Movie Review: The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021)


Title: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Release Date: April 23, 2021
Director: Mike Rianda
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Sony Pictures Animation | Lord Miller Productions | One Cool Films
Summary/Review:

Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is a misfit kid who finds her passion in filmmaking and is excited to begin attending film school in California.  She’s often in conflict with her overprotective father Rick (Danny McBride) who doesn’t understand her artistic and technological interests.  In order to promote family bonding, Rick decides to take the whole family – including mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) and dinosaur obsessed little brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) – on a cross-country drive to college.  While they’re en route, the Apple/Facebook-style company PAL introduces robot assistants who immediately rebel against humanity.  Only the Mitchell’s avoid capture and it’s up to them to fight the robot menace and come together as a family.

Overall, this movie feels very familiar (it’s the same basic plot of Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg-Nick Frost’s Cornetto trilogy) and has a lot of gags similar to other recent animated family adventures.  The Mitchells have a funny car and a funny dog.  And there’s deadpan dialogue like the PAL tech CEO saying ““It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent AI as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing.”  Despite the lack of originality the movie is very sweet and has some good, funny bits.  The animation is fluid and for added effects, other types of animation are overlaid on the computer animation.  Extra points for LGBTQ+ representation in the movie’s protagonist by having Katie be gay without that being a controversy in her family or playing into a romantic storyline. This is a good, fun movie suitable for the whole family.

Rating: ***

TV Review: Loki (2021)


Title: Loki
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Michael Waldron
Director: Kate Herron
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 Loki, please don’t read

This Disney+ series picks up from a scene in Avengers: Endgame when the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) uses the Tesseract to escape the Avengers, and over six episodes ends up in a completely different place that appears to be setting up the next phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Loki is captured by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organization that operates out its massive mid-century modern headquarters to maintain the Sacred Timeline by “pruning” branches from the timeline.

Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) condemns Loki to be erased from existence but Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) convinces her to allow Loki help investigate another Loki variant who has killed several time agents.  They find the Loki variant and discover it is a woman who uses the alias Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Loki and Sylvie end up teaming up and begin uncovering the dark truths behind the TVA. The final episode avoids the typical Marvel battle for a quieter conversation with the TVA’s creator He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).  As someone who hasn’t read 60 years of Marvel Comics, I found it a bit frustrating to not be aware of the identity behind He Who Remains until after I read reviews of the episode, but he appears to be setting up to be the MCU’s next Thanos-level threat.

Loki is another excellent limited series that takes storytelling to new and interesting places.  The acting is on point with Hiddleston getting a chance to show his ranges as Loki and Di Martino is a great addition.  I also really enjoy the style of the TVA and the self-referential humor.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Classic Movie Review: The French Connection (1971)


Title: The French Connection
Release Date: October 7, 1971
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Philip D’Antoni Productions
Summary/Review:

In this movie we see an expose how Richard Nixon’s war on drugs is used to unleash unholy police violence on Black people. Oh wait! In fact, this film from “liberal” Hollywood wants you to believe the cops are heroes.  15 minutes into this movie I was determined to hate it.  But over time my opinion softened. For one thing, it features two of the most phenomenal actors of the time: Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider as Buddy “Cloudy” Russo.  There’s something about Gene Hackman as a person that is just likable even when he plays the most vicious characters here and in Unforgiven (I don’t even know what this feeling is based on since I don’t really know anything about the real life Gene Hackman).  In this film, Hackman and Scheider also have an easy camaraderie that makes them feel like real partners.

Friedkin shoots the film in a verite style and most of the film depicts the long hours of Popeye staking out and tailing their suspects, including the French drug dealer kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).  I don’t think a modern film would spend a fraction of the time on this details (and I don’t think earlier films did either), but it really builds the tension.  There’s a great sequence when Popeye and Charnier play cat and mouse on the 42nd Street Shuttle.  All of this leads up to Popeye commandeering a car to chase an assassin riding an elevated train above him.  I’m not usually one who cares much for chase scenes but I found this sequence to be ABSOLUTELY EXHILARATING.

The French Connection is a New York City period piece and is shot on location in many recognizable spots in at least three of the five boroughs.  Unlike Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy (or even The Out-of-Towners), New York is not depicted as an unredeemable hell-hole but more of the New York I knew and loved as a child.  It’s gritty and dangerous around the edges but you also see a lot of ordinary people of all backgrounds going about their business in the background.  Despite my first impressions that this film was pure cop-aganda, the film ultimately takes a morally ambiguous stance on whether Popeye’s violent obsession with taking down the French Connection is ultimately worth it.  By the end of the film, even Cloudy seems to realize that Popeye is a psycho.

Rating: ***1/2

 

Classic Movie Review: Aliens (1986)


TitleAliens
Release Date: July 18, 1986
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
Summary/Review:

In the past few years as I’ve become something of a cinephile and watched lots and lots of movies, I often have an uneasy feeling about revisiting favorites from my childhood.  Will this movie have held up badly? Will it reflect my younger self’s bad taste?  Often, I end up delighted that I still enjoy a film I remember fondly. But what’s even better about revisiting movies is getting an entirely different perspective on a favorite movie.

As the parent of a 9-year-old girl, I was not prepared to be overwhelmed by the centrality to Aliens of the character Newt (Carrie Henn), a child who is the sole survivor of a human colony that is decimated by the parasitic xenomorphs.  Kind of like rewatching E.T. as an adult, the depiction of a child in extraordinary circumstances resonated with me more than it did when I was a child. Henn’s performance is very Spielbergian, and she joins Judith Vitter in my Hall of Fame of Child Actors Whose Great Acting Performances Somehow Didn’t Lead to Lengthy Acting Careers.

Newt plays of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley developing the star character’s maternal role in what shapes up to be a battle of mother versus mother, human versus alien queen.  It’s not subtle, but it’s fascinating that in 1986 this idea of motherhood had never really been explored in an action film.  It’s one of the many things that makes Aliens one of the great 80s blockbusters and one of the greatest sequels of all time.

It helps that Aliens is an entirely different genre than its predecessor, moving from thriller to action adventure.  Ripley is joined by the rambunctious Colonial Marines as they investigate what happened to the human colonists on the terraformed planetoid where the Nostromo’s crew found the derelict alien ship in the previous film.  Bad things happen.  And as the title promises, there is more than one Alien. The great cast includes Paul Reiser (then primarily known as a stand-up comedians) as the sleazy company rep Carter Burke and Bill Paxton steals scenes as Private Hudson who sensibly panics when they’re overrun with xenomorphs.  Game over, man!

Rating: ****1/2

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: *****

Movie Review: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)


Title: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

Even as a child, The Temple of Doom failed to live up to its predecessor.  Sure there parts I liked that still stand up, mainly the action set pieces of jumping out of an airplane in an inflatable raft and the mine cart race.  The ick factor is strong in this movie from a meal of insects and monkey brains to a cave full of live insects to a man’s beating heart being ripped from his body.  I’m less squeamish as an adult but still feel these scenes are gratuitous.

As a kid, I liked Indy’s sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan).  With the perspective of an adult, I see he’s another example of “80’s Movie Kid” – the cute but precocious wisecracking kids who reached their nadir with Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone.  Short Round isn’t overly obnoxious, and gets a few good laugh lines, but it’s distressing how much of his character is rooted in racial stereotypes.  The depiction of Indian people and the Hindu religion in this movie is even more insulting.

While Raiders offered Marion Ravenwood, a woman capable of being an adventured on par with Indiana Jones, The Temple of Doom features Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) as a nightclub singer completely unprepared for trekking the wilderness and fighting for magical stones.  Arguments can be made for whether this is sexist or just a realistic depiction of a “fish out of water,” but the thing that troubles me is that Indiana Jones basically abducts her from the nightclub and takes her on the airplane.  There is no reason within the movie’s own logic for Willie to be on this adventure and she has every right to do much more than whine and complain about her mistreatment.

One aspect of this movie I’d completely forgotten about was the part where Indy is put in a trance and forced to serve Mola Ram (Amrish Puri).  It’s telling that a talented but stubborn actor like Harrison Ford seems to be mailing it in during these scenes, as if he’s frustrated with the lazy storytelling.  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is an ugly film in many ways and it hasn’t aged well.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)


Title: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Release Date: June 12, 1981
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd.
Summary/Review:

When I was a kid growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, my family frequently saw movies at the State Cinema, a second-run movie theater that charged only $1-2 for a ticket to see a movie a few months after it had been released (a big savings on the scandalous $5 ticket prices at first-run theater).  Too be clear, this was not an arthouse theater showing movies that were many years old, all of the movies at the State were movies released in the past year.

The one exception was Raiders of the Lost Ark, which for some reason the State kept bringing back again and again for years after it’s 1981 release.  And we went to see it a lot! It’s almost certainly the movie I’ve watched on the big screen the most times.  And yet, without any intention of doing so, I hadn’t watched it in a loooong time.  The last time I remember watching the movie was 25 years ago when I was in college, and since I’d taken several archaeology classes was a bit snobbish about it to.

So I watched this movie with somewhat fresh eyes.  There are a lot of things I liked as a kid that I’ve discovered have not held up well and are very problematic. Thankfully, Raiders of the Lost Ark is not one of them. It does have it flaws in cultural competence, no doubt, but avoids a lot of the stereotypes present in Hollywood films.  For example, there are a lot of Egyptian characters in the film – some are good, some are evil, most are in the background but none of them come across as the “evil Muslim terrorist” trope common in movies made after Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Probably the strangest thing in this movie is that the most prominent “Egyptian” character in this movie, Sallah, is played by a Welsh actor, John Rhys-Davies.  I never cottoned on to this as a kid, but Sallah’s accent actually sounds pretty Welsh.  It’s unfortunate that an Arabic actor was not cast for the part, and especially so since Rhys-Davies has become a prominent Islamophobe in recent decades, but his performance is respectful and very entertaining.

I’m also impressed by Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood, who is a clever and capable character at a time when most women were not (the big exception is Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies).  She really is the equal of Indiana Jones as an adventurer and intellect.  In retrospect, it’s disappointing that Karen Allen didn’t get her own Marion Ravenwood spinoff movie in the 1980s.

Harrison Ford’s performance reminds me of why he’s so deserving of his acclaim as one of the great actors of our time. He is subtle in his gestures in a way that conveys a lot of emotion and humor.  And unlike Han Solo, his Indiana Jones is extremely confident without being arrogant, and shows his vulnerability at times.

The action set pieces and special effects which were so revolutionary at the time seem to hold up well (I’m sure there are some people who can pick them apart, but they work for me).  Lots of Nazis get punched, which remains satisfying.  As a kid, I was affected by the horror elements of the movie (such as the faces melting when the ark is opened) but I’d completely forgotten one of the most terrifying scenes when Marion gets caught in chamber of skeletons who are shrieking for some reason.

The depiction of archaeology is still rubbish – they are clearly treasure hunters who actually destroy a number of antiquities in the process of acquiring the Ark of the Covenant.  But then again “Raiders” is right there in the title, so you are warned.

Despite its flaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark is still an all-time classic and I can’t give it any less than five stars.

Rating: *****

Movie Reviews: Snakes on a Plane (2006)


In 2020 I found some old  movie reviews I wrote back before I had a blog. I’m posting each review backdated to the day I wrote it.

Title: Snakes on a Plane
Release Date: August 18, 2006
Director: David R. Ellis
Production Company:  Mutual Film Company
Summary/Review:

Saw this last night. And…I liked it. Not a masterpiece but has it it’s frights and its laughs. And the laughs don’t come unintentionally but instead the filmmakers are pretty clever in making a funny disaster movie as opposed to a satire of a disaster movie. Best line: “Sporks?”

A good portion of the enjoyment of this movie is seeing it in a theater and the communal experience of watching this summer movie on the big screen. It won’t be half as good on tv and probably won’t age well.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)


In 2019 I found some old Word documents with movie reviews I wrote back before I had a blog. I’m posting each review backdated to the day I wrote it.

Title: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Release Date: November 14, 2013
Director: Peter Weir
Production Company: Miramax Films |  Universal Pictures | Samuel Goldwyn Films
Summary/Review:

Adventures on the high seas never looked so good.  Every detail from the youthful officers ordering around the salty old sailors to the ship suffering through all sorts of torment from sea, weather and battle.  It’s not all testosterone though as in-between the battles there is the joy of scientific discovery as well as debates between the captain and the doctor regarding humanity.  There’s also a tense amputation scene and a do-it-yourself surgery.  A bit cheesy is the French sailors – who aren’t supposed to be French at all – demanding surrender in outrageous accents.  The final battle is a confusing muddle, but I suppose that adds another layer of authenticity.

Rating: ****