Tag Archives: fantastic cinema

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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Alakazam the Great (1960)

For this morning’s movie, we enjoyed a Toei film directed by Taiji Yabushita. It was called Journey to the West when it was first released in Japan in 1960, one of several dozen adaptations of the old folk tale about the monkey king and his companions. In the US, a quite heavily rescripted adaptation was released by B-movie distributors American International Pictures, and featured voiceovers by Jonathan Winters, Arnold Stang, and fandom legend Peter Fernandez, along with five new songs sung by Frankie Avalon.

Alakazam the Great did the rounds of second features and dollar kiddie film matinees in the 1960s before finding its way to every UHF station that didn’t have a lot of money for movies, and most every kid who saw it found it completely charming, funny, and full of action. But it largely vanished from circulation in the 1980s. There was a VHS release through Orion, but the only way to legally see the movie in North America these days is to stream it through Amazon Prime or possibly Netflix or wait for an old, beat up print to make its way to a revival house.

Our son just had a ball with it. Alakazam starts the movie as a coward who gets scared by crickets and spiders, which makes him endearing to a female monkey who really does put up with a lot of crap from him after that. It’s predicted that he will become king of all the animals, so he summons up the courage for the initiation test, and quickly becomes an insufferable, power-mad creep who needs to be taken down many pegs and learn the values of humility, mercy, and wisdom.

So he gets put in his place by a very powerful magic-using king of a higher realm, and sent on a quest with that realm’s prince. Along the way, they have a pair of squabbles with some unpleasant villains, but rather than killing them, Alakazam shows mercy and asks them to join the quest. There’s slapstick comedy, lots and lots of fighting, weird magic, and erupting volcanoes. It’s pretty much everything an eight year-old kid would want from a movie, except possibly swapping out one of the lame Frankie Avalon songs for another fight scene.

Taiji Yabushita directed several animated films for Toei, including 1958’s Panda and the Magic Serpent amd 1967’s hallucinogenic Jack and the Witch, which I’d like to show our kid sometime, so somebody put that out on Blu-ray, please! I really enjoyed this movie’s visual language and attractive artwork, though I’ll blame a bad night’s sleep for contributing to me nodding off a couple of times this morning. Maybe someday, somebody will give this film a nice restoration and a more accurate script and I’ll give it another try without my eyelids getting heavy. In the meantime, our kid liked it enough for both of us.

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Horus, Prince of the Sun (1968)

Here’s a movie I’d been intending to get around to watching for… well, three decades or so. After its largely unsuccessful theatrical release in Japan, a dubbed copy of Horus, Prince of the Sun made the rounds of American UHF channels throughout the 1970s under the name Little Norse Prince. Kids who saw it during that sweet spot age of about eight to ten fell in love with it and never forgot it. Seems a shame that I missed it, but I’ve certainly heard enough people raving about it over the years to quietly pick up a copy to see whether my own eight to ten year-old might fall in love with it.

He really didn’t, but there were a pair of scenes that he enjoyed tremendously. It’s an old-fashioned feature, but one that still has a few tricks up its sleeve to resonate with today’s kids.

Horus – his name is pronounced “Hols,” which cleared up a little confusion about why a Norse myth adventure would star a kid named after an Egyptian god – was the first feature film directed by Isao Takahata, who’d later go on to form Studio Ghibli with a few choice associates and friends. I reminded our son that we’d seen his film Pom Poko last year and hope to see another in a few months. It’s a pretty straightforward good vs. evil adventure, as Horus, after the death of his father, returns north to the land of his birth to have it out with the frost giant Grunwald.

I was mostly pleased and impressed. It’s a movie full of movement and surprising choices, with some absolutely beautiful imagery. I particularly loved a scene where the camera tracks around some winterdead trees, and I loved the colors when Grunwald’s endless forest tries to swallow our hero. About the only quibble I have is with the old English language dub, which Discotek Media included on their 2014 DVD. Like a lot of dubs from its era, the voices are just fine, but technically it all sounds quite lifeless and flat, with no highs or lows to the dialogue or the music. (Actually, the neatest thing about the DVD is that it contains a commentary track by our old pal Mike Toole, which was a pleasant surprise to find, because I know so little about Japanese animation fandom that I didn’t know Mike did commentaries on these things. I’ll have to give this another spin to hear that soon.)

The neatest surprise of all comes with a little trick the movie plays in its second act. Like a lot of children’s films from the 1960s and 1970s – Willy Wonka and Pete’s Dragon are the first to mind – the movie stops dead in its tracks for a slow song, this one sung by a strange girl called Hilda. I was past the point of drumming impatiently on my knee and wondering whether I could get to the metaphorical concession stand and back and not miss anything when I realized this was deliberate. Hilda has an inevitable and unsurprising secret, and her song doesn’t just interrupt the experience of watching the film, but it interrupts the work within the film itself, as everybody who’s supposed to be working stops their labor and goes to listen to her. It’s still a dirge, but it’s a neat trick.

The second act was a little long for our son as well. It brought him around in the end with a splendid climax, but everybody made the mistake of presenting the best action sequence quite early on. Horus goes out to kill this enormous river pike that’s been eating all the smaller fish and starving a village, and our son was amazed by this scene. He was on the edge of the sofa and kicking furiously and held his security blanket tightly as Horus gets dragged underwater. And the very next scene was his second favorite, as Takahata went for a comedy relaxation point and the local kids chase Horus’s newly arrived pet bear with bows and arrows and the skeletons of fish that the ravenous people have quickly eaten since the pike was no longer blocking the stream. It kind of ran a little long for him after that, but I thought it was a pretty satisfying 80 minutes and I’m glad I finally sat down to see what all the fuss was about.

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Gorgo (1961)

Back in March, we went to Atlanta for the Silver Scream Spook Show’s presentation of Paramount’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, but neither the kid nor I actually enjoyed the movie all that much, so it passed without comment here. I figured that 1961’s Gorgo would go over better, and it did. It’s actually a much more entertaining film than I remembered, too.

Obviously, Gorgo is a Godzilla cash-in, which I saw once when I was in middle school on whatever UHF channel that was showing Sunday morning monster movies. I remember liking it a lot at the time, but eventually I started figuring that it was a cash-in, and therefore just an also-ran, and who needs a pale imitation when, honestly, most of those Godzilla movies aren’t all that good to start with. Refamilarizing myself with the movie by looking it up online, I was pleased to see that actor Martin Benson, one of those fellows who had a long and enviable career of being “oh yeah, that guy” in dozens and dozens of things you’ve seen, is in this, and that one of the lead characters is named Sam Slade.

Anyway, if you live within driving distance of Atlanta and you’ve never seen a Silver Scream Spook Show performance, you’re really missing out. Professor Morte and his gang of ghouls and weirdos put on a goofy comedy set before the show, with props, surprises, things going haywire, missed cues, Martians, and, this time out, magic. The Professor gives these classic sci-fi and monster movies a good introduction, and then our kid was in popcorn heaven.

Wonderfully, Gorgo turns out to have aged far, far better than I thought it would. True, the stock footage of battleships and jet fighters is obvious, and the movie suffers from not really using England’s deep bench of strong and identifiable character actors the way it should. Failing to find even a single woman to deliver a single line of dialogue is woefully unfortunate. But there’s lovely location work, greedy protagonists, very good special effects for the time, and some incredibly impressive footage of panicking crowds rushing to evacuate as London is menaced by a 200-foot tall indestructible monster.

The print was pretty poor, but this is a movie that was made with a really keen eye for detail and pleasantly surprised me with many of its story and visual choices, and I’d much rather watch it again than most of Toho’s output. And that’s with the cast it has; imagine how much more rewatchable this would have been with people like Peter Sallis or Ralph Bates or Barbara Shelley or Ingrid Pitt in it.

But the kid was even more pleased than me. This had the right amount of destruction and buildings-being-knocked-down shenanigans and was never really scary. In the lobby afterward, Professor Morte suggested that a little baby powder on a cardboard building makes for a great cloud of dust when an eight year-old boy becomes a monster in the stories he can create in the driveway or the garage. That got him thinking, and really the only thing that derailed his thoughts was when we bought a T-shirt from the merch table and the lovely ghoul assistant gave him a free whoopie cushion with our purchase.

Photo credit: Cool Ass Cinema

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The Island at the Top of the World (1974)

Our son was four when we started this blog, and while he remembers many of the programs and movies that we watched in its first couple of years – in part from repetition – many others have faded away. That’s the nature of memory of preschoolers; we all have a few solid memories from age four and five, but it takes more than a single viewing of even an exciting movie that a kid really enjoys to sink in during the years when there’s so much else in the world to absorb and remember. And if it’s a movie that I got from the library, then there’s no opportunity for repetition.

So since some other action-adventure films in the Jules Verne tradition and style – the various takes on Journey to the Center of the Earth and In Search of the Castaways – have largely faded from his memory, Disney’s 1974 adaptation of Ian Cameron’s novel The Lost Ones wasn’t nearly as familiar and old hat to him as it was to his parents. We had never seen this film before, and yet we kind of did.

One thing I really appreciated: this film gets in gear immediately. I was talking with an old pal about the unbearably bloated Godzilla: King of the Monsters this weekend and told him how I just missed ninety minute movies. I checked the running time, saw this movie was only an hour and a half long, and breathed a happy sigh of relief. The characters and situations are introduced on the go, and all the background events necessary to get the expedition started are explained as we’re moving along with them.

Island stars David Hartman as a turn-of-the-century scientist. And yeah, it’s the same guy who’d later host Good Morning America forever, which might’ve sparked the same oddball reaction from me as when people in Britain learn that the longtime Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves had been in Doctor Who for a year in the sixties. Donald Sinden plays the millionaire looking for his missing son, Jacques Marin is the captain of an airship, and Mako, who guest-starred in everything in the 1970s, plays an Eskimo guide.

So was it any good? It certainly didn’t do anything new, and every plot beat, from the lost civilization to the gods being angry to characters who we thought were dead showing up again to the only female having a heart of gold to help our heroes, was one we’ve seen before. The science was absurd and the movie keeps confusing archaeology with anthropology. But it still unfolded at a pleasantly brisk pace, and kept the kiddo excited and surprised, and it gives us lava, explosions, hidden passages, whirlpools, and dangerous animals. If you’ve never seen it before, or if you’re young enough that you might as well not have, then it’s a splendid picture.

This post has been written amid the remarkable distraction of our son watching The Avengers for the tenth time.

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

I think I’ve probably seen Nausicaä – or at least 85% of Nausicaä – more times than I’ve seen every other Miyazaki movie combined, but I’ve never seen it on a big screen before tonight. There’s one off the bucket list.

Nausicaä is Miyazaki’s prog rock movie. He started developing it in the late 1970s, around the time he was working on the TV series Future Boy Conan and going through some issues with the rise and fall of civilizations, cycles, rebirths, that sort of thing. This feel is enhanced by one of my favorite scores to any movie, ever. Joe Hisaishi spends parts of this film channeling Rick Wakeman and other parts channeling Nick Rhodes. Hisaishi has scored all of Miyazaki’s movies since this one, and they are all wonderful and memorable, but there’s such an odd mix of styles in this movie that it stands out as the most unique and weird. It kind of has to be heard to be believed.

When I was fifteen and sixteen, I inhaled this film. I had a copy of the original English language dub, which was called Warriors of the Wind, and I watched it constantly. To the disgust of purists, Warriors was edited by twenty minutes, down to a lean 100, so that after it finished its theatrical run, New World Pictures could sell it to TV stations for a two-hour slot. So sure, tampering with Miyazaki is eee-eeeevil, but that original voice cast was so much better than the one they got to perform the contemporary dub. It’s not just that Patrick Stewart just phoned in his lines and sounds like he wasn’t in the same country, never mind the same studio, it’s that everybody in the original sold the hell out of it.

The original English voice for Nausicaä – well, they renamed her Zandra, and I can’t defend that and won’t try – was Susan Davis, who was the original English language voice of Pippi Longstocking in Fred Ladd’s dubs. She was perfect. There’s a scene in the Warriors cut where Nausicaä slides backward on the shore of a lake of acid. She’s been shot twice and her ankle, wounded and bloodied, slides into the acid and she lets out a scream that still makes me shiver. This new girl sounds like she stubbed her toe.

This might be where the purists might add that I could just watch the subtitled version, and they’re not wrong, but our son is still too young to happily go along with reading movies. Once he’s ready, I’ve got some subtitled Dr. Slump cartoons for him. I’m still steamed those aren’t dubbed.

Our son was mainly in it for the fox squirrel. He had a great belly laugh when three old codgers steal a tank, and he joined in with the rest of the theater chuckling when a soldier tries to rally his troops to kill the planet’s best swordsman, but the cute animal is all he wanted to talk about afterward. There’s probably a plush cuddly toy if he wants to save his allowance. They’ve merchandised everything else with Miyazaki’s name on it.

He didn’t like it as much as Castle in the Sky and Marie didn’t like it as much as Spirited Away and I didn’t like it as much as Warriors of the Wind, but I got to see it on a big screen and it was beautiful. Fathom Events has another good lineup this year. We’re going to see three more new-to-him films in this year’s Ghibli Fest by some of that studio’s other directors. Might watch Totoro again, too. Hard to pass that one up on a big screen…

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