Princess Mononoke (1997)

Earlier this week, I took our son for his allergy shots, saw that one of the TVs in the waiting room was playing something that looked like Pokemon*, and asked him “Would you like to sit there and watch Pokemon?” He’s ten, and while most of the time he’s still our delightful little boy wanting hugs and cuddles and positive attention while unrolling his world of wild fan theories, he will, occasionally, remind us that the teen years are just seconds away. Suddenly he was fifteen already, embarrassed by his uncool dad, and he rolled his eyes and said “Dah-ah-ahddddd, why do you think all anime is Pokemon?!” Little twerp, I was reading that show was called Pocket Monsters and giving people seizures before I knew what Team Rocket even looked like.

So what happened the very next day? The North American distributor of lots of good things, GKids, made an astonishing announcement. They’ve licensed Future Boy Conan. I’m not kidding. Go read about it. Everybody else I know has a lot more time for Japanese cartoons than I do, but Conan is stop-the-presses huge. It’s a 26-episode TV series directed by Hayao Miyazaki for a weekly early-evening slot for NHK in 1978, based loosely on Alexander Key’s novel The Incredible Tide. Conan made it to several international markets, including Mexico and Italy, but didn’t land in the United States, not even all those years later, once Miyazaki became the de facto face of the medium for people who have even less time for Japanese cartoons than I do.

You can read a huge amount about Conan over at Let’s Anime, where Dave wrote a comprehensive article last year. And the reason I’m so hyped about the forthcoming English-language release of this series, where absolutely no other cartoon release has prompted more than a raised eyebrow, is that about three decades ago, he landed a laserdisc set of the 26 episodes, raw, without subs or dubs, copied them for me on seven VHS tapes, and I watched those bad boys from beginning to end three times in a row, two or three episodes every single day, occasionally baffled but otherwise transfixed. I gave it another spin a couple of years later. They were lost in the VHS purge of 2001, and I am so looking forward to revisiting its weird world, oddball humor, and wild melodrama.

There are so many people in this country whose love of Japanese cartoons and comics have been a springboard for a deeper interest in Japanese language or culture or careers. Maybe our son’s turning into one. This morning, we watched Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke, which some people consider his best. The lead character, Ashitaka, carries around a bowl, as I believe you did back in the 1400s or whenever, to enjoy some rice on the road. That got the kid wanting ramen for lunch. Unfortunately, we live in Chattanooga, where options for a really good bowl of soup are more than a bit limited. We ended up watching him enjoy the heck out of a giant bucket of tonkatsu ramen while we ate expensively and far worse than he did. (I don’t actually like ramen. I don’t like pho either. Soup for me is what you dip a grilled cheese sandwich in.)

As for the movie, he said that he mostly liked it, but he had trouble with what seemed to him like Ashitaka’s shifting alliances. “Like, whose side is he on,” he protested. He was unprepared for the level of violence – it was very surprising when I first saw this in the early 2000s and remains so today – but mostly fascinated by the story. I think I like Lady Eboshi the best. She’s an interestingly sympathetic villain, who’s done so much good that it mostly mitigates the evil. And I like the score: it might be Joe Hisaishi’s finest after Nausicaa.

But mentioning Nausicaa just brings up the problem: this movie just feels like Nausicaa redux, with a male lead. As Miyazaki explores the wheel turning and civilizations rising and falling and nature taking over and man beating it back, this was perhaps inevitable, but there isn’t anything here that Nausicaa didn’t do better, especially the climax. The great anecdote everybody loves to share about this one is that Miyazaki and/or his PR team sent the North American distributors a firm and slightly hilarious warning against making any cuts, but this climax goes on for freaking ever and could seriously stand to have a good fifteen minutes pruned from it. There’s a lot to like in the end, especially how all the people who live in Lady Eboshi’s town are ready and willing to rebuild and keep her in charge, despite everything, but it takes an agonizing time to get there.

Agonizing. Once we can preorder Conan, that’s precisely what it’s going to feel like. Mononoke is a pretty good movie, but it’s not Future Boy Conan.

*It was Beyblade.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Ray Bradbury Month continues with a movie you should probably watch on an evening other than July 4th. For starters, the season’s wrong, and then you have to start it with the sun still up, and then yahoos start shooting bottle rockets. This is a quiet, creepy movie, when the music’s not too unbearable, anyway. It deserved better than we gave it.

Something Wicked This Way Comes is a pretty good film. I wouldn’t call it better than that, but it’s probably a film that’s going to have greater impact on younger viewers. There’s a lot here to like, but there’s also a lot that gets in the way of liking it. There are a couple of places where a threat gets sidelined by a long talk with somebody, usually Jason Robards, and it just kills the momentum stone dead. During the film’s biggest failure, our two young heroes are rushing home from a creepy carnival with a spectral green gas following them. But the kids have to get tucked in to their respective bedrooms and then Jason Robards has to meditate on the power of regret for five minutes before the nightmare gas catches up. Maybe it’s the music’s fault: it tells us that something very urgent is about to happen, and it doesn’t, for hours.

So anyway, Wicked was a quarter-century labor of love from Bradbury. It started as a screenplay in 1959 or so, became a novel in 1962, and finally went before the camera twenty years later, with lots of location filming in Vermont. Jonathan Pryce plays Mr. Dark, the leader of “the autumn people,” who show up with an October carnival every forty or fifty years to grant wishes and steal souls from the lonely and sad townspeople. You can see a far better story than the production before the carnival shows up. There is way too much music, but the supporting characters are introduced with sharp enough sketches that they’re easily remembered a half-hour later when things start going very wrong.

When Mr. Dark and his gang show up on a strange train, things pick up for a while, with fits and starts and frustrations punctuating some powerfully good set pieces. Pryce completely dominates the film. He has a big moral showdown with Robards and the blasted director doesn’t even allow Robards to stand up and face him. Supporting roles are filled by some fine actors like Diane Ladd, Pam Grier, and Angelo Rossitto, and there are some splendid scares, one involving a couple of hundred tarantulas and another had our son giving a very, very sharp gasp when Mr. Dark’s two hands come up behind the boys as they’re hiding in the library.

I think the set pieces might stick with our kid, but overall it is nowhere as tense as it should be, and the hints about what’s keeping the hero kids so unhappy are either frustratingly vague or hammered in with too much force. It’s genuinely not a bad film, but I was disappointed that it wasn’t as good as I remembered it. I’d like to see it issued on Blu-ray with a beefy set of bonus features, but I can’t swear that even the tarantulas would make it a pre-order priority.

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!

The Secret of Twilight Gemini (1996)

For posterity’s sake, we watched this, it was terrible, and I wish I hadn’t bought it. By leagues and leagues the worst Lupin III adventure I’ve ever seen, this one even subverts the potentially hilarious subplot of Zenigata being assigned just one police officer in Morocco – an old, forgotten, feeble man with a giant mustache – by sending Zenigata’s new boss onto the scene to take charge. Anybody who can’t figure out from there that Zenigata’s boss is really the villain is new to this kind of plot.

Without that, there’s nothing left but a surprising number of nude scenes, the writers forgetting that Goemon’s sword is meant to be indestructible, and a totally awful whip-wielding male enemy, who Lupin immediately identifies as gay because of his effeminate voice, and then taunts with nasty, sexist slurs. I wish I hadn’t showed this to the kid. TV Tropes claims this has the most nudity of any Lupin feature, but I’m going to double-check the next two in the queue first. I’ve got no beef with nudity, and a little titillation should be a given in Lupin III, but this one just got downright annoying.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

I’d only seen Big Trouble in Little China once before this, ages ago, and had largely forgotten about it. I’m not sure when it crossed my radar again, but it suddenly struck me that our son was certain to love it. The smooching is kept to a minimum, it’s just mayhem, magic, fight scenes and at least two characters who later got pilfered by the people who make video games. I was right; he enjoyed it very much and thought the video game comparison was apt. “Some of that,” he observed, “looked a lot like a ‘cut scene’,” as those things are called.

It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that John Carpenter’s film has inspired so many people who later worked in movies and games. I was absolutely at the right age for it when it was originally released, but I somehow missed it until it showed up on cable, and thought it was pretty good. It’s actually a little better than that. It’s a very clever and very fun film, and about the only complaint I can make is that the drum-machine music has aged really badly. Everything that Carpenter put on screen is really entertaining.

I especially like how Kurt Russell just effortlessly sells this. Jack Burton is one of the greatest action heroes from his day: resourceful, if not particularly intelligent, and loyal even when he is in way over his head and in the middle of other people’s problems. Dude just wants his truck back. I can get behind that. Support comes from the terrific James Hong as the main villain, along with Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, and Al Leong. I like how there’s a surprise around every corner, and there’s no predicting what the villains can do or what grotesque creatures are going to show up next. I also like how nobody’s cleaned up any of the cobwebs and skeletons in Lo Pan’s fortress underneath the streets of San Francisco.

So our son was incredibly pleased with darn near everything in the movie, and wowed appreciably all the way through it. I think his favorite bit might have been Dennis Dun’s character having an aerial swordfight with one of the baddies, but pretty much everything that Kurt Russell did amused him. I was surprised to learn the movie was a box office flop, only earning back about half its budget, because I’d just assumed it was a hit because everybody loves it. That’s a shame, because the late eighties and early nineties could have used another two or three Jack Burton adventures. With some different music, of course.

Serenity (2005)

I’ve rewatched all of Firefly a couple of times since I first saw it in 2005. I’ve left Serenity on the shelf. It’s not at all a bad film, but the experience of seeing it that one-and-only time, having no idea what was coming, was just so deliciously potent that it overpowered the narrative. It overpowered it so much that I forgot several important plot points, in particular the whole business about the nasty future government being responsible for the creation of the Reavers. That’s why the last time that I wrote about them, I said they were unlikely threats, but there was a perfectly good explanation that I didn’t recall. I’ll tell you what I did recall in just a minute.

So since we left Firefly with its ignominious cancellation in December 2002, some of the show’s small-for-a-network audience of two million viewers were discouraged, but their ranks quickly swelled. Firefly‘s home video release was a phenomenon for its time, and the audience of people who had no idea Fox had commissioned such an entertaining program just kept growing. The original studio couldn’t be bothered with new episodes, but Universal liked the idea of a reasonably-budgeted movie with a built-in audience. You might make the argument that they then undercut the possibility of turning the project into a hit by making sure every member of that built-in audience got to attend one of what seemed like hundreds of free advance screenings in the summer of 2005, but at least the audience kept quiet about what happened in the movie.

But almost sixteen years on, we’re past the point of spoilers, so I’ll say that this was one of the best theater experiences of my life. The setup is that those two creepy dudes with blue gloves don’t find River; an Alliance operative played by Chiwetel Ejiofor does. He seems reasonable and not at all angry; he just wants Mal to surrender. When Mal doesn’t, the operative and his crew systematically raze every bolt hole our heroes have ever used, and one of them was where our old friend and castmate Shepherd Book had been living. Book dies in Mal’s arms and about half an hour of screen time later, Wash joins him in one of the most shocking and surprising death scenes ever.

So things are very bad and they start getting very worse, and with absolutely everybody injured and the Reavers charging in, Simon also takes a bullet, and I remember sitting in that half-empty theater by myself silently swearing and realizing “They’re doing the last Blake’s 7.” None of them were getting out alive. I couldn’t believe the moxie and just marveled that the film was seriously going to kill off all the heroes. What stones.

As it turned out, I was completely wrong, but we all learned in 2005 is that capping two of your nine lead characters going into the climax really is an effective way to tell your audience that you’re not ready to play by the rules.

Serenity was a box office failure, barely earning back its budget despite some very good reviews. It’s a really good film that ties up most of the show’s loose ends. I don’t think that they put a single foot wrong in its two hours. Our son was very impressed, although, unlike me, he was able to keep from trying to guess what would happen next to whom. We all enjoyed it very much, and even though the whole Firefly experience found smaller audiences than anybody spending money to make it wanted, it’s safe to say that almost everybody who explores this ‘verse was very, very happy with it. Maybe one day, Netflix or somebody else will give it a reboot. I’ll certainly take a look if they do.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

I can’t believe how badly this film has dated. It sure didn’t stand up to a second go-around for me. It was amusing and entertaining, and the kid enjoyed it very much, but I swear the whole shebang has got to be among the least funny “comedies” ever scripted. In Galaxy Quest, some aliens think that a 1980s TV series was real, and ask the actors to help them save their planet. The underemployed actors think it’s another gig, but it’s real. That’s it. That’s the joke. It’s a mighty fine premise, I’ll grant you, but the movie is so busy having fun with saving the Thermians from their implacable enemy that it forgets to mine that premise for actual comedy.

So anyway, the movie features Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shaloub, and Daryl Mitchell as the stars of an early 1980s sci-fi show that ran for eighty-odd episodes, along with Sam Rockwell as a glorified extra who got killed off as a redshirt in one installment. They’re all pretty fun to watch, and Allen especially does a mighty fine job when his character gets to be “Commander Taggart” and play things straight. Enrico Colantoni, rudely, steals the movie out from all of them as the hero-worshipping leader of the aliens. The gag is that since their species does not understand anything other than absolute honesty, they’re easy prey for space conquerors who can lie to them with impunity, and they think that Galaxy Quest and Gilligan’s Island are historical documentaries. Nothing is done with this. Our heroes somehow don’t use lies and subterfuge to trick the Thermians into defeating their enemies; and the hapless aliens end the movie no wiser than they began.

I think what frustrated me this time around is that the film plays everything so straight that it has the same tone as any mildly amusing or wry sci-fi movie, when this thing should have had me laughing so hard I couldn’t hear what they were saying anymore. It knows that its audience is in on the joke, so it doesn’t bother to tell them any. At one point, the actors phone up a blueprint-loving “tech manual” style of fan who knows the schematics of the ship to help them get through the actor-sized ventilation ducts, and the joke seems to be “this kind of fan actually exists,” when of course they do. Was that supposed to be funny? I appreciate the design and the work of the actors, technicians, designers, and visual effects crew, and resent the screenplay for being so damn lazy.

What would have been better? Miles more on Earth. The aliens navigating agents, finding the stars’ homes, renting limousines. More of the actors’ other roles. The aliens looking up Tina Louise and Bob Denver to make sure they got off the island. The revelation that Tina Louise or Bob Denver had been a guest star in a 1982 episode of Galaxy Quest and the aliens trying to square that with what they think about television. Lots more gags about television. Heck, the fact that the aliens were able to get a working spaceship out of technology that does not make any scientific sense whatever is a gold mine of gags left untouched. I swear they spent $45 million on a movie with only one script draft. Into the sell pile with you, Galaxy Quest. You didn’t even produce a fake 1982 episode as a DVD extra!

Li’l Abner (1959)

All my talk at the beginning of this blog about not buying bootlegs and only using legitimate media starts to seem more and more hollow as time goes on. If it’s out of print, it’s probably on YouTube. Even if it’s in print, it’s probably on YouTube. I generally don’t like stage musicals very much, but 1959’s Li’l Abner is one of a handful that I appreciate, and I’d been looking for a reasonably-priced copy for quite a long time. I finally landed one from a seller in Australia, and it turned out to be a boot. I thought about arguing the point, but ended up appreciating the extremely good work they did on the printing, and accepted it. Money spent, movie watched.

So this was miles and miles outside our son’s comfort zone. It was his first look at a Broadway musical, although Marie reminded me that he has certainly seen other examples of musicals, mainly from Disney or the Muppets. Like all the kids who got dragged to the Dogpatch USA amusement park in its waning, dying days, he had no experience of the Li’l Abner comic strip, and the bulk of the story is about romancing and marrying. But I believed that, even though this was pretty far outside his experience, Li’l Abner had enough good-natured silliness, funny characters, gags, and entertaining songs to win over anybody who’d give it a chance, and I was right. His attention wandered a little bit – and to be fair, a couple of the dance numbers are really long – but he agreed that this was a good movie with a few great moments, chief among them the hysterical Sadie Hawkins Day Race, which had him guffawing.

It was a bit of a bad coincidence that this was scheduled for the Sunday after we learned that Billie Hayes had passed. Hayes plays Mamie Yokum, the strong-armed ma of our hero, Li’l Abner, who’d much rather spend his days with the fellas fishing than marrying the beautiful Daisy Mae Scragg. Our star-struck couple is played by Peter Palmer and Leslie Parrish, with ample support provided by some heavyweights like Stubby Kaye as Marryin’ Sam, Julie Newmar as Stupefyin’ Jones, and Stella Stevens as Appasionnata von Climax. Even Jerry Lewis gets a walk-on part, possibly because it was 1959 and he was contractually bound to appear in every movie that year.

This was a movie that I spent a long time mocking, because I didn’t appreciate its hayseed humor, and I deeply resented it for getting the song “Jubilation T. Cornpone” stuck in my head for the last three decades. The whole movie’s full of earworms, which the credits help explain: Broadway and Hollywood producers didn’t hire the likes of Johnny Mercer and Nelson Riddle to write forgettable music. Eventually I caved to its goofy and incredibly colorful charms, and appreciated all the physicality and the great wordplay. There’s a character called Evil Eye Fleagle who moves in a constantly twitching shuffle, and, like Stupefyin’ Jones with a shake of her hips, can stop anybody else in their tracks. Actually, Jones, who is apparently a robot, seems to have no power over women, which strikes me as a design flaw.

So sure, this is a movie filled with unflattering cultural stereotypes, as the citizens of Dogpatch are shown to be remarkably lazy, dirty, gullible and, in the eyes of the rest of the world, quite unnecessary, and the battle of the sexes is very, very much of its time. A standard Dogpatch wedding brings a fair maiden “three weeks of bliss and fifty years of quiet desperation,” which is why all the menfolk are so desperate to avoid it.

But the sharpest barbs are pointed at the government, and capitalism’s nasty greed, and the only real zingers aimed at the country folk and yokels are at their blind patriotism, accepting anything their senator tells them. Since Li’l Abner’s creator, Al Capp, turned into a whiny-ass “kids these days” crankpot in his later years, it’s nice to be reminded that at the strip’s peak in the 1950s, it was genuinely and consistently funny. I’ve read a fair amount of the Abner strip, and this production reflects what a witty and intelligent comic it was in the 1950s. It comes together really well here. It’s dated in a lot of respects, but it’s a crowd-pleaser, sunny, colorful, and very fun. I’m glad the kid enjoyed it. And a little relieved.

Twelve years later, Billie Hayes returned to the role of Mamie Yokum for a really, really colorful Li’l Abner TV pilot for ABC. Getty Images gets a little angry if you copy and post things with their copyright, so I strongly encourage everybody to visit Getty’s site, do a search for Li’l Abner, scroll down past all the pictures of Newmar, and check out some pics from the 1971 show. It was directed by Gordon Wiles and starred Ray Young and Nancee Parkinson as Abner and Daisy Mae. It was an astonishingly ill-timed pilot, since the networks’ rural purge was bringing the hatchet down on everything set between Mayberry and Hooterville. Returning to Dogpatch wasn’t going to happen in 1971. But speaking as I was of bootlegs, it seems possible that the pilot is lost, because not even YouTube has a trace of it. (Black and white copies of a 1966 trial have survived, however.) Even IMDB has only partial cast and crew credits. I’ve no idea what company made it, but since Hayes was in it, I’d like to see it one of these days.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension (1984)

I’ve always said that there are two likely reactions when you get to the end of Buckaroo Banzai: you either thank God it’s over, or you curse the heavens that they never made Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League. Unsurprisingly, but maddeningly, Marie is in the first camp, and I am definitely in the second. That’s despite this movie being so remarkably prickly that it probably shouldn’t appeal to me, but I love its moxie. This plays like the fourth or fifth Buckaroo Banzai film; it did all its character work several stories before.

In the wake of Avengers: Endgame, there were a raft of whiny complaints from “critics” who acted like they hadn’t noticed every previous Marvel movie and thought they were clever asking why Endgame didn’t try harder to appeal to newbies, but that’s exactly what Buckaroo Banzai does, and very successfully. Perhaps it’s a shame we were never introduced to Rawhide, Perfect Tommy, Casper, and Scooter, but we didn’t need to be, did we?

But maybe we needed to learn just a little more about Buckaroo himself: neurosurgeon, physicist, rock star, widower. He’s such a blank slate that even by the end of the movie we know so little about him that if somebody ever did make Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League and wrote the hero totally differently, who could complain? Talking of moxie, I love how he’s introduced. Some guy growls “Where is he,” and since he’s waiting for a man to drive an experimental car, we shouldn’t conclude that the fellow in surgeon scrubs of all things is that man. Peter Weller was never a big enough star for most viewers to recognize his voice or eyes, and first we see him in an operating theater. Jeff Goldblum many people did come to know, very well, later, so we can guess that maybe he’s talking to the hero, and then in his very next scene, the hero is still masked and climbing into a jet car. This is a movie that makes a lot more sense the second time around.

But trust our kid to find a third reaction. “I don’t know what to think of that,” he said. I gave him a little introduction last night that this would be our second example of an eighties cult film that failed in its first run but found a larger audience later on, and that John Lithgow would be overacting unbelievably, and that he would never really learn who the characters were. He liked some of it but was utterly baffled by most of it.

It’s a bizarre film, yet it’s still pretty conventional. The bad guys need a couple of henchmen, and they’re played by perennial Hollywood henchmen Vincent Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya. Christopher Lloyd, who is hilariously concerned about the pronunciation of his Earthling name, is their boss, and the Griffith Park Tunnel is here as well, making two obvious connections to Roger Rabbit. And no, of course the kid didn’t recognize Lloyd despite seeing him just seven days ago in Clue. It follows a pretty straightforward action-adventure plotline, although the climax is really low-key and simple. It’s downright refreshing after watching how much bigger and bloated the finales of movies like this have become.

It’s a movie that leaves me wanting more. I want to read the Buckaroo Banzai comics in that universe, not ours, I want to know the Hong Kong Cavaliers’ discography, and I want to see them in a small club like the one they play here. I want to know how to subscribe to the Blue Blaze newsletter and become an Irregular. Maybe the kid will want to know more one day as well; he just needs to see it a second time and think about it. Give him a few years and he’ll also curse the heavens that they never made Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League.

Clue (1985)

I told our son that this weekend and next, we’re going to look at a pair of cult films from the eighties, movies that did not do well at the box office but found a much bigger audience on cable and on home video. I genuinely believe that in the case of 1985’s breathtakingly silly Clue, it’s because two-thirds of the people who saw it did not see its greatest moment, and so didn’t didn’t tell their friends.

Our son was amused by the old newspaper ad that I showed him for the film. You could see ending A at these theaters, ending B at these, and ending C at these others. Or you could just see something else entirely. I still don’t know what Paramount’s marketing department was thinking. If you give an audience any reason to expect they have to do any work at all to watch a movie, they won’t bother, which is why the film flopped the first time out.

Clue assembled Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren as the six immortal characters from the board game, with Tim Curry as the butler with about half the film’s lines (poor fellow), and Colleen Camp as the maid. That is certainly among the finest casts of any film of its era. Mr. Boddy ends up dead, which he had coming as he was blackmailing them all, but then so does the cook. And a traveling motorist. And the maid, and a cop, and a singing telegram girl. And so before you can dash down a secret passage, they’re all trying to guess whodunnit.

Good grief, it’s so silly. Between pratfalls, long pauses, collapsing furniture, ridiculous delivery, and Mull just gift-wrapping lines for Curry to destroy, it’s just not possible to watch this movie without smiling. I’m sure this felt like work for everybody involved while they were on set – especially Curry, who I swear must be speaking for forty of the film’s ninety minutes – but the payoff is giggles and smiles all the way through it. It takes tropes and cliches and embraces them like they were best friends. It’s a movie that is having an absolute ball and wants to entertain you.

But of course anybody can make a silly movie. It took Madeline Kahn to make this one a classic. She’s so understated and subtle in this film, as her character chooses to let Miss Scarlet attract all of the attention. Mrs. White fades into the background deliberately, until “that scene” in ending C. If you have heard of it, I implore you, don’t try to watch it out of context on YouTube. It’s made into perfection by the hour and a half of silliness and good humor that precedes it, and the stream of chuckles and giggles and smiles turn a little moment of improv into something so much more.

I’m reminded of Bob Woffinden’s book The Beatles Apart, when he describes the Concert for Bangla Desh. Now, if you’ve ever heard Bob Dylan’s numbers on the LP, you’ve probably thought they were pretty good, apart from George Harrison and Leon Russell’s attempts at harmony on “Just Like a Woman,” but it’s the context: “Half-way through some already memorable proceedings, [Harrison] calmly played his masterstroke, by bringing onto the stage Bob Dylan.” He hadn’t played live in about three years at that point, an absolute eternity in the terms of the era. Madison Square Garden lost its mind during that show.

And that’s what Clue was like. Two-thirds of its audience went home thinking that was a silly movie. One-third drove their cars off the road laughing.

Matilda (1996)

I wondered whether I might have waited too long to show our son Matilda. He’s a Star Wars-obsessed nine year-old boy, and I thought about whether there would be enough here in this story about a six year-old girl for him to willingly find common ground. At nine, you’re often not looking back at younger kids’ things, after all. Fourth-graders lose interest in first-grader things; that’s how this works.

Happily, he pronounced this one of the funniest films he’s ever seen, and singled out the lovely shot of a corridor full of vengeance-minded elementary school kids ready to pelt their principal with their lunches as one of its greatest moments. Matilda was produced and directed by Danny DeVito from Roald Dahl’s classic novel, and now that we’ve revisited it and refamiliarized myself with it, I’m sure it’s a treat for anybody who still imagines their principal to be a sadistic moron or their parents to be inattentive and terrible.

Matilda stars Mara Wilson as a six year-old who’s far too smart for this world and this family, with DeVito and Rhea Perlman as her vulgar and garish parents, with a house full of terrible furniture and knickknacks, and Embeth Davidtz as a kind-hearted teacher, far too sweet for her school, who believes in our little hero. It’s Dahl through-and-through, with grotesqueries and unbelievable situations, and a cast of characters with names like Wormwood, Thripp, Bogtrotter, and Trunchbull. It’s wish fulfillment for kids, but it’s done magically well.

Twenty-plus years ago, I started buying several contemporary “indie” films, often starring Parker Posey, as I built my then-small DVD collection. The nineties were a good time for small-budget movies to come out through Sony Pictures Classics and the like, and I’m sure that once upon a time I really enjoyed lots of these films. But soon, my interest in cinema dwindled, and I completely forgot all of the details of many of the movies I owned. There have been a few that I’ve rewatched in the last few months that I could not even begin to guess why in the world, other than Parker Posey, I actually bought in the first place. One or two have proven to be rediscovered delights; more have been unimpressive and best forgotten. Actually best never having spent the twenty bucks in the first place, but that’s kind of me all over.

But then there’s Matilda, which I saw once, when it was originally released in 1996, and I remembered details of it quite clearly, especially Rhea Perlman’s tacky sleep mask. It still had a surprise or ten, because I’m not the kind of person who remembers things I saw once a quarter-century ago and never read about since, but lots of this one stuck with me, in part because it’s so incredibly visually interesting. Children’s movies don’t get awards attention for things like set and costume design, but the garish and vulgar world of Matilda’s family even outdoes the wild suburbia design in Edward Scissorhands. Then you have the entirely different worlds of the dark and moldy school and Miss Trunchbull’s home, cluttered with junk and forgotten nostalgia, which all feel incredibly real and very much like places you never want to visit.

I think DeVito’s direction is truly great, the design is perfect, and about the only thing I’m not wild about is the music, but I never liked that “Send Me On My Way” song that was omnipresent in the mid-90s and sounds like cast-off late period Talking Heads to me. It’s a perfectly splendid movie, with or without kids of your own.

Adieu Galaxy Express (1981)

A couple of days ago, the delightful @PulpLibrarian made an insightful little observation on Twitter while celebrating Space: 1999. “Harshing on Space:1999 for not being hard sci-fi misses the point: the show is about space being weird and frightening, not about physics and engineering.” And I thought that was particularly interesting because we were coming up on watching another Galaxy Express movie, and this isn’t a world of science fiction, despite the spaceships and laser guns and robot men, it’s a world of allegory and poetry and hero’s journeys and maturity. It’s a strange and occasionally really weird world because it’s so on the nose, but that’s the point of the way this narrative is told: all the ray guns are distractions and fantasies, this is specifically about a boy growing up.

So Adieu Galaxy Express is an arguably unnecessary sequel, told at emphatically unnecessary length. Marie, who really has better things to do than watch boys grow into men in cartoon movies, shook her head from exhaustion and said they could have told this story in half the time. She’s right. There are some things I like and admire about this one, but considering how much more entertaining the original one was, they could have sped this along. There’s a lot to look at in its 130 minutes, and some of the animation is extremely good, but it’s very, very slow.

So how on the nose is this one? It’s so on the nose that Testuro has to kill his father, who is also the devil and is named Faust, before he can grow up. The movie starts with four unimportant side characters sacrificing themselves so that Tetsuro can have his journey, because they know that they are the supporting cast and we’re watching to see the kid. Maetel is back, answering as many questions as a cloud might, refusing to address the rumors that she is now the ruler of a galactic empire of machine people who use humans as soylent green energy capsules. Maetel and Emeraldas share a moment on the platform at the end acknowledging that they’ll never see Tetsuro again but their own journeys never end, even as Tetsuro’s does. After all, somebody else’s story is going to need a mother figure and a mysterious femme fatale.

I like the way the story completely subverts expectations with Harlock and Emeraldas. They each get a very quick little “save the day” moment cameo to remind viewers that this series can use them, and then they’re gone again, completely cut off from the story until they’re needed in the end to help blow stuff up. Unfortunately, our son also has better things to do than watch boys grow into men in cartoon movies, and only really paid attention when Harlock and Emeraldas were blowing stuff up.

His only real spoken complaint about the film was an odd one: there’s a trippy and psychedelic bit where the animators smoked all the grass they could find as they visualized the arrival on the planet Great Andromeda, and the kid grumbled “This is making my eyes hurt.” Otherwise, he was very restless and squirmed quite a lot. There are fights and shootouts, but there’s also no sense of danger or fear, and nothing to really engage him. So this was a big disappointment for two-thirds of this morning’s audience, but even though it’s not as good as the first one, I still like it a little.