Book Review: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki


Author: Ryka Aoki
Title: Light From Uncommon Stars
Narrator: Cindy Kay
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

Shizuka Satomi is a world-renown violin instructor who has made a deal with a demon to trade the souls of 7 violin prodigies for success.  She has one more soul to collect and has returned home to Southern California to find a likely candidate.

Lan Tran is a starship captain who has escaped a galactic war with her family, and now operate a doughnut shop as their cover.

Katrina Nguyen is a teenage transgender girl who has run away to Los Angeles from her abusive family and supports herself making YouTube videos.  She also plays the violin.

Somehow not only are all these characters in the same novel, but their interactions create a heartfelt human story that transcends genres. Shizuka and Lan meet, share their strange histories, and strike up a romance. And of course, Shizuka takes on Katrina as her student, and yet treats her with such tenderness that it’s hard to believe she plans to sell Katrina’s soul to the Devil.

And that only scratches the surface of the brilliant, warm, funny, and creative novel!

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Monterey Pop (1968) #atozchallenge


Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter M that I have previously reviewed include: that I have previously reviewed include:

Title: Monterey Pop 
Release Date: December 26, 1968
Director: D. A. Pennebaker
Production Company: Leacock Pennebaker
Summary/Review:

The Monterey International Pop Festival, held over 3 days in June 1967, was the first major festival to feature rock acts and a major event to kick off the “Summer of Love.” It also brought a lot of iconic artists of that generation to more widespread attention in America, including Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, Otis Redding, Ravi Shankar, and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The camera work is really excellent at zeroing on the performers’ stage habits and special moments, along with the psychedelic light shows. In addition to some stunning concert performances, the movie features a lot of montages of festival attendees in and around the concert venue. The camera operators seemed keen on seeking out attractive women and people in outlandish outfits (and best yet, attractive women in outlandish outfits).  You also get the sense the performers were out mingling among the ordinary people when they weren’t on stage themselves.

I first saw Monterey Pop as a kid in 1987 when there was a lot of “Summer of Love” nostalgia and I went all in on the music and lore of the counterculture (although I never dressed outlandishly).  I’ve always felt that Monterey Pop is a better movie than Woodstock, and that Monterey had better musical performances (although the Altamont Free Concert also had better performances than Woodstock, but the people at Woodstock still had a lot more fun).  That being said, Pennebaker’s 87-minute film is really just a greatest hits collection of Monterrey. Just less than half of the artists who performed at the festival appear in the film (where are you Group With No Name?), and they typically only get one song.  Nevertheless there isn’t a bad performance in the movie, but my absolutely favorite is Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long To Stop Now.”

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Ruthless People (1986)


Title: Ruthless People
Release Date: June 27, 1986
Director: Jim Abrahams | David Zucker | Jerry Zucker
Production Company: Touchstone Films | Silver Screen Partners II
Summary/Review:

After becoming known for their spoof comedy movies like Airplane! and Top Secret! and the tv show Police Squad!, the team of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker made a more straightforward black comedy with Ruthless People.  I remember seeing this at the movie theater and then countless times on tv.  But a lot of comedies I loved from the 70s & 80s have aged poorly with cringy jokes based on race, gender, and sexuality that just don’t seem funny .  While Ruthless People is not the laugh riot I recall it being, it does hold up well as a well-crafted and well-acted comedy.

Fashion mogul Sam Stone (Danny DeVito) plans to murder his wife Barbara (Bette Midler), but before he carry out his plot she is abducted.  Her kidnappers are Ken (Judge Reinhold) and Sandy (Helen Slater), a sweet couple who want to hold Barbara for ransom in revenge for Sam stealing Sandy’s fashion designs.  Sam is perfectly happy by the turn of events, deliberately disobeying Ken’s demands in hopes that they will kill Barbara.  Meanwhile, Sam’s mistress Carol (Anita Morris) also attempts to blackmail Sam for Barbara’s murder with the help of her extremely dim boyfriend Earl (Bill Pullman).

I’m impressed by how well all the pieces fit together in this movie and build up to the comic finale.  While the movie has a crude and raunchy edge, it is tender-hearted in it’s center.  After all, the only truly ruthless person is Sam who gets his comeuppance while the other characters find unity and purpose.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Fruitvale Station (2013)


Title: Fruitvale Station
Release Date: July 12, 2013
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: Significant Productions
Summary/Review:

We “Say Their Names” but sometimes that’s all we know about Black people killed by police and vigilantes.  Ryan Coogler’s debut film as director and writer tells the story of the man behind one of those names, Oscar Grant III, who was shot by police in a Oakland metro station just after ringing in the New Year in 2009, and died later that morning.  Michael B. Jordan portrays Grant as someone dealing with the complex mess of everyday life in the 24 hours leading to his shooting.  Melonie Diaz  portrays his girlfriend Sophina and Octavia Spencer adds a lot of emotional heft as his mother Wanda.  Ariana Neal steals scenes as Oscar and Sophina’s 4-year-old daughter Tatiana. This movie feels very real to me.  While it’s not filmed in a vérité or neo-realist style, I don’t feel like I’m watching Jordan, Diaz, and Spencer as actors playing people, but real people.  This movie was released before the Black Lives Matter movement officially began but it captures the meaning of the phrase in its depiction of one precious, human life of a Black man that was taken away.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: The Graduate (1967)


Title: The Graduate
Release Date: December 21, 1967
Director: Mike Nichols
Production Company: Lawrence Turman Productions
Summary/Review:

I first watched The Graduate some time in the mid-90s because, along with Easy Rider, it is said to be an emblematic of the Baby Boomer generation.  Watching it then, I felt that Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) seemed more representative of my own generation, at a time when we were being called “The Slacker Generation.”  Watching it now, though, I think there is a feeling of directionless many people experience in their 20s that transcends generations.  My other impression of the movie was that it wasn’t very funny and I didn’t like it.

Watching it now, I realize the problem I had with The Graduate is that it makes me deeply uncomfortable, which is something that a good movie can do.  I wrote in my review of M*A*S*H that there were a lot of positives of the Sexual Revolution of the 60s and 70s, but sometimes there was a push to be transgressive which crossed the line from health to unhealthy sexual expression.  The seduction of Benjamin by Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft) is extremely creepy, almost predatory.  Later in the film, Benjamin becomes a creepy stalker in his pursuit of Elaine Robinson (Katharine Ross).  I’m never convinced that Benjamin actually loves Elaine, he’s just looking for a way to escape the rut he’s captured in, and I think the film actually supports this interpretation.  As for Elaine, watching her respond positively to Benjamin is like watching a camp counselor in a slasher film enter the creepy house where I want to shout at the screen “NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!?”

The Graduate is an extremely well-made film.  I particularly like the the montage of Benjamin schlubbing around his house intercut with scenes of his assignations with Mrs. Robinson.  The acting is all around terrific, and Anne Bancroft’s performance in the scene where Benjamin presses Mrs. Robinson about her past is magnificent.  Simon & Garfunkel’s music for the film, while repetitive (although not as repetitive as Midnight Cowboy), is perfectly synched to the movie, and I especially like the part where Simon’s guitar strumming peters out when Benjamin’s car runs out of gas.  The final sequence of the movie is ludicrously unbelievable, but it’s still very funny (and was brilliantly spoofed in Wayne’s World II). Something I didn’t notice or didn’t remember from my previous viewing is that when Benjamin and Elaine get on the bus their smiles and laughter slowly turn to looks of confusion, as if they’re thinking “What now?” I never thought there was a happy future for Benjamin and Elaine and their expressions in the final shot confirm it.

Want to know something weird?  When filming this movie, Anne Bancroft was only 36 years old, joining Vivien Leigh and Gloria Swanson among actresses playing characters who are treated as older than themselves.  Granted, Mrs. Robinson had a teenage pregnancy, so it’s entirely possible that she have a child in college at Bancroft’s age.  But here’s something weirder: Katharine Ross is less than 9 years younger than Bancroft!  Weirder still?  Hoffman is only SIX YEARS younger than Bancroft.  The leads in this intergenerational comedy were all born in the same decade!

So, I think I like The Graduate a lot more than I did on my previous viewing, but I don’t love it.  I guess I’ll check in again in another 25 years, and who knows!

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)


Title: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Release Date: June 22, 1988
Director: Robert Zemeckis, Richard Williams (animation director)
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Silver Screen Partners
Summary/Review:

I was 14 when Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released and greatly anticipated seeing the movie having always loved animation and in the midst of a phase where I was obsessively watching old Warner Bros. shorts.  When I finally did see the movie, I was disappointed.  I found Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) to be annoying, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) to be overly creepy (especially in his ultimate demise), and everyone using the term “toons” to be overly affected. I feel like the movie was poorly received at the time, but it has been reconsidered as a classic so I had to watch it again.

Revisiting the movie as an adult I find that I have a better frame of reference for the film noir pastiche which is well done.  I also appreciate incorporating the real-life story of powers-that-be wanting to dismantle the Los Angeles streetcar system and build freeways.  The anti-car ethos resonates with me. Bob Hoskins does an excellent job as the gruff straight man portraying detective Eddie Valiant investigating the murder of Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye) and why Roger Rabbit was framed for the killing.

This movie, of course, wows with the technical brilliance of incorporating animated characters into live action with a level of reality never before achieved (and never since as computer animation soon became the dominant form of the art).  There’s a scene where Eddie enters Toon Town for the first time and drives through the psychedelic world of toon’s singing “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!” that is absolutely brilliant, and that was my favorite part when I was younger. I kind of wish more of the movie was like that, because for all its technical brilliance, I still don’t find Who Framed Roger Rabbit to be funny for the most part.  And for a family film, it also has a lot of elements that are over kids’ heads.

I definitely like this movie a lot more than I did when I was younger.  Roger Rabbit is still annoying and Judge Doom is still creepy, but there’s a lot of style and mood as well as nods to film history that I can appreciate.  I just feel that this movie had the opportunity to be a whole lot more.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)


Title: Sorry to Bother You
Release Date:  July 6, 2018
Director: Boots Riley
Production Company: Significant Productions | MNM Creative | MACRO | Cinereach | The Space Program | Annapurna Pictures
Summary/Review:

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young man, down on his luck, and going through an existential crisis when he starts a job at a telemarketing company.  He learns that to make successful sales he has to use a “white voice” (ironically, his managers always talk in “Black voice” when pumping up the employees in meetings).  Soon he’s promoted to the Power Caller department where he makes a fortune selling unethical products and services at the same time his friends and coworkers from the lower floors are organizing a strike. Underlying everything is the growth of a new company called WorryFree that provides cheap labor by signing people to lifetime contracts and housing them in factories (which opponents call slave labor).

The movie has a stellar cast supporting Stanfield. Tessa Thompson plays his girlfriend Detroit, who is a performance artist and underground activist. Steven Yuen is a labor organizer named Squeeze. And Omari Hardwick plays the mysterious Mr. _____, Cash’s Power Caller manager.  Danny Glover and Forest Whitaker also appear in small roles, and Rosario Dawson performs a voice.

I was not prepared for this movie.  I went in expecting a satirical comedy more than anything else but ended up feeling more disturbed than anything else.  Granted, this movie is supposed to be disturbing, but I wasn’t expecting creepiness approaching Get Out levels.  And that was before the scenes of full-on body horror!  I also felt the movie had too many targets.  While the satire of the corporate world and capitalist exploitation works, I felt the gags about online memes, reality tv, and performance art fell flat.  Still this is a good first film for Boots Riley and I look forward to seeing what he’ll put out next.  Oh and the music by Riley’s band The Coup and tUnE-yArDs is perfect for this movie.

Rating: ***

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
Summary/Review:

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: Palm Springs (2020)


TitlePalm Springs
Release Date: July 10, 2020
Director: Max Barbakow
Production Company: Limelight Productions | Lonely Island Classics | Sun Entertainment | FilmNation Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Let’s get the obvious out of the way:  Palm Springs follows the same basic premise of Groundhog Day where someone is living the same day over and over again on a seemingly infinite time loop. There are some key differences. When the film begins, Nyles (Andy Samberg) is already caught in a time loop attending a wedding in which his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) is the bridesmaid.  He accidentally pulls a second person into the the loop with him, sister of the bride Sarah (Cristin Milioti).  And the movie has more elements of gross-out and sex comedy than Groundhog Day.

It’s an interesting reworking of a formula, and leads to a perfectly enjoyable romantic comedy.  Nyles and Sarah are initially contentious but grow closer after who knows how many thousands of repeats.  It’s a fun lark, but it’s not likely something I’ll return to.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Mank (2020)


TitleMank
Release Date:November 13, 2020
Director: David Fincher
Production Company:
Netflix International Pictures | Flying Studio | Panic Pictures | Blue Light
Summary/Review:

This biographical drama tells the story of Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a talented screenwriter hired to write the screenplay of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. Welles sets up Mank in a remote desert rental house so he can write the screenplay while recovering from injuries from a car crash, with the ulterior motive of keeping the alcoholic Mank away from the drink. Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) serves as Mank’s secretary and confidante while John Houseman (Sam Troughton) checks in and frets over Mank’s progress.

The main story alternates with flashbacks to Mank’s memories from the previous decade.  In one storyline he befriends the actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and is drawn in the world of her powerful partner William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).  Another plot focuses on the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign in which Hearst and the Hollywood moguls create propaganda films to smear the social democrat candidate Upton Sinclair.  Mank’s sympathies toward Sinclair puts him at odds with his wealth friends and his Hollywood bosses.

Since Citizen Kane is a satirical attack on Hearst, the conflict in this film is whether Mank should use his personal relationship to inform his writing of the screenplay.  Davies, as portrayed by Seyfried, is sweet, down to earth, and genuinely a friend to Mank, so his work could be seen as a betrayal.  But Mank also has good reasons to continue with the screenplay that will become his best work.

I don’t know how much of this film is “true to life,” although I expect that much of it is embellished. As much as I enjoyed the 62-year-old Oldman’s performance, I think it should be noted that Mank was in his 30s & early 40s when this film take place and actually a year younger than Davies.  I think those casting decisions in historical dramas can really affect our understanding of real life people.  Ultimately the historical accuracy takes a backseat to a personal story of Hollywood politics and one’s willingness to sacrifice personal beliefs.  It’s full of lots of Easter eggs if you know anything about Hollywood history, and is filmed in a style that is a homage to Citizen Kane.

Rating: ***