Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Kid Who Would Be King

Back in the 1990s, I saw dozens of kids movies because I had kids that were just that age.  "That Darn Cat", "The Mighty Ducks", "Three Ninjas", "Casper", "Matilda", "The Indian in the Cupboard"..., the list seems endless. Many of them were fine films, especially for a kids audience, but I have never felt a need to revisit them after my own kids grew up. It may be true that nostalgia will only carry you so far. There were however films from my own childhood that I can still watch as an adult and treasure despite the fact that they were kids movies. "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", "Swiss Family Robinson", "Robinson Crusoe on Mars", Mysterious Island" hold up pretty well. I think that "The Kid Who Would be King" fits better into my list of childhood style films than those of my children.

This is a retelling of the Arthur Legend and it puts the concept of Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake into modern times in Great Britain. A schoolboy named Alex discovers that he is able to draw the sword from the stone and is going to be called upon to save the country from the evil witch Morgana who has been trapped in an underworld since banished there by the original King Arthur. The story does have to come up with a couple of contrivances to allow the threat to exist without the whole world being aware of it, but once that is explained, the idea that a 12 year old and other kids in the middle school will be a new set of knights, is not that outrageous. This is a wish fulfillment type of movie and instead of being a super hero, the kids get to role play the part of chivalrous defenders of the realm.

When I first saw the title and the poster, I thought it looked a little cheesy, even for a kids movie, but it turns out that it really is well done. The writer-director of this movie is Joe Cornish, who contributed to screenplays for "Ant-Man" and "The Adventures of Tintin" as well as his own picture. the excellent "Attack the Block".  In fact, this concept is not too far astray from the premise of this movie, so it is a natural fit for his way of thinking about young people. This is maybe a little more sanitized, but it is a younger audience that it is seeking. The four principles are new to me, but they nicely fit into the stereotypes that the film counts on us seeing as a shortcut to character development.

Merlin does age backwards. In his older version he appears as Patrick Stewart in just a few scenes. Usually, the young Merlin is on hand and he is played by a David Tennant doppelganger who provides guidance and exposition for the younger leads. There is a little inconsistency concerning the rules under which Merlin can operate during the day, but most people won't notice that, instead they will be amused by the comic bits that this gawky teen finds himself in. Alex, the lead, is played by Louis Ashbourne Serkis, who happens to be the son of actor/director Andy Serkis of Marvel/Lord of the Rings fame and actress Loraine Ashbourne, a well known performer from British television. The kid actually looks like a real kid and not just a pretty face to put in the lead spot. Bedders, his chum is played by a newcomer who seems to be channeling the sidekick character from the recent Spider-Man movies, a graft that works pretty well.

There is just enough derring do and scary special effects for the family audience this movie is seeking. Like cream rising to the top, I suspect this will be a winner down the road even if it does get pushed aside this year by other family fare. The opening comic illustrations are excellent, the spirit of the movie and it's ultimate theme are admirable, and the youngsters are game. This is a charming family film that I can recommend to parents to take their children to. I took mine, shes 30 and she enjoyed it too. 

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Stan & Ollie

Sometimes it is just nice to sit and watch a film that can entertain you without any explosions, car chases, political satire or smug irony. "Stan & Ollie" is the sort of picture that adults used to be able to see at a movie theater. Most films of this sort get shuttled off to a streaming service where older audiences can enjoy them without having to mix with the youthful riff raff. Fortunately, some film makers are still interested in providing a theatrical experience and some older audiences are still interested in venturing out of the house on a Friday night.

This is basically a biopic about one of the great comedy duos of the Twentieth Century. I do worry a little about the next generation having no context for films however, when the young lady taking my popcorn order asked me what I was going to see and I told her, she asked "What's it about?"  Of course my students probably think the same think when I ask who or what is Post Malone? So the problem does flow both directions, but I don't work at a radio station or record store, she is working in a movie theater. I guess since she is not at the ticket counter, the only product she needs to worry about are the Sour Patch Kids.

Anyway, that is neither here nor there. This movie focuses on a period of time where Laurel and Hardy were past their prime. It opens with a flashback to 1937 when at their height, they are involved with a contract dispute at RKO. Fifteen years later, they have returned to Great Britain to do a theater tour of their bits live on stage. It seems as if this is primarily to set the stage for a film project being put together but it has a whole set of events surrounding it to make it worth investigating. Unlike "The Sunshine Boys", this is not about two old timers who hate each other getting back together out of necessity. The two have had their differences but are still deeply connected to each other and have many warm memories and patterns that they play out. There will be a boiling point over some old issues, but that is not the main focus of the story, it is about how these two men complement one another and value their professional relationship.

If you need another reason to be irritated at the Academy Awards, take note that the excellent script, production design, make-up and performances were all ignored in this years list of nominees. I have nothing against Willem DaFoe, and I have not seen the movie for which he has been nominated, but if he gave a better performance than John C. Reilly or Steve Coogan, then he should be the favorite, and I know he is not. These two actors have embodied the real life characters so well that the physical transformations that come with hair and make-up are almost unnecessary. The genteel mannerisms, the quiet voiced frustrations of real life, seem to be legitimate extensions of the more exaggerated screen presence of the two. The two actors also play out scenes from Laurel and Hardy's repertoire with sincerity and aplomb.  The two leads are matched by actresses playing their wives who are equally excellent, although we have a harder time confirming veracity because we know those characters less. Shirley Henderson, who most of you will recognize as Moaning Myrtle, plays Ollie's wife Lucille. She is as loving and engaged with her husband as a woman can be. Nina Arianda is Stan's wife Ida, a domineering and aggrandizing presence in the life of the comedy duo. 

At the end of the film, you can feel your heart being warmed as everything resolves itself in a manner that reasserts the love that these two have for each other. It also feed our desire to see the two as true friends rather than just business partners forced into a relationship of convenience. The movie does not move mountains or dazzle us with technique. Rather, the film allows the actors to communicate as their characters, and we get to feel like we are there. After seeing the film, you will almost certainly want to bath in the waters of the nearly 200 hundred features and shorts that the two did together. That is reason enough to love the film. 

Monday, January 21, 2019

They Shall Not Grow Old

A hundred years from now, people will not have to guess what we were like, or how we lived or what thoughts we might have. Our technology and culture is resulting in the most documented, photographed/filmed generation in human history. For good or ill, our lives will be available in a format that ten decades from now will be understood and easily accessible. Go backwards a hundred years and the exact opposite is true. We have grainy pictures, incomplete sound and you have to go to an historical archive to even see that world, at least until now. Peter Jackson, of "Lord of the Rings" fame, has scoured through the 100 hours of film footage that the Imperial War Museum has, and put it together to make a fascinating look at the experience of soldiers on the Western Front of "The Great War".

His collaborators have meticulously re-timed the footage to create a smooth flow of film that was usually hand-cranked at different speeds. Computers have been employed to correct lighting, remove scratches and debris and generally make an experience feel as if it was recorded with contemporary technology. Voice actors from appropriate parts of the British Isles give voice to words silently spoken in the film clips from the war, by using lip reading technology and extensive notes of official publications. Sound effects are recreated using traditional Foley techniques and authentic equipment from the era. It is as if a film crew from 2018 was able to step back into 1918 and get a brief glimpse into the world of those serving in the trenches.

That world is both inspiring and horrifying. The actual voices of WW I vets, from oral history recordings done when they were in their seventies, are played over scenes and create a narrative that is pretty basic but just right for the footage we are seeing. Boys who were 15 and 16, lied about their ages to volunteer. Everyone was enthusiastic in supporting the war effort of their nation. During the film, they are not shy about describing some terrible conditions and nightmare inducing experiences. All war is hell, but this particular version of hell involved circumstances that were brutal. The insects, the vermin and the stench practically crawls off the screen to make us all glad that we did not have to do this ourselves. It also should make us stand in awe of the men who did.

Jackson has not attempted to cover all the fronts in the war. So navel conflict, the air war, the home front and the role of women, doctors, and politicians is excluded. This is about the front line. The men who slept in trenches , while standing up or crawling into a mudhole between duty assignments are the focus of this documentary. The story is told somewhat chronologically, staring with recruitment and training efforts and ending with unemployment at the wars conclusion. This was a Fathom Event, so it was a one day set of screenings. If you find this wonderful piece of history somewhere, be sure to watch, it will devastate you and inspire you simultaneously.

My Family Contribution to the Great War

Saturday, January 19, 2019


I'm afraid I feel compelled to start my comments here with a bad joke. My opinion on this film is not as clear as a pane of...oh, you know.  There was a lot that I liked about the concept, set up and visualizations here, but there are plot holes, trails not followed and an ending that is frustratingly opaque. "Glass" should be better than it is, but in many ways I don't think it can. M. Night Shyamalan has created a set up for his super hero epic, but stops short of committing to the characters he created to continue his mythologizing of comic books. I suspect a lot of people will be pissed off at this.

I was a fan of "Unbreakable" when it arrived 19 years ago. The notion that a sequel might be coming was appealing but not essential to me. I pretty much got the point of that story and it felt complete. After pitting out with some films that are reviled by film fans, Shyamalan seemed to redeem himself with an effective thriller with "Split" two years ago. In a surprise, as the film was wrapping, it is revealed that this story was taking place in the same world as "Unbreakable" and it set up this sequel with just a little bit of effort. The problem he now faced is making that set up pay off.

To begin with, the return of Bruce Willis in a film by Shyamalan is promising. A couple of hours before going to see this, I watched the "Death Wish" remake from last year. Willis seemed to be sleepwalking through that part, but here he feels more invested and his grizzled beard and careworn face match the super hero character in the shadows that he is representing.  The opening section of this film re-establishes his David Dunn as "The Overseer" a mysterious vigilante who punishes lawbreakers and tries to protect those in jeopardy. David works in conjunction with his son, who has become the guy in the headset to his father's avenger. I think a stand alone story of David's life as this character would have worked pretty well a decade ago. It would also give us a chance to see how important the discovery of a real superhero would be to a community. Alas, we only get the most effective scenes in this movie, the stalking of the neighborhood in search of "the Horde", and the rescue of four potential victims of "the Beast". Having the grown actor who played David's son Joe in "Unbreakable" return to be his partner works well and gives a sense of continuity to a story with a nineteen year gap.

James McAvoy repeats his impressive trick of channeling multiple personalities through the one body that we know exists. There is a little bit more of a carnival trick to the performance in this film with the rapidity with which he must change characters. It's almost like a voice over actor, doing all of the characters they voice, in a conversation. It is amazing, but it does feel a bit like a trained seal act. One of the drawbacks of the script is that we never really get to understand this character because it changes so often, Just as we start to get a sense of motivation, the personality switches and it becomes cloudy as to why things are happening. "the Beast" becomes a coherent character at one point, rather than just the monster that all the others were in fear of. If this is the dominant personality and it took complete control, maybe our interest level would be a bit higher.

This is a very talky picture. While in the first section of the movie, there are a couple of action scenes, the second act is all slow burn set up with Samuel Jackson's Mr. Glass playing a somnambulist villain, lying in wait to spring his plan. Shyamalan is honest enough to leave a trail of bread crumbs so that the twists of the escape and subsequent confrontation are justified, but there in lies the problem.  Having been so meticulous with laying that groundwork, he turns right around and violates that trust with another pivotal character. The fourth lead in this story turns out to be a critical element of the climax of the film, but that is not set up at all. What appears on the surface to be a passive agenda of discovery turns out to be the main plot of the film and it just doesn't work well.

As I dance around spoilers and sharing reveals, it is a little difficult to ignore some plot holes that might foreshadow the twist. The psychiatric institution that the characters all occupy, is the least populated facility you can imagine. The security for supposedly dangerous individuals is nearly non-existent. Maybe that will all be explained away by the films's advocates as a deliberate act in the twist, but it just looks like it is slapdash storytelling to me. For a guy who has spent 19 years in prison heavily sedated, Mr. Glass has programming skills that are just a little too neat. Finally, be careful here, this may be TMI: the idea that an on-line video will spark a shift in paradigms, rather than ten thousand deconstructions is simply not realistic.

Unlike in his previous work, where the twist endings have been earned [whether you liked them or not], the ending here feels like a cheat. It also includes a downer moment that will deflate fans of super hero movies and stories. I can't say that the idea that the three films in this series are all an origin story doesn't make sense. From a comic book perspective it probably does. I just doubt that there will be any subsequent use of that idea, because the audience is not likely to make an investment in something that is shoveled on them in the last ten minutes of a six plus hour journey they have taken. I suppose though that this is where the ultimate controversy will rest. My enthusiasm however  is mostly exhausted.  

Thursday, January 17, 2019

"It's Strictly Personal": A Book Review

I started my movie version of the blog in 2010. I was interested in films from my years growing up as a teenager during the 1970s.  The project was originally intended to run the length of that summer and then I would be done with it, but movies have a way of steering your life in directions that you can't always anticipate. I was over fifty years old when I started working on the project, and I was not particularly adept at using the social media that was available. As I became more familiar with what I was doing, I discovered of course that I was not the only person who had opinions about movies, and that included films from my preferred time line. I started searching for other bloggers who, like me, were not only interested in reviewing a movie but also cared about the context of the times and the personal history that they had with the movies they loved. I had searched a few movie blogs for sites similar to mine, but I struggled to locate the right mixture. Everybody had opinions about movies, and many had opinions about old movies, but where were the ones who wanted to share more than just their opinions but a little something about themselves?

Two sites came to my attention in 2011. One was recommended to me by a blogger who for a time posted on a daily basis and seemed to have a very committed community following him. He sent me to "It Rains...You Get Wet"  written by a guy here in Southern California who was once a theater projectionist. We have connected many times since then in the real rather than the virtual world, and he has become a friend that I look forward to meeting at screenings here in the Southland on a regular basis.

The second site I discovered on my own, simply by scrolling through movie sites listed on the Blogger Platform. Unlike my colleague from So.Cal. , this guy was ten years younger than me, and he lived on the other side of the country. He was reviewing films in his own library, going through them alphabetically. That seemed like a fun approach so I started reading some of his reviews and lo and behold, they were not simply reviews but often microcosms of his life and movie going experiences. This was very close to what I did originally and still attempt to do from time to time. I have been a loyal reader of "My Movies, My Words" since early 2011. The author of this site is Eric Friedman, and he has taken his concept one step further and produced a book, based on the same principle but organized with a very specific theme in mind. My copy arrived two days ago, even though I ordered it the minute it was available last week. I feel a little proprietary toward the book, having interacted with Eric for so many years and sharing stories about movies we loved and experience we had in common.  I was a little jealous of others who were able to read it before me, but now that I have caught up with them, I can safely say that I have joined the club of satisfied customers.

Eric is usually my favorite read each week when he posts another one of his reviews. He is opinionated, intelligent and passionate about what he likes in a film. I have not always agreed with him on his perspectives on some movies, but he always makes a reasonable argument for what he believes. He also shares some information about his history with a film, and that is what his new book, "It's Strictly Personal" does in depth. It is an autobiography of a man you have not met and almost certainly never heard of before, but it is a story that all film fanatics share. Starting as an eight year old and moving up to the point at which he turns 16, Eric tells the story of how movies reflect his life history. This is something that all of us movie bloggers could do if we took the time to work it out. We all have that first film going experience in our memories. We can recall the scenes that frightened us as children or made us laugh out loud. My guess is most of you can remember a movie that you did not understand as a child, which later became a beloved touchstone of your life. That is the story Eric is telling here.

The book is written as if we are having a long conversation with an old friend, and he is filling us in on his life and the movies we share in common. He is honest in his description of a somewhat dysfunctional family life growing up, but he is not maudlin about how things turn out, they simply reflect the personal history that recalls as the movies play out like the soundtrack to his life.  He is well spoken of many of the critical elements of film making, but like me, and I suspect most of you, he is a well informed hobbyist rather than a scholar. The other thing he is, is a good writer. He has a direct way of expressing his views but he also includes the details that make each story interesting. Although he has done some historical research to make sure his dates are accurate, he relies on his vivid memories to tell these stories.

A a Generation X kid, his encounters with films often include the frustrating but essential background of having to see a film for the first time on television. His parents were not like the permissive generation that would allow a child of eight to see "Jaws" [that of course would be a fault my generation would be guilty of. mea culpa] It's fun to live through his frustration of wanting to be part of the cultural zeitgeist when your parents don't approve of horror movies and you lived through the age of "Halloween" and "Friday the 13th".

Also, Eric having grown up in the NYC area, we get a bit of history concerning movie theaters of the suburbs and those in the city itself. HBO is an heroic figure in Eric's life and the stories related to sleepovers with a friend and watching in a more permissive household, will certainly seem familiar to others of that generation. Reading about how a kid changes from a naive child to a more engaged adolescent may seem like a strange journey to you, until you realize we have all made the same journey. The delight of this book is that the author has put words to paper so we can take that journey together again. You may not have the same inventory of films in your memory bank that Eric shares, but those of us who do love movies, have similar stories that his experiences will help us to evoke.

Social Media may sometimes be a pox on the world. Twitter is filled with trolls who want to shame, virtue signal or generally act like the smart ass kid in the back row. Blogs allow the most wretched of people and ideas to be available to anyone unfortunate enough to trip over them. Despite those drawbacks, social media also allows us to connect with others who we would never have met otherwise. I have several virtual friends that I know because of our shared love of movies. I am happy to say that Eric Friedman is one of them. After having read his book, I feel like we are closer friends than I am with some of my childhood buddies, simply because we speak the same language, ...AND THERE WERE MOVIES!

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse

I had originally dismissed this as a piece of television animation that was getting a theatrical release to boost interest in DVD sales and streaming. Well that turned out to be wrong. After hearing a number of my colleagues on "The Lamb" rave about it, and seeing a half dozen really positive reviews (which I scanned rather than reading), I became a lot more motivated. I can now see why there is a lot of enthusiasm, and while I am not inclined to say it was the best film of the year as some of the hyperbole had it, I can say it was excellent.

The story does take a while to set up and you have to be patient with it. Not only do most of us know the origin story, but when the various dimensions start crossing paths, we get it partially recapped, although with slight variations each time. The main focus in this telling is on Miles Morales, a kid from Brooklyn who is starting at a charter school where he stays in a dorm during the school week. This story is immediately different because Miles has a loving Mother and Father present in his life. He is not alienated from them but he does have some of the usual adolescent angst that comes from trying to be your own person but also needing your family. Miles is gifted but more in the arts than the sciences, and his radiated spider bite is not a result of his involvement with a science project but rather, a graffiti experience he undertakes with his uncle in the subways of N.Y..

The look of the film is interesting because it contains a variety of painting styles, animation techniques and comic book themes. There are multiple panels being used at once and the progression thru the story is sometimes abbreviated by that style. This really is a hip hop version of a Spider-man story, complete with street art and music to lead us through our hero's tale. The backgrounds are textured with the kind of pixelation that you would see in an old school comic book or maybe video game. In the traditional Spider-man films, whether from Sony or from Marvel/Disney, the character does look like a cartoon in a real world setting at times. This movie makes all the world look like a drawing so you stop noticing how different the animation is in the action scenes. I had a slight problem because the image sometimes looked blurry to me, as if it was created for 3-D and I was not wearing my special glasses. I assume this was an intentional choice rather than an exhibitor error. It was the main fault I had with the way the movie looked.

The story is self aware, making slight insider references to the other films in the Spider-man universe. There is also a version of the character that looks like a Warner Brothers cartoon, and a Porky Pig reference is made. Multiple villain appear and they seem to be altered to some degree by the intersection of the dimensions as well. Dr. Octopus for instance will probably surprise you a bit. The Kingpin is the main antagonist and we are given just enough information to understand his motivations for the actions he takes and his desire for what he sees as revenge. Some new villains (or at least I assume they are new, I'm not a reader of the comics) also appear in the story, and there is a twist that comes but it is signposted well before it arrives so it is easier to swallow.

We end up with six different versions of Spider-man, aiding one another in trying to stop the scheme while also dealing with the possibility that they will glitch our of existence.  My favorite was Noir Spider-man, who looks like Darkman but even better, is voiced by Nicholas Cage. The mash up of styles for the different heroes is not as jarring as you might expect and in the end it all works pretty well. Some storlines could be a bit more complete but as a comic book film, "Into the Spider-verse" achieves its purpose. I was entertained and enjoyed expolring different variations on the same theme. Plus there is a really fun shot taken at Sam Rami's "Spider-man 3". That should give the comic book geeks something to look forward to as well. If you stick to the end of the credits, you will also get a nice nostalgia moment for old timers like me. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Film Year in the Rear View Mirror

The YouTube Friendly version of the Top 10

55 New Films this year, here is a video inventory for you.

20 Posts Covering Older Films, Special Events and Assorted others.

5 Movies I Want Everyone to See

I have been restoring posts that were originally published on Fogs Movie Reviews back in 2013. Fogs closed his site so the material I wrote has to be re-listed. I've been doing it piecemeal, so here are the links for the five entries I updated this year.


I was a very active member of the LAMB community this last year. [Large Association of Movie Blogs for you neophytes], and I started off the last year with the Movie Of The Month Podcast I championed, Ishtar. You can listen here:

After being on at least seven other of the LAMBCast episodes, Jay, the Shepard of the LAMB, decided that he might as well just automatically fill a weekly spot and give himself the chance to take an occasional episode off, by naming me as Official Co-Host of the LAMBCast. Since assuming my position in June, I have co-hosted 20 episodes with Jay, and flown solo on another half dozen. 

In addition, My daughter Amanda, joined the LAMB this year and was a participant on three of those podcasts, including hosting the December MOTM, a Christmas themed show on the film "Meet Me In St. Louis" which she championed to victory. You can listen here:

Three of the shows we did in the last year were Draft Shows, where the participants draft a slate of films in a genre or category and then the community votes for what they think was the best slate. Frankly, having lost on Lambardy a year earlier, I was determined to do as well as I could on these competitions. Thanks to friends, readers and enlightened members of the LAMB community, I went three for three. I won the Spielberg Draft,
The Modern Animation Draft 

and the 1960s Draft. 

Jay would like to attribute my victories to superior campaigning, and that might be the case, but if you look at the lists, I think you will see that the results are due to superior selections. 

I also had a wonderful time talking with Todd, the host of the Forgotten Filmcast, about a Strother Martin film "The Brotherhood of Satan"

Click to find a link to the podcast

2018 Big Screen Re-visits

Between Fathom, The TCM Film Festival and The American Cinematique, here are the films I revisited on the big screen from years past.

Favorite Movie Related Posts

This is post in praise of Physical Media.

This was a special Screening of a film starring a Radio God and Podcaster, Mark Thompson of the Mark and Brian Show.

A Live Musical Performance of Jaws, with the Family

A Pop up Laserdisc Sale, and boy did we make out.

The L.A. Philharmonic does Kubrick

Not So Great

A few films that are guaranteed to be disappointing. Sometimes my review was more positive than my real feelings for the films.

10 Great Moments in 2018 Films

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The Traditional Top 10 for 2018

So I enjoyed a lot of films this year but I would not say I was knocked out by many. In some years I could pick out a dozen films that will be on my long term watch list. This year, there were maybe five or six. Certainly there were plenty I enjoyed but I would not classify them as classics.

This is the traditional top ten list for 2018. As usual, I am not making a completely aesthetic judgement, my list is always most strongly influenced by my subjective reaction to a film. These are the movies that moved me, or stood out in my memory.