Title: An Adventure in Space and Time
Release Date: 22 November 2013
Director: Terry McDonough
Production Co: British Broadcasting Company
This movie recreates the history of the birth of the BBC family science-fiction classic Doctor Who. You can tell it’s the early 60s because everyone smokes and the clothing is fabulous, but also gives a feel for a much different era (just a decade after the end of WWII rationing) when a science-fiction show would be shocking and new. It’s also interesting that a show that would become a British cultural icon was created by a Canadian (Sidney Newman), produced by the first woman producer on a BBC drama (Verity Lambert), and initially directed by a man born in India (Waris Hussein). The film focuses mainly on Lambert’s challenge of getting the show off the ground as well as the first star of the show William Hartnell dealing with ill-health and memory loss while creating a classic character. All of the lead actors do a terrific job and really look the part and make for a charming if bittersweet story. While some of the facts of the real story are modified for dramatic effect, it is a good introduction to the series.
For a more detailed history of Doctor Who‘s origins, check out this article on the Oxford University Press blog.
Title: Bedknobs and Broomsticks
Release Date: 1971
Director: Robert Stevenson
Production Co: Walt Disney Productions
Country: United States
Genre: Adventure | Fantasy | Family | Musicals | Animation
Set in Second World War England, three children have been evacuated to the countryside (oddly to a town overlooking the Channel) to stay with Miss Price (Angela Lansbury), a witch-in-training. Along the way on their magical adventures they pick up the con-man Professor Browne played by David Tomlinson. The movie is more of a series of loosely-connected set pieces than a story. Some of them go on too long, like the dance number on Portobello Road, although it is interesting to see the many faces of the British Commonwealth represented in a cheerful wartime London. Better are the mixed live action and animation sequences with fish dancing in an undersea ballroom and a raucous soccer game among wild animals. The conclusion features some whimsical special effects that stand up well after forty years as military uniforms and armor are magically brought to life to defend Britain against a German incursion. It’s a fun, entertaining bagatelle of a movie. My kids enjoyed it for sure.
Title: Safety Not Guaranteed
Release Date: 18 October 2012
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Production Co: Big Beach Films
Genre: Comedy | Romance | Sci-Fi
The staff of a Seattle magazine head to a coastal Washington town to investigate a classified ad by someone recruiting an assistant for a time travel adventure. The young intern Darius played by Aubrey Plaza makes a connection with the purported time traveler Kenneth (Mark Duplass). They turn out to have a lot in common, feeling like misfits and suffering from life-changing losses. There’s also a subplot about a drunk, lecherous writer (Jeff, played Jake Johnson) who actually organized the business trip as a pretext to reunite with an old flame, but I find those parts of the film more intrusive. The idea of time travel is used to explore the ideas of aging and grief. There are some cheesy romcom cliches and the conclusion has 80s tv movie feel with various characters gathered in the same place while Jeff cheers on the leads. Good performances by Plaza and Duplass mixed with a lot of charm, humor, and humanity make for an enjoyable film.
Title: 30 for 30: Four Days in October
Release Date: 5 October 2010
Director: Gary Waskman
Production Co: Major League Baseball Productions
Genre: Documentary | Sports | Baseball
The ESPN documentary documents the last four games (played over four consecutive days) of the 2004 American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, from the Red Sox point of view. There’s nothing radical about it from a filmmaking perspective, merely clips of tv and radio footage from the games interspersed with interviews with Red Sox players and some celebrity fans. I watched it mainly so my 5-year-old son could learn some Red Sox history, and it quickly became his favorite movie. It was also a nice nostalgia trip to see memorable Red Sox comeback and all the little aspects I’d forgotten (doubly so to watch it without the feeling of twisted intestines that I had back in 2004)
Title: In The Loop
Release Date: 17 April 2009
Director: Armando Iannucci
Production Co: IFC Films, BBC Films
Country: United Kingdom
Genre: Comedy | Satire
This satirical film depicts mid-level government officials in Britain and the US as they work towards declaring war against an unnamed Middle Eastern country (an obvious parody of the run-up to war with Iraq). Some of them hope to avert the war due to the obvious holes in the rationale behind the invasion, but most of the characters simply want to do whatever will advance their careers. Every character in this movie has sharp acerbic wit and insults are hurled left and right. Kind of a mix of The West Wing and The Office and Dr. Strangelove. It is funny with a lot quotable dialogue. On the other hand, the general mean-spiritedness of the affair leaves a bad feeling in my mouth. Good performances by Peter Calpadi, Tom Hollander, Anna Chlumsky, James Gandolfini, and others carry the film.
Title: The Hunger Games
Release Date: 23 March 2012
Director: Gary Ross
Production Co: Lionsgate
Country: United States
Genre: Dystopia | Science Fiction | Action Adventure
I had mixed feelings about the novel, and was concerned that the typical Hollywood spectacle in the adaptation would miss the point and glorify the violence of children murdering one another. Luckily the filmakers took a restrained approach and while there are action-adventure tropes the film does not wallow in the violence and makes it grim and unnerving when it does happen. One of the effective aspects of the movie is the lack of music and sound at the most devastating moments. The film faithfully follows the events of the book and with so many things to cover, the relationships among the characters are not developed as well. It helps to have read the book previously to fill in those gaps. Jennifer Lawrence puts in a great performance as the lead character Katniss Everdeen and Stanley Tucci also stands out as a slimy television presenter.
Title: 56 Up
Release Date: 14 May 2012
Director: Michael Apted
Production Co: ITV Studios
Country: United Kingdom
Seven years ago, my wife and watched a box set of the first 6 movies in the Up Series, then went to a local art moviehouse to see the then current release 49 Up. In about a week of binge-watching we became acquainted with the lives of 14 individuals from England who since they were seven years old have had their lives documented every seven years. We’ve been eager to catch up with these participants and finally were able to watch the most recent installment.
The original tv special in 1964 was almost socialist in its approach, attempting to define how the rigid British class system is ingrained in children at the age of 7. Since then, it’s become more of a humanist document of the life of the everyman and everywoman. Each film seems to have an overarching theme depending on the age – such as education, love and marriage, work, children, aging, parents dying, etc. 56 Up seems to find the participants in a reflective mode, looking back over their lives and their participation in the experiment.
One problem with this film is that so much footage has accrued from the previous seven documentaries that the interviews do not seem as rich this time around as they have been earlier in the series. This is a problems that’s only going to get worse and new movies are made. One of my favorite parts is when two participants Suzy and Nick are interviewed together. I had not really seen a connection between the two before, and what really made it fascinating is when they asked one another questions. I hope they try this again with some other participants in the next film.
As a viewer, I’ve grown very attached to the participants in the Up Series. It is good to see that despite some of them encountering difficulties with the Great Recession and austerity, that overall they seem to be successful and happy in their own ways. I do worry about them getting older, and maybe some of them not surviving for future films, but once again will eagerly wait for 63 Up.
Title: Africa: The Serengeti
Release Date: April 1, 1994
Director: George Casey
Production Co: Graphic Films
Country: United States
Genre: Documentary | Nature Film | IMAX
My son and I saw this movie at the Museum of Science twice in the past month because he liked it that much. I also saw it nearly 20 years ago when it was a new IMAX release. The movie dramatizes in the large-screen format the annual migration of wildebeest across East Africa’s grassland plains. Other animals such as lions, cheetahs, zebras, crocodiles, baboons, elephants, giraffes, and hippopotamus are visited along the way as well as the human natives of the Serengeti, the Masai. There are some cheesy moments (Masai on a mountaintop watching a passing hot air balloon, a newborn wildebeest’s struggle to walk played full hilt for the drama) but overall this is a terrific glimpse into one of the world’s greatest wild places. And it’s narrated by James Earl Jones who says the word “predator” like no one else. I could watch it again.
Title: Sleepwalk With Me
Release Date: 18 November 2012
Director: Mike Birbiglia and Seth Barrish
Production Co: Sleepwalkers Anonymous
Summary/Review: Comedian Mike Birbiglia brings the story of his sleepwalking disorder (specifically rapid eye movement behavior disorder) to another medium after sharing the story in stand-up, storytelling, radio, and a book. The movie depicts a more complex confluence of events as Birbiglia’s semi-autobiographical character (a doppelganger named Matt Pandamiglio) tries to establish a career as a stand-up comedian while dealing with parental disapproval and fear of commitment to his longtime girlfriend. For a comedy, this is a dreary and depressing movie. Not that the ennui shouldn’t be depicted but I’d be interested in why this character puts so much on the line to become a comedian when there seems to be no passion or joy in anything. Lauren Ambrose is great in her role as the long-suffering girlfriend Abby who seems to be the only character able to enjoy herself despite all of that. Lots of This American Life regulars appear as supporting cast and it’s fun to play match the voice with the face. This is an okay movie, but if you’ve heard the story on The Moth or This American Life, you need not venture further out.
Title: Piglet’s BIG Movie
Release Date: 2003
Director: Francis Glebas
Production Co: Disney
Country: United States
Genre: Animation | Family
Summary/Review: This is the second in a series of contemporary adaptations of the Pooh franchise that Disney has released in the past decade or so. Unlike The Tigger Movie which I found surprisingly good, this is more of what I expect from Disney in milking the classics with some cheesy contemporary references thrown in. A soundtrack by Carly Simon features heavily in this movie almost as if the whole film was a vehicle for promoting her songs. Simon even appears during the credits. The story focuses on Piglet feeling unappreciated because he is small and wandering off and then his friends go looking for him. This is all a framing device for three flashback stories that show Piglet’s heroism. The flashbacks are the best part as they are based on A.A. Milne stories and are true to the originals. It’s a fun, sweet film – you really can’t go wrong with Pooh and Piglet – but they’ve done better.