Movie Review: Mean Girls (2004)

Title: Mean Girls
Release Date: April 30, 2004
Director: Mark Waters
Production Company: Broadway Video

Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by Regina George?

Every high school has a clique of popular, conventionally-attractive, and typically wealthy girls who use their advantages to bully and manipulate the other girls at the school.  This teen comedy, oddly, adapts a sociological non-fiction work called Queen Bees and Wannabes and carries that more serious message under the more comical narrative.  While it feels like every beat in Mean Girls has been memefied over the years, the film still holds up well after almost two decades.

Naive 16-year-old Cady Heron (Lindsay Lohan) enters school for the first time after growing up homeschooled by her zoologist parents researching on location in Africa. Cady is unexpectedly given the opportunity to join the ruling clique, The Plastics, made up of queen bee Regina George (Rachel McAdams),  gossipy Gretchen Wieners (Lacey Chabert), and ditsy Karen Smith (Amanda Seyfried). Cady’s new friends Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damian (Daniel Franzese) convince her to infiltrate The Plastics in hopes of finding ways to embarrass them.  Hijinks ensue as Cady finds herself alternately repulsed and fascinated by Regina.

The movie was a vehicle for Lohan, whose troubled personal life has overshadowed her film career, but McAdams and Seyfried have gone on to very successful careers.  The talented younger cast is supported by a lot of Saturday Night Live veterans as the adults, especially Tina Fey who wrote the screenplay as well as co-starring as the math teacher, Ms. Norbury.  That script, of course, is full of quotable dialogue and remains hilarious on repeat viewings.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Author: Sally Rooney
Title: Normal People
Narrator: Aoife McMahon
Publication Info: [S.l.] : Crown/Archetype, 2019.

This novel tells the story of two young Irish people who attend the same secondary school in County Sligo, Ireland.  Connell is a popular, working class student while Marianne comes from a wealthy family but her eccentric demeanor makes her unpopular at school.  They get to know one another because Connell’s mother works as a housecleaner at Marianne’s home.  They start a relationship that they keep secret from their classmates.

Both Connell and Marianne end up studying at Trinity College Dublin where Marianne blossoms and becomes popular while the shyer Connell feels like an outsider. Their paths cross frequently over the years, sometimes rekindling their romance, sometimes fighting.  The story is unsettling because it deals with abuse and the dark side of otherwise likable characters.  The title Normal People is ironic since both of them do not feel normal due to their intelligence and disinterest in what the people their age are typical interested in.  Overall it’s a realistic and compelling narrative.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

TV Review: Ms. Marvel (2022)

Title: Ms. Marvel
Release Date:  June 8 – July 13, 2022
Creator/Head Writer/Showrunner:  Bisha K. Ali
Episodes: 6
Production Company:  Marvel Studios
Summary/ReviewMs. Marvel, one of my favorite comic series, comes to life in this limited series from Disney+.  Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) is an ordinary teenager in New Jersey, obsessed with the Avengers (especially Captain Marvel), the child of Pakistani immigrants, and a faithful Muslim.  A magical bangle reveals that she has powers and she begins to learn how she can be a superhero while uncovering her family history back to the Partition of India and Pakistan.

Vellani is perfect as Kamala capturing the conflict and joy of teenage life.  The rest of the cast, including Zenobia Shroff and Mohan Kapur as Kamala’s parents, Matt Lintz as Kamala’s best friend Bruno, and Yasmeen Fletcher as Kamala’s good friend Nakia are also perfectly cast.  The style of the show is great with colorful, comic book animations in the credits and backgrounds of the show, and magnificent soundtrack of American pop songs mixed with Pakistani music.  Some people have criticized that Kamala’s powers are different from the comics but I like the change because 1) I don’t want to see the exact same story recreated, 2) I love how it ties in her powers to her family and cultural history, and 3) Marvels shows The Inhumans bombed so I can understand why they’d want to avoid that.

This was a delightful series and I look forward to Kamala Khan’s return in The Marvels next year.



Movie Review: Aparajito (1956)

Title: Aparajito
Release Date: 11 October 1956
Director: Satyajit Ray
Production Company: Epic Films

Picking up where Pather Panchali left off, Aparajito is the second installment of Ray’s Apu Trilogy.  Set in the 1920s, the Roy family now lives in the holy city of Benares (modern day Varanasi) and continue to struggle with poverty.  The central character Apurba “Apu” Roy ages from a child (Pinaki Sengupta) to teenager (Smaran Ghosal) over the course of the film.  The central story is that Apu’s success in school earns him a scholarship that takes him away from his mother Sarbajaya ( Karuna Banerjee) and the strain that puts on their relationship. This could be melodramatic but the neorealistic style of the film steeps it in everyday lived experience.  The sharp B&W cinematography captures everything in gorgeous detail.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Anne of Green Gables (1985)

Title: Anne of Green Gables
Release Date: December 1, 1985
Director: Kevin Sullivan
Production Company: Anne of Green Gables Productions | Sullivan Entertainment | TV-60 Filmproduktion | WonderWorks

I suppose in the end it was a rather romantic way to perish, for a mouse.

Revisiting another movie I loved in my early teen years.  Anne of Green Gables premiered on Canadian television as a miniseries in 1985 but I don’t think we saw it in the US until 1987.

Adapted from the famous novel by Lucy Maud Montgomery, the film tells the story of the aging siblings Marilla (Colleen Dewhurst) and Matthew Cuthbert (Richard Farnsworth) deciding to adopt an orphan to help on their farm in a rural community on Prince Edward Island.  They’re surprised when instead of boy they receive Anne Shirley (Megan Follows), an imaginative and stubborn 11-year-old given to daydreaming and romanticizing the world around her. The shy Matthew is immediately won over by Anne, while Marilla puts on a show of being a strict guardian but soon also succumbs to Anne’s charms.

Despite being made-for-TV, this is a high-quality production with gorgeous location shots and fantastic period costumes.  But the characters are the best and everyone seems perfectly cast. In addition to the three main leads, Schuyler Grant stars as Anne’s bosom friend Diana, Charmion King plays Diana’s wealthy Aunt Josephine who is amused by Anne, and Jonathan Crombie is Gilbert Blythe, Anne’s rival at school.

It’s fashionable to dismiss things for being overly sentimental, but there’s something about the warmth and sweetness of this story that I really love.  I think we need more kindness and imagination in our world, not less.  Which is why I aspire to be Matthew Cuthbert as I grow older.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: On Happiness Road (2017)

Title: On Happiness Road
Release Date: October 15, 2017
Director: Sung Hsin-yin
Production Company: Happiness Road Productions

Chi (Gwei Lun-mei) returns home to Taiwan from America for the funeral of her grandmother (Giwas Gigo).  While there she imagines conversations with her grandmother and reflects upon her childhood (voiced by Bella Wu in flashbacks).  The non-linear structure is also punctuated by Chi’s youthful daydreams which are beautifully animated.  In addition to being a story about life and family, Chi’s story parallels the growth and changes of Taiwan (significantly Chi is born on the same day that Chiang Kai-shek died).  This is a thoughtful and beautifully made film about self-identity and nostalgia that I found very relatable even though I live half-the-world away.

Rating: ****

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

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: Turning Red (2022)

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

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: 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

Book Review: The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein

Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: The Pearl Thief
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Los Angeles : Hyperion, 2017.

Part of the cycle of loosely-tied together novels about women during World War II, The Pearl Thief acts as a prequel to Code Name Verity.  The novel’s protagonist is Julie Beaufort-Stuart, the Scottish aristocrat who is one of the two main characters of the earlier novel, and is set one year prior to the war when she is just 15.  She returns home her family estate from boarding school to find herself embroiled in a mystery regarding the disappearance of a scholar working with artifacts recovered from their property.

Julie is a great character, impulsive and bold that make her stand out among the staid expectations of her time and class.  Much of the novel explores her new friendship with the siblings Ellen and Euan McEwen, who are members of Highland Travellers’ community that camp nearby.  The trio get into many adventures, and they encounter much prejudice against the Travelers (which Julie attempts to shield with her privilege). The book also explores Julie’s romantic attraction to Ellen and to an older man named Richard revealing her burgeoning sexuality (and hooray for bisexual representation!).

This is the first book by Elizabeth Wein that I don’t love, but it is a great character study even if I found the narrative to be a bit slight.

Rating: ***