Movie Review: Stand By Me (1986)

TitleStand By Me
Release Date: August 8, 1986
Director: Rob Reiner
Production Company: Act III Productions

Stand By Me is a movie I saw at the theaters when it came out, and then several more times on tv.  I loved this movie but revisisiting it as an adult has made me appreciate it even more.  The movie is adapted from a novella by Stephen King called The Body, which I had coincidentally read before seeing the movie.  The film moves the story from King’s Maine to Oregon but is otherwise pretty faithful.  Despite the period music queues of early rock & roll hits, this movie is far from the Boomer nostalgia piece one might expect.

At heart, it is the story of a group of four 12-year-olds in the late 1950s making an overnight journey to see the dead body of a boy their age who had been hit by a train.  Along the way they encounter a legendary junkyard dog, escape a train on a railroad trestle, and get covered with leeches.  But the heart of this coming-of-age story is seeing the boys come to terms with the neglect and abuse from their parents and the support they can give one another as friends.

A lot of the movie’s success is due to the fantastic casting.  Wil Wheaton stars as Gordie LaChance, a quiet boy with a talent for writing who feels invisible to his parents after the death of his older brother. His best friend is Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), a boy with a criminal reputation from a “bad family,” but actually quite conscientious and something of a father figure to the other boys.  Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) suffers serious abuse from his mentally-ill father and lashes out unpredictably in his anger.  Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) is the goofy kid who tries too hard to be cool.  Kiefer Sutherland also makes one of his earliest film appearances as Ace Merrill, the leader of a gang of older teenagers who are the main antagonists to the boys in the story.

The movie has a lot to say about friendship, the trials and traumas of childhood, and not judging people by their initial appearances.  It’s one of the best depictions of childhood onscreen in my experience.  The movie concludes with the line “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” Since I was 12 when I first saw this movie and didn’t have any close friends at the time that line rankled me.  Hearing it again at 48, when I find myself with no real social connections outside my immediate family, I’m still struggling with that line.  But, I’m holding out for my 50s as the time when I find the people I’m going to really bond with.

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

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: Lady Macbeth (2016)

Title: Lady Macbeth
Release Date: 28 April 2017
Director: William Oldroyd
Production Company: Sixty-Six Pictures

I basically chose to watch this movie because I’ve become obsessed with the acting of Florence Pugh.  And Pugh’s acting is the main reason that this movie is worth watching at all. Despite the title, this movie has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s Scottish play, and in fact is based on a 19th-century Russian novella.  The film is set in the North East of England in the 1860s where Katherine (Pugh) is sold into a loveless marriage with a cruel older man, Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton).

Not permitted to leave the house, Katherine feels trapped.  She finally finds liberation when her husband and father-in-law both go away, and she begins a fling with a servant, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).  After that, Katherine takes matters into her own hands and things get … messy (there’s the reason why the movie is called Lady Macbeth).  Like I said, Pugh’s performance, is great but this movie feels like half-a-dozen indie movies I saw back in the 1990s but doesn’t have anything new to say.  There are several Black supporting characters and the movie may be saying something about Katherine’s privilege as a white woman, but I think the actual intent of this movie is to feel compassion for Katherine.  Which I don’t.

Rating: **1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: Passing (2021)

Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: Passing
Release Date: October 27, 2021
Director: Rebecca Hall
Production Company: Significant Productions | Picture Films | Flat Five Productions | Film4 Productions | Gamechanger Films | Sweet Tomato Films | Endeavor Content

Set in the 1920s in New York City, Passing stars Tessa Thompson as Irene Redfield, a light skinned Black woman living in Harlem and married to a successful Black doctor.  By chance, Irene meets up with a friend from childhood, Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), who is passing as white and is married to the nakedly racist John (Alexander Skarsgård).  Initially, Irene wants nothing more to do with Clare, but gradually they begin spending more time together. Clare enjoys reconnecting with African-American culture and becomes close with Irene’s husband Brian (André Holland) and their children.

Passing uses a delicate approach to dealing with serious issues.  A lot of the message of this movie is said in facial expressions and reactions rather than words.  The cinematography and editing also do a great job of capturing the everyday rhythms of life in 1920s New York.  Passing is a slow burn but it’s a good one and worth a watch.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
Release Date: December 25, 1962
Director: Robert Mulligan
Production Company: Brentwood Productions | Pakula-Mulligan

I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high school, as reading this novel is basically a nationwide requirement of the United States education systems, and immediately fell in love with it.  Then we watched the movie in class and I was disappointed.  At that age, I didn’t like it when movies deviated from the books. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to realize that the best adaptations used the language of cinema to capture the mood and spirit of a book rather than strictly recreating it (which is why Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the best of that series of movies).  I also remember feeling that the kids in To Kill a Mockingbird didn’t act like real kids but I felt the same about E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial as a child while thinking the kids were actually very realistic when revisiting as an adult.

If you have somehow never read To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a story told from the point of view of a young girl living in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s named Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Mary Badham).  Scout lives with her widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck) and older brother Jem (Phillip Alford), and often plays with a boy named Dill (John Megna) who stays with his aunt in their neighborhood.  In the book, Scout, Jem, and Dill have many adventures and get into mischief.  Scout also begins to get an understanding of the differences of the adults in her lives through encounters with a cantankerous old woman who turns out to have an addiction to morphine, as well as a mysterious recluse, Arthur “Boo” Radley (portrayed without words by a very young Robert Duvall).  Atticus is a model of good parenting who attempts to instill compassion in his children, treating them with patience and never talking down to them.

The central plot to the book and even more significant in the leaner movie version is the trial of a Black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), who is falsely accused of beating and raping a white teenage girl, Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox), by her drunken father Bob Ewell (James Anderson).  Atticus is assigned to defend Tom Robinson in court and demonstrates during the trial that the Ewells’ accusations can’t possibly be true.  But convincing an all-white jury in the Jim Crow South to accept the word of a Black man over white people is the impossible challenge.  In the most famous scene of this movie, Atticus delivers a nine-minute summation to the jury where he explicates his belief in the American justice system that they will find Tom Robinson innocent.

I found that this is a very well-made movie, yet it still feels like something of an appendix to an even better and more complex novel.  Gregory Peck’s performance is excellent, but it’s almost too good and having an actor of his stature portray Atticus Finch feeds into legitimate criticisms that Atticus is a “white savior” character.  I did feel legitimately moved though by the scene where the Black spectators in the courtroom balcony stand to honor Atticus and Reverend Sykes (William “Bill” Walker) says “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” A scene just before that where Dill is sleeping on Reverend Sykes shoulder is sweet and intimate especially considering the time and place.

As to the acting of the children, I was impressed with Phillip Alford’s performance as Jem.  His facial expressions and gestures say a lot as the older child who understands the significance of what is happening.  Mary Badham can be a bit too precious as Scout, especially in the scene when she talks down the lynch mob.  But she is absolutely perfect in her delivery of my favorite line of all, “Hey, Boo.”

I guess I have mixed feelings on To Kill a Mockingbird as a movie because I can never see it as standing apart from the book.  But it’s a great book, so it can’t help to be a good movie as well.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Title: The Magnificent Ambersons
Release Date: July 10, 1942
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures | Mercury Productions

If your debut film is hailed as a masterpiece what do you do for a follow-up?  If you’re Orson Welles you adapt a Booth Tarkington novel to present a period drama about a wealthy family in Indiana during the Gilded Age.   This would also see the start of Welles’ off-screen conflicts that interfered with his vision for the project.  In this case, RKO Radio Pictures heavily edited down his film and added a new ending.  Most reviews I’ve read tend to focus on the challenge of following up Citizen Kane and the loss of Welles’ version of this film, so I’m just going to stick to what I watched.

The Ambersons are the richest family in town and daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello) is courted by Eugene (Joseph Cotten).  When he makes a social faux pas, she chooses to marry another man.  They have one child, George (played as an adult by Tim Holt who impressed me in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), a spoiled brat who has the townspeople wishing for his comeuppance.  The main part of the film starts when George is college-aged and Eugene, now a widower, returns to town after a 20-year absence with his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter, later to star in All About Eve).  George and Lucy begin a romance but George can’t help but be hostile to her father who has become wealthy manufacturing automobiles.  Efforts to appeal to George’s good side by his unmarried aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorhead), who also loves Eugene, or his uncle Jack (Ray Collins), fall on deaf ears.  When George’s father dies and Eugene attempts to court Isabel, George blocks every chance for his mother’s happiness, eventually leading to the family’s downfall.

It’s really hard to convey how loathsome and sociopathic George is as a character.  I know there are unpleasant people in real life and movies have to reflect that but there’s really nothing to care about in this movie when it’s just George making himself and everyone around him miserable all the time.  Still, there were some things I like about this movement.  The opening sequence where the townspeople appear to be interacting with Welles’ narration is cleverly done, and gave me the idea that the whole film would have a satirical feel to it rather than the melodrama we got. The scene where they try to start the “horseless carriage” in the snow is beautifully shot. As someone who dislikes cars, I also like the anti-automobile message of the movie, with even Eugene stating how damaging they can be. And the scene where George tells Lucy he’s leaving forever and she acts giddy about it is great (only marred a bit when we learn she was actually covering up that she was broken-hearted about it).

I don’t know what Welles’ version of this film would’ve been like, but this movie as it is was mostly a miss for me.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Title: The Grapes of Wrath
Release Date: January 24, 1940
Director: John Ford
Production Company: 20th Century Fox

I read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in high school and liked it so much that even though we hadn’t finished reading it for class by the end of the school year, I finished the book on my own during the summer. This is the opposite of the more typical situation where I was supposed to finish the book for class but never did (I’m looking at you Charles Dickens’ Hard Times). I also watched the movie around the same time and remember a) stunned by seeing Henry Fonda look so young and b) feeling a little disappointed that so much had changed from the book.

With years removed from reading the book and a greater acceptance of how adaptations work, I found myself totally enthralled by the movie on this viewing. Fonda plays Tom Joad, a volatile young man paroled from prison after serving for homicide, who returns to his family home in Oklahoma to find no one there.  Meeting up with the lapsed preacher Jim Casy (John Carradine), he eventually catches up with his family as they plan to head to California to escape the Dust Bowl and foreclosure by the bank.  The film tracks their journey west and efforts to find work and hold the family together in California.

Director John Ford and Producer Darryl F. Zanuck were known for their conservatism, but nevertheless offer an honest depiction of the capitalist exploitation and abuse of migrant workers at agricultural camp, the use of police to repress labor organizing, and that the camp run by the Federal government is the one that respects the rights and dignity of the workers.  Interestingly enough, I learned that the Weedpatch camp depicted in the film was not only a real place but it is still serving migrant laborers to this day.  While the film depicts the suffering and discrimination endured by “Okies” trying to survive it also includes moments of compassion and ends on an inspiring note.

As I noted, there are major differences between the book in the film. The book intertwines the main narrative of the Joad family with short stories about other peoples’ experiences in the Dust Bowl and migration.  The “truck drivers” scene in the film actually happens to another family in one of the short stories in the book, for example.  The book also includes much more detail about all the Joad family members and their fellow travelers, where as the film focuses in on Tom, Casy, and Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) as the main characters.  Finally, the end of the book depicts a remarkable act of compassion by Rose of Sharon (played by Dorris Bowdon in the film) that nonetheless was something that couldn’t be portrayed on film in 1940.

The Grapes of Wrath is an important book and an important film and they feel more relevant now than it did to me 30 years ago. The crises on the U.S.-Mexico border have lead to untold suffering for migrant workers coming into the country from abroad. Nomadland shows us that there are also American-born migrant workers struggling to make ends meet.  And while Nomadland is criticized for not being as political as The Grapes of Wrath, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the exploitation and abuse suffered by the laborers in the peach camp is similar to what order pickers endure today in an Amazon distribution center.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Isle of Dogs (2018)

Title: Isle of Dogs
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Director: Wes Anderson
Production Company: Studio Babelsberg | Indian Paintbrush | American Empirical Pictures

Wes Anderson’s second animated feature has a lot of the sames going for it as Fantastic Mr. Fox. It has stop-motion animation that is visually stunning.  It has clever storytelling.  It has a good mix of humor and adventure. It has a massive cast of celebrity voices.  It has dogs!

But for some reason I don’t enjoy it as much as its predecessor.  Perhaps because it is to long and has way to many subplots (they could’ve left out the Tracy Walker stuff and just focused on the dogs, for starters).  There has been some criticism of the film for cultural appropriation and stereotypes of Japanese people.  It felt more like a respectful homage to Japanese films to me but still, something felt off.

I’m not here to trash the film though.  I did enjoy it, just somewhat less than I had hoped.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Title: Fantastic Mr. Fox
Release Date: November 13, 2009
Director: Wes Anderson
Production Company: Indian Paintbrush | Regency Enterprises | American Empirical Pictures

Have you ever wanted to see animals stare deadpan into the camera while reciting quirky dialogue?  Wes Anderson’s brilliant stop-motion animation comedy/adventure fill will do that for you.

The titular Mr. Fox is a newspaper columnist who has adopted a suburban dad life after promising his wife Felicity (Meryl Streep) to give up stealing poultry when their son was born.  A few years later he’s yearning to get back into thievery and plots a heist of three farms on three nights with his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky).  The farmers respond with an all out war on the Fox family which puts all the local fauna under siege.  In a subplot, the Fox’s awkward son Ash (Jason Schwartzman, of course) forms a rivalry with his cool and athletically-gifted visiting cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson).

This is an enjoyable family film with a lot of visual treats in the animation, some clever gags, and maybe a few moments that might be scary for the kids.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Title: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Release Date: une 27, 2012
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Production Company: Cinereach | Court 13 | Journeyman Pictures

I went into this movie with little knowledge about what it’s about and felt as if I was plunged into a post-apocalyptic science fiction story that begins with the survivors having a big celebration. Eventually, I cottoned on that this story is set in our present day, a reminder that apocalyptic conditions already exist in many places on our earth.  In this case, it is a poor fishing community on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast called The Bathtub that is on the wrong side of the levees (and seemingly outside of governmental control) and thus susceptible to storms and hurricanes.  The movie is clearly a parable for the climate crisis, but it is also so much more.

The movie feels like a fantasy, or magical realism, because its point-of-view character is the 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis).  Wallis’ stunning performance captures a child both fully competent in navigating the world she’s grown up in but also still a child, who needs security.  She doesn’t find much of that in her volatile father Wink (Dwight Henry) who is dying, and her mother has gone missing some time before.

This movie defies description so I’m not going to summarize it any further. Much like Jaccques Tati’s Playtime, this is a movie unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and probably cannot be duplicated.  It’s a movie with a lot of emotion and imagination, and is a credit to Wallis, Henry, and the rest of the cast.  The direction and the cinematography are inspired, and credit must also be given to the set designers that created believable living spaces filled with floating debris.

Rating: ****