Category Archives: movies

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Even before Rogue One reached its amazing final half-hour, it had become my favorite film in this series. The sense of dirt and desperation and real, terrible danger is just so engrossing that I was as captivated as could be. I started worrying, pretty early on, that nobody was getting out of this one alive. When Forest Whitaker’s character becomes collateral damage to the Death Star’s first test, I was riveted in a way that Star Wars movies, no matter how entertaining they’ve often been, rarely demand of their audience.

A second pass revealed one or two dents in this movie’s armor. I didn’t like the “no, I have to stay in this exploding base cradling dead Mads Mikkelsen while someone shouts ‘we have to leave him!’ at me” scene. They could have cut five minutes, easy, if they’d just had the Rebel Alliance agree to attack the planet Scarif, which they ended up doing anyway. But these are minor, and the film remains amazing.

I asked our son “So what’s the best Star Wars movie?” and he said “This one.” He’s right.

One of the most remarkable moments came when Donnie Yen’s character, a blind monk called Chirrut Îmwe, finally meets his end. Our son got upset with the death of a heroic character, for probably the first time since he saw the death of Jaime Sommers more than a year ago. He wasn’t bothered by the deaths of Han Solo or the Fourth Doctor, but when Chirrut dies, he was trembling and clutching his security blanket.

There’s so much to like in this movie already. I liked seeing Richard Franklin for about two seconds, and I thought the CGI Peter Cushing used to bring Governor/Grand Moff Tarkin was impressive and wonderful. Forest Whitaker’s character, an extremist so ruthless that he frightens the rest of the rebels, deserves a movie or two of his own, and there’s a droid called K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, who I like almost as much as I like R2-D2. Almost.

Then we get to the finale and when K-2 goes down and then Chirrut goes down… the lump in my throat got really big. The outer space stuff remains as exciting and wild as ever, and there’s a brief respite when one of the alien admirals (Raddus, possibly) orders a “hammerhead” ship to ram a Star Destroyer that’s lost power and plow it into another, which might just be the most wonderful and air-punching special effects moment in any of these movies.

But the cost of those plans… there’s a line in the first movie about how a lot of lives were lost getting those plans. Seeing it happen was beautifully heartbreaking. I loved Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. I don’t need a pile of cartoon TV series or novels to expand her story. These two hours were all I needed. Erso is a very good character in a fantastic story. And the best stories have endings.

Speaking of which… as if this film wasn’t already my favorite, director Gareth Edwards waits until the last three damn minutes to calmly play his masterstroke. In the first three movies, Darth Vader was more evil and menacing by reputation than by action, unless you were a back-talking Imperial officer. Unless you’ve been reading the many comic books that have been published, you never got to see the character engage in the kind of brutal butchery he doles out at the very end of this movie. It’s remarkable.

Rogue One is a great film, and my favorite of the ten by some measure. I’m glad my kid agrees.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

The elevator scene.

There is nowhere in the Marvel Universe – movies or comic books – that I’d rather be less than in this elevator. I’d rather be sat next to the Kidney Lady on a city bus in Cleveland, 1977, than in this elevator.

Years ago, a fellow I knew got up after the second song at a Roxy Music concert. He said after watching Phil Manzanera play the end of “Ladytron,” he got his money’s worth. That’s how I feel about this movie. It doesn’t matter how many things blow up or how many buildings get knocked down after this. It’s Cap and those dozen men in that glass box a third of the way through the film. Boy freaking howdy, did I ever get my money’s worth.

As for the rest, I think it’s the best Marvel movie by a mile. Kind of bittersweet to watch it the weekend after Chris Evans announced he was stepping down as Cap, because Captain America is my favorite Marvel superhero and I am so pleased and thrilled with the job Evans did bringing him to life.

Joining Evans this time out, there’s Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson as usual. Sebastian Stan returns as Bucky, now the brainwashed Winter Soldier, and Anthony Mackie debuts as Cap’s best friend and partner Sam Wilson, the Falcon. Also returning are Hayley Atwell as the now ninety-odd year-old Peggy Carter, and Toby Jones as Arnim Zola.

Before we got started, I showed our son what Zola looked like in Jack Kirby’s comics. Marvel thoughtfully collected Kirby’s mid-seventies run of Captain America and the Falcon across three volumes, and they are some crazy, wild, freaked-out comics. You should definitely visit your neighborhood comic shop and buy those. Turning Zola into a supercomputer that has a nice wink to old readers with his camera above his face-monitor left me in heaven when I first saw this.

And of course, there’s Robert Redford. You can imagine the wheels turning in the directors’ heads as they started putting this story together and realized that Redford, more than arguably any other possible choice, was the name they needed for this part. Alexander Pierce is a terrific villain.

It all adds up to my favorite Marvel movie. Not much else to add, other than the kid loved it too, of course. It demands repeat viewings more than any of the others, and if you don’t finish this movie without wanting to watch Redford in Three Days of the Condor, something must be wrong with you. Not really one for our kid quite yet, of course, but one day.

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The Apple Dumpling Gang (1975)

A couple of months ago, I checked out The Aristocats from the library to show our son. Before the film, there was an ad for other Disney selections and our son hooted. “I want to see that cowboy movie,” he yelled. Well, if we must, I said.

I don’t know how I’ve never seen this movie, but I guess I never did. Between HBO showing all sorts of live-action Disney movies and the public library having summers of films, I thought I must have seen this and forgotten, but I didn’t recognize a frame of it. I guess I must’ve seen the sequel!

For more than an hour, I figured I’d write something brief and possibly dismissive about this silly movie. It’s cute, but it didn’t raise much more than a chuckle. However, that wouldn’t be entirely true. Honesty compels me to report that John McGiver delivers a line about how stupid Theodore and Amos are that, a full minute later, had me gasping for air, I laughed so hard. I mean, you miss a minute of a movie from laughing, you can’t call it a bad movie.

McGiver’s just a small piece of a terrific cast. I’ll always make time for a seventies Disney live-action film because they’re full of great character actors. Everybody seems to think of this as a vehicle for Don Knotts and Tim Conway, but they’re actually providing supporting roles to a story led by Bill Bixby as a hapless gambler suddenly burdened by three orphans. He thinks that a marriage of convenience to a stagecoach driver played by Susan Clark might give the kids a home as well as a chance to nip out and play some poker, but things get complicated when the children, who own a deed to a mine everybody thinks is worthless, unearth a giant gold nugget valued at more than $87,000. Suddenly everybody wants to be part of these kids’ lives. Harry Morgan tries to keep order as the town’s sheriff, judge, and barber, with supporting roles for McGiver, David Wayne, and Slim Pickens.

But Conway and Knotts do walk away with the proceedings in one perfectly-timed slapstick scene after another. They play criminals so incompetent that the sheriff just lets them wander around freely, because bad guys who can’t afford the bullets to “throw lead” don’t present much of a danger to the public. I can imagine that, in lesser hands, stopping a movie’s narrative for a full five minutes to watch two characters steal a ladder might be an indulgence, but darned if our son didn’t spend every second of them chuckling and giggling. This is perfectly judged comedy for seven year-olds. It ends with a chase and everybody getting dunked in the river, inevitably, but our kid whooped that this was the greatest “chase montage” he’s ever seen, and the “boat fire truck” that Bixby and Pickens find themselves on in the end was his favorite part of the movie.

I’m not entirely sure I need to watch the sequel. Or Million Dollar Duck, if there’s an ad for that hiding on some other DVD at the library. Fingers crossed.

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Godzilla (1954) at the Silver Scream Spook Show

Listen. If you’ve got any boils and ghouls in your house under the age of ten, or if you were ever under the age of ten yourself, and you live within a hundred miles of Atlanta, I know exactly what you need to do. Continue reading

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Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Here’s a non-controversial opinion: The Dark World is the least of the three Thor films. It’s got some memorable moments and good fights, and I like how it gives much more screen time to several of the Asgardian supporting cast than the first movie did, but at the same time it’s a much less involving movie than the original. It’s one of a few projects that Christopher Eccleston took on during his “I’d like one of those big Hollywood paychecks as well, please” phase, and that’s pretty much what this feels like: payday without passion.

Eh, the kid liked it. I guess that’s what matters.

I’d still like to see a Sif and the Warriors Three movie as soon as Jaimie Alexander can take a long break from making Blindspot for NBC. Ah, well. At least Loki’s here. Any movie with Tom Hiddleston as Loki can’t be all bad.

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

The calendar tells me that I must have been nine when the mother of my school friend Sean phoned my mother and asked whether I wanted to go see a movie with her boy that afternoon. I’d never heard a single word about Raiders of the Lost Ark, or seen a TV ad, and spent the next couple of hours ready to see my buddy but very skeptical about the film. I’d half-convinced myself it was going to be an old documentary about Noah’s Ark shown at Sean’s church. That ended up being possibly the best movie-going experience that anybody’s ever had.

I almost pulled off the same blind spoiler for our son last night. I was slightly foiled by Lucas’s decision to quasi-rename the movie on the DVD menu – mercifully not on the print of the film itself – Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. So since we’ve been watching Young Indy (we’re halfway through and will pick back up in a couple of weeks), he knows who the character is and I did tell him some time back that at some point we’d meet the adult Indiana Jones.

Of course, as entertaining as Young Indy often is, there’s little in that show to prepare anybody for what a mad, wonderful rollercoaster this movie is.

It would be about accurate to say that Raiders blew our kid’s mind. He jibbered and jabbered when it finished, after having spent giant chunks of the previous two hours with his jaw on the floor, and couldn’t decide what his favorite part was. He eventually settled on the fight at the airplane – that scene does, of course, feature explosions – but I think he loved practically every minute of it. Even after having watched this movie something on the order of forty or fifty times, I remain so impressed by the pacing. Not one of the exposition scenes – call ’em “talky scenes” when you’re looking at them through a kid’s eyes – goes on too long for a typical child’s attention span. There are spiders and snakes and truck chases and blood and skeletons and one delicious fight after another.

I confess that the “overly concerned parent” gene came out toward the end. I suddenly worried whether that climax was finally going to be the scene that was far too gory and shocking for our kid. Was I, at last, being a downright irresponsible dad letting this poor innocent baby see Ronald Lacey melt into a puddle of candle wax and red nail polish? I dismissed the thought, but it took a minute. Then when those angels turn into eighties ILM skeletons, I diverted my eyes from the screen and watched him. Ronald Lacey wasn’t the only one who melted. I use the phrase “jaw on the floor” a lot. I’m not kidding this time. I also think the word “melt” is remarkably appropriate. His eyes were open wider than I’ve ever seen them, his mouth open wide in shock, and when it ended with Paul Freeman exploding, the kid turned into liquid and slid off the sofa and onto the floor, absolutely stunned. There was a gasp and a “Wh – WHOA!” and he stood up, shaking his head, mind as blown as mine was, yours was, everybody in 1981’s was.

It was a sight to see.

Anyway, this silly blog wouldn’t be this silly blog if I didn’t praise some actors and point out an odd coincidence or two. One of the most curious things about the casting of Raiders is that among the Nazis, you’ve got Ronald Lacey as the black-suited Toht and Tutte Lemkow as the fellow with the eye patch. They also play two of the obsessed treasure hunters in the Avengers episode we watched last weekend, “Legacy of Death.” The actors do not share any screen time in either story. And because George Lucas enjoys working with the same actors, we have seen Paul Freeman, who plays Belloq, twice in Young Indy in the role of big game hunter Frederick Selous. And we’ll see John Rhys-Davies, Denholm Elliott, and Karen Allen again in some of the other movies.

Incidentally, the rumor was that had Young Indy continued as far as our hero starting his university career in 1922, we were supposed to meet the young Belloq as a recurring foe. That’s an awful missed opportunity. But we’ll look at a few more adventures of the younger Indy before we get to the next film a few months from now.

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The Maltese Falcon (1941)

So: The Maltese Falcon. Terrific novel, even better movie. John Huston’s first film, not to mention Sydney Greenstreet’s, and a picture that made stars of all its major players. Humphrey Bogart is amazing, Peter Lorre is oily and creepy, and Mary Astor’s inability to make eye contact with anybody to whom she is lying is one of the great cinema “tells.” With all love and respect to Dashiel Hammett, there are many detective novels that I enjoy more than this, but none of them – nothing by Sayers, Chandler, Doyle, anybody – has ever had a screen adaptation this perfect.

The point might surely be raised that seven’s a bit young to understand, let alone appreciate, The Maltese Falcon. And I knew that going in, and wasn’t either surprised or disappointed to see our son genuinely struggle with this story. It’s a complex one, not helped by every character in the picture other than the cops and a couple of cab drivers telling one lie after another. So I’ll give the kid a few years before I force The Big Sleep on him. Anyway, he struggled, and became restless, and got so sick of Sydney Greenstreet that he started pointing his finger guns at the screen and “shooting” him.

Kind of rough for a kid to recognize that a character is a villain awful enough to want to shoot without being able to explain why. But I’m sure part of it was that Greenstreet’s character, Kasper Gutman, just does not stop talking. Seven year-olds prefer men of action. Well, The Maltese Falcon wasn’t made for seven year-olds. Marie and I have loved it for years and years and seen it dozens of times. It’s one of a handful of “drop everything” movies if I hear it’s playing on a big screen somewhere nearby. But then again, she and I were each a little older when we first discovered it.

So it isn’t really geared toward seven year-olds and we showed it to him this morning knowing that he wouldn’t enjoy it all that much, and I’m illustrating it with a photo of the back of Elisha Cook’s head. Some of you good readers know perfectly well why we exposed our son to this confusing movie for adults, and are probably asking “you’re showing him High Noon next, right?” (The answer’s no; that would make him completely miserable!) The rest of you, check back later. All will be revealed.

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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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