Category Archives: movies

The Last Unicorn (1982)

As we continue our occasional dips into eighties fantasy films, this afternoon we watched a celebrated animated film with a large fan base. The Last Unicorn is based on Peter S. Beagle’s very popular novel. I use these qualifiers because this is one of those movies that many, many people enjoy a whole lot more than my son and I did. We squirmed all through the exasperating thing.

Last year, we watched a Rankin/Bass film from the seventies called The Last Dinosaur. I noted then that Rankin/Bass had a long association with a variety of Japanese studios. There’s probably a really fascinating series of blog posts to be written – by people who know this stuff better than I do! – about these international co-productions, and The Last Unicorn is one of these. It was animated by a studio called Topcraft, which might have been the company that Rankin/Bass went with most often on their films and TV specials. Topcraft also collaborated with several other animation houses on all kinds of cartoons that you’ve seen like Gatchaman, Maya the Bee, and the Macross movie, though they folded in the mid-eighties.

I guess elements of this film are nicely animated, and I liked the character and setting designs, but I was constantly distracted by the intrusive music, the incredibly poor editing, and the godawful sound mix, which I understand has been addressed in more recent transfers of the movie. My wife picked up a copy of this a very long time ago and was a little disappointed that her fellas didn’t share her enjoyment of it.

There’s a little more to like, including terrific performances by Angela Lansbury and Christopher Lee as villains, and the instantly-recognizable Paul Frees and Don Messick in smaller roles, but the movie starts with the double whammy of this godawful title theme, a dentist’s office dirge by the then-popular adult contemporary act America, and an endless opening scene where a deliberately annoying butterfly deflects all of the unicorn’s questions with song fragments and silly wordplay. I was fed up with this movie by the eight minute mark.

Our son lasted longer than I did, but when they get to King Haggard’s castle, the momentum this movie had just deflates. It’s interminable. He got up and wandered to the other sofa. “This is very boring,” he sighed. I hoped Paul Frees’s character would come back from wherever he teleported himself to. No, instead there was a love song. The worst, the sappiest love song ever. The climax picked things up, but couldn’t save it. It’s a decent enough story, so hopefully when his mother reads Beagle’s novel to him down the line – or when he permits her to read it to him – he’ll enjoy it a lot more.

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The Force Awakens (2015)

Before we get started, I really, really encourage you all to read a criticism of The Force Awakens that my friend Matt Murray wrote. You can check it out here; it’s not a very long read. Matt’s a very good filmmaker. He’s been making independent movies of all shapes and lengths for decades. He understands cinema better than most people, and his criticism of TFA is absolutely correct. I can’t disagree with a single point that he makes there. And yet at the same time he’s completely wrong. TFA is indeed a tame and safe corporate-led rehash without an original idea in its skin and a desperate need to appeal to a diverse audience without doing anything to challenge either its characters or that audience.

But it’s fun. It’s actually fun. It’s the first time a Star Wars movie actually did anything to entertain me in more than thirty years. It was made by a director who doesn’t seem to have lost his sense of wonder, and the performances that he brings from his actors convince me that they’re genuinely people. The prequels created some nice environments that seemed extremely interesting, but even the heroes in those movies are so repellently wooden that I can’t envision what they’re doing when they’re not servicing the needs of the plot. Imagine having dinner with Finn or Poe. Now imagine having dinner with Amidala. You can’t even imagine Amidala eating.

And so, with life and joie de vivre restored to the set of a Star Wars movie for the first time in a long time, I didn’t mind this being a cover band retread. It’s fun. The previous four installments were not. That’s all that matters. Certainly I’d prefer they have gone with something more original, but they did with the next movies. TFA is the back-to-basics restatement of principles. It’s the Beatles working simple with the Get Back/Let it Be sessions before they did Abbey Road. Each of the three films that followed TFA are superior, but all four movies are better and more entertaining than the four that preceded them. I like Let it Be and Abbey Road better than Sgt Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and the white album too.

Our son is hardly a reliable critic, but he was also pretty impressed. We teased him afterward about whether he likes movies or he just likes explosions. But despite his oddball protest that the only thing he really liked was Starkiller Base blowing up, we certainly saw him bouncing with glee at the various chase scenes and gunfights. The death of Han Solo didn’t move him much. I honestly really loved that experience when the film was first released. Kind of appropriate that an actor who’s said variations on “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” as often as Harrison Ford has would get to bow out here in a scene that put a lump in my throat for about ten solid minutes before his inevitable end, feeling that bad feeling so strongly that I hoped against hope that I was wrong.

Rewatching it, sure, the missed opportunities stand out. Some of the concessions to “cinema” over reality grate. Wouldn’t this have been a more thrilling experience if the First Order was a zero-budget terrorist organization instead of yet another galaxy-striding, who-the-hell-is-funding-this super-army with yet another Big Gun? Having felt the horrible shift in the Force that came with Ben/Kylo’s final fall and Han’s death, why does Leia choose to ignore Chewbacca when they return so that she can embrace a complete stranger?

I could go on, because, sure, it’s a movie that gets a lot wrong. But it’s also a movie that gives Max von Sydow such an overdue chance to join this universe, and which introduces us to so many interesting characters and some really fine actors. As nice as it is to see Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher casually being extremely good, my interest is in Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. As I keep saying, we see very little contemporary film and television, but I’d be willing to see them in anything. I’m a little less sold on Adam Driver, but that’s arguably a credit to how horrible a person Kylo Ren is.

I dunno how episode nine is going to end. I really prefer not to speculate much. But I can’t help myself and I really do hope it isn’t Rey who finally kills this villain. I want Chewbacca to bring him down. I’m not going to place any money on it, mind.

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Iron Man 3 (2013)

2013 was less than a great year around these waters, and we didn’t get out to the theater to see the Marvel movies as we had. So I decided later on to hold off and see this one, and the second Thor film, with our son when he was old enough. It’s kind of nice to slot in these last few blocks.

That said, I’m just going to note the bare minimum here because I’m ill today and should be in bed. We all enjoyed Iron Man 3 very much, though the best parts were the ones dealing with the security guards that AIM has employed. I really liked seeing Tony Stark rely on wits and improvisation to succeed. The sequence where he gets away from the Extremis soldier posing as Homeland Security was fabulous.

I also really enjoyed Gwyneth Paltrow’s character of Pepper Potts getting to enjoy some of the scrapping this time out, and not serve the plot strictly as somebody for Tony to argue with. Don Cheadle has a lot more to do as Rhodes in this movie, too. Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley are the villains, and they came up with a brilliantly imaginative take on the Mandarin. Miguel Ferrer has a small part in this one as well. As always, the casting is terrific.

And our kid was of course completely thrilled. He even says that the final fight, in which Tony activates “House Party Protocol” and fills the sky with dozens of empty suits, acting as drones, to fight the Extremis soldiers, was better than the one in The Avengers. This was a very expensive few days for Tony Stark, even by his standards!

One minor note on plausibility: the town of Rose Hill TN does not actually exist, but it’s very briefly shown on a map in Tony’s lab as being in west Tennessee. However, the Christmas beauty pageant is covered by a news crew from Chattanooga. While I honestly don’t know the local news stations here all that well, I’ll believe a man can fly a nuclear warhead through a wormhole in space before I believe the news stations in Chattanooga would send a van within fifty miles of that spot on the map!

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Return to Oz (1985)

Between Child Catchers and Drashigs, Mad Hatters and Sleestak, Bigfoots and all manner of witches, especially the ones who use boiling oil, our son has seen down the most nightmare-inducing imagery that the world of movies and TV can throw at kids. He’s left the room in tears a few times, but all of these frights mean that ours is the planet’s toughest seven year-old.

This is a good thing, because anybody who shows a seven year-old Return to Oz without giving them a good education in frights beforehand is just asking for trouble. Mother of Mary! If I had seen this when I was seven, I wouldn’t have slept for a month. This is a really good movie, but but you want to know about nightmare fuel? There’s a part where we meet a character with multiple heads. We’ve been down this road often enough to know that a bit later, those heads are going to wake up and start screaming. I’m not spoiling anything, because it’s that obvious. You could set your watch by it.

And yet when those heads start screaming… well, I’m a middle-aged fat man now and yet I’m pretty sure I’m not going to sleep for a month.

I was “too old” for Return to Oz when it was released in 1985, in that horrible teenage boy period I’ve mentioned here before when we all just had no time for kids’ stuff anymore. It’s always seemed to share some cultural overlap with some of the other mid-eighties fantasies, especially Labyrinth, but it’s never really had the same kind of championing or love. If Time Bandits is a prickly film, then this is downright spiky. It’s extremely well-made, but surely nobody finds it comforting.

The story goes like this. Dorothy goes back to Oz, as she did many times in Baum’s original novels and all the zillion tie-ins and cash-ins, and finds that a Nome King, played by Nicol Williamson, has wrecked the Emerald City, turned its people to stone, and captured the Scarecrow. Played by Fairuza Balk (who, at ten, is a much more age-appropriate Dorothy than Judy Garland), Dorothy finds some new allies but gets on the wrong side of a witch called Mombi, who is played, in part, by Jean Marsh.

Design-wise, it’s a very, very eighties movie. Mombi looks like she’s ready for a night on the town with… well, with Labyrinth‘s Goblin King, actually. Her servants, the Wheelers, are (a) completely horrifying, (b) strapped into what must surely be the most uncomfortable costumes ever worn by anybody in film history, and (c) look like they reported to the set just after making music videos in New Zealand, “Manic Panic” in their hair and all. Jack Pumpkinhead, who was brought to life in part by Brian Henson, is wearing a remarkable pink shirt that would never have been sold in any other period. And there’s Claymation. Quite a lot of it!

But while I giggle at the costumes and makeup, just like I do when I watch pretty much anything from the mid-eighties these days, the sets are pretty remarkable and show a wild attention to detail. There’s a great bit where the lumbering Tik-Tok leaves footprints in a dusty floor as he stomps, and the camera sensibly ignores it, leaving the audience to suddenly ask how long it took to reset the stage between takes. Mombi’s palace is full of mirrors, emphasizing the witch’s narcissism, and then there’s the sanitorium where the movie begins.

As with MGM’s original movie, some of the actors do double-duty as characters in both Kansas and Oz. If Jean Marsh is a little garish and scene-chewing as Mombi, she’s an all-business rod-in-her-spine harridan as the head nurse in Kansas. This is where the movie starts to get under your skin. The whole experience is framed like a horror film, with the quiet squeaking of hospital gurneys and distant screams of the incarcerated making viewers uneasy as the music insists this is not a kiddie movie at all.

Our own kid will be going to sleep in about seventy minutes. Maybe he’ll let me sleep in his bed tonight if I get too scared. Pleasant dreams, everyone.

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Time Bandits (1981)

Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits was made for an insanely small budget of just $5 million for a movie that looks so much larger than that. David Rappaport plays the unelected leader of a gang of time-hopping criminals who burst through an imaginative kid’s bedroom and bring him along on their adventures, and the cast includes John Cleese, Sean Connery, and Michael Palin, who cowrote the movie with Gilliam, in memorable parts, along with a who’s who of familiar faces in very tiny parts. Blink and you’ll miss Jim Broadbent, David Daker, and Neil McCarthy, among others.

I’ve never loved any of Terry Gilliam’s “solo” films, not even Bandits, which I first saw when I was ten. I admire it and I enjoy it, but it’s so prickly that I can’t embrace it. It’s not a comforting movie. It’s a weird, wonderful, deeply unpredictable, and occasionally funny movie, but it’s certainly not comforting. I remember just about everything in this movie getting under my skin and unsettling me when I first saw it, and then wanting to see it again as soon as possible, hoping for answers. This movie just refuses to provide any.

So I saw it several more times when I was in middle school, because HBO played it regularly for a while, and maybe once when I was in high school, and I don’t think I’ve seen it since. On the other hand, my wife thinks that she may have seen this movie more times than any other film, and our son just had his mind completely blown by it, so I’m definitely in the minority around these parts.

The world that Gilliam built in Time Bandits is incredibly vivid and incredibly ugly. Absolutely everything is dirty and wet. I like how all the costumes (designed by Jim Acheson!) are incredibly complicated but somehow never quite seen very clearly. A being called Evil, played by David Warner, has these hideous hench-guard things with black cloaks and the skulls of animals, but they never stay still long enough for us to focus on what they are, and subsequently dismiss them. So I think this all adds up to an experience that can get around the back corners of your mind and stay there, unsettling you. The scene where the heroes run down an impossible corridor with the booming face of the Supreme Being haunted me, the Supreme Being’s refusal to politely explain everything to Kevin bothered me, and the sad coda back in the present day – slash – real world gave me nightmares.

But our kid just loved it all, so never mind me when I was ten. He’s made of sterner stuff. He was so fired up by the movie that we had to banish him to the floor because he couldn’t keep still on the sofa and was driving me nuts with his kicking. When we got to the climactic battle against Evil, he was on his feet and jumping up and down like he was on a pogo stick. There was a small part of me that worried that seven might have been too young for this movie, and that part was as wrong as can be.

Our boy doesn’t seem to have very many nightmares, and doesn’t have trouble falling asleep after he’s seen something frightening that we’ve watched. Time Bandits caused me troubles, but I don’t think I’ll need to come back and edit this post with an addendum that the grisly fate of Kevin’s parents came back to bother him in the middle of the night.

In case you didn’t know this, Time Bandits was one of the first movies produced by George Harrison’s company Handmade Films, and he contributed the wonderful song “Dream Away,” which plays over the end credits and which I have always enjoyed. A year later, the song was included on Harrison’s 1982 LP Gone Troppo. It’s by far the best song on the record.

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Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Star Wars is rarely far from my mind these days, in part because I have a seven year-old son who yammers about it constantly, and in part because people who call themselves fans can’t go nine straight days without doing something so silly or stupid that most people wish they’d never heard of Star Wars.

For posterity, the most recent attack on common sense has been a coterie of dingbats who scheme to remake The Last Jedi to some different set of specifications. A couple of weeks ago, it was the news that actress Kelly Marie Tran had deleted her Instagram posts after concentrated harassment from bigots and misogynists.

But it’s been that way for years, hasn’t it? At some point around the time that Revenge of the Sith was released, one of the Star Wars novelists rang up Lucasfilm to get a detail for one of her books. As I recall, she wanted to know how many clone troopers were involved in the siege of such-n-such. She was told that it was a million, and fourteen readers rioted because that was too few soldiers. The author was villified; people made little computer animations depicting her as a lizard-alien peddling false statistics.

And all I always think is, why do these movies make people so hateful? I don’t get it. Sometimes they’re stupid, and sometimes the acting is wretched, but if you get disappointed with a movie, as is pretty easy to do with the prequels, just tune it out and watch something different.

I tried working out a Star Wars timeline for my son to follow it. I figure it as about 67 years between The Phantom Menace and The Last Jedi. For him, it’s all one story, all to be explored as one, and he was delighted with it. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have any preconceived notions and he hasn’t formed a bigoted opinion about what skin color the heroes are meant to have. And I kind of enjoyed working it out, whether or not my sums are right.

It’s a fun little universe to think about and play with. It’s inspired at least one really entertaining video game (Shadows of the Empire for the N64) and one thunderously wonderful comic (Death, Lies, and Treachery by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy), plus sixty gajillion cartoons and books I haven’t seen. It’s Star Wars and it’s meant to be fun. Maybe if it stops being fun, its “fans” should go watch something else.

Revenge of the Sith, meanwhile, has the terrific scene where R2-D2 sets a couple of robots on fire. Our son was thrilled to meet General Grievous, and hated seeing Anikin turn to the Dark Side, and didn’t quite understand why there was “all that metal” on the lava planet. He loved it and wants to see the next one. I hope he never does anything so idiotic as harass an actress on Instagram.

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Pom Poko (1994)

The great people at Fathom Events have been sending a monthly cartoon feature from Japan’s Studio Ghibli to theaters nationwide, a mix of both dubbed and subtitled selections. Today, we went to see Pom Poko, a 1994 movie directed by Isao Takahata, who passed away earlier this year.

There’s a hint of Watership Down in this story about magical raccoons trying to defend their forest against real estate developers in Japan, but this is a very different, and much lighter experience! Many of the raccoons have the power to change their form, and they try lots of amusing tricks to drive families and construction crews off their land, but their successes are all short-lived, and they might need to look into the strategies suggested by some wily foxes. If you can’t beat ’em…

The dub of this film features some unmistakable voices. The movie is narrated by Maurice LaMarche, and Clancy Brown plays one of the short-tempered raccoons. That’s right, Lex Luthor and the Brain teamed up. Somebody should make a movie about that. The movie’s sweet, but very long at a full two hours. Our son said that he liked it, but he doesn’t know that he needs to see it again. I kind of agree, actually. A good experience, but not a great one.

Click the image above for more anime films and features coming to US theaters this year, including Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies in August and My Neighbor Totoro in September!

Image credit: All Your Anime

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The Avengers (2012)

More evidence, as if any were needed, that a good movie is elevated when you watch it with an appreciative kid. I like The Avengers just fine – I keep telling our son that these are the other, lesser Avengers, but I don’t think he’s buying it – but I’m pretty sure he’s thinking this is the finest achievement in motion picture history. I thought he was going to explode when Thor and Iron Man have their fight.

Every joke that involves the Hulk in the final fight had our son roaring. Some others bombed with him because he didn’t understand them, which just means he’s going to appreciate the movie more and more as he gets older. On that note, he got a little impatient after the attack on the Helicarrier, and when Black Widow and Hawkeye have their heart-to-heart, he tuned out, as you’d expect a kid to. I really must remember to watch this again with him sometime and see whether he understands the character stuff better, particularly all the interesting manipulation going on as both Nick Fury and Loki place bets on how our heroes will react to various bits of challenging information.

That’s about all I have to say, but for posterity, The Avengers is the sixth Marvel Universe movie, it’s directed and co-written by Joss Whedon, and it features the debut of Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner and the Hulk. Everybody else is all present and correct, and my favorite bit is when Captain America shows up in Stuttgart to save that old man’s life and you just know that Loki’s about to get a knuckle sandwich. Our son was taken by just about everything else, and was dazed by that long final fight.

Finally, he was totally charmed by the second credit scene in the little deli and its quiet awkwardness. Of course, now that I have said that, I’m a little peckish. I wonder whether I can persuade my family to go to Ankar’s and get some shawarma for supper tonight. It may not be “best in New York City” good, though.

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