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.