On the final day of April, I’m playing a reverse April Fools prank on you. After of watching a month of movies considered among the “best films of all time,” I’m finishing with one that is decidedly not. This is partially because movies with Z titles are hard to come by, and partly for reasons outlined below, but mostly because it’s fun to take a break from “Classic Film” from time to time.
Title: Zookeeper Release Date: July 8, 2011 Director: Frank Coraci Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Broken Road Productions | Hey Eddie | Happy Madison Productions Summary/Review:
I’ve been curious about this movie for some time because it was filmed at Franklin Park Zoo in Boston which is walking distance from my house. I used to go the zoo more frequently when my kids were little and I remember when the center of the zoo was taken over by a massive film set. I wondered why if they were going to film on a massive set, why didn’t they do it in a studio instead. Having watched the film, very little of the real Franklin Park Zoo is seen in this movie so I wonder this even more now. And all the animals are CGI so it’s not like they needed to be in proximity to real animals.
What I didn’t realize is that they needed proximity to Boston. I’d just assumed that the movie would be about a generic zoo, but in the film it is very much the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. In fact, they digitally altered the Boston skyline in some shots to make it appear like the zoo is much closer to downtown. The protagonist lives in a three decker, there’s a bicycling scene on Boston Common and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, and the denouement of the movie occurs on the Zakim Bridge. So “yay Boston!,” I guess.
As for the actual story, Kevin James plays Griffin Keyes, the titular zookeeper (I know nothing about James but reading Letterboxd reviews he seems to be a hated figure). He suffers continued heartbreak when his girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) rejects his marriage proposal and breaks up with him because she thinks being a zookeeper is a job for losers (which really doesn’t make any sense). Within in the first ten minutes of the movie it becomes abundantly clear that this is one of those movies where the protagonist will pursue someone who is clearly awful, when his perfect match, zoo veterinarian Kate (Rosario Dawson), is right there. Because Griffin is so hapless, the zoo animals break their code of not talking to humans and offer him advice for wooing Stephanie. Hijinks ensue.
The movie has a subplot where Griffin bonds with a depressed gorilla Bernie (Nick Nolte) and they go out partying at TGI Fridays. Honestly that part could’ve been spun out into an entire movie and it would’ve been much better than what we got. When he’s not doing pratfalls or acting like an alpha male, James actually has some charms, and Dawson who is usually in much better movies brings some “much better movie” magic to her scenes. Among the celebrities voicing animals are Sylvester Stallone and Cher as lions and Adam Sandler as a crude capuchin monkey. But overall for a comedy the jokes are just not, you know, funny.
Title: Yi Yi Release Date: 5 May 200 Director: Edward Yang Production Company: 1+2 Seisaku Iinkai | Atom Films | Basara Pictures |
Pony Canyon Summary/Review:
Yi Yi is a family drama from the director of A Brighter Summer Day, and thankfully less bleak than that earlier film. It depicts the Jian family of Taipei, Taiwan: father NJ (Wu Nien-jen), mother Min-Min, early teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), and 8-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). The film begins at the wedding of Min-Min’s brother A-Di, introducing the main characters and setting up important plot threads. (Ever since I’ve watched The Godfather, I’ve noticed the whole “start the movie at a wedding” thing popping up in a lot of movies). At the wedding reception, NJ encounters Sherry (Su-Yun Ko), a romantic partner his university days, in the hotel lobby. After the wedding, Mim Min’s mother suffers a stroke and ends up comatose.
The film does not have a straightforward plot, per se, but interweaves the four individual threads of the family members as they deal with their personal struggles.
NJ is unmotivated by his job but bonds with potential client from Japan, Mr. Ota. On a business trip to Japan he reunites with Sherry and they have an emotional series of conversations over unresolved issues from their failed relationship.
Min-Min is overwhelmed by her mother’s coma and leaves for a Buddhist retreat.
Ting-Ting feels guilty because her grandmother collapsed doing Ting-Ting’s chore of taking out the trash. Ting-Ting talks to her comatose grandmother about her guilt and other concerns. She also befriends her neighbor Lili, and later briefly dates Lili’s ex-boyfriend, Fatty. While not a member of the family, Lili’s life is also documented in the film apart from her interactions with Ting-Ting.
Yang-Yang, the MVP of this movie, is a shy kid who’s bullied by other kids and his teacher. He finds a way to express his creativity by taking photographs.
We also spend time with A-Di, who struggles financially, gets kicked out by his wife, gets back together with an ex-girlfriend, and hosts the worst possible baby shower imaginable.
The movie is beautifully filmed and most shots use the Ozu–style of keeping the camera still and a mid-distance rather than panning or zooming or using closeups. The acting is solid and naturalistic as well. Occasionally there are plot twists that feel a bit soap opera-ish, but largely is more about the patterns of ordinary life. There are some joys and some sorrows but a lot just hovers in the middle. Clocking at over 3 hours, it is a big time commitment to spend time with these people without a traditional story or payoff, but I think it’s worth it.
As is my practice in the A to Z Challenge, I interpret “X” algebraically, and use it to represent a number. In this case it is the number “12” from a Best Picture award winning historical drama that is not on these classic movie lists, but probably will be in the future.
Title: 12 Years A Slave Release Date: November 8, 2013 Director: Steve McQueen Production Company: Regency Enterprises | River Road Entertainment | Plan B Entertainment | New Regency Productions | Film4 Productions Summary/Review:
This film is an historical drama based on the real life experiences of Solomon Northrup who wrote a memoir of his life as an enslaved person that was published in 1853. Northrup’s narrative and the film capture an aspect of slavery not often discussed in popular history. While most people know that Africans were kidnapped and brought to the Americas to be enslaved and that their descendants were born into slavery, they are less likely to know that free Black people in the United States like Northrup were kidnapped into slavery as well.
In the film we meet Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a freeborn Black man living in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children who is a talented performer on the fiddle. Two con men lure him to Washington on the promise of a job performing music for a circus, but instead they drug him and deliver him to a slave trader. He is then transferred to Louisiana and sold to a man named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is depicted as an enslaver who attempts to be kind but is too weak to do anything that would upend the system.
Later, Northrup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic and abusive man. On Epps plantation, Northrup befriends Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), an young enslaved women who Epps praises for picking the largest amount of cotton. Epps routinely rapes Patsey while his equally disturbed wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) abuses and humiliates her. Nyong’o deservedly won an Best Actress award for this role, but I nonetheless can’t imagine how harrowing it was for her to play this part.
The film dodges some conventions of historical drama by dropping the audience right in the narrative with no narration or titles introducing the situation. The film also makes effective use of flashbacks to Northrup’s life in New York and earlier days in slavery as he remembers them. It is also an oddly beautiful film as if to contrast the grim violence of slavery against the natural beauty of a Louisiana plantation. One scene that is seared in my mind shows Northrup hanging from a noose, just barely able to get his toews on the ground, while in the background other enslaved people go about their work and children play.
The film is unrelenting in its portrayal of violence against Northrup and the other enslaved people depicted in the film. I’m of two minds on this. On one hand, no film can even approach the horrors of slavery, and as brutal as this film is, it is only a small approximation of reality. On the other hand, is there not already enough historical depictions of the torture, rape, and murder of Black people that we don’t need to add to them in 21st Century? Ultimately, I believe this is a necessary film, but I can understand if some people would not want to view it.
Title: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Release Date: 2021 Creator: Malcolm Spellman Director: Kari Skogland Episodes: 6 Production Company: Marvel Studios Summary/Review:
WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, please don’t read.
Much like its predecessor WandaVision, this Marvel series on Disney+ is set shortly after the events of Avengers: Endgame and uses recovering the traumatic events of “The Blip” as the background to series. Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) were both snapped out of existence for five years and both lost one of their closest friends with the passing of Steve Rogers. As the series begins, Bucky is in therapy dealing with the murders he committed while brainwashed by Hydra. Sam received the Captain America shield from Steve, but determines to place it in a museum rather than take up the mantle himself. He also grows concerned about his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) being in a position where she needs to sell the family’s fishing business in Louisiana, but even as a superhero he can’t get credit from predatory banks.
The main antagonist in the series is Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman playing a character very similar to her role as Enfys Nest in Solo), the leader of an organization called the Flag Smashers who are fighting for open borders in the post-Blip world. Workers who were allowed to move to to more prosperous countries during the Blip are now being forced out. This is an interesting concept that relates to real life issues of refugee crises, but the goals of the Flag Smashers seem very muddled in practice, as if the show’s creators wanted to make them somewhat sympathetic but still keep the moral certainty needle pushed towards the shows “heroes.” Another antagonist is John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a U.S. Army veteran appointed to be the new Captain America when Sam refuses it. He’s an interesting morally-grey character because he’s arrogant, but also seems to be trying to do the best he can in the shadow of Steve Rogers. He eventually does turn heel, but then is far too easily redeemed in the final episode.
The series focuses deeply on issues of race and how Black people are treated inequitably in America. Sam’s reluctance to be Captain America is partially due to the fact that the colors of the American flag don’t represent Black Americans and that a Black Captain America would not be accepted by white Americans. Issues such as police harassment of Black people and the revelation of super soldier experiments on Black prisoners are covered in the show. The race issues are unnuanced and a bit simplistic, but on the other hand it’s a credit to Marvel for trying to address them.
The very busy six episodes also include appearances by anti-super soldier villain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), Avenger James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), a fugitive Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), and member of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje Ayo (Florence Kasumba). The series serves as a transition for Sam and Bucky to set them up for future chapters in the ongoing MCU. I found it entertaining with some good performances, but it bit scattered storywise with too many plot elements packed in.
I couldn’t find a “W” movie to watch from these lists so I’m watching a highly-regarded recent release instead.
Title:Wolfwalkers Release Date: December 2, 2020 Director: Tomm Moore | Ross Stewart Production Company: Cartoon Saloon | Mélusine Summary/Review:
Kilkenny, Ireland – 1650. The town faces the threat of a pack of wolves outside its walls, and the draconian rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) within. Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) is an English hunter charged with eliminating the wolf problem while raising and protecting his adventurous young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey). Naturally, Robyn makes her way into the forest where she discovers the secret of the wolfwalkers, people who are human when they are awake and wolves when they are asleep, living among the wolfpack.
Robyn befriends the young Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whitaker) and they join together to try and find Mebh’s missing mother and help save the wolf pack. It’s a wonderful adventure full of great imagination, action, and camaraderie. The animation is absolutely beautiful and effortlessly melds together the historical with the fantastical. Computer-animated films are getting better and better, but it is also really lovely to see a traditionally animated film like this one again.
Tomm Moore also directed The Secret of Kells which I also loved so now I need to seek out the rest of his films. In the meantime, I highly recommend this as a great film for the whole family.
I generally avoid True Crime media, but I am borderline obsessed with the theft of 13 works of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. I’ve read a book about it and listened to a podcast, and now I’ve watched this 4-part Netflix documentary. The documentary does a good job of reiterating the main points of what is known about the crime. It’s good get the visuals to go with the story, such as diagrams of the museum that show where the thieves operated. And then there’s a mix of archival news footage with present-day interviews with many key figures, from museum guards to the museums director.
While being a very entertaining documentary it’s also highly sensationalist (which naturally adds to the entertainment value). There’s a lot of building up of potential suspects before revealing that they couldn’t possibly have commited the crime. The same footage is played over and over again, most hilariously a “dramatic reenactment” of a couple of high school students walking piggy back down Palace Road before the crime. The creators of the film are happy to rely on the false Hollywood image of Boston as a mobster-infested playground of vice. A lot of people commenting on the documentary are loving the Boston accents and characters which really don’t exist in present day Boston. In short, it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours, but take it with a grain of salt.
Title: Van Gogh Release Date: 30 October 1991 Director: Maurice Pialat Production Company: Erato Films | Le Studio Canal+ | Les Films du Livradois | Films A2 Summary/Review:
I admire the artwork of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh. I’ve been to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and seen his art at other museums, watched the film Loving Vincent animated in the style of his art, and “Vincent and the Doctor” is one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who. Despite all that, I am only familiar with the basics of Van Gogh’s biography, so I was looking forward to this film.
Jacques Dutronc portrays Van Gogh in the final two months of his life in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirts of Paris. It’s largely a straightforward biopic, and Pialat’s approach eschews sentimentality and sensationalism. For example, the story takes place after Van Gogh mutilated his ear but Dutronc’s ears appear in perfect condition. The movie focuses less on Van Gogh as an artist and more on his interpersonal relationships. This means a lot of people being goofy about trying to find something to talk about with an artist and Van Gogh being incredibly grumpy about it.
Key relationships include Dr Paul Gachet (Gérard Séty) the physician and amateur artists who Van Gogh consults who is ultimately helpless in dealing with Van Gogh’s mental illness. Vincent also has several conflicts with his brother Theo (Bernard Le Coq), the art dealer who supports his career. Theo’s wife Jo (Corinne Bourdon) is sympathetic to Vincent and advocates for him. Van Gogh also forms a romantic and sexual relationship with Dr. Gachet’s daughter Marguerite (Alexandra London) while continuing an existing sexual relationship with Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein), a prostitute from Paris.
The movie is basically a sequence of Van Gogh having arguments and sex and there being very little emotion involved in either. I know it’s probably more my fault than the film’s but I had a lot of trouble watching this movie. I ended up watching it over the period of four days because it just couldn’t hold me attention. If the purpose of Van Gogh is to recreate the feeling of emptiness the leads a talented artist to chose suicide, it does its job. But ultimately I can’t say that is what I want from a film.
Punk is not a genre typically associated with Africa but the music of rage both personal and political has found its niche in countries dealing with imperialism, apartheid, poverty, and political corruption.
Last September, Rolling Stone magazine released their most recent list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, which includes a greater variety of artists and genres than previous lists. Looking through the list, there were many albums I’d never listened to before and a few I’d never even heard of. In fact, counting it up, I found that I’d only listened to 140 of the albums, although I’d heard songs from many more. So I’ve decided my project for 2021 is to listen to 10 albums each week and write up some thoughts about each one.
Artist: Funkadelic Album: One Nation Under a Groove Year: 1978 Label: Warner Bros. Have I Listened to This Album Before?: Yes Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes Favorite Tracks:
“One Nation Under a Groove”
“Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock?”
Thoughts: Who says a funk band can’t play rock? If it’s Funkadelic, Parliament, or anyone in the family of George Clinton bands and artists, who is to say they can’t play any damn style of music they like. From funk to soul to rock to disco to extremely long and juvenile poop jokes, this album has it all!
Artist: Big Star Album: Radio City Year: 1974 Label: Ardent Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes Would I Listen to this Album Again?: No Favorite Tracks:
Thoughts: This is the second album on this list from Big Star, a quintessential critics favorite band. The music here is Beatle-esque filter through a generic 70s Classik Rawk sound. I don’t know, I’m just not feeling the power in this pop.
Artist: Sonic Youth Album: Goo Year: 1990 Label: Geffen Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Favorite Tracks:
“Tunic (Song for Karen)”
“My Friend Goo”
“Cinderella’s Big Score”
Thoughts: Sonic Youth is a band I always wished I’d paid more attention to, even back in the 90s. In my defense, albums were expensive and I was impecunious. This whole RS 500 project would not exist without the magic of streaming putting the world of music at my fingertips. I guess it’s better late than never.
Artist: Tom Waits Album: Rain Dogs Year: 1985 Label: Island Have I Listened to This Album Before?: Yes Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes Favorite Tracks:
“Jockey Full of Bourbon”
“Hang Down Your Head”
Thoughts: This is the middle of a trilogy of albums that Tom Waits released in the 1980s that so far mark his creative peak as an artist. It’s weird and wonderful music, but somehow accessible enough for Rod Stewart to have a hit covering “Downtown Train.” I wrote more about this album and more in my Tom Waits Music Discovery.
Artist: Dr. John Album: Gris-Gris Year: 1968 Label: Atco Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes Favorite Tracks:
“Gris Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya”
“Danse Kalinda Ba Doom”
Thoughts: You’ve got to imagine how weird this album must have sounded in 1968. I mean, people were doing a lot of drugs, so a lot of stuff sounded weird in 1968. But this was a time when different regions in the country were more isolated than they are now and here is Dr. John introducing an amalgamation of New Orleans culture through a psychedelic lens. It’s still delightfully weird even in 2021.
Artist: Black Sabbath Album: Black Sabbath Year: 1970 Label: Warner Bros. Have I Listened to This Album Before?: Yes Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes Favorite Tracks:
“A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning”
Thoughts: Several years ago, a friend tried to give me a tutorial in Heavy Metal music. We didn’t get far, but I did listen to the first four albums of Black Sabbath as the cornerstone albums of the genre. I was surprised that there were several songs by Black Sabbath that I actually liked, although it appears that most of them will be on albums later in this list. I do like the Zeppelin-esque suite of blues rock that finishes of this album, though.
Artist: X-Ray Spex Album: Germfree Adolescents Year: 1978 Label: EMI Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes Favorite Tracks:
“Warrior in Woolworths”
“I Can’t Do Anything”
“The Day the World Turned Day-Glo”
Thoughts: I should know more about the iconic London punk rock act X-Ray Spex lead by vocalist Poly Styrene (how many punk/post-punk/alternative vocalists did she influence?), but I’d never before listened to the band’s only album. While the stereotype of punk rock is that it’s angry music, Poly Styrene sounds cheerful in embracing the slacker ethos a decade and a half before that became the defining characteristic of Generation X.
Artist: The Cars Album: The Cars Year: 1978 Label: Elektra Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Favorite Tracks: None Thoughts: I’ve made my feelings about The Cars known before on this blog, so I went into listening to this album with great reluctance. Nevertheless, I am determined as ever to give every album a fair shake. My hopes of finding a hidden nugget buried deep in this album vanished as I realized that almost every song on this album has been in constant rotation on classic rock radio for the past 4 decades. One positive is that I didn’t find the songs to be physically irritating anymore, just not my thing. So that’s a plus!
Artist: Eminem, Album: The Slim Shady LP Year: 1999 Label: Interscope Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Favorite Tracks: NONE Thoughts: Speaking of albums I don’t want to listen to, there’s this one by a loathsome artist whose music is built on misogyny, homophobia, and saying hateful things. Black hip hop artists were excoriated for much less, but Eminem received nothing but critical plaudits. Entering with low expectations, I found this album worse than I could possibly imagine. I need a shower now.
Artist: Roxy Music Album: For Your Pleasure Year: 1973 Label: Warner Bros. Have I Listened to This Album Before?: No Am I Familiar With This Artist/Songs from This Album?: Yes Would I Listen to this Album Again?: Yes Favorite Tracks:
“Do the Strand”
Thoughts: I’ve never given Roxy Music all that much thought. On classic rock radio they were always represented by the pretty but boring “Avalon.” This earlier work of there’s is classified as glam rock – and is at times Bowie-esque – but I also hear hints of New Wave. Perhaps that’s because of Brian Eno and his synths. I enjoyed listening to it and will check it out again.
Running List of Albums I’d Listen to Again
500. Arcade Fire, Funeral
498. Suicide, Suicide
497. Various Artists, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto
494. The Ronettes, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes
489. A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector from Phil Spector and Various Artists, Back to Mono (1958-1969)
487. Black Flag, Damaged
485, Richard and Linda Thompson, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
483, Muddy Waters, The Anthology
482, The Pharcyde, Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde
481, Belle and Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister
478, The Kinks, Something Else by the Kinks
477, Howlin’ Wolf, Moanin’ in the Moonlight
469, Manu Chao, Clandestino
465, King Sunny Adé, The Best of the Classic Years
464, The Isley Brothers, 3 + 3
462, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Gilded Palace of Sin
459, Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The End of the Day
457, Sinéad O’Connor, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got
456, Al Green, Greatest Hits
455, Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley/Go Bo Diddley
453, Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine
452, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Anthology
451, Roberta Flack, First Take
448, Otis Redding, Dictionary of Soul
446, Alice Coltrane, Journey in Satchidanada
444, Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine
443, David Bowie, Scary Monsters
440, Loretta Lynn, Coal Miner’s Daughter
439, James Brown, Sex Machine
438, Blur, Parklife
437, Primal Scream, Screamadelica
435, Pet Shop Boys, Actually
433, LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
431, Los Lobos, How Will the Wolf Survive?
430, Elvis Costello, My Aim Is True
429, The Four Tops, Reach Out
428, Hüsker Dü, New Day Rising
427, Al Green, Call Me
426, Lucinda Williams, Lucinda Williams
425, Paul Simon, Paul Simon
424, Beck, Odelay
423, Yo La Tengo, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One
I couldn’t find a “U” movie to watch from these lists, so I’m going to just review another “T” movie and “U” will have to live with that.
Title: Trouble in Paradise Release Date: October 21, 1932 Director: Ernst Lubitsch Production Company: Paramount Pictures Summary/Review:
The film begins with a romantic dinner in Venice between Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins). They gradually learn that they are both posing as aristocracy: he’s a master thief and she’s a pickpocket and a con artist. They decide to team up and find their next mark in Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), a recent widow who owns a famous perfume company. Gaston is able to get himself hired as Mariette’s secretary (and get a position for Lily as well) and work his way into her confidence to set up robbing her safe. There’s one problem though – Gaston and Mariette fall in love.
Thus you have the perfect escapist fare for The Great Depression – the meaningless problems of the rich, a love triangle, and nonstop droll humor. The three leads are terrific and have a great supporting cast. I wouldn’t say this movie is laugh out loud funny, but these characters are so smart and effortless in their banter, I can’t help but enjoy it. I’d never heard of Kay Francis before, but I learned she was the top-paid Hollywood actress of the early 1930s, and I can see why. You can also tell this is a pre-Code film because they’re never explicitly sexual, they don’t hide its sexiness either.