Tag Archives: fantastic cinema

Stargate (1994)

We’re going to begin watching Stargate SG-1 here at the blog fairly soon. I’ll talk about it in more detail later, but I think it’s a program that starts out godawful, turns into a mostly good show, and eventually becomes tremendously entertaining. It’s based on a 1994 MGM film directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich. A lot of Emmerich’s hallmarks are on display here. He’s kind of made an art of spending an insane amount of money and resources on movies that would be every bit as stupid with a tenth of the budget.

Stargate isn’t a movie that I’d ever really watched before; it’s a movie that’s been on while I’ve been in the room. And I can now say that it is every bit as lazy and stupid as I feared. Nothing surprising happens in this film; it’s an action movie by the numbers. About the only thing in the story that I really liked was a gruesome bit where the hero’s about to get the drop on the villain, and the bad guy is instantly surrounded by more than a dozen human shields; little children bred to die for their boss.

As for the actors, I liked Richard Kind’s petulant performance as a translator on the Stargate project whose work gets bulldozed immediately as soon as the new whizkid on the team, Dr. Daniel Jackson, shows up. Jackson is played by James Spader and Col. O’Neill by Kurt Russell, and it’s a testament to how little they brought to the movie that I spent the full 130 minutes saying to myself that Michael Shanks and Richard Dean Anderson are both so, so much better than these actors in the same roles.

If you’ve never seen the film, it’s an incredibly long setup to get to a faster-than-light wormhole to another galaxy. There, a small colony of humans whose ancestors were abducted from Egypt 10,000 years ago live as slaves to an alien who calls himself Ra. The Great White Saviors show up and save the day, showing the locals that their “gods” are mortal, and blowing up Ra and his pyramid ship with a failsafe nuke.

There’s a bit where Ra’s jackal-helmeted warriors sneak around and make mincemeat out of the redshirts left behind to guard the way home. Our son thought this scene was very frightening. He otherwise enjoyed the fighting and the shootouts. This is a very simple film without nuance or surprises, so it’s natural that kids would enjoy it. Everything here was done better once Brad Wright and Jonathan Glassner got involved a couple of years later and made it into a TV show.

Not a lot better, mind you. It takes a long time to find its feet. More on that soon.

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Them! (1954)

I’ve told this story before, but here it is again: once upon a time, I decided that I’d love to show my older son Them! without telling him anything about it. I figured I’d get around to it one of these days, and waited so long that one day around 2005, he came back from the school library with a book about science fiction’s greatest monsters and yelled “Dad! Do you know this movie Them!? It sounds amazing!” That was a silly lesson in not putting off your plans. Culture has a way of spoiling surprises from the past.

I don’t know why I wanted him to see it without knowing what monsters the atomic bomb had brought up in New Mexico that hot summer of 1954. Surely every single person who has ever seen this movie did so knowing what it’s about. I just wondered whether the movie would be as effective if a viewer didn’t know. And I think now that the answer is yes.

I spotted a used Blu-ray of this movie a couple of days ago, snatched it up, and didn’t let our son see what I’d bought. I didn’t tell him the name of it until supper. And I got to watch him as he curled up with two blankets during the stunningly effective opening twenty or so minutes, as two New Mexico state cops come across two scenes of destruction and death in the desert. The only survivor is a small child in shock and unable to speak. Maybe it’s easy for a jaded moviegoer to dismiss all this character interplay as in the way of the special effects, but it’s so amazingly well-made. I pointed out to my wife that this film was made by Warner Brothers, and not American International or some Z-grade production company. Them! is what every monster movie of its day just wished it could be.

I wouldn’t swear that Warners didn’t spare any expense. It wears its remarkably large budget on its sleeve, but there’s still a dearth of speaking parts – I like James Whitmore and James Arness as much as the next guy, but this script honestly left the need to keep their characters involved after about fifty minutes – and they took as few people on location in the desert as was necessary. Spotted the Warner backlot just once. But otherwise, they went to town on this. There’s a lot of desert footage using two aircraft and a team of excellent actors who really sell the mystery and the horror of what’s happening, far better than everybody who appeared in the parade of B-movie imitators who followed in Them!s tracks.

And did it work? The kid was spooked out of his skull. The presence of all that formic acid in one victim’s body didn’t give it away. And when the camera finally reveals what the heck is going on, he jumped and shouted with a “Whoa!” He enjoyed everything, the frights, the explosions, the jeeps, the flamethrowers, and agreed that this is a great film. If you’ve got kids of your own, definitely show them this classic, but try to keep it under wraps before they go checking out books about monster movies.

Image credit: The Endless Swarm

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The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Here’s an example of the real world interfering with the experience of watching a movie, and I think that’s okay to report that, because this is a blog about experiences and not a review blog. I had been looking forward to seeing Isao Takahata’s final film, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, for most of the year. It’s the last in this year’s Ghiblifest from Fathom Events, and if you missed it last evening, you can see it subtitled in many cities on December 18.

But then, you’ll notice the blog went dormant for a few days earlier this month. That’s because I had surgery on my spine. Since returning from the hospital, we haven’t all three been curled up on the sofa watching things together. Marie and our son have been curled up on the sofa, while I’ve been sitting up straight in a fairly comfortable chair, squirming because, after half an hour or so, it isn’t comfortable enough. And The Tale of the Princess Kaguya isn’t a short film, it’s nearly two and a half hours long. Two and a half beautiful hours, mind you – the film’s design deliberately evokes the picture scrolls where folk tales in Japan unrolled a thousand years ago, with expanses of white skies, careful drops of color for the leaves, and delicate, intricate linework for the figures – but that’s a long time for a fellow with little steel rods in his back to sit still.

With a palette and look that’s unlike any other movie in Ghibli’s library, Kaguya is an unusual standout that doesn’t seem to attract the attention of that studio’s American fans. Every other Fathom Events screening that we’ve attended, even of other Takahata films, drew a far bigger crowd than this did last night. The big names sell out, and even Arrietty was about two-thirds full. Last night it was just us and a group of about eight guys and girls in their twenties. What a shame; I hope more people see it tomorrow night, because it’s a beautiful experience.

The movie is an adaptation of a classic folk tale. An old bamboo cutter finds a tiny, doll-sized girl dressed as a princess inside a stalk. She turns into a human baby, growing very fast, and a second visit to the forest gives the old man gold and beautiful robes. He believes that whatever spirit brought them this child wants the couple to raise her as royalty. So he buys a mansion in the capital and hires servants to train her in the formality of proper behavior. When she comes of age, she is given the name “Kaguya” and attracts wealthy, noble suitors. But nobody asked her what she herself wants, or where she came from, or how long she’ll be staying on Earth.

Well, I completely loved it. I think it’s a gorgeous film and I love the way the style and the speed of the editing changes so radically at key points. It’s a classic fairy tale with an inevitable end, and so spending two and a half hours in the company of kind-hearted people with good intentions, rather than the five minutes it might take to just tell the story, means that the ending is very depressing despite its honesty and beauty. Our son thought it was extremely sad and it left him in low spirits for a while, but some occasional light gags and mild comedy kept his attention even though this experience was a little outside his wheelhouse.

And you’ll be glad to know that I was all kinds of sore but I made it out of the comfy Regal seat all right. We’ll go back to the same theater in a week and I’ll be in even better shape next time.

Image credit: Film Ireland

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Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Memory works through repetition and reminders, especially with kids. When I first saw Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, I remember being so pleased that Indy mentioned his time running with Pancho Villa, which happened in 1916, as shown in a key episode of TV’s Young Indiana Jones. I probably watched that installment, which was shown as a TV movie on ABC called Young Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jackal, four or five times. Add in the trading cards and all the merchandise I picked up, and you have a pretty lasting memory. So I was really thrilled that this movie took a moment to embrace that show’s continuity. Crystal Skull was accompanied by some more merchandise. I picked up a great book called The Lost Journal of Indiana Jones. Most of his World War One time is omitted – classified, perhaps – but the Pancho Villa story is there, along with a smattering of other tales from that series.

Our son only saw the Villa story once, eighteen months ago, one lone adventure seen a single time and lost in a torrent of all these old shows we watch together. There aren’t enough hours in a day for a kid to rewatch every single thing that we’ve enjoyed together to the point that it all sticks. Not when he has his own super-favorites to rewatch, plus all the shows he enjoys on his own, plus Nerf guns and Lego bricks and video games and action figures and his parents driving him to museums and aquariums and scenic highways and restaurants. So Pancho Villa was lost and forgotten. I paused the movie with a smile because the continuity was important to me, but he didn’t remember it.

Later on, however, the Soviet troops are cutting through the South American jungle, clearing trees with a vehicle that instantly reminded him of the Crablogger in the classic Thunderbirds episode “Path of Destruction.” I’ve joked that he has probably watched that episode more times than I’ve watched everything Gerry Anderson ever made, combined. He’ll be reminded of the Crablogger whenever he sees anything remotely like it even when he’s my age.

And one day he’ll recognize actors, I’m certain. The kid’s watched Thor: Ragnarok almost as many times as he’s watched “Path of Destruction” and he still didn’t realize this movie’s principal villain, Cate Blanchett, is the same woman who played Hela. Darn kid.

Anyway, I like Kingdom of the Crystal Skull tremendously. I thought it was great at the time. Of the two principal bones of contention among the humorless, I completely loved the fridge escape, although I confess I did roll my eyes at Mutt in the vines. This time out, I loved the fridge even more, and the vines didn’t bother me a bit. About my only complaint is that I’d have liked for John Hurt’s character to recover his memory and wits earlier so we could see more of him in his right mind.

The kid had a complete blast, loving all the fights and the chases and the monkeys and the snake-rope and the billions of ants. As is his habit, he claimed that the very last gag of the movie – of any movie – was his favorite moment, though in fairness, Indy snatching his hat back from Mutt is indeed a fine gag. So it’s not the best, but I still adore it. There’s no shame in being the third-best Indiana Jones movie when Raiders and Last Crusade are so darn good, anyway. They’ve been promising us a fifth Indy film for ages. Disney seems to think it’ll be released in the summer of 2021. We’ll be there.

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Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

In one way, this blog’s always been a race against time, showing our son classic movies before he stumbles upon them somewhere else, at a friend’s place or after school. I offered to show him Toy Story a couple of times and he always declined. Turned out he’d seen the movies a dozen times each in afterschool care already. Preserving surprises of any kind will get tougher and tougher as kids get older. Once upon a time, I was planning to one day show my older son the classic monster movie Them! and not tell him what it was about, only for him to come home from the library with a book about creature features. Eyes wide, he told me “This movie about giant ants sounds amazing!”

Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman have been forgotten and ignored by Disney for the last several years. Director Robert Zemeckis has speculated that Disney don’t like Roger’s shapely wife Jessica at all and are unlikely to approve a sequel or draw very much attention to the original. This worked in our favor; our son had never heard of the character or seen him anywhere.

So I drew him in last night by reminding him of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and the days of tough guy detectives in coats and fedoras, and then this morning, the movie cued and no hints from the menus or the DVD packaging, re-explained that how, once upon a time, before you saw the main feature at the movie, you’d see a cartoon first. Who Framed Roger Rabbit begins with a short called “Somethin’s Cookin’,” which had our son guffawing, and then at a critical point in the cartoon, Roger blows a special effect, a director yells “Cut!” and the camera pulls back to blow our son’s mind.

I love surprising my son this way. If you’ve got kids of your own, try your darndest to introduce them to the movie this way.

Roger Rabbit is celebrated for its mix of live-action and animation, but it wouldn’t work if it didn’t have a clever and entertaining story underneath it. It’s a delightful throwback to hard-boiled detective fiction, starring Bob Hoskins as a down-on-his-luck PI who’s descended into alcoholism since the death of his partner five years previously. Stubby Kaye plays the industrialist who gets murdered, and poor Roger, a big hearted dimwit of a cartoon character who only has great things to say about his fellows in the business, is set up for the fall. And of course Christopher Lloyd gets to steal the show as the menacing Judge Doom, who, thanks to some odd quirk of the California municipal code, has the power of life and death over all cartoon characters.

The result is a completely delightful movie, full of sight gags, very good acting, and how-the-heck-did-they-DO-that camera tricks. I’ve always enjoyed this film and really had a ball watching it with our kid. It’s a shame there probably won’t ever be a sequel, but fifteen years later, Warner released another live-action/animation hybrid, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which owes an astonishing amount to this film. It’s certainly not as unique or as original as Roger Rabbit, but it’s still a very fun ride and we’ll look at it one Sunday in 2020.

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Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

Over Labor Day weekend, we got to see Raiders on the Lost Ark on the big screen, at Chattanooga’s wonderful old Tivoli Theatre. They started a film series that I didn’t know about as early as I should have – we missed The Goonies, and wouldn’t that have been a fine movie to see in a theater? – but I’ll be paying attention to what they announce for the Bobby Stone Film Series next year.

I mentioned that I’m very glad that we reacquainted our son with Raiders, so that the characters played by Denholm Elliot and John Rhys-Davies would be fresher in his mind. You can never tell with kids. After we finished, I asked him whether Last Crusade was a million times better than Temple of Doom and he had to be reminded what happened in that one. I also reminded him of a couple of key moments in Young Indiana Jones, particularly the end of his relationship with his father.

But yes, Last Crusade is a million times better than its predecessor. It ticks all the boxes that Temple didn’t, especially the one where a movie like this needs a charismatic bad guy, this time played by the wonderful Julian Glover. Most importantly, it’s a fun movie, never dark or frightening. The kid couldn’t decide what his favorite scene or favorite line was. He jumped for joy throughout practically the whole film. Castles on fire, underground crypts, boat chases, motorcycle chases, tank chases, Flaming airplanes passing cars in tunnels… this movie’s got it all. It’s nearly as good as the original, and Sean Connery’s wonderful as Indy’s grouchy father.

I really enjoyed our son recognizing a famous landmark, but not for the same reason I did. The treasure hunt takes our heroes to an ancient city, the same one seen in 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. But our son leaned over and whispered “That’s a real place!” because he’d seen the facade – Al-Khazneh in Jordan – in a documentary recently. Some things register a little more strongly than Sinbad movies, I suppose!

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House on Haunted Hill (1959) at the Silver Scream Spook Show

Yesterday, we were back in Atlanta for another trip into the past with the boys and ghouls of the Silver Scream Spook Show, although our son was wishing for another monster movie. They always promise that they’re going to scare the yell out of us, and this time, they delivered. The film was William Castle’s 1959 classic House on Haunted Hill, starring Vincent Price, Elisha Cook Jr., and Carol Ohmart. I’d never seen it before, and I just had a ball. It’s a terrific haunted house movie, and I enjoyed every frame of it.

I told our son that it was an old horror movie, and probably not all that scary. Boy, was I mistaken.

So this one’s about a creepy party held by an eccentric millionaire at his even more eccentric wife’s behest. If any of the five guests can stay the night in this spooky old mansion – the exteriors were filmed at the downright bizarre Ennis House, which Frank Lloyd Wright designed to look like a Mayan temple – they will earn $10,000. The five guests were chosen because they are all strangers who need the money. The windows are barred, there is only one door, made of steel, and after the caretakers leave at midnight, there is no escape, and no way to phone the police when the eccentric wife hangs herself to death.

So yes, I thought it was great, and really enjoyed a startling reveal about twenty-five minutes in, when the camera lets us know that there’s somebody else in a room with actress Carolyn Craig. From there, it was half an hour of solid shocks for our kid, who was without comfort blankets and the rest of his menagerie and curled up in a tight ball next to me.

He missed the last fifteen minutes. Craig gets the wits scared out of her again when a rope somehow enters her room and she looks outside to see that on the other end of it, the ghost of the wife is outside, lit by the lightning, still with the noose around her neck. I heard a whimper and a moan and I leaned over to hear him tell me “I am really, really, super scared,” and told him to head for the lobby. I didn’t need to tell him twice. So Marie went to join him, and, after the hosts had provided one little interactive element of the movie, Professor Morte commiserated with the otherwise heroic eight year-old. Turns out when you’re that age, this really is a tremendously terrifying film.

I knew this was going to be a great presentation, because I was betting that the Spook Show gang was going to incorporate a famous element of the movie’s original release. Now, if you’ve Googled your way here without knowing anything about the Silver Scream Spook Show, quickly pop back and read our story about our first Atlanta trip for the show. This time, the show started with a silly bit of business about a haunted mirror. I’m still chuckling about Atlanta’s beloved Jim Stacy, dressed as a pirate ghost, bellowing “Turns out I’ve got a fetish for Alice in Wonderland fightin’ like Popeye!”

When House on Haunted Hill was originally released, it was with the promise that it was made in EMERGO, which meant that at a critical moment in the climax, a pulley system in the theater would activate and a skeleton would swing out from the rafters above the crowd. Well, the Plaza Theater didn’t have a pulley system, but they did have the next best thing, which was Professor Morte and one of his pals using a big wire puppet setup using the two aisles of the room. They raised a skeleton from a box placed below the screen, and with Morte in one aisle and his assistant in the other, they stalked the length of the room, with the skeleton dangling over the audience.

To say that the crowd loved this is an understatement. This was the most packed we’ve ever seen the Spook Show, with the room very nearly filled with classic film lovers. Let’s be fair: a whole lot more people want to see Vincent Price than Gorgo. And as for this film? I remember reading about EMERGO in middle school and never, ever thought I’d get the chance to actually see it played out in person.

It’s a shame that our kid missed out on the skeleton, but we visited friends and had barbecue and ice cream and got to see the dolphin show at the Georgia Aquarium and he otherwise had a great day. He’ll be telling his friends down the line that this sixty year-old movie was the scariest film he’s ever seen, but he had a great day. This was the Spook Show’s last performance of 2019, but we thanked Professor Morte in the lobby and said that we’d see him again next year.

Image credit: LyricDiscorde

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The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

Fathom Events usually has three screenings of the Studio Ghibli films that they present: the first and last are dubbed and the middle one is subtitled. We always go to a dubbed showing because our son reads very slowly. But this time, they made a mistake and started the subtitled edition of 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty. We shrugged; just have to deal with it. About eight minutes in, somebody had alerted somebody to the mistake, and after a short pause, they started over with the right print.

Our kid grinned. Within those first eight minutes, we get to see a big, fat, lazy cat chase off a pestering crow and charge, unsuccessfully, at our tiny young heroine, a teenage “borrower” who is just a couple of inches tall and lives under a house. He leaned over and quietly said “Good! I wanted to see that cat twice!”

The film is an adaptation of Mary Norton’s novel for children The Borrowers. It’s been adapted before, but live-action versions can’t linger on the beauty of gigantic green gardens that look like jungles, with rain drops forming huge crystalline globes that catch the light. It’s a world where some insects are menaces and pests, and some, like roly-poly pillbugs, are just little distractions that you bounce on your knee.

Borrowers are tiny little people who try to live by a creed to only take what they need from the world of human beans. Arrietty lives with her parents Pod and Homily inside an old house in the country with just one elderly caretaker. There have been stories about little people in the walls and under the floor for many years, but nobody really believed them. Arrietty has turned fourteen and it’s time for her to make her first borrowing expedition, but there’s a strange new complication: a teenage boy with a heart condition has come to recuperate at the house for a week, and he doesn’t seem to follow any of the borrowers’ expectations about human beans.

Arrietty was the first film directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who’s since made a couple of other movies that I’d quite like to see. It was a big hit when it was released, though I confess I wasn’t paying much attention to the genre in the early 2010s and its impact missed me entirely. It’s a beautifully animated film with some fun characters and big surprises. All three of us enjoyed it very much, and I probably need to pick up a copy for the shelf sometime.

Image credits: Entropy Mag.

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