90 Movies in 90 Days: Alice (1988)


I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: Alice
Release Date: 3 August 1988
Director: Jan Švankmajer
Production Company: Film Four International | Condor Films
Summary/Review:

As a fan of Lewis Carroll’s  classic novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I’ve never been quite satisfied with film adaptations.  This Czech film adheres to the spirit of the original’s surreal, dreamlike quality through a child’s point of view. It is after all, a film made for children.  Perhaps.

The only actor to appear in the movie is the exceptionally young-looking Kristýna Kohoutová (I haven’t been able to confirm her age at the time of filming) as Alice.  In the English-language version I watched, all of the dialogue is narrated by Camilla Power.  Everything else in this film is created by animating taxidermy animals, dolls, and household objects.  The herky-jerky nature of the stop-motion lends an uncanny valley quality to the animation.

The whole production teeters on the line between whimsical charm and nightmare fodder.  I’m sure this movie would’ve terrified me as a young child.  But it fascinates me now both as an adaptation of a great book and as it’s own weird and wonderful thing.

Rating: ****1/2

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90 Movies in 90 Days: Liz and the Blue Bird (2018)


I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: Liz and the Blue Bird
Release Date:April 21, 2018
Director: Naoko Yamada
Production Company:Kyoto Animation | Bandai Namco Arts | Pony Canyon |
Rakuonsha | Animation DO
Summary/Review:

Mizore (Atsumi Tanezaki) is a shy and introverted girl who is a talented oboist in her high school’s concert band.  Her only friend is Nozomi (Nao Tōyama), a much more popular and outgoing girl who plays flute in the same band, but with less interest in perfecting her art.  Mizore has a deep attachment to Nozomi, and while not explicitly stated, a romantic interest as well.

The film focuses primarily on their rehearsals in their senior year for a piece called Liz and the Blue Bird based on fictional German fairy tale. The story involves a girl named Liz (played on the oboe) who befriends a mysterious girl who is actually a blue bird magically transformed (played on the flute).  The musical piece and the fairy tale serve as the central metaphor for Mizore and Nozomi’s story as they need to learn to let go of one another to succeed in their lives after high school.

This is a sad and sweet coming of age film with beautiful animation that resembles water colors and great incorporation of music into the story.

Rating: ***

90 Movies in 90 Days: This Magnificent Cake! (2018


I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: This Magnificent Cake!
Release Date: 14 May 2018
Director: Emma De Swaef and Marc James Roels
Production Company: Beast Animation | Vivement Lundi | Pedri Animation
Summary/Review:

In the 19th-century, the European powers sliced up the African continent as if it were a cake. King Leopold II of Belgium decided that he needed a piece as well.  This film depicts the effects of colonization through fabric-based stop-motion animation and is told in five interconnected vignettes.  The movie is darkly satirical and has a dreamlike quality.  The dehumanizing effect of colonization on the colonizers is told in the stories of some Belgians who tried their luck in the Congo and are all grotesques in one way or another.

Surprisingly there are very few African characters in this movie, with just one part focusing on a Pygmy man who is made to work as a human ashtray holder at a hotel.  All of the African characters in this movie die in horrible ways. On the one hand that their deaths are the unintended consequences of the carelessness of white people who are indifferent to the suffering they cause is telling.  But it also comes across as really grim slapstick comedy.

Regardless of intent, this is an unsettling movie about the crimes of the not so distant past.  I’m also going to see that snail in a toupee in my nightmares.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (2022)


Title: Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Director: Dean Fleischer Camp
Production Company:Cinereach | You Want I Should LLC. | Human Woman Inc. | Sunbeam TV & Films | Chiodo Bros. Productions
Summary/Review:

If I was somebody else, I would really be enjoying this.

I’m not sure what to make of this movie, but I know I like it.  Marcel (Jenny Slate), as the title says, is a shell with one eye.  He lost most of his community, except his grandmother Nana Connie (Isabella Rossellini) when the couple who owned the house they lived in split up.  Now the house is rented out as an AirB&B and the current long term tenant Dean (Dean Fleischer Camp) decides to make a documentary about Marcel.  This leads to internet celebrity for Marcel and an interview with Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes.

This is the kind of movie you go into thinking “ha-ha, it’s a movie about a cute little shell wearing shoes” and has you leaving thinking “how can a cute little shell wearing shoes say so much about grief, the value of community, and the human condition” and “why am I crying?”

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)


Title: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Release Date: November 9, 2022
Director:Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson
Production Company:Netflix Animation | Double Dare You! | ShadowMachine | The Jim Henson Company
Summary/Review:

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, the most recent adaptation of the 1883 Italian novel by Carlo Collodi, really leans into the horror and existentialism of a boy made out of wood.  And yet it is all the more heartwarming as the result.  As a father myself, I have to say it really tugged at my heartstrings.

The film is set during the time of Mussolini’s reign over Italy, which means it takes place at the same time the most famous adaptation of the story, Disney’s Pinocchio, was made. The movie has a strong anti-war and anti-fascist message.  The movie is made in gorgeous stop-motion animation where everything looks like it was carved out of wood.  Once again in 2022, it’s a crime that animated movies are getting only limited theatrical release at best!

There’s a lot of great talent in the voicework as well.  Gregory Mann provides the voice of Pinocchio, a wooden boy created by the grieving Geppetto (David Bradley) after the death of his son Carlo. Ewan McGregor is Sebastian J. Cricket, a talking insect who made his home in the tree that Geppetto cuts down to make Pinocchio and then later he lives in the hollow of Pinocchio’s chest, acting as his conscience.  Other voices include Tilda Swinton, Cristoph Walz, Cate Blanchett, Ron Perlman, and Finn Wolfhard.  And Mussolini is voiced by Tom Kenny.  You know, the voice of Spongebob Squarepants.

Pinocchio is worth a watch as a family film, although there may be parts that could freak out a more sensitive child.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: My Father’s Dragon (2022)


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

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

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

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Wendell & Wild (2022)


Title: Wendell & Wild
Release Date: October 21, 2022
Director: Henry Selick
Production Company: Monkeypaw Productions | Gotham Group
Summary/Review:

Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross) is the only survivor of a car crash that kills her parents, the owners of successful brewery in the town of Rust Bank. After five years cycling through foster service and juvenile detention, Kat returns to her home town to attend a private girls school on a rehabilitation program. Kat is accidentally marked as a “hell maiden,” which draws the attention of the demons Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele).  They wish to escape their father Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames) and return the land of the living to create an amusement park.  Wendell and Wild strike a deal with Kat to have her summon them to the surface in return for their resurrecting her parents.

There’s already a lot going on in this summary, and I’m barely scratching the surface.  If there’s a major flaw to this movie, it’s that it has too much plot.  Nevertheless, it is an imaginative and visually impressive film.  Director Henry Selick’s previous films include The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), James and the Giant Peach (1996), and Coraline (2009), and fans of his stop-motion animation style will like this film as well. Jordan Peele co-wrote the script with Selick and it reflects his comedy, horror, and social justice instincts.  The metaphors are very heavy in this movie (one scene depicts a literal “school-to-prison pipeline” and one of the villains looks a lot like Donald Trump), but again the creativity of the story and imagination more than make up for any heavy-handedness.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: The Wolf House (2018)


Title: La casa lobo
Release Date: February 22, 2018
Director: Cristobal León and Joaquín Cociña
Production Company: Diluvio | Globo Rojo Films
Summary/Review:

This movie requires some background knowledge of Colonia Dignidad, a community of German expatriates that operated in a remote region of Chile from the 1960s to the 1990s.  Purportedly a harmonious agricultural collective, the colony was in fact more of a cult under a tyrannical leader who sexually abused children.  Even worse, the colony collaborated with Augosto Pinochet to operate a camp for interning and torturing Chile’s political prisoners.

The animated film tells a fable about a young woman named Maria (Amalia Kassai) who flees the colony.  Pursued by a wolf (Rainer Krause) through the forest she finds refuge in an abandoned house.  Here she finds two pigs who she names Pedro and Ana who morph into children.  Allusions to “The Three Little Pigs” are close to the surface in this story.

When I say this animated it doesn’t quite convey the scale of the work in which painted figures are continually moving along the walls of the house and figures grow and morph out of what looks like papier-mâché. This is not a traditional horror film, but all the more disturbing for being created out of the trauma of real life abuse and atrocities. This is a movie that I appreciate for it’s work and artistry more than I enjoy, although “enjoy” is the exact opposite of what the creators of this movie hope to elicit.  They achieved that goal.

Rating: ****

Silent Movie Day Review: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)


 

Title: Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed
Release Date: 23 September 1926
Director: Lotte Reiniger
Production Company: Comenius-Film GmbH | Milestone Films
Summary/Review:

In honor of National Silent Movie Day, I watched the oldest surviving animated feature film. Director Lotte Reiniger invented a technique of silhouette animation using illuminated cutouts animated frame by frame.  The style is a bit mindblowing and I can imagine that it was the type of thing that might have been big as a midnight stoner movie in the 1970s.  On the other, the style is similar to shadow puppets going back to antiquity, so maybe it wasn’t so unusual for audiences in 1926.  The film illustrates stories adapted from One Thousand and One Nights.  It’s quite mesmerizing to watch and worth checking out for its historical importance as well as the intricate details.

Rating: ****

 

Movie Reviews: The Sea Beast (2022)


Title: The Sea Beast
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Director: Chris Williams
Production Company: Netflix Animation
Summary/Review:

“But you can be a hero and still be wrong.”

In a world where the oceans are filled with giant sea monsters, the heroes of the age are The Hunters.  Salty crews of sailors on ships like The Inevitable under Captain James Crow (Jared Harris) and his adopted son Jacob Holland (Karl Urban) hunt down and kill sea monsters for rewards from the King and Queen of Three Bridges.  An orphan Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator) stow away on The Inevitable and soon ends up separated from the ship with Jacob.  They soon discover that the stories they’ve been told about the sea beasts may not be true and that there is alternative to endless war.

For a visually-compelling animated feature it’s disappointing that this movie’s primary viewing platform is Netflix, because I think it deserves the big screen experience.  Nevertheless, I think it’s an enjoyable family film with good voice work and great feel for seafaring adventure in the Age of Sail.  It touches upon a lot of topics such as political corruption, generational trauma, and reconciliation but in a way that is not too heavy-handed for younger viewers.

Rating: ***