Friday, August 21, 2015

This Week in Neat-O

:: Bleeding Cool has a neat look at DC's November Loony Tunes variant covers and Marvel's September cosplay variant covers.

:: Interesting interview with Evan Dorkin about how the comics industry has changed and fandom has gotten worse.

:: Birth Movies Death has an article about the original (pre-Simon Kinberg) script for the new Fantastic Four movie, and that sounds like a movie I would watch.

:: The trailer for The Witch is... unsettling.

:: 9 Star Wars Toys That Were Canceled Before Anybody Could Buy Them. Also, someone scanned a Hasbro catalog full of The Force Awakens toys and put it on Facebook. I want a BB-8 figure, for sure. (Note: Nevermind, the catalog was removed from Facebook. Some pretty neat figures. No luggabeast toy, though. The luggabeast is my favorite thing I've seen so far other than BB-8. Creatures forever, man.) (For her part, Becca wants the Chewbacca Furby.)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

80s Revisited: The Witches

The Witches (1990)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg; screenplay by Allan Scott; produced by Jim Henson, Mark Shivas & Dusty Symonds.

I've had a nice memory of going to see this in the theater when I was about 14. It was released not too long after Jim Henson died, and was the last project he actively worked on before his death, so I know I was a little emotional about it. I remember liking it and seeing it a few more times over the next year or two, but I hadn't seen it since.

Turns out, it's a perfectly charming film. What's interesting now is just how much it feels like a Jim Henson movie; it's very much like a feature-length version of one of the short films he was putting on The Jim Henson Hour at the time, like Lighthouse Island. It also stands as a testament to how much he wanted to just tell good stories rather than just put on showcases for puppetry and effects; there are surprisingly few puppets in the story at all, and most of the scenes with them occur during the second half of the story.

The movie starts with a lesson in witch-lore, with Luke (Jasen Fisher, who was also in Parenthood and Hook) being told all about witches by his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling), whose childhood friend was spirited away by witches and put inside a painting in one of the saddest and creepiest scenes in this movie. After Luke's parents die in a car accident, he and Helga relocate to England, and take a seaside holiday at a nice hotel when Helga's diabetes begins to make her unwell. And while there, the hotel is also hosting a convention of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which is itself a front for the witches of England.

One of the things I love about this movie is just how frank it is about witches; it lays out what they are, the rules of the behavior and how they can be identified, and it never breaks from that just to jerk the audience around. It's not really played as supernatural and outside the bounds of reality that witches are crawling around and hunting children in every country. Witches exist, and that's all there is to it, so let's just get on with the story. The movie has a confidence about its material that is sadly rare in children's movies.

Anjelica Huston plays the Grand High Witch, and is absolutely wonderful. She seems to be having a ball playing an unrepentantly sadistic child-hunter, with her German accent and bright, glowing eyes. There's also a reveal of the witch without her human mask on which is fantastic; one of the highlights of the Creature Shop's work on the movie.

The makeup was designed by Stephen Norrington, who was also a creature designer on Jim Henson's The Storyteller and had worked on Aliens. He would go on to work on Alien 3 and direct Blade.

The Grand High Witch has created a formula to turn the children of the UK into mice, and demonstrates it by turning Luke and another boy, Bruno Jenkins, into mice. And the mice... well, here are the mice.

The mice are so cute I wanted to die. Or as my wife put it: "Luke is so cute he makes Stuart Little look like Freddy Krueger."

I was really, really impressed by the puppetry involved with creating the mice, and how well the editing blended them together with real mice. It's almost as sophisticated as the work the Creature Shop would later win an Academy Award for in Babe.

My favorite aspect of the movie is the matter-of-factness with which Luke accepts being turned into a mouse. He goes to Helga for help defeating the witches, and when Helga asks what's happened, Luke says, very earnestly, "She turned me into a mouse." He never panics, he never despairs, he just gets on with it in a very English sort of way (although Fisher is clearly American, but never in an insistent way; he's pretty perfectly cast, without the affectations of a lot of child actors and with round glasses that make him look attentive and engaged instead of disaffected, like a lot of kids... Jim Henson had a knack for casting interesting kids).

I really, really liked this movie. This is the tone I wish more kid's movies would have. Of course, I'm 39, and kid's movies aren't made for me anymore, but I like movies like this that can put me in touch with what I last truly felt what seems like a long, long time ago. I didn't have an easy time as a child, and the movies that made me forget about that... well, it's nice that sometimes you see them and they remind you that you once could.

The film is based on a Roald Dahl novel which I've not read. It was the last Dahl adaptation in his lifetime; he and Jim Henson both passed away in 1990. He didn't like the movie, but he did like Anjelica Huston.

I found this movie magical. Nice to see the magic is still there.

Thank you, Jim.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars (in an excellent performance) as a charismatic and compelling sociopath who crosses ethical and legal boundaries to grow his business as a stringer--someone who sells eyewitness content to news outlets. It's a riveting film, exciting in the way a well-made film is exciting when you have no idea where it's going, and can't believe what it's letting its characters get away with. A stylish flick shot like a thriller, structured like a noir, deceptively reminiscent of a character study, the film rewards active, engaged viewing. Easily one of the best films of last year, definitely in my top five. Reminded me a lot of a movie from 1974 in the best way. ****

Dumbassed Lifetime movie about girls getting older men to pay them for sex, but structured like the stupidest Sex and the City episode never made. Hey, man: college is expensive. Stop shaming young women for making an asset out of the corners we push them into. *

Look, I think these movies are cute. This one closed the door on the series in a fun, surprisingly emotional way. ***

Wow, this was fun to sit with. I love the Mad Max movies, and this one recaptured that feeling in the characteristically bizarre, balls out, crazy way as the others did. I wish more action movies would just go ahead and be radically visionary and just go for it the way this movie does. Especially franchise reboots and whatever they're calling them now, which are so slavish about continuity and delivering the exact same formula. Like all the Max movies, George Miller doesn't seem to care about continuity, so why the hell should we? Especially when this movie is so goddamn enjoyable and looks so beautiful and has a narrative heft without just telling you repeatedly what the themes are. I saw one critic describe this flick as The Gotterdammerung of Drive-In Movies, and that's kind of the perfect description. This is the feeling I so often hope for from gonzo movies and almost never get anymore. ****

After a sexual encounter, a girl is followed by... something. And it wants to kill her. A surprisingly effective horror film that works entirely on dream logic. Any attempt to explain what was going on or expound on themes would've destroyed this. It's so much scarier when we don't know why anything is happening, and I found this movie really compelling in the way it didn't insist on itself. ****

Update 9:52 PM: I really like this piece on io9 about the themes of mortality and awareness in It Follows. It's much more what I thought of the film than the somewhat simplistic idea that it's about STDs.

L'INFERNO (1911)
Italy's first feature film, based on Dante. It's tedious in some spots, the way most silent films can be, but some of the imagery is really fantastic. They go full-on literal interpretation, creating that kind of early 20th century phantasmagoria that is so wonderfully disturbing. ***1/2

I'd never seen this before, and... look, it's stupid, but it's kind of hilarious and fun in how stupid it is. Is there a RiffTrax version of this, because that would be great. Jennifer Aniston is a bitchy young lady from the city who moves with her dad to a run-down North Dakota house. Then Chubby from Teen Wolf accidentally frees a trapped leprechaun who attacks them, demanding they return his lost gold. You can't tell me this wasn't purposely played for laughs; except for the gore and swearing, it's like a kiddie horror comedy. **1/2 stars because it's funny and Warwick Davis is clearly having a great time hamming it up as the Leprechaun.

The real lesson of this Lifetime movie is this: don't steal your daughter's college fund to pay your bills because you mismanaged your money and then just expect her to act like it's no big deal. Because then, you know, she'll turn the afterschool tutoring/babysitting program she created into a prostitution ring to make up the cash she needs. (Actually, this movie did have a chance to say something interesting about misogyny and how criminally expensive higher education is and how a lot of what happens only happens because we drum it into kids' heads constantly that if they don't get a college education right away that they have no future and their lives are ruined, but it totally blows it.) Overly serious, kind of icky, hella stupid. *

Monday, August 17, 2015

Muppet Monday

"A Pirate's Life for Me"... a dramatic reading.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Song of the Week: "Sleeping with the Television On"

I just woke up with an incredible urge to hear it. Glass Houses is Billy Joel's most underrated album, I think.