Tag Archives: fantastic cinema

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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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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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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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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