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: ****

Movie Reviews: Frozen II (2019)


Title: Frozen II
Release Date: November 22, 2019
Director: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

The sequel to 2013’s extremely-popular Frozen, picks up some loose threads from its predecessor such as Anna and Elsa’s parents’ story and the origin of Elsa’s powers.  Elsa (Idina Menzel) is now comfortable with her magic, but uncertain if ruling as Queen of Arendelle is her destiny.  Anna (Kristen Bell) remains so concerned for Elsa’s well-being that she ignores her own pursuits.  Meanwhile, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) just wants to find the right opportunity to propose marriage to Anna.  And the sentient snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is learning about the world much like a child. He is also once again the movie’s comedy MVP with his many whimsical quips.

Wisely, though, Frozen II is a stand-alone story that is more of a true fantasy adventure than its fairy tale predecessor.  When the elemental spirits of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth drive the people of Arendelle from their city, Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and the reindeer Sven must travel north to an Enchanted Forest that has been trapped in mists since the time of Elsa and Anna’s grandfather. There they meet the Northuldra, a people inspired by the Sámi, much as Arendelle is a fictionalized Norwegian town.  Together they must work to solve the mystery of the elemental spirits before they are all destroyed.

The movie is a great adventure, with good subplots for all the lead characters.  The animation is absolutely gorgeous especially the depictions of the autumnal Enchanted Forest.  The music is good in that it serves the movie, although I don’t think anything stands on its own the way it did in Frozen.  At least I haven’t heard thousands of kids singing “Into the Unknown” the way they did “Let it Go.”  My favorite song is Anna’s “The Next Right Thing,” because it’s lyrics offer a great philosophy and it’s performed in one the movie’s most emotionally powerful scenes.  At the other end of the spectrum is Kristoff’s power ballad “Lost in the Woods” which is filmed as if Kristoff and a group of reindeer were in a 1990s boy band music video.  I’m not sure if I was supposed to be laughing.

Frozen II falls short of being as good as the original, but it is good enough to justify existence as much more than just a cash grab.  It’s definitely worth watching if enjoy emotionally-packed fantasy adventure with musical interludes.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Hidden Fortress (1958)


Title: The Hidden Fortress
Release Date: 28 December 1958
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Company: Toho
Summary/Review:

What I knew about this movie going in is that it was unique for its time as telling a period drama/war story from the perspective of two low-level peasants.  What I didn’t know is that the peasants are portrayed as whiny, craven, greedy, and would-be-rapists. Despite it’s bottom-up perspective, The Hidden Fortress still ends up showing the elite characters as being more noble people.

Tahei (Minoru Chiaki) and Matashichi (Kamatari Fujiwara) have attempted to fight in a war among the provincial clans, but showing up late are instead forced to bury the dead, and then are captured and forced to dig for gold.  Escaping, they decide to return home not by crossing the heavily-patrolled border but by taking the long route through territory of a third clan.

Along the way, they discover gold near the titular hidden fortress.  A stranger, General Rokurota Makabe (Toshiro Mifune) follows them and then puts them to work finding more gold. Liking their plan of traveling the long way around, Rokurōta uses Tahei and Matashichi’s greed to get them to help carry the gold and transport a young woman (in surprisingly modern-looking shorts), who is revealed to the audience as Princess Yuki (Misa Uehara).

The movie depicts their adventures which are a mix of comic, swashbuckling, and sublime.  My favorite part is a scene in which they try to blend in with the locals at a festival and join in a communal dance.  Rokurōta also has a duel with his rival general Hyoe Tadokoro (Susumu Fujita) which ends up paying dividends later.

The Hidden Fortress is gritty, rather shouty, and does feature its lead characters talking about raping Princess Yuki on more than one occasion.  It’s not the most comfortable movie to watch, but it does have a lot of the basics of a great adventure story (if you like that kind of thing).

Rating: ***

TV Review: The Mandalorian (2019)


Title: The Mandalorian
Release Date: 2019
Creator/Head Writer/Showrunner: Jon Favreau
Episodes: 8
Production Company:  Lucasfilm | Golem Productions
Summary/Review:

The Mandalorian is the flagship original TV series for the Disney+ streaming service, and the first live-action TV series to take place in the Star Wars universe. Set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the titular Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) is a bounty hunter and member of a sect who ritually make armor from Beskar steel and never remove their masks in the presence of others.

The Mandalorian derives it’s style from classic Western and samurai films.  I actually watched High Noon and Seven Samurai during this season, and was struck by the visual homages and even the similarity in music.  In this era of heavily serialized tv drama, The Mandalorian is refreshingly old-fashioned in it’s episodic nature, especially mid-season.  It reminds me of adventure tv series from the 70s and 80s, perhaps something produced by Glen A. Larson, or as I more facetiously noted, Here’s Boomer.

The Mandalorian was marketed as your basic show about an armored antihero kicking butt, basically aimed at the people who found The Last Jedi‘s questioning of the moral underpinning of the Star Wars story to be offensive. That was true for most of the first episode until it was revealed that the show is really about The Child, or as America’s sweetheart is more popularly known, “Baby Yoda.” The tiny, green puppet so thoroughly steals every seen they appear it in that I’ve taken to calling this The Baby Yoda Show.

Of course, let not undersell Pascal, who does a terrific job of acting while wearing a mask and saying very little.  The show is also full of a remarkable slate of guest actors including Carl Weathers, Werner Herzog (who I still can’t believe is in this show), Nick Nolte, Taika Waititi, Gina Carano, Amy Sedaris, Jake Cannavale, Bill Burr (who proves there is a Boston long ago and far away), Natalia Tena, Richard Ayoade, and Giancarlo Espisito.  With some regret, I have to admit that this is by leaps and bounds better than any other new Star Wars content released this year.  I look forward to Baby Yoda and his armored sidekick returning for another season.

Related Posts:

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: *****

Classic Movie Review: The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)


Title: The Treasure of Sierra Madre
Release Date: January 6, 1948
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Warner Bros. – First National
Summary/Review:

This movie is technically a Western but it also functions as a psychological drama and a study of masculinity.  Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are a pair of American drifters, working odd jobs and panhandling on the streets of Tampico, Mexico.  They meet an old man, Howard (Walter Huston), who tells them of the possibilities (and dangers) of prospecting for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains.

The trio put together an expedition and face the physical trials of hiking into the remote mountains and extracting the gold, as well as outside threats from bandits and another American, Cody (Bruce Bennett), who tries to elbow his way into joining their team.  But the greatest threat is greed, which most strongly affects Dobbs who goes mad with the paranoia that the others are after his gold. Dobbs is clearly a deeply-flawed character from the start despite being the main protagonist, and Bogart accurately stated “I play the worst shit you ever saw!”

The three leads are all excellent in their roles.  Bogart carries off the performance of a man constantly teetering on the brink of madness well. Huston does a great job as the goofy, old prospector but also makes it clear that Howard is also acting, quietly manipulating the behavior of his companions.  Holt plays more of the straight man and his acting may be overlooked, but he provides an important balance to Bogart and Huston. He plays a character clearly with a moral compass, and yet he’s still willing to go along with the plan to assassinate Cody.  I’d be interested in seeing Holt’s other movies (apparently he starred almost exclusively in Westerns).

The movie feels very modern to me.  I’m surprised (and pleased) that it hasn’t been remade recently by someone like the Cohen Brothers, but it definitely would not feel dated. The only part of the movie that doesn’t really work is a subplot where Howard helps a community of indios save the life of a child and then is seen reclining in a hammock being fanned by young women. It smacks of colonialist fantasy.

Otherwise though, the movie is gripping as it both lays out an adventure and deconstructs masculinity.  The movie is full of iconic moments that feel familiar from their parodies in movies like Blazing Saddles and City Slickers. I actually cheered when it got to this part with Alfonso Bedoya as Gold Hat after hearing this line (mis)quoted all these years:

Rating: ****1/2

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 Review: A Cat in Paris (2010)


Title: A Cat in Paris
Release Date: December 15, 2010
Director: Jean-Loup Felicioli & Alain Gagnol
Production Company: Digit Anima | Folimage | France 3 Cinéma | Emage Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Une vie de Chat (translation, A Cat’s Life) is movie set in Paris, about Paris, and Paris could even be said to be a character, so it seems unnecessary to have Paris in the American title of the film.  Through vivid animation, the movie follows a two-timing cat, Dino, as he spends his days with a small girl named Zoé, and his nights accompanying the cat burglar Nico on his heists. Their stories come together when the mobster who killed Zoé’s police officer father (and is under investigation by her police officer mother, Jeanne) kidnaps her and Nico is drawn in by Dino to help her.  This is a wonderfully visual spectacular with scenes of foot chases across the rooftops of Paris more than making up for a thin plot.  Plus, it’s about a cat in Paris, which after watching April and the Extraordinary World, and then this film, is apparently my jam!

Rating: ****