March 26, 2009

Dumbo (1941)

IF YOU READ OR HEAR anything about Dumbo, one of Disney’s first full-length animated films, it’s almost always heralded as a family classic.

Well, after watching Dumbo with Dash, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly makes this film a “family” classic. Because to me, it was the most jarring, depressing Disney film I’ve ever seen.

Now, before you flame me in the comments (do people still say “flame”?), let me present several examples to defend my statement that Dumbo is not the warm, fun family film everybody remembers it to be:

The opening-scene trauma of a flock of storks dropping off babies to every animal at the circus – except Mrs. Jumbo, Dumbo’s future mama. (Realizing his mistake, the stork soon returns with a baby for her.)
The group of cruel, gossipy lady elephants who talk viciously about Mrs. Jumbo and her newborn, especially after they see his enormous ears: “His disgrace is our own shame.” “I wouldn’t eat at the same bale of hay of him.” “Pretend you don’t see him.”
• Oh, by the way, “Dumbo” is a derogatory nickname given to him by one of the gossips, after he reveals his huge ears. (He had been previously named “Jumbo Jr.” by his mommy.)
The incessant taunting and teasing of Dumbo by, well, everybody but his mother and Timothy Q. Mouse (Edward Brophy).
Mrs. Jumbo is caged and labeled “MAD ELEPHANT” after (justifiably) rampaging and attacking a snotty circus-goer who teases Dumbo.
• Let’s not forget the extended sequence where Dumbo and Timothy get drunk on a bucket of water accidentally spiked with champagne, which includes them seeing pink elephants and other marching, dancing, shape-shifting creatures.
The cigar-chomping, borderline-racist caricatures of the flock of crows (including one named, I kid you not, Jim Crow) who heckle Dumbo and Timothy after the duo wakes up in a tree following their drunken antics.
The heartbreaking reunion between Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo, where she can’t see him through her cage, but can only feel him with her trunk (cue “Baby Mine” and crying by anyone watching).

And to cap it all off, I’ll make a small request: Quick, think of Dumbo. What’s he doing? Flying, right. Well, guess what? He doesn’t fly until there’s less than 10 minutes left in the movie. Let me repeat that: The iconic image most people have of Dumbo is something he does with less than 10 minutes left in the film. In fact, Dumbo’s moment in the big-top spotlight showing off his flying skills happens with only three minutes to go!

It’s like another Disney classic, The Sword in the Stone, where the one image people remember is Arthur pulling the sword out of the stone – which (spoiler alert!) happens in the last 5 minutes of that movie.

Despite all my aforementioned bashing, there are some appealing aspects to Dumbo. The scenes where Mrs. Jumbo and Dumbo bond and play are endearing, and Timothy’s attempts to be his friend are humorous. And okay, the clown firemen bits were pretty funny, and they had Dash and I both laughing.

Look, I’m not saying Dumbo is an awful film. But if I’m rating it based on the fact that it’s viewed and cherished as a kid-friendly classic, then this pic about an airborne pachyderm should be grounded.

Post-script: When Timothy sees Dumbo fly, he realizes where Dumbo fits into the circus show: as the closing act. And he shouts, “Dumbo, you’re a climax!” I quickly had to turn my immature chuckle into a coughing fit to prevent having to explain why that line was so funny to Daddy.

Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5).

What did Dash think?
Dash did seem to genuinely like Dumbo. He chuckled quite a bit during Timothy’s antics, and giggled several times at all the merriment during Dumbo and Timothy’s drunken stupor. He had some thoughts on the opening stork scene and Mrs. Jumbo (“Why didn’t a baby come for her?”), as well as the group of crows busting on Dumbo and Timothy (“I hate them”).

Will you FilmMother want to watch it?
For nostalgic reasons, probably. And again, Dumbo is not a bad film. To me, it’s just a bit dated in terms of what’s considered (to use a well-worn cliché) a film for the whole family.

* Director: Ben Sharpsteen
* Screenwriters: Joe Grant, Dick Huemer
* Stars: Verna Felton, Edward Brophy, Sterling Holloway, Noreen Gammill, Herman Bing
* MPAA Rating: G

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March 19, 2009

Rambo (2008)

I FELT COMPELLED to watch Rambo because of the polarized opinions I had read and heard. Critics lambasted it, while most guys I know said it was the bloodiest, most violent bit of fun they’d seen in a long, long time.

• The country of Burma has endured decades of civil war (Rambo opens with real, horrific news footage of the civil unrest). The killing of monks, farmers, and families, plus the abduction of boys from those families, who are then forced by their captors to become soldiers.
20 years have passed since the last Rambo movie, the ridiculous (even by the series’ standards) Rambo III. We now find John Rambo in Thailand, living in some sort of shantytown village, catching cobras to sell at the local market.
• Rambo’s approached by a group from Christ’s Church of Colorado, who want him to take them up-river into Burma in his boat so they can provide relief and change to the oppressed people there. He declines, telling the group’s leader that, since the team is going in without weapons, they’re “not changing anything.”
• After some convincing by team member Sara (Julie Benz), Rambo agrees to take them into Burma. But once they reach their destination, Rambo is dismissed by the team’s leader, who says they’ll find another way back down the river.
• Soon after Rambo leaves, the village is attacked and completely decimated by Burmese militants. Nearly everyone is killed in brutal, unflinching displays, including women and children. Of the original relief team, only a handful of them (including Sara) survive and are captured.
• Back in Thailand, Rambo later learns that the team he took to Burma has been missing for 10 days. The church’s pastor asks Rambo to take a group of mercenaries to the spot where the team was dropped off, in hopes of locating them and bringing them back.

I won’t go into the rest of the plot, except to say that the mercenary team gets separated, and several of them are killed – giving Rambo the green light to release unholy hell on the Burmese militants.

• It was satisfying to see Rambo as part of a unit, and not a one-man killing machine…well, up to a point, at least.
There are several “DAMN!” moments of Rambo-ness: ripping out of throats…bodies flying onto land mines and back into the air as interchangeable parts…turning a soldier into hamburger at close range with a mounted gun turret…
• The abuse of the Burmese natives is hard to watch: Children are killed, women and a young boy are raped (albeit largely off-screen), and several natives are shown lynched or beheaded.
• The ending tacks on the sweeping music, long stares, and dips a bit into Velveeta.

Rambo is a slice of down-and-dirty, 77-minute mayhem (including an inexplicable 10 minutes of closing credits). At its core, it’s actually a pretty decent action yarn, with sympathetic characters, loathsome ones, and large amounts of brutal injustice to fill you with enough indignation to root for Rambo…and the chaotic bloodbath he unleashes.

In the end, I’m still torn as to how to rate Rambo:

Is it gratuitous? Yes.
Is it exploitative? Yes again.
Is it art? Hell no.
Is it manly, primal, and awesome? Yes. Yes it is.

1 star
as a gratuitous, graphically brutal,
ultra-violent film with no artistic merit.
4 stars
as a manly, awesome, blow-‘em-up, kill-‘em-all movie.

Will your kids want to watch it?
Your kids probably know Rambo as an ‘80s icon (or punchline?), and their curiosity may be piqued with this new entry in the series. But no way in hell should they see this film. There’s so much mayhem and carnage happening on-screen, it’s hard to process at times. Definitely something to shield them from until high school, maybe even till they’re upperclassmen.

Will your FilmMother like it?
Highly, highly doubtful. Even if she thinks it’d be a kick to revisit Rambo on an ironic level, the level of realistic violence in Rambo is not for the faint of heart. If she still persists, you can’t say you (and I) didn’t warn her.

"I used to have a huge career. Now, it's about this big."

* Director: Sylvester Stallone
* Screenwriter: Sylvester Stallone
* Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Ken Howard, Matthew Marsden
* MPAA Rating: R (strong graphic bloody violence, sexual assaults, grisly images and language)

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March 12, 2009

The Legend of Sasquatch (2006)

AS A CHILD OF THE '70S, I was privy to several pop-culture phenomena – one of the biggies being the fascination with Bigfoot, aka Sasquatch (the Loch Ness Monster was a close second). He was everywhere, from magazines to news reports to The Six Million Dollar Man to cheap-and-fast movies (one of which I confessed my fears about to the guys at Kindertrauma).

So when I saw there was a family film called The Legend of Sasquatch, I felt compelled – nay, obligated – to bring it home for Dash and I to watch.

• Little Maggie and big sister Khristy (voiced by real-life sisters Blaire & Jewel Restaneo) fly with single parent Dad (William Hurt) to their new home – a cabin in the woods near a man-made dam where Dad will be working (Mom died recently, but we’re not told how). During the flight, Maggie wonders if they’ll see Bigfoot during their stay.
• One night, Maggie is woken by rustling outside her window, where she catches a fleeting glimpse of Baby Sasquatch hauling hairy butt after gathering pine cones.
• After a couple more nighttime near-misses, Maggie finally meets Baby Sasquatch after luring him into their storage shed with a trail of pine cones. She befriends Baby and his mama, much to the disbelief of his sister and dad (as in, they don’t believe her).
These are not your father’s Sasquatch – instead of big, hairy, scary ape-like creatures, they’re a kinder, gentler, softer Sasquatch (think giant coconuts with floppy, furry clown feet). Not only that, they can fly if they suck in enough air, they live in a cluster of large underground caverns, and their leader is a shaman Sasquatch who extols several aspects of Native American beliefs.
• When flooding caused by the dam threatens the Sasquatch’s underground lair, Maggie tries to enlist her family to help the Sasquatch find a new place to call home.
• There’s also a who-cares subplot involving mountain man Cletus (Lance LeGault) trying in vain to kidnap Baby Sasquatch in the name of fame and fortune.

• For an independent, largely unknown film, The Legend of Sasquatch does have an impressive pedigree of actors, including Hurt, John Rhys-Davis (Gimli from The Lord of the Rings), and voice legends Frank Welker (Scooby Doo’s Fred) as Baby Sasquatch and June Foray (Rocky & Bullwinkle) as Mama Sasquatch. Unfortunately, Welker and Foray are largely wasted, since their vocals for Baby and Mama consist solely of squeaks, grunts, and groans that any competent voice talent could perform.
Sasquatch does have a cute, upbeat soundtrack, including the song “I Can Dream” by the aforementioned Restaneo sisters, who apparently have quite a thriving musical career. The film also features an angelic, lullaby-like score by Stafford Hebert.
Regarding the animation, Pixar has nothing to worry about. The character design and movement is pretty basic and sometimes crude, reminiscent of the early days of VeggieTales. Still, it does seem deliberate in its simplicity, if that makes sense.
The story of Sasquatch owes a lot to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial – the single-parent family, the doubting older sibling, luring the creature into the open with a trail of items (pine cones in place of Reese’s Pieces)…there’s even a scene of Mama, Baby, and Maggie flying in silhouette in front of a full moon.
• I appreciate and understand that writer/director (and Disney/Henson veteran) Thomas Callicoat made Sasquatch as an independent film, which probably restricted his budget and resources. Still, a strong, compelling story can trump even the most frugal execution; unfortunately, that didn’t happen here. In fact, the last 20 minutes meander a bit, getting muddled in hokum about stars and spirits and Maggie’s ability to talk to her dead mom.

Though The Legend of Sasquatch is a less-than-perfect film, there was one scene I must single out: When the Sasquatch have to leave their caverns and search for a new home, Maggie says, “Everyone I love goes away…just like Mommy.” Ranger Steve (Rhys-Davies) then picks up a fallen pine cone and delivers a response that’s so eloquent and powerful, I had to print it here:

“This pine cone is only a shell. It is an empty container that once overflowed with the seeds of life. Should I be sad for this empty shell, or be happy for the life that is still growing in the forest because of it? Part of this pine cone still lives in every tree it has created. Parts of the ones that you love still live in you…no matter where they are.”

At its core, The Legend of Sasquatch is a simple, cute (albeit anemic) tale about the importance of family – not just having one, but preserving it both now and in the memories we’ll cherish throughout our lives.

Odds and ends:
The Legend of Sasquatch was released in 2006, but wasn’t available on DVD until October 2008.
The film received a bunch of family-friendly awards and recognition, including Best Feature Film (Animation) at the 2007 International Family Film Festival, a Dove Foundation seal of Family Approval, an endorsement from the Coalition for Quality Children's Media, and was an Official Selection of the 2007 Kids First! Film Festival.

Rating: 2 stars (out of 5).

What did Dash think?
• Dash was very attentive, but I was checking the clock around the 40-minute mark. Ironically, I was the one fidgeting, not my 5-year-old son.
• No surprise here, but Dash said, “Baby Sasquatch was my favorite.”

Will your kids like it?
The movie is the cinematic equivalent of Nerf; no child will get hurt interacting with it. But older kids will probably find it too slow and syrupy to stay engaged. It’s definitely a better fit for younger children, though be forewarned – there's an early mention by big sister Khristy that Sasquatch is a myth, “just like Santa Claus.” Luckily, Maggie defends that Santa Claus is real, so little ones watching the movie will have someone their age keeping Santa alive and well.

Will your FilmMother like it?
She’ll probably find it a pleasant, inoffensive movie to show to young ones, but if she tries to watch it, I’m pretty sure she’ll be doing clock-checking much like I did.

The Legend of Sasquatch
* Director: Thomas Callicoat
* Screenwriter: Thomas Callicoat
* Stars: William Hurt, John Rhys-Davies, Jewel Restaneo, Blaire Restaneo, Frank Welker, June Foray, Lance LeGault
* MPAA Rating: G

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March 2, 2009

The Thing (1982)

*UPDATED 3/11*

I’LL MAKE THIS INTRO BRIEF and to the point:
If you love sci-fi and/or horror, you must see John Carpenter’s The Thing.

Plot: Scientists at a remote Antarctic research station are confronted by a shape-shifting alien that assumes the identity of the people it kills.

As one of a dozen men inhabiting the research station, Kurt Russell is at the top of his game. He portrays helicopter pilot MacReady as a man who just wants to do his job, get paid, and get drunk – but then is partially forced, partially driven to take charge of the situation.

And forget everything you know about warm, fuzzy character actor Wilford Brimley (Cocoon, those Liberty Medical commercials); in The Thing he’s unpredictable, a bit frightening, and nearly unrecognizable (no Cap’n Crunch mustache) as a scientist who’s slowly losing his marbles.

Upon its release, The Thing was dismissed as a slimy, gratuitous remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic. But over the years, critics and fans have warmed to the film and appreciated not only Rob Bottin’s amazing pre-CGI special effects, but Bill Lancaster’s powerful screenplay, the bass-as-heartbeat musical score by Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), the nightmarish sound effects of the creatures, and Carpenter’s masterful hand at creating an intense atmosphere of isolation, paranoia, and distrust.

In addition to being a great film, The Thing also had great poster art (see above) and one of the best taglines ever, which can be seen at the end of the trailer (which is also pretty awesome):

And after all these years, after seeing The Thing dozens of times, there’s still one scene that makes me jump. I know it’s coming, but damn if I don’t jump anyway. Any guess what it is? Drop a comment with your thoughts; I’ll reveal the answer in a few days. (For the sake of Thing virgins, don’t use the name of the person involved besides MacReady – call him “Ishmael” instead).

Want further proof that you need to see The Thing? As of this writing, it’s #173 on the Internet Movie Database’s list of the top 250 films of all time.

(For more things Thing, check out the website Outpost #31. It’s astonishing how much information and material they have about this film.)

[UPDATE: Mr. Canacorn was the only one who tried to guess which scene in The Thing still makes me jump. While he wasn’t correct, his mention for his still-jump scene is actually mine too: the blood test! Four words: “We’ll do you last.” Take it away, Ishmael!]

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5).

Will your kids want to watch it?
Show one scene of the creature’s transformation to any male tweener, and they’ll be dying for more. However, I’d hold off letting them watch the entire movie for a couple of reasons:

1) While Rob Bottin’s FX are amazing, they are very bloody, gooey, and gory. And there’s also a dash of gunplay and adult language. In other words, its R rating is justified.
2) As a 14-year-old gorehound who saw The Thing on HBO, I was too young to appreciate all the other remarkable elements of the film besides the gnarly special effects.

I know teens are growing up much faster than in my day – and thanks to the Internet, they see more depraved things than ever before. But for your kids to truly appreciate The Thing, I would wait until they are at least a couple years older than I was at my first viewing.

Will your FilmMother like it?
This may be a broad stroke, but I don’t think too many FilmMothers will care for The Thing – which is a shame, because it has top-tier dialogue, direction, acting, and FX. (This is probably one to watch by yourself, with your buddies, with your teenage son(s), etc.) However, if she likes being scared or burying her face in your shoulder when nasty stuff happens on-screen, you may be in luck.

The Thing
* Director: John Carpenter
* Screenwriter: Bill Lancaster
* Stars: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, Charles Hallahan
* MPAA Rating: R

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