Tag Archives: fantastic cinema

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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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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Where Time Began (1977)

More than a year ago, I let our son know that we’d see several variations on the classic Jules Verne tale Journey to the Center of the Earth. If the one with James Mason was too long, and it was, here’s a leaner 90-minute version that gets to where it needs to go in a comparative rush, and then adds lots more dinosaurs, among other things.

I saw Where Time Began six or seven times on HBO in 1979 or 1980 and gradually forgot that the film existed. It’s a Spanish film directed by Juan Piquer Simón and these days it usually trades under a title that’s a closer translation of the original name: Viaje al centro de la Tierra, or The Fabulous Journey to the Center of the Earth.

The movie stars Kenneth More along with Pep Munné, Ivonne Sentis, and Jack Taylor, which is why this film got a recharge in my memory circuits. About a year and a half ago, I was reading up on the films of Jess Franco, and Taylor, who starred in at least three of Franco’s movies, got a little sidebar. I then remembered Where Time Began, kind of. I mainly remembered it as the movie with the giant tortoises and the poisonous dust, which is very surprising because these are unbelievably minor plot points. The movie spends about fifty seconds total on the two things!

Our son enjoyed this more than I was expecting. Some of these older films don’t quite have the punch with him that I thought that they might. The faster pace and gee-wow effects of modern movies just appeal more to kids. But he didn’t see through the really hopeless monster effects of this movie at all. Two sea monsters get into a bloody battle and he was riveted. If you’ve got a six or seven year-old at home, this is definitely one to consider watching, because ours was fascinated by everything in it: quicksand, caves, sea monsters, dinosaur graveyards, giant tortoises, whirlpools, volcanoes, and, apparently because the 1976 King Kong was making giant apes trendy again, there’s a thirty foot tall gorilla as well. That’s not in Verne’s novel, is it?

There’s one little addition to the movie’s sequence of events that really did surprise me. It’s a small scene that doesn’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the narrative, but it’s almost as weird as that “what the heck did I just watch” finale of The Black Hole. In this version, Professor Lindenbrock’s party meets just one other person underground, a taciturn man named Orson played by Jack Taylor. He keeps to himself and speaks briefly about his own experiments, and after the giant gorilla business, he shows Munné and Sentis something downright weird. Miles beneath the Earth’s surface, there’s a bizarre super-scientific city. Through a telescope, the young people see that the people in the city are all identical to Orson. He swears them to secrecy and the odd sight is indeed never mentioned again.

A lot of this movie seems like the director was throwing everything at the screen to see what would stick. We were never bored, but it did feel like some of the danger was a little too distant. We see some monsters only very briefly, and some never menace our heroes at all, as though the film didn’t have the resources to actually do anything with them. But this is a movie for kids to watch and to enjoy safe little frights. Just having the crocodile-like head of some beast roar and retreat is all that’s needed for some viewers. If you’re a grownup, you might want to obtain the service of a kid before watching this version!

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The Phantom Menace (1999)

You said it, Jar Jar.


Okay, so we do have a few subscribers who might actually want more than five words about this berry berry bad movie, and it’s possible that one day our son might want to revisit this blog and see what we watched together. For posterity’s sake, then, this was one of the longest chores I’ve sat through. Somehow, though, when I was younger and more prone to want to see big movies on the big screen, I paid for this turkey three damn times.

One of those times was around early June, 1999. It was my oldest son’s first movie in a theater. He lasted thirty minutes, got bored, and walked to the exit. Admittedly he was really young – too young for a theater trip – but I’d been persuaded that he might enjoy the bragging rights to saying that a Star Wars movie was his first movie in a theater. Eh, it was only twenty bucks or so.

This kid, however, didn’t walk out, although the agonizing talk of trade negotiations, senate procedure, and votes of no confidence certainly left him almost as bored as the grown-ups. He really enjoyed the pod race, and the appearance of favorite characters from the original movie, and the big climactic space battle. The best scene of all was when Anakin fired “those two bullets to start everything blowing up.”

It is – I’m sure it must be – the thrill of something brand new, but our favorite six year-old critic says that enjoyed this film more than the other three, and he liked Jar Jar Binks a whole lot. But that’s always been the case. Kids have always liked Jar Jar, because he’s a character for children. (And incidentally, I was quite taken with actor Ahmed Best’s defense of his performance for Entertainment Weekly. It’s worth a read.)

And these are, as much as some snarling “adults” wish for them to be otherwise, movies for the whole family.

Binks is the reason for the subtitle in the picture up top. Our son enjoyed Binks, but he complained that he couldn’t understand what he was saying. So we watched the movie with subtitles, and I’m very pleased that he’s reading so well that it helped him follow it.

As for me, no, but it’s nice to look at. The costumes and landscapes are interesting. None of the actors do a particularly standout job, though I remember enjoying Ewan McGregor much more in the next two movies. Oliver Ford Davies, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McDiarmid, Liam Neeson, Ray Park, Natalie Portman, Terence Stamp, and BRIAN BLESSED have all done better work in other films. At least I think Neeson has. Like Prentis Hancock, he’s one of those actors I just never enjoy. I guess in retrospect it’s kind of amusing that they cast Stamp, of all people, as a man without a backbone. That’s all I have. It’s a berry berry bad movie.

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Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, which was made under the title Doppelganger in 1969, isn’t a great movie. In fact, it rivals Disney’s The Black Hole as one of the silliest and least scientifically plausible films ever made. But there’s still a lot to recommend it, such as a fantastic musical score by Barry Gray, terrific visual effects, and one heck of a good cast.

Included in the cast, in a tiny bit part, is Nicholas Courtney. And, for regular readers of this blog, I’m delighted to say that our son recognized him even without the Brigadier’s distinctive mustache. I punched the air.

He also figured out very, very quickly that this movie was made by Gerry Anderson’s team. It perhaps helped a little that the look, feel, and sound of Anderson was fresh in his mind; last night, he rewatched the Thunderbirds episode “The Cham-Cham.” Journey to the Far Side of the Sun was directed by Robert Parrish, but the cinematography is by Anderson regular John Read, and this looks precisely like an episode of one of the Supermarionation series, only with live actors. I think it helped our son with a feeling of comfort. Journey is fairly justifiably accused of following in the footsteps of 2001, but the working-man’s-world of the near future in that movie is its own thing. This is the world of Captain Scarlet, right down to the camera decisions to spend agonizing minutes panning across control rooms while nobody really moves, focusing at dials counting down, and getting emergency crews into position for crash landing airplanes.

Adding a little bit to the Scarlet similarity, NASA’s liaison with the EuroSEC space program is played by Ed Bishop, who was the voice of Captain Blue. Other small parts are played by Cy Grant (Lt. Green), and Jeremy Wilkin (Captain Ochre). Wilkin passed away last month; we’ll see him again in Doctor Who next weekend.

The film’s leads are played by Roy Thinnes, Ian Hendry, Lynn Loring, and Patrick Wymark. Backing them up is an all-star cast of recognizable faces from film and TV, including George Sewell, Vladek Sheybal, Philip Madoc, sixties spy movie regular Loni von Friedl, and the great Herbert Lom, who plays a foreign agent with a camera in his artificial eye to snap secret photos of the plans for Sun Probe.

Unfortunately, two big problems are working against this awesome cast. First off, this movie is paced more like a glacier than just about anything I can think of. The rocket doesn’t launch until halfway through the film, and twice we have to mark the passage of time with slow and trippy psychedelic sequences. A big problem upfront is that Patrick Wymark’s character, the director of EuroSEC, has to find the money to fund his mission to a new planet on the far side of the sun. Agonizing minutes are spent worrying and arguing about money, instead of just having NASA immediately pay for it in exchange for sending an American astronaut on the mission.

The astronaut’s marriage is in trouble. Mercifully, Wikipedia tells me that they chopped out a massive subplot about his wife’s affair, otherwise we’d never have got into space. Either the astronaut can’t have a baby because of space radiation or because his wife is secretly taking birth control pills. Neither really matters much. But they keep introducing new elements and complications. Ian Hendry, who is awesome here, is out of shape and shouldn’t go on the mission. This is all interesting character development, but none of it ends up mattering.

It’s like the Andersons and scriptwriter Donald James were writing an interesting prime-time drama about the machinations of life among astronauts getting ready for a mission, and were told instead to do it all in forty-five minutes and then do something with the rocket and another planet. So you’ve got spies, a broken marriage, a physicist who’s not fit to fly, budget troubles, security leaks… Wymark had played the lead in The Plane Makers and The Power Game, a backstabbing boardroom drama that ran for seven seasons earlier in the sixties. I think Journey could have made a good show like that. I don’t think our son would have had all the neat rockets and crash landings to keep his attention, but I’d probably give it a spin.

Or possibly not. Bishop and Sewell were pretty boring in the TV series UFO, which the Andersons made soon after this.

The plot of the movie is about the mission and a mystery. Why did Thinnes and Hendry turn back and return to Earth halfway through their six week mission, when Thinnes insists they landed on the hidden planet on the far side of the sun? The answer won’t surprise anybody who read this chestnut of a story when they were a little kid thumbing through schlocky pulp sci-fi from the thirties, but I enjoyed the way that Read and Parrish kept finding hints for the audience in the form of mirrors. If you like watching Gerry Anderson’s work or a cast full of great actors, this isn’t a bad way to spend a hundred minutes. If you’re looking for an even remotely plausible science fiction adventure, though… you’re really, really going to have to check your disbelief at the door.

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! If you would like to support this blog, you can buy us a DVD of a movie that we’d like to watch one day. We’ll be happy to give you a shout-out and link to the site of your choice when we write about it. Here’s our wishlist!

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