Classic Movie Review: Pather Panchali (1955) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter P

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Pather Panchali
Release Date: 26 August 1955
Director: Satyajit Ray
Production Company: Government of West Bengal
Summary/Review:

Pather Panchali (translated, Song of the Little Road) is a story set in Bengal in the early 1900s.  It tells the story of a family’s slow descent into poverty over a period of a few years.  Much of the film is told from the point of view of the family’s youngest member, Apu (Subir Banerjee), a curious child.  His older sister Durga (Uma Dasgupta) dotes on him and teases him in equal measure, and has taken to stealing things to supplement the family’s meager income. Their stern mother Sarbajaya (Karuna Banerjee) is distressed by Durga’s thievery, her debts to their neighbors, and her husband’s directionless nature.  Their father Harihar (Kanu Banerjee) is a priest who wants to be a writer and is perhaps too casual about bringing in money for his family, but also spends significant amounts of time traveling to earn money elsewhere.  The final member of the family is an aged aunt, Indir (Chunibala Devi), a mischievous old woman who the children adore but is an irritant to Sarbajaya.

This is the first feature film directed by Satyajit Ray, beginning a career as one of India’s most notable auteur directors.  It also the first of three films, followed by Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959), that tell the story of Apu’s life and are known as The Apu Trilogy.  The film is very crisp and has a silvertone quality that captures a lot of detail.  I’m reminded of Akira Kurosawa’s way of depicting the natural world overlapping the built world of humanity.  The movie also draws on Italian neorealism influences which means that it didn’t follow a strict script and depicts many of the basic pleasures of life and the ordinary human tragedies without a strict plot. The score of the movie was composed and performed by Ravi Shankar, one of the earliest works in his career that lead to him being one of the world’s most famous Indian musicians.

Pather Panchali is a sad but beautiful film.  It’s probably worth a rewatch at some future date when I have time to appreciate it better.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Fanny and Alexander (1982) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter F

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Fanny and Alexander
Release Date: December 17, 1982
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Production Company:  Gaumont
Summary/Review:

I guess I was a budding cinephile at the age of 9 when I started watching Siskel & Ebert’s At The Movies and Leonard Maltin’s movie reviews on Entertainment Tonight.  I like how they always showed extended clips of the movies that they discussed and the highly-regarded movies of the 1982-1983 era stick in my mind even if I’ve never seen them.  It turns out that when finally watching Fanny and Alexander that I actually had watched parts of the movie when randomly flipping channels as a teenager.  So it was good to finally watch the whole thing, or at least the three-hour theatrical cut.

While Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) gets top billing her role is minor, and it is Alexander Ekdahl (Bertil Guve) is the main point-of-view character.  The ten-year old boy whose vivid imagination gets him in trouble represents director Ingmar Bergman’s own child, although this movie is not a straight up autobiography.  For example, the film is set in the first decade of the 1900s, whereas Bergman wasn’t even born until 1918.  Bergman also noted that all the male characters in the film represent an aspect of his own personality.

The basic plot of the film is that the Ekdahl’s are a prosperous and large family who own and run a theatre. The family is introduced at a lavish Christmas party  at the lavish house of Fanny and Alexander’s grandmother Helena (Gunn Wållgren). After their father Oscar (Allan Edwall) suffers a stroke and dies, their mother Emilie (Ewa Fröling) remarries to the Bishop Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö).  The Bishop is strict and disciplined, and ultimately abusive when Alexander defies him.  Things look bad but this movie takes some weird twists and Alexander, Fanny, and Emilie ultimately end up reunited with their loving family.

While Alexander is central to the movie’s plot, there are a lot of scenes with adult characters where he isn’t involved.  There’s even a major subplot about the children’s exuberant uncle Gustav (Jarl Kulle) having an extramarital affair with their maid Maj (a young Pernilla August, years before she played Shmi Skywalker in The Phantom Menace) with the full knowledge and approval of his adoring wife Alma (Mona Malm).  The large cast includes some highly-regarded Swedish film stars and they all but in a terrific, naturalistic performance.

This movie is gorgeous to look at with bold colors and lots of detail in every shot.  There are three main sets: grandmother Helena’s overstuffed mansion, the austere interiors of the Bishop’s house, and labyrinthine antiques store of Isak Jacobi (Erland Josephson), the merchant and Ekdahl family friend who rescues the children.  There is also a lot exteriors shot on location in Uppsala, Sweden.  Of late, I’ve grown fatigued of how many classic films are extremely lengthy and resentful of the pretentiousness of some directors who are not economical in their storytelling.   But Fanny and Alexander is a movie that I want more of and so I will have to find time in the future to watch the full five-and-a-half hour miniseries.

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: Yes, God, Yes (2020)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Yes, God, Yes
Release Date: July 24, 2020
Director: Karen Maine
Production Company: Maiden Voyage | RT Features | Highland Film Group
Summary/Review:

Natalia Dyer stars a teenager, Alice, who attends a conservative Catholic school in small town Iowa in the early 2000s. Her sexuality begins to emerge through tentative cybersex chats and masturbation. At the same time, Alice becomes the center of a school-wide scandal for allegedly “tossing the salad” of a boy in her class, even though she doesn’t know what that phrase means.

The better part of the film is set at a four-day Catholic youth retreat that Alice attends with several classmates, including her best friend and the boy she’s rumored to have performed sex acts with (and his girlfriend!). Over the course of the weekend Alice witnesses other retreatants, the older teen retreat leaders, and even the priest involved in deviant sex acts, exposing their hypocrisy. At the conclusion of the retreat Alice gives a dramatic speech on how everyone is hiding things and how they should treat one another with respect as Jesus wanted.

While the subject of repressed teenage sexuality and how religious people often make life confusing and guilt-ridden for teens curious about their sexuality is a worthy one, I kind of feel this movie missed the mark. The religious figures in the film were mainly broad stereotypes and Alice’s dramatic speech just felt cheesy. Dyer’s performance was good overall, and Wolfgang Novogratz and Alisha Boe deserve kudos for perfectly capturing the enthusiasm of teen retreat leaders. The best scene is when Alice runs away from camp and ends up in a gay bar where she has a heart-to-heart with the bar’s owner Gina (Susan Blackwell), but it’s too little, too late to save the movie.

Rating: **

Recent Movie Marathon: Little Women (2019)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Little Women
Release Date: December 25, 2019
Director: Greta Gerwig
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Regency Enterprises | Pascal Pictures
Summary/Review:

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic novel by Louis May Alcott is a master class in capturing the spirit rather than the letter of a work of art. The movie is very clear when it is making a statement on the life of Alcott, and the limits she fought against in a time when the aspirations of women were more restricted, and when it is illustrating Alcott’s fictionalized story. The movie also benefits by setting the main plot at the time when the March daughters are older and intercutting flashbacks to their childhood, rather than telling the story chronologically. The book was episodic but the way it’s mixed up here makes it flow as more of a continuous story.

Saorsie Ronan is spectacular as Jo March, the talented writer who does not want to be pigeonholed into a life acceptable for a lady. Florence Pugh is also excellent in bringing out the many layers of Amy March, as opposed to the impression I had of her as being a vain and greedy caricature in the novel. The rest of the cast is good all around but Laura Dern as Marmee March and Meryl Streep as Aunt March deserve special praise. It’s quite a treat to have several generations of the most talented women in film all appearing in the same movie.

And if that wasn’t awesome enough, the movie was also primarily filmed on locations in Massachusetts. This includes a park nearby my house, Arnold Arboretum, which oddly plays the setting of Paris.


Rating: *****

Recent Movie Marathon: Ham on Rye (2020)


Happy New Year! Today I’ll be sharing my reviews of a binge watch of recent films (released within the past 18 months or so)!

Title: Ham on Rye
Release Date: October 23, 2020
Director: Tyler Taormina
Production Company: Tago Clearing Film Studio | Omnes Films
Summary/Review:

Ham on Rye is a surreal, coming-of-age drama with a touch of comedy that begins with several teenagers getting dressed up in semiformal attire and making their way to a big event in their prosperous suburban town. Many of them walk together in small groups and we get to hear snatches of conversation on typical teenage concerns. Even so, there are some things that are a bit odd such as one girl sharing a postcard from an older sister who has moved away from their hometown and all the girls studying the anodyne message as if it was the talmud.

When they all finally arrive at their destination, it is not a high school gymnasium decorated for the prom, but instead a delicatessen in a strip mall called Monty’s. The teens have a meal, and gradually begin to socialize before a strange pair-bonding ritual takes place. Then things get really weird.

The second half of the film focuses on the older residents of the town, particularly some young adults who would’ve recently finished college. They gather in groups with many at a cook-out where absolutely no one is having fun. Meanwhile, a teen named Haley (Haley Bodell) – who freaked out and left Monty’s early – tries to figure out what happened to all of her friends. No answers are given.

The movie works as a metaphor for the idea of how some people “get out” of small towns while others are left down. It also works in illustrating how adulthood is a let down compared with the hopes and anticipation of teenagers. The movie is beautifully filmed with an excellent soundtrack and naturalistic performances by largely unprofessional actors. It’s very unsettling and not satisfying as a story, but it does have a feeling to it that touches something true.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Enola Holmes (2020)


Title: Enola Holmes
Release Date: September 23, 2020
Director: Harry Bradbeer
Production Company: Legendary Pictures | PCMA Productions
Summary/Review:

The latest addition to Holmesiana is this movie about Sherlock Holmes’ (Henry Cavill) much younger sister and their mysterious mother (Helena Bonham Carter) who goes missing. It is adapted from the novel The Case of the Missing Marquess by Nancy Springer. Millie Bobbie Brown stars as Enola Holmes bringing the perfect balance of intelligence and with the naivete and vulnerability of youth. Brown frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the camera directly and also improvised a lot of dialogue, both very risky techniques, but they pay off perfectly in this film. The plot deviates considerably from Springer’s novel although it may incorporate plot details from later books in the series that I haven’t read yet. One main criticism of the film is that it goes on a bit long with several seemingly extraneous scenes after the natural denouement. But overall it’s a fun and clever film that can be enjoyed by the whole family.


Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Lady Bird (2017)


Title: Lady Bird
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Director: Greta Gerwig
Production Company: IAC Films | Scott Rudin Productions | Management 360
Summary/Review:

This coming-of-age story focuses on a year-in-the-life of a high school senior, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who chooses to call herself Lady Bird. Like many teenagers, she wants to get out of her hometown of Sacramento, and go to college on the East Coast which she thinks is more cultured. (NOTE: I’ve never been to Sacramento but this movie makes it look like a beautiful place). The main conflict in this film is the tension between Lady Bird and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who tends toward passive-aggressive criticism and worries about the family’s financial struggles.

This conflict though is subtle as plays on through various slice-of-life vignettes in Lady Bird’s life. Over the course of the year she dates two different boys, performs in a musical, turns on her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, playing a character completely opposite of who she plays in Booksmart) in order to hang out with a more popular girl, and conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to a college in New York City.  Ronan’s acting and Gerwig’s directing do a great job of showing Lady Bird growing and maturing, but in a more nuanced way than the typical Hollywood moment of epiphany.

The movie reminds me a bit of Donnie Darko (without the supernatural elements) with parts of Pretty in Pink, and a strong similarity in the protagonist’s character growth with Frances Ha, a movie Gerwig wrote and starred in. Nevertheless, it is an original and honest portrayal of teenage experience.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Booksmart (2019)


Title: Booksmart
Release Date: May 24, 2019
Director: Olivia Wilde
Production Company: Annapurna Pictures | Gloria Sanchez Productions | ShadowMachine
Summary/Review:

Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are lifelong friends who achieved great academic success in high school and are prepared to move onto elite colleges.  When Molly learns that the kids who partied throughout high school are also moving on to top notch schools and job prospects, her world view is shattered and she convinces Amy that they must enjoy one night of partying before graduation.

The movie depicts their adventures as the two friends end up at two other parties and experience many shenanigans along the way. The supporting characters are extremely eccentric and not at all believable as ordinary teens but they are hilarious, especially Billie Lourd as Gigi.  Dever and Feldstien do a great job portraying the tension in their relationship (Amy is too reluctant to try new things, Molly is too controlling) and how their night out proves cathartic.

The movie has a lot of elements of other teen comedies – it particularly reminds me of Can’t Hardly Wait since it deals with kids trying to find closure before graduation.  But it also feels fresh and original.  Mostly, it’s just really, really funny.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker


Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Title: The Age of Miracles
Narrator: Emily Janice Card
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2012)
Summary/Review:

This novel offers a speculative account of the crisis that occurs when the rotation of the Earth slows, lengthening the periods of daylight and nighttime.  This incident is referred to by the characters in the book as The Slowing, and it has the effect of causing birds to die off, an increase of solar radiation, a complete inability to grow traditional crops, and even causing some people to contract an illness.

While the premise is fantastical, the way the fictional American society responds to the crisis is realistic.  The US government determines that the country will continue to follow the 24-hour clock regardless of what time the sun is shining or not.  Some people rebel against this, insisting on living on “real time,” even going so far as forming their own separatist communities.

The narrator/protagonist of the novel is a junior high school girl from suburban San Diego named Julia.  From her perspective we see the dissolution of the social order among her family, friends, and school.  Any attempts to deal with the normal struggles of adolescence are overshadowed by the crisis that prevents any sense of predictability in the world. Julia narrates from an uncertain future while the narrative focuses on the first few months of the slowing as Julia faces changing friendships and an emerging relationship with a long-time crush.

This novel is dark and emotional and all too real to be reading at this time.

Recommended books:

  • The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Mystic PiZZa (1988) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time.  I haven’t seen many movies starting with Z much less any that I want to watch again, so instead I’m reviewing a movie with TWO “Zs” in it! This post contains SPOILERS!

TitleMystic Pizza
Release Date: October 21, 1988
Director: Donald Petrie
Production Company: Night Life Inc. | The Samuel Goldwyn Company |
Virgin Vision
Synopsis:

This movie is a coming-of-age, romantic comedy about three young women living in the village of Mystic, Connecticut: the sisters Kat (Annabeth Gish) and Daisy (Julia Roberts) and their friend Jojo (Lili Taylor).  They all work as waitresses at the titular pizza restaurant, and the movie covers the period of a few months where they each have a challenging relationship with a man.

Kat is intelligent and hardworking and planning to start studying astronomy at Yale in the spring semester.  Daisy considers her a goody two shoes. To make more money Kat is hired to work as a babysitter for Tim (William R. Moses), a young father who wants someone to look after his daughter while his wife is in on an extended business trip in England.  Kat and Tim bond intellectually and physically leading to an extramarital affair that ends in heartbreak for Kat.

Daisy feels that her mother looks down on her for not being bright and ambitious like Kat, as well as being judged in general for being promiscuous.  She meets a handsome preppy Charles (Adam Storke) at a bar.  He proves to be less snobbish and more accepting than his friends and family.  But he also has an ongoing quarrel with his father and puts Daisy in an embarrassing situation when he uses her to show up his family’s elitism.

The movie begins with Jojo getting cold feet at her wedding to the fisherman Bill (Vincent D’Onofrio).  She’s torn by her love for Bill and her sense that she’s too young to commit to marriage, children, and the domestic life.  She’s also frustrated that Bill, a devout Catholic, will not have sex before marriage.  Their relationship has its ups and downs before they reconcile and marry for real at the end of the movie.

An ongoing subplot involves the Mystic Pizza restaurant where the owner Leona (Conchata Ferrell) treats Kat, Daisy, and Jojo like her own daughters.  The restaurant is known for its excellent pizza that features Leona’s secret recipe in the sauce. A famous and stodgy tv critic visits the restaurant and although there are several mishaps serving him, when his review is televised he declares the pizza to be “superb” leading to an uptick in business.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

First and foremost, this movie is set in Connecticut, which when you’re a kid growing up in Connecticut on a steady diet of movies set in California and New York, is a big f’in deal!  Mystic is home to two of the state’s biggest tourist attractions, Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium, so every Connecticut schoolchild went to at least one of those places on a field trip. I also visited several times with my family.  People from the 47 states with more territory than Connecticut will laugh, but as a kid, the journey from our home in the western end of the state to Mystic felt soooooooooooooooo long.

Anyhow, I watched this with my family on cable or VHS sometime in the year or so after it was released.  I remember enjoying the movie greatly and forming a deep celebrity crush on Annabeth Gish even though all the other boys went for Julia Roberts.  In the 1990s, on a visit to Mystic, I dined at the original Mystic Pizza restaurant.  The pizza is – in fact – really good.

What Did I Remember?:

I specifically remember Julia Roberts dumping fish into the preppy’s sports car and Lili Taylor yelling at her boyfriend from the drawbridge.  Otherwise, I just remembered general impressions and plot details.

What Did I Forget?:

I forgot a lot.  Like I didn’t remember that the movie begins and ends with weddings.  I didn’t even remember that Kat and Daisy are sisters.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie does a great job on focusing on relationships – not just man-woman relationships, but also among family and friends.  It also captures the class dynamic in Connecticut of working class, Catholic enclaves (Portuguese-Americans in the movie, but Italian-American where I grew up) competing with the wealthier elites. The men in this movie are all horrible in their own way, but also have good qualities, so it is believable that 2 of the 3 relationships are reconciled by the film’s end.

The movie also has some great set pieces, like when Jojo, Daisy, and Kat steal Bill’s truck and sing along with Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” (another great scene I was surprised I forgot about). The acting is really good in the movie and a lot of the cast went on to stardom.  Roberts, of course, became one of the biggest Hollywood leading ladies within a few years of this movie.  Meanwhile, Taylor became the indie movie queen in the 1990s. Gish’s career isn’t as illustrious but she did star in The X-Files for a few seasons. Even Matt Damon makes his film debut as Charles’ younger brother.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Younger viewers may laugh at the 80s hairstyles and fashions, but they still look pretty good to me.

Is It a Classic?:

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say yes.  It holds a special place in my heart at least.

Rating: ****