Book Review: Star Wars: The Weapon of the Jedi by Jason Fry


Author: Jason Fry
Title: Star Wars: The Weapon of the Jedi: A Luke Skywalker Adventure
Narrator: Jonathan Davis
Publication Info: Listening Library (2015)
Previously Read by the Same Author: The Last Jedi
Summary/Review:

Set after the destruction of the first Death Star but before Luke Skywalker began training with Yoda, this novel tells the story of the first time Luke used a light saber to fight an opponent. Amusingly, it’s told as a reminiscence of C-3PO sharing a lesser known story of the famous Skywalker.  It’s a simple plot, but Fry does a lot with Luke’s character, exploring him at this very vulnerable period when he has only a slight grasp on using the force and needs to figure things out on his own.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: All About Eve (1950)


Title: All About Eve
Release Date: October 13, 1950
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Summary/Review:

Told as a flashback, bookended by a ceremony presenting a prestigious award for theater, All About Eve details that rise of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) to Broadway stardom. When we first see Eve, she appears to be a meek but dedicated fan of celebrated actress Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), wife of the play’s author Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) spots her outside of the theater and invites Eve to meet her hero.

Margo takes a liking to Eve and ends up taking her into her home and having her work as an assistant.  Eve is fastidious in her duty to Margo to the point of obsession.  If you watch all those stalker horror movies from the 80s and 90s, you might think you have an idea of where this is going, but no one had seen those movies in 1950s.  Eve does want to take Margo’s role on the stage – worming her way into becoming understudy without Margo knowing – and she even makes the move on Margo’s boyfriend, the director Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill).

The theme of the movie beyond Eve’s many manipulations is the injustice of how women performers are treated as they get older.  Margo has to feel paranoid about Eve taking her place, while also realizing the parts she has to play are written for younger women.  Speaking of younger actresses the movie also features an early performance by Marilyn Monroe in a bit part, although she gets some funny lines.

The script for this film is excellent, and the acting divine, with several meaningful monologues and deep conversations (and arguments!).  I’m not quite sure I buy into the end of the movie.  On one hand it may be Eve getting her just desserts, but on the other it seems to shift the theme of the movie away from wrongness of how aging actress are treated to an idea that women are just vindictive against one another.  Nevertheless, All About Eve is worthy of its reputation as one of the all-time great films.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Twelve O’Clock High (1949)


Title: Twelve O’Clock High
Release Date: December 21, 1949
Director: Henry King
Production Company: Twentieth Century Fox
Summary/Review:

In the early days of American involvement in WWII, the 918th Bomb Group gets a reputation as a “tough luck” group due to heavy loses and low morale. Group commander Colonel Keith Davenport (Gary Merrill) is determined to be too sympathetic to his men and relieved of command. Brigadier General Frank Savage (Gregory Peck) takes over as group commander and implements strict discipline and attempts to get the group a victory to improve confidence. This includes doing things like putting all the flight crew deemed “incompetent” into a bomber named The Leper Colony.

Savage’s ways seem harsh, but on the other hand his insistence on keeping to the plan reduces losses for the group. Harvey Stovall (Dean Jagger) is a WWI vet and civilian lawyer who becomes an early ally to Savage’s system (in fact, the film is framed by Stovall’s post-war reminiscences of the war). It proves to be an interesting philosophical dilemma at the heart of this gritty war drama.

Unlike earlier WWII movies that had an optimistic, propaganda purpose, Twelve O’Clock High depicts the true psychological and physical toll on the flight crews. With the people-focused approach, much of the film is set on the base. Only late in the film do we see a sortie which features actual film from WWII air battles expertly intercut with the cast of the movie.

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending December 7


99% Invisible :: The Infantorium

Disneyland and Epcot are famous for demonstrating technology in order to provide a vision of the future.  But in the early 1900s the technology at American amusement parks and carnivals was incubators for premature babies.  This podcast explains how it came to be that parents of premature babies had to bring their children to amusement parks rather than hospitals.

Futility Closet :: A Kidnapped Painting

The story of the theft of Goya’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington from London’s National Gallery is unexpectedly amusing.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Historically Speaking

The history of language and how it shapes cultures and individual identities.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Movie Review: Bridesmaids (2011)


Title: Bridesmaids
Release Date: May 13, 2011
Director: Paul Feig
Production Company: Apatow Productions | Relativity Media
Summary/Review:

I’d heard of Bridesmaids being a well-regarded comedy but didn’t know much else about the movie going in beyond the premise of the title. So I was pleasantly surprised to see several comic actors I enjoy appear in the movie one-by-one: Melissa McCarthy, Ellie Kemper, Chris O’Dowd, Rebel Wilson, Jon Hamm, and Wilson Phillips (okay, maybe Wilson Phillips don’t count as comic actors).

Kristen Wiig stars as Annie who is asked to be maid-of-honor in the wedding of her lifelong best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph).  Annie is not in a good place when the movie begins having had lost her bakery shop in the recession and a long-term boyfriend.  Over the course of the movie she also loses her job and apartment. The main tension of the movie is Annie’s rivalry with fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne), the wealthy spouse of the groom-to-be’s boss who has only recently become friends with Lillian and is irritatingly perfect at everything she does.  O’Dowd plays Nathan, a police officer who becomes Annie’s love interest over the course of the film.  And McCarthy steals every she is in as Megan, the groom’s sister who is one of those people who have no filter between their thoughts and words.

The movie is known for it’s gross-out comedy, most notoriously when the bridesmaids go to a dress fitting while suffering from food poisoning.  But the humor boosts a thoughtful underlying story.  Bridesmaids skewers the wedding industrial complex but also the weird traditions that force together a bunch of people into a bridal party with nothing in common.  I also appreciate that it focuses on how big a challenge it is for adults to maintain and make friendships.

I’d wager that Bridesmaids is not for everyone but I laughed more than I have at any movie I’ve seen for several years.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Third Man (1949)


Title: The Third Man
Release Date: September 1, 1949
Director: Carol Reed
Production Company: London Films
Summary/Review:

The Third Man is a thriller set in post-World War II Vienna with the city divided in quadrants among the allies and a thriving criminal underground centered on the black market.  American Western novel author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) arrives after being promised work by an his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles). But upon his arrival, Martins discovers that Lime is being buried after being killed in a car crash.

Angered that British Royal Military Police Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) suggests that Lime was a criminal, Martins investigates Lime’s death and uncovers evidence that it wasn’t accidental.  He becomes acquainted with Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), Lime’s girlfriend, who was born in Czechoslovakia, but with Lime’s help got a forged Austrian passport to avoid repatriation by the Soviets.

The more Martins investigates, the more he discovers things about the dark side of human nature. The film works as a metaphor for naive, can-do Americans compared with the more world-weary and resigned Europeans. And despite the noir aspects of the film, it also has many moments of humor. The soundtrack is cheerful music played on a zither by Anton Karas  which serves as a wonderful contrast to the shadows and light of the film.

The story is gripping but the cinematography is pure art.  Every shot is perfectly composed against the rubble of bombed-out Vienna, a worn out amusement park, and ultimately the city’s extensive sewers.  The denouement in the sewers is a clinic in light, shadow, and sound in a movie. This is a spectacular movie and I expect will reward repeated viewing.

Rating: *****

Baker’s Dozen (13 Years of Panorama of the Mountains)


Hey, did you like how this blog turned into a Movie Review blog?  Thirteen years ago, I decided to start a blog but couldn’t figure out a topic to focus on.  Hence the name “Panorama.”

3,456 posts later and this blog still has no focus.  I’ve gone through trends where I posted a lot about librarianship, Catholic saints, links of the day, photographs, routine baseball updates, so very many book reviews, so many memes, beer, travelogues, so many podcasts, favorite albums of all time, favorite books of all time, favorite songs by year, my efforts to watch more soccer, A to Z Challenges, biking and transit issues, public school activism, and some general navel gazing.

I’m not sure if this blog is ever going to have a point, but I do enjoy taking the time to write in it whatever the topic that comes to mind. I’ve never been sure who, if anyone, is really reading this blog.  There are of course viewership states from WordPress, and sometimes I find my blog mentioned in odd places, such as a citation for a Wikepedia article (which is weird!).  But if you’re out there and reading this and at any time found Panorama of the Mountains interesting or helpful, I thank you!

13 years down, and it looks like I will keep blogging until I run out of things to write about.

Previously:

Classic Movie Review: Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)


Title: Kind Hearts and Coronets
Release Date: June 13, 1949
Director: Robert Hamer
Production Company: Ealing Studios
Summary/Review:

Kind Hearts and Coronets is a dry and satirical British comedy from Ealing Studios, among the earliest of a string of “Ealing Comedies” that include classics like The Ladykillers and often starred Alec Guinness. Set around 1900, the story focuses on Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini (Dennis Price) whose mother (Audrey Fildes) was disowned by her aristocratic family for marrying his father (also Price), an Italian singer. In revenge for their ill-treatment of his mother, Louis decides to murder every member of the D’Ascoyne family who is ahead of him in inheriting the title of Duke of Chalfont.

The so-absurd-it’s-wonderful twist is that Alec Guinness plays all the members of the D’Ascoyne family, 9 characters in all, of different ages and genders.  The amazing thing is that Guinness’ chameleon-like talent allows him to portray all these different characters without much in the way of make-up or costuming.

In addition to Guinness, the cast includes Joan Greenwood as Sibella, Louis’ childhood friend who turns down his marriage proposal due to his initial poor prospects, but later becomes his mistress.  Valerie Hobson portrays Edith, the widow of one of Louis’ murder victims whom he marries in order to have a properly elite bride.  There are a lot of good comical twists to the story, especially a stunner at the finale. And keeping with British tradition, there’s also a lot of variety and creativity in how the murders are carried out.

These days, the British aristocracy is an open target for mockery, but I wonder if in 1949 there was still some level of deference that would’ve made this movie more shocking. Deference to aristocracy is certainly a target for satire right at the start when a comical hangman seeks to  learn how to properly address his illustrious victim.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull


Title: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Release Date: May 22, 2008
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

When The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came out in 2008, I was excited to see a new Indiana Jones movie after such a long wait.  But life intervened and I didn’t get to around to seeing the movie, and then I heard all the reviews about how bad it is.  I decided to refrain from watching the movie up until now since I was watching the previous three installments and decided it was time to complete the series to date.

I’m glad I did, because while Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is not quite on par with Raiders and The Last Crusade, it does share a lot of those movies’ sense of adventure, humor, and warmth. The big criticism I’ve seen of this movie is the “nuke the fridge” scene where Indy survives an atomic bomb test blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator.  Honestly, this didn’t seem to me any less plausible than Indy surviving being dragged behind a truck or falling from an airplane in an inflatable raft.  There are other issues that did trouble me though that I will address soon enough.

Indy’s sidekick in this movie is Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf), a 50s greaser kid who comes to ask for Indy’s aid in finding his mother.  I’d not seen LeBeouf in anything else before, but I thought he did a good job of portraying a younger adventurer who’s worldview is different from Indy’s but still follows a moral code.  Ray Winstone plays George “Mac” Michale, a friend of Indy’s from when they were spies during WWII (wouldn’t THAT make a great movie), who is a twist on a trusted ally like Sallah.  The main villain is Cate Blanchett as Irina Spalko, who is hilariously over the top in her performance. The biggest treat is the return of Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood who has a strong chemistry with Ford as they act as if they really do have a long, unseen history in the intervening 30 years.

The movie features some great action setpieces, including a motorcycle chase in a Connecticut college town, and a jeep chase/sword fight in the Amazon jungle. Being set in the 1950s, the villains are naturally from the Soviet Union.  Like the third season of Stranger Things, this movie has the annoying Cold War cliche of Soviet military detachments operating within the United States which just gets under my skin.  We never saw Nazis operating in the United States in the first and third films, for example.  Much of the movie is set in the Amazon region of South America where Indy and his comrades fight the Soviets on neutral ground. Unfortunately, in South America the film runs into cultural competency problems with insensitive depictions of indigenous tribes.

Even worse, the whole “crystal skulls” concept is rooted in the idea of Ancient Aliens (or in this case “inter-dimensional beings”) who are alleged to have taught indigenous peoples how to use technology.  The whole pseudo-history of Ancient Aliens is just a racist concept and there’s not getting around it despite how the filmmakers try to twist away from it.  The whole third act of the movie is built around the Ancient Aliens (and whole lot of CGI) and it his here where the movie falls apart after being quite the entertaining and rollicking adventure for its first 2/3s.  Still, it’s far superior to The Temple of Doom and I would enjoy watching it again.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)


Title: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Release Date: May 24, 1989
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

To win back the enthusiasm of viewers turned of by The Temple of Doom, the story of The Last Crusade adopts many of the features of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It begins with a prologue not directly related to the main plot, this time depicting Indiana Jones as a teenager, wonderfully portrayed by River Phoenix.  The main story starts with Indy teaching at college and being approached for a project.  Side characters Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) and Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) are back for another ride. And the villains are once again Nazis, with many of them receiving satisfying punches.

The similarities though only serve to help undercut expectations.  Indy’s putative love interest in this movie is Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody, who’s paucity of subsequent film credits mystifies me), a brave and clever art professor.  But in one of the great cinematic heel turns, she ends up being a villain in league with the Nazis.

The biggest twist, of course, is the presence of Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery), a seemingly somber medieval studies professor obsessed more with finding the Holy Grail than raising his son.  The chemistry between Ford and Connery is amazing, and Connery is excellent at taking his career as an action hero and funneling it into an older and wiser man.

The Last Crusade has great actions sequences, terrific humor, and a lot of heart.  It is a deserving second recipient of a 5-star rating for an installment of the Indiana Jones franchise.

Rating: *****