Movie Review: 28 Up (1984)

Title: 28 Up
Release Date: 20 November 1984
Director: Michael Apted
Production Company: Granada Television

28 Up is the movie that Roger Ebert put on his ten favorite movies list. I’ve kind of dodged the issue by putting the entire series as one entry into my personal top ten, but 28 Up is definitely a landmark of the series.  All the participants have come into their own as adults in this entry and we’re beginning to see the ways that they’ve been molded by their childhood and how they’ve defied societal expectations.

Tony, the working class kid from the East End, has become quite prosperous as a London taxi driver.  When he was younger he wanted to be a jockey, a taxi driver, and an actor, and by 28 he has achieved all of those things.  The fact that he wasn’t a very successful jockey or that he only plays bit parts in TV shows doesn’t bother him as he’s achieved his goal, which I think is a good way of looking at life.  On the other end of the spectrum, Bruce, who has a child at a militaristic boarding school wanted to be a missionary, has instead become a socialist and now teaches at Tony’s old school in the East End.

Two of the wealthier boys, John and Charles, declined to participate in this movie (Charles will never return).  The remaining wealthy boy Andrew seems, maybe not humbled, but more grounded than in previous episodes and married to “a Yorkshire lass.” Suzy is also happily married and a parent after being completely cynical about those things in 21 Up.  In fact, many of the participants are married and interviews with the wives (and Suzy’s husband) give new perspectives to Britons of their generation.  I know that Tony’s wife Debbie practically becomes a participant in future films, but her first appearance here was actually less significant than I remembered.

Probably the biggest disappointment is that three of the four women – Jackie, Lynn, and Sue – are still being interviewed and profiled together.  Apted would receive a lot of criticism (including from the participants) for his sexist angle in portraying the working class women and it is fully deserved.  I know from later installments that all three of these women have fascinating insights so it’s disappointing that they don’t get an adequate share of time.

Finally there’s the issue of Neil, whose life story is among the most compelling.  In this film we see him living as an itinerant in rural Scotland, clearly suffering from mental illness and isolated from society.  Many viewers in 1984 feared that Neil would die or take his own life, but later films showed that Neil is full of surprises.

Rating: *****


Movie Review: The Wonder (2022)

Title: The Wonder
Release Date: November 2, 2022
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Production Company:House Productions | Element Pictures | Screen Ireland

I’m game anytime Florence Pugh is in a costume drama.  The Wonder is set in rural Ireland in 1862 where Elizabeth “Lib” Wright (Pugh), an English nurse who cared for soldiers in the Crimean War, arrives at the behest of a village panel.  They want her to observe Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy), an 11-year-old girl who claims to have not eaten food for four months.  Lib finds Anna to be healthy and not desiring to eat, while also not being denied food, and no clear indication that she is being fed on the sly.  Pilgrims visit her because they believed her holy, while the local doctor thinks she may have evolved to process nutrients without eating.

Lib and Anna form a bond, and slowly over the course of the film, Lib’s troubled past and Anna’s trauma are revealed. The film has some nice directorial touches and looks like an oil painting come to life. Food and hunger naturally play as themes in the movie picturing an Ireland still haunted by The Great Hunger which ended just before Anna was born. Lib also has many scenes where she does her best thinking while eating. The movie also has a lot to say about patriarchy, sexism, religion, and colonialism. Pugh and Cassidy are great in their roles with the cast including Tom Burke, Niamh Algar, Toby Jones, and Ciarán Hinds

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: My Father’s Dragon (2022)

Title: My Father’s Dragon
Release Date: November 4, 2022
Director: Nora Twomey
Production Company:Netflix Animation | Mockingbird Pictures | Cartoon Saloon
Summary/Review: An adaptation of a 1948 children’s book by Ruth Stiles Gannett, My Father’s Dragon is the latest offering from Cartoon Salon, the Irish animation studio that created standout films like The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and Wolfwalkers. It’s streaming on Netflix and not for the first time this year I’m left wishing that there was more widespread opportunity to see the brilliant visuals of an animated film on a big screen.

Elmer (Jacob Tremblay, of Luca fame) is a resourceful kid who helps his single mom Dela (Golshifteh Farahani) run her store. When the Depression hits they are forced to move to a big city where they struggle to make ends meet. Some encounters with magical talking animals leads Elmer to Wild Island where he rescues a Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), a young dragon who is clumsy and rather goofy.  A gorilla named Saiwa (Ian McShane) chained Boris to the peak of the island to prevent it from sinking.  On the run from Saiwa, Elmer and Boris need to find an alternate way of saving Wild Island.

This movie is pure adventure, and full of fanciful images and ideas.  As always, the Cartoon Salon animation-style is vivid and imaginative.  The voice cast is stacked with noted actors including Dianne Wiest, Rita Moreno, Chris O’Dowd, Judy Greer, Alan Cumming, Yara Shahidi, Jackie Earle Haley, and Whoopi Goldberg.  I think this movie would appeal especially to families with younger children as the sentimentality might turn of bigger kids and teens.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: 21 Up (1977)

Title: 21 Up
Release Date: 9 May 1977
Director: Michael Apted
Production Company: Granada Television

There are a lot of firsts for the Up Series in 21 Up.  For the first time, each of the subjects will get a discrete portion of the documentary instead of everyone being mixed up.  There are also more probing questions with time allowed for in-depth responses as is suitable for the participants now that they’re adults (although Michael Apted still hasn’t built the rapport to the point where some of his questions don’t come of as intrusive or condescending).

There are also a number of lasts in 21 Up. This is the final time that the participants are brought together in a large group event (at least, on film) and wow, are those conversations interesting and I would’ve liked to see more of them.  Nick analyzing the entire experiment is particularly keen.  This is also the final movie in which all 14 individuals will participate (goodbye Charles!).

This movie is very transitional as we start to see how those children we saw in the first two films are shaking out on their first hesitant steps into adulthood, and beginning to set patterns for their future lives.  But there will always be surprises.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Rafiki (2018)

Title: Rafiki
Release Date: 23 September 2018
Director: Wanuri Kahiu
Production Company: Big World Cinema | MPM Film | Schortcut Films

Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), a young woman in Nairobi, helps out at her father’s store, hangs out with her male friends, and hopes to get good enough grades to pursue nursing studies. When she meets Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), there’s an immediate attraction, and the two women soon begin dating. Not only do they run a risk of prejudice and legal repercussions (homosexuality is illegal in Kenya) but their fathers are opponents in an upcoming election.

The romance in this film is very sweet and gentle.  The cinematography captures lots of bright colors that seem to reflect the joy of young love.  But most of the shots are also really close-up in a way that emphasizes how confining life is for Kena and Ziki.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but it should not be a surprise that love does not conquer all, and Kena and Ziki suffer from the prejudices of their community.  But this movie is not without hope.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: 7 Plus Seven (1970)

Title 7 Plus Seven
Release Date: 15 December 1970
Director: Michael Apted
Production Company: Granada Television

I’ve kind of accepted that 7 Plus Seven is the Ugly Duckling of The Up Series. Michael Apted takes over the directorial reigns, but doesn’t seem quite ready to connect with teenagers while asking them questions.  To be honest, it’s a fool’s errand since 14 is an age where you’re not going to find many kids willing to be expository about their life.  Since there was still no plan to revisit the subjects every seven years, Apted has also not settled on the structure he would adopt for the latter films.  It’s basically, here’s the kids at seven and here are the kids now.

All that being said, it’s still a wonderful and necessary film.  For some reason Seven Up! feels ancient but the social change of the mid-to-late 60s makes this children in this film feel like they are living in more contemporary times.  Apted once again asks them about class, race, religion, education and career goals, dating, and what they think of the other kids involved.  Some of the kids are parroting what the adults in their lives have taught them but others are really thinking things out.  A surprising number of them support the Conservative Party which I guess is why Margaret Thatcher rose to power once they were old enough to vote.

The absolute highlight of this movie is when Suzy is talking about social class on her father’s estate and we see her dog slaughter a rabbit in the background.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Seven Up!(1964)

Today I turn 49 years old.  Since that is an age divisible by seven, I’ve decided to revisit The Up Series, the great documentary series from the UK that checks in with a group of people every seven years starting back with this TV special in 1964.

I first discovered this series back in 2005 when I checked out the box set from the library.  Susan and I binged all the movies in less than a week and then went and saw the most recent release at the time, 49 Up, at the movie theater.  I’ve kept with additional installments over the years but this is a good opportunity to revisit the earlier films.

Title: Seven Up!
Release Date: 5 May 1964
Director: Paul Almond
Production Company: Granada Television

Director Paul Almond created this one off TV special for the Granada Television series World In Action to focus on a group of seven-year-old children, the generation who would provide “the shop steward and the executive of the year 2000 .” Twenty children were brought together for a visit to the London Zoo, a special party, and time to play in an adventure playground (none of these things would past muster with today’s helicopter parents). The children represent various parts of England including London’s East End, the post Kensington borough, the Liverpool suburbs, a farm in Yorkshire, and a charity orphanage.

The experiment is flawed from the beginning as the 14 participants chosen to be documented in the ensuing films, only 4 of them are girls.  Michelle, a girl from the East End who is featured prominently in the first installment but for some reason never returned in the subsequent films.  There also is only one non-white participant, Symon, who has an immigrant Black father and a white English mother.

That aside, it is an interesting gathering of children.  The interviewers ask a series of questions about issues such as interest in the opposite sex, money and class, racism, and violence.  The answers are as adorable as you might expect and surprisingly insightful.  The upper class boys Andrew, Charles, and John, naming the prep schools, public schools, and universities that they plan to attend (right on down to specific Oxbridge colleges) is alarming.  But then again, working class Tony is always spot on about what he’s going to accomplish in the future too.

Highlights of the movie remain:

  • Tony falling flat on his face
  • Andrew licking his knee while being interviewed
  • Nick refusing to answer questions about girls
  • Bright-eyed Neil talking about how he dies when playing make believe
  • Paul not wanting to get married because his wife might make him eat greens
  • Also, I noticed this time that at the party the kids are actually drinking from bottles of 7-UP.  Great product placement!

Michael Apted worked as a researcher on this film, and by 1970 was wondering how these kids were doing as teenagers.  But we’ll get to that tomorrow!

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Clerks (1994)

Title: Clerks
Release Date: October 19, 1994
Director: Kevin Smith
Production Company: View Askew Productions

“You hate people”

“But I love gatherings. Isn’t it ironic? “

25 years ago I watched Clerks and thought it was very funny and clever movie.  I revisited this movie with some apprehension because in the intervening years I’ve found director Kevin Smith’s shtick to have become tiresome.  More than that though, there’s an entire breed of obnoxious internet dudebros who base their personality around Smith’s movies.  Could I really also like what they like?

Turns out, that’s a qualified yes.  There’s definitely some cringy homophobic  and racist dialogue in the movie.  But then again, the two lead characters who talk like this are not likable people.  There’s no requirement for protagonists of good stories to be likable and I don’t think they’re intended to be.  A lot of the humor in this movie also relies on shock value, and I’ve found that shock humor, at a maximum, can be funny once.  So parts of this movie don’t hold up if you know what’s coming.

The heart of this movie is an honest depiction of the soul-crushing nature of retail work, as well as the aimlessness of being a young adult.  Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran} is the clerk of a convenience store in a New Jersey suburb called in by his deadbeat boss to work on his day off.  Throughout the day he deals with the quirks of archetypal customers and various crises.  He’s visited throughout the day by Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson), the misanthropic clerk of the adjacent video store who more often than not gets Dante in trouble.  But Randal is surprisingly observant about Dante’s self-inflicted problems.

At it’s best, Clerks work as a series of sketches about the weird things that can go on among staff and customers at retail stores, as well as the problems of figuring out who you are and what you want to do as a young adult. It’s lest successful when it tries to have an ongoing plot.  Throughout the day, Dante is visited by his girlfriend Veronica (Marilyn Ghigliotti) who is inexplicably committed to him even though he pines for ex-girlfriend from high school, Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer).  Caitlin arrives partly through the film and is also really into Dante for some reason, although he’s done nothing to deserve either of these women.

Sprinkled throughout the movie are the drug dealers who work outside the store Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith).  These two would go on to be key parts of the View Askewniverse films that would follow Clerks, but here they’re just part of the atmosphere which is how I think the work best.  I watched Smith’s subsequent films with diminishing returns until I eventually gave up, and it seems I’m not the only one since he’s faded from prominence. Did you know that a Clerks III was released this year?  I found that out when researching for this review, but the movie’s release went completely under my radar.

But for all that Clerks is a good movie for Smith to have on his resume.  The lack of professional actors (many roles were played by Smith’s family and friends) is a strength of this film lending it an authenticity of everyday small town New Jersey life. It’s also an iconic movie of the 1990s.  It makes less sense to make 1990s movies after the decade ended which may be why Smith hasn’t made another film as good as this one.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Enola Holmes 2 (2022)

Title: Enola Holmes 2
Release Date: November 4, 2022
Director: Harry Bradbeer
Production Company:Legendary Pictures | PCMA Productions

I enjoyed Enola Holmes when I watched it two years ago, although I probably overrated it in my enthusiasm.  The sequel improves upon the original, partly with the benefit of the origin story being taken care of so that it can jump right into the action, adventure, mystery, and romance. And humor.  This movie is a romp and it will always revert to fun.

Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown), younger sister of Sherlock and Mycroft, has opened a detective agency in London.  Potential clients turn her down because of her age and gender, but Enola finally gets a case when a factory girl Bessie (Serrana Su-Ling Bliss) asks for help finding her sister Sarah. Enola’s investigation exposes the cruel conditions that girls and women of the match factory labor under as well as the mystery of why so many of them are getting sick and dying.  Naturally, this mystery ties in with Sherlock’s (Henry Cavill) investigation into blackmailing and money laundering.

A big theme of this film is that Enola’s desire to be independent does not mean that she has to be alone.  Thus she gets an assist from a team involving Sherlock, their mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), and Enola’s love interest Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge).  It’s a good ensemble cast and they have a lot of good chemistry working together.  The film also incorporates a real historical event, The Matchgirls Strike of 1888 which lead to the Union of Women Match Makers, the first women-lead labor movement in Britain.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Nope (2022)

Title: Nope
Release Date: July 18, 2022
Director: Jordan Peele
Production Company: Monkeypaw Productions

A brother and sister struggle to manage the family business of wrangling horses for Hollywood movies and commercials after the sudden death of their father (a small role for Keith David of The Thing and They Live). The laconic Otis “OJ” Haywood, Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) is determined to carry on the family business, but the more free-spirited Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer) is ready to move on to other interests.  They have an offer to buy the ranch from  Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) a former child actor who runs a Western theme park on an adjacent ranch.

When they discover something mysterious hovering in the clouds above their ranch and taking their horses, OJ an Em determine that capturing a high-quality film of the UFO is their key to fame and fortune.  They are soon joined by Angel (Brandon Perea), the technician from an electronics store who installs surveillance cameras on their party.  Later, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), an auteur filmmaker, joins the team.  As you can imagine from a horror movie, things don’t go to plan. In fact they go horrifyingly wrong.

I’ve seen a lot of commentary that this movies is Jordan Peele’s homage to early Steven Spielberg movies like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  While they’re not wrong, the movie comparison that comes to my mind is Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.  Both films have a carnival in the desert setting while thematically dealing with the idea of spectacle and the willingness of people to exploit human suffering.  Black Americans especially are dehumanized for the entertainment of others, a point the movie makes with the Haywood’s claim that their ancestor was the jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s first motion picture but is invisible to history.  Of course, OJ’s name brings to mind the spectacle of the O.J. Simpson trial, although Peele refrains from the obvious callback of having OJ ride a white bronco.

The movie is very good at building tension especially early on by not showing much about the mystery in the sky.  Later in the film when we see more of what it is, the movie takes on a more surreal feel.  I’m particularly impressed by the editing and the sound design of the movie.  All the acting is great but Keke Palmer is the standout performer for me.  While not quite as good as Get Out or Us, I think Peele has added another great horror flick that makes you think to his oeuvre.

Rating: ****