Wednesday, December 31, 2008

K's Holiday Viewing

I need to give quick plugs here to a few films K saw over the holiday that he really liked. Last night he and dad downloaded (via Netflix and Xbox) yet another Harryhausen film, but one I think they both enjoyed a great deal (the hoots from the living room were pretty raucous): 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). Here’s the description from Netflix:

A space mission to Venus ends in tragedy when the ship crashes into the ocean near Sicily. Only one astronaut and one specimen -- a reptile-like creature from Venus -- survive. The reptile rapidly grows to more than 20 feet in height, escapes from its cage and heads to Rome to stomp heads like a long-forgotten gladiator.

Black and white. Tons of fun (apparently).

Also, on the long plane rides we recently endured (a soul-crushing 7.5 hours on the plane to the west coast, thanks to head winds and a long de-icing process before take-off), K watched a couple of '80s classics you may not know about. (Both are rated PG and really for kids 9 or 10 and over.)

I found myself looking over at his computer a little too often during Ron Howard/George Lucas’ Willow (1988), starring a young Val Kilmer and featuring evil queens and sorcerers and dragons and dwarves and various evildoers. The effects were pretty impressive and the film had a lush look that was really convincing. K gave it a big thumbs up.

The other film he watched was The Last Starfighter (1984), wherein our trailer park hero Alex (Lance Guest), an aficionado of the "Starfighter" video game, finds himself in outer space, playing the game for real (or something like that). It looked kind of Star Wars-ish, or at least like it was aiming for it, and entertained K thoroughly.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New York, New York

Well, it’s been quieter here than I anticipated, and I will be ramping up again soon! Promise. Just got back from the holiday/family excursion out west, a lovely time was had but now I’ve got about 48 hours to do some paid work and laundry, as we’re off to New York for a few days! This will be K’s first NY experience, and I’m excited for him to see one of my favorite cities.

I’ve decided we need to choose between visiting The Paley Center for Media, formerly The Museum of Television & Radio, where we can see the original Frost/Nixon interview, some vintage Elvis, Buster Keaton, Twilight Zones or any number of other film treats, or visiting the Museum of the Moving Image, where K can make his own animated film, and he can also play old school video games like Donkey Kong and Space Invaders! (I know which museum he’d pick!)

Besides the Natural History Museum, and some wandering and consumption of yummy New York pizza, we’re not going with much of a plan and don’t have a ton of time. But if you have a “must do with kids” tip for me (or can make a recommendation between the two media museums), please share! I’ve been to New York plenty, but never with a kid in tow.

Friday, December 26, 2008


I wrote earlier about some of the great Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation movies, like Jason and the Argonauts, and mentioned Clash of the Titans briefly at the end. K picked this up recently with his dad, and came home and started watching it before I realized what it was.

Clash is the last film Harryhausen did, as stop-motion was well on its way out, and what a perfect end to his career: Clash is the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda, and it’s full of opportunity for Harryhausen’s wild-eyed (or –limbed, or –snake-haired, or –fanged) visions. Of course, it’s a tragic love story, and Perseus must not only solve mysterious riddles, but slay the deadly Medusa (he needs her snaky head in a bag, actually) and defeat the terrible Kraken, which threatens the kingdom and his beloved Andromeda.

A film like this embodies everything many boys (kids?) want in a movie: the drama of mythology, creatures like two-headed dogs and giant scorpions, sword fights ... survival and victory hanging on by a hair from Pegasus’s tail at every turn ... Why isn’t anyone making these kinds of movies now for kids? I know, we do have the Lord of the Rings and some other vaguely similar, quest-oriented films, but anything mythological or even based on Roman or medieval history (oh, geez, and don’t they LOVE knights?!) seems to be rated PG-13 or higher. Doesn’t Hollywood realize there is a ginormous audience out there for kids aged 9 – 12 who want the adventure, the magic and the drama, but don't need the colorful language of sailors, panting rendezvous’ with hottie dames in distress, or enough realistic gore to send them to bed trembling? Come on.

Ok, so I didn’t see the entire movie, but can tell you this: it meets the fun and excitement criteria for kids 10 and up (I don’t recommend it for younger kids), it is artistically well-done and quite nice to look at (several segments were filmed off the coasts of Spain, Italy and England), and the Harryhausen animation is not sophisticated by any means, but has its own distinct charm; K loved every minute. (Um, moms might not mind a strikingly buff and youthful Harry Hamlin – with lips to rival Angelina’s! – running around in a not much more than a loin cloth and shield. Ok, to be fair, dads might not mind the ethereal and lovely Judi Bowker as Andromeda.)

Besides the two leads, heavyweights like Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith and Burgess Meredith are in the film as well.

Caveat: at the beginning of the film, there is a difficult scene where a mother and her infant are locked into a box, or a coffin perhaps, and cast out to sea. There is probably more gore than a parent might want, speaking of the stuff, but it seems pretty tame compared to what you see in many movies these days (hello, have you seen "Halo" or "Call of Duty" games? Yikes!), and it’s mostly monsters losing their heads. Not humans. There is also an early scene of a mother nursing, with a fairly exposed breast, and a brief backside shot of a bather, but as K put it, “it’s all kind of innocent and motherly,” and from what I read on IMDB, it’s fairly ... artistic. I highly doubt it’s unsavory, or graphic. (This is from the beginning, which I missed, and husband D put the disc back in the mail before I could take a look.)

Clash of the Titans is more fun than a barrel of three-headed monkeys, so put it on your Saturday night/rainy Sunday afternoon movie list.

Update: My point about movies of this sort not being made for kids? I just read that Incredible Hulk director Louis Leterrier will start shooting a new version of Clash of the Titans in early ’09. It will be rated R.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Random Act of Self Indulgence .03

Happy Holidays!

I've left snowy New England behind for the sunny climes of California (where son K is wearing shorts and grinning about it) so won't be posting much here in the coming week.

However, I'll pop in from time to time.

Just before we left, I thought we were settling in for a family night of '50s sci-fi when this disc arrived in the mail, but then I read the description and decided maybe it was actually for husband D.

The Hideous Sun Demon
Sci-fi screen star Robert Clarke (The Man from Planet X) produced, directed and stars in this atomic-age chiller that combines murder, monsters and radioactive isotopes for a sizzling good time. A scientist who turns into a lizard-like creature when exposed to the sun's deadly rays ruthlessly stalks his prey. Meanwhile, the so-called Sun Demon's primordial urges send him in hot pursuit of a blonde with gravity-defying assets.

Ok, happy holidaying everyone!

Thursday, December 18, 2008


A reviewer on Internet Movie Database wrote that, at the Toronto Film Festival screening he attended, the thunderous applause for Amazing Grace continued throughout the credits. People were visibly moved; they “clapped to the point of hurting their fingers with the thunder they were creating for so bloody long!”

Sadly, I don’t think that’s the reception the film received upon general release in the U.S. But maybe it depends on where the film was showing, and maybe I’m wrong in my broader view of its reception, as we didn’t see it in a theater ... and just because I don’t remember any fervent hoopla when it came out in 2006 doesn’t mean there wasn’t any. I could have been in snooze mode at the time.

K and I watched this on DVD in 2007, when he would have been ten or so. My initial fear that it might be too “Masterpiece Theater” for him, or just too ... British (accents, vernacular ... you know what I mean!), eased up half way into the film, but I have to confess that its somber and cerebral tone was a bit of a challenge. Every now and then K would look as if ready to launch from the couch, vibrating with what I call “itchy blood,” but then something would happen on the screen that kept him tuned in.

It’s not an easy subject, by any means. Amazing Grace recounts the struggles of politician William Wilberforce (played by Ioan Gruffudd), who one day decides he must lead the way to abolish slavery in 18th-century England. From an older, wiser film goer’s point of view, I have to say the story is deliciously full of dirty politics, clever and cunning people, plenty of sheer guts and determination, and the strong, witty screenwriting helps those things blossom to their fullest potential. It's really quite a stunning work (and, as befitting its "British-ness," was done in a quiet, subdued tone, with occasional dry, Brit humor ... it feels distinctly not Hollywood). For a kid, there is a lot of this wonderful writing/dialog, and there are some conceptual and philosophical explorations that might not speak to younger kids. Only you can determine if it’s something your child can stay with and follow through to the end.

As far as the unpleasant topic goes, the film’s not as jarring or brutal in its depiction of the tragedy of slavery as some have been (say, the R-rated Amistad), but it’s still difficult. This is really for mature kids, and honestly, probably those over 12 would get the most out of it. I think K absorbed some pretty serious food for thought in watching, but I don’t think he’ll ever say he really enjoyed it, or that he can even recount the story in detail. I think he can recount that the song, "Amazing Grace," was written by the remorseful former owner of a slave ship (beautifully played by Albert Finney), and that's not too bad.

But of course, even by osmosis, Amazing Grace and films like it do steal into our children’s hungry, sponge-like little brains and plant seeds that grow into their own sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice. It’s a movie experience that can only make them better people, even if they only grasp half of what’s being said.

Monday, December 15, 2008


This is a long and spotty franchise, beginning with 1963’s original Pink Panther, starring the inimitable Peter Sellers. There are quite a number of Pink Panther films, but be sure to do your homework: some don’t star Peter Sellers (and I’m not talking about Steve Martin. Q: Did you even know there was a Pink Panter movie with Alan Arkin as Inspector Clouseau? A: 1968’s Inspector Clouseau.)

I hope I’m not bursting any bubbles here, but I can’t recommend the original for family viewing -- only because it was so slow, the first 30 minutes filled with interminable conversations and scenes setting up a very, very convoluted plot which lost all three of us in no time, and had K complaining and bouncing around the room (granted he was nine or ten at the time, but we felt his pain) -- but I do recommend one of the later titles, albeit with slight reservations.

The fourth PP movie, The Return of the Pink Panther, from 1975, is great fun, and starts off with not only clever, animated credits, but once the credits end and the movie begins, we are thrust right into the action, with a stealthy, well-disguised diamond thief breaking into a museum in a fictional middle eastern country (filmed in Morocco) to steal the Pink Panther diamond. It’s a clever, well-paced scene that pulls you right in, and very soon you’re guffawing at the ridiculous mishaps and bad luck that are the very essence of Paris’ Inspector Clouseau. He’s called upon to catch the thief -- much to the dismay of many who have worked with him and know the havoc he can wreak. (After obliviously wrecking a hotel with his incompetence and endearing buffoonery, he sniffs haughtily, "I must leave. Zis hotel is deteriorating rapidly.")

It’s physical humor, not terribly sophisticated -- pratfalls, knowing looks and Clouseau’s baffling pronunciation of words continually draw laughs -- and the story is blessedly easier to follow than the original movie.

Recommended, but: for kids with the attention spans of gnats, there’s a slight sag in the middle. The PG rating is likely due to a couple of things: there is a scene of Clouseau ogling a lovely lady as she unknowingly disrobes to step into a sauna -- you don’t see anything but it’s a slightly uncomfortable moment for parents; the debonair Sir Charles, a professional but retired (or is he?) jewel thief breaks the fingers (one at a time, in different scenes) of a slippery, untrustworthy snitch. It’s not done in a gruesome or graphic way, but it’s just ... mean, darn it. There is also some language of the times that rankles: Clouseau continually refers to his Asian butler/martial arts sparring partner as having “yellow skin," or as "a yellow skin."

I hope to get around to some of the other PP films eventually, and confess we just watched this one recently since K howls at the previews for the upcoming Steve Martin film. I wanted him to have some background appreciation for the character before seeing a contemporary take on these classic films. Return of the Pink Panther was a hit at our house.

Steve Martin. Hmmm. Well, I can think of worse people to riff on such classic films ...

Here's a rather long trailer, and a Steve Martin trailer after it:

Friday, December 12, 2008

Wall-E Wins Big: Critics' Awards

East and west meet-up: Awards were announced this week for both The Los Angles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Circle, and there are some distinct favorites emerging ... at least with the critic crowd!

The Big News: The LAFCA awarded its Best Picture award to an animated feature, for the first time in its 33-year history! The charming and thought-provoking Wall-E won the title. Can you see an Oscar in the works? I doubt it. But it’s still an utterly amazing win. The LAFCA gave its Best Actor award to Sean Penn for Milk, Best Actress to Sally Hawkins of the delightful Happy-Go-Lucky, and Best Director went to Slumdog Millionaire’s Danny Boyle.
Visit the LAFCA web site here.

The New York Film Critics Circle awarded their highest film prize to Milk, but Wall-E took home the Best Animated Film prize. As did the LAFCA, the NYFCC gave its Best Actor award to Sean Penn, and Best Actress to Sally Hawkins. Mike Leigh won the NYFCC’s Best Director award for Happy-Go-Lucky.
Visit the NYFCC web site here.

The last word on year-end favorites and awards: Roger Ebert has announced his favorite films of 2008, in case you need to know what to catch up on. I love his “screw’em, there are too many good ones to do a Top 10” attitude. Go, Roger. (My only complaint about this time of year: All the powerhouse films come out now, and sometimes they don't all make it here in time for the Academy Awards [or they play for one week and are gone]. It's a surprisingly short time between December and Oscar night when you have to work hard to see everything in time for Oscar martinis!)

We’re happy to note that not only did the truly award-worthy and excellent Wall-e make it to Roger's faves list, but so did Iron Man and Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the Edge of the World.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


For the nominees announced this morning, you can go right to the Golden Globes web site, or take a peek here at some of the main nominees... Right off, I wonder: no Milk or Wrestler for Best Picture (although Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke both have nominations)? Revolutionary Road and The Reader both look good, like two-hanky dramas (which, come to think of it, might not be what I’m most in the mood for these days), and I’m looking forward to Slumdog Millionaire, love Danny Boyle’s work. But... Benjamin Button? Look, like any sane female, I love Brad Pitt (and his work), but that movie hasn’t really been at the top of my must-see list. Hmmm.

(These directors were all nominated as well for Best Director):
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Frost/Nixon (2008)
The Reader (2008)
Revolutionary Road (2008)
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Burn After Reading (2008)
Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)
In Bruges (2008) (Editorial Note: husband D and I loved this film!)
Mamma Mia! (2008)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Leonardo DiCaprio for Revolutionary Road (2008)
Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon (2008)
Sean Penn for Milk (2008)
Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler (2008)

Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married (2008)
Angelina Jolie for Changeling (2008)
Meryl Streep for Doubt (2008)
Kristin Scott Thomas for Il y a longtemps que je t'aime (2008)
Kate Winslet for Revolutionary Road (2008)

BEST ANIMATED FILM - No surprises here!:
Bolt (2008)
Kung Fu Panda (2008)
WALL·E (2008)


If you're like me, you probably hadn't heard of 1996's Alaska until you stumbled on it ... er, somewhere. There were no big names attached when it came out (doh! Except for one: Charlton Heston plays a, um ... well, a gun-totin’, kid-hatin’ poacher!), and I don't remember seeing any sort of promotion or marketing for it. I'm not sure why, as it's a fine piece of entertainment.

K and I watched this recently and it ran longer than I’d planned for; I so wanted to stop the film and get him to bed (it was a school night, and we do keep to our rules around here!), but just couldn’t. Alaska is a real cliffhanger (oooh, I wrote that before I realized the word works literally! No spoilers from me, though. My lips are sealed.).

The gist is this: Family of four living in Chicago becomes family of three when mom meets an early death (this is not dwelled upon, and happens before we join the story). Dad ("Battlestar Galactica"’s Dirk Benedict) decides to leave the rat race and move to Alaska, where he transforms from jet airliner pilot to small bi-plane pilot. He’s accompanied by his unhappy teenage son (Vincent Kartheiser, who went on to TV’s “Angel” and “Madmen”), who hates Alaska and misses the city, and an adventurous tweener daughter (Thora Birch, of Ghost World and American Beauty), who takes to their new life with gusto. Dad’s plane crashes in a storm. Rescue attempts falter, and who traipses off to the rescue? Why, the kids of course!

I think I grabbed K at least three times during the movie, accidentally digging my nails into him as I gasped in fear. I’m a sucker for wild canoe rides in raging waters, sneaky meanie-puss poachers and treacherous hikes on icy mountainsides. This movie has it all, plus (I’m saying it again) truly breathtaking photography... oh, and a really cute orphaned polar bear cub. The special effects and editing are spectacular; really, every white-knuckled scene is so realistic that you’re pulled right in.

Lots of fun. Nothing offensive. Great role for Birch as a strong, fearless girl who leads the way and keeps her head. Nice messaging about courage and inner strength. There are some scary moments for younger kids, and the bad guys who pose a nasty threat might give them pause... I’d say just show it early enough that they follow it up with some other images in their heads before trotting off to bed. Just to be safe.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


I recently came across a short article about a family-friendly documentary making the rounds called Moving Midway. I looked it up on First Run Features, which is a good source for info on docs (linked in my right side column), and it sounds fascinating. Here is the blurb from the filmmaker or distributor:

Godfrey Cheshire's richly observed film about his family's Southern plantation - and the colossal feat of moving it to escape urban sprawl - is a thoughtful and witty look at the lingering remnants and still-powerful mythology of plantation culture and the antebellum South. An award-winning film critic turned filmmaker, Cheshire uses the relocation of his family's North Carolina plantation house to embark on a surprising and multi-layered journey. While observing the elaborate, arcane preparations for moving a centuries-old house over fields and a rock quarry, unexpected human drama - from both the living and the dead - emerges. And a chance encounter leads Cheshire and his cousins to discover a previously unknown African American branch of the family (who have their own take on Midway and its legacy).

Through the use of movies and music, and by turning the camera on himself and his family, Cheshire examines the Southern plantation in American history and culture, and how the racial legacy from the past continues into the present.

It appears to be in limited release now, but a few dates are on the First Run Features site. Watch for it in your nearest venue for independent films (and then when it doesn't come, put it on your rental list!)!

Here's the trailer:

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Random Act .02: Awards News

Random Act of Self Indulgence .02: Year-End Awards News

If you don't follow film as closely as you used to (kids keep a person busy, don’t they?!), here's a movie to watch for (I'm dying over here!), especially if you were ever a Mickey Rourke fan. Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler, starring one bloodied and beaten (literally and figuratively) Mickey Rourke in what's being widely heralded as a mind blowing comeback. Critics are openly admitting to girlish weeping in dark theaters, and an Oscar for Rourke seems more than possible. (Opening Dec. 19th.)

From Variety:

" ... Rourke creates a galvanizing, humorous, deeply moving portrait that instantly takes its place among the great, iconic screen performances."

I'm also ridiculously excited to see Frost/Nixon. I felt like such a dork in a theater recently when the trailer came on, catching me by surprise (I hadn't heard anything about it at that point), and I got all giddy and excited... over the (impeached President) Richard Nixon/David Frost interviews?! You'd think Brad Pitt was in it. But I'm a bit of a sucker for politics sometimes. As a secretly dorky teen, I spent a summer in front of the TV watching the Watergate proceedings unfold. I think my husband may be one of the few who did the same (as I found out years later, of course). I guess that's why we found each other.

New York Times review here.

Here's a round-up of year-end award news, culled mostly from the helpful Awards Daily web site (linked in my right column): (I'll update with Golden Globe nominations on Thursday.)

- Italian mob movie Gomorra was a BIG winner at the European Film Awards on December 6.

- National Board of Review have named Slumdog Millionaire the best film of the year.

- Independent Spirit Awards: Winners to be announced Feb. 21, 2009.
Best Feature Nominations:

Frozen River
Rachel Getting Married

Wendy and Lucy

The Wrestler

- Gotham Independent Awards: Best Feature Film (Winners announced Dec. 2):

Frozen River

The nominees in the category were:

Frozen River


Synecdoche, New York

The Visitor
The Wrestler

- British Independent Film Awards held on Nov. 30 announced: Best Film and Best Director:

Slumdog Millionaire


1964's Zulu stands up today as one of the finest wartime stories told on film.

It chronicles the true story of the British Army's historic 1879 stand at Rorke's Drift in South Africa during the Anglo-Zulu War. At a remote hospital/supply station 140 soldiers discover that they will soon be descended upon by 4000 Zulu warriors. 1,500 British soldiers had recently been massacred by Zulu forces at a nearby station, so the idea of a brigade charging to the rescue did not seem likely.

While it's a colorful spectacle set in an exotic locale -- always irresistible -- it's also an epic story of men finding what they are made of ... of reaching deep down and finding strength they didn't know they had; it's about discipline, heroism, cowardism and conflict. The film keens with suspense as the Zulu march closer and two young lieutenants fight each other to map out a winning battle plan.

Rather than building a war movie on sheer blood and guts, British director Cy Endfield built it on tension, good storytelling and realistic characters. Of course, the film has a level of violence (it's war!), but it lacks the kind of graphic gore you see so much today in both film and video games. It's also surprisingly lacking in the harsh language department.... you pretty much expect guys in the trenches to cuss!
Maybe it was a British thing. These soldiers are, for the most part, darn gentlemanly as they fight for their lives.

Without being a spoiler, I'll just say the ending is one of the more distinct war-story endings seen in film.
Zulu is a must-see classic. It stars a young Michael Caine (his first starring role), has brief narration by Richard Burton, and won a British Film Award for Best Art Direction.

(Parental Duty Note: there is an early scene of a Zulu wedding taking place, and bare-chested women are naturally part of the landscape.)

Interesting footnotes, courtesy Internet Movie Database:

- Because the Zulus who were playing the extras in the film had never seen a movie, one of the actors, Stanley Baker, held an outdoor screening of a Gene Autry movie for them so they would have an idea of what movies were all about.

- Because of the apartheid laws in South Africa at the time, none of the actors who portrayed the Zulu warriors were allowed to attend the premiere of the movie.

- Because of those same apartheid laws, the Zulu extras could not be paid equivalent rates to their white counterparts. To get around this, director Endfield gifted all of the animals bought for this film (particularly cows) to the tribes - a gift far more valuable to them than the money that had been denied them.

Friday, December 5, 2008


If you’re a fan of David Attenborough or, say, the "Planet Earth" series, this one is for you. (Warning: Creationists, this one is not for you.)

Genesis: Where Are We Coming From?
not only answers its own question, with striking grace and elegance, but also addresses the question of our final destination.
The mysterious origins (and end) of life are addressed by African griot, or storyteller, Sotigui Kouyaté, and French filmmakers/writers Claude Nuridsany and Marie Pérennou. From the big bang and the universe’s birth, to the primordial pool and our return to the earth in the end, the cycle of life is told with folkloric vision by our griot, and illustrated by the filmmakers with profoundly vibrant images.

(Note: I’ve read that the griot’s story was written by the filmmakers; which makes it their story, not his. If true, this may explain his use of the word “atom” and a few other concepts that I thought didn’t ring true to an African storyteller. In the long run, the narration is a bit of a downside, as its poetic ruminations will be lost on children, and in the beginning it slows things down.)

The film opens with a classic microscopic view of dancing, squirming spermatozoa, moving about their business to the chaotic and joyful sounds of children on a playground. It’s a charming few seconds, effective in its simplicity and creative expression, and sets the tone for the film.

From the abstract and beautiful shots of lava, moving water and plant life, to the positively ballet-like images of a seahorse mating dance, there is much here to take your breath away. We laughed out loud at legless mudskippers falling out of their mud-cone houses, and slapping each other with affection (one surmises), at a snake devouring an egg 20 times the size of its head, and at pholcid spiders vibrating in their webs. Genesis is a true feast for the eyes.

As I said, the beginning of the film (the first ten minutes or so) may be rather slow for children. Depending on your kids -- their age, patience, and ability to grapple with foggy, philosophical concepts -- you might want to have the fast forward button handy to keep them engaged. You’ll also politely ignore the distracting, dubbed English narration; I’m sure it was done to avoid subtitles interfering with the images on screen.

moves from the beginnings of life to the re-creation of life -- before getting to our final destination -- and the images of creatures “in love,” as Kouyaté puts it, are quite innocent and charming. (There’s nothing as unsightly or as awkward as rhinos mating here.) You may wonder, “Gee, are those toads actually.... in flagrante... as they move around, from land to water to land, or is it an affectionate piggy back ride?” (You can choose which explanation suits your kids.) After love and marriage, of course comes death, and this film, in my opinion, treats the end-of-life concept with a simple, matter-of-fact tone. In one sequence, a ripe, glowing, orange peach lying in grass is shown, in time-lapse photography, returning to the earth (ok, decomposing), and it offers up several opportunities for discussion. (Notice the grass suddenly shooting to new heights as the peach fertilizes the soil, for example.) It’s an evocative sequence.

The storyteller eventually portends doom, claiming, “In the end, life is cannibalistic. Life devours life...” And here, of course, is where we must see nature at its most beastly: creature on creature violence. Compared to a great deal of science and nature film, the images here are not as harsh as they could be; there are no lions gorging on juicy, baby gazelles. Here we get a terrifying ugly anglerfish (this one looks amazingly pretty in comparison), smugly devouring innocent shrimp in the blink of an eye, big toads eating little toads. It’s all lightening fast, and painless (well, from where we sit!).

If you watch Genesis, use the biggest screen in your house. Don’t even attempt this on a laptop; you’ll be robbing yourselves of the real thrill of it all.

Genesis won the Grand Prix des Amériques at the Montreal Film Festival in 2004. The directors' other film of note, and one I also recommend, Microcosmos, took the Technical Grand Prize at Cannes (1996), and won Cesar Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Film (1997). Trailers for both below, though I could only find the French language trailer for Microcosmos.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Netflix and Macs: Update

Today we got an email from Netflix: .

Good news Mac users! Now you can watch movies (some new releases)
& TV episodes (including current season) instantly on your Mac. Watch as much as you want, as often as you want.

Unfortunately, my clicking on the links in the email takes me to the page saying that because I'm not on a PC, I can't watch instantly. I have no idea why. I logged out of NF and logged back in. D says he can get in on his Mac; we're both using MacBook Pros.

Maybe they're still working on it... maybe i'm an OS behind ... maybe we'll get it figured out. But it's very good news, and I have faith!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


You may know this book by Lena Anderson and Christina Bjork (I didn’t), but if not, it’s a charming story of a young girl who is enamored of Claude Monet’s garden paintings after learning about them from her elderly neighbor, Mr. Bloom, and his picture books. It’s a short animated movie, only about 30 minutes, and it’s a gentle and sweet story that could well serve as an introduction to art for younger kids. Watching Linnea make the connection between what she sees first in books, and then the museum, and then in real life, visiting the artist’s garden and home, keeps the idea simple and easy to grasp.

The animation is beautiful, with a magical weaving of Monet paintings and old photographs into the lovely art by Anderson, and the quiet tone and easy pace reminds me of the feel of "Little Bear" cartoons, which always seemed so soothing and calming. K is too old for this now, but I would imagine that even as a super-wired little boy, he would have been captivated and enjoyed the story.

If you’re lucky enough to be planning a trip to Paris in the future, with kids, this is also a wonderful way to introduce them to the world’s most divine city. The depiction of Linnea’s and Mr. Bloom’s hotel in Paris, with its creaky old staircase and the rooms’ tall windows, opening out onto a tiny balcony, makes clear the difference between, say, a Disneyland hotel and a two-hundred year old building on a cobblestone street in Paris.

This little film might have you calling a travel agent the minute it’s over. Who needs a college fund, anyway? There’s always the Lotto.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Streaming from Netflix

Before I get back to film reviewing, I need to help you decide on that gaming system you’re contemplating for Christmas.

I do this with the disclaimer that I know nothing about gaming. Or the systems. Or the games. Or, uh, gaming.

This is what I do know: if you use Netflix you can instantly stream movies to your PC. But not a Mac. Uh-uh. No Macs. Dumb. (UPDATE: You can now stream to your Mac! However, we've not had the best quality doing this, so try at your own risk. I'll write another post on this later.) Then you can view on your PC, but not your television, unless you're computer savvy and figured out how to transfer the movie to your TV from your computer ... Sounded clunky and confusing to me.

For direct-to-your-television Netflix service, cutting out the computer altogether, you can buy a box that will allow you to stream instantly from Netflix. It’s called the Roku, and gets high marks from Wired Magazine, and runs about $100.

But two things to consider: one, if you’ve got a television, a DVD player, a gaming system, speakers, or any other gear near your tv, it’s getting a bit crowded there in your “entertainment console” area, doncha think? You’re going to add another box? Hmm. And two, well, the Roku runs a hundred bucks. We don’t have that right now, between Christmas and heating oil bills and decent wine (we have priorities). So, we’ve been in limbo for a while on this point.

We’ve had an Xbox 360 for a year (it’s all Greek to me, except for the new addition of "Ms. Pacman" that was offered as part of the cool upgrade I’m about to fill you in on), and a week or two ago we got an email (as registered users) telling us about an upgrade that had just happened -- we didn’t do a thing; it was like magic. Not only were new games available, but some new features arrived with it, and the only one that wasn’t Greek to me was the “Stream movies instantly from Netflix” feature. I just about spit out my Trio Vitners 2006 Zinfandel!

On Thanksgiving night, we found ourselves without a family friendly movie in the house, and our one decent video store (a very good store, actually, though not exactly in our own town) was closed. So we got this thing set up in about five minutes, and we were off to the races. It worked like a charm. (Note: You need only a Netflix account, and an Xbox Live Gold membership. There is no extra charge per movie as long as you have a Netflix account.)

(We watched Forbidden Planet, from 1956, and I can’t say I recommend it. It’s a bit too chatty for most kids, and there was a theme running throughout about a chaste young woman who’d never seen such robust [and female deprived] young men as those who landed on her planet. There was also a drunk crewman who got himself into a bit of a pickle more than once. You can pass, although K and D gave it a thumbs up.)

One caveat: When you keep a list of films in Netflix, you’ll see some titles marked “play” in your queue, meaning they are available for instant play, or streaming. These show up as your “instant queue” on the TV screen when choosing a movie, using your Xbox controller (your eight-year-old will have to show you how to do this). So there is your family queue, “instant play” wise, for all the family to see. Your list is presented with cover art, not titles. Cover art. All of them. So, let’s say you have a penchant, for ... oh, movies of the Saw variety... or perhaps midnight movies like Killer Nuns, or Lady in a Cage ... and those are available for instant viewing. Your kids will get an eyeful. And probably say, “What is that?” To which you can quickly reply, “Oh those aren’t OURS...” until you figure out how to keep track of those separately.

You can thank me later.

Another slight drawback is that there aren't a ton of films offered for Xbox streaming at this point, but that's sure to change. There was also an apparent licensing conflict with Sony films in particular, which resulted in many Netflix "instant watch" films not being available for Xbox streaming (a different licensing issue). According to a recent CNET report, some of those films have returned and the issue is being resolved.

I can't say with any certainty if this feature will be available with the PlayStation. I tried to find something solid on it, but failed. If you know, please let us know! And if "HD" is something that gets you all giddy, this new feature also streams in HD.

So, if you are contemplating a gaming system this year, and leaning towards the Xbox 360 (of course, the Wii is probably the one I SHOULD recommend, as it would get us all off the couch!), we say go for it.

Plus you can impress your kids with your serious "Ms. Pacman" skillz. "Call of Duty" ain't no thang.

UPDATE: Here's a good article from a tech site called All Things Digital regarding your current options for Netflix streaming.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Holiday Weekend Movies

Ok, if you’ve gotten through the endless cooking and/or washing of dishes (one or the other and not both, I hope), and the drama of relatives and "orphan" friends who throw back a bit too much Prosecco, maybe you’re looking for some quality movie time with the kids .... something that will have a feel-good ending, or that feels special or spectacular and that won’t remind you of the holiday madness ahead (it’s too early for Miracle on 34th Street or It’s a Wonderful Life).

Here are a few titles you might not have time to come up with yourself as you’re running out the door, planning a stop at the local DVD shop (films with asterisks are on my list to write more about later):


- Wizard of Oz
- The King and I
- The Sound of Music
- Lawrence of Arabia
- The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
- Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
- E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
- King Kong (1933)
- *How the West Was Won (an epic western, rated G, 1962)


- *It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963 caper comedy)
- Princess Bride (you know it, you love it)
- *Bringing Up Baby (1938) screwball comedy with Cary Grant and K. Hepburn)
- Charlie Chaplin’s Goldrush
- March of the Penguins
- *Arctic Tale
- *Akeelah and the Bee
- *Yours, Mine and Ours (1968)
- *Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup or Animal Crackers -- for slightly older kids
- *Laurel and Hardy (any! K has loved all of them; March of the Wooden Soldiers is one of my favorites)
- *The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine
- Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films

Ok, have a lovely, long weekend. And remember, everything in moderation -- including family time -- will keep you sane.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A New Look

As we settle into some seriously wintry conditions here, I felt like I needed a change: brighter, cheerier colors, and popcorn, instead of a grumpy K standing in a snowbank at the beach. What do we think?

Let's live with it a while, shall we?

K was home sick for a few days recently, and amused himself with a couple of the Star Wars movies. D and I watched the first Star Wars film from 1977, in March of '97 (er, at the Castro Theater, not to flog a horse or anything) while we awaited the arrival of K to the world. I was two weeks late and crabbily impatient and frustrated and we did all kinds of things to pass the time. Anyway, I remember thinking it seemed sort of silly, the movie, but also realized Star Wars just really isn't for me. But Keegan has been loving them, seeing them the first time around now at age 11, and they've been handy to pick up at our nearby DVD chain store that doesn't carry much of anything.

So, as we head into Thanksgiving, I give thanks to the Star Wars franchise; I give thanks to people who make intelligent movies for kids that parents can sit through; I give thanks to Netflix, a pretty great development in modern civilization (ok, if we can just get the Netflix download feature to work with K's X-Box 360, we'll be really happy), and I give thanks for Werner Herzog, again (we just watched Cobra Verde the other night).

Happy Thanksgiving, film friends.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Random Act of Self Indulgence .01

Welcome to the inaugural Random Act of Self Indulgence on KidsFlix.

Sometimes I feel a bit public-servicey, warning you (the parent) about what to be wary of in ‘50s sci-fi movies, or touting the rewards of having kids watch silent films or foreign films. That’s all well and good, but sometimes I want to just talk film ... er, grown-up film.
Once a week, I’ll open up a thread with a random topic, related (sometimes vaguely, I’m sure!) to movies, kids’ or otherwise. I won't compete with pros out there; rather just share a tidbit or opinion. Cocktail chatter, as the say on the Slate "Political Gabfest" podcast I'm addicted to (even post-election).

For my first R.A.S.I. post, I’ve got a couple of things to throw out there: One, I saw Mike Leigh’s "Happy Go Lucky" over the weekend. I liked it a great deal (more as time goes on; hmmm), but didn’t love it (you know, not the kind that earns both bold AND italic) as much as I’d thought I might from the reviews. But don’t get me wrong, I liked it as much as I’ve liked (or -- non-bold/italic -- loved) many of his films. The characters, as usual, were fully fleshed out, exceedingly human and empathetic; the dialog and acting superbly natural. I suppose my guarded response to the film stems from the fact that I’m not 100% sure what I was supposed to think/feel at the end. (Warning: quasi-spoiler alert ahead:) Did we learn something disappointing and slightly disturbing about Poppy? Or was the rant from the lunatic driving instructor pure B.S.? Ok, does it matter either way? I’m just not sure. Anyway, I’ve loved so much of his work, it was great fun to have him back!

Here’s the trailer for "Happy Go Lucky":

Second, D and I are both looking forward – impatiently so – to seeing "Milk." Being from San Francisco, and having lived in the Castro District for many years, I think we both feel somehow connected to the story. That was our 'hood! The shots of the Castro Theater in the trailers is enough to make us feel deeply nostalgic ... we lived just blocks from the theater and went there weekly, it seems. One Christmas afternoon (pre-parenthood), we saw a double feature at the Castro of "Deliverance" and "The Exorcist." Yeah, we were so cutting edge.

(One more bit I can't resist: When we left, in 2002, K was five years old and we found out that the school he would have attended was the Harvey Milk Academy, a very progressive enclave of liberalism in the Castro. But we were on our way to Maine...)

I also feel connected due to having grown up in the (east) Bay Area, and I remember the horrible events of November 1978, even as a self-absorbed teenager in the ‘burbs. Actually, you’d have to have been about 110% clueless to miss the murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, and the subsequent trial and “White Night” riots when Dan White was convicted of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder. The Bay Area was already in a state of shock and mourning over the deaths of 909 people in Jonestown, Guyana, when the assassinations occurred. It was a crazy, depressing time in the SF-Bay Area.

If you’ve seen "Milk", or have any strong thoughts on the movie -- especially if you have connections to the Bay Area -- give me a shout here. It will tide me over until it comes to Maine, and I confess I'm slightly concerned that it may not make it. A surprising number of films seem to pass us by here.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Ok, let’s make it clear right off that I have nothing against the 2008 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring Brendan Fraser, who does a reasonable job of playing a likeable and somewhat hapless (doesn’t Fraser always play hapless?) professor who strikes out on an adventure to you–know-where. In fact, I was pretty impressed, not with the effects (which look fairly cheesy sometimes, especially the rafting scene; the visuals brought me back to the original 1959 film adaptation, in the best way possible... I was grinning ear to ear!), but with the success of an adventurous, fun movie made with zero barroom cussing or thinly veiled sexual humor, zero grotesque imagery or overstated peril, and it worked not only for kids, but for the adult in tow. Why doesn’t Hollywood make more of these movies? I’m thinking the film did well enough to signal that more PG-rated fare along these lines is in high demand. Am I wrong?

Good on ya, Hollywood. Now get back to work making more of these.

(Note: we didn’t see it in 3-D, either, because we live in a culturally bereft hollow in the deep woods of Maine [uh, ok, sorry, you know that’s not true; but our theater was unable for some reason to provide us with the 3-D buzz, unfortunately], and we still had a mining car-load of thrills and laughs.)

About a year before I took K to see this contemporary interpretation, we had a movie night and watched the original, 1959 version at home. I think the details were sketchy in K’s memory. When I asked him to compare the two he couldn’t really do it. But he did enjoy the original – I’m guessing he had just turned 10, but might have been 9 at the time – and this movie is further proof of the ability kids today have to get into these older films, even without fancy CGI trickery or 3-D. Don’t think they won’t like ‘em. I’m here to tell you otherwise.

The original, starring James Mason once again (he starred in our other Jules Verne adventure below, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) as our intrepid professor turned explorer, and a fairly hunky-looking, occasionally shirtless Pat Boone, was mind-blowingly inventive in depicting the trip to the center of the earth. The descent of our hero and his gang, via a volcano in Iceland, was filmed on location in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, lending a fairly realistic feel to the whole endeavor; the scenery and sets are nothing to scoff at. (I believe there were three Oscar nominations in the “art” and “effects” categories.) The dinosaurs (lizards with fins glued on!) rock, and other stars like the traitorous villain, the seriously weird plant life, and the spectacle of an inner sea are enough to keep the imagination engaged for a good long time.

Both Journey and 20,000 are real classics that every kid should see. No doubt they inspired movies like the Indiana Jones franchise (there’s even a white-knuckled runaway boulder scene in Journey, just like there was in Raiders of the Lost Ark), and your kids will appreciate learning a bit of film history – someday.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Captain Nemo: The natives over there are cannibals. They eat liars with the same enthusiasm as they eat honest men.

Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was a very successful (and Academy Award winning) Disney film in the 1950s, and today it’s still exciting, thought provoking and beautiful to look at. Even though there is a giant attacking squid, cannibals, sharks and – gasp! – fisticuffs, it’s pretty safe to say most kids, toughened up by today’s much more realistic and intense filmmaking styles, won’t be bothered by much in this futuristic, sci-fi adventure ... most will probably love it! Starring James Mason (as the tragic, despotic Captain Nemo), Kirk Douglas, and Peter Lorre, 20,000 Leagues won Oscars for Special Effects and Art Direction and stands as a truly classic film.

Set in the late 1800’s (which is when Verne wrote it, of course), the story is full of fantastic, far-reaching possibility (including the idea of atomic energy), and it examines how how those among us might deal with the kind of “progress” that leads more to our own self-destruction than to building a better world. (Verne seemed a bit of a Victorian activist, come to think of it!) Verne’s anti-hero, the cultured and erudite Captain Nemo, sees a world heading toward doom, war and more war, and – not terribly far from today’s eco-terrorists – he begins a crusade of his own to stop the madness. Unfortunately, the latter gets a hold of him first.

One major star of the film is the beautifully imaginative submarine-vessel that Nemo creates and uses in his crusade, the Nautilus. (The U.S. Navy named its first atomic sub, launched in 1954, the Nautilus. Several previous Navy vessels had bore the name as well, but it’s thought there is a tacit nod to the novel in naming the first atomic powered sub the Nautilus, on the heels of the film’s release.) The vessel is a technological wonder, filled with art and music and high culture ... even though it’s a killing machine. The other star is the giant squid that attacks the vessel and crew in one memorable scene, an extraordinary accomplishment in special effects at the time. It’s really a great scene, and many people who haven’t seen the film in years recall that moment more than any other.

You might need two bowls of popcorn for this one.

Next: Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth

Saturday, November 8, 2008


Released in the U.S. in 2008 (2006 in Canada), Sharkwater is not, as one might think, a pretty documentary about sharks, but rather a passionate, powerful telling of a true horror story unfolding in our ocean waters. Few people know the details, and even fewer people are doing anything about it.

Sharkwater director Rob Stewart is one of the latter, a scientist and filmmaker who stumbled onto the disturbing and species-threatening industry of “shark finning,” taking place in various shark hot-spots around the world. We’ve all heard bits and pieces of the story, and are perhaps vaguely familiar with the global uptick in shark fin soup consumption, but did you know that the “finning” industry is detestable, corrupt and dangerous? Do you know that more than 100 million sharks are killed each year, and that sharks are a “keystone species,” meaning they are essential to marine ecosystems as predators? And did you know that only 5-10 people on average are killed per year by sharks? In convincing us of the innocence and lovability of sharks of all kinds, Stewart glibly claims more people are killed each year by soda vending machines. (This made us giggle, and I promised to look it up later.)*

Stewart and associate Paul Watson of the renegade Sea Shepherd Conservation Society get into a bit of a tangle with both poachers and the law (who, it turns out, are on the take) in Costa Rica’s Cocos Islands, and Stewart manages to film not only their dangerous attempts to restrain the poaching vessel, but their own subsequent arrest as well. From there, things just go downhill; Stewart contracts a “skin eating” bacteria, and fights for his life in a hospital, all the while wondering how he can get back to the secret fishing docks he’s discovered in order to continue his filming. He lies in a hospital bed, antibiotics dripping into his besieged body, worrying about dwindling shark numbers, and about how the woefully misunderstood shark has gone from predator to prey at a stunning pace.

The film starts out in a much more genteel way, with lovely visuals of sharks and other bizarre and beautiful sea creatures (not to be lost in all the “messaging” of the film is the fact that Stewart is a very talented cinematographer). His lifelong fascination and adoration of sharks spurred K and I to laugh at one point, and say, “Ok, we get it: he wants to BE a shark!” In one early underwater scene, he’s holding a shark and petting it, while a few others swim around him. Stewart’s behavior evoked more than one memory of the tragic life of Grizzly Man, but I shooed the images away before they could become too vivid in my head. It’s this unfathomable empathy and compassion for the creatures that drives him to saving them, that keeps his focus steady and unshakable. Sharkwater is in many ways tremendously inspirational and moving, but the spark of passion in Stewart is one of the most touching aspects of the film.

There is some good news at the end of the film. Just when you think all may be lost, you feel some faith being restored to the “system,” to international law, and to humanity in general; you feel motivated to get behind this or some other cause, to spend your life doing something more important than bringing home a paycheck. That’s a sign of a job well done. From the kid’s perspective, well, the battle with the poachers and the increasing tension around that whole segment prompted K to say at one point, “Wow, this is such a good movie!” (I have to interject here that K was lucky enough to actually go shark diving in Hawaii a few years ago, in one of those cages that allow tourists and amateurs to get surprisingly close to the sharks. He, like many boys, has a shark fixation of his own, which is one reason we rented the movie, and I think he was pretty horrified at what was going on. It wasn’t exactly what we expected.)

But here’s the caveat: there is brutal cruelty in this movie, and it often comes without warning. Poachers swiftly cut the fins off living, breathing sharks and throw them back in the water, where they sink and die a slow death or are eaten alive. It ain’t pretty. If you think you and your kids are up for this, I say thumbs up with one particular warning: about half way in, where the dangers of “long line fishing” are being discussed (many sea creatures are killed as collateral damage using this method), there’s a bucolic scene of a sea turtle swimming along in his habitat. It suddenly cuts to an image of another turtle, caught up in fishing line, and the camera follows it from under the water to the deck of a boat, where it is quickly killed in a most vile manner. Watch for the scene, then hit “PAUSE” when you see the turtle in fishing line, and declare a break to your viewers, fast-forwarding when the kids run off for a snack or the bathroom. They really don’t need to see it. At any age.

You can visit a web site set up by the filmmaker, and help the good fight by making a donation, or by becoming involved in other ways. Yeah.

*A search online for this fact was fruitless, except for an page that cited research showing that, “in 1995, for example — the most recent year for which I was able to find an accounting of deaths due to vending machine tipovers — two people died as a result of being crushed by falling soda machines in the U.S., as compared to zero shark-related deaths in the same twelve-month period.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A New Day (politics)

Cake by K.

Monday, November 3, 2008


Not only did I not get to as many Halloween movies as I would have liked, but I haven’t been doing much at all in the way of film writing for KidsFlix, as I’ve been a bit distracted with the election. My volunteering time has cut a bit into my other writing, that which pays the bills, and so the blog has taken a back seat.

But today, before I run off to another phone bank fest, I thought I’d whip out a quick write-up on a movie I was reminded about the other day... it’s about fighting the odds, and surviving in the face of deep adversity. It’s also about people from vastly different cultures coming together, learning from each other, and helping each other.

I’m hoping it’s a reflection of the outcome of November 4, let’s be honest.

Anyway, the movie is Canadian, and it’s called The Snow Walker (2003). I’ve mentioned it to a surprising number of parents who don’t know it, and am delighted to recommend it here. (If you live in cold, snowy winter climates, get it now before the last thing you want on your TV screen is more snow!)

This is a beautiful, lush, mature film, based on the short story "Walk Well, My Brother" by Farley Mowat. It stars native Inuit, a sprinkling of Canadian actors (the only “known” name in the cast is American actor James Cromwell), and of course incredibly gorgeous landscapes and cinematography.

Lead actress Annabella Piugattuk, an Inuit with very little acting experience, was cast in the role partially due to her knowledge of traditional culture, such as hunting and survival techniques, and to her fluency in both English and Inuit. She is fantastic as the ailing villager who survives a crash landing in a small plane, along with the hothead pilot (Barry Pepper), who has agreed to take the sick girl to a nearby hospital. He’s a supplies pilot, flying around the high arctic, delivering food and other necessities to people in remote places, but he doesn’t know much about what it takes to actually survive out there on the icy tundra.

To the director’s credit, neither character is cartoonishly stereotyped; they are human, armed with all the traits that both help us and hurt us as we make our way through life, learning as we go. The struggle for survival is told with humor, compassion and suspense, and it makes for very successful cinematic escape.

It has a strong PG-rating, meaning there is unappealing adult behavior (racism, booze), harsh language, some blood and gore (skinning animals, finding dead bodies), and is not for younger kids. I believe K was about nine when we watched, and it was fine, but I felt it was right on the cusp of being too much for him. I might also add here that the film starts off just a tad slow, especially for the kiddies who are used to fast-moving animation and things exploding every 30 seconds on the screen... but it quickly becomes very engrossing, very entertaining and very, very satisfying.