Friday, August 29, 2008


Ok, I don't intend to write about current movies that are in wide release, but K took me to see this movie the other day, and I was fairly impressed. I was also a little mystified as to why The Longshots seems to be getting zero marketing muscle, and so thought I'd write a brief recommendation. I have a feeling it will be out on DVD soon.

The good stuff:

1. It's based on a true story, the first girl to play middle-school level Pop Warner football (like Little League, I believe).

2. It's set in a moderately bleak setting, and stays there. There is no magical transformation of the rundown town, or any of its slightly worn denizens. There is no fairy tale ending. I like this because that's true to life, and rare in kids' movies.

3. The acting is lowkey and believable. I was surprised to read one review in a daily paper that said it was "over acted!" Did they see the same film we saw? The actress playing Jasmine Plummer is Keke Palmer, the charming young actress who starred in Akeelah and the Bee, another HUGE thumbs up movie here at Kids Flix. The other key role is played by Ice Cube, and his sort of taciturn, reluctant acceptance of the fate of his town, and his life, is played with admirable quiet.

4. It has, of course, a good message for kids. Actually, it has several messages. The movie examines budding sexism in young people; it portrays a racially integrated town and school, with everyone suffering the same pain of the shuttered factory and loss of jobs; themes of personal courage, surviving hardship, and the pursuit of dreams are addressed without melodrama or overstatement.

5. Rated PG, with just a few naughty words here and there.

6. Surprisingly strong effort by a first-time director (Fred Durst, a founder of the lame Limp Bizkit).

All good stuff, no? So why is this only playing in two theaters in ... a 50 mile radius of our house? And why haven't I seen more than one commercial on TV for it? Why haven't I heard anyone say something like, "Gee, they need to make more movies like this for kids!"

Look, it's worth your money and a bucket of popcorn. Go see it.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Today's Netflix Queue

Our four current titles, in-house and on the way:

The Crawling Eye (1958) D says this is one we will watch with K. I'll write more later about the '50s horror genre and what has worked and what hasn't... we did goof and start these a bit early with K, who suffered bad dreams after seeing Them (1954; black and white; giant ants and a bit of camp... we thought it would be fine!) when he was about eight. Yeah, naughty us.

The Kiss of Death (1947) Richard Widmark; film noir. Hmm. We're not sure if we'll try this one with K or not. Probably not. Or maybe we will.

Rooster Cogburn (1975) John Wayne; this is a sequel to True Grit, which K and watched last year. Finding appropriate, old-fashioned westerns for the kiddies is not that easy with all the whiskey-fueled mayhem and murder, and ladies of questionable repute outsmarting good guys and bad guys alike. But True Grit was great fun. K and I will watch it, while D watches Bloodbath in Dodge or something.

Cache (2005) French; Juliet Binoche. A thriller for mom and dad that's been on our list for a while.

Sunday, August 24, 2008



We read the book “My Side of the Mountain,” written in 1959 by Jean Craighead George, when K was six or seven years old. He re-read it on his own a few years later; in fact, he read the other two in the trilogy, “On the Far Side of the Mountain” and “Frightful's Mountain,” as well. I often think the book is partly to credit (or blame) for the first wave of his obsession with building forts (to “live in”) and lighting fires with flint and steel. He actually asked one day, when he was nine or ten, if we could all go on a hike somewhere in a nearby forest, and then just let him go off on his own, with his compass, his knife and flint. He had some hare-brained idea about how we would all meet up at the end of the day.

I laughed and laughed. He stormed off. Probably lit a fire somewhere I don’t want to know about.

(Before I forget, the Discovery channel shows “Survivor Man” and “Man vs. Wild” are to credit/blame with the second wave of K’s survivor fascination. If you have younger kids, and perhaps especially boys, you need to know that once they start watching these shows they honestly think that with a couple of handy tools in their pocket and the vivid memory of Bear Grylls eating the raw testicles of a camel that’s been dead for a day or two that they can survive anywhere on their own. And they will beg you to try.)

(I guess we missed a boat of sorts by not signing up for Boy Scouts. But we have issues there. So.)

“My Side of the Mountain” is the story of a 12-year-old boy named Sam who decides to trek off on his own to the wilderness after the family camping vacation is cancelled. He’s extremely bright and resourceful, unreasonably rational for his age (truly), and feels the need to prove he can do everything on his own. “That was part of it,” he narrates, “to see if I could do it all on my own.” He’s also a bit obsessed with Thoreau, and the concept of learning about nature by being one with it.

We rented this film with full anticipation of loving it, but, sadly, I’m here to tell you it moves as slow as sap running from a maple, and for some reason, it just did not hold K’s interest as much as I’d expected. We broke it up into three – three – viewings, which is unheard of in our house. (You just don’t interrupt movies!)

The acting is a bit bland in that 1960s way – in fact, the tone sometimes reminded me of “Leave it to Beaver” – and as charming as the boy star (Ted Eccles) and his little homestead in the woods was, something was missing. (No, not special effects!) The scenes where he trained his falcon chick Frightful to grow into a killing machine in order to bring home some bacon were pretty well done; I found myself wondering how long it took the actor to get comfortable with the bird and his pet raccoon, Gus, and the whole animal training process. The scenery is gorgeous (it was filmed in Canada) and the long cold winter is depicted with realistic harshness.

Still, I barely got K to finish the thing, and that’s saying something. It’s hard to think of movies he’s never finished, or didn’t want to finish.

I give My Side of the Mountain a slightly reluctant thumbs up. It’s earned lots of rave reviews from families and kids on film web sites, and I can’t ignore that. Perhaps if we’d rented this back when the books were exciting our son, we’d have fared better. It might be a simple age thing, too; the quiet tone and slower pace of the film may better speak to younger viewers.

If your kids are totally into the whole living-off-the-land adventure, and have enough patience to, say, actually tie their shoe properly or sit through an entire dinner without getting up seven times (two very arbitrary measures of a childs’ focus and tenacity, I know), you might give it a try.

And if you and your kids haven’t read this classic novel, put it on your list!

Caveat for ultra-sensitive kids who may really be into the book and therefore have a deeper attachment to these characters (hey, I’m trying to provide a service here): The film deviates from the book at several points, but one slightly disturbing creation was that Sam’s beloved Frightful meets his maker in a sudden, brief and violent moment. Honestly, what purpose did that serve in the film? None that we can think of.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

JACKIE CHAN's Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (PG)

Who doesn’t love Jackie Chan?

He is, of course, a master at martial arts and incredibly complicated choreography, but he’s also got an unusual, little-boy charm and a disarming sense of humor that puts him in a league of his own. While the appetite for 1970s Bruce Lee and “kung fu” movies in general was on the wane, Jackie Chan was sort of sneaking up on us, making fun and funny films that were major hits in Asia, and popular on the midnight movie circuit in American cities.

I have a bizarre memory of seeing Chan live at the San Francisco Film Festival one year, I think in the late ‘80s, when a good friend of mine was involved in programming for the festival and brought Jackie Chan to San Francisco.
Anyway, the funny thing about this memory is that I’m not sure it’s real or imagined. It’s very curious. I know that Chan was there in person, and spoke before or after a screening. The part I’m not sure I have right is that I think he either wowed everyone with a series of gymnastic-kung-fu moves involving flips and cartwheels down the center of the theater to get to the stage, OR he flipped off the balcony of the beautiful old Castro Theater and landed gracefully on both feet, then walked to center stage.

Neither of those “memories” may be real.

It may be that Jackie Chan simply walked, like a normal person, to the stage, either from behind it, or from somewhere in the audience. But my perception of him at the time was such that my furry little pea brain immediately projected all kinds of fantastic stuff into his appearance, and that’s how I remember him getting to the stage.

I drank a lot of beer back in my 20s.

This brings us to one of Chan’s very early movies that I’m pretty sure will thrill most kids: Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978). First off, let me say this film has no MPAA rating, but I feel like it would fall somewhere in the PG range... I looked around online for some guidance (other reviews, etc.) and feel pretty comfortable with that conclusion. I am pressed to think of any scenes that are really violent or scary or inappropriate, and asked both D and K to think on it, too.

Chan made mostly PG-13 and R rated films in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and many of the '70s films are unrated; so finding one for the younger kids is difficult. Some of these films have incredibly muddled plots (but who really cares when you’re watching a bunch of martial arts dudes execute an extremely precise acrobatic ballet and you’re busy rooting for the bad guys to get their comeuppance?). Snake has a very simple plot, it’s hard to get lost in it, and the action is of course superb. There are those who may have issues with the dubbing or the lack of special effects or sharp editing or Dolby sound. That’s ok. Just ignore them.

So the plot is basically that Chan, a janitor at a martial arts school, befriends an old beggar who turns out to be the last master of the powerful Snake Fist style of kung fu (in the real world, one of several Chinese martial arts known as Snake Boxing or Snake Style, which imitates the movement of snakes). The old master is in hiding from the Eagle Claw* Clan, who want either to extinguish or to own the Snake Fist ways themselves. Chan becomes a student of the old master, and, well, you can pretty much guess the rest: some fantastic fight scenes lead to a hugely entertaining showdown.

Chan is lovable and funny in this film and pulls off so many amazing physical feats you start to take them for granted after a while. There are clear themes of honesty, responsibility, loyalty and the reward of hard work; I like to think that it outweighs any concerns you may have about the violence, which isn’t all that intense. There is a little bit of language, nothing too harsh (or that kids haven’t heard in school by the third grade).
All in all, we were very comfortable watching this with K when he was in the third or fourth grade himself, and he really enjoyed it.

This was directed by Yuen Woo-ping, who later choreographed the action scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Matrix; and Kill Bill. So there you go.

Other early, classic Jackie Chan films:

The film that followed Snake was Drunken Master (1978), a movie fans like a great deal but which did get a PG-13 rating at some point (also directed by Yuen Woo-ping; both movies catapulted Chan to stardom). Another good one (allegedly) is The Young Master (1980), which also earned a PG-13 rating. Rent at your own risk.

(I’ll only recommend PG-13 movies if I’ve seen them myself. It’s surprising what they can do with this rating, but then again, these movies are targeted for a 13 and older crowd. It’s sometimes hard to remember that during a long summer with only a handful of decent PG and G releases ... suddenly you find you and your 11-year-old son in the theater seeing Iron Man. Which we loved. Not like Transformers, which we rented and I kind of came to hate. I’ll post a rant soon about our experience with Transformers. For now, I say, just don’t rent it if you have kids under 13.)

(Yeah, gee, wouldn’t you think a 10 or 11-year-old is the perfect demographic for a movie about Transformers?! How many paying moviegoers did they cut out of the bottom line to give it a PG-13 rating?)

(Ok, re-reading this, I'm thinking that you might think, well, what a lame mom, of COURSE PG-13 movies are going to be a bit... much for an 11-year old. But as you probably know yourself, there is enormous pressure to see these movies from your kids' friends and the media, and sometimes it just seems like there is not enough in the PG range. The Italian Job, the Spiderman series, and Iron Man are great examples of good, action-packed and smart PG-13 films that have little or no real objectionable material for kids just under 13. There may be an intensity that earns these films a PG-13 rating, but that's ok compared to some of the garbage that slips into other films like Transformers. It's nothing most kids haven't seen in an X-box game.)

Back to Jackie Chan: I’ll wrap up here with a plug for 2004’s Around the World in 80 Days, which has a nice, friendly PG rating and was quite good. It may not be on your radar because I don’t think it did that well in the theaters; but it makes for a fine Saturday evening at home with margaritas – uh, I mean root beer – and popcorn.

* Along with the long strikes and kicks that typify Northern systems, the Eagle Claw system is distinguished by its gripping techniques and system of joint locks, takedowns, and pressure point strikes, which represent one of the oldest forms of the Chinese grappling known as Chin Na. – Wikipedia

Sunday, August 10, 2008



This utterly charming British film (complete with fairly frothy accents) follows the adventures of young brothers Damian (Alex Etel, also starring in 2007’s The Waterhorse) and Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), who find a bag of British money, just days before the U.K. will be switching from the pound to the Euro. The money was stolen en route to being destroyed, and Damian and Anthony can scarcely believe their luck. Did they find the money, or was it sent from God, as Damian believes, to enable him to do saintly tasks on earth? Anthony just wants to spend the money in a way that might benefit him most, happily guilt-free.

Of course, the big question – what to do with the money – creates a number of practical and moral dilemmas for the boys. Directed by Danny Boyle, who did the superb zombie-horror flick 28 Days, this film has heart, a touch of magic, and succeeds in asking the question, “What makes us ‘good’?” Rated PG for some scary moments with the bad guys, brief and very mild sexual humor.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys in Sudan (2006)

This stunning documentary about a group of young Sudanese men who were par
t of the tragic Lost Boys exodus in Africa may be too intense for some kids, but may be fine for others. You’ll have to make the call. Our 11-year-old wrapped things up by asking where we could help refugees get settled here in our own state. I was busy snuffling and trying to hold in an avalanche of tears, so mumbled something like, “Oh, I’ll find out.” In truth, there is a surprisingly large community of African immigrants in the state of Maine, and finding an organization in need of volunteer services probably wouldn’t be too hard.

I’ll get on that.

I have to confess, I was touched that Keegan asked this question, and his response to the movie helped me give it a “success” rating here, even though it was touch-and-go for a while. There’s a
bit of sag in the middle (from a kid’s POV), and the beginning of the film had me holding my breath; I didn’t expect there to be such graphic telling of the horrors of the civil war in Sudan, and the brutality that has become a part of life there. There are brief film clips of starving boys and skeletal young men on the endless march to promised safety; a brief mention of rape along with other violent acts; and a general bleak feeling pervades for a short span.

Blessedly, it soon morphs into the story of three young men – John Bul Dau, Daniel Abol Pach, and Panther Bior – and their own journeys and transformation. (The philosophical and charming John Bul Dau, who was “captain” of a group of boys in his refugee camp, has become a leading light in the Sudanese community here in the U.S.) Their wide smiles and spirited hopefulness
are pure magic, even as a certain naivety threatens to pull the rug out from under them (you can almost hear relief in John’s voice as he finds New York on a map: “Oh, it is very tiny!”). Their fear and uncertainty is also palpable. Leaving the refugee camp they’ve called home for many years is difficult and frightening, but not as frightening as not leaving.

While the humorous moments are plenty (perplexed by airplane food, they eat the margarine straight from the plastic container; a flushing toilet and electricity astonishes and delights; how, they wonder, does this Santa guy figure into the birth of Christ?), the filmmakers avoid cheapening those moments by overplaying them and by contrasting them with several poignant scenes where the hard reality of life in America becomes painfully apparent. The viewer is reminded that what’s “best” for some is not always what’s “best” for everyone. The overwhelmed – and driven – young men are determined to make life here work for them, so they can send
money home and eventually reunite with their families; you literally root for them out loud. You also share their frustration with the system and government bureaucracy, with the ridiculousness of minimum wage, the alienation of American suburban living, and the high cost of food, shelter and transportation. The odds are certainly not in their favor.

Director Christopher Quinn (who co-directed with Tommy Walker) said in an interview that he’d hoped to make more than a “fish out of water” film. He certainly did; the film covers a huuge swath of the human experience in its 90 minutes, and for American-born kids who have no concept of the immigrant experience in particular, it’s quite the eye-opener and conversation starter. It also raises questions we often chose to stifle in our own minds, about things like
materialism, racism, and economic and class inequities; about our acceptance of “the American way,” which can mean working several low-paying jobs, having precious little family time, and doing without when you work so hard to try to have more.

Christopher Quinn won an International Documentary Association award for Emerging Documentary Filmmaker with this directorial debut. God Grew Tired of Us won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Award at Sundance 20

- LINK: The John Dau Sudan Foundation is a non-profit led by Lost Boy John Dau. The Duk Lost Boys Clinic is among his many projects, and in its first year of operation served nearly 5000 people desperately in need of medical care. You can read about (and donate) to this and other projects Dau oversees by checking out his web site.

Dr. David Reed, an emergency room physician at
SUNY Upstate Medical University consults
with a patient at the Duk Lost Boys Clinic.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

SHACKLETON (Not Rated, made for TV)


In our neck of the woods, the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his doomed Antarctic expedition is pretty well known. One of our “community read” books last year (in conjunction with local libraries) was Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, and I think one of the books about the (mis)adventure is required school reading at some point. I’m not sure why Maine seems to have this Shackleton-thing: maybe it’s an affinity for snow-related tales.

If you don’t know the story, here’s the basic set-up:
In December 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set out from England with a crew of 27 men on one of his four expeditions to the Antarctic. Unfortunately, his ship, The Endurance, became trapped in ice only a month later, not terribly far from their ultimate destination. They lived on board – slowly draining their supplies and perhaps losing some of their sanity – through both spring and summer thaws which failed to free the ship. The ice eventually claimed the vessel, and the crew moved to living (I should probably say, “barely surviving”) on the ice before Shackleton and a small party set out for help. This last chapter of a fascinating story that spanned nearly two years may be the most harrowing and exciting; it’s really hard to believe what these guys went through. (Just imagine: GORE-TEX® and polar fleece hadn’t been invented yet!)

Starring Kenneth Branagh, and originally made for A&E television, this epic, true story is riveting, and solidly conveys the importance of character traits such as responsibility, courage, and tenacity. Viewing time is roughly 200 minutes (it’s on two discs), so it makes for a great multi-night viewing experience. (There may have been one or two “Masterpiece Theater”-ish points where Keegan started bouncing around the living room a bit; we just stopped it and took a break and resumed later when he could focus again.)
There are mature themes here, such as Shackleton’s unfaithfulness to his wife; an amputation; and a sudden, explosive f-bomb towards the end, which, as Keegan put it, was “sort of understandable.”

There is also a fascinating documentary on the same subject: The Endurance (2002), which I had the pleasure of seeing at the Castro Theater just before we left SF. From an adult POV, it’s completely engaging and uses actual photos and bits of film from the expedition in telling the story. I remember leaving the theater with a deep chill, after living in Shackleton’s frozen shoes for a couple of hours. This is available at our local library, and may be at yours, too.

The documentary is, of course, safely devoid of the dramatic bits that might earn the A&E production a PG-13 sort of rating, but it may not be so successful in capturing the attention of kids under 10. Both versions, IMHO, are well worth viewing.

Today: Netflix Discs in Our House

I guess this is a rather typical assortment for us: My Side of the Mountain (1969); Keegan loved this book and so we’ll try the movie. It’s about a kid who goes off into the woods and tries to live on his own. Amazing Grace (2006) Maybe you caught this one... it played in our area for about five minutes and then took a while to get back on my radar. Hello Marylou: Prom Night II (1987) This one is D’s. I'm not sure what I need to really say about it. The Wire: Season 1, Disc 1. This is for me. Yeah, it’s pretty good. Can’t say I’m entirely hooked (Entourage had me after the very first episode), but I’ll stay with it. One thing I gotta say: the acting is superb, especially all the young unknowns playing the drug dealers and ‘hood creatures. Wow.

Good thing we have enough computer screens and TVs to keep us all entertained at once.


Do you have Redbox video dispensers in your grocery stores? I’m not sure how long they’ve been in ours (maybe six months?), but we tried it a while ago and were pretty impressed. One buck for a movie, and as long as you return it the next day, that’s the entire fee. The only drawback: lines are starting to form at our neighborhood outlet, and this is a real drag, especially if you’re only returning a disc.

The other day I was waiting for a woman who had a baby in her shopping cart, sitting there making cute googly eyes and chuckling at Keegan and I. But my patience started to wear thin when she looked at screen after screen of titles, repeated the process, and finally chose a film. As it came out of the box, she bent over to her little one (about a year old, I would guess), and cooed, “Now I have to find something for YOU!”

Oh. My. God.

I guess she hasn’t yet noticed that the whole world is a movie for a one-year-old kid.

- Link: Slightly alarming Slate article about autism and TV viewing by very young children.

Friday, August 1, 2008


(1925) (No official rating; "G" equivalent)

We saw this on a snowy night in Maine at a library in a small, nearby town. It was mostly seniors in the audience; in fact, Keegan was the only kid present. He was nine years old, and we were surprised to see our super active son (he has never sat still watching TV) completely involved in this classic film. The Gold Rush is one of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpieces, and should hold the attention of kids both over and under the age of ten (and it’s good training for reading subtitles, as they're short and sweet!). There is plenty of action and adventure, a villain and love interest, plus some comic moments of sheer genius. Set in the Alaskan Yukon, Chaplin’s Little Tramp is a misfit of a gold prospector, hoping to strike it rich, and the impressive special effects of the film easily convey the biting cold and the painful hunger endured by the Little Tramp and his cohorts. There are many memorable scenes, and choosing a favorite between the dance of the dinner rolls (a bittersweet scene, with the Tramp waiting for the girl who never shows), the leather-boot-as-Thanksgiving-turkey scene, and the fantastic, white-knuckled moment when our hero’s humble cabin is teetering on the brink of a cliff is impossible.

Not all silent films will work for younger kids. Some are very slow, and not all of them contain the great physical comedy that artists such as Chaplin were known for. Many of Chaplin’s films would make delightful family viewing, but The Gold Rush is certainly a favorite. Note: Netflix has a two-disc set which includes both the silent version, and the 1942 sound version. I recommend the original, but must admit I haven't seen the latter.

"Yondah lies da castle of my faddah”

Sometimes silence is truly golden. Hearing a young Tony Curtis wrestling with his Bronx accent in many of his films (the above line is loosely credited to 1952's Son of Ali Baba, although the actual line differs slightly) reminds us of the magic of silent films at the beginning of all this celluloid craziness. You needed your imagination and full attention to flesh out the characters in a silent film, and you fleshed them out to suit your own vision.

Silent films are great for kids. It’s a good exercise in concentration, in honing reading skills, and in experiencing something quite different from what surrounds them all day long: noise of varying kinds, and human voices -- yours and their teacher’s and their friends' and the X-Box’s and the crossing guard’s and
the television’s and the neighbor's next door. Silent films force the viewer to assign a personality, a tone, a feeling to the faces on the screen, and actually create a more involved viewing experience.

When our son, Keegan, was about five years old, we took him to a special event at the fantastic Castro Theater in SF, an all-day affair with old silent films, cartoons, magicians, jugglers and I can’t remember what else at the moment. It was his first experience with silent films, and we helped him read the short sub-titles and made sure he was engaged. He loved every minute of it. That was followed shortly by another Castro visit, this time to see Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last, which I'll write about another time.

Around this time, my husband, D, told me one night that he had been discussing film with his college students one afternoon, and casually asked how many had never seen a black and white film. This was around 2001 or 2002. An astonishing 99% raised their hands. D was floored. So was I. This was in the Bay Area, for god’s sakes, a place drowning in rep theaters and performance spaces and film festivals. What self-respecting SF college student had never set foot in the Red Vic or the Castro or the UC Theater in Berkeley, to name just a few? They’d never seen The Third Man, or Casablanca or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf or Citizen Cane?

That means they never saw Mel BrooksFrankenstein, for that matter.

Things sure have changed.

I think that may have lit the fire under us to make sure our son grew up knowing more than Disney (actually, D is anti-Disney, so it was probably already ingrained in us)... and to ensure that as Keegan grew a bit older, films more sophisticated than Indiana Jones would enter his purview – well before his college years! D and I have always had a taste for the more underground-everything (movies, music, art, etc), but it's easy to get in a rut with your kids and just rent them Shrek because you don't have time to think about it.

Get comfy. Read on. (And click on July's "Welcome to KidsFlix" posting to the right if you didn't start there.)

(Possible comment topic: Do martinis go with popcorn?)