Movie Review: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) #atozchallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: It’s a Wonderful Life
Release Date: December 20, 1946
Director: Frank Capra
Production Company: Liberty Films
Synopsis:

George Bailey is in trouble and the people of Bedford Falls pray to heaven for help.  Heaven, in the form of angels who appear as blinking galaxies and stars, responds by calling on an angel who hasn’t yet received his wings, Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers), is called upon to be George’s guardian angel.  Together, the angels review George’s life of good deeds and self sacrifice which make up the majority of the movie.

Young George Bailey (Bobby Anderson) saves his brother when he falls into an icy pond, and prevents his distraught employer at a pharmacy from accidentally giving out medication with poison in it. As a teenager, George (played by James Stewart from here on), dreams of leaving Bedford Falls and traveling the world and going to college.  When George’s father dies, he is forced to take over the family’s Building and Loan, the only business in town that stands up to the rapacious capitalist Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).  George’s younger brother Harry (Todd Karns) goes to college in George’s place and four years later returns with a new wife and a great job opportunity, so George is stuck at the Building and Loan.

George falls in love with Mary Hatch (Donna Reed) and they get married.  On the day of they’re leaving for their honeymoon, there’s a run on the bank, and George and Mary have to use their honeymoon money to keep the Building and Loan open. Mary renovates an abandoned house and over the years their family grows with four children. Under George’s leadership, the Building and Loan finances quality, affordable homes for many of the working people in the town.  Mr. Potter even tries to lure George into his influence with a lucrative job offer, that George angrily refuses.

During World War II, Harry heroically defends troop transports in the South Pacific and receives the Congressional Medal of Honor.  On the day before he’s set to return home, Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell), George’s absent-minded partner at the Building and Loan, mistakenly hands an envelope of cash to Mr. Potter in a folded newspaper. The evil Mr. Potter keeps it knowing that the Building and Loan will collapse without this payment and he can have George arrested for embezzlement.  George lashes out in anger at his family and friends and contemplates suicide.

At this point, Clarence Oddbody arrives on earth as George’s guardian angel. In the most famous sequence of the film, Clarence gives George the opportunity to see what Bedford Falls would be like if George had never been born.  The town, now called Pottersville, is a den of vice and iniquity and all the people George knows and loves are miserable and meaner. George realizes the significance of his life and asks to live again.  Meanwhile, Mary organizes the community and everyone in the town chips in to help pay off the Building and Loan debt.  And Clarence gets his wings.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

If you watched television in the 1970s and 1980s, you will remember that each Christmas season became “It’s a Wonderful Month.” Because the copyright on the film lapsed, any television channel could show the movie and they chose to play it over and over again.  I remember tuning in and watching it in bits and pieces, reliving my favorite parts, not even sure when I finally watched the film from end to end (the very beginning where people are praying for George felt unfamiliar, so maybe I never saw that part).

What Did I Remember?:

This film is etched upon my brain and I could still recite lines of dialogue along with the characters.

What Did I Forget?:

Other than the opening sequence with the prayers, I didn’t forget much. Like many of the movies I’ve been watching, there are details I notice as an adult that I didn’t cotton on to as a child.  For example, the druggist Mr. Gower’s son dies from the Great Influenza Pandemic.  Also, George’s behavior can be really atrocious such as when he visits Mary after Harry’s wedding, or when he lashes out at his family when Uncle Billy loses the $8000.  Granted, it’s understandable why he’s so upset and we know that this is not the person he is.  As a parent, seeing the part where George holds one of his children close to him while weeping carried emotional resonance.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

The acting in this film is terrific across the board.  Even the minor characters are fully realized.  There are so many little details in this movie that make it feel like a real small town where people are involved in one another’s lives.  And everything that is set up in the extended flashback pays off in the alternate universe sequence.  And this movie is just full of hope and inspiration, so it’s hard not to feel emotional by the end.

Frank Capra is criticized for sentimentality and Capra-corn, but this film surprisingly offers a negative assessment of capitalist America in the immediate aftermath of World War II, much like its contemporary The Best Years of Our Lives.  Opposed to the American dream being open to anyone who works hard its up to communities lead by people like George Bailey to fight for basic human decency. George’s angry speech to Potter defines the basic tenets of social democracy against unfettered capitalism and is something that helped me define my political identity as a child (ironically, Stewart and Capra were both lifelong Republicans).

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

I think the movie holds up very well.  I’ve always wondered what the world would be like if Mr. Potter had never been born, or even got his comeuppance (outside of a Saturday Night Live sketch).   The Pottersville sequence does lay things on a bit thick.  I’m never clear how big of a town it’s supposed to be, but Pottersville seems to have a sex worker industry big enough to support all of Western New York.

Is It a Classic?:

It’s a Wonderful Classic!

Rating: *****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with I:

  1. Iceman (1984)
  2. Ikiru (1952)
  3. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
  4. Intermission (2003)
  5. It Happened One Night (1934)

What is your favorite movie starting with I? What do you guess will be my movie for J? (Hint: it was filmed at my family’s favorite vacation spot when I was a kid).

Documentary Movie Review: Harlan County, USA (1976) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “H” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “H” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Harvard Beats Yale 29 to 29HeimaHelveticaHieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, High SchoolHillsboroughThe Historic Pubs of Dublin, and The Hollywood Librarian.

Title: Harlan County, USA
Release Date: October 15, 1976
Director: Barbara Kopple
Production Company: Cabin Creek Films
Summary/Review:

I have an affinity for coal miners because my grandfather and his father and brothers all worked for mining companies in Pennsylvania.  My grandfather never went down in the mines but worked as a coal breaker which made him all the more vulnerable to inhaling dust and coal particles.  Coal miners, whether below the ground or in the processing facilities, face a great risk of instant death and horrible injuries. Those who make it through okay will inevitably suffer respirator problems like black lung.  And yet the work of a coal miner could also offer great dignity and pride.

In the 1970s in Harlan County, Kentucky, over 180 coal miners from the Brookside Mine joined the United Mine Workers of America and went on strike against the Duke Power Company.  Young filmmaker Barbara Kopple (who later directed Miss Sharon Jones!) filmed the strike over the course of its 11 months, including planning meetings, pickets, and conflicts with company’s “gun thugs” that lead to violence. The protests spread to New York where UMWA picketers inform Wall Street investors about Duke Power’s mistreatment of workers, and one of them talks with a progressive New York City cop. A particularly strong part of this film is the organization of Harlan County’s women, mostly miners’ wives, who play a significant role in the strike. Lois Scott stands out as a women who uses encouragement and shame to keep people motivated on the end goal of the strike.

In addition to the linear narrative of the strike, Kopple also includes historical footage from Harlan County coal mines and earlier labor conflicts.  The struggle of miners in Appalachia in general is seen in coverage of the Farmington Mine explosion in West Virginia in 1968 that left 78 miners dead.  There was conflict even within the UMWA.  In the 1960s, Tony Boyle became president of the union, but many rank-and-file miners saw him as too cozy with mine owners.  He was challenged by Jock Yablonski in 1969, and despite winning reelection had Yablonski and several of his family murdered a month later. At the time of the Harlan County strike, Boyle had been replaced by a former miner, Arnold Miller, and was convicted for the murder of the Yablonski.

Apart from some informative text on the screen, this movie has no narration.  Instead the miners tell their story and the stories of those who came before them.  The story is also told through song, as the soundtrack features several folk songs including many specifically about Harlan County.  At one point, Florence Reece appears to sing a new version of her famous song “Which Side Are You On?” which she originally wrote for the Harlan County War in 1931.

This is a beautiful, moving, and enraging movie that tells a story that’s all too familiar through our nation’s history.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Heaven Help Us (1985) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Heaven Help Us
Release Date: February 8, 1985
Director: Michael Dinner
Production Company: HBO Pictures | Silver Screen Partners
Synopsis:

After the death of his parents, teenager Michael Dunn (Andrew McCarthy) is sent to live with his grandparents in Brooklyn.  He’s enrolled at an all-boys Catholic high school, St. Basil’s, run by an order of monks (his grandmother hopes he will go into the priesthood).  He falls into a crowd of oddballs including Caesar (Malcolm Danare), a nerd who is dismissive of everyone else’s lower intelligence, and Ed Rooney (Kevin Dillon), a bully who is repeating the year at school. Michael is shocked by the severe strictness of the school, especially Brother Constance (Jay Patterson), a teacher who routinely uses corporal punishment and humiliation on the students.

Michael also meets Danni (Mary Stuart Masterson), a girl who has dropped out of public school to run her father’s soda shop across the street from St. Basil’s.  It’s revealed over the course of the movie that her father is suffering from severe mental health issues and unable to run it himself.  Michael and Danni start off awkwardly but begin to date in one of the sweetest teen romances ever depicted on screen.

Over the course of a few months of the school year, Michael, Caesar, Rooney and others (including the weird kid who can’t stop masturbating) play pranks, go to confession, see Pope Paul VI’s procession in Manhattan, have a dance with students from the girls’ school (after a lecture on lust by a priest played by Wallace Shawn in a hilarious bit part), and they repeatedly get in trouble.  Things come to a head in a violent confrontation with Brother Constance and a surprise twist at the finale.

Three characters I haven’t mentioned in this synopsis add flavor to the story.  First is Michael’s little sister Boo (Jennifer Dundas) who is obsessed with death and burial.  She seems quirky at first but in a really touching scene with Michael she expresses her fear of losing him the way they lost their parents. It’s a small but beautiful scene that shows how children internalize trauma.  The next is Brother Timothy (John Heard), a new teacher who joins the staff at the same time Michael arrives and is a “cool” young monk, who smokes and trades baseball cards with the kids, and acts as an adviser to Michael.  He’s kind of the personification of Vatican II reforms in the movie.  Finally, there’s Donald Sutherland in a terrific performance as Brother Thadeus, the strict but ultimately fair headmaster of St. Basil’s

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I watched this movie when it was shown on cable tv in the mid-1980s. Growing up Catholic in a New York City suburb with parents who were teenagers in New York at the time this movie is set it was a no-brainer that I would watch and enjoy this movie.  It was fun to get a look back at the “bad old days” of the Catholic church with Latin masses and corporal punishment.

In retrospect, the 20 years between the time the movie is set and the time it was released doesn’t seem all that long.  In fact, the first English mass was held in the United States in late 1964, so this movie isn’t even set during the Latin mass period.  Still, both New York City and the Catholic church seemed to change quite a bit in those 20 short years.

What Did I Remember?:

I hadn’t watched this movie since the 1980s but it was surprisingly fresh in my mind.

What Did I Forget?:

I didn’t forget things so much as see them in a different light from an adult perspective.  For example, that kid who masturbates is a funny gag when you’re a kid, but as an adult it seems like a serious problem that should be addressed before he commits a sex offense on someone.  Similarly, Brother Constance was always a mean teacher, but now I see him as a total monster who’s comeuppance should’ve had more severe legal repercussions.  The movie also takes on a different feel in the aftermath of clergy sex abuse revelations that were allowed to persist due to many of the same factors of a corrupt system of power that we see in the film.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

If you break it down to its essence, Heaven Help Us is a series of vignettes soaked in Baby Boomer nostalgia.  But it is so much better than that. I think the strong cast of actors really makes all these characters feel real rather than archetypes.  A lot of the younger actors would go on to longer careers so you’re really seeing them come into their own here.  Also, as I noted above with the scene of Michael and Boo, there are a number of great, well-directed and well-written scenes that economically capture moments of great humanity.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Rooney is a bully and sexually aggressive with women and initially an antagonist to Michael, but eventually they become friends.  I think Dillon does a good job of giving Rooney some depth, but overall I think the movie wants to think of his behavior as funny and overlook how harmful it is.

Also, at the end of the movie, there’s an American Graffiti style epilogue where Rooney narrates what happened to all the characters.  It feels out of tune with the rest of the movie and ultimately unnecessary.

Is It a Classic?:

Objectively this movie falls short of being a movie classic, but subjectively it will always be one of my favorites.

Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with H:

  1. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
  2. Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)
  3. High Fidelity (2000)
  4. Hoop Dreams (1994)
  5. Hope and Glory (1987)

What is your favorite movie starting with H? What do you guess will be my movie for I? (Hint: it has characters named Bert and Ernie).  Let me know in the comments!

Documentary Movie Review: Gates of Heaven (1978) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “G” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “G” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Galapagos: The Enchanted VoyageThe Gnomist, Gimme Shelter, Goldman Sachs: The Bank That Rules the World and Grey Gardens.

Title: Gates of Heaven
Release Date: October 1978
Director: Errol Morris
Production Company: Gates of Heaven
Summary/Review:

This was Errol Morris’ first movie and features several people associated with the pet cemetery business.  Much like his second film Vernon, Florida, which I watched a couple of years ago, the movie is made up entirely of interviews of various people, edited together to build a story.  There is no narration and only an occasional establishing shot and newspaper headline to provide context.

The first part of the movie focuses on Floyd “Mac” McClure who attempts to fulfill his lifelong dream of opening a pet cemetery in Los Altos, CA.  He’s contrasted with a man who runs a rendering plant the traditional destination of dead animals – including beloved pets – where they are turned to tallow.  After McClure’s cemetery fails financially, the 450 animal bodies are exhumed and moved to Bubbling Well pet cemetery in Napa, CA.  This much more successful pet cemetery continues to operate through today under the operation of the Harberts family.  Interviews with the Harberts include two sons, one a dreamy musician and one a practical businessman with experience in the insurance industry.  The film also includes interviews with people talking about the pets they had buried in the cemeteries.

The biggest takeaway from this movie is the wide gap between the philosophy and attitudes of the people interviewed.  At one extreme are the people deeply sincere about there passions,whether it be their pets, their desire to have a place to inter deceased pets, or to play guitar.  At the other are the businessmen who are very crass about their capitalist interests of making a back, whether it be by rendering or burying animals.  The one thing that all these people have in common is an unawareness of how they may come off to other people.

Roger Ebert considered Gates of Heaven to be one of the top ten movies of all time.  Maybe there was something about seeing it as an underground movie in the 1970s when there were no other documentaries like it around had a mesmerizing effect, but I don’t see it as great as all that.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting glimpse into the human experience through an unusual topic.  And it made Werner Herzog eat his shoe.

Rating: ***

Note: I could not find a trailer for Gates of Heaven but the entire movie is on YouTube should you be interested.

 

 

Movie Reviews: Gaslight (1944) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Gaslight
Release Date: May 4, 1944
Director: George Cukor
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Synopsis:

This psychological thriller actually lent its name to the form of psychological manipulation and abuse depicted in the film.  The movie begins just after the murder of famed opera singer Alice Alquist as her niece Paula (Ingrid Bergman) leaves her London home and is told not to look back.  A decade later, Paula is pursuing her own singing career in Italy, but her instructor notices that she is distracted by being in love.  Turns out she’s fallen madly in love with her piano accompanist Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer).

Gregory and Paula marry and he manipulates her into moving back into her aunt’s townhouse in London.  Over the weeks and months that follow, Gregory isolates Paula by preventing her from going out and refusing to allow visitors to the house.  He begins to tell her that she’s not well, that she loses things, and is a kleptomaniac. He embarrasses her in front of their saucy, young maid, Nancy (Angela Lansbury).  Paula begins to question her own sanity.

In reality, Gregory is a jewel thief named Sergis Bauer, who murdered Alice Alquist and is now sneaking in the attic to search Alice’s possessions for her famous jewels.  Gregory’s time in the attic leads to Paula noticing the fluctuation in the gaslight (hence the film’s title) and footsteps that add to her sense that she is imagining things.  Inspector Brian Cameron of Scotland Yard (Joseph Cotten, with an unexplained American accent), who was a fan of Alice Alquist, becomes suspicious of what is happening in her niece’s house and reopens the investigation in her murder.  Eventually he is able to help Paula turn the tables against Gregory.  Watching Gregory abuse Paula is extremely difficult, but the ending is very cathartic.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This is one of the movies I watched in a film studies class in high school.  Imagine, if you will, a bunch of 15-year-old boys realizing that the same actress who played Jessica Fletcher was really hot when she was young.  We also were amused by Boyer’s outrageous French accent and spent weeks imitating the way he said “Paula.”

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered the basic plot, but none of the details, so it was really like watching the movie anew.

What Did I Forget?:

Most everything.  I’ll also add that watching as an adult, the severity of Gregory’s abuse hit me a lot harder, and I felt a lot of sympathy for Paula.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

The movie is melodramatic, but I think that it otherwise is a good microcosm of the very real psychological abuse that occurs in some relationships.  Boyer is convincingly evil while hiding it beneath his charm. Bergman does a great performance of how even a strong person can fall victim to these psychological attacks. It’s not your typical thriller.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This is a 1940s movie based on a 1930s play with a story that is set somewhere around the 1890s, so it should feel dated in some way.  But I think it holds up pretty well overall.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. And definitely a unique addition to an all-time thrillers list.

Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with G:

  1. Genghis Blues (1999)
  2. Glory (1989)
  3. The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)
  4. Good Will Hunting (1997)
  5. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

What is your favorite movie starting with G?  What do you think will be my movie for H? (Hint: It’s set in Brooklyn in the 1960s). Let me know in the commments.

Documentary Movie Review: The Farthest — Voyager in Space (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “F” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “F” documentaries I’ve reviewed are F is for Fake, 56 Up, Finding Vivian MaierFour Days in Octoberand Frank Lloyd Wright.

Title: The Farthest — Voyager in Space
Release Date: August 23, 2017
Director: Emer Reynolds
Production Company: Crossing the Line and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios Production for PBS
Summary/Review:

I’ve always been fascinated by the Voyager program, and remember the excitement in my childhood each time the Voyager spacecraft would fly-by a new planet.  The Voyager program began in the 1960s at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to take advantage of the unique alignment of the Outer Planets that allowed for a “grand tour.”  Passing each planet provided a gravity assist that propelled the probes toward the next planet and eventually out of the solar system.

The documentary features interviews with key figures from NASA and JPL, archival photographs and film, and animated reenactments of the Voyager journeys.  Voyager is responsible for some remarkable discoveries but is famous for being a “message in a bottle” to extraterrestrial intelligence, including the Golden Record with a selection of music and greetings from the people of the Earth. In 1990, at the insistence of Carl Sagan, the Voyager I camera was turned back toward the solar system and took a series of “family portraits” including one of the Earth appearing as a pale blue dot in a ray of sunshine.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: A Fish Called Wanda (1984) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: A Fish Called Wanda 
Release Date: July 15, 1988
Director: Charles Crichton
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Prominent Features
Synopsis:

English gangster George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) and his right-hand man Ken Pile (Michael Palin) plan a jewel heist. They bring the American couple Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Otto West (Kevin Kline), who claim to be siblings but are actually lovers. The robbery goes off without a hitch and then the members of the gang double-cross one another.  Wanda and Otto turn in George to the police, and Wanda plans to turn on Otto too, until they discover that George moved the diamonds to a different hiding place.

Wanda decides to seduce George’s barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese) so she can learn if George plans to turn over the diamonds for a reduced sentence.  Her attempts to get to know Archie are interrupted by a jealous and stupid Otto (“Don’t call me stupid!”).  Meanwhile, Ken attempts to assassinate an elderly woman who is a witness that identified George as being a robbery.  An animal lover, Ken is broken-hearted that each of his three attempts to kill the witness lead to the deaths of one of her tiny dogs.

Despite the odds, Archie and Wanda form a real attachment and through a screwy series of events the diamonds are recovered, and they escape to the South America with them.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was at my peak period as a Monty Python fanatic, watching all their movies and taping every Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode off of MTV and PBS, as well as various other projects involving one or more Pythons.  I was ecstatic when I learned that there was a brand new movie involving two members of Monty Python and saw it soon after release with my family.

Kevin Kline was the revelation of this movie.  At the time he’d been mostly in serious dramas up to this point (although later in life I saw Sophie’s Choice where his character was both hilarious and terrifying).  His performance as a stupid American, ultraviolent jerk steals the movie.

What Did I Remember?:

“What was the middle part?”  I remembered pretty well how the movie began and ended but it was fun to rediscover how they got from point a to point.

What Did I Forget?:

Like I said above, I forgot the middle part.  I also forgot the subplot about Otto pretending to be gay with a crush on Ken, probably because it’s one of the few gags in the movie that doesn’t hit the mark.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie features a hilarious script by Cleese and Crichton and four actors putting in one of their career best performances while all playing against type. It’s really sad that they couldn’t find the magic again when they made Fierce Creatures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

So many comedies that I loved in the 80s cause severe cringe, and I was worried that A Fish Called Wanda would be the same. Blessedly, the movie holds up well, I think because of the fact that everyone in the movie is clearly an awful person, so it’s not like your dealing with a sympathetic character doing awful things.

Even at the time it was released, the movie was criticized for Ken having a significant stutter.  I enjoy Michael Palin’s performance so I want to find a way to justify it, but there’s no denying that the jokes come at the expense of people who stutter.

Is It a Classic?:

It’s definitely a standout comedy film, although it may fall short of the all-time great movies list.

Rating: ****

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with F:

  1. Fargo (1996)
  2. Field of Dreams (1989)
  3. Finding Nemo (2003)
  4. The Fisher King (1991)
  5. The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

What is your favorite movie starting with F? What is your guess for my movie starting with G? (Hint: this movie gave rise to a psychological term). Let me know in the comments!

 

Documentary Movie Review: Earthrise (2018) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “E” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “E” documentaries I’ve reviewed include The Endless Summer and Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Title: Earthrise
Release Date: April 20, 2018
Director: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee
Production Company: American Documentaries Inc.
Summary/Review:

This short documentary focuses on the Apollo 8 mission of December 1968. The goal of this mission was to successfully orbit the moon and return to Earth in preparation for the moon landings that would begin the following year.  With NASA’s plan and rigid schedule for getting the spacecraft into lunar orbit and documenting the moon up close, there was no intention of looking back at Earth.

And yet as the astronauts – Bill Anders, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell – became the first people to ever leave low Earth orbit, they began to notice the beauty of the Earth visible in full.  While circling the moon and documenting the surface with photographs, Anders noticed the Earth rising over the moon.  The photograph he took became the most famous part of the mission.

The movie features archival footage of the mission and contemporary news events with the only narration coming from present-day interviews with Anders, Borman, and Lovell. They talk about the significance to them of seeing the Earth from afar.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Electric Dreams (1984) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Electric Dreams
Release Date: July 20, 1984
Director: Steve Barron
Production Company: Virgin Films
Synopsis:

In a world where humans are distracted by electronic devices, a talented but disorganized young architect Miles Harding (Lenny Von Dohlen) is convinced to buy a personal computer to help keep on track. When he tries to download data from his company’s mainframe, his PC starts to smoke and the only thing nearby he has to try to put the fire out is champagne.  The combination of the too results in the computer gaining sentience and the voice of Bud Cort of Harold and Maude fame.

A concert cellist, Madeline (Virginia Madsen), moves in upstairs from Miles and they form an attraction. One day while Madeline is rehearsing Bach’s Minuet in G major, Miles’ computer hears her through the air vents and begins playing a duet with her in 8-bit electronic beeps.  Madeline believes that Miles is a talented, but shy, musician as is drawn to him more, while Miles tries to hide his computer from Madeline. The computer, trying to understand love, becomes jealous that he spend time with Madeline since he is impressing her with his music.

And thus begins a bizarre love triangle among man, women, and computer. The movie director, Steve Barron, primarily directed music videos including notable classics like “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson, “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits, and “Take On Me” by a-ha. The music video style of editing and camera angles is used to great effect in this movie as well as a soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder and songs by several New Wave synthpop acts.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

In spring of 1984, we moved a new house, and as a treat, my mom subscribed us to cable tv for the first time. And thus came that opportunity to watch movies, lots of movies, and without commercial interruptions.  Soon, the realization dawned that I’d end up watching the same movies over and over again, and Electric Dreams became one of those movies I loved to watch again and again.

What Did I Remember?:

It’s a testament to the elasticity of the young, developing brain that so much of this movie I haven’t watched since the 1980s remained in memory, even specific dialogue and tones of voice.

What Did I Forget?:

I did forget the part where Edgar has a party with projections from an old movie, though.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

It’s a simple idea, a love triangle with a bit of Cyrano de Bergerac, but it’s told well.  Lenny Von Dohlen is a great likable nerd character in what I believe may be the only leading role in his career in a movie. Madsen is also great, and their fumbling romantic chemistry is believable. Cort’s voice is the right balance of innocent curiosity of a new being trying to learn as well as evil menace when Edgar the computer turns against Miles. Of all the movies I rewatched for this A to Z project, this is one that I thought would age poorly, but I’m pleasantly surprised that it remains a solid, little rom-com.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This is a movie about computing technology of 1984, and I suspect anyone too young to remember 1984 will find it laughable.  On the other hand, Miles’ computer (even before it became sentient) was remarkable sophisticated for its time.  Nobody had a personal computer system operating their apartment in the 1980s so the movie has a weird retro-future vibe to it.  The finale of the movie has Edgar taking over the radio airwaves to dedicate a new song to Miles and Madeline and there is a sequence of people around San Francisco dancing to it that is INCREDIBLY CHEEZY, even by the standard of the 1980s.  The song, “Together in Electric Dreams” by Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder, is really good though.

Is It a Classic?:

Maybe not a classic, but definitely an underrated gem of the 1980s.

Rating: ***1/2

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with E:

  1. Eight Men Out (1988)
  2. Eighth Grade (2018)
  3. Election (1999)
  4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
  5. The Exorcist (1973)

What is your favorite movie starting with E? What’s your guess for my movie starting with F?  Let me know in the comments!

Movie Review: Onward (2020)


Title: Onward
Release Date: March 6, 2020
Director: Dan Scanlon
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

I was looking forward to seeing this movie when it came out last month, but suddenly we weren’t allowed to go out to the movies.  Thankfully, the Disney company decided to release it to Disney+ this weekend.

Onward is set in alternate universe of mythical creatures – elves, centaurs, unicorns, cyclops, pixies, fauns, and the like – where long ago beings determined that technology was easier than magic and settled into a quotidian suburban lifestyle.  Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is an elf celebrating his 16th birthday. He never knew his father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer), who died of an illness just before he was born and has been raised by his mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and his older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt).  Barley is an enthusiast for Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games which he believes are based on factual historic records.

Laurel presents the boys with a gift from their father that she’s held until they were both 16.  It is a magic staff with a gem and a spell that will bring Wilden back for one day so he can see his sons.  While trying to cast the spell, Ian gets distracted and is only able to generate his father’s legs before the gem disintegrates.  Barley determines that they must perform a quest to find another gem before the 24 hours expire.

I won’t go into the details and be all spoilery for a brand-new movie, but Ian and Barley indeed go on their quest.  As should be expected from a Pixar movie there are many clever gags drawn from mythical creatures, and the ultimate point of this journey is that Ian and Barley will discover more about themselves and one another.  And, of course, there are heartrending moments of familial love, so be prepared to weep.

Rating: ****