Master of the World (1961)

A few years ago, I was thinking about what we might watch for the blog and put 1961’s Master of the World on the maybe list. I’d never seen it, but it sounded interesting, and of course we’ve told our son how important Jules Verne was to the development of science fiction. Plus, all boys should watch as many old Vincent Price films as they can find. But lots of movies were on the maybe list. It took a chance visit to a museum to prompt me to buy a copy.

Last month, we drove down to Cartersville GA to visit Tellus Science Museum, where we like to pay our respects to a dimetrodon along with many other beautiful creatures who came a little later on, several rooms full of gems, and a history of transportation that includes a few examples of very early automobiles, like the quadrovelocipede that Nicodemus Legend – I mean Ernest Pratt – used to drive. They only have a small room for temporary exhibits, but currently they have a small collection of film and TV science fiction props and memorabilia. There, our son saw a small model of the Albatross from Master of the World, and said it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. I’d noticed that Kino Lorber had a new special edition on their coming soon list, and decided that enthusiasm should not go unrewarded.

Kino’s new Blu-ray comes with a very nice restoration, two commentary tracks, a tribute to screenwriter Richard Matheson, and several trailers for Vincent Price movies. We watched a few of those before we got started, and it struck me just how much nicer it would have been to see these trailers projected instead of all the unpromising movies that they were promoting the last time we went to the theater.

Master of the World begins with a short look at some of the failed experiments in flight from the late 19th century, the same sort of goofy crashes of impractical “airplanes” that we saw at the beginning of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. Our son enjoyed the heck out of that. It put him in the right mood, and after a few minutes of well-dressed fops yelling at each other formally with language like “I tell you, sir, that it is balderdash!” things get started with some missiles knocking a hot air balloon out of the sky.

Our son asked “Did they really crash a hot air balloon for this?” I said that no, this was an American International Picture. They couldn’t have afforded any such thing. In point of fact, they couldn’t afford newly-shot footage of the British navy or a big land battle in Egypt either, so the Albatross ends up interacting with material from more expensive movies. Other than Vincent Price and the Albatross, this cost-cutting is the most interesting thing about this movie. Not even the great Vito Scotti, here playing a comedy cook, prompted me to smile, though the kid guffawed over his situation a few times.

The kid was very happy with it, and correctly noted “That reminded me a bit of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” This villain, Robur, is nothing more than a Nemo of the sky, and while Vincent Price is a million times more interesting than most of the actors who played Nemo, Richard Matheson didn’t write the character as any different than the one James Mason had played for Disney seven years previously. The most interesting thing about the experience was that our son had assumed from the model at Tellus that the Albatross was going to be the heroes’ ship, but no, like the Nautilus, it’s commanded by a villain and crewed by loyalists who have turned their backs on the rules of human nationalities.

I’ll be honest: I fell asleep, and must have missed ten minutes. I woke when Robur’s captives were making their escape on a beach, wondered whether it was the same beach used in Planet of the Apes, and waited for the inevitable conclusion. I wasn’t impressed, but the ten year-old was really entertained. Everything from the comedy to the tech to the special effects had him really pleased, and while this purchase will go to his shelf and not mine, I’m very glad I got it for him. This keeps up, he’ll want to see Price teamed with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre in one of those films we saw in the trailer collection next, and that’d certainly be a good thing.

The War of the Worlds (1953)

Picking movies to watch with our son usually comes down to weighing two big factors: do I want to sit through it again, and will the kid enjoy being introduced to a “classic” – however you want to define that – from long ago. This shouldn’t be homework. To be honest, I wasn’t sure about The War of the Worlds. I hadn’t seen this since I was a kid myself, and I’ve picked up the memory of it being quite dated. But really, that’s a problem with the original story. The 1953 production, directed by Byron Haskin, is mostly a lot better than its source, and some of it is just fascinating to watch. Criterion released a new edition with a brilliant restoration and piles of bonuses last year, so I decided to give it a try. We enjoyed it very much. It was not homework.

I’ve never liked the original novel, and since any adaptation of it is probably going to stick to its – let’s be blunt – utter cop-out of an ending, I’m going to be checking my watch waiting for the Martians to die without any help from the protagonists. That means what an adaptation needs to give us is a story worth watching while all the death rays and war machines do their trick. For a while, it’s the usual disaster movie / monster movie stuff, with Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, and Les Tremayne, plus a small on-camera role for the great Paul Frees, going through the motions against a backdrop of tremendously good special effects. It’s a lean 85 minutes long, and I liked how it doesn’t waste any time getting started. The prologue’s awfully dopey, but once we get to Earth, war machines are landing.

But there were lots of “usual” disaster movies and monster movies in the fifties, some good, and some bad. The War of the Worlds is a standout because after that first big battle against the Martians, this movie kicks it up a notch and goes for real bleakness. It’s a movie that does a whole lot with sound, both in the screaming, shrieking noises of the Martian guns (later pilfered by everybody, including Benita Bizarre’s zapper in The Bugaloos) and in silence so thick it’s uncomfortable.

The scene in the abandoned farmhouse is rightly remembered and praised for being one of the scariest things in any monster movie, but in my book, it’s the evacuation of Los Angeles that really makes this film a genuine classic. I’ve seen a lot of extras running away from giant monsters in my time, and a lot of empty streets, but The War of the Worlds is just eye-poppingly excellent. It shifts from backlots to the real streets of LA effortlessly. Well, that’s probably not the right word, because prepping the streets with all that trash in the dead of night just to get first-light Sunday morning shots like the one above was certainly not effortless. But the conviction in making audiences believe this city has fallen apart except for the looters and the ones too poor or injured to get out, is solid.

And Gene Barry, who spent the next few decades of his long career looking for a role half as memorable as this, is just remarkably good throughout. When night falls and he moves from church to church desperately searching for Ann Robinson, he really looks like a man who just wants to die holding somebody’s hand. And if the film started a little unconvincingly, with a big echoey studio pretending to be a country hillside, it ends looking like a trillion bucks, black, red, and orange, a city on fire with hours to live. It’s a movie which badly deserved a better ending than “Oh, the invaders didn’t wear spacesuits.”

For what it’s worth, our son didn’t roll his eyes at the climax like I did. It’s one that culture spoiled for him quite some time ago, somewhere, so I couldn’t keep this one a secret like some of my other triumphs in the field, and said “I think it’s a good ending. It makes sense that our bacteria would kill them!” He enjoyed all the mayhem and explosions and can’t pick out a favorite moment or scene. He did say that his favorite character was the little orange tabby who briefly surveys the destruction of LA. Film buffs have not positively identified this cat but speculate that it’s probably Orangey, a cat who did a lot of work for Paramount and also appeared in two other well-remembered fifties sci-fi epics: This Island Earth and The Incredible Shrinking Man, which Criterion is releasing in a spiffy new edition next month.

Spirited Away (2001)

I told the kid Friday night that we were watching another film by Hayao Miyazaki this morning. “Oh, I hope it has scenes with lots of delicious food like some of his other movies!”

Possibly the biggest, and certainly the most unwelcome, surprise I’ve had since starting this blog came this morning. I’d been saving Spirited Away, which I think everybody loves, for a rainy day, and I didn’t enjoy it at all. So I’ll turn this over to the kid, who says “Spirited Away is a film by Studio Ghibli about a young girl, say about twelve, who is moving to a new town. Her parents get lost and turned into pigs. And then, through a series of unpredictable events, she finds herself working in a spirit sauna run by a sorceress.” He liked it enormously. It had delicious food, strange comedy, genuine peril, dragons, river spirits, and weird monsters. There was a new, wild surprise every few minutes. I wish I enjoyed it more, but he enjoyed it enough for both of us.

Moon Zero Two (1969)

There are dozens of episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that I have not yet seen, but the only one that I have deliberately avoided – thus far – is their take on 1969’s Moon Zero Two. That’s because I’ll be damned if my first experience of a sixties Hammer directed by Roy Ward Baker with a cast this solid would be those wonderful chuckleheads riffing it. Now that I’ve seen it, and mostly enjoyed it, mock away. I’ll probably track it down soon and enjoy the jokes, assuming Joel and his robot friends don’t fall asleep during the interminable ride in the moon buggy to the missing man’s claim, because I almost did.

To be sure, it’s dated and slow and I just wish that more women dressed like this in the far-flung future of, er, 2021, but I thought that, scientific quibbles aside, this was a very good script, I loved the design and the really great music, and I enjoyed almost all of the performances. Unfortunately, American actor James Olson was cast as the lead, and he’s the weak link. We’ve seen Olson a few times before, and he was absolutely a reliable character actor in guest roles, but he does not seem or feel enthusiastic about this part. Unsmiling, monotone, and frankly radiating boredom, he’s certainly among the weakest performances by an American in any Hammer film that I’ve seen. Bizarrely, I didn’t know that Olson was in this, and was just thinking about him yesterday because I was watching a 1972 episode of Banacek set in Las Vegas, with the standard seventies Howard Hughes analogue, and remembered Olson from “Fembots in Las Vegas”, a Bionic Woman installment where he played the Hughes stand-in.

But joining Olson in this are Adrienne Corri and Catherine Schell, who are wonderful. Warren Mitchell leads a team of villains including Bernard Bresslaw, Joby Blanshard, and Dudley Foster, and, and as you might expect from a sixties Hammer, Roy Evans and Michael Ripper show up briefly. You put this many good actors in a movie, and I’m not going to complain much, especially if it looks this good. I’d love a cleaned-up Blu-ray. The only in-print option in the US is the DVD-R from the Warner Archive. I scored a cheap copy of the out-of-print properly-pressed version which pairs it with the uncut When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. Apparently nobody realized how much nudity there is in the full Dinosaurs and it was quickly removed from shelves, because they told retailers it was the Rated G version.

The kid, on the other hand, was mostly unimpressed. I did caution him up front that this was made during a period where some science fiction was being made for adult audiences, and was made without stuff like aliens and death rays, but instead just setting tales of human greed and failure in the near future. I think there was a little eye candy for him, and some nice visuals, and a skeleton in a spacesuit moment that Steven Moffat probably remembered from his childhood and incorporated into Doctor Who‘s “Silence in the Library”. But overall, he was a little restless and we agreed afterward that this was too slow a movie for a kid who likes spaceships that jump to lightspeed.

The best little moment came when I pointed out Bernard Bresslaw and said that he’d seen him before. I let him chew on that a moment and then let him know that he had been Varga, the very first Ice Warrior in Who. The kid tolerates my astonishment that he has trouble with faces, because he knows it doesn’t actually bother me, but this was too far. “Was I seriously supposed to recognize him?” he protested. “Good grief, no,” I said, “just wanted to point out that when you cast an Ice Warrior, you cast a big guy.”

“That dude is a big guy,” he agreed.

Daimajin (1966)

Regular readers may recall that whenever possible, I like to surprise my ten year-old son with the details of what we’re watching in a way that really, nobody else gets to experience. Previously, we started watching Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) without him knowing that one partner would be a ghost, and he may be the only viewer in the world to not know what the “them” in Them! were. He didn’t even know that Edward Scissorhands really did have scissors for hands. So this morning, we sat down to watch 1966’s Daimajin, better known in this country as Majin: Monster of Terror, and I told him we were going to watch a samurai movie.

See, I think this setup made this experience really, really fun. Late last month, Arrow Video put out a remarkable Blu-ray box set of the three Daimajin films, which were made simultaneously by Daiei in 1966 and released at four-month intervals. I’m sure that my small audience knows to go someplace like DVD Beaver for really detailed restoration comparison and analysis, so I’ll just say that these look really impressive. The whole enterprise, from picture to sound to special features to packaging, just shines with love. I preordered my set from the good people at Diabolik DVD, and I’d say you could click the images to go there and order your own set, except that mine arrived on Monday and now, six days later, Diabolik’s already sold out, so you can click the image and get on the waitlist.

Anyway, I’m very, very glad I didn’t overpay for an older DVD of this as I’d been considering, because the new set is just so beautiful, and we had such a good time. Settled in for a samurai film – his first – we watched the pretty unexceptional story unfold. By that, I mean that it’s a story told well, but it isn’t the most unique tale in fiction. The local warlord is peaceful and indulgent, and once took in a drifter, who rose up the ranks and became a trusted lieutenant. Years pass, and, inevitably, the man betrays his lord with a giant company of brigands and murderers loyal to him. The warlord’s children escape in the company of one of the few good men remaining, and take refuge on a mountaintop next to a breathtaking waterfall. Ten years pass before they are needed to save the village from slavery and oppression.

The beautiful thing is that this film spends an hour grounded in the real world, with passing references to gods and hauntings and villager superstitions. We get hints that there may be something supernatural in this land, but then we see quick explanations for what we thought we saw. Then the villain sends his men to destroy a statue that keeps inspiring the oppressed villagers that their mountain god will save them, and this happens. The statue starts bleeding.

So obviously, my ten year-old kid is crazy for giant monsters, in part because he’s ten, and in part because he’s my kid. But the Daimajin films have a reputation for only revealing their showstopper at the climax. I really didn’t want him to judge this as a movie supposedly about a giant monster where you have to wade through a whole lot more human stuff than any Godzilla picture to get to the meat. I was reminded of that New Avengers where if you go in waiting for the giant rat to show up, you’re bound to be frustrated and disappointed. The best way to pull the rug out from under the audience is to do to them what the movie does to those fool warriors.

Having said all that, our son was patient and curious, but honestly not completely thrilled with this movie until it does its magic trick. It’s far less gory than many Japanese swords-and-samurai movies that I’ve seen, as it was intended for general audiences, although some of the tortures may be pretty intense for younger viewers. But he was never restless. I’d like to think the gorgeous location might have had something to do with that. If this movie doesn’t leave you wanting to hike to that waterfall, haunted or not, something must be wrong with you.

Our son claims that he “kind of” saw the statue coming to life, although its transformation into a blue-faced beast of anger was a huge surprise. Majin goes to give the evil, oppressive warlord his just desserts, and the kid was in heaven. Perhaps modern militaries might have a weapon or two to deploy against forty-foot stone monsters with spikes in their forehead, but these baddies are a little outclassed. The kid absolutely loved Majin’s “path of destruction” (our son certainly does enjoy that phrase) and whooped when I showed him that the box contains two additional Majin films.

I did warn him that the law of diminishing returns sets in immediately with this series. The other two have some fine set pieces, but they really don’t reinvent the wheel. Still, I can’t recommend Arrow’s new set highly enough. They did such a great, great job with the restoration that I went ahead and preordered their forthcoming collection of the same studio’s three “Yokai” ghost/monster films from the sixties. If you don’t get this from Diabolik, get it from somewhere, and don’t tell your kid what it’s about first!

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!

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.

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.

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.