The Witches (1990, Directed by Nicholas Roeg) English 7

Starring Anjelica Huston, Jasen Fisher, Mai Zetterling, Rowan Atkinson, Brenda Blethyn

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A young boy raised by his shrewd Grandmother discovers that the hotel they’re staying in is infested with children murdering witches (led by the Grand High Witch), with a plot that could wipe out children everywhere. After being turned into a mouse, the boy teams up with his Grandmother to foil the evil witches’ plans. Adaptation of Roald Dahl’s horror story for kids. Children’s movies in the ’80s and, in this case early ’90s, were insane. This has some truly frightening stuff in it: the witches pulling off their masks to reveal their hideous true selves, kids being abducted in the street, weird body transformations. The opening sequence is remarkable, scary, and sad as we learn about a girl who became trapped in a miserable painting all her life. Anjelica Huston glides through the picture as the Grand High Witch if everything is dreadfully boring to her including the events of the film. She’s very funny and the film itself, which I believe compromises a little in the end, remains a solid creepfest.

The Road to El Dorado (2000, Directed by Don Paul) English 6

Voices of Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, Rosie Perez, Armand Assante, Jim Cummings

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Two con artists steal a map, and through a zany sequence of events end up in the fabled El Dorado, a city of gold. The two are mistaken by the locals for gods, and use the misunderstanding for their greatest con yet. Unfortunately, a woman comes between them and a fanatical priest gets in their way. Clearly inspired by Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. The two main characters, thanks to great work by Kline and Branagh, and the writing, are fantastic. As witty and compelling as the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby pair that inspired them. Their adventure, however, is caught between being too serious (human sacrifices, flogging) and light-hearted (Elton John songs, the happily ever after). Part of this is due to the intended audience being children, but I think the filmmakers (like Disney did with Hunchback of Notre Dame) could have went with something epic and meaty, closer to its source. Or, like the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby movies, just go full comedy, joke every second. As it is, it’s a decent enough picture. Only a couple of the Elton John songs are good, none of them memorable.

Cat People (1982, Directed by Paul Schrader) English 10

Starring Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, Anette O’Toole, John Heard, Ed Begley Jr.

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Centuries ago, a race of cat people came into being, men and women who transformed from black leopards into humans, and roamed the Earth. As the film progresses, a descendant, the beautiful Irene (Kinski) meets her estranged brother, Paul (McDowell) in New Orleans, and gradually learns her ancestral secret. When aroused, Irene and Paul transform back into their cat form, and kill the unfortunate people around. A remake of an influential, B-Movie classic, this film seems to be pretty divisive. It’s pulpy, bizarre, erotic material, and no doubt uninteresting to many viewers. I love it. Somehow with its surprisingly absorbing romance, elements of body horror, neo-noir mystery, and large amount of gore and nudity, the film worked for me. Much of the credit has to go to Kinski, who commands the screen in both the virginal victim and the predatory hunter aspects of her role. David Bowie’s awesome title track goes a long way to making the film work as well.

Hercules (1997, Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements) English 8

Voices Tate Donovan, James Woods, Danny DeVito, Rip Torn, Susan Egan

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After a plot by the scheming Hades (Woods) goes astray, Hercules (Donovan), son of Zeus (Torn), winds up mortal and raised by adoptive parents. Not fitting in due to his immense strength, Hercules sets out on a quest and learns of his true lineage, but in order to reclaim his position as a god, he’ll have to prove himself worthy. Working from a diverse array of Greek and Roman mythology, Hercules is a fast-paced, funny, surprisingly light (despite its dark humor at times) animated comedy with great characters and music. The gospel choir as the Greek chorus was an inspired idea, as was DeVito as the Satyr/coach, and James Woods as the bad guy. Not as substantial as some of the other films Disney released during their Renaissance, but still a fantastic film.

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1994, Directed by Stephen Sommers) English 7

Starring Jason Scott Lee, Lena Headey, John Cleese, Cary Elwes, Sam Neill

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Loosely inspired by Kipling’s stories, here, a grown Mowgli, raised by wolves, reunites with a childhood friend, and attempts to find his way in society (one  formed by an imperialist culture). Superb action adventure fantasy. Several exciting and terrifying sequences including runs from tigers and baddies being buried alive. Lee does a credible job of selling the fish out of water aspect to his character. There have been several excellent adaptations of The Jungle Book, and this is definitely one of them.

Spirited Away (2001, Directed by Hayao Miyazaki) Japanese 10

Voices of Suzanne Pleshette, David Ogden Stiers, Daveigh Chase, Susan Egen, Jason Marsden

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A bratty preteen, Chihiro, moving with her family to a new home gets sidetracked by an apparent abandoned theme park. Stumbling into a world of spirits and witches and talking frogs, Chihiro fights to return home and save her parents. Forgive the overly simplistic synopsis, but the film defies explanation. It’s really to be seen and not described. Awe inspiring. One of the best films ever made. A beautiful work of popular art made my a master in Hayao Miyazaki. Each frame is staggering, and I love the characters in the film. Chihiro, at first fairly whiney, quickly becomes a memorable, tough protagonist, and I love that even the scariest of supporting characters can become a friend in Miyazaki’s world. Sidenote: Disney Studio’s work to create solid dubbing for this film is also admirably done.

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Directed by Wes Anderson) English 7

Starring Ralph Fiennes, Willem Dafoe, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, Owen Wilson

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As this elaborate, multi-frame story unfolds, we meet Monsieur Gustave H. (Fiennes), manager of a luxurious and remote hotel in the made-up land of Zubrowka. Along with him for every adventure is the faithful lobby boy Zero Moustafa, who loves and admires his boss. The two get caught up in a sordid family drama once Monsieur Gustave inherits a rare work of art from one of his elderly lovers. The aspects of Wes Anderson’s work that I enjoy are in full display here. He is an extraordinary craftsmen, and an eccentric. The camera movement and mise-en-scene are exceptional. Ralph Fiennes, as he has demonstrated in other films, is very funny. Gustave H. is a wonderful character. Unlike my feelings about earlier films in Anderson’s filmography, this one seems more substantial. The relationship between Gustave H. and Zero is genuinely touching, and so is its wistful tone.