Blog Archives

Back in Time: 2019

As I noted in the previous Back in Time article, it seems kind of silly that we put out a “best of the year” list at the end of each year and then just walk away, as if we never watch another movie from that time period again. I watch older movies all the time. Just a few days ago I watched a movie from 1929 that makes me totally re-evaluate that list (as there are now two films on it). So why don’t we ever step back, look at a year again, and amend our best of the year lists? That’s what I’m doing here, going back a year at a time. In this second installment, I’ll talk about my favorite films of 2019, pointing out as I go which ones wouldn’t have made my list at the end of that year because I hadn’t seen them yet.

12. Point Blank. Joe Lynch’s remake of this French thriller was really strong – energetic, exciting, with strong characters and just the right amount of comic relief. It’s a blast to watch.

11. Zombieland: Double Tap (watched in February 2020). While not quite as strong as the original, the second Zombieland film extends the universe in a logical way (at least from a character standpoint – there’s some handwaving going on about how the universe functions from a technical standpoint, but that’s acceptable in a comedy of this type). It’s funny, and it’s fun to watch.

10. Yesterday (watched in February 2020). Richard Curtis has gone in an interesting direction with these sorts of magic realism romcoms. A movie about a man in a world that has somehow forgotten the Beatles is really high concept, but the likable characters and good direction by Danny Boyle carry this forward and make it a winner for me.

9. Klaus. There are a lot of Santa Claus movies out there, including a lot of origin stories, but I never knew that what I really needed was the one that linked old St. Nick to the postal service. This animated film is one of the most charming Santa movies I’ve ever seen.

8. Tread (watched in May 2020). Paul Solet’s bizarre little film is half documentary, half reenactment, and all totally bonkers. The true story of a man who got fed up with his small town and decided to build a tank to flatten it is totally gripping and utterly engrossing.

7. It Chapter Two (watched in March 2020). I know that a lot of people didn’t think the conclusion of this two-film saga was as good as the first part, but I was pulled in and moved by the whole thing. It is my favorite Stephen King novel, and I really felt like this film did it justice.

6. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (watched in June 2021). I never thought that Quentin Tarantino would make a fairy tale, but that’s kind of what this is. As he did with Inglorious Basterds, he created some amazing and moving characters, dropped them into real historical events, and then let things go completely off the rails in a highly satisfying way. In fact, this is now my second favorite Tarantino film, after the aforementioned Basterds.

5. Spider-Man: Far From Home. It almost feels quaint writing about this movie, having seen No Way Home, but this remains one of my favorite Marvel movies. Tom Holland is my favorite Spider-Man, and I thought this film was a fine epilogue to the Infinity Saga that ended in Avengers: Endgame.

4. Joker (watched in Jan. 2020). Batman villain by way of gritty crime drama, Joaquin Phoenix absolutely nails his performance in this movie about a man whose own weakness and the crushing weight of his life ultimately leads to an explosive self-destruction. If they never make a sequel to the film, I think it stands just fine on its own. 

3. Shazam! Outside of Superman, the original Captain Marvel is my favorite DC hero, and I had high hopes that this film would be a lighthearted adventure worthy of the premise of a boy who transforms into the world’s mightiest mortal. What I did not anticipate was a film with a profound message about the power of a found family, and a finale that left me giddy, as it introduced beloved characters that I never would have guessed I would see in a feature film.

2. Knives Out (watched in February 2021). Of all the films on this list, this is the one I’m most angry with myself for sleeping on. The trailers looked like it would deliver a quirky little murder mystery. I was unprepared for how layered, complicated, and altogether satisfying the movie would be – to say nothing of how much fun it was to watch this phenomenal cast tear up the scenery. I couldn’t be happier that there are more Benoit Blanc mysteries in the works.

1. Avengers: Endgame. This topped my list the moment I saw it, and I sincerely doubt there is anything that can possibly topple it. The grand finale of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe up until that point was epic, moving, heartbreaking, triumphant, and contains perhaps the single greatest moment in any superhero movie ever made. Yeah, you know what moment I’m talking about. That one. Magnificent. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. In 2019, he thought that the last couple of years had been lousy, but they were bound to get better, right? 

What I Watched In… September 2016

rope

Favorite of the Month: Rope (1948)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Pit and the Pendulum (1961), C+
  2. Superman (1978), A+
  3. Superman II (1980), B+
  4. Superman III (1983), C
  5. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987), D
  6. Arachnia (2003), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  7. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), A
  8. Blazing Saddles (1974), A
  9. Maggie (2015), B+
  10. Sex in the Comix (2012), B
  11. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), A
  12. Contracted (2013), B-
  13. Contracted: Phase II (2015), C
  14. Coherence (2013), B+
  15. Sabotage (1936), B
  16. Trumbo (2015), B
  17. Deathgasm (2015), D
  18. The Phantom Carriage (1921), B+
  19. Black Swan (2010), A-
  20. Burying the Ex (2014), B
  21. Ex Machina (2015), A
  22. Lilo and Stitch (2002), B
  23. Psycho (1960), A+
  24. Psycho II (1983), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  25. DC Super Hero Girls: Hero of the Year (2016), B
  26. Hitchcock (2012), B+
  27. Horror of Dracula (1958), B
  28. Riding the Bullet (2004), C
  29. Ruby (1977), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  30. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), B+
  31. The Fly (1986), B+
  32. Ghostheads (2016), B
  33. Holidays (2016), B-
  34. Monster House (2006), B
  35. Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006), B+
  36. Wayne’s World (1992), A-
  37. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), F; RiffTrax Live Riff, B+
  38. The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu (2009), C
  39. Murder Party (2007), B
  40. Rope (1948), A
  41. Dreamcatcher (2003), C
  42. Trollhunter (2010), B

What I watched in… April 2016

Hush_2016_poster

Favorite of the Month: Hush (2016)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. The Phantom Tollbooth (1970), B+
  2. April Fool’s Day (1986), D
  3. Fateful Findings (2013), F
  4. Jack and the Beanstalk (1952), B
  5. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), A-
  6. Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe (1990), F; RiffTrax Riff, B
  7. House on Haunted Hill (1959), B-; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  8. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), A
  9. My Dinner With Andre (1981), B
  10. The Blob (1958), B-
  11. The Beginning of the End (1957), D; MST3K Riff, A
  12. The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway (2011), B
  13. Divergent (2014), B
  14. Anastasia (1997), B+
  15. Cube (1997), B
  16. Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991), D
  17. Cube 2: Hypercube (2002), B
  18. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), A
  19. Cube Zero (2004), B-
  20. Astro Boy (2009), B-
  21. Hush (2016), A-
  22. Abar, the First Black Superman (1977), D
  23. Criminal (2016), C+
  24. Justice League Vs. Teen Titans (2016), B+
  25. Masters of the Universe (1987), C
  26. Time Bandits (1981), A
  27. Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), B-
  28. Night of the Living Dead (1968), A; RiffTrax Riff, B

What I Watched In… September 2015

Favorite of the month: Black Mass (2015)

Favorite of the month: Black Mass (2015)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Swamp Thing (1982), D+
2. The Maze Runner (2014), B-
3. Clue (1985), A
4. LEGO DC Comics Super Heroes: Justice League-Attack of the Legion of Doom (2015), B
5. Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue (2009), B+
6. The Goonies (1985), A+
7. Mad Max Fury Road (2015), A
8. Incredible Hulk (2008), B
9. Julie and Jack (2003), F; RiffTrax Riff, A
10. White Zombie (1932), B-
11. Phantoms (1998), C
12. Children of the Corn (1984), B-
13. Breeders (1997), D
14. Rollergator (1996), F; RiffTraxRiff, B
15. Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), B+
16. The Babadook (2014), B+
17. Zombeavers (2014), D
18. Horns (2013), B+
19. Black Mass (2015), A-
20. Titanic (1997), B+
21. American Experience: Walt Disney (2015), B+
22. The Iron Giant (1999), A+

What I Watched In… August 2015

Favorite of the Month: I Am Big Bird-The Caroll Spinney Story (2015)

Favorite of the Month: I Am Big Bird-The Caroll Spinney Story (2015)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

(School is back in session in August. My viewing time was drastically reduced.)

  1.  Dragonslayer (1981), B
  2. Blazing Saddles (1974), A
  3. Comet (2014), B+
  4. Zombie Lake (1981), D
  5. WolfCop (2014), D+
  6. Grand Piano (2013), B
  7. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), A
  8. History of the World Part I (1981), B+
  9. A Deadly Adoption (2015), D
  10. The Producers (2005), B+
  11. Bedazzled (2000), B-
  12. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2015), B+
  13. The ‘Burbs (1989), B+

2014: The Year in Film

Favorite of the Year: Captain America-The Winter Soldier

Favorite of the Year: Captain America-The Winter Soldier

It’s been quite a year. I got married. My wife and I put together a little home together. I directed one play, I’m currently in rehearsals for another. I wrote a new book that — God willing — will be available relatively early in 2015. And in the meantime, I managed to see a few movies.

Not all the movies, mind you. There are still several 2014 releases I haven’t seen yet, often because the aforementioned activities got in the way of my movie time. I still haven’t seen Boyhood, for instance, and I’m dying to. I’m delinquent in keeping up with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, and despite all my efforts to the contrary, I’ve yet to get around to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

So consider this list highly incomplete. These are all the films from 2014 that I have seen, in order of my favorite to my least favorite. This includes direct-to-video and made-for-TV movies. I’ll leave comments for the ones where I have comments to leave.

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Marvel has had a good year — a good couple of years, actually — but this to me was the movie that really elevated their universe beyond simple superhero action into something with greater depth and meaning.
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Similar to Captain America, this film took what Rise of the Planet of the Apes began and ran with it, creating a larger world and a highly intelligent, powerful science fiction film.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy. This was just pure fun.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past. Easily the best X-Men film to date, and so good that it actually erases some of the sins of the previous films.
  • The LEGO Movie. Again, pure fun, but with a surprising amount of heart to it.
  • Gone Girl. Incredibly tense and engaging.
  • Interstellar. One of the most engaging, entertaining pure sci-fi films in years
  • Godzilla. Fantastic reboot of the franchise.
  • Edge of Tomorrow. Great movie hurt by atrocious marketing.
  • Big Hero 6.
  • Stripped. Fine documentary about the comic strip form.
  • I Am Santa Claus.
  • St. Vincent.
  • Doc of the Dead. Interesting documentary about zombie fiction.
  • Stage Fright. Little seen but actually entertaining musical horror comedy about a slasher killer attacking a theater camp. It’s on Netflix streaming right now. Meatloaf is in it.
  • A Merry Friggin’ Christmas. One of Robin Williams’s final performances, alongside Community‘s Joel McHale.
  • Son of Batman.
  • Justice League: War.
  • Mr. Peabody and Sherman.
  • Big Driver.
  • Chilling Visions: 5 States of Fear. Okay anthology, but the premise holding the segments together is paper-thin.
  • JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time.
  • Maleficent. Could have been a great remake from the villain’s perspective, but a horribly invasive voice over and some poor performances really hurt.
  • Print the Legend.
  • Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
  • Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. The original remains one of my favorites. This film seems like further proof that Frank Miller has lost his mind.
  • Robocop. Unnecessary, lifeless remake.
  • Lucky Duck. Treacle-filled animated kiddie film I watched with my niece. Just because a movie is targeted for children is no excuse for making it bad.
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2. After a first movie that I thought was just as good as — maybe better than — the Toby Maguire films, I couldn’t believe how utterly this one fell apart.
  • I, Frankenstein.
  • Happy Christmas. “Hey, you know all those dull, unscripted movies about obnoxious people who can’t get their lives together? Let’s make one at Christmas. And put Lena Dunham in it.”
  • Sharknado 2: The Second One. In fairness, they weren’t trying to make a good movie. They succeeded.
  • Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. All I can say is that the title was accurate.

What I Watched in… August 2014

Favorite of the Month: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Favorite of the Month: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Dick Tracy (1990), B+
2. The Great Martian War 1913-1917 (2013), B+
3. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), A
4. Cabin in the Woods (2012), A
5. Planet Terror (2007), B
6. Doc of the Dead (2014), B+
7. Starship Troopers (1997), C-
8. Six By Sondheim (2013), B
9. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), C
10. Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014), D
11. Sin City (2005), A
12. Robocop (1987), B
13. Robocop (2014), C-
14. Happy Feet Two (2011), C
15. Gravity (2013), A
16. Evil Dead (2013), B
17.  Hollywood After Dark (1968), F; Film Crew Riff, B
18. Stripped (2014), A
19. Godzilla (1998), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
20. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014), C+
21. Reading Writing and Romance (2013), C-
22. The Simpsons Movie (2007), B+
23. The Makeover (2013), C+
24. The Wish List (2010), D

Batman Week Day 1: Lewis Wilson in Batman (1943)

Batman 1943Welcome, friends to Batman Week, the first in the ongoing Reel to Reel: Icons series. Each week in this series we’re going to take a look at a different character and five different actors who have brought him or her to life. We begin today, in 1943, with the first ever on-screen appearance of the Caped Crusader himself, Batman.

Director: Lambert Hillyer

Writer: Victor McCleod, Leslie Swabaker, Harry L. Fraser

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Gus Glassmire, Sam Flint, Robert Fiske, Charles Middleton

Plot: In this version, Batman and Robin (Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft) are America’s premiere government-sanctioned crimefighters. They round up a gang of criminals who warn them he’s crossing “Dr. Daka,” but Batman has no time to investigate… he’s got a date coming up with Linda Page (Shirley Patterson).  Linda is concerned about her uncle Martin (Gus Glassmire), and as it turns out, she has good reason. Martin is kidnapped by thugs and brought before Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish), who introduces himself as a servant of Hirohito, sent to destroy the United States government and enslave the people of America. Daka drugs Martin and forces him to reveal the location of a radium supply, which he plans to use to power a new secret weapon: a ray capable creating reducing even the hardest substance to powder.

I’m going to get heavily abbreviated with the plot synopsis here: for the next 15 chapters, Daka comes up with one scheme after another to get some radium – stealing it, kidnapping the owner of a radium mine, intercepting a supply being airlifted from a plane, etc. Each time, Batman and Robin stumble upon the plot and thwart it, only surviving by the skin of their teeth, because in the 1940s superheroes were either thrown from a precipice or caught in an explosion every 15 to 20 minutes.  Fortunately, there was always a convenient scaffold or rope beneath them or a convenient archway above them to protect them from falling debris.

Eventually, Daka manages to get his hands on some radium and make a larger, more powerful radium gun. He captures Linda (this is the third or fourth time), and brings her to his lab where he subjects her to a machine that transforms people into brainwashed zombies that will do his bidding.  Batman rushes to the rescue, but is overwhelmed by the zombies and strapped into the machine. Before Daka can unmask him or activate the device, Robin arrives and captures the villain. With Batman free, he makes Daka show him how to reverse Linda’s brainwashing. Daka makes a play to escape, but tumbles into his own open alligator pit, because what’s a supervillain lair without an open alligator pit? When the police arrive, Batman allows them to take the credit for the bust. At the end, Bruce Wayne walks off with Linda, sad that he once again missed seeing the world-famous Batman.

Thoughts: Made only four years after Batman’s first comic book appearance, this early film shows a version of the character that’s still somewhat unformed. While director Lambert Hillyer attempts to bring in a sort of dark warrior approach, comic book characters at the time (and for a long time to come) always seemed to invite a sort of camp element. The first image of Batman in the movie, even, shows him sitting in the Batcave behind a desk that looks like Bruce Wayne had it taken out of an unused office in his corporate headquarters, washed out by too much light with bat-shaped shadows dancing across his face. This lasts long enough for Robin to show up, complete with a curly-topped white ‘fro, and Batman beams like grandpa seeing his children coming over for a visit in the nursing home. All I can do at this point is cross my fingers and hope it’s at least better than anything Joel Schumacher ever did.

Fortunately for us all, it is.

Lewis Wilson’s Batman is far more flippant than the character he would become, and there’s little sign of most of the elements that would make him so popular in the future. There’s no Commissioner Gordon (even though he appeared in the very first Batman comic), no familiar foes, not even a Batmobile. The only things that mark this as a Batman film, in the eyes of a modern fan, are Batman and Robin themselves, Alfred, and the “Bat’s Cave” headquarters. (Ironically, this film actually created the Batcave concept – the cave set was left over from another film, re-used as Batman’s headquarters to save on production costs, and made so much sense they imported the headquarters into the comic books as well.)

Wilson’s version of Batman is also less driven than other versions… the sheer obsession that motivates the character in most other incarnations isn’t present at all… in fact, his origin (including the death of his parents) is never mentioned throughout the course of the story. What’s more, this is a Batman who is uncomfortably comfortable with the deaths of his adversaries, casually allowing Daka’s men to die when their vehicle goes off a cliff and not batting an eye as Alfred fires a pistol at them (although this could potentially be justified as him knowing there’s little chance of Alfred actually hitting anything). The filmmakers do manage to work in a least a few familiar tropes, including an amusing scene where one of the henchmen suggests that Batman may actually be this “Bruce Wayne” fella who keeps turning up, but Daka dismisses the idea that such a fool could be the Batman. We more often see this particular cliché applied to Clark Kent, but over the years the Bruce Wayne masquerade has left Batman open to it from time to time as well. There’s also a rather amusing bit towards the end where the villains decide they’ve killed Batman so many times that there must be multiple men wearing the costume… and maybe Wayne really is one of them after all (another conceit which later stories have explored from time to time).

One thing that doesn’t help the film is how little detective work Batman actually does. Even in his early days, he was painted as a crimefighter with a fierce mind, but this Batman doesn’t show much of that at all, stumbling into the information he needs through luck. There’s the occasional moment of trickery, such as when he cons one of Daka’s thugs into calling for help so he can get the phone number and find their hideout, but even then, it doesn’t come off as particularly clever. Instead, the thug looks stupid for falling into the most obvious trap imaginable. It helps Batman crack the case, but it doesn’t do wonders for his reputation.

Batman 1943 DVDThe fight scenes showcase just how far filmmaking has come since the 1940s… the stunts are often more laughable than thrilling. Wilson is particularly unimpressive as he struggles against the crooks, looking more like the fake Batmen who would get caught by the real one over 60 years later in The Dark Knight than the Dark Knight himself. On the other hand, Douglas Croft’s Robin is actually impressive – a whirling dervish of energy that is believably formidable. This is probably due to the serial format, of course – each chapter (effectively every 15-to-20 minutes of the film) has to end with a cliffhanger, most of which require you to place your hero in mortal danger. It’s a staple of the format, but it winds up leaving Batman looking rather ineffective, with Robin (a character who, in other films and media, was sometimes portrayed as being so useless he was called the “boy hostage”) there to consistently save his ass again and again.

William Austin’s Alfred is distinctly different from the comic book depiction of the character at the time – a plump bumbler. This version, though, became iconic, and Alfred’s thin frame and thin mustache in the comics have been based on Austin’s appearance ever since. His frequent propensity to disguise himself would make its way into the comics as well, eventually evolving into a rather complicated backstory where Alfred was both a celebrated actor and a British secret agent before finally following in his father’s footsteps as the Wayne family butler.

As this was a World War II-era film, the propaganda machine is in full force. Bruce Wayne casually mentions a (false) 4-F status to explain why he’s not in the army, and the villain’s hideout is in the Japanese section of town, which has been – and I’m quoting the narrator here – “cleaned out of those shifty-eyed Japs.” Try to picture a movie getting away with a line like that today, even ironically. Then we meet Daka himself, an unflattering Japanese stereotype if ever there were one. He’s sly, cruel, with a “twisted Oriental brain” (that line courtesy of Uncle Martin) bent on destroying the good old US of A. He’s just a pointy beard and kimono away from being Fu Manchu himself. Even when one of his henchmen turns against him (seconds before his death), his betrayal comes with a healthy dose of anti-Japanese racism, referencing his cowardice as matching the color of his skin, among other things. Daka also falls into some generic supervillain stereotypes – the arrogance that comes with the role, for example. He also uses the Bond Villain trope two decades before Bond does – when he finally has Batman captured in his hideout, he gloats instead of killing or even unmasking him, just long enough for Robin to show up and stop him.

As befit the serials of the time, which needed to pad themselves out for a few months, the plot seems unnecessarily complex. The scene where Bruce impersonates a Swami to warn Linda away from the investigation, for example, is pointless. She winds up unconscious (again) anyway, and the whole episode could easily have been sidestepped… there’s almost no plot progression at all, and we roll straight into Batman chasing the thugs to try to save the radium. In fact, the radium angle leads into one mini adventure after another where the goal is always the same: Daka is trying to get his hands on some radium, Batman stumbles into the plot and tries to thwart it, over and over and over again without actually changing anything. One could easily jump from episode four to about thirteen and still have no problem understanding the ending of the series. I’ll give Daka this much – he’s not like some supervillains who give up on a perfectly good scheme the first time it’s thwarted – but watching the entire serial in one sitting displays how repetitive the storytelling was. Daka comes across as foolish, even naive, considering how many times his men promise him, cross their hearts, and pinky swear that they really did kill Batman this time, honest, and he always believes them, despite all evidence to the contrary.

This serial is fondly remembered, and for good reason. There’s some silly charm to it, if you can get past the severe culture shock of the way our heroes treat not only the Japanese villain, but the Japanese in general. It may be remembered as just a footnote, however, if not for what came next… a rerelease of this film in the 60s helped stir up support for the then-weakening Batman franchise, and led to 20th Century Fox taking a chance on producing a TV show. That show had more in common with this camp Batman than the dark hero he would later become, but its popularity helped save Batman from going away entirely like many of the other heroes born during World War II. If not for this serial, you see, we may never have had the incarnation of the hero we’re going to talk about tomorrow: Adam West’s Batman.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reaction: Paranorman (2012)

ParanormanDirectors: Chris Butler & Sam Fell

Writer: Chris Butler

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Tempest Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman, Hannah Noyes, Jodelle Ferland

Plot: Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was born with a terrible gift – the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. The problem is, nobody believes him, except for his mysterious Uncle Prendergast (John Goodman), who has the same power. Prendergast warns Norman that a witch’s curse is about to overwhelm his small town unless he can stop it… but the spirits of the undead may not even be the worst danger – first Norman has to navigate a sea of school bullies, unbelieving townspeople, and parents who think something is wrong with him.

As always, this Reel to Reel is not simply a review, but a study of the themes and tropes of the movie. So fair warning: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.

Thoughts: Last fall we got hit by not one, but three stop-motion films that seemed to be grasping for the young Halloween-lover’s moviegoing dollars: this, Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie. I wanted to see all three, so naturally, circumstances conspired to keep me from seeing any of them. Now that they’re rolling out on DVD, I’m making up for lost time.

From the basic description, it’s impossible not to see Paranorman as taking some of its lead from The Sixth Sense – both films are about young boys with the ability to talk to the dead and the earlier film is far too large a cultural milestone to imagine writer Chris Butler could have been unaware of it. It’s even less likely when you realize just how culturally aware this movie is – it’s full of tiny little jokes, tidbits and Easter Eggs that link us to the great horror movies of the past — gags about zombie movies, Norman’s friend Neil showing up in a hockey mask, and Norman’s phone having John Carpenter’s Halloween theme as his ringtone being some of the most prominent examples.

That said, this isn’t a problem for the movie at all. In fact, you could almost look at Paranorman as a sort of thematic sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film. At the end of that movie, Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear character had started to make peace with his ability to talk to the dead and was attempting to use his ability to help spirits in need. Norman Babcock is at that point when this movie begins, but an unbelieving family and the fact that the town is aware of – but doesn’t believe in – his power helps make him a real outcast, perfectly positioning him to be the hero when the zombies hit the fan.

Chris Butler and Sam Fell are clearly drawing from the Tim Burton/Henry Sellick school of filmmaking. Although parents frequently forget, a lot of kids love the creepy and the macabre. It’s why Roald Dahl is still popular, why the Universal Monsters will never die, and why The Nightmare Before Christmas is still the most popular thing Tim Burton’s name has ever been associated with. Kids, however, don’t really want to be legitimately scared the way adults sometimes do. Kids want the trappings of horror around them, because it makes them feel older, like they can take it. Plus, that line between terror and laughter is really very slim. (I may have mentioned it before.)

The interesting thing about Paranorman is that it treads the line between an all-ages movie and an adult film very carefully, but not only in terms of the horror content. When Mitch (Casey Affleck) drop-kicks a zombie’s head, that’s a little gross… but part of my brain was still processing the moment a few minutes before when he was joking about his little brother Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) freeze-framing their mother’s aerobics DVDs, with a screenshot that leaves no room for interpretation as to what he’s looking for.

Like the horror, the comedy in this movie draws heavily from classic sources. Zombie hands chasing after people feel like they could have been dragged out of a Three Stooges short or an episode of The Addams Family. The mob violence calls to mind Frankenstein in the campier moments of the franchise, and the script even drops in a shout-out to Scooby-Doo. The action, on the other hand, evokes some of the great kids’ adventures movies of the 80s. We used to get movies like Explorers, like Monster Squad, like the greatest kids’ adventure of all time, Goonies, in which the young have to come together to fight the bad guy or save the day. I grew up in this mythical fairyland – it was called the 80s. Halfway through the movie, Paranorman takes a turn in this direction, when Norman and Neil are joined by their older siblings and the school bully, none of whom can afford to remain skeptical anymore, what with the actual hordes of the undead coming after them.

The way those characters come together, though, is pretty realistic. Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) turns against him, even after they’ve all fought the monsters and know for a fact he isn’t just crazy. Alvin the Bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is still a jerk. Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is still a bonehead. In a lot of movies, these lesser antagonistic characters turn on a dime and join the heroes in the face of a greater threat (such as in the legendary Shakespearean drama Ernest Goes to Camp.) Things don’t go nearly so well for Norman, who really has only one stalwart in his corner, and when the story begins, it’s Norman who tries to reject Neil. The characters do come around eventually, of course, because that’s the sort of story this is, but it doesn’t come easily. They need real convincing, an idea that becomes more important at the climax when Norman confronts the witch and tries to talk her down from the monster she’s become to the little girl she once was.

The big moment for the film, the one where we really start to understand we’re in a complex world where nothing is black and white, is when Norman gets a pensieve-style glimpse into the sentencing of the witch Agatha Prendergast (Jodelle Ferland), who started all this in the first place when she cursed the people who condemned her. At this point, after an hour of running from the monsters, everything becomes clear. Agatha was a child when she was condemned – we’re not seeing a spell cast by a bloodthirsty witch, we’re seeing a tantrum being thrown by a scared, powerful child. Then the next domino falls – the zombies beg Norman to complete the ritual to put Agatha asleep again for another year… they aren’t out for blood, they just want the curse to end.

In truth, it takes a bullied, misunderstood child to comprehend what a bullied misunderstood child actually needs, and that’s as true in this movie as it is in real life.

Although rated PG, I would be hesitant to show this movie to some kids. The mass numbers of double entendre aside, a lot of the monsters and violence – although played for laughs – are perhaps a little too realistic for the littlest of them. If you’ve got a kid under 10, I’d recommend watching the movie yourself first to decide if you think your kid can handle it. If you’re older, though – if you’re from that demographic that loves Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, The Munsters, this really is an excellent movie.

Don’t forget the first Reel to Reel movie study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Anticipating 2013

Okay, folks, since people are talking about such things, I’ve put together a list of my ten most-anticipated films of 2013. This, of course, is based on what trailers I’ve seen, what news I’ve heard, and my previous experience with the franchises in question. Assuming I remember, I’ll come back at the end of the year, take a look at these ten films, and let you know if I think they met with my expectations. In alphabetical order, because I find it hard to rank such things.

  • Ender’s Game-One of my favorite books of all time. Harrison Ford as Admiral Graff. I know some fans are upset that they aged the kids and compressed the story into a year, but I can honestly understand why. It’s a reasonable concession to make the story work for a movie, and I’m willing to give them a pass on it if everything else works.
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug-I’ve always enjoyed Tolkien and I liked the first installment quite a bit. Looking forward to watching it continue.
  • Iron Man 3-I really loved the first two and Avengers was amazing. I’m hoping Marvel Studios can keep the energy up there.
  • Man of Steel-Because I am a lifelong Superman fan and the trailer kicked ass. Amy Adams is a perfect choice for Lois Lane, and Christopher Nolan’s involvement as producer gives this movie some serious potential.
  • Monsters University-The original Monsters, Inc. is one of my favorite Pixar films, and the trailers for this prequel have made me laugh.
  • Oz: The Great and Powerful-I’ve loved the Oz books my whole life, and this looks like Sam Raimi actually mined the novels for material pretty deeply. I’m interested.
  • Pacific Rim-Directed by Guillermo del Toro, first of all. And judging by the trailers, it’s basically Robotech versus Godzilla. If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t want to know you.
  • Saving Mr. Banks-Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney in the story of how Mary Poppins was brought to the screen. Perfect casting, high hopes.
  • Star Trek Into Darkness-The last movie made me a Trek fan again long after I thought Voyager killed that piece of my heart.
  • The Stupidest Angel-I’m a big fan of Christopher Moore’s novel about an idiot angel who screws up a kid’s Christmas wish and almost brings about a zombie apocalypse. A heartwarming tale of Christmas terror indeed. And Rhea Perlman is in it, for crying out loud.