Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Top Ten Films I Am Excited To Share With My Children

Parenting is often described as a selfless act; it is defined by unconditional love, as well as the many ways a parent can put their children’s needs ahead of their own.  My children have been around for nearly a decade now, and I have certainly sacrificed to give them what they need in life, whether it meant skipping parties to stay at home and play board games, or spending the last of my money to buy a dress shirt for a school event.  These things aren’t always fun, but I do them because it is what needs to be done.  To people without children, these responsibilities can often seem overwhelming, and many of my friends who don’t have kids don’t want them.  It’s OK; with the global population threatening to consume all of the world’s resources, I’m not going to bend over backwards trying to convince them that what’s missing in their life is a child.  But they’re wrong if they think parenting is all duty and sacrifice. 
                There’s a lot of upside to being a parent, and I don’t just mean in an “adorable little tax-deduction” sort of way.  For instance, children keep holidays interesting.  I’m sure my wife and I will have lovely Christmases even after our kids have grown up and moved in with families of their own, but buying a tree will just be buying a tree, not an event with mandatory hot chocolate and singing in the car.  The Fourth of July will just be a day my neighbors are all too loud, and not eager, smiling faces fighting over the best tanks to play tank wars with, a game the kids learned from our old neighbor Chelsea when they were little.  Being a parent means taking vicarious enjoyment out of things at the fair, even though I don’t like riding rides and I’ve long ceased to be excited by the sight of a goat.  Being a parent means that the ghost stories I hastily plagiarize from Skeleton Crew as we sit by the campfire will actually scare the listeners, and that I can bring the dogs to an off-leash park without having to worry about having enough energy to keep up with them on my own.  These are all great things about being a parent, but there is one selfish act that rises above all of these; I’m speaking, of course, about indoctrination. 
                No, please don’t leave.  I don’t mean politics or theology.  When it comes to belief, I think parents are better off showing than telling.  I’m referring to something far less serious, but just as important—cultural indoctrination.
                One of the greatest joys of my life has been introducing my children to the things that hold value to me.  This includes music, games, family traditions, and books, but few things have proven to hold as much nostalgic resonance in this regard as movies.  I was a voracious reader growing up, and there is something special about having to work to help create the world you are escaping to, but as my children age I find it is film more so than books that I wish to share with them.  Perhaps it was because I grew up during the Eighties, which was a golden age of children’s films.  Perhaps it is simply because the sensations delivered by a film are easier to revisit.  Either way, I find myself getting giddy every time I prepare to share a treasured piece of my past with the kids.  Below are the ten films I was or am most excited to share with my kids; I would love to hear what movies (or books, albums, video games—in the end it’s all the same) you are planning to pass along to the next generation in the comments below. 

It was awkward when the Netflix envelope arrived, a DVD copy of Stand by Me inside.  On the outer sleeve were a brief plot synopsis, and all the pertinent information to the film:  release date, cast, and rating.  The awkward part was the last; I had never realized as a child that Stand by Me was rated R.  This was one of my favorite movies as a kid.  It shared space on a VHS tape with two Returns; one involving Jedi, the other to a place called Oz.  (Quick, guess which one doesn’t make this list.)  I watched the whole of that tape over and over again, and as my kids became school aged, this tale of friendship entered my mind often as we searched for something to watch on movie night.  Based on the Stephen King short story The Body, the film tells the tale of a group of friends who set out to find the corpse of a child hit by a train.  On the way, they have to deal with angry dogs, leeches, 50’s era hoodlums, and their own fear of mortality.  I decided to err against caution, and let my little ones watch the film anyway.  The R rating mainly stems from a constant stream of F-bombs, and there are far worse things happening in movies marketed at children today than profanity.   The themes of the film seemed lost on them (although the classic pie eating contest still got the appropriate reaction,) and I will probably rent the movie again when they are a little older. 

9.  Big
There are a few story elements that seem to occur again and again in kid’s fiction.  Children in peril is perhaps the most popular, and underdog stories are as popular with kids as they are with adults, but another popular one is the wish-fulfillment fantasy embodied by Big.  Long before anyone could imagine Tom Hanks as an Oscar winner, he played Josh Baskin, a boy who (after being embarrassed in front of a girl because he was too short to ride the roller coaster at the state fair) wishes he was big.  Waking up a fully grown man, he has to try and fit into adult society while learning a lesson about the need for childhood.  It’s a bittersweet film, since the funny scenes of Hanks’ character trying to integrate himself into the working world are offset by the fact that his mom believes him to have been kidnapped, and when he decides to reclaim his youth he does it knowing he will break the heart of the woman who has fallen in love with him because, for once, she has met someone who isn’t jaded and dishonest, but despite these melancholy elements the film never loses its sense of fun.  Big would have made the list regardless, but it has been on my mind to show the children as of late since my son is learning the tune from this famous scene during his piano lessons. 

8.  Karate Kid
I have to imagine this was a relatively easy film to sell to the studio; the tournament aspect of karate probably allowed someone to walk into a pitch meeting and say that the film would be like “Rocky for teenagers.”  Karate itself was a relatively new (in regards to America) subculture that could be exploited by Hollywood, much like surfing, motorcycles, and disco.  Throw in a love story, and you have a perfectly packaged movie.  But just because I can see the smoke and mirrors and cynically dissect how the film was made doesn’t mean it didn’t work.  When I saw the film in the Eighties, I thought it hit me closer than most; I was frequently beaten up at school, and I would have loved for a karate teacher to walk out of the shadows and teach me the secrets of kicking ass (albeit only when necessary.)  I didn’t know that it would hold up for my kids.  Yet during each of the film’s key scenes, I could see them responding.  I should have known.  Just because you don’t get punched during the course of a school day doesn’t mean that you aren’t bullied.  Just because you aren’t bruised doesn’t mean that you don’t hurt.  Karate Kid speaks to the inherent desire in all of us to find the strength to stand up for ourselves, and it doesn’t take an actual fight for that to strike a chord. 

I know what you’re thinking.  Conan isn’t a kids’ movie.  Fair enough.  I haven’t actually shown it to my kids yet, either, although I’m pretty sure I had seen it by this age.  The R-rating is mostly justified; although the violence would probably earn a PG-13 by today’s standards, the point is moot.  This is a bloody film.  So why do I want my kids to see it?   Well, because it’s probably one of the best action/adventure films ever made.   I’m not rushing out to put this on for them; twelve or thirteen seems like a better age than nine.  But I just watched this movie recently (after suffering through the abysmal remake,) and it thrilled me just as much as it did when I was young.  Conan—on a quest for revenge after his village is murdered and he is sold into slavery—teams up with a woman warrior, a rogue, and a mysterious wizard.  Sound familiar?  Conan the Barbarian is perhaps the ultimate Dungeons and Dragons movie, and while Robert E. Howard’s writings were considered pulp trash next to such luminaries as Tolkien, I would say that the movie version of Conan is on par with the Lord of the Rings trilogy as far as world building and the epic scale of adventure are concerned.  You are more than welcome to debate me; those movies were awesome in every way, and I know I’m picking a fight with somebody, somewhere.  Just do me a favor and re-watch Conan first. 

6. Legend
Speaking of picking fights, I know that invoking this fantasy movie starring a young Tom Cruise is bound to raise a few eyebrows.  It’s not just that the film has its detractors, although it certainly does.  It’s that this is the obligatory children’s fantasy spot on the list.  So I know that while some small percentage of you read Legend and thought “right on!,” everyone else is looking for The Princess Bride, Willow, Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, or perhaps even The Never-Ending Story.  (Just don’t say The Pagemaster.  You have been warned.)  Willow probably would have held this spot if I had actually seen it as a child, or Conan’s.  It is suitably epic.  But one of the reasons Legend stood out to me as something I needed to show my children was because it has perhaps the greatest villain in all movies around this time, Darkness.  Darkness is clearly the devil, with red skin and cloven hooves for feet, and gigantic horns extending from his head.  The costume design on this film is one of the reasons why I dress up each Halloween, it is that well done.  But (with apologies to Darth Maul) a villain is more than just looking evil.  Darkness is played by Tim Curry, whose voice always drips with equal measures of honey and venom.  Honestly, Tom Cruise’s hero is rather forgettable; it is Darkness’ attempts to recruit the hero’s love interest that stay with me—good wins, of course, and the unicorns are saved (spoilers!) but Darkness’ temptations are a force to be reckoned with.   

5.  UHF
UHF is a stupid movie for stupid sensibilities, which is precisely why it is on this list.  Sure, the bulk of the movies I am eager to share with my children are coming of age tales, movies that relate directly to the sense children have of growing up into a world much bigger than them.  There is conflict, heroism, love….the things of magic.  Children gravitate naturally to fantasy; it is the language of imagination.  But children also repeat corny jokes that have long lost their humor, if indeed they ever had it.  They like to be silly, to say the word “butt,” and make strange sounds.  That is why, when my son was sick with a bad cold that kept him home from school, I cuddled up beside him on the couch and put on UHF.  This is more a guilty pleasure than anything; I won’t lie to you and say that Weird Al is as talented an actor as he is a musical chameleon.  He’s not.  And a lot of the jokes don’t hold up to younger viewers; parodies of movies that were old when I was little were often lost on Elijah.  But once the plot (our hero—a well meaning day dreamer who can’t hold down a job--inherits a failing UHF station when his uncle wins it in a poker game) is established, the laughs began.  While a child of the 00’s might not get a Close Encounters reference, my son was more than amused by the thought of a store that sold nothing but spatulas, and an Animal Planet style TV show that aims to teach poodles to fly produced a gigantic giggle fit even with a fever. 

This is a bit of a cheat; when I say Back to the Future I am actually referring to the entire trilogy, even the silly western one at the end.   It is only in seeing all three phases of Marty McFly’s journey that I really came to think of time travel as something that was awesome.  Luckily, I have already shown my kids all three movies, as the boxed set is available for checkout at my local public library.  These are some of the most seminal family films of their time, and so won’t go on too long about them, except to note that the recurring theme of Tannens and horse manure goes over just as well with new viewers as it did when the films were released.

With perhaps the exception of UHF, all of the other films on my list are pretty well known.  Their stars have gone on to be incredibly famous and wealthy; they have been remade, commemorated, given a retrospective, or any other number of honors.  Return to Oz is an odd duck.  It is an unofficial sequel to The Wizard of Oz, but many people have never even heard of it.  The story is simple enough—Dorothy longs to return to Oz and see her friends; she is worried about them.  When she finally makes it, she finds the place in peril, and (with a new cast of characters) she has to save the day once more—but while the original Oz had some creepy elements (to which I can personally attest, as a cardboard cutout of the Wicked Witch of the West sent me screaming out into a Safeway parking lot when I was a toddler) Return is pretty much a children’s horror movie.  Instead of a teacher who wants to kill Dorothy’s dog doubling as a witch, the villain here is a nurse who is planning on giving young Ms. Gale electroshock therapy, and her witchy counterpart has a removable head which she can switch out as necessary.  Even Oz itself is frightening, with a desert that turns anyone who touches it to dust, and an oppressive gloom that covers everything.  My kids have seen the original Oz, but I haven’t gotten around to finding a copy of Return for them to view.  When I do, it will be interesting to see if they are as strongly drawn to this reinterpretation as I was. 

I’ve addressed silly humor once on this list, but it still wouldn’t be complete without silly British humor.  I could go into a long explanation of why I want my children to see this film, but I think I will let the Pythons speak for themselves. 

'Nuff Said.

1.   Gremlins
Each year I would ask my wife, “Do you think they are ready?”  And each year she would say no.    The question was referring to whether or not we could watch my favorite Christmas movie—Gremlins.  And she was right.  After all, the PG-13 rating was invented because of Gremlins.  (Well, Gremlins and this movie.)  But after years of waiting, I finally procured a copy in time for this last year.  We snuggled up in the cozy light of our Christmas tree and watched as the little monsters terrorized Kingston Falls.  Both kids shrieked, covered their eyes, and cheered as the adorable Gizmo eventually conquered the evil Stripe.  Sitting there beside them, I was a kid all over again, amazed at how a movie can just take you away.  Afterwards, both kids commented that they had been given nightmares by the film’s monsters, which would have made me feel bad, but before I could apologize they were already asking to see the movie again next year. 
Honorable Mentions:
Of course, I could keep naming the great movies of my childhood all day long, but that would lessen the strength of the above selections.  However (in addition to the films referenced in my discussion of Legend,) Jurassic Park and Home Alone stand out as important films of my childhood to share with the kids.  We’ve already watched the latter, and my kids loved seeing burglars thwarted by someone their age and traps just as much as I did.  The dinosaurs will be coming shortly, as soon as I can make it out to Hastings, as Red Box has eaten all the rental stores in my area. 
So that's my story.  What's yours? 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I am King Conan, or, Embrace your Inner Geek

                I think everyone was a little bit skeptical when I decided I would dress as Conan for Free Comic Book Day.  In fact, I know they were.  When I told my wife that I planned to wear a short tartan made out of faux fur, boots, bracers, and little else to a public place, her response was less than enthusiastic.  In fact, the direct quote was as follows; “I don’t have to go with you, do I?”
                Her reaction, I think, was due less to the fact that I’m probably not the first person that comes to mind when you think of barbarian warriors—I am appropriately dense and hairy, but fairly lacking in the muscle department—and more that I am a grown man who could think of no better way to spend their Saturday than by dressing as a fictional character.  The irony here is that the woman I married is just as enamored with Halloween as I am, perhaps even more so considering that she is already making plans for this year’s costume.  She even accompanies me to the yearly zombie walk downtown, which is essentially a very narrow second Halloween.  Yet dressing up as a literary/comic book character?  That was just silly. 
                Of course, she wasn’t alone in this line of thought.  There were plenty of people lining up to tell me I was being crazy, and while some of them have moved beyond celebrating Halloween, the majority still get dressed up each October.  I have to assume it’s a matter of ratio.  If you go downtown on October 31st, almost everyone you see will have some sort of costume on.  In fact, if you were to show up at a bar in your street clothes, you’d clearly be marked an outsider.  But at Free Comic Book day, those of us who take the time to get dressed up are in the minority; furthermore, the bulk of people who do show up in costume go the safe route, donning some sort of prepared Captain America mask or a bright red cape, something that can easily be removed and forgotten.  I can tell from the Internet that America has a vibrant culture dedicated to dressing up as the heroes and heroines of comic books, but that culture is still very much a minority in Boise, Idaho. 
                Luckily, if this sort of behavior really is crazy, at least I’m not alone.  My co-worker Michelle was the one who first proposed dressing up, actually.  We’d been swapping comics at work for a couple of years when I first mentioned Free Comic Book Day, and we made plans to go to the 2011 edition when her mom unexpectedly arrived in town.  I went with my children in civilian attire, and quickly noticed two things.  One was that a few people had bothered to dress up (I saw no costumes in 2010.)  The other was that the costumes themselves left a lot to be desired.  When I told Michelle about the out of shape Wonder Woman and the legions of store-bought Batmen, it was decided.  We would go this year, and we would be the coolest people there. 
                It wasn’t hard to decide on who we’d be.  Conan was one of the main books I was reading when we discovered our mutual love of comics, and she’d been providing me with Red Sonja books all winter.  It was only a matter of making the costumes work.  She got started right away, using her considerable art skills to make a Red Sonja outfit that is on par with any of the cosplay out there, in my opinion.  I bought fur and stared at it uncertainly until, with barely a month until the big day, I just begged her to do my sewing for me.  After a price was agreed upon, she accepted the challenge to make my costume as well, despite being in the process both of moving and of taking finals. 
                The day itself turned out to be less than ideal; it has been an unseasonably cold spring, and as we joined the long line wrapping around Captain Comics the decision to wear such revealing outfits was constantly called into question.  A strong breeze would occasionally hit the side of the store and cause our teeth to chatter.  Both of us had goose pimples running the length of our bodies, and both of us (for entirely different reasons) were terrified of encountering a wardrobe malfunction.  Meanwhile, my children (who went as the decidedly un-comic Bilbo Baggins and a vampire princess that Trysta made up that morning just so she could be something,) were bored.  They were cold.  Even the fact that I had brought chocolate and pepper jack cheese did little to improve their spirits.  And yet, I was having a great time.  Even as I shivered and counted the minutes until the store would open its doors, I felt proud to be here, clearly (short of my partner in crime,) the coolest person there.  Though I heard rumors of a Dead Pool hidden somewhere further down the line, we were more elaborately dressed than anyone else there.  People stared at us, and asked for pictures.  I can see why some people might be more comfortable dressing up in the anonymity of an event like Halloween, but I enjoyed being the star of the show.  We finally gathered our comics an hour and a half after we arrived, and then retreated to the warmth of the indoors.  It was almost time to rejoin the real world, with its bills and jobs and other complications.  But first, we had to take some pictures to commemorate the day.
                Even still, there are a few people that think I was foolish to go out in public (in May, no less,) as a half naked barbarian.  But I think there are more who, upon reflection, realize that as silly as it seems moments like this keep us young.  I might not be built like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jason Mamoa, but for several hours I got to stop being a custodian and be King Conan instead.  How cool is that?