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.
Title: The Sound of Music
Release Date: 1965
Director: Robert Wise
Production Co: 20th Century Fox
Country: United States
Genre: Musical / Classic
Summary/Review: It’s hokey, a bit saccharine, and historically inaccurate, but The Sound of Music is a fine movie worthy of its classic status. The music, the cast, the scenery, the cinematography — all wonderful. I watched this with my three-year old son, his first “grown-up” film, over a period of three days (hopefully making up for the fact that I didn’t watch it for the first time until I was 20). He enjoyed it as well, except for the boring parts when the Captain and the Baroness were just talking (“Where are Maria and the kids?”). He liked the music and we’ve been singing “Do-Re-Mi” and “The Lonely Goatheard.” Granted, there are some challenging aspects of trying to explain the Nazis to a toddler mostly because I don’t think he has a frame of reference to understand Nazis yet. Overall it’s a great movie and a great family experience and I’m sure we’ll watch it again.
Title: Don’t You Forget About Me
Release Date: 13 July 2010
Director: Matt Austin
Summary/Review: This documentary is a tribute to the filmmaker John Hughes who wrote and directed many popular and influential teen films of the 1980′s including Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Filmed before Hughes’ passed away in 2009, it features four young filmmakers journeying from Canada to Illinois to find the reclusive filmmaker who has retired from making Hollywood pictures. The premise is a bit presumptuous, a lot boring, and I don’t think it’s too huge a spoiler to say that they never actually meet John Hughes. Luckily, the film also includes clips from Hughes’ films, interviews with people who worked with him, and interviews with people influenced by him. The point they keep returning to is that Hughes’ movies were more true to teenage life than other Hollywood films and even a generation later are very popular among teenage viewers. This may be true but I do feel that they belabor the point of how bad today’s films are especially since they interview Kevin Smith and the makers of “Napoleon Dynamite” whose movies have a level of cult popularity among teens in their own right. This documentary has some nice memories about a great moviemaker but it’s mediocre overall. Just watch John Hughes’ movies instead.
Title: The Secret of Kells
Release Date: 7 March 2010
Director: Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey
Production Co: Les Armateurs
Country: France | Belgium | Ireland
Genre: Animation / Fantasy / Adventure
Summary/Review: The illuminated manuscripts of the Irish middle ages come to live in this brilliant animated adventure set in the monastic village of Kells. The story focuses on a young monk named Brendan who is the nephew of the abbot. While his uncle is consumed with obsession of constructing a defensive wall to protect the community, Brendan wishes to carry on the sacred tradition of creating lasting illuminated manuscripts. He is aided in this effort by the arrival Brother Aidan and his cat Pangur Ban. Aidan takes Brendan under his wing and assigns him his first task to go outside the wall to seek ingredients for ink. There Brendan meets and befriends the forest spirit Aisling. There is of course conflict and confrontation with his uncle, but Brendan learns to set out on his own course.
This magical film combines history and myth, art and spirituality with some of the most brilliant animation I’ve seen and a gorgeous soundtrack. In many ways it is a good film to pair with Princess Mononoke as it shares similar thematic and visual qualities.
Release Date: 7 May 2010
Director: Thomas Balmès
Production Co: Canal+
Language: English | Japanese | Mongolian
It does what it says on the tin, 75 minutes or so of babies from birth through their first birthday without narration and very little context. And who doesn’t love babies? Four babies are featured, two from rural communities in Namibia and Mongolia, and two urban infants from Tokyo and San Francisco. There’s not much structure as it really is footage of babies doing the things babies do. I really like the scenes like the one of Mari from Japan having a really frustrating time with her toys and kicking the floor in a tantrum. Of course there is a hidden structure as the filmmakers have selected what scenes to include and arranged them so that they often show contrasts between the modernized and developing parts of the world. They also often exclude other people – even the parents although you can hear there voices offscreen – and focus on isolated babies in an almost unnatural state. Animals are popular theme too. Three of the babies have pet cats in the family, while Ponijao of Namibia lives on a farm and interacts with a lot of domesticated animals. Overall it’s a very mellow movie and while I kind of feel there should be something more to it, I did appreciate a lot of what it is.
Title: The King’s Speech
Release Date: 24 December 2010
Director: Tom Hooper
Production Co: See Saw Films
Country: United Kingdom
Genre: History / Biography
Summary review: You see correctly, this is a review of a current film now playing in movie theaters. Susan & I had a date night. This is a good date night movie.
The King’s Speech tells the story of King George VI who grew up with a stammer and many anxieties. While still the Duke of York he begins treatment with an Australian actor named Lionel Logue who offers unusual methods in his speech therapy. The film follows a fairly predictable course as the Duke and the speech therapist slowly grow to be good friends but great acting on the part of Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush carries the film (as well as a droll Helena Bonham Carter as the future Queen Mum). There’s a lot of great dialogue and funny lines. Everything leads up to the conclusion of the film where King George VI gives a stirring speech over the radio announcing that Britain is at war with Nazi Germany. It’s all very touching as Firth makes the speech and people around the world are shown listening and it ends with many plaudits. On the other hand part of me was thinking “So, the king made a speech, big deal. There are people dying in Poland!” All the same it was a good movie.
I found myself wondering what it was like for the young actress to be playing the current Queen Elizabeth II. I also found the actor who played Winston Churchill, perhaps the most recognizable character in this film, came off rather cartoonish. Colin Firth did a good job of capturing the constricting feeling of his impediment. Also he was dashingly handsome.
Title: Stop Making Sense
Release Date: 1984
Director: Jonathan Demme
Production Co: Music Television (MTV)
Country: United States
Genre: Documentary / Concert
Review: So it’s shameful to admit, but I’ve never watched this before. Oh, I’ve seen it because it aired constantly on cable television when I was a child so I saw many sections, but never sat down and watched it end to end. I’m happy to say that it lives up to its reputation as one of the all-time best concert films and the music holds up as well too. It’s interesting to see Talking Heads so young, so geeky, somewhat awkward yet planning everything out so thoroughly. I can imagine in 1984 that some glam metal band would be good at making a grand concert spectacle but David Byrne knew what not only how to make a great concert but what would make for a great film as well. The addition of members of the bands and the stage crew playing a visible role in setting up the stage is inspired. I also liked the transition of the band to the Tom Tom Club for “Genius of Love.” This is a great movie. I should have watched it sooner.
Title: The Land Before Time
Release Date: 18 November 1988
Director: Don Bluth
Production Co: Universal Pictures
Country: USA | Ireland
Genre: Animation / Family / Adventure
Review: Cute baby dinosaurs trek across a barren wasteland in search of the mythical Great Valley and learn a lot about not being prejudiced and working as a team along the way. I found it uneven over all. The animation is absolutely gorgeous at times and then crappy the next scene (the dinosaurs keep changing size!). Are they going for naturalistic-looking animals or cutesy anthropomorphic dino kids? And the plot is lifted from dozens of family films from Bambi to An American Tail (the latter not-coincidentally director Don Bluth’s previous film). It ended rather abruptly too as if they needed to meet the running time. From what I’ve read online the initial vision was a dialogue-free attempt at creating a naturalistic dinosaur setting that morphed into a family-friendly adventure. The lack focus shows.
I expect kids aren’t going to really notice the difference but I think this could have been a much better movie with a little effort. My son liked it. The Sharptooth was pretty scary for him and the death of Mother Longneck prompted lots and lots of questions. Well really everything prompted lots of questions. But he wants to watch it again.
PS – Spike, the lazy stegosaurus who eats all the time, totally rules.