Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: The House (2022)


Welcome to my first Midsummer Recent Movie Festival!  For the past couple of years I’ve reviewed a bunch of recent movies on New Year’s Day.  But why wait when there are new movies to review now! My only qualifications for the Midsummer Recent Movie Festival are 1) a US release date January 1, 2022 or later, 2) a Letterboxd average rating of 3.5 or higher, and 3) available to me at no extra cost on my streaming platforms.

TitleThe House
Release Date: January 14, 2022
Directors:

I – And heard within, a lie is spun: Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels
II – Then lost is truth that can’t be won: Niki Lindroth von Bahr
III – Listen again and seek the sun: Paloma Baeza

Production Company: Nexus Studios | Netflix Animation
Summary/Review:

The House is an anthology film with three stories all set in a mysterious large house.  It is animated in stop-motion animation with characters made of fabric not unlike the style of The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

In the first segment, a poor family in rural England are allowed to move into the newly-built house but the mad architect continues to have the house built around them turning it into the maze.  9-year-old Mabel (Mia Goth) investigates what’s going on with the baby Isobel while her parents seem oblivious to the strange things happening.  This segment has the strongest elements of horror of the three.

In the second segment, an anthropomorphic rat contractor (Jarvis Cocker, of the band Pulp) is rehabbing the house and hosting a reception to entice potential buyers.  He has to deal with an infestation of beetles and then a strange couple at the viewing essentially move in without actually buying the house.  Despite the very creepy bugs, this segment is also the most comical.

In the final segment, the house survives in a world where everything around it has been submerged by a catastrophic flood. Rosa (Susan Wokoma), an anthropomorphic cat, is attempting to renovate the house while renting out the rooms.  She has only two tenants, Jen (Helena Bonham Carter) and Elias (Will Sharpe), neither of whom pay rent in cash. Things come to a head as the flood waters rise.  Despite the apocalyptic setting, this segment feels hopeful.

The animation in this film is beautifully done with great voice acting and music as well.  The combination of surrealism, fantasy, horror, and humor works well.  I think each segment is better than the previous, but maybe it’s just because I like cats.

Rating: ***1/2

Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood (2022)


Welcome to my first Midsummer Recent Movie Festival!  For the past couple of years I’ve reviewed a bunch of recent movies on New Year’s Day.  But why wait when there are new movies to review now! My only qualifications for the Midsummer Recent Movie Festival are 1) a US release date January 1, 2022 or later, 2) a Letterboxd average rating of 3.5 or higher, and 3) available to me at no extra cost on my streaming platforms.

Title: Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood
Release Date: April 1, 2022
Director: Richard Linklater
Production Company: Netflix Animation | Minnow Mountain | Submarine | Detour Filmproduction
Summary/Review:

Apollo 10 1/2 is a sun-soaked, nostalgic film about growing up in the newly built suburbs of Houston in the late 1960s in a neighborhood where everyone’s dad worked for NASA. The movie is based on director Linklater’s own experiences growing up.  It is animated in a rotoscope style which basically involves tracing over live-action film and includes a lot animated archival TV and movie footage with the new content made for the movie.

The story focuses on Stan (Milo Coy), the youngest of six kids in a family where the dad has a “boring” job at NASA and the mom teaches at a college.  The framing device for the story is a fantasy that Stan has of being recruited by NASA to fly a secret mission to the moon because they accidentally made a lunar module too small for adults.  But this story doesn’t carry through much of the movie which is really just a catalogue of memories of being a kid in the the Houston suburbs in the late 60s.

The wry narration of adult Stan (the comforting voice of Jack Black) makes the movie feel like a more recent version of A Christmas Story or a less fantastic version of My Winnipeg.  I guess it all depends on your tolerance of the Gen X genre of nostalgia that basically boils down to “we did a lot of dangerous things without supervision and had a lot of fun!”  Personally I found that the warmth and charm made up for a lot of the deficits in plot, but that I’ve also seen better movies about the Apollo program and better coming of age stories from Linklater.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Spirited Away (2001)


Title: Spirited Away
Release Date: 20 July 2001
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Production Company: Studio Ghibli
Summary/Review:

10-year-old Chihiro Ogino (Rumi Hiiragi) is traveling with her parents to a new home (not unlike My Neighbor Totoro) when they get lost on road through the forest that leads to a mysterious tunnel.  They find that the  tunnel leads to a mysterious village with restaurant stands and a bathhouse which Chihiro’s father surmises is an abandoned theme park.  Eating the food, Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro finds it impossible to escape.

Chihiro finds she has to request a job from Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), the witch who runs the bathhouse in order to have any hope of rescuing her parents.  She finds help from a mysterious boy, Haku (Miyu Irino), who may have nefarious purposes, as well as the boiler maintenance man Kamaji (Bunta Sugawara)  and a fellow worker, Lin (Yoomi Tamai).  Chihiro’s ensuing adventures are absolutely bonkers in the best possible way, some of the most imaginative fantasy sequences ever set on film.  It’s also refreshing that Chihiro resolves her predicaments not with violence or magic, but with compassion.

There are some parts of this movie that are a bit, well, gross and sometimes it guess a bit intense.  So be warned if you’re squeamish or watching with young children.  But overall this is a magnificent, fantastical film that I think just about anyone should enjoy.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Song of the Sea


Title: Song of the Sea
Release Date: 10 December 2014
Director:  Tomm Moore
Production Company: Cartoon Saloon | Melusine Productions | Big Farm | Super Productions | Noerlum Studios
Summary/Review:

This movie has been on my list since I loved the other productions from Cartoon Saloon, The Secret of Kells and Wolfwalkers. Song of the Sea is a worthy member of this trilogy.  Like the other films, Song of the Sea is built on Irish folklore, incorporating traditional art styles into the animation.  In this case, the story deals with the legend of the selkie, magical beings who can transform from human to seal.

Two children, 10-year-old Ben (David Rawle) and 6-year-old Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) grow up on a remote island off present-day Ireland where their father Conor (Brendan Gleeson) is the lighthouse keeper.  Their mother Bronagh (Lisa Hannigan) disappeared at the time of Saoirse’s birth, and the family grieve her absence.  On Halloween, Saoirse follows fairy lights to the sea and is revealed as a selkie.  Unfortunately,  her Granny (Fionnula Flanagan) finds her on the shore and convinces Conor that the children need to move with her to the city.

Ben and Saoirse thus must make a journey across Ireland to return to their island home and save the Faeries. Along the way they meet Faeries who live in a roundabout, a holy well that is home to The Great Seanachaí (Jon Kenny), and the giant Mac Lir (Gleeson).  Their main antagonist is Macha (Flanagan), the Owl Witch, who traps the emotions of Faeries in jars and turns them into stone (Is there nothing more Irish than literally bottling up emotions?).

It’s a beautiful movie with a touching and inspiring story.  And Saoirse is the cutest thing ever.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: My Neighbor Totoro


Title: My Neighbor Totoro
Release Date: April 16, 1988
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Production Company: Studio Ghibli
Summary/Review:

This absolutely delightful animated fantasy film tells the story of two girls, 10-year-old Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and 4-year-old Mei (Chika Sakamoto), who move to an old house in the country.  Their father (Shigesato Itoi) takes them there to be closer to the hospital where their mother ( Sumi Shimamoto).  With childlike innocence and curiosity, the sisters befriend the forest spirits, including the fluffy giant Totoro (Hitoshi Takagi) with whom they share many adventures.  On a deeper level this story shows how children can use their imagination to deal with the stress and uncertainty of their lives.

This movie just oozes childhood for me and reminds me of exploring the woods around my house as a kid.  I sometimes came upon mysterious and wonderful things which probably could be explained by science, but maybe they were magical.  I also daydream of a public transit system provided by catbus!  It’s been a long time since I’ve watched a movie as joyfully wholesome as this one and it has quickly become one of my all-time favorites.

Rating: ****1/2

BONUS DOC Movie Review: Frank and Ollie (1995)


I have a lot of documentary movies on my watchlist, so throughout the Blogging A-to-Z  Challenge I will be posting bonus documentary movie reviews, as time allows.

Title: Frank and Ollie
Release Date: October 20, 1995
Director: Theodore Thomas
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Theodore Thomas Productions
Summary/Review:

I hadn’t planned it, but most of the documentaries I’m watching for A to Z are serious, social justice issues stuff.  So it’s nice to tune into Disney+ for some lighter fare.

Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were animators and directors for Walt Disney Animation from the 1930s to the 1970s.  They became known for their ability to animate characters with vibrant emotions.  The movie focuses on their parallel careers at Disney, takes time to explicate some key character moments in Disney animated features, and talks about their multi-decade bromance.  At the time this movie was made, Frank and Ollie were octogenarians who were not only best friends but nextdoor neighbors.  This is some very sweet and wholesome content!

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Your Name. (2016)


Title: Your Name.
Release Date: July 3, 2016
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Production Company: Toho | CoMix Wave Films
Summary/Review:

Mitsuha Miyamizu (Mone Kamishiraishi) is a teenage girl living in a rural Japanese village.  Taki Tachibana (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a teenage boy living in the heart of Tokyo.  They have nothing in common, and don’t even know one another.  But one day they mysteriously begin swapping bodies, something that continues periodically over time.  They begin to learn more about one another by recording diary entries into one another’s phones. Ultimately they begin to realize that their fate is tied in with a comet that broke-up over Japan three years earlier.

This movie has some commonalities with other in the body swap genre, such as a running gag of Taki fondling “his” breasts every time he wakes up in Mitsuha’s body.  But it goes way beyond those surface similarities and works really well as romantic fantasy that draws on Japanese culture and collective trauma.  I felt at times that the musical score was inappropriate to the mood of the movie, and that the epilogue of the movie runs on a bit too long.  But other than that it is a brilliant and imaginative story with a great visual delight.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Turning Red (2022)


Title: Turning Red
Release Date:  March 11, 2022
Director: Domee Shi
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Turning 13 comes with challenges for everyone, but for Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), it means that whenever she gets excited she turns into a giant red panda.  Metaphors abound in this family comedy that deals with puberty, parental expectations, traditional Chinese spirituality, the beauty of friendship, and the power of boy bands in a multiethnic community in Toronto.  I found there were some similarities in this premise to the 1980s comedy Teen Wolf, and a little bit to Pixar’s own Brave, but still an original and charming in its own right. The animation by Pixar is as always outstanding (and boo to Disney for not giving this a theatrical release), and there’s great voicework from Sandra Oh as Mei’s mother and Wai Ching Ho as her grandmother.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Howl’s Moving Castle


Title: Howl’s Moving Castle
Release Date: 20 November 2004
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Production Company: Studio Ghibli
Summary/Review:

Wow! Howl’s Moving Castle is both visually stunning and wildly imaginative.  Based loosely on a British novel, it is set in a fairy tale version of fin-de-siecle Europe with steampunk-like flying machines and where magic is real.  The story focuses on a young milliner named Sophie who gets caught up in a whirlwind of events at a time when her country has entered into a senseless war.  Early in the film, Sophie is cursed by the Witch of the Waste (voiced by Lauren Bacall) and turned into an elderly woman.  In the English language version, Sophie is voiced by Emily Mortimer when she is young and classic film star Jean Simmons when she is old.

Sophie finds her way to the titular moving castle which is watched over by a young wizard named Markl (Josh Hutcherson) and powered by a fire demon, Calcifer (Billy Crystal, sounding restrained compared to his voicework in Monsters, Inc.). The emo wizard Howl (Christian Bale) is initially a fleeting and mysterious presence, but over time he and Sophie begin to fall in love and realize that they can help with the other’s curse.  Slowly they begin to put together a found family in the moving castle, bringing on the likes of a humbled Witch of the Waste, a dog named Heen, and a living scarecrow that Sophie names Turnip-head.

I don’t want to give too much of the wild and wooly plot, but it’s ultimately a story with a great message about pacifism and the power of compassion.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Fantastic Planet (1973)


Title: Fantastic Planet
Release Date: 11 May 1973
Director: René Laloux
Production Company: Les Films Armorial | Ceskoslovenský Filmexport
Summary/Review:

Fantastic Planet is an animated film that seems made for late-night showings to an audience stoned of its gourd.  The movie is set and the planet Ygam where the dominant species are  the giant, blue, humanoid Traags.  They share the planet with the descendants of humans from Earth who are known as Oms.  Some Oms are kept as pets by Traags, but most live in the wild and are considered vermin to be exterminated by the Traags.

The story focuses on an Om named Terr who is adopted as an infant by a young Traag named Tiwa.  He is able to escape with her instructional headset and use it to share Traag knowledge with the colonies of wild Oms.  Using this knowledge, the Oms are able to begin to fight back and attempt to leave the planet.  The movie can be read as a metaphor for many things – racism, genocide, animal rights, or even the forces of nature.  The movie felt longer than its 71 minute run time and has a disappointing deus ex machina resolution, so this is less of a socio-political message and more of just a journey into the weird.

The pencil-sketch animation style reminded me of something I saw on children’s shows in the 1970s such as the “Pinball Number Count” on Sesame Street. The fanciful settings and the jazz funk fusion music are eerily similar.  I give it points for its visual imagination and funky grooves, but not much else.

Rating: ***