Category Archives: movies

The Dark Crystal (1982)

I only saw The Dark Crystal once, about thirty-five years ago. It’s safe to assume that everybody enjoys this movie more than I do. Our son certainly does, and that’s just fine with me. He asked me last night what it’s about, and I had no idea. I remembered what most of the creatures looked like – and who doesn’t love the Fizzgig – and I remembered that the Mystics spend pretty much the entire movie just walking across endless fields, but I couldn’t have told you one blessed thing about the plot.

Strangely enough, I didn’t remember the creatures that our son enjoyed the most, the Garthim. These are big insect-lobster things, or, as our son put it, “giant hermit crabs.” Six-going-on-seven is a great age for this movie. It’s full of mild frights and genuinely weird designs. Jim Henson and Frank Oz worked with an amazingly talented team, including Brian Froud as the lead concept artist. There’s so much to look at in this movie, and shot after shot after shot that will leave you asking how in the world they did that. Visually, the film’s a triumph.

Other than the visuals, though, this is just fantasy by the numbers, and Diet Tolkien’s even more bitter when you can’t stand Tolkien in the first place. Nothing happens in this movie that’s in any way surprising, and it’s oddly humorless. Barry Dennan did the voice of one of the villains, and he’s entertainingly pitiful. The scene I enjoyed the most has the evil Skeksis, a gang of vulgar vulture-crocodile beasts, having the worst table manners you’ve ever seen as they belch, burp, throw food around, and chase still-living snacks across their plates. Our son enjoyed pretty much everything, but was happiest when the one-eyed astronomer rescues Fizzgig. He says he’d like to see it again, one day. It’s always nice to pick a winner.

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Thor (2011)

There’s a general feeling that the Marvel movies just keep getting better and bigger, but I have a soft spot for the first Thor film, which has a sense of whimsy and fun and a deliberately smaller scale. Our son agrees that it’s the best of the first four movies. It’ll get surpassed, but Kenneth Branagh was such a good choice to direct this. He makes the human stuff and the epic stuff seem so vibrant and entertaining.

Well, I say it’s a smaller scale despite Loki’s plan to destroy the Frost Giants’ home realm of Jotunheim. We’ve not seen a planet really threatened with extinction in these movies yet. But it’s all focused on a small town in New Mexico which is so visually appealing that I wish it was a real place I could visit. Natalie Portman’s character and her scientist buddies have moved into what looks like an old car dealership or garage or something. I just love the look of the place.

The one unavoidable thing in these movies, since they try to look like the recognizable world, is that the government is represented by fun-killing agents in black suits who ruin everything. The town of Puente Antiguo is so colorful and bright, and then they swoop in and confiscate all the lovable scientists’ equipment and data. Clark Gregg can accomplish a lot with the twinkle in his eye and his smile, but mainly what he makes me want to do in that scene is punch him in the nose. SHIELD remains the one note in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I dislike. They were never so awful in the comics when I was a reader.

Asgard is another beautiful location, a lovely triumph of gold and rainbows. I like Anthony Hopkins as Odin, and I really like Idris Elba as Heimdall. Our son couldn’t quite describe the look and feel of Asgard, and called it “a future city.” After the movie was over, he bugged his eyes out to demonstrate how “I went WOW when I saw Asgard!”

As for the leads, Chris Hemsworth probably won’t go down in the books as an actor with a lot of range, but what he does within them is consistently entertaining. I really like him as Thor, and I loved his character in Ghostbusters, because he does fish-out-of-water extremely well. He’s great with Portman, and with Stellan Skarsgård in a too-short scene in a bar, but this is the first of the Marvel movies to let the villain run away with the picture. I know a couple of women who melt over Tom Hiddleston, which is amusing because butter wouldn’t melt in Loki’s mouth. There was a rumor going around a couple of years ago that Hiddleston would take over from Daniel Craig as James Bond. I wouldn’t stop going to see them.

Actually, there was another rumor going around a couple of years ago that Idris Elba would be the next Bond. That could also be great.

Speaking of comics, the movies have never done right by the Warriors Three. The original Thor comics are some of my favorites from the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby days, and you should swing by a comic book store in your town and pick up the first four of those great big inexpensive Essentials reprints. Most of the issues were split between the main Thor feature and a backup called Tales of Asgard, where Fandral, Hogun, and Volstagg take center stage, and they’re probably the most downright fun comics that Marvel has ever published. The movie’s right to add the Lady Sif to their group, and Jaimie Alexander is very good in the limits of her role, but I figure the studio should plan a proper Sif and the Warriors Three feature as soon as possible, with some epic realm-hopping quest set in the glorious past of Asgard.

Well, I’m also not completely satisfied that Volstagg is played by anybody other than BRIAN BLESSED, who was born for the part, but Ray Stevenson acquitted himself just fine.

One little forgettable bit of this movie is that it’s Jeremy Renner’s first appearance as Hawkeye. It’s not quite a blink and you’ll miss it scene, but it’s very short and he’s just called “Agent Barton,” and so our son didn’t realize who the character was. Poor Hawkeye doesn’t have the same amount of merchandising as the other Marvel heroes, does he? Well, they can’t all be on the marquee, I suppose.

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Where Time Began (1977)

More than a year ago, I let our son know that we’d see several variations on the classic Jules Verne tale Journey to the Center of the Earth. If the one with James Mason was too long, and it was, here’s a leaner 90-minute version that gets to where it needs to go in a comparative rush, and then adds lots more dinosaurs, among other things.

I saw Where Time Began six or seven times on HBO in 1979 or 1980 and gradually forgot that the film existed. It’s a Spanish film directed by Juan Piquer Simón and these days it usually trades under a title that’s a closer translation of the original name: Viaje al centro de la Tierra, or The Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The movie stars Kenneth More along with Pep Munné, Ivonne Sentis, and Jack Taylor, which is why this film got a recharge in my memory circuits. About a year and a half ago, I was reading up on the films of Jess Franco, and Taylor, who starred in at least three of Franco’s movies, got a little sidebar. I then remembered Where Time Began, kind of. I mainly remembered it as the movie with the giant tortoises and the poisonous dust, which is very surprising because these are unbelievably minor plot points. The movie spends about fifty seconds total on the two things!

Our son enjoyed this more than I was expecting. Some of these older films don’t quite have the punch with him that I thought that they might. The faster pace and gee-wow effects of modern movies just appeal more to kids. But he didn’t see through the really hopeless monster effects of this movie at all. Two sea monsters get into a bloody battle and he was riveted. If you’ve got a six or seven year-old at home, this is definitely one to consider watching, because ours was fascinated by everything in it: quicksand, caves, sea monsters, dinosaur graveyards, giant tortoises, whirlpools, volcanoes, and, apparently because the 1976 King Kong was making giant apes trendy again, there’s a thirty foot tall gorilla as well. That’s not in Verne’s novel, is it?

There’s one little addition to the movie’s sequence of events that really did surprise me. It’s a small scene that doesn’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the narrative, but it’s almost as weird as that “what the heck did I just watch” finale of The Black Hole. In this version, Professor Lindenbrock’s party meets just one other person underground, a taciturn man named Orson played by Jack Taylor. He keeps to himself and speaks briefly about his own experiments, and after the giant gorilla business, he shows Munné and Sentis something downright weird. Miles beneath the Earth’s surface, there’s a bizarre super-scientific city. Through a telescope, the young people see that the people in the city are all identical to Orson. He swears them to secrecy and the odd sight is indeed never mentioned again.

A lot of this movie seems like the director was throwing everything at the screen to see what would stick. We were never bored, but it did feel like some of the danger was a little too distant. We see some monsters only very briefly, and some never menace our heroes at all, as though the film didn’t have the resources to actually do anything with them. But this is a movie for kids to watch and to enjoy safe little frights. Just having the crocodile-like head of some beast roar and retreat is all that’s needed for some viewers. If you’re a grownup, you might want to obtain the service of a kid before watching this version!

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The Phantom Menace (1999)

You said it, Jar Jar.


Okay, so we do have a few subscribers who might actually want more than five words about this berry berry bad movie, and it’s possible that one day our son might want to revisit this blog and see what we watched together. For posterity’s sake, then, this was one of the longest chores I’ve sat through. Somehow, though, when I was younger and more prone to want to see big movies on the big screen, I paid for this turkey three damn times.

One of those times was around early June, 1999. It was my oldest son’s first movie in a theater. He lasted thirty minutes, got bored, and walked to the exit. Admittedly he was really young – too young for a theater trip – but I’d been persuaded that he might enjoy the bragging rights to saying that a Star Wars movie was his first movie in a theater. Eh, it was only twenty bucks or so.

This kid, however, didn’t walk out, although the agonizing talk of trade negotiations, senate procedure, and votes of no confidence certainly left him almost as bored as the grown-ups. He really enjoyed the pod race, and the appearance of favorite characters from the original movie, and the big climactic space battle. The best scene of all was when Anakin fired “those two bullets to start everything blowing up.”

It is – I’m sure it must be – the thrill of something brand new, but our favorite six year-old critic says that enjoyed this film more than the other three, and he liked Jar Jar Binks a whole lot. But that’s always been the case. Kids have always liked Jar Jar, because he’s a character for children. (And incidentally, I was quite taken with actor Ahmed Best’s defense of his performance for Entertainment Weekly. It’s worth a read.)

And these are, as much as some snarling “adults” wish for them to be otherwise, movies for the whole family.

Binks is the reason for the subtitle in the picture up top. Our son enjoyed Binks, but he complained that he couldn’t understand what he was saying. So we watched the movie with subtitles, and I’m very pleased that he’s reading so well that it helped him follow it.

As for me, no, but it’s nice to look at. The costumes and landscapes are interesting. None of the actors do a particularly standout job, though I remember enjoying Ewan McGregor much more in the next two movies. Oliver Ford Davies, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McDiarmid, Liam Neeson, Ray Park, Natalie Portman, Terence Stamp, and BRIAN BLESSED have all done better work in other films. At least I think Neeson has. Like Prentis Hancock, he’s one of those actors I just never enjoy. I guess in retrospect it’s kind of amusing that they cast Stamp, of all people, as a man without a backbone. That’s all I have. It’s a berry berry bad movie.

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Iron Man 2 (2010)

So the third Marvel Universe movie… it’s kind of underwhelming, isn’t it? I think I’d honestly have preferred a six episode TV series with Tony Stark wheeling and dealing and saving his own life without any superhero stuff in it. The superhero stuff here just isn’t all that interesting. Mickey Rourke is the villain this time, an odd gestalt of two comic book characters, Whiplash and the Crimson Dynamo. It’s a very odd performance, even for Rourke, who has a reputation for being a little eccentric. The screen certainly doesn’t come to life when he’s on it.

When Tony’s being rude to the Senate Committee, on the other hand, the movie’s absolutely full of life. When he and Pepper Potts keep talking at the same time, it’s almost magical. I absolutely love watching Robert Downey Jr. and Gwenyth Paltrow together. They have such great chemistry. And when Black Widow does her thing and takes out eight or nine guards while Happy works very hard to pummel one, that’s pretty wonderful, too. But Tony and James Rhodes, now played by Don Cheadle, have the big climax together against a small army of armored drone robots, and it’s one of the most dull conclusions to any of these movies. There’s no sense of awe this time out, just punctuations to the actors having a better movie in their civilian guises.

I admit that this post is pretty underwhelming, too. This just isn’t a very inspiring movie to me, really. All of the plot complications were completely over our son’s head, in part because he was too excited to pay attention. This is a big day for him. We got up a little early to watch this, and then take an hour for him to exercise and spend some energy while I hammer this out, and we’ll be on our way to see Black Panther in about thirty minutes. Two Marvel movies in one day? He’s died and gone to heaven or something. He just interrupted playing the Hulk smashing zombies to interrupt me with a hug.

So he’s received a quick recap of the apparently relevant events in Captain America: Civil War, but I’m not sure he’ll need it. He just wants to see costumed people ripping cars in half. The whys and wherefores aren’t all that important at age six.

Honestly, in this movie, I’m kind of happier watching the costumed people argue in doughnut shops.

There’s this completely strange subplot to the movie where Tony is dying because the radiation from his arc reactor eats through the palladium core. But Nick Fury gives him a hint that there may be other elements, which works out because Tony’s father built a giant clue about a new element into the… wait for it… grounds plan of the 1974 Stark Expo park. So he synthesizes this new element with a makeshift supercollider and then gets all better. I realize that superhero origin stories are often tortuous, but that’s pretty silly.

Now the Hulk has chainsaws and saws for ultimate power. He’s honestly coming up with something more interesting than what we just watched. I wonder whether Downey and Paltrow are available?

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The Moon-Spinners (1964)

I have to admit that every once in a while, I pick a complete flop with our son. He didn’t like Disney’s The Moon-Spinners at all. I thought it was a perfectly fine adventure film for kids, especially American kids in that early sixties sweet spot right before the Beatles exploded into pop culture.

I’ve often felt that Hayley Mills was absolutely in the right place at the right time. She had a legion of young girl fans and she was perfectly cast, often by Disney, as the engaging lead in fun movies like The Parent Trap and In Search of the Castaways, and of course she usually had dreamy boys with English accents around. You know how many of those girls who showed up to scream at the Beatles when they arrived in New York were Hayley Mills devotees? All of them.

But I guess that fifty-four years later, there’s not quite as much in a movie like this to thrill a six year-old boy. It sounded promising enough. There’s danger, intrigue, stolen jewels, and Eli Wallach and Paul Stassino as dangerous criminals. Plus there’s a terrific set of stunts when Hayley gets locked in a windmill by the baddies and everybody climbs out down the sails and blades. Honestly though, the part he liked the best was when Wallach got chased out of some ruins by feral cats.

For slightly older viewers, the story concerns Mills’ character, Nicky, and her aunt, played by Joan Greenwood, visiting a small village in Crete at the same time that a young man arrives in the hopes of finding some emeralds, stolen while under his care in London some months previously. So the young people get to have an adventure while an impressive cast of character actors, including Sheila Hancock, John Le Mesurier, Andre Morell, and George Pastell, provide support.

The lack of any of Disney’s trademark comic slapstick was perhaps one small failure in our son’s eyes, but this is a much more straightforward adventure movie than their seventies output, without a lot of levity. There is one deliciously funny moment where Mills breathlessly recounts her escapades to a millionaire played by Pola Negri, who definitely needs a drink before the recap is finished, but that’s more for the grown-ups in the crowd. I think somebody our son’s age would probably read that scene as played straight, because yes, that’s an accurate recap of the story so far. And viewers his age probably wouldn’t see the small hints to the audience in the way adult characters play certain scenes. We instantly knew that John Le Mesurier’s character wasn’t being completely honest in his explanations, but the reality of what he’s actually up to still eluded our son. And Sheila Hancock brings surprising tension to a scene in which her character gets drunk and talks too much, but all of these adult conversations just seemed like noise to him because it’s more subtle than the Hulk knocking over buildings.

So perhaps six was a little young or perhaps the movie is just a dated piece that’s going to appeal more to older viewers anyway, especially the older viewers who enjoy seeing all these great actors. Maybe we should have waited a couple of years, but I’m certainly glad of the experience and enjoyed the movie very much.

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Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, which was made under the title Doppelganger in 1969, isn’t a great movie. In fact, it rivals Disney’s The Black Hole as one of the silliest and least scientifically plausible films ever made. But there’s still a lot to recommend it, such as a fantastic musical score by Barry Gray, terrific visual effects, and one heck of a good cast.

Included in the cast, in a tiny bit part, is Nicholas Courtney. And, for regular readers of this blog, I’m delighted to say that our son recognized him even without the Brigadier’s distinctive mustache. I punched the air.

He also figured out very, very quickly that this movie was made by Gerry Anderson’s team. It perhaps helped a little that the look, feel, and sound of Anderson was fresh in his mind; last night, he rewatched the Thunderbirds episode “The Cham-Cham.” Journey to the Far Side of the Sun was directed by Robert Parrish, but the cinematography is by Anderson regular John Read, and this looks precisely like an episode of one of the Supermarionation series, only with live actors. I think it helped our son with a feeling of comfort. Journey is fairly justifiably accused of following in the footsteps of 2001, but the working-man’s-world of the near future in that movie is its own thing. This is the world of Captain Scarlet, right down to the camera decisions to spend agonizing minutes panning across control rooms while nobody really moves, focusing at dials counting down, and getting emergency crews into position for crash landing airplanes.

Adding a little bit to the Scarlet similarity, NASA’s liaison with the EuroSEC space program is played by Ed Bishop, who was the voice of Captain Blue. Other small parts are played by Cy Grant (Lt. Green), and Jeremy Wilkin (Captain Ochre). Wilkin passed away last month; we’ll see him again in Doctor Who next weekend.

The film’s leads are played by Roy Thinnes, Ian Hendry, Lynn Loring, and Patrick Wymark. Backing them up is an all-star cast of recognizable faces from film and TV, including George Sewell, Vladek Sheybal, Philip Madoc, sixties spy movie regular Loni von Friedl, and the great Herbert Lom, who plays a foreign agent with a camera in his artificial eye to snap secret photos of the plans for Sun Probe.

Unfortunately, two big problems are working against this awesome cast. First off, this movie is paced more like a glacier than just about anything I can think of. The rocket doesn’t launch until halfway through the film, and twice we have to mark the passage of time with slow and trippy psychedelic sequences. A big problem upfront is that Patrick Wymark’s character, the director of EuroSEC, has to find the money to fund his mission to a new planet on the far side of the sun. Agonizing minutes are spent worrying and arguing about money, instead of just having NASA immediately pay for it in exchange for sending an American astronaut on the mission.

The astronaut’s marriage is in trouble. Mercifully, Wikipedia tells me that they chopped out a massive subplot about his wife’s affair, otherwise we’d never have got into space. Either the astronaut can’t have a baby because of space radiation or because his wife is secretly taking birth control pills. Neither really matters much. But they keep introducing new elements and complications. Ian Hendry, who is awesome here, is out of shape and shouldn’t go on the mission. This is all interesting character development, but none of it ends up mattering.

It’s like the Andersons and scriptwriter Donald James were writing an interesting prime-time drama about the machinations of life among astronauts getting ready for a mission, and were told instead to do it all in forty-five minutes and then do something with the rocket and another planet. So you’ve got spies, a broken marriage, a physicist who’s not fit to fly, budget troubles, security leaks… Wymark had played the lead in The Plane Makers and The Power Game, a backstabbing boardroom drama that ran for seven seasons earlier in the sixties. I think Journey could have made a good show like that. I don’t think our son would have had all the neat rockets and crash landings to keep his attention, but I’d probably give it a spin.

Or possibly not. Bishop and Sewell were pretty boring in the TV series UFO, which the Andersons made soon after this.

The plot of the movie is about the mission and a mystery. Why did Thinnes and Hendry turn back and return to Earth halfway through their six week mission, when Thinnes insists they landed on the hidden planet on the far side of the sun? The answer won’t surprise anybody who read this chestnut of a story when they were a little kid thumbing through schlocky pulp sci-fi from the thirties, but I enjoyed the way that Read and Parrish kept finding hints for the audience in the form of mirrors. If you like watching Gerry Anderson’s work or a cast full of great actors, this isn’t a bad way to spend a hundred minutes. If you’re looking for an even remotely plausible science fiction adventure, though… you’re really, really going to have to check your disbelief at the door.

Today’s feature was a gift from Nikka Valken, and I invite you all to check out her Society 6 page and buy some of her fun artwork! 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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Clash of the Titans (1981)

I remember the summer of 1981 pretty well. That was when I was old enough to go to the movies with a friend without a grownup. That was quite a summer for films. I remember going to see For Your Eyes Only, Dragonslayer, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Clash of the Titans several times. Five bucks would get me a matinee, popcorn, Coke, and a complaint from my mother that movies used to cost a dime.

Grown-up movie critics thought that Clash of the Titans was old hat, but not to this ten year-old. You may recall that Tom Hanks once said that Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest movie ever made. Objectively, Clash isn’t as good, but it had absolutely everything that ten year-old me could ask for. There are monsters, blood, angry Greek gods, a skeletal ferryman, and seven or eight seconds of nudity. This was the best use of five dollars anybody had ever come up with.

Honestly, this really is a little old hat, and perhaps not Ray Harryhausen’s finest film, but it’s still entertaining, and since he was planning to retire after it, it’s a high point, just not his highest. It’s another of his classic quest stories, this time drawn from the myths and legends of ancient Greece, and the visual effects are as good as ever. Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Ursula Andress scheme and backstab on Mount Olympus, and on Earth, Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Siân Phillips, Judy Bowker, and Tim Piggot-Smith get caught up in their machinations.

None of them get caught as badly as Neil McCarthy, whom our son remembers fondly as Sam from the first series of Catweazle. For the crime of slaughtering Zeus’s winged horses, Calibos is turned into a deformed, demonic creature, portrayed by McCarthy in the closeups and by stop-motion animation in longer shots. During their first fight, Perseus slices off one of Calibos’s hands. The villain replaces his lost hand with a small trident, and, proving that he wasn’t paying the strictest attention in the world, when we see Calibos later, our son asked “Why does he have a fork?”!

It did, mercifully, register that Burgess Meredith was playing the role of Perseus’s friend, the poet and playwright Ammon. That might be because I pointed out his name in the credits. “You know who that is, right? He’s been in three Twilight Zones and he was the Penguin in Batman, okay?” I’ll get this kid recognizing character actors, by Zeus.

But overall, he was not quite as wild about this as I was as a kid. Marie suggested that I was a couple of years older during my weeks of seeing this again and again, and it’s probably also true that the ferryman Charon blew my mind because, in 1981, I was a bigger fan of Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider than any other boy in America. I just liked skeletons a whole lot then. Our son even protested that the Kraken’s four arms were excessive.

But another reason this wasn’t a mammoth success is that this is one of those rare films that actually opens with the scene that he loved the most. The Kraken’s destruction of the city of Argos was the high point, and the rest of the movie, even the amazing battle against Medusa, didn’t compare. He did, however, get all hunched up and worried during that fight. Then he complained afterward that Medusa didn’t use “her eye weapon” as much in the fight as he wanted.

In fairness, though, he has already seen Jason of the Argonauts.

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