Category Archives: movies

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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Coraline (2009)

This kid of ours has had a lot of books read to him. It’s been part of his bedtime routine since before he knew what the heck his mom and dad were doing, sitting there next to him in his crib making funny sounds with our mouths. Mom does most of the reading; he’s kind of outgrown the part I liked best, which was doing storytime at the library and letting him pick two of the three picture books that I read aloud to bring home for Mom to give a second, third, fifteenth spin. He’s on early chapter books now, but he still likes illustrations quite a lot.

That’s not to say he’s completely abandoned picture books. We were killing time in a Barnes & Noble last week and I read him Elise Parsley’s unbelievably delightful If You Ever Want to Bring a Piano to the Beach, Don’t!, and one of the double-page spreads was so funny that when Mom joined us several minutes later, we were still laughing.

Anyway, so our favorite seven year-old critic’s already had Neil Gaiman’s Coraline read to him, but I didn’t exercise due diligence and ask what he enjoyed most about it, or what the scariest scene might be. I found out this afternoon. There’s a bit toward the end where a malicious and disembodied hand, made from a mass of sewing needles, forces its way past a locked door, and he shouted “Oh, no!” and went white as a sheet. It turns out this was the bit in the book that gave him the most serious fright.

He’d been absolutely quiet and still up to that point, just occasionally laughing with gusto over the antics of Coraline’s downstairs neighbors and their dogs. The 2009 film adaptation of Coraline, a stop-motion animation directed by Henry Selick and featuring the voices of Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher, runs to about 100 minutes and he was the best-behaved child you’ve ever seen sit still that long.

His calm attention matched the tone of the movie. This is a very quiet film, and the music is often very low-key and not intrusive. For parents who want to enjoy a movie with their children that isn’t exploding with noise, dated pop culture references, wacky voices, and old pop music, this is an oasis in a sea of pablum.

I wouldn’t go any younger than seven, though. Coraline’s a good hero and extremely brave, but she has a very, very outre and frightening adventure. She and her family have moved into a dilapidated and isolated apartment building in rural Oregon. Coraline sees her parents as inattentive and awful, though they really just seem to have scheduled their move from Michigan at the worst possible time, and are fighting work deadlines without a chance to unpack, shop, cook, or spend time with their daughter. Coraline begins dreaming of another world, where button-eyed “Other Parents” give her the attention that she craves. She also learns that three children have vanished from this house over the last several decades, and that her too-kind-to-be-true Other Mother has an insatiable craving for love and affection.

Coraline is a very creepy movie that lingers in its strange and sad atmosphere rather than rush, but it doesn’t sit around idly either. Fifteen minutes in, and our heroine is already visiting the other world. I hadn’t seen the movie since we went to its theatrical release nine years ago and had forgotten most of the details – although not the horrors of the terrific Other Mother as she sheds her humanoid form – and was very pleased to reacquaint myself with it today. I think our son might ask to watch this one a few more times, and enjoy cuddling with his security blanket during the scariest parts.

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Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Our son does mostly well with staying quiet while we watch things together. We’ve been working on this for several years now, in no small part because we want him to be quiet and still and respectful of the audience when we see a movie in a theater. Most of the time he does a great and commendable job, especially when he sees that the program is pitched a little higher than his age level and he needs to pay attention.

Lately, though, he’s been a complete motormouth whenever we’re not watching something together. He’s started humming, constantly, at all hours. We used to walk down the toy aisles in a shop and he’d be largely silent, but now every box prompts him to shout “OMG, look at this! And this! And this!”

And this morning, Phil Hartman, in his final acting performance, had him talking and yammering through the film Kiki’s Delivery Service like he’d never seen a movie before. I think that he had to repeat every single one of Hartman’s lines at least twice, after he finished laughing. It wasn’t just Hartman’s dialogue, though. Whenever Jiji the cat did anything, he jumped out of his seat to imitate him. The cat curls up on the bed, our son curled up on the floor. The cat shakes itself dry, our son shook himself dry, and each time he added “He’s just like –” and then the imitation. At one point, Jiji tries to stay perfectly still, and I wished our kid would have taken the clue.

Well, he wasn’t a truly well-behaved boy this morning, but he certainly had a great time. Kiki’s Delivery Service was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and was released in 1989. It’s based on a popular children’s novel by Eiko Kadono that was written a few years previously, though I understand that Miyazaki beefed up the slight story a good deal and gave it the dramatic climax, which is the downright definition of breathtaking.

Last year, we enjoyed My Neighbor Totoro and I mentioned that my copy of that film is the first American dub, done by a company called Streamline. For Kiki, I upgraded my older Streamline dub for one that Disney put together in 1997, using the talents of Hartman, Kirsten Dunst, Tress MacNeille, and Janeane Garofalo. I’m glad that I did, and evidently our son agrees. He really loved this film.

The story is about a thirteen year-old girl in a nebulous fantasy European country in the middle of the 20th Century. She’s a witch and the world doesn’t seem to have ever known war. At some point during a witch’s thirteenth year, she must leave home on a clear midnight full moon for a year. Kiki makes her way to a large port city. She’s very lonely, but she finds a home and starts a delivery business. She eventually allows herself to make friends in time to get some encouragement and inspiration when she loses her powers and isn’t able to fly anymore.

Like several of Miyazaki’s other movies, I really enjoy it even though it’s so slight that it’s not a world I want to come back to every week. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure this won’t collect too much dust on the shelf before our kid wants to see it again. Hopefully he’ll tone it down a little next time!

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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

You know, I like Captain America’s first movie, but I don’t love it. It’s tough to completely embrace because there’s so much more to this story that time doesn’t allow us to see, but I want to so much. Everything works just fine until we meet the Howling Commandos. Then it’s into a montage of action scenes because this movie’s already gone for about eighty minutes and we still have several weeks of sneak attacks and missions behind enemy lines between where we are and the big climax.

It’s so unfair. Why aren’t there ten Howling Commandos movies here? I’ll settle for a ten episode TV series. Six. Two TV movies and a package of deleted scenes? They cast all these perfect actors as Cap’s team! I actually remember Dum Dum Dugan best from my own childhood as the starring part in Marvel’s silly Godzilla comic book, which I adored even despite the artwork that I didn’t like, and there is an actor named Neal McDonough who looks like the character came right off the page. There’s not nearly enough with these guys.

So what else? Joe Johnston directed this, and he also made the wonderful Rocketeer and Jumanji – and that idiotic Wolfman movie with Anthony Hopkins, but nobody’s perfect – and it’s just a tremendously fun period piece. Captain America vaulted over every other Marvel superhero to become my favorite once it finally clicked and I fell in love with Jack Kirby’s comics with the character. (Weirdly, I didn’t like Kirby at all when I was little.) Chris Evans just cemented the deal for me. He’s just perfect in the part. I really appreciate how he’s made this character resonate. Even on Twitter, the actor embodies everything that Captain America stands for.

Tommy Lee Jones effortlessly steals every scene he’s in, and Hayley Atwell is terrific fun as Agent Peggy Carter – about whom, much more later this summer – and it’s got a pair of great villains in Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones. I like the concept of the Red Skull, a villain so hateful and horrible that even all the other Marvel supervillains hate him. I don’t like how there’s a get-out clause for him in this movie, that possibly the Tesseract/Cosmic Cube/Space Stone teleported him into the future so he might one day reappear to fight again. I hope not. I’m happier with him being a period villain only!

This also has the first appearance of Sebastian Stan’s character Bucky, who’ll end up turning the Marvel Universe upside down a few films later. Of course, all my childhood, Bucky was dead – and, because kid sidekicks were the worst thing in the universe when you’re thirteen or so, we were glad of it – so I was pretty surprised to learn, a couple of years before this movie, that they’d brought Bucky back as the Winter Soldier. Unpleasantly surprised, I should say. I was playing a miniatures game, Heroclix, at the time, when one of the other players at the shop explained this new-to-me character once he had a piece and thought that was the most idiotic thing I’d ever heard. I did win an important tournament for that expansion and snagged a super-rare prize with him, but grudgingly. So all credit to Sebastian Stan for taking a character I could not possibly care less about and making him so darn watchable. But some of that comes later, I guess.

Well, if you think I’m nitpicky about the way I write about these movies, you should see our son. He tells us that this is his favorite of the first five, but it needed one more explosion. The scene where Cap rescues the 400 soldiers from Hydra’s prison camp was his favorite part of the film, which I thought was interesting because it’s almost always the very end of the movie that thrills him most. But then again, this climax has Cap and Peggy being mushy over the radio to each other. He probably didn’t want to admit to any tears.

But all the action scenes had him hopping. He adored this movie and didn’t need too many explanations, although we did pause it to clarify what Hydra was up to after the Red Skull kills the three Nazi officials who visit his bunker to sneer at him, and also to explain Cap’s turn as an onstage propaganda hero to sell war bonds. Not like today’s children have many opportunities to learn what war bonds are!

And that’s another thing: they should have actually made one of those cheesy black and white shorts that Cap was making in the last half of 1942. That would have been so fun. So far my Marvel wishlist is a Sif and the Warriors Three feature, a ten-week Howling Commandos TV series, and a twelve-minute Captain America Punches Der Fuhrer’s Face short, like they’d run after the newsreel and the cartoon before the movie. Why does ABC keep making more Agents of SHIELD instead of what’s really important here?

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Attack of the Clones (2002)

My wife was saying that Attack of the Clones is the worst of all these movies. I said that’s nonsense. This one has Christopher Lee in it. That automatically makes it a hundred times better than The Phantom Menace. And it is.

It’s still not a very good movie, because it also has all of this nonsense in it:

Attack of the Clones was released in 2002, which was not a very good year for me. 1992 and 2012 were also pretty downright terrible, now that I think about it. I saw this film when it was released, didn’t enjoy it very much, and didn’t think about it much after that. Over the last sixteen years, I forgot pretty much everything about it, beyond it having Christopher Lee, an action scene in a factory, and Samuel L. Jackson getting a purple lightsaber.

Oh yes, and it also has just about the worst romance ever committed to camera, which not even a hundred and sixteen years could erase. Natalie Portman might be a good actress, and I’ve never seen Hayden Christensen outside these two movies so I don’t have a particularly strong opinion of him, but I can’t think of anybody who could make this idiocy shine when the lovestruck male has to deliver lines like “You are in my very soul, tormenting me.”

Every note of their courtship is tonally terrible. This is supposed to be the love that dooms Anikin into a life of pure evil and devotion to the Dark Side, so it’s not a love anybody’s supposed to cheer, but shouldn’t it have a feeling of, I dunno, seduction? Passion that’s forbidden because it’s morally wrong, and not just violating some rules of Coruscant senate protocol and an order of karate monks? Why does it play like flowering, sweet tenderness in a lush paradise between a practical woman and her teenage stalker? If this were the hero getting the girl to love him, it would be one kind of wretched. But this is the villain’s fall. Shouldn’t it have played out, you know, villainously?

Here’s the thing: nothing about The Phantom Menace worked, but if you hacked out all of Portman and Christensen making goo-goo eyes at each other, there’s a pretty good movie in here. I think that it’s by miles the most colorful Star Wars movie. It still looks lived-in, but it also looks like a world where people actually want to live. Coruscant actually looks like a pretty swell place to visit this time. The hidden rain planet of Kamino was especially interesting to me this morning, in part because I genuinely and sincerely forgot that subplot entirely. It’s still flawed, but all the other actors are good and the action scenes entertaining.

Our son was in heaven again. He loved meeting Jango Fett, and the action scenes were as wild as he’s ever seen. The mayhem on the conveyor belts in the factory had him so overstimulated that he was off the sofa and halfway up the staircase. R2-D2 and C-3PO were reliably ridiculous, and the movie had plenty of shocks and surprises.

He has received sets of Micro Machines and Lego Star Wars from relatives for Christmas and his birthday. He absolutely loves it when he spots a starfighter that he’s been using in bedroom floor battles for weeks.

Because the toys are part of the fabric of his life, I decided to rearrange the movie schedule so he can see them all and get them absorbed and, of course, rewatch them again and again sooner than I originally planned. So we’ll look at Sith next month instead of at the end of the summer, and probably watch the next three before the end of the year. He was pretty happy about that, and has been pestering his mom to come join him in the floor with Rose, Finn, BB-8, and some Lego contraption as soon as she’s free.

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Warlords of Atlantis (1978)

I remember watching Warlords of Atlantis about a hundred times when I was a kid, but I don’t quite remember all the endless walking, walking, walking around. It’s the fourth and final collaboration between director Kevin Connor and actor Doug McClure. Every summer from 1975-78, McClure flew to Europe and made another movie with rubber monsters, character actors, and lots of explosions. We’ve watched the other three for our blog already. Warlords of Atlantis is oddly not easily available in Region 1, but I picked up StudioCanal’s British DVD pretty cheap a while back.

Of the four, Warlords of Atlantis is a whole lot better than the previous year’s People That Time Forgot, but it’s not a particularly original piece of cinema. The screenplay by Brian Hayles has some interesting ideas – Martians have been living underwater for centuries and periodically kidnap the most intelligent humans they can find to further their goals of advancing our civilization through technology used in war – but the long core of the film is the heroes being captured, sitting around a cell until they realize a cruel and ignoble fate awaits them, and then escaping and going on a long, long road back home.

In the meantime, there are giant monsters, and some of them are pretty amusing. I do love the way that Connor and his visual effects team nearly perfected the art of a great big rubber claw to menace the actors while the rest of the beast is rear-projected into the background. Other effects, including a bit where stagehands fling some “flying fish” at our heroes, are a little less effective.

Shane Rimmer, who was left to twiddle his thumbs for most of People, has a meatier role in this story as the skipper of the Texas Rose. He’s been hired to bring this scientific expedition to the Bermuda Triangle in 1896 – of course they had to come to the Bermuda Triangle, it was the seventies – but when McClure and Peter Gilmore bring up a huge statue made from solid gold, he’ll have a mutiny on his hands from his greedy crew. John Ratzenberger, who would later find fame as Cliff in Cheers, is one of the evildoers.

Speaking of television, there’s even a wink at Doug McClure’s old series Barbary Coast, which I still think we might check out one of these days.

Our son has picked up an annoying habit of under-his-breath commentary, but he enjoyed the movie quite a lot, as he should. It’s certainly geared to the six-to-eleven bracket. When one of our heroes meets a gruesome end, he grumbled that the monster wasn’t eating fast enough and there was only room in its mouth for one person at a time. There are explosions and gunfights and desperate bids for freedom, and not one but two attacks from a super-intelligent mutant octopus, but the main thing our kid was worried about was whether Shane Rimmer’s cute Siamese cat would make it out okay.

Of all things, that reminded me of another movie from 1978, Jennifer, the horror film about the psychic snake-handling girl. The cat in that movie doesn’t make it out okay. I think we’ll skip that one…

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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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