The Sci-Fi Boys (2006)

The Sci-Fi Boys (2006) movie poster

director Paul Davids
viewed: 11/27/2014

Director Paul Davids’ The Sci-Fi Boys is a paean to Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Harryhausen and is endorsed and features many of the special effects and art design mavens who were deeply influenced by those two pioneers in their respective trailblazing.

Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland is one of those things that I sure wished I could have gotten my hands on more often as a kid.  I read the hell out of the two issues that I ever owned, pored over the images, received contact highs.  Ackerman is described as “The First Fanboy” but maybe it’s better to see him as the first sci-fi nerd.  Actually, his obsessive interest in the writers, directors, effects people and the monsters is what opened the eyes of his readers to aspects of film-making that other people turned a blind eye towards.  And his collection of memorabilia reminded me of Henri Langlois, just with a sci-fi bent and a cape.

As for Ray Harryhausen, I’ve written about him here many times before.  He was always a favorite of mine, but truth be told, I may well have learned his name from those two issues of Ackerman’s Famous Monsters that I had.  I also got to see him in person, receiving much of the same type of love an kudos heaped upon him here by many of the techie gurus who were also inspired by him.

We’ve got Peter Jackson, John Landis, Dennis Muren, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Frank Darabont.  But we’ve also got some more obscure guys like Donald F. Glut and Paul Davids himself.  Apparently, like Dennis Muren, whose own teen film Equinox (1970) was a testament to hands-on approaches of home-made movies that Harryhausen inspired, Davids and Glut made some pretty awesome Super 8 movies, though maybe they didn’t go on to win Academy Awards for their effects.

You know, this movie made me realize how much I wish I had access to a Super 8 camera when I was a kid.  We had only one cheap, very poor camera in our household and so I didn’t grow up with any of that technology anywhere in any real vicinity.  I can only imagine what I might have done with one in my hands.  I do indeed have a distinct memory from probably around 11-12 of wishing I had a camera to shoot movies.  It makes me appreciate all the more the technology and tools readily available in our present day and age.

I was inspired enough to try to get my kids to watch this movie or the other documentary about Ray Harryhausen.  I’ve even encouraged other friends to check it out.  Not so much because it’s so excellent or compelling in and of itself, but these are indeed guys who deserve the recognition and knowledge, not just of their first generation fans, but of fans generations to come.

Harryhausen died last year.  Bradbury the year before that.  Forrest J. Ackerman (“Uncle Forrey”) died in 2008.  Ackerman’s legacy will doubtlessly be the more obscure among the three men.  Fanzines were very 20th century, even though Famous Monsters has its web analogue now.  Bradbury and Harryhausen’s works in literature and movies are, on the other hand, much more for the ages.

Willow (1988)

Willow (1988) movie poster

director Ron Howard
viewed: 02/08/2014

I’d never seen Willow, but I’d long had it queued for watching with the kids.  When I started to wonder if I was pushing too much non-kid-oriented fare of late, I decided to pop it in.  1980’s fantasy films are always good, right?

Having no real perspective on Willow, I guess that I didn’t fully know what to expect, maybe didn’t even have that much of a clue about the film at all.  I knew it was produced by George Lucas from a story of his and directed by Ron Howard, who was still making his name as a director, though he had a few hits on his resume.  I also knew it starred Val Kilmer and Warwick Davis, the latter of whom is the film’s title character.

Two things I didn’t realize: 1) how much of a “little person” film this is and 2) how shabby and half-baked of a production it is.

When I mentioned to a friend that we were going to watch the film, he commented something like “The all-dwarf Star Wars!”  I hadn’t realized how much of Lucas’s vision for this film had really been around having a little person hero, cast, and society, but apparently, he’d long harbored such dreams, and cast Davis, who had played the lead Ewok in The Return of the Jedi (1983) and the significance of the “little guy” being a little guy.  Because beyond Willow’s village of small people, there are even smaller people, the brownies, who are normally-proportioned people, much smaller than Willow himself, speaking in high-pitched versions of their voices (and largely falling to comic relief).

The shabbiness of the film falls into two distinct camps.  The first is simply that the story is derivative and not particularly well-developed.  There’s an evil queen who has been prophesied to overthrown by a particular girl with a notable birthmark.  The babe who is born is whisked away into the country, hunted by the queen’s minions, and discovered by Willow and his children.  Ever heard these notions before?  But then there are fairies and brownies and dragons and trolls and witches and when it comes down to it, the whole movie arc is indeed a combination of rehash and underdevelopment.

Then there are the costuming and effects.  For 1988, the film has some innovations at the hands of Industrial Light and Magic, things that result in the morphing of a character from goat to ostrich to tiger that were cutting edge.  We also have stop-motion animation, which I love and would never discredit, though by 1988, isn’t really all that technically high-end.  It’s actually one of the better sequences, though.  And then there are the wolf-like Nockmaar hounds and the “trolls”.  The hounds look to be dogs in some sort of costume that brought to mind The Killer Shrews (1959) (which is not an aesthetic compliment).  The trolls, while they crawl up the side of buildings in a sort of eerie way, are more like guys in cheap gorilla suits.  How is that a troll and how cheap in costuming can you get?

The little people, as perhaps as well-intentioned as their depiction may have been, verges toward the comic and camp.  Though the great Billy Barty appears as the old wizard of the town, most of the little people are not particularly good actors.  Willow’s children are cute, sure, but kinda clunky.

Val Kilmer, at perhaps the height of his career, svelte and as charming and handsome (despite the long hair) as he is, is a likable rogue.  It’s another aspect of the film’s rather poor development that he goes from decided loner to devoted comrade rather easily.  And the queen’s daughter (Joanne Whalley) goes from devout baddie to devout goodie in a single scene, rather randomly, without any real exposition.

Felix thought it was kind of lame, as did I.  Clara enjoyed it.  I’d say it’s only more strangely bad because this was a Lucas production with a lot of pretty big budget things behind it.  You kind of expect more.  In a number of ways.

I’d always had Willow and Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985) in a similar mental bucket.   Fantasy films from the 1980’s starring big names, Kilmer and Tom Cruise, respectively, from pretty big name directors, Howard and Scott.  And that I’d seen neither film.  Now that I have, I can lay it simply for you.  Legend is not great but has fantastic aesthetics and designs and Willow is simply kind of lame, save for some “little” things, like a two-headed dragon.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) movie poster

director Steven Spielberg
viewed: 12/06/2013

Often considered the low point in the Indiana Jones franchise until Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) mooted that argument, it had been six year since I’d watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with my kids.  Which would have made Felix 6 at the time (Clara didn’t watch it with us).  That would have been something to file under inadvisable overall.  It gave Felix’s friend nightmares afterwards and freaked them pretty good at the time.

Turns out that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was notable as one of the key films that helped usher in the PG-13 rating, being a lot edgier, scary, violent than a normal PG film.  And most people, outside of myself, I guess, remembered it that way.  I remembered Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) and the roller coaster-like mine race scene.  Seemed fun in my mind at the time.

Anyways, if you’re considering it with small children, keep that stuff in mind.  Sort of a moot point this round for us with Felix 12 and Clara 9.

It was only a couple months ago that we watched Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), so I thought we might as well soldier through the series, more for Clara than Felix who has actually seen the films before.

Turns out they really enjoyed it.  In fact, they seemed to enjoy it more than Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I was mostly feeling put off by the many things that annoyed me about it the last time I’d seen it, namely Kate Capshaw’s Willie Scott.  The dance-oriented opening, comic shootout, scrum for a bottle of antidote and a diamond in the Shanghai dance club.  The whole thing continues to seem a lot more comic and contrived.  By the time they jump from the plane in rubber raft, down the snowy mountains and into raging rapids…  I was joking to the kids that the movie “sure started slowly”.

Actually, Clara thought Capshaw’s character was really funny.  She laughed a lot throughout at all of her reactions.

Interestingly, it seems that most of what’s wrong with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom seems to fall on George Lucas.  Did you know that this movie was a prequel?  I didn’t realize that.  Wanting to avoid the Nazis as villains, they moved back in time and came up with the Indian Thuggee cult, which winds up turning the film into some rather unfortunate stereotyping regarding India.  The “darker” material, part of Lucas’s vision of a trilogy arc annoyed a lot of people involved but they all gave in to his persuasiveness.  It’s not that it was all so wrong-minded but it just seems that if you delve into who contributed what, Lucas seems the center of the bad stuff.

By the end of it Felix was asking for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) for our next week feature.  It’s an interesting contrast to the last time we watched it.  I think I still haven’t seen the third film in the trilogy in over two decades.  So I am kind of looking forward to that.

Really, it’s drawn me to one other interesting turning point in my movie-going “coming of age”.  I would have been 15 when Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom came out and I recall really liking it a lot at the time.  But then there is The Goonies (1985) a year later, also featuring Jonathan Ke Quan, and I was “over” the age of enjoying the kid flick movies as a kid.  I don’t know that it’s all that specific to the time or the movies but oddly enough, it comes up from time to time, especially in discussing The Goonies with people.  And through said discussions, I’ve come to place my transition between these two summers.  And I guess that makes sense in my world.  It’s still kind of funny drawing such a conclusion.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) movie poster

director Steven Spielberg
viewed: 04/26/2013 

In 1982, I was all about E.T.  I sat through it twice the first time I saw it.  I read the novelization of it.  I even got the Michael Jackson record thing with E.T.  I was 13, but I was totally into it.  I thought that Drew Barrymore was the cutest kid in the world.

That said, I don’t know that I ever actually saw the movie again.  At least after 1982.  I might have gone to see it again in the theater.  That was the old fashioned way of seeing movies multiple times.  Not necessarily pre-VHS or pre-Beta but certainly before we had them.  And when things didn’t go to pay cable right after the fact.

Anyways, I hadn’t seen E.T. in a long, long time.  The kids had seen it some years before, not with me.  Long enough ago that Clara didn’t remember it at all and Felix probably couldn’t remember it too well.  But after watching A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) the week before, certain parallel notions arose in my mind, though maybe it was just the style of the title, with two initials followed by the longer words for which they stood.  That and some crazy adventure for an alien being of great good and innocence.  Frankly, the parallels stopped seeming parallels after re-watching E.T.

E.T. is a good, probably not great movie.  It’s greatest strengths are the child actors Henry Thomas as Elliott, Drew Barrymore as Gertie, and Robert McNaughton as older brother Michael.  Director Steven Spielberg has always had a way with child actors, and E.T. was one of the films that really solidify that truth.

It’s also quite the snapshot of early 1980’s Southern California (as Everytown, USA).  I’ve always seen some parallels between the landscape of Poltergeist (1982) and E.T.  It’s almost as if they used the same landscape shots of suburbia.  Spielberg was producing Poltergeist at the same time and the film certainly feels a lot like a Spielberg movie in many places.

The nuclear family in E.T. is a broken one.  Dad is in Mexico with another woman.  The wounds on the family, particularly on Elliott and his mom (Dee Wallace) are still open and painful.  E.T. carries that other very Spielbergian sensibility of child endangerment and dissociation from the family.  Adults are almost entirely shot from the perspective of someone of either E.T. or Gertie’s height, simply waists and feet, no faces.  The mysterious government agents are just body parts, not men, until the very end when Peter Coyote shows up and has a face and a voice.

The magic that I felt in 1982 (in which I was far from alone) really doesn’t resound as powerfully today.  Felix and Clara enjoyed the film’s more comic aspects, like when E.T. gets drunk or gets dressed in drag, or simply gets knocked around.  As surprised by E.T.’s death and resurrection, neither of the kids seemed very overwhelmed by the emotion of the story.  I remember tearing up when I saw the film back in the day.  Again, I don’t think I was exactly alone in that.

I asked them what they thought about E.T. vis-a-vis A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which was sort of the notion of pulling E.T. out at this point.  Clara preferred the movie about the robot boy to the friendly alien invader.  And interestingly, I think that I too think it’s a better film.  While it’s certainly had less cultural impact, less commercial success, less notoriety, I think it’s a better film.

E.T. is as much a time capsule of a film as anything, so it seems.  While it was one of the films that really embedded product placement in its evil corporate form in earnest, it also maintains some image of a kid’s California life of the time, surrounded as one is with the cultural effluvia of one’s period: Star Wars toys, Hulk posters, Speak’n’Spells.  For me, it’s particularly evocative, as I stayed that summer in California with my grandparents and still vividly remember that time.  But that is the uniqueness of my experience, not the least objective.

It’s also sentimental and soppy and silly cutesy.  Some of the cutesy is still effectively cute (Drew Barrymore is still a doll as Gertie), some a little more groan-inducing.  And some of the “magical” images, such as Elliott riding his bike across the giant moon, flying in air, with the John Williams score grabbing at the heartstrings (heartlights?), it’s not necessarily ham-fisted but still most obvious.

Iconic, yes.  Masterful, maybe not.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001) movie poster

director Steven Spielberg
viewed: 04/20/2013

I’ve been writing about the movies I watch for over a decade now.  All that really gives me is some sense of perspective on what I was thinking at the time that I saw a film, a particular instance, close to the actual experience of watching a movie and my immediate reactions, thoughts, feelings.  In the case of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, it’s kind of interesting because of all of the films that I’ve watched in the past decade (nearly 1700), there are those rare few that really stick with a person, linger far beyond their watching, stay fresh in one’s mind despite having so much else that has had opportunity to push it out and take its place.

Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, from 2001, is absolutely among those.  Looking back on what I wrote about it in 2002, I gave it much shorter shrift than I did in my mind over the ensuing eleven years.  The film continued to haunt and linger, and while I always acknowledged some of its lesser qualities, it actually grew in stature over the time.  And so, as I was trying to think of movies to watch with the kids, it suddenly struck me that they might find this movie very interesting.

Adapted from a script that Stanley Kubrick had developed over many years, Spielberg got A.I. Artificial Intelligence into production shortly after Kubrick’s death in 1999.  Originally from a Brian Aldiss’s short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long,” Kubrick crafted a story of a robot boy seeking real life, a modern, sci-fi Pinocchio.  In its long journey from story to concept to film, bandied between two of the 20th century’s major American directors, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a singular work of a multitude of visions.  But it’s also perhaps one of Spielberg’s best films.

Really, the most powerful thing in the whole film is Haley Joel Osment.  Fresh off his break-through role in The Sixth Sense (1999), this film further underscores the probability that he is one of the great child actors of all time.  There is something uncanny in his performance, but so utterly effective, so endearing, that the emotional charge of the film, this lost child abandoned to a cruel world, yearning for his mother hits like a ton of bricks.

The kids were really impressed by him as well.  In the beginning of the film, before his emotions have been “turned on” and even after as he seeks to learn how to behave, there is a creepiness to him, cute as he is, that somehow he is indeed “other” than human.  His journey through the desolation of this futuristic world where robots are ubiquitous yet have no status other than machine is an epic, sad, torturous affair.

The kids usually will say that they liked a film, but that it “was sad”, as if that is a criticism of it.  It is a sad story.  An effective one.

There are themes of abandonment that I believe are consistent in Spielberg’s oeuvre, but this time I specifically thought of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) this time through, correct or not.  There are Holocaust parallels common in his films, and aliens ultimately.

I think as I saw this film in 2002, then Minority Report (2002) and then War of the Worlds (2005), that something opened up for Spielberg in regards to science fiction, that his return to genre offered up three of his best films of the decade.  It also opened him up for me. Coming out of film school, the cynicism toward some of film’s major popular figures, especially those who evoke great sentimentality and/or commercialism, make them very suspect, more prone to critique.  But this group of films struck me, and as I delved into more of Spielberg’s filmography over the years (and particularly of late), I’ve come to a greater and greater appreciation of his work, his strengths, his qualities.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence does have some weaknesses.  The long, strange, drawn-out ending is certainly one of the most obviously imperfect, but this modernized fairy tale is also a powerful, evocative story, with a brilliant performance at its (and as its) heart.  I would posit that history will accept this film better and better over time.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993) movie poster

director Steven Spielberg
viewed: 04/07/2013 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

Twenty years ago, the year 1993, the film Jurassic Park, the big blockbuster of the summer, the breakthrough film for computer generated special effects.  In acknowledgement of this anniversary, Jurassic Park has been “spruced up” with a 3-D-ification and trundled out to the cinemas to cash in.

While I avoid 3-D if I can, I don’t mind catching an older film on the big screen if it was one that I wouldn’t mind watching again.  I had been considering Jurassic Park for the kids for a while, so this was up our alley.  We did indeed forgo the 3-D.

Frankly, I don’t consider Jurassic Park to be a great film.  Steven Spielberg has made better films before and since, and despite the film’s notoriety of employing digital effects so significantly and successfully, it is an enjoyable, at times memorable, fairly entertaining thrill ride of a movie.

Actually, the thrill ride factor I think is the way that I’ve come to think of the film.  The best bits of the film are bits: shots, moments.  The ripples in the water cup’s surface as the stomps of the T-Rex become audible.  The T-Rex in the wing mirror (“The objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.”)  The refracting eyeball of the T-Rex as he looks inside the jeep.  The image of the velociraptor as its silhouette mimics its illustration on the wall.  The slide down the tree from the falling van.  The velociraptors hunting the kids in the kitchen.

The whole, however, is not the sum of its parts.  There are several “Wow” moments.  The first reveal of the living dinosaur (Clara actually said “Wow” in the theater at that — thus still effective 20 years later).  The sick triceratops.  The death of the lawyer on the toilet.  The death of the conniving tech assistant in his vehicle in the rain.

But like a thrill ride, it’s just a track through a series of diorama-like set-pieces, albeit some quite memorable flashes.  It actually scared the kids pretty good.  It’s effective, certainly, in that sense.

There is perhaps an even more elaborate discourse on technology regarding the film.  I reckon that I’m not knowledgable enough to be the one to articulate it well, but this film, whose crux is the digital beast has an interesting portrayal of technology within its narrative.  Being made before the dot-com/Internet explosion, the technologist of the film is Dennis Nedry (played by the puffy and slimy Wayne Knight, most notable as “Newman” from Seinfeld.)  He’s a bad guy, who tries to steal dino DNA to sell to a competitor.  He’s a junk food-eating slob.  He is callow, and while smart enough to design the systems of the park’s security systems, he finds an ignoble death.

While Samuel L. Jackson is the terse engineer who understands the work that Nedry has done enough to filter through its “2 million lines of code”, the tech hero is the young girl Lex (Ariana Richards), who is able to recognize the platform (“It’s Unix. I know Unix.”) and then gets in and hacks the system to enable doors to be automatically locked to withstand the velociraptors.  She’s “not a nerd” but a self-proclaimed “hacker”.  While a lot of this depiction comes down to the writers, Michael Chrichton and David Koepp, showing what they know or don’t know about technology, it is an interesting portrayal of the types that made the creatures “live” perhaps.

It’s always amused me the way computer screens are depicted in films.  Whether it’s a futuristic science fiction universe in which computers would theoretically be thousands of generations evolved from our present day to just showing what computer geeks of our time see when they are in “the matrix”, it’s always very dissociative from reality.  When Lex is in the Unix code (supposedly), she’s actually looking at a low-res 3-D map of the park’s buildings.  And the schematic that she finally stumbles upon is like an electronic blueprint, the audience never sees a line of code.

There is also a weird little moment when Wayne Knight’s character’s face appears on the computer screen with a cartoon body, remonstrating those who try to “break” his password.

This idea of technology represented in film often catches my eye.  I don’t know if there is anything of significance in it.  It just always strikes me as weird.

As for the film as a whole, it’s entertainment.  It’s good entertainment.  As cinema, … well, it’s good entertainment.  That the thrill ride based on technology of 20 years ago still delivers its thrills and chills is a testament to the workmanship on it.  Spielberg is no slouch, even when he’s slumming (as arguably he was on the film’s sequel).

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) movie poster

director Steven Spielberg
viewed: 03/01/2013

I hadn’t had a close encounter with Close Encounters of the Third Kind in a long, long time.  35 years or more, perhaps.

When I first saw the film, which I think was actually in 1978, I was 8 or 9 perhaps.  I was also fresh off the life-changing experience of many a kid that age at that time from first encountering Star Wars (1977).  And no discredit to Steven Spielberg’s alien movie, but for all its “wow” factor, it’s a long, slow trek, with aliens only showing up at the end, playing music back and forth with humans.  There are no laser guns, light sabres, Wookies, action!  Star Wars has more fun going on in it in the cantina scene for an 8 year old than the entire 2 hours plus of Close Encounters.

So, why did I sit my 8 (now 9) year old and 11 year old through it?  Well, for one thing, it had been a long, long time.  And the film has maintained some stature culturally.  Maybe seeing it out of the context of the Star Wars era might open it up a bit more for them.  Maybe Spielbergian magic would happen.

Close Encounters, on this encounter, I found to still be a long and somewhat tedious journey.  It’s beautifully filmed and has numerous moments/scenes of great power and impact.  But it’s also easy to see why it’s a hard film to dig into.  Richard Dreyfuss, the hero/protagonist, is a regular joe lineman whose life is turned upside down by his experience with an alien craft.  He becomes one of a few devotees who seem to have some psychic connection (albeit very vague — just an image of Devil’s Tower nagging at them) who dumps his entire life to find out what it all means.  And his wife (Terri Garr) dumps him when he starts acting like a maniac (which is actually very understandable).  He’s not the most sympathetic of characters and this is to whom one must identify to “believe” or at least connect with the movie’s adventure.

What was particularly funny to me was what was familiar and what was not.  I honestly believe that I hadn’t seen the film in total since 1978 or so.  And for all the iconic moments that I do remember, I was also almost as struck by the fact that I also have more ingrained in my psyche the images of the Mad Magazine parody of the film as much as the film itself.  Again, showing my age and placement in the late 1970’s.

It’s easy to see other Spielbergian elements here, most specifically those in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and the portrayal of the way the U.S. government deals with such things as aliens.  It’s all a big secret, the public are duped, dehumanized masked “men” run the show, freak us out.  In Spielberg’s more recent science fiction work, I recognized elements in War of the Worlds (2005), probably more stylistic than anything, but the family trapped within the house, bombarded by lights and noises from  outside, casting beams and shadows and creating terror.  Of course, in War of the Worlds there actually is something of which to be afraid.  These benign beings of Close Encounters aren’t using human blood to fertilize the plants that they plan to grow on our planet.  Even though they abduct people for 30 years plus, they bring them back unharmed and unaged (though I would imagine psychologically damaged by advancing that far into the future.)  Actually, even Spielberg’s obsession with WWII gets some play here, crossing over to numerous other films.

I guess this time through I respected aspects of the film, aspects of its craft, while still not really enjoying it that much.  It’s long and slow in ways not perhaps necessary.  I also noted things like influences this movie perhaps had on such diverse films as Super 8 (2011) and Argo (2012), though those films more in their wistful reminiscence of the period, so clearly on display in the children’s rooms and toys.  My children were a bit nonplused by the film.  Felix started being into it but then fell asleep and didn’t feel the need to find out how it ended.  Clara, conversely, wasn’t paying attention in the beginning but watched the rest with me, the finale, and was quite interested.  So it wasn’t as much of a let-down but it also wasn’t as much of a special kind of movie encounter.

War of the Worlds (2005)

War of the Worlds (2005) movie poster

director Steven Spielberg
viewed: 12/15/2012

Back in 2005, I was duly impressed by Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds when I saw it in the theater.  At that time, my kids were very young, 4 and 1, respectively, so it was definitely not something I enjoyed with them.  Also, I was unfamiliar with the seminal Byron Haskin/George Pal 1953 version of The War of the Worlds, which in retrospect, was a severe oversight.  Since that time, over seven years, Spielberg’s film continued to loom in my consciousness and beyond that, I’d gone on to enjoy the 1953 version of the film with the kids, as well as Tim Burton’s quite funny lampoon of the films and the genre in Mars Attacks! (1996).  Now, with some perspective, and kids that are now 11 and 8, I thought it would be a good time to watch the Spielberg version anew.

The film holds up very well so far.  In the seven years that have passed, Dakota Fanning is no longer a child, but otherwise, the film, visual effects and general impact, are as fresh and contemporary as if the film was released today.  Felix was impressed with the special effects.

What resonates about a film, especially when you’ve seen as many as I have in the ensuing seven years, is a random crapshoot of impressions, entirely unique to any individual.  It’s continued to strike and amaze me how many images and sequences of this film have stayed so fresh in my mind.  The images of  the family home below the bridge in New Jersey, where the initial drama starts, strangely had stuck with me, as had the initial emergence of the tripods from the city streets in their neighborhood.  The tripods themselves, massively looming across the countryside are remarkably eerie and stunning.  And my favorite sequence from the first viewing, the cramped cowering from the probing “eye” of the creatures while the heroes hide in the basement is another amazing set piece.

The film was certainly a post-9/11 film.  Set in New York, with the images of ash-covered people, vaporized humans, empty clothing floating from the sky, bodies teeming in a river, and the mass postings of flyers for missing loved ones, played off very fresh wounds and images from the definitive event of 2001.  The annihilation of humans by the aliens, though, is steeped in Holocaust-like terms, and the tone and shock value of the imagery is as much haunted by WWII and the brutal Final Solution as anything purely of the present.  The images are transcendent, frightening and visceral, truly nightmarish.

Clara found much of the film scary.  And it is.  It’s an excellent film of its genre, carrying potent impacts visually, viscerally, emotionally.

I’ll never be a Tom Cruise fan, but he’s used fairly well here.  Fanning, I think is very good, but Clara didn’t like her.  She thought she whined too much and was annoying.  Felix liked the film quite well.  I’ll admit that it was probably a bit intense for Clara.  It is PG-13, and rather than for any specifics of blood-letting or cursing or sex of violence, the film is just very intense and powerful.  And it’s about the annihilation of the human race.

The ending, more or less intact from H.G. Wells, is still the odd anticlimax.  It’s still oddly poignant, if increasingly challenging from a scientific perspective.  Shouldn’t the aliens have known the risk of tiny organisms with all of their superior science and technology and planning?

Still, one of the best sci-fi films, one of the best alien invasion films out there.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) movie poster

director Barry Levinson
viewed: 09/14/2012

In canvasing my memory for flicks that the kids would enjoy, Young Sherlock Holmes vaguely came to mind.  All that my recollection had with it was that it was produced by Steven Spielberg and had more than a small portion of an Indiana Jones adventure to it.  That and I recalled thinking it was pretty good.  I didn’t recall that it was directed by Barry Levinson (Diner (1982), The Natural (1984), Bugsy (1991)).  I probably had no idea that it was written by Chris Columbus (Home Alone (1990), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1991)).  And for some reason, I thought it was a little later in the 80’s than 1985.  While that is not much to go on, it was enough to give it a go.

Columbus, who had also written Gremlins (1984) and The Goonies (1985) before going on to a mixed kid-friendly career as a director, puts together a reasonably fun concept.  Instead of meeting as adults as they do in the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes meets John Watson at boarding school in London, and much like the more recent Sherlock Holmes (2009), modernist or post-modernist adventures ensue.  Of course, under Spielberg’s production, the adventures are crafted much like those of adventure serials and the film is more an Indiana Jones-type adventure, with sword-fighting, hooded villains, and a little bit of mysticism to boot.  Also, like the more recent Holmes, the story of deduction and wit give way to action.

The film opens with a hooded figure blow-darting a man with a hallucinogenic drug that ultimately causes him to kill himself.  The intrigue builds as more men start offing themselves whilst in delusions of madness, including Holmes’ mentor, a wacky old professor who tries to build flying machines.  Really, when the story is finally spelled out, it’s so convoluted that I didn’t bother trying to sort it out for the kids.  It has to do with an ancient Egyptian sect, revenge, virgin sacrifices, and a giant wooden pyramid in Wapping, London.

Maybe the story doesn’t hold up to the concept, but beyond that, it doesn’t seem that Barry Levinson was necessarily the best director for this film.  Perhaps if it was a slightly stronger story, Spielberg would have taken the reins himself, squeezed a little more verve from the young actors, a little more life and magic in the action sequences.  Whatever the case, the film bops along at an entertaining enough pace and is generally pretty fun.  Just not as exciting and memorable as it could have been.

Maybe that’s why most everyone that I mention the film to gives me a searching look of blankness.  Maybe that’s why it fell into the crevasses of my memory rather than staying toward the forefront.

The film also features one of the first CGi action sequences, featuring a stained-glass knight jumping down and attacking a priest.  This was animated by a guy named John Lassiter, an up and comer in computer animation, if there ever was one.

Star Wars

Star Wars (1977) movie poster

(1977) director George Lucas
viewed: 11/11/2011

The other day, I was stumbling among various childhood effluvia of mine and showed it to my kids.  When I showed Clara a picture of Darth Vader, she told me that she kind of knew who he was (from Lego Star Wars video games, various household items, and general culture) but had never actually seen the movie, Star Wars.  In fact, she’d never seen any of them.  I realized that while Felix had been introduced to these films at an early age, she was probably too young at the time to be interested.

I felt vaguely ashamed.  Of all of the films that we watch together, I was overlooking one of the most culturally significant film series of my generation, something that is a major cultural touchpoint for apparently all generations that have followed.  You can criticize it from here to kingdom come but by goodness, everyone has seen it, knows Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, R2D2, C2PO, Chewbacca, Yoda, and the rest.

I also saw this as a great opportunity.  At age 7, she is kind of an excellent age to introduce to the films without cynicism.   In many ways, she’s at an age to enjoy the films as much as any time in her life.

The funny thing was, she really had no clue about the film.  She couldn’t name or recognize any of the characters, Darth Vader included, with the exception of Yoda, who of course doesn’t show up until the second film.

Interestingly, Felix has his own take on the whole series.  Part of a generation who has all six films to work from, he sees the story as starting with Episode 1 and ending with Episode 6 (Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)).  For those of us of my generation, and perhaps other people trying to watch the films in the order of their production, you start with the original film, Star Wars, before it had a subtitle and work your way through the chronological productions, ending with Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005),

Apparently, this touched some sort of hidden nerd nerve within me.

Clara started by asking lots of questions (which she does a lot of on any occasion).  “Who is the baboon guy?”  “Where is the green guy with the big ears?”  “Why does she roll her hair up so weird?”  But as the story got going, she got into it.

This time through the film, what was I thinking?  So focused on Clara’s experience, I wasn’t pulling it all in quite the same way as I would on my own.  At first, I was struck by some of the dated design and the lesser moments.  But from the first striking notes of John Williams’ score, I was struck, the way that I was struck back when I was 8 years old, first experiencing the film, being as in love with a movie as much as I ever became.  Numerous scenes resonated similarly.  Lines of dialogue, echoed in my brain, nuance for nuance.

In some ways, perhaps many ways, I’ve been fighting the fact that I truly loved Star Wars myself.

My feeling has generally been that, yes, I did love Star Wars as a kid, as much as anybody.  My experience was personal, visceral, real, but as I grew up and realized how universal this experience was, it kind of cheapened it for me.  And as Star Wars has gone on to such weird extremes of cultural saturation that I’ve felt more alienated from it.  That other people had more intense relationships with the movie.  For all the times that I saw the film in the theater (before home video), many, many others had wound up seeing it many, many times more than I ever had and many, many others have been more obsessed with it than I ever was.

In some ways, it caused me to develop a distance with the film(s).  In this post-modern world, where it is very hard to experience anything with fresh, unjaundiced, not pre-influenced eyes and mind, I had been in some denial of my own genuine relationship with the movie and its sequels.

It’s hard to know how Clara ultimately felt about it.  She said she liked it and I believe she did.  Felix enjoyed it, but not overtly.  I think it’s likely that we’ll revisit (or in her case “visit”)  it’s sequels, at least the original sequels, in the coming weeks.

We shall see.