Sunday, October 26, 2008


Well, I’m terribly sorry to disappoint, but I didn’t get a chance to view many classic monster movies for Halloween.

We did finally get to the original Frankenstein (1931) and (the slightly superior) Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and I enthusiastically recommend them both, for kids about nine and up; they are beautiful, and I’d forgotten how expressive Boris Karloff managed to be as the monster – with virtually no dialog but rather lots of body language, facial longshots and closeups. There are moments in both that might be slightly scary for the younger set; don’t discount the possibility just because these are old, or black and white, films. In fact, I vaguely remember seeing Frankenstein when I was just about nine, I think, and found it a little scary myself, but mostly pretty compelling. The whole concept of “mob mentality” registered deeply with me at the time, too.

Anyway, I’d say you’re safe with kids in the age range mentioned above on these classics.

Just to let you know how hard I’ve been working for you, I did manage to get my hands on a weird, Canadian TV show I’d stumbled on, called The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, and a Vincent Price classic film, House on Haunted Hill.

Verdict: You can pass on both of these! Um, for the kids, anyway. House on Haunted Hill is a lot of fun for the grown-ups, as creepy dinner party host Price pays his guests to spend the night in a haunted mansion (maybe you can throw back a highball everytime the guests do for the heck of it). UPDATED: I wrote originally that the movie is "actually too scary for younger kids and there are a lot of mature themes, such as adultery and drunkenness, that would make your kids’ grandmother frown at your entertainment choices." I hereby amend that to say that older kids may get a kick out of it, probably won't find it too scary and -- compared to what they see in current movies -- the PG-feel of the movie is probably ok.

The Canadian TV series, The Hilarious House of Frightenstein, is just plain weird, and if you came across it for free at the library or for a quarter at a yard sale, and your kids are young enough to appreciate completely goofy humor they won’t understand, then you should go for it. Otherwise, let’s just say that it was done in 1971, it shows its age, and its creator was no doubt a big fan of the American TV show "Laugh In." The costumes and characters will probably entrance the kids, but the one-liners and the dated lingo (“I’m going to lay a heavy one on you now!”) will just perplex them. I watched two episodes after K left the room mumbling about how dumb it was, just because I couldn’t figure it out. There were educational segments (live animals and factoids), flat jokes and good jokes, appearances by Vincent Price, and kaleidoscope effects set to Sly & the Family Stone’s “I Wanna Take You Higher,” which just had me laughing out loud.

What the heck?

Ok, so I enjoyed it. Don’t tell anyone. (Aw, come on, it had a cooking segment with Grizelda the Ghastly Gourmet!)

Have a happy and safe Halloween everyone, and don’t be surprised if we get to some classic vampire and werewolf movies in the spring.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Ok, an update on Beetle Juice and Ghost Busters, which people can't believe I'd never seen before. I'm telling you, ask me anything about popular culture from the '80s and I probably won't know the answer. I spent my days working at poorly paying, creative, fun jobs, and my nights crawling around punk clubs and oddball performance venues. (I once went to an "art performance" where the "artists" came on stage, and then proceeded to unfold a small pile of cardboard boxes -- in the dark. I left before the lights came back on, but learned later that was pretty much the gist of it.)

Anyway, the funny thing is: K was reluctant to watch Beetle Juice with me, and I think he was a little nervous about the scary stuff, but didn't want to say it. I think we forget that these films, which broke ground so long ago, still pack a visual punch for kids. And it is a Tim Burton film, after all.

I'll just say that if, like me, you weren't familiar with this Halloween... classic, that you may want to pass on it for the kids. It was entertaining enough for me (wow, was that Dick Cavett?!), the animation is now dated but charming, and it has that quirky, artistic Burton flair for sure. But there is adult language (shocking -- it's hard to remember that PG films have changed since the '80s!), and some adult and sexual humor that just ain't appropriate. Your 14-year old will like it, but probably enjoy it more without you in the room.

I was going try to see Ghost Busters ... with K ... for you. (I know, I know, who hasn't seen it... blah, blah, blah.) But then I looked it up on IMDB (Internet Movie Dababase), and read the "parental guide" comments. We will pass.

Amazing the difference between PG movies then and now! Come on, Shrek is PG, for cryin' out loud; compare the parental guides between those two films on IMDB, and you might be surprised.

Don't miss Halloween Films Part III.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


I'll write about kid-friendly Halloween movies in a few parts, as I research, remember and revisit some films that may or may not be appropriate for kids. Mostly what I’ll do here is present you with some lists – including Disney and Pixar titles, since Halloween movies are slim pickins’ for the kiddies – to help you when you’re in a rush out the door, or looking for something on Netflix. (It’s not as easy as you might think to find family-friendly Halloween films grouped together on Netflix.)

I haven’t seen many of these films. The G-rated Halloween movies we can assume are safe for everyone.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Monsters, Inc.
Pooh's Heffalump Halloween Movie

My Friends Tigger & Pooh: Hundred Acre Wood Haunt
Blackbeard’s Ghost
Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Mickey Mouse Clubhouse: Mickey's Treat
Max & Ruby: Perfect Pumpkin (2008)
Dora the Explorer: Dora's Halloween

The Haunted Pumpkin of Sleepy Hollow (2004)

Arthur's Scary Stories
Hilarious House of Frankenstein (1971): This is a Canadian TV show that aired back in the ‘70s. (See Halloween Films Part II.)

Here are some vintage classics you can get on Netflix, all for the younger set:

Casper: Trick or Treat (1945); Casper & Wendy: Scare Up Some Fun (1945); Best of Casper Vol. 1 & 2 (1952); Scooby-Doo titles such as Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School, Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf; Scooby-Doo Meets the Boo Brothers (and, yes, there are more!).

Next up is a list of movies with a PG rating. I can’t vouch for many of these... in fact, I’ve only seen Monster House and the rather annoying Scooby Doo film from the list below. I have to admit I’ve never seen Ghost Busters or Beetlejuice (I lived in a serious non-commercial bubble in the ‘80s and early ‘90s), so I can’t (yet) give you any details that might help you decide if they’re ok for your eight -or ten-year-old. They’re at the top of my Netflix list, so maybe I’ll get to them soon and can let you know what I think if you haven’t seen them, either. (NOTE: See update on these films in Part II.)

Monster House
The Haunted Mansion (Eddie Murphy)

Ghost Busters

Hocus Pocus
The Witches (1990)
Scooby-Doo (live action, 2002) The gang is confronted with a mysterious force on Spooky Island! This was a bit loud and scary for younger kids, if you haven’t seen it yet.

The Corpse Bride / Nightmare Before Christmas

We recently revisited the Tim Burton films Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride. I have to recommend these with reservations, despite their beautiful animation, clever writing, fantastic music and lyrics and so much more. IF you have tougher kids who’ve been around the block, they’re going to be fine. If you have kids that have not been exposed to much beyond the
occasional PG movie, the delightfully quirky yet inarguably macabre imaginations of Burton & Co. might be bit too much. For example, Nightmare starts off with a song calling out all the monsters from our childhood (the ones under the bed, under the stairs, etc) and some kids may not do well to have that idea planted in their heads. It’s a wonderful, catchy song, but it does really set the tone for the creepy, crawly, ghastly faces and wickedness that follows. I loved every minute of it, having not seen it since its original 1993 release, and K enjoyed it, too, but admitted some of the images were pretty nightmarish.

We caught Corpse Bride on a long flight last year. K was 10 and we hesitated to let him watch it but, after some begging on his part, I figured I’d watch it along with him and keep an eye on him.
Corpse Bride is actually a little softer and safer (Nightmare’s whole point, after all, was to play up Halloween as a celebration of all things horrible, with Jack the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town longing for something different – so he tries on Christmas for size, with disastrous results; how clever is that for a story?!). K had no problem with Corpse Bride, and seemed rather captivated by the animation. It’s a surprisingly sweet and touching story about love, and though the music isn’t as strong and the story lags a little here and there, I’ll say it’s a fine movie for kids in the 9-10-year-old range, and if you haven’t seen it, you will enjoy it, too.

I'm sure I've left out some titles that you wish I hadn't! Please let me know what I've missed.

NEXT: Kid-Friendly Halloween Films Part II

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Werner Herzog is one of my favorite directors, period. He can be erratic and overblown, yes, but he is inarguably a deep thinker, outrageously creative and attacks his art with a ferocious, focused, almost rabid passion. He is, likely, a bit insane.

Encounters at the End of the World
, which may be his first G-rated film ever, piqued my interest immediately, and I was rather excited by the prospect of taking K to see a Herzog film (I’m sure I’ll force Fitzcarraldo on him before he’s ready for it; he wants to see Grizzly Man, but I’m holding off on that, as great as it was.). We missed a showing of End of the World at our (lone) little rep theater in the area, due to a dead car battery, and when it showed later in the Big City, it was showing at a theater that I find so physically uncomfortable (let’s say, repulsive) that I’m on a personal boycott of the place.

So, I resigned myself to renting it, and watching it on a small screen at home (so wrong!), and promptly put it on our Netflix list.

Imagine my surprise when I saw a listing for it at a wonderful new space in our area, one that shows films and occasionally hosts live events, while also serving pretty good food. There it was, a Saturday matinee. Off the three of us went.

So, here is the good news and bad news about Encounters at the End of the World.

First, the good news: it’s a wonderfully, fully-Herzogian adventure, replete with colorful characters (what kinds of people end up at the Antarctic, at the very edge of the earth?) who tell endlessly entertaining stories (what are they doing there? what brought them there?), and, of course, there is impossibly beautiful cinematography: Antarctic scenery resembling moonscapes, and underwater shots of sea life and topography that simply turn the world upside down.

Herzog somberly makes clear, early in his narration, that he was not intending, by any means, to make “another film about fuzzy penguins.” Funny, that’s not something we think Herzog is even capable of.

The bad news: it’s a bit long (even husband D – also an avid Herzog admirer – grumbled toward the end, “It should be over now”) and the interviews with the characters who live there probably appeal, in all honesty, more to adults than to kids. There are also hilariously Herzogian moments (that are a bit problematic for the kiddies) such as when Herzog asks a scientist questions such as, “Have you observed a segment of the penguin population that is gay?” and (imagine Herzog’s thick, intimidating accent here) “Do penguins ever just go insane?” (At which point D and I howled with appreciation for our favorite German filmmaker.) Insane penguins? Leave it to Herzog!

Of course, Herzog then proves we are laughing because we are heartless, shallow people. To prove the depths of possible penguin insanity, the segment ends with a classic Herzog moment, a heartbreaking shot of a confused, lone penguin, heading in the wrong direction while his buddies follow their instincts and waddle off to the ocean. “He faces 5000 long miles to the other coast, and will most certainly die,” Herzog intones mournfully.

One of the scientist’s answers about “gay” behavior involved an explanation about how some female penguins exhibit behavior called “prostitution," which is only distantly related to the human behavior as we know it . You can see how you would likely have some questions coming from your kids that you might not want to tackle at that very moment.

Do I recommend Encounters at the End of the World? Unequivocally, yes. Oh, for your kids? Well, it depends. Son K was sliding around in his chair and sighing audibly towards the end (ok, honestly, he even started shooting me looks that implied, “WHY AM I HERE?”), and while he is physically a very active (hyperactive we might admit) kid who has a hard time sitting still, he has managed to get through numerous films that aim a bit higher than the usual kid fare does. My guess is that kids over 12 may enjoy this the most, and get the most out of it, and if yours are a bit cerebral and don’t need explosions or cool special effects every fifteen minutes, you might give it a try at any age (again, if you’re willing to deal with some delicate issues along the way).

Personally, I was as happy as a skittering, Antarctic clam to sit through it, and am already looking forward to Herzog’s next adventure.

Saturday, October 11, 2008


I think I promised long ago to write about Harold Lloyd, and I’m sorry it took so long! Someone asked me the other day to recommend one of his films, and after I gave a rushed, 30-second summation and a thumbs up, I wrote a note to myself to post about Safety Last! (1923) next.

Harold Lloyd is one of the great masters of silent film comedy, and yet his name doesn’t come to mind for most folks in the same way Chaplin’s and even Buster Keaton’s names do. I’m not sure why that is, especially with a film like Safety Last! in his oeuvre; it was recently selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

As I wrote in an earlier post about the charm and the value of silent films for kids, exposing your children to a whole different film methodology will be a learning experience and something I bet they’ll enjoy. I think it engages them on a different level, having their little brains jump from the words on the screen back to the image, putting the two things together to make a whole.

The plot of Safety Last! isn’t all that complicated, or important really (the gist is: Lloyd is trying to both impress his fiance by pretending to be something he’s not, and he’s trying to win a tidy sum of money by pulling off a marketing stunt at the department store which employs him). What makes the film work is Lloyd’s utter likeability and “underdog” character, and of course the wonderful physical comedy. There are mix-ups and stunts and site gags galore that bring on the giggles, but the pivotal and most famous scene in the film is Lloyd’s climbing the side of a building, filmed of course before the advent of special effects and CGI and all that cool trickery to which we are now accustomed. It looks real, feels real, and you hold your breath for what seems like an eternity as things go wrong and he hangs on for dear life to the hands of a tower clock. (A similar scene played out years later in the movie Back to the Future.)

If your kids’ reading skills are up to snuff, I’d say young ones around age seven or eight should have no trouble keeping up with the brief lines of dialogue that need reading, and they should delight in the simplicity and honesty of what they’re seeing on the screen.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


Mattie Ross: I'm off early tomorrow morning for the Indian nation. Marshal Rooster Cogburn and I are going after the murderer, Tom Chaney.

Col. Stonehill: Cogburn? How did you light on that greasy vagabond?

Mattie Ross: They say he has grit. I wanted a man with grit.

John Wayne won an Oscar for his role as Rooster Cogburn in 1969’s True Grit (it also won the Golden Globe’s Best Film prize that year), and even if John Wayne doesn’t float your boat in general, this film will likely give you a few good laughs and perhaps (mildly) alter your perception of one of Hollywood’s most manly men. (Maybe what I really mean to say is that Wayne was one of Hollywood’s most “man’s man” type of actors, as women never really swooned over him, but men like my dad sure admired him, in their own, clearly manly way.)

The appealing thing about Wayne’s first appearance as the outsider lawman Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn in True Grit was his ability to completely embrace the feral, less than perfect aspects of the character. Rough around the edges, living in the equivalent of shack in the back of a Chinese restaurant, a fresh bottle of drink always within reach, Cogburn is a little bitter but not a bit remorseful over some missteps earlier in life, and is resigned to his current situation. He doesn’t care a whit to get married again, or to turn his life around and live in what might be considered “normal” circumstances. He just wants to bring criminals to justice, get paid for it, and have a drink ... everyone else can just mind their damn business.

The gist of the story is Cogburn’s reluctant acceptance of a job that pays good money but means he’s working for a tough, spirited teenage girl (Mattie Ross, played by Kim Darby), who wants him to find her father’s killer. Of course, to make the film really interesting, she insists on going along on the adventure. She’s a tomboy, not a bad shot, darn sure of herself, and possesses sass by the wagonload. True Grit can be seen as an early, low-key, feminist fable, and certainly helps enforce the idea of equality between the sexes.

The writing is colorful, clever, and one would assume, true to the time. It’s a joy to listen to this kind of dialogue:

Mattie Ross: You never told me you had a wife.
Rooster Cogburn: Oh, well, I didn't have her long. My friends was a pack of river rats and she didn't crave their society so she up and left me and went back to her first husband who was clerkin' in a hardware store in Paducah. "Goodbye, Reuben," she says, "the love of decency does not abide in you!" That's a dee-vorced woman talkin' for you, about decency. (Snorts.) Well, I told her. I said, "Goodbye, Nola, and I hope that nail-sellin' bastard makes you happy this time!"

Anther plus for the film is a plum bad guy role played by Robert Duvall. Dennis Hopper, who has a slightly smaller part as another bad seed, further sweetens the deal. They make a great team.

I have a real soft spot for old westerns. (I have to say here that, come to think of it, some of my favorite movies in recent years include The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 to Yuma, and the fantastic The Proposition, written by one of my longtime musical obsessions Nick Cave, who writes songs filled with dark, twisted plot lines, and kept true to form in The Proposition. There’s some pretty grisly violence in this movie, and it’s not for the faint of heart. But it rocks.)

When you want something kid friendly, it’s hard to find westerns that don’t feature an overabundance of drinkin’ and whorin’ and cussin’ and fightin’ – not to mention potentially bothersome sub-plots about killing “injuns,” etc. True Grit passes the kid friendly litmus test, but not without needing a little grease to help it squeak by.

Apparently, the video version of True Grit was edited slightly and earned a G rating. However, the DVD version has a PG rating, equivalent to the original “M” (for mature) rating the film received. While John Wayne’s eye-patched, swaggering, growling, manly man seems to survive on not much more than whisky, it’s done with an effectively light, buffoonish touch, and so offers up moments ripe for observations such as, “Oh, see what getting drunk does? That’s just no good, is it? He fell off his horse!” etc. There’s a sprinkling of hard language, and bit of peril (honestly, nothing too frightening). But it’s all wrapped in a woolly cloak of spunk and humor, delivered with plenty of clever storytelling and witty dialogue.

Wayne’s second appearance as Rooster Cogburn was with the great Katharine Hepburn as his feisty, brazen feminine counterpart in Rooster Cogburn, which was clearly a ‘70s film (1975 to be exact). I personally enjoyed it a great deal, but think it’s a bit much for kids; it has more violence and harsh language, plays up Rooster’s drinking habits more, and just doesn’t seem appropriate for kids under 12 (it also has a PG rating). It’s a great character study, if you’re up for an old fashioned western some night on your own. The two main characters, Rooster and Hepburn’s Eula Goodnight, come to life here, and again the writing sparkles with smart and snappy dialogue. It's great fun for the ears, and the western scenery (filmed in the Grants Pass and Rogue River areas in Oregon) is a lush treat for the eyes.

Monday, October 6, 2008

We'll Be Right Back

We just had a great, long weekend with some of our dearest friends from the "old coast" visiting... and, ah, not much got done in the way of DVD thinking/writing. I hope to get something up today... so come back sooner than later!

Quick aside: I took K to see Igor last week... and while the artwork was pretty cool and the idea of the story very clever (why do all Igors play second fiddle to the mad scientist? Why can't an Igor BE a mad scientist?), it fell oddly flat. Sometimes I think to myself, "Hmmm. Ok. Whatever. It's just me. This wasn't made for me," but when I do that, nine times out of ten K will comment on the way out, "That was only OK, wasn't it?"

I love that.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Duma is a charming and emotional movie about an orphaned cheetah (Duma, which is Swahili for "cheetah"), and the young boy, Xan, who adopts him and ultimately comes to the difficult decision that he must return the animal to its true home, where Duma can “be fully alive.” With a bit of family strife as the backdrop, Xan takes off on his own in his dad’s motorcycle, with Duma riding shotgun, on the adventure of a lifetime, set in stunningly beautiful South Africa.

The journey to the Erongo Mountains will take many days, and is hundreds of miles from Xan’s home, and along the way they encounter a mysterious, wandering stranger (friend or foe?), furious river rapids, crocodiles, lions and deadly poisonous threats. The terrain – lush jungle, scorched salt flats, the unfriendly scrub of the Kalahari Desert – makes for some incredible scenery, and it also, of course, serves up countless moments of danger.

Hope Davis is the distraught mom, and Campbell Scott is the dad, fighting his own battle to stay alive. Xan is played by an actor named Alexander Michaletos, and is captivating as the brave and conflicted boy, trying so hard to do what he knows is right.

The director is Caroll Ballard, who also did the wonderful Flyaway Home, which I’ll write about another time. (But do put it on your list of must-sees!)

Duma is rated PG for “mild adventure peril.” It’s a pretty safe movie for the young ones in terms of other undesirable elements, and the “peril” itself is not presented in an unreasonably heightened way. Good judgment and sound decision-making are underlying themes, and overall the movie is a satisfying experience, with plenty of visual beauty.
It also won the 2006 Genesis Award for a Family Feature Film, which recognizes the entertainment industry for efforts in animal awareness.