Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Five kids' movies (more or less)

Somewhat in the vein of my "Cheapo DVD" series, I am ready to report the results of several nights of DVD watching.
First, there was Kids vs. Aliens from the cheapo-DVD bin at Walmart. To cut to the chase, don't watch this movie. It wasn't as bad as I Kill Giants (cf. my review titled "Movies So Bad They Piss Me Off"), and that's the highest compliment I feel like paying it. This sci-fi/horror movie features a pair of siblings who shoot cheesy sci-fi/horror movies in their barn with a couple of nerdy friends, and a group of popular teens who con the older sister into letting them throw a rave at their house while their parents are out of town, and a bunch of aliens whose glowing, yellow spaceship is apparently powered by liquefied human skin. Yuck. Obviously, the "good" kids have a big fight ahead of them, on two fronts, including one of the popular teens being turned into a horrible monster with throat-ripping fangs and Freddy Krueger claws, and another who feels so entitled to survive that he's willing to sacrifice innocent lives to do so.

Unfortunately, the "good" kids aren't much more likeable, from my point of view. Not that you want to see them die. But you also don't want to see them, period. To some degree, I look for movies that might be fun to show to my parents, if they'll let me. I'm still trying to get my dad to watch The Black Phone with me. But this kind of movie I don't think they'd appreciate if I showed it to them, and I don't blame them. The language is saltier than we go for, as a family, and the ending (I'm trying not to spoil it) was of the kind that leaves me asking myself both "What the hell?" and "Why did I watch this?" Dark, ugly, unsatisfying, jarringly and yet at the same time confusingly grim, with a sort of deus ex machina – a twist that nothing in the movie prepares you for or even foreshadows – but one that turns out to be worse than the devils the kids have been fighting from the go.

Would I award this movie "Three Scenes That Made It For Me"? OK, maybe. (1) The ultimate gross-out scene, in which the aliens demonstrate their flesh-melting technology on a victim who continues to writhe and scream until quite a way into the process. (2) When the king of the popular teen crowd finally gets his comeuppance. (3) When the young filmmakers employ their "grand finale."

The next DVD was The Mitchells vs. the Machines, from the same folks who made the terrific Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I came prepared to love the movie, and I wasn't entirely disappointed. Katie Mitchell is an aspiring filmmaker who is so ready to jet off to film school and be among people who get her, for the first time in her life. Foremost among those who don't get her is her dad, who decides at the last moment to patch things up with her by dragging the family on a cross-country road trip to take her to college, despite the fact that this means she'll miss orientation week and her long-awaited chance to start fitting in with her kind. Luckily, the robot apocalypse breaks out as their trip gets underway, and the unique family dysfunction of mom, dad, Katie and little brother Mitchell proves to be the key to them becoming the last human beings on earth who haven't been locked up in little stacking containers, set to blast off into outer space.

Joined by a couple of robots who get damaged enough to start accepting the family's commands, they set off on a quest to save humanity – which ultimately means breaking the AI that turned evil about 5 seconds after its creator declared, "It will never turn evil!" I somewhat wish I hadn't watched three other movies since this one, because I'd probably have a more vivid memory of the crisp dialogue and funny gags. I do remember one bit that won't play well in Mom-and-Dadville, a throwaway line in the epilogue of the movie that introduces a gratuitous gay theme. I mean, it doesn't even go anywhere and it ends up being pointless, but you can't not have a gay theme in a kids' movie these days. Screw Christian families, right?

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The family's desperate battle against smart appliances, toys, tennis rackets, etc. when they try to upload the robots' kill code at the manufacturer's mall outlet. (2) The movie-within-a-movie in which a police dog tells his sock-puppet sarge what Katie needs her dad to hear. (3) When the boss AI, embodied in a cell phone, asks her robot underlings to set her on a table so she can flop around and scream.

The next three movies are components of a four-DVD set of Laika claymation features. Three reviews, not four, because one of them happens to be Coraline, which I previously reviewed. Great movie, based on a great book by Neil Gaiman, and I do intend to watch it again, but for this blog's purposes, been there, done that.

Continuing the theme of "movies that have a bonus gay issue tacked on at the end" is ParaNorman, a 2012 flick featuring a young boy named Norman who sees dead people. Because of it, he gets picked on at school and yelled at by his father, and people generally think he's nuts. All this makes for a very lonely childhood, although there are plenty of ghosts to chat with in a Massachusetts town whose main claim to fame is hanging a suspected witch 300 years ago. And I mean, coming up on 300 years to the day. Then, suddenly, a scruffy uncle comes into Norman's life, both before and after his own death, warning him that he must read a story at the witch's grave on the night of her death anniversary in order to keep her ghost sleeping. Otherwise, the dead will rise – particularly, the judge and the false witnesses from the witch's trial.

As all heck begins to bust out, Norman is joined by his boy-crazy teenaged sister, Courtney (Anna Kendrick), a pudgy kid named Neil who has decided to be his best friend despite Norman's reluctance to have one, and Neil's hunky teenaged brother Mitch (Casey Affleck), who in one scene makes a lingering and unusual-for-a-kids'-animated-movie, beefcake-dressed-only-in-a-shower-cap-and-bath-towel appearance that will leave you suspecting that the makers of this movie are unhinged. I'm happy to report that a study of their other films confirms this suspicion, mostly in an entertaining way. By the time this vision is vouchsafed unto her, Courtney has already been established as a self-involved ditz who is crazy about hunky teenaged boys, which enables the tease of a possible romance with Mitch to be the one thing that spares the late-in-the-film gratuitous gay theme from being completely pointless; the joke, after all, is on Courtney.

Anyway, enough about beefcake Play-Doh models. The kids start out searching for information about where the witch is buried, so Norman can read her bedtime story before a riot between zombies and the living tears the town apart. Eventually, Norman realizes that a more permanent solution is needed, and that means really having a meaningful talk with the witch's ghost, despite the fact that she's doing her best to destroy everything and especially him. The story turns out to have a lot to do with the loneliness of being different and the harm that people can do, even thinking they're in the right, when they're driven by fear of the strange and uncanny. The story is too grounded to pretend that everybody can actually get along, but you see progress made, at least, in one little Massachusetts town.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) The early scene in which Norman tells his dad, "Grandma would like you to turn up the heat. She says her feet are cold," and dad replies, "You know Grandma is dead. You have to stop this." It's a clever way to establish that Norman can see and speak to the dead. Unlike Cole in The Sixth Sense, he's cool with it; but for now, he's the only one. (2) Mitch praises his beloved van for making it through a terrible ordeal in one piece, and then ... (3) The gruesomely hilarious amount of effort it costs Norman to prise the all-important book free of the dead, stiff fingers of Mr. Prenderghast (voiced by John Goodman, by the way). While I'm noting celebrities who were in the voice cast, there's also Bernard Hill (Theoden in The Lord of the Rings), Tempestt Bledsoe (who was a Cosby kid back in the day), Elaine Stritch (of "Ladies Who Lunch" fame), Alex Borstein (Family Guy), and more.

Next, there was The Boxtrolls, based on Alan Snow's book Here Be Monsters!. Set in a bizarre, early-industrial-era city where way too much importance is laid on cheese and tall, white hats, it features a race of little men who come out at night to steal junk that city-dwellers throw away, taking it back to their cavern to build new stuff out of it for themselves. Each box troll lives, funnily enough, in a box – a cardboard carton, I mean – and takes his name from whatever product is depicted on the box, such as Fish, Shoes, Sweets and so on. They're bringing up a little boy as their own, named Eggs for reasons I'm sure I don't need to explain, but meanwhile they're being hunted to extinction by an exterminator named Snatcher and his trio of henchmen, Messrs. Trout, Pickles and Gristle. Why? Because Snatcher wants a white hat, and admission to the exclusive (cheese) tasting room at the pinnacle of Ratbridge society (that's the name of the city in the book; it might actually be Cheesebridge in the movie). To that end, he has framed the boxtrolls for stealing a child and allegedly eating him, though actually, he's Eggs and therefore alive and well.

Madcap adventures ensue as Eggs tries to save the boxtrolls, and the daughter of the city's big cheese (titter) joins him in his quest, and everybody learns a lot of things they didn't expect to learn, like the fact that the theatrical Madame Frou-Frou is actually Snatcher in drag (ew), and adults are generally stupider than children, and boxtrolls can change after all (despite their default behavior being hiding in their boxes), and two out of three evil henchmen can be induced to realign with the side of good if only they know where it is, and a lot can be done to make a truly weird and original worldscape go down if you pair the visuals with top-shelf voice talent such as Ben Kingsley, Jared Harris, Simon Pegg, Richard Ayoade, Nick Frost, Dee Bradley Baker (Star Trek: Prodigy), Tracy Morgan, Fred Tatasciore (Troll Hunters, Star Trek: Lower Decks), Isaac Hemptstead Wright (Game of Thrones), Elle Fanning, Brian George (The Big Bang Theory) and Toni Collette.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Eggs, in denial about being a human boy, explains why he doesn't fit in his box ("I'm long-limbed") or talk like a boxtroll ("I have a speech impediment"). (2) Eggs tries to unmask Madame Frou Frou in public, but the imposture survives thanks to the blinkeredness of adults like Winnie's father. (3) One of the henchmen estimates that he is 60 to 70 percent confident that he's one of the good guys.

Most recently, I saw Kubo and the Two Strings. I'm still not sure why it's called that. Designed to reflect a Japanese aesthetic and cultural background, it tells the story of a one-eyed boy whose father sacrified himself, when he was a baby, to give his mother time to get away from him. Away from whom? Away from her father, the Moon King, and her two witchy sisters, a cold-hearted lot all around. Despite not having an eye, not being allowed outside their cave after dark, and having to watch his mother slowly to succumb to some kind of dementia (or maybe a really serious form of depression), Kubo has some gifts. He's a great storyteller, though he doesn't like endings. He's really good at origami, and combined with a certain magical gift connected with a shamisen (a guitar-like musical instrument that, take note, has three strings), he can really bring folding paper to life. It's just tough on him that the Moon King wants his other eye, and that his aunts are such ruthless killers.

Pretty soon, Kubo finds himself on a quest to find three pieces of magical armor that were promised to his father. Because it's never fun to go on a quest alone, he allows a talking monkey (who used to be a wooden charm) and a giant beetle (who used to be a samurai) come along. They visit some pretty far-off places, like a cavern where a giant skeleton defends a skull pincushioned with swords; a sea guarded by creatures whose giant, single eyes are known to hypnotize those who look into them; and the deck of a ship magically assembled from fallen leaves. Again, voice talent counts for something, including Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, George Takei (you'll know him by his "Oh, my!") and Brenda Vaccaro. The hero boy is voiced by another Game of Thrones alum, Art Parkinson.

This is a movie with great scenic beauty and, at least from a non-Japanese point of view, a strikingly unusual story structure. If you're a fan of Studio Ghibli, you might see some familiar imagery. Otherwise, it's all wondrous and new and strange to the western eye. I'm not sure whether I love or hate the final resolution of the conflict between Kubo and his grandfather, and of course, I must advise Christian parents who are sensitive about the spiritual values of media they share with their kids that the religion featured in this movie involves praying to deceased relatives. It certainly makes a unique part of the Laika set, each of which is rich and strange and more than a little scary.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Kubo's storytelling exhibition toward the start of the movie, with adventures of the great warrior Hanza (his actual father, as it turns out) illustrated by animated origami creatures and accompanied by the shamisen music that seems to make the magic happen. (I suddenly remember a hilarious line in ParaNorman about the school drama club's "kabuki debacle." Sigh.) (2) The battle between the monkey and her witch sister on the deck of the boat of leaves. (3) The closing credits being accompanied by a cover of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

Do check out these Laika movies. They were evidently works of love, and of artistic brilliance and vivid imagination. Expect the unexpected, and even if now and then the formulaic thing happens (like Mitch's last-minute line "You should meet my boyfriend") it somehow rises above the cliche. See if you don't agree.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

The House Witch

The House Witch
by Delemhach
Recommended Ages: 14+

Finlay Ashowan, a.k.a. Fin, starts irritating people the moment he arrives at the royal castle of Daxaria, where he has been hired sight-unseen as the new cook. He doesn't fit anybody's idea of what a cook should be: slim, youthful, hard-headed, and way too well-educated for a mere commoner. He reorganizes everything, insists on working alone in his kitchen most of the time (with a skeleton crew of aides mostly chopping vegetables outdoors), and doesn't act like he knows his place when addressed by nobility or even royalty. But he also cooks the best food anybody has ever tasted, and he creates an oasis of peace and wellbeing for his staff that soon begins spreading into other corners of the castle. An ironic feat when so many people find him personally obnoxious.

Among those most annoyed by him is the beautiful Lady Annika Janoure, a wealthy viscountess who is secretly a spy for the king. Sparks begin flying between the two from the moment they meet. And with a war brewing against the aggressive nation where Fin's estranged father serves as chief of military, the intelligence situation surrounding the kitchen could become really sticky. The guy would have to be a magician or something to survive it. Luckly, he's a witch. A rare, male witch, and an even rarer type of mutant witch whose powers don't follow the usual lines of earth, fire, air and water. He's a house witch, or hearth witch – pretty much powerless outside his home, but able to do all but unlimited wonders within.

Fin mostly uses his power to promote peace and comfort for those who share his home, in this case the castle. Yet somehow, it seems, his talents will become pivotal in the brewing war. And so will Lady Janoure's hand in marriage, which a commoner like Fin can hardly dare to claim, when diplomacy with potential allies may depend on her choice. After a lifetime of being beaten down for being a deficient witch, or for not being what other people expect him to be in any number of other ways, can he learn to stand up for himself the way he has so often stood up for others?

By the end of this rather thick but compulsively readable book, a lot remains to be revealed about how things will work out for Fin and Annika, for the brewing war and so many other intrigues in progress. Along the way, there is an abundance of emotionally moving romantic drama, comedy, snappy repartee, growing dread and adventures magical, political and covert. There are combats, conspiracies, disguises, debates, knock-down-drag-out fights, misunderstandings, medical crises and close scrapes galore. And a pretty obvious "to be continued" at the end.

Canadian author Delemhach is so mysterious that they don't even reveal their sex. Or they might be non-binary, I don't know. They are also the author of The Princess of Potential and two follow-ups to this book, with the eye-rollingly obvious titles The House Witch 2 and The House Witch 3. Although there isn't anything in this "paranormal romance" more scandalous than you would see on the Hallmark Channel these days, parents who are protective of their children's Christian faith may regard some of this book's fantasy-world concepts and moral positions as worthy of Adult and Occult Content Advisories.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Cheapo DVD: Secret Headquarters

My second installment in an ongoing binge of cheapo movies on DVD was Secret Headquarters, which I had never heard of before I saw it in the $7.50 DVD bin at Walmart. It looked like the kind of thing that I would find fun, so I brought it home last night and popped it in the player. It turns out to be a 2022 feature made for a streaming service, in which Owen Wilson plays a divorced dad who doesn't spend much time with his junior high-aged son, Charlie. Secretly, the reason is that he's a superhero known as the Guard, and he stays pretty busy saving the world and stuff.

Charlie doesn't figure this out until one weekend when he's supposed to stay with his dad, but dad takes off on a mission thinking (mistakenly) that Charlie has called his mom to pick him up. Actually, Charlie has called his best friend, who shows up with two girls, and together they discover the Guard's secret lair deep under the house. Unfortunately, as they play around with the Guard's gadgets, a team that's been hunting down the Guard's alien power source locks onto their signal and invades the lair with deadly force.

Although he headlines the cast, Owen Wilson really doesn't lead this movie. In fact, he's almost completely absent except for a few scenes at the beginning and end. The main body of the movie is carried by young Walker Scobell, who is currently playing Percy Jackson (as in "Percy Jackson and the Olympians") in an upcoming TV series. As Charlie, he personifies awkward teenagerhood, with a little extra charm and a defiant attitude. He joins his best friend Berger, Berger's older brother Big Mac, his longtime crush Maya, and a goofy girl named Lizzie in a test of survival against evil weapons dealer Ansel Argon (played by Michael Peña), an obsessed ex-Air Force pilot who was there when the alien power source chose Charlie's dad (Jesse Williams of Grey's Anatomy), and a team of mercenaries named after states of the U.S. All but one or two of whom are prepared to kill, like, kids even, to get what they want.

The gadgets are glorious. The special effects are nifty. There are some juicy parent-child issues for the characters to work through, as well as some good, clean, teen-romance dramedy, such as Charlie's guilt about a nasty trick he played on Maya when they were in fifth grade. There is some fun action, plus surprises, gags, a change of heart and a superhero/villain showdown at a school dance. I'm not saying you just have to rush out and see this movie, but I think you'll enjoy it if you're into shows like Stargirl and Sky High.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Charlie, feeling down about being left at home by his dad, sprawls on the couch and lip syncs an Ann Murray song. Berger shows up with the girls in tow. Charlie's like, "What are they doing here?" Maya: "Berger told us you were lying around, lip syncing to Ann Murray. We had to come." (2) A pair of local cops gets a whole character arc in three brief scenes – learning not to bother chasing superhero hotrods that zoom by at 100-plus mph. (3) Driving the Guardmobile, the Guard tells his son he can ask anything he wants. The three youngsters in the back of the van chime in with their ridiculous questions, prompting the Guard to clarify that the offer was for Charlie only. Yeah, it's another movie in which the gags will probably be most of what you remember. But it also asks questions like what superpower should be used for. And it works as a superhero adventure.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Cheapo DVD: Plain Clothes

I recently went on a DVD buying spree at Amazon, looking up titles I remember seeing when I was much younger and that left an impression on me, someway or other. The first one to arrive was Plain Clothes, a mostly cheesy "cop goes undercover as a high school student" dramedy from way back 1988, when I was about 16. Its headliner is Arliss Howard, to which you probably just said, "Who?" He's been in a lot of things, including (back in the day) Full Metal Jacket and (at a more mature age but still a while ago) a few episodes of Medium. Other than being about as good-looking as they get, when he made this movie, and having a combination of a direct gaze and a mild smile that was almost as good as a sarcastic remark, he didn't bring much to the role. Which is probably why you said, "Who?"

Nevertheless, it's fun to watch the guy disarm a hostage situation, infiltrate the student body of Adlai Stevenson High School to find out who's framing his little brother (Loren Dean) for murder, and gradually transform from a misfit to the most popular kid in the school while dodging trouble from a fellow cop – because if he's caught meddling with an investigation while under suspension, he'll be in a heap of trouble – as well as a bunch of corrupt, cornball teachers. His castmates include Abe Vigoda (actually with a "Still Alive" sign taped to his back at one point), Diane Ladd (Chinatown), Seymour Cassel (Faces), Robert Stack (Airplane!), Harry Shearer (The Simpsons), George Wendt (Cheers), Reginald VelJohnson (Die Hard), Max Perlich (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), Peter Dobson (The Frighteners), Suzy Amis (Titanic and The Usual Suspects), and the list of familiar faces goes on, albeit growing more and more obscure to present-day movie fans. I hate to say it, but I think it's Robert Stack whose performance sets the tone for the whole movie, even though it's a small role. That and a series of jokes in the form of announcements over the school P.A. system, such as one asking whoever left the nurse's office with a certain thermometer, ahem, on their person to return with it.

Before I get to the Three Scenes That Made It For Me, I have to admit that the one scene that has kept this film on my mind all these years is still the best reason to see it today. Assigned by his pretty English teacher to give an example of a metaphor, he reads e e cummings's poem "she being brand new" – a tour-de-force of sexual innuendo disguised as a story about a car – and gets every girl (and woman) in the room hot under the collar. A boy then breaks the tension by saying, "I had a car like that once." If you don't think that's worth the price of seeing this movie, you might want to skip it. Or maybe not. There is a certain silly charm in George Wendt's patter as a pathetic school counselor, Peter Dobson's desperate efforts as a school bully, Seymour Cassel's buddy cop/fake dad gags, and all the deadpan details like the grim fate of Diane Ladd's first husband and her ironic message on a dead man's answering machine. And also, pretty much everything Abe Vigoda does. It's a movie that edges shy of becoming offensive, magically kept "just cute" by the evident consciousness of the ridiculousness of it all that gleams in Howard's eyes in every scene.

And now those Three Scenes, not including the One Scene discussed above: (1) Wendt tells Howard a story, meant to be inspiring, about how he turned a student's life around by putting wood shop tools in her hand and getting her to make something. Asked what happened to her after high school, Wendt snorts, "I don't care." (2) Dean tells Howard about a kid who hanged himself in his cell, a moment that brings this movie as close to real drama as it gets. (3) The arrest of all the teachers (except the cute English teacher) for pension plan fraud by a cop who stumbled upon their conspiracy while fleeing a vicious guard dog. It's truly a movie in which your favorite scenes will most likely be based on what you consider the best gags. And, sure, the "she was brand new" scene, which has populated its own little space in my brain since about 1988.