Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Swallows and Amazons

Drama / Family
2016 / 96 minutes
RATING: 7/10

I remember my older brother reading Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons to me when I was very young, and being charmed by it. It was a story of four children - two brothers and their two sisters – making up their own adventures during a summer holiday on the lake, fighting off imaginary pirates and pretend sharks. It was a gentle book.  

That's why I thought it would make for a gentle movie to share with the family. But while a lot of the book's charm made it to the silver screen, the filmmakers decided that in addition to the children's imagined peril, they had to add some of the real kind – spies!

The four Walker children are on a lake for the summer, in 1935 Britain, and they have their parents' permission to take the Swallow, a small sailboat, out to explore a densely wooded island and camp there. But they are not the first to land on the island: a sign, surrounded by animal bones, warns that it belongs to the "Amazons." This is all loyal to the book – the Amazons are a couple of girls with a sailboat of their own, and the two groups get to pretend to be rival pirate gangs. But the island is also home to a real life spy. And there are a couple of other suspicious sorts following him. For a small little island, there's quite the population on it!

The additions of the spies adds to the excitement, but brings tension to a story that didn't really have that before. So, if you like the book, you probably aren't going to appreciate this adaptation – it's akin to adding a couple of spies to Winnie-the-Pooh. Exciting, yes, but not at all in keeping with the spirit of the original story.

However, if you don't know the book, or can at least forget it for a bit, this is quite the adventure. There are chases scenes on the water and through the woods, and even through and on top of a train. We see spies following each other, Walkers following spies, and spies following the Walkers. I don't want to give the impression this is all action – there's also the calmer fun of the Walkers learning how to camp, create fire, and catch and cook their own food. It still has the charm of the book.

Just with tension added.

CAUTION

There is a bit of language, with one spy saying "Damn it" in his native language, and the movie not so helpfully subtitling the translation for us. The siblings also call each other various names including "duffer" and "idiot." And one girl says, "shut up" a number of times.

The only other concern would be some behaviors that we wouldn't want our own children to model. There are a few times where the children do something hazardous (like sailing a boat at night) against their mother's expressed wishes. So mom and dad might have to pause the movie here and there to ask what the Walker children should have done.

CONCLUSION

While Swallows and Amazons was far too scary for my 8 and under young'uns, I think some 10-year-olds and anyone 12 and up would find this just the right level of exciting for them. It's great movie night material for families with older children, and it's bound to inspire either a camping or sailing request.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Desperate Journey

Black and White / War / Drama
107 minutes / 1942
RATING: 7/10

Ronald Reagan and Errol Flynn are two members of a Allied bombing crew assigned a near-impossible mission over Nazi Germany. When their plane is shot down, they set out to make it home again....and to do as much damage to the Nazis as they can along the way.

Their desperate journey has plenty of explosions, fisticuffs, arial shootouts, guns blazing, and, at one point, Errol Flynn diving through a window to tackle two Nazi guards at once. There are laughs too, especially when the crew has the chutzpah to steal a ride on Nazi leader Hermann Göring's private train car.

Desperate Journey is jingoistic, and at times not so realistic (ie. the real Nazis were smarter than movie Nazis) but it has an authenticity to it that comes of being made during World War II. This film was part of the war effort, made to encourage those back home that not only were we in the right, but that Australians, Brits, Americans and more could come together as a team to outsmart and beat back the Nazis.

Caution

As the crew is chased across Germany it isn't surprising that there are casualties along the way. And while there is no real gore, those losses make this a film that children could find too dramatic and emotional for them to deal with. So this might be best for 12 and up.

Conclusion

I watched this with a group ranging in age from 40 to just shy of 80, and all eight of us enjoyed it. If you have any sort of appreciation for World War II films made during World War II, this is one of the especially fun ones.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Boxcar Children: Surprise Island

Animated / Children
82 minutes / 2018
RATING: 6 out of 10

My kids loved this - we rented it for two nights, and they asked to watch it twice. So why give it just a 6 rating? Because what makes it attractive to gentle, easily scared, children is also what makes it a below average film: there is no conflict.

Summer vacation has arrived, and Grandfather Alden wants to take his four grandchildren to an island their family owns. He leaves them there, and with the exception of a couple minutes when the children are trapped in a cave just as the tide comes in, this is an entirely calm film. Grandfather Alden leaves them on the island alone, but the only other "danger" they have to deal with is a leaky roof.

This is a sequel to the slightly better 2013 film The Boxcar Children. Both movies are based on the beloved 150+ book series originated by Gertrude Chandler Warner way back in 1924. According to the bonus features on this DVD, Warner set out to make a story for Grade 1 and 2 students that would use the 100 most important words for them to learn. I found that rather telling – it makes the books out to be more about learning vocabulary than presenting kids with a rip-roaring adventure. And if that was her intent, she has succeeded.

CAUTIONS

The only caution I can think to include is that the movies make no mention of God (Heaven comes up once, but not God) and on such a beautiful island, where it would be hard not to sing His praises, His absence is felt (by adults, anyway). In the series a brief reference to evolution pops up in every second or third book, and that, along with God's absence in the books and films, makes me suspect that author Gertrude Warner was probably not a Christian.

CONCLUSION

So far I'm not exactly singing the praises of the book series, or this, the latest film based on them. So why recommend the movie at all?

Because, for younger kids, particularly those who are familiar with the Boxcar Children already, they will absolutely love it. My critique of the book and this movie is not that there is anything wrong with them; it's only that there is nothing remarkable about them. The acting is okay, the animation is middling, and the story, from a parental perspective, is on the boring side.

But on the other hand, there are no language, violence, sexuality, or other concerns. And young children, up to maybe 10 years old, will enjoy the familiar characters and the cozy comfy safety of this no-conflict story. It is a nice safe film for your family movie night.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Sea Hawk

Drama / Action
109 minutes / 1940
RATING: 8/10

While The Sea Hawk is set in 1585, and pitches Spain against England, this film was all about the politics of its day. Spain is clearly a stand-in for the Germany of 1940, and King Phillip could only have been more Hitler-esque if they had given him the small patch mustache.

The story begins with Phillip laying out his plans for world domination. He demands from England that they refrain from building a fleet and offers his friendship, if they give in to his demands. Queen Elizabeth does her very best Chamberlain imitation, refusing to prepare for the clearly hostile Spain. She chooses to appease the tyrant, even as Phillip is building an armada.

Then there is Captain Thorpe (Errol Flynn) with his own stand-in role. He has his own ship, which is part of an English privateer fleet, the Seahawks. Even as Elizabeth appeases Phillip, the Seahawks raid Spanish towns and sink Spanish ships. Thorpe is channeling at least a little Churchill, urging the queen – and through her, the nation of England – to prepare for war.

That makes this film fascinating on two very different levels. It is a fantastic swashbuckling film all on its own, and it is also a wonderful bit of anti-Nazi propaganda, intended to rally the nation to resist. Queen Elizabeth concludes the film with a speech that is a clear call for America to come join the war.
"When the ruthless ambitions of a man threaten to engulf the world, it becomes the solemn obligation of all free men to affirm that the earth belongs not to any one man, but to all men."
CAUTIONS

There is a lot of fighting, with folks getting stabbed and shot. But there is no gore.

CONCLUSION

I had an opportunity to watch The Sea Hawk with a group of friends who, as a general rule, don't watch black and white films. A few exchanges struck them as a bit corny – acting in the 1940s did sometimes take a melodramatic turn – but the swashbuckling action and the self-sacrificial hero, the Second World War subtext, well, it swept away all their resistance. They simply couldn't help themselves: they had to love it!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Born free

Family / Drama
1966 / 95 minutes
RATING 8/10

When a man-eating lion has to be shot, and his mate too, three little cubs are left as orphans. Game warden George Adamson takes them back to his wife Joy, and their home.

As you might expect, three wild lion cubs can get into all sorts of hijinks when they're kept inside. Seeing Elsa, Lustica, and Big One bound on the furniture, and on the Adamsons will be a favorite part for many younger viewers.

The Adamsons raise the triplets until they are too big to manage, and then send two to the Netherlands Rotterdam Zoo. But Elsa, the runt of the litter, ends up staying with them....until it become impossible to keep her too. But how can they send Elsa off to a zoo when all she's known was the wide spaces of the game reserve? The couple hatches a plan to teach their Elsa how to hunt and survive in the wild.

CAUTIONS

The story begins with a woman, busy washing her clothes in the river, getting attacked by a lion. We see only the lion charging, the woman shriek and put up her hands, but not the attack itself. Afterwards a shot of the river shows blood flowing by. While this opening scene is too scary for young children, if parents fast-forwarded that bit (explaining, rather than showing, what happens) the rest of the film could probably be viewed by most children 8 or 9 and up.

A 1-minute scene (in the last 10 minutes of the film) of one lion fighting another might also be too intense for young viewers.

Language concerns include one instance of "damn it" but nothing else.

CONCLUSION

In children's entertainment, whenever Nature or the environmentalism is addressed, Man is most often portrayed as a curse on creation rather than as a caretaker of it (think Bambi, Ferngully, The Lorax, etc.). But in Born free the Adamsons are games wardens, responsible for the care and management of creatures. We might question some of their priorities (when the Elsa stampedes an elephant troop into a village that should have been reason enough to send her away to a zoo). But overall, in Born free Man's management role is assumed - the Adamsons are exercising dominion (Genesis 1:28). That makes this film a counter to some of the unbiblical environmental propaganda children will encounter, particularly if mom or dad use it as a conversation starter.

Based on a true story, Born free is simply enchanting. Some of that is due to the on location shooting in Africa, as well as the Oscar-winning score. But the scene-stealers are the lions, especially when the three sisters are all cubs getting into laugh-out loud mischief. Whether you are a cat person or not, watching these beautiful creatures jump and play and hunt will have you in awe of the Creator who crafted them.

Born Free is a film that all ages will enjoy...so long as parents note the warnings above.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The man who shot Liberty Valance

Western / Black and White
1962 / 123 minutes
RATING 8/10

What does it mean to be a man? In this classic Western, Hollywood offers up two answers.

Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) is a successful horse rancher living just outside the town of Shinbone who prides himself on not needing anyone and not fearing anyone. He solves his own problems, and figures that everyone else should do the same. Self-reliant - that, in his mind, is what makes a man a real man.

Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) is a lawyer, newly arrived to Shinbone who starts a school for both children and adults when he discovers that most can't read. He wants to bring law and order to town, but via the law book, and not the gun barrel, and that makes him naive. But he's also principled and caring, and that, in his mind, is what makes a man a man.

To put both these models of manhood to the test, we have Liberty Valance, a bully and a killer. He and his gang do whatever they want, and none of the town folk dare stop him. Doniphon could stop him... but that would be solving other people's problems for them. Ransom wants to stop him... but he'll need more than just his law books.

CAUTIONS

This is an all-time classic that everyone will enjoy...if they have the patience for it. It starts off slow, and the pacing throughout is far more relaxed than anything a modern viewer is used to. If it were made today, they would cut at least a half hour. But, if you go in understanding that, then this will be a grand film.

It's the nature of Western to have some violence in them, but in this one a lot of it occurs offscreen, though just barely so, as when Ransom is whipped. Onscreen we see a manic Liberty striking furiously, but Ransom is just below the frame, so we don't see the blows land. A couple people are shot, but without any real gore.

The only language concerns would be one use of "damn"

CONCLUSION

If your children regularly watch TV then the pace of this film will be too slow to keep their interest. But otherwise this would be a classic worth sharing with the family including children maybe 10 years old and up. It's good fodder for a discussion about the difference between Hollywood's ideal man, and the type of man God calls us to be in passages like Ephesians 5:21-33.

Friday, July 6, 2018

The Cameraman

Silent film / Comedy
1928 / 76 minutes
RATING 7/10

Buster Keaton is a down on his luck tin-type cameraman. The film takes place in the 1920s, when photos are still a rarity and Buster makes his money taking portraits of passersby on the street for ten cents each. The story begins when Buster has a chance encounter with Sally, the receptionist at a newsreel company's office. To impress her he trades in his tin-type camera for a hand-cranked motion picture and heads off to find some news to film.

It takes Buster a bit of time to get the hang of things but his failures are entertaining, and Sally appreciates the effort. However, just as she's warming up to him, and Buster is figuring out how to run his camera, the villain of the piece – an already established news cameraman – arrives to break up the not-yet-a-couple. Nothing is ever easy for Buster!

CAUTIONS

There are a few cautions for this film that make it less than ideal viewing for the youngest viewers.

Buster first encounters Sally when a huge crowd crushes them into each other, with Buster stuck behind her, his nose buried in her hair. This takes the ridiculous love-at-first-sight trope, and turns it into a slightly creepy love-at-first-smell. Fortunately this is only a brief bit.

There is one "naughty" joke, involving Buster and Sally on their first date to a public swimming pool, Buster ends up in an oversized swimsuit. To impress Sally he heads to the diving board and, of course, ends up diving right out of his suit...though he doesn't immediately realize. To solve his dilemma he divests a woman in a large of swimsuit dress (right down to mid-calf) of her accompanying swim-pants, which he then wears on his way out of the pool. It's best not to think just how he pulled off that stunt (and the film doesn't spend any time on it).

Younger viewers might be shocked at the sudden apparent death of a small monkey that Buster falls on (but later we discover the little guy is okay). A scene in which a police officer tests Keaton's reactions by hitting his knee – and Buster returns in kind – might also be distressing to younger viewers who know that's not how you treat policemen!

CONCLUSION

MGM loved this film so much it was required viewing for all its comedy filmmakers. And no wonder! Like Keaton's other films, this one abounds in stunts and visual jokes, but it probably has the very best – though most abrupt – ending of them all.

So my take is, The Cameraman is a fun film but recommended only for older family members who understand that Buster Keaton is not always to be imitated.

 

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Spirit of St. Louis

Family / Biography
1957 / 135 minutes
RATING 7/10

Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight wasn't the first to cross the North Atlantic. That was accomplished 8 years earlier, in May of 1919, by a crew of United States Navy aviators flying in a biplane equipped with floats. The floats were so it could land on the water, which it did a number of times to give the crew time for repairs and rest. Their flight, from New York State to Lisbon, Portugal took 19 days.

That flight has largely been forgotten because it was eclipsed, just two weeks later, by a pair of British aviators, John Alcock and Arthur Brown, teaming up to make the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. They took a far shorter route, flying from Newfoundland, to Ireland. Their biplane managed the journey in just under 16 hours, crash-landing in a bog the pilots mistook for a suitable landing field. Both men were unharmed.

So why is Charles Lindbergh's crossing the one best remembered? One reason was the $25,000 Orteig Prize for the first successful non-stop flight from New York to Paris. It had been offered since 1919, but despite a number of efforts over the next 8 years, no one had yet managed to claim it. Another reason was that Lindbergh's flight was the first solo flight across the Atlantic. And the third reason is related to the first – by flying between two major international cities, New York and Paris, Lindbergh's flight showed the world that commercial aviation was a real possibility. Just a dozen years later the first commercial transatlantic flights began.

But enough history, how was the film?

Well, if you like Jimmy Stewart, or appreciate biographical films, or enjoy learning even as you're entertained, or have wanted to know more about Charles Lindbergh, or wanted a nice family film, then you're sure to enjoy The Spirit of St. Louis.

The film is named after Lindbergh's plane, and the story begins on the night before his journey begins. Even as "Slim" is tossing and turning, trying to catch some sleep before he begins what could be a 40-hour flight, he starts remembering what led him to this point. We see, in these flashbacks, and others that take place during the flight, how Lindbergh first bought his first plane, how he handled his job as a mail aviator in terrible weather conditions, how he convinced a group of St. Louis businessman to back his transatlantic attempt, and how the Spirit of St. Louis was designed and built.

Some of these recollections are told to a stowaway – a fly who comes along for the first part of the flight. It's a charming device, which our kids really enjoyed - Lindbergh points out to the fly where they are on the map and how long they've been flying. I was even a little disappointed when the fly decides he'd prefer to stay on this side of the Atlantic, and takes his leave out the open cockpit window.

For some kids and adults, used to more frenetic action, the pacing might strike them as a bit slow. The film is also long, at more than two hours, and I suspect it might have lost our kids' attention if we hadn't watched it in two separate chunks. But broken up that way, it kept the attention of our whole family from 4 to 46.

CAUTIONS

The topic matter of the film raises a few issues that could be worth talking about with the kids. The first is hero-worship. Lindbergh had drive, skill, and charisma – we can't help but root for him. But what the film doesn't get into is his failings – he had several affairs. Of course, our kids don't need to know all about that, but it is good to remember that our heroes have feet of clay, so we should not put them on a pedestal.

Another topic worth a discussion is, what sort of risk is appropriate? Lindbergh was probably not a Christian and likely an agnostic, so he wasn't assessing risk from a Christian perspective. But we can. And in light of the other pilots who had died earlier trying this same flight, was it a good and worthy thing for Lindbergh to attempt? Or was he treating carelessly the life that God had entrusted to his stewardship? Questions worth discussing.

Finally, Lindbergh's religious views do come up, briefly in the film. Lindbergh was a private man, so his religious views seem hard to nail down, but he wasn't an orthodox Christian. However it's said he flew combat missions in World War II with a New Testament, and later spoke of the importance of Jesus' ethics. In the film his muddled thinking about God comes up in a few brief scenes. First, Lindbergh notes that when he flies he doesn't ask God for help. A Roman Catholic priest tries to set him right, and later on a friend superstitiously sneaks a St. Christopher's Medal on the flight for good luck (the medal is thought, by Catholics, to ask the saint to bless a traveler's journey). Finally, as he is at the end of his flight, sleep deprived and unsure he can land it, he tries to recall one of the priest's prayers, and ends up simply crying out to God for help. This confusion about God might be surprising to very young viewers, and worth a discussion.

CONCLUSION

The 49-years-old Jimmy Stewart was playing a man 24 years his junior, and if Lindbergh seems a little older than 25, Stewart still pulls it off. This is an interesting bit of history, charmingly acted. Another good one for the whole family.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The absent-minded professor

Black and White / Family
1961 / 96 minutes
RATING: 7/10

The classic begins with a bang – a lab accident blows up Ned Brainard's garage and leaves the professor knocked out cold.

The good news? This explosive experiment has produced a wondrous new substance - a rubbery material that when rolled up in a ball and dropped gains height with each bounce. It's almost like this rubber can fly so, of course, the professor names it flubber. And what's the first thing he does with flubber? Why, use it to create the world's first flying Model T of course!

The bad news? While he was out cold the professor missed his wedding...for the third time!

Betsy Carlisle is his long-suffering fiancee. While she loves her Neddy, this is it – she doesn't want to hear any more excuses. "I say, three strikes and you're out!" To make the situation that much more difficult for Ned, he has a rival for Betsy's attention. Professor Shelby Ashton is egotistical and even more self-absorbed than Ned but he has one thing going for him – he knows how to shows up on time.

To get Betsy's attention Ned puts his flubber to use and this is where the fun really begins. When the college's basketball team is losing badly, Ned secretly irons flubber on to all of the players' shoes. When the second half starts the Medfield team is now able to jump, not just over the other team, but right over the gym rafters!

While this stunt doesn't impress Betsy, Ned and his flying Model T do catch the attention of all three branches of the US military and a particularly unscrupulous businessman. Car chases and hijinks soon follow.

CAUTIONS

As children do sometimes do as they see, the biggest concern might be language. One of the villains – businessman Alonzo Hawk – calls people "idiots," "stupid," or "tells them to shut-up."

There is some violence – a shoot-out in which no one gets hit, and two thugs unsuccessfully trying to get Professor Brainard – but this is of the comic sort and even our six-year-old knew everything was going to be okay (but our four-year-old had to be reassured).

Oh, and at one point Hawk gambles on a basketball game.

It may be worth pointing out to younger viewers that the "hero" of this story, Professor Brainard, is not a good example at the beginning – he's prioritized science over his bride-to-be! Thankfully, by film's end he's learned the error of his ways.

CONCLUSION

This classic spawned a sequel and two remakes but they never improved on the original. A flying car, a villain who can leap buildings in a single bound, a damsel who's in distress because her bumbling knight has left her at the altar again – this is fun that everyone will enjoy.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Sgt. Stubby: an unlikely hero

Animated / Family
2018 / 84 minutes
Rating: 8/10

I read a review by a parent who arrived at the movie theater with his four-year-old and picked this film based solely on the smiling ever-so-cute doggie he saw on the movie poster. One problem: while this is about a charming, incredibly clever dog named Stubby, it's also about life in the trenches of World War I. And that's not 4-year-old material. Why oh why don't more people read movie reviews!

But, as we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the "Great War" this is a movie that many a ten-year-old and up will enjoy and should watch.

It's based on the true story of Sgt. Stubby, the most decorated dog in American history. The story begins with the homeless dog attaching himself to a unit readying itself to be shipped overseas. First he charms his way into the heart of one Private Robert Conroy, the main two-legged character in the film. Then, one by one, from the lowest private to the general in charge, he wins over everyone. Well, not everyone. Some folks just aren't dog people, and Private Elmer Olsen just doesn't understand what's so special about Stubby.

When the unit heads overseas, Stubby manages to sneak aboard the ship, and he too is heading to the fight.

From this point onward there's one perilous scene after another, but to make it appropriate for (nearly) the whole family, the filmmakers decided to make this an entirely bloodless film. Even as bullets are whizzing, no one gets shot. German bombardments send both soldiers and dirt flying, but the soldiers get dug out and emerge both unbruised and unbloodied.

While parents will appreciated the nonexistent blood and gore, by muting the violence and death the film ran the risk of also muting the sacrifice that these soldiers made. But as the film draws to a close there is one death - to a secondary character - that drives home, even to the younger audiences, what these men risked and what they lost. Without giving it all away, I'll note that the death happens off screen and we don't even see the body. It is the soldier's absence that is noted – while his friends are looking for him after the last big battle, Stubby brings them his helmet. That'll get some kids crying, and even moisten the eye of many an adult. But it is necessary. And it is done with great care and restraint.

As you'd expect with an energetic pooch as its star, there is a lot of fun in the film. Kids are sure to enjoy Stubby training along with his fellow soldiers, getting chased by the cook, and winning over the Colonel after Conroy teaches his little buddy how to salute. In another treat, Gérard Depardieu makes an appearance as a large, wise French soldier, who along with Conroy and Stubby is tasked to spy out German positions. These "three musketeers" become fast friends, saving each others' lives.

Cautions

There are only a couple of concerns, including a little bit of language. The worst of it includes one character saying "What the devil?" and another exclaiming "I'll be darned."

There is also just one bit of "naughty" comedy as the drill sergeant lectures his men on they should imitate the never-complaining, always-ready-to-roll Stubby but he makes this speech just as Stubby decides to lick his nether regions. That gets a laugh out of the sergeant and his men as they are presented with proof-positive that Stubby has some traits that aren't worthy of imitation.

The big caution would concern the near constant peril. This is not a film for four-year-olds. But most ten-year-olds will be sure to enjoy it.

Conclusion

This was such a pleasure to discover. Before this I couldn't have imagined a war film that would be appropriate for the very young and yet still be a treat for their parents. This would be a great one to watch with the family for Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, or Anzac Day.

It will be available come November, 2018 on DVD.

Oh, and if you want to know all the details about the real Stubby, our family really enjoyed listening to the audio version of Ann Bausum's Stubby the war dog.