until the final reel. Of course, that’s also because when you put Peter Ustinov in the recording booth, you were largely giving him carte blanche to steal the show. So sure, it’s a flawed film, but a pretty good one, and now that I’ve watched it again, I can place the odd little fragment of memory of somebody in some forgotten movie yelling “Treacle brittle!” into its correct context.

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