Film Nerd 2.0: Talking Heads, 'Astro Boy,' and 'Willy Wonka' on BluRay
In which we discuss rewards, punishment, and golden tickets
Welcome to Film Nerd 2.0, an ongoing look at my relationship with my first son, Toshiro, and his relationship to media of all types, particularly the stuff that I grew up with as I pass it along to him.
It's been a rough two weeks to be Toshi.
He's four now, so he's got typical four-year-old issues, and since he's not really able to articulate those issues or feelings yet, he's obviously trying to vent.
It sort of cracks me up that a four year old could have anxiety over things like pre-school or playtime or coloring, but of course they can. Tension and anxiety happen for any number of reasons, and when you react only to a kid's behavior, you're sort of trying to juggle water. Things are constantly shifting. Toshi's got competition in the house now for people's attention thanks to his adorable nineteen-month-old brother Allen, who has recently become self-aware of said adorabilosity, and who works it shamelessly.
Like I said... the last few weeks have been particularly rough. Since media in my house is a privilege, not a god-given right, Toshi's been benched from absolutely everything cool.
"You're grounded from cool, buddy," is exactly what I told him, and he knows that means a lockdown on everything except vintage "Sesame Street" on DVD or bedtime stories at night. Those are always okay.
He's trying. I know he is. He's had a few tearful heart to heart conversations with me. He's just got an itch he can't scratch. So as we approached the weekend at the end of a whole lot of bad days, I decided we needed to cut him a break.
As I sat down to write the beginning of this column, I had a plan for the weekend, and a list of directives for myself: I've got to give him a taste of the promised land if I expect him to work harder. I've got to give him a weekend that is the weekend he aspires to have every weekend. The weekend he's got to earn.
The thing is, all of it has to be a surprise, and along the way, we need to talk about consequences and about why he's going to get a weekend like this. When he wakes up on Saturday, he's got no idea there's any fun planned, much less how much fun is planned.
First things first, I've got to make some Golden Tickets...
S A T U R D A Y
I worked late, so I didn't make it out of bed until 10:30 or so. But as soon as I did, I walked out to the kitchen, where my mother-in-law, who the boys call Lala, was cooking while both Toshi and Allen played.
The boys love to charge me when I walk into a room, like they're trying to take me down, and I had to wrassle both of them to the floor to get past. On the days I can actually motivate myself, rise and shine means exercise, and my wife just bought an awesome new floor rug for the back playroom where I hang out with the boys. The three of us gather there, and I fire up the plasma screen and the BluRay player and put on the appropriate wake-up call, the brand-new BluRay release of "Stop Making Sense" from Palm Pictures. This will be my second time watching in the three days since Palm sent one to me for review, and I'm sure there are many viewings ahead in my immediate future.
It was perfect for Daddy to do stretches and prone tables and situps and running in place, and it was equally perfect for silly roughhousing from the boys. For the entire running time of the movie, we danced and played and ran in circles, and there were a few songs ("Life During Wartime," for example) that Toshi asked me to play more than once. He's starting to assert some musical tastes, demanding certain music every time we're in the car, and he told me afterwards how he wants to watch that "singing movie" every time we exercise now.
After we finished, I went to shower and the boys went to play outside with Lala. Then we had a great lunch, which is pretty much standard operating procedure. I wonder if my kids will ever truly appreciate how lucky they are to grow up in a house filled with really great cooks. After lunch, Allen wandered off to play, and I took Toshi into the kitchen where his Sticker Board hangs. Here's where we put up a star every time Toshi does something good, and we've never really defined for him what he gets to do with those stars. It changes every week.
So I told him that we have a new policy in the house. For each star he gets during the week, he gets a Golden TIcket. And he can cash those Golden Tickets in, with the catch being that he has no idea what each of the tickets is for. All he knows is that he gives me a Golden Ticket, and he gets something cool in return. As soon as I explained the idea, he lit up. "Okay! Can I have a Golden Ticket now?"
"Well, let's look at the board for last week." He's got at least ten opportunities to get a sticker every week. We don't go crazy, but it's based on school and one chore he has at home. Two opportunities a day. "You've got four stickers for the week."
"Is that enough so I can get a Golden Ticket?"
"More than one. Here. I'll show you." I pulled out an envelope, and with in, I had fashioned four tickets out of foil, his name and "GOLDEN TICKET" written on each one in Sharpie. Cheapest version possible, especially since I just thought it up at 3:00 AM the night before, but his eyes lit up anyway. I counted them over to him. "One... two... three... four. All for you."
He looked up, big smile on his face, and tried to hand me all four tickets at once.
"No, no... you can just give me one at a time, okay?"
"Okay." He gave me one of them, and then put the other three into his pocket. "What do I get?"
"Get your shoes on. We're going out." Toshi is not a fast-moving kid by nature, but when you offer him a chance to get in the car and go out, he's like The Flash. BAM!
His first Golden Ticket buys him a trip to the local library here in Northridge. And thankfully, he really does see a trip to the library as a big deal. He loves bedtime story reading time, and he loves picking out books. We grabbed a few grown-up books for Daddy, and then we spent about an hour picking books, reading a few to see if we liked them, and finally checking out about eight titles for him. As we were in the car on the way back home, I told him to give me his next Golden Ticket if he wanted to cash it in.
He threw it over the seat at me, fast as he could.
"Look under your car seat."
He does, and he pulls out a new Astro Boy toy from McDonald's. A little backstory: he's been flipping out for the trailers for "Astro Boy," due in no small part to his love for the original animated shows (all the various incarnations) that he watches on DVD. He likes black and white "Astro Boy." He likes full color '80s "Astro Boy." He just plain digs the character design and the tech stuff. We were supposed to go to the press screening last week, but at the last moment, Toshi had a bad morning, and I had no choice but to cancel the movie. He was only going as a reward, and he totally sabotaged that. It was very upsetting for him to not get to go, but I had to be firm and show him that there were consequences that day for his actions. I know it got to him, too, because he brought it up almost every day last week. "I was gonna see 'Astro Boy,' but then I couldn't because I was bad and my dad said I couldn't go and see it for being bad." He told that to everyone who came to the house, like he was hoping one of them would step in and set me straight.
"You gonna give me the 'Astro Boy' toy, daddy?" Like that was enough good news for him, and totally worth the Golden Ticket.
"Nope. You get the toy as a way of telling you where we're going next."
"Where?" Toshi's not very good at the guessing game, so I decided not to push it.
"The theater. Can you guess what we're going to see?"
"ARE WE GONNA GO SEE 'ASTRO BOY'?!"
When I confirmed his guess, he proceeded to throw his very own Wild Rumpus in the back seat of the car. This news was a big hit. If someone had done a poll in the car at that moment, my approval ratings would have been through the roof. We drove over to the theater near my house, and as we stood in line, I looked at some other showtimes near the "Astro Boy" start.
"Hey, Toshi. It's your Golden Ticket to use, so I'll give you a choice. It looks like they still have 'Toy Story' in 3D if you'd like to see that instead." This is another one that got away from us because Toshi didn't earn any trips to the theater and because of my travel schedule. "Whattaya say? Want to do that instead?"
"And then we see 'Astro Boy'?"
"No. Instead. It's either 'Toy Story' or 'Astro Boy.' You can choose."
He leaned in close, like he had a secret to tell me. "Daddy, I already saw 'Toy Story.' You have that at home." And then he raised his voice like he was trying to rally the troops just before a battle. "I. WANT. 'ASTRO BOY'!"
David Bowers, director of "Flushed Away," has made a decent movie out of a great character, and it just seems like a let down because of all the opportunities the film misses. There's a sort of weightless quality to the film, dramatically speaking, like nothing in it really matters even though you've got the death of a child, the search for identity, and sentient slavery all in the mix. There's a whole lot of 'Pinocchio' in the DNA of this particular telling, but again... it's all surface, with none of the heart or the subtext. The script, co-written with Timothy Harris (one of the perpetrators of "Space Jam"), seems rote and familiar. Dr. Tenma (Nicolas Cage) is a brilliant scientist who is a pioneer in robot technology, and he's also the single father of a young boy named Toby (Freddie Highmore) who seems equally brilliant, but impetuous and young. When Toby interferes in the testing of a new Peacekeeper robot, he is graphically torn to shreds onscreen, then rebuilt as Robocop! Oh, wait. No, he's not. He is killed, though, in one of the many moments that is so emotionally muted that it makes the whole film feel inconsequential. It's hard to invest in a film if it doesn't feel like the filmmakers are fully invested. Donald Sutherland tries to play wacky as the bad guy, and if there's one person on the planet I would not describe as wacky, it's Donald Sutherland.
The film's Teflon qualities extend to the visual design, which is all very rounded and non-threatening and rubbery and brightly colored, but there's very little about the design that sticks. Two days after seeing it, I'm having trouble recalling how the story got from point A to point B. It's so slight that it's almost not fair to call it a story. After Toby dies, Tenma builds a robot and gives him Toby's memories. Tenma rejects his new "son" at first, and he runs away. He finds a bunch of lost kids (one of which is voiced by Kristen Bell) and a robot-repairing surrogate father (Nathan Lane) who turns out to be a promoter of gladiator games for robots. Then the newly-renamed Astro Boy goes home, but now his dad loves him. And that's about it. There's little threat, no stakes, and for anyone older than about six years old, little reason to sit through this one.
But as I mentioned, Toshi is four. And as far as he's concerned, "I have machine guns? In my BUTT?" is the height of wit. And he loves the character. So for him, it was all worthwhile, and he got to see Astro Boy fly and fight some robots, and there was some silly stuff, and then Astro Boy got to fly some more, and then there was a big crazy alien, and, as he put it at the end, "That was so awesome!"
And with that, day one of Toshi's big Golden Ticket weekend came to a close.
S U N D A Y
Again, it's a late start for Daddy. That's not uncommon. I like the wee small hours, because I can watch or write or whatever, and there's no real interruption. There's a false start when Toshi shakes me awake, and I look up at him, groggy, confused, as he bellows, "WAKE UP, DADDY! YOU HAVE TO TAKE ME TO KIMMIE'S BIRTHDAY PARTY!" Keep in mind, the party is set to start at 2:00 PM.
"What time is it?" I fumble on my glasses, but by that time, my wife is in the room.
"It's 8:00. Sorry. Someone's having trouble with the difference between AM and PM today. Come on, Toshi." My last view before going back to sleep is him being led from the room, trying to explain to his mother why I need to get up immediately.
Later in the morning, I get up and we have some various family-related things to get done. The whole time, Toshi's trying to hand me his next Golden Ticket, and I tell him he has to wait. Finally, when it's time to leave for his classmate's birthday party, I ask him to give me Ticket #3.
It turns out to be totally worth it again. It's a karate studio birthday party, so the kids all do flying kicks at the pinata, cut the cake with a samurai sword, and play a game of "Black Belt Says." Pizza and martial arts and board breaking? Oh, my.
Finally, on the way home, Toshi reminds me that he has one more Golden Ticket. He asks me what he can get for it.
"It's a surprise. Give me the ticket."
He knows he's down to his last one, though, and I can see he's reluctant to hand it over. I have to assure him that what I have planned for the last one is going to be great, even though I can't tell him what it is yet.
When we get home, he spends a little time with his mom, and then finally comes to find me again in my office. "Daddy, is it time yet?" He's got the Golden Ticket clenched tight in his little fist, and I can tell he's trying to be casual about asking even though he's a live wire of want.
"I think so." He hands the Ticket over and climbs up into my chair next to me. I've already got the BluRay player set up, so all I have to do is press play. And over the next two hours, Toshi sat absolutely captivated by "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory," which he'd never seen before. The new Warner Bros. release is gorgeous, and I think I'm starting to realize that the era that ends up looking the best on BluRay is color stuff from the '60s. Both the original "Star Trek" TV series and "The Prisoner" are ravishing, as is "The Professionals," and this version of "Willy Wonka" positively glows. The extra features are fine, although they're not new if you've bought other copies of the film before. Still, the transfer alone more than justifies the purchase.
When the contest in the film is announced and Toshi realized that there were Golden Tickets in the movie, he went nuts. "Daddy, that's like my Golden Tickets! I got to win with those, too!" He got immediately caught up in the search for the Tickets, and he told me that he didn't like any of the kids who won tickets instead of Charlie, and every time Charlie had a chance at a ticket and didn't get one, Toshi was genuinely upset. When they gave the last ticket away, he got really upset and asked me, "Daddy, how come Charlie can't get to go inna the factory? He should get to go!" I told him to keep watching, and when the film plays its great reverse out, giving Charlie the victory in the moment pictured at the top of this column, Toshi came out of his chair and ran around the house waving his own Golden Ticket, hooting, yelling, "I'M CHARLIE! I'M CHARLIE!" until he finally circled back around and took his seat next to me again.
The film scared him, it made him laugh, and when Willy Wonka (the great Gene Wilder in one of his finest moments on film) freaks out at Charlie and tells him that he's lost the contest, Toshi was so upset he cried. "Charlie didn't mean to! It was an accident! He should be the winner because he's so nice! That guy's so mean and so angry!" And then Charlie does his good dead and Wonka reveals his real plan and suddenly Toshi's back on Wonka's side. Celebrating again. And as the movie ends, Toshi explodes out of my office into the family room, singing "Oompa Loompa, doompety-doo!" and tackling his brother and flying his Astro-Boy figure around the living room.
That night, as I tuck him in and tell him that it's a new week, and he's got new chances now to get stars, and that he needs to always work towards having good days at school so that he can earn more Golden Tickets, he asks me what he'll get for Golden Tickets next time.
"That depends, buddy. I'm going to think up new things each week. But I can promise... a Golden Ticket will always been a good thing. All that means is something that you really love and want to enjoy. Something you look forward to. That's what a Golden Ticket is."
"What's your Golden Ticket, daddy?"
Didn't have to consider it at all. "You. Your brother. Your mom. You guys are my Golden Ticket. What's yours, buddy?"
He thought about it. Really chewed it over for a moment. Nodded before he answered, pleased with himself.
You have no idea how proud I am.
Film Nerd 2.0 is an irregular column, in every possible meaning of the word.
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