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.