Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: The House (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.

TitleThe House
Release Date: January 14, 2022
Directors:

I – And heard within, a lie is spun: Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels
II – Then lost is truth that can’t be won: Niki Lindroth von Bahr
III – Listen again and seek the sun: Paloma Baeza

Production Company: Nexus Studios | Netflix Animation
Summary/Review:

The House is an anthology film with three stories all set in a mysterious large house.  It is animated in stop-motion animation with characters made of fabric not unlike the style of The Fantastic Mr. Fox.

In the first segment, a poor family in rural England are allowed to move into the newly-built house but the mad architect continues to have the house built around them turning it into the maze.  9-year-old Mabel (Mia Goth) investigates what’s going on with the baby Isobel while her parents seem oblivious to the strange things happening.  This segment has the strongest elements of horror of the three.

In the second segment, an anthropomorphic rat contractor (Jarvis Cocker, of the band Pulp) is rehabbing the house and hosting a reception to entice potential buyers.  He has to deal with an infestation of beetles and then a strange couple at the viewing essentially move in without actually buying the house.  Despite the very creepy bugs, this segment is also the most comical.

In the final segment, the house survives in a world where everything around it has been submerged by a catastrophic flood. Rosa (Susan Wokoma), an anthropomorphic cat, is attempting to renovate the house while renting out the rooms.  She has only two tenants, Jen (Helena Bonham Carter) and Elias (Will Sharpe), neither of whom pay rent in cash. Things come to a head as the flood waters rise.  Despite the apocalyptic setting, this segment feels hopeful.

The animation in this film is beautifully done with great voice acting and music as well.  The combination of surrealism, fantasy, horror, and humor works well.  I think each segment is better than the previous, but maybe it’s just because I like cats.

Rating: ***1/2

Midsummer Recent Movie Festival: Badhaai Do (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: Badhaai Do
Release Date: February 11, 2002
Director: Harshavardhan Kulkarni
Production Company: Junglee Pictures
Summary/Review:

Shardul (Rajkummar Rao), a gay policeman, and Sumi (Bhumi Pednekar), a lesbian PE teacher, decide the only way to get their families to stop pestering them is to enter into a marriage and live together as roommates.  While Sumi has her girlfriend Rimjhim (Chum Darang) move in and Shardul pursues a relationship with Guru (Gulshan Devaiah), their families continue to meddle and begin pestering about babies.  Sumi and Shardul begin to consider adoption.  A whole bunch of hijinks ensue.

I didn’t thinks this movie was bad but I also didn’t think the jokes were particularly funny. That’s likely a cultural divide, though.  I appreciate that the gay and lesbian characters were never made the butt of the jokes for being homosexual.  The movie also has a good message of how taboos against homesexuality in India cause loneliness and real harm.  It also shines a spotlight on the injustice of laws forbidding same sex marriage and LGBTQ people adopting children in India.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Field of Dreams (1989)


Title: Field of Dreams
Release Date: May 5, 1989
Director: Phil Alden Robinson
Production Company: Gordon Company
Summary/Review:

One of my favorite authors when I was a teenager was W.P. Kinsella. I was excited when I learned that his novel Shoeless Joe was getting adapted into a movie.  But when I finally saw the movie, I was disappointed.  There were a lot of changes from the book to movie, and on screen the story just seemed to ooze with cheesiness.  Over the years, Field of Dreams has become regarded as a classic baseball movie to the extent that Major League Baseball has started hosting an annual regular season baseball game in an Iowa corn field. I figured Father’s Day was a good opportunity to revisit Field of Dreams and watch it with my kids for the first time.

The basic story is that aging hippie and baseball fan Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) having married Iowa native Annie (Amy Madigan), has acquired a farm that they live on with their young daughter Karin (Gaby Hoffmann). Hearing voices in the corn field, Ray comes to a realization that he must build a baseball field on his farm. As a result, the deceased but not ghostly former baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta) appears, and is soon followed by other former baseball stars.  Other messages prompt Ray to go to Boston to take the reclusive counterculture author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) to a Red Sox game, and then to a small town in Minnesota to find “Moonlight” Graham (Burt Lancaster), a baseball player who played only one half-inning in the 1920s.  As all this happens, the Kinsella’s farm is failing and faces foreclosure at the hands of Annie’s brother Mark (Timothy Busfield).

The movie still oozes cheese.  There are changes from the book (including removing two significant characters) that effectively change the story.  There’s also a move away from the book’s magical realism to more of a Reagan-era nostalgia for baseball as something emblematic of America.  My wife noted that James Earl Jones’ famous speech about baseball has elements that feel eerily close to MAGA ideology.  While baseball is upheld as being something that was from a time when America was “good,” all of the former ballplayers who emerge from the corn come from a time when baseball was segregated.  That being said there’s a scene in the movie I’d totally forgotten where Annie takes on a group of conservatives who are trying ban books at the public schools which felt unfortunately relevant to our times.  Even then though, the feel of the movie is still steeped in a toothless nostalgia, this time for for 1960s.

With all that being said, the biggest change from the book to the movie is also the best, and I think improves upon the book.  In Shoeless Joe, Ray takes the real life author J.D. Salinger to Fenway Park.  The filmmakers knew that they couldn’t depict the notoriously reclusive Salinger on screen and instead created the fictional 60s icon Terrence Mann, who is more than just a substitute for Salinger but a character with a well-developed history of his own.  It’s surprising that in 1989, Hollywood cast a Black actor in the role originally written as white character, doubly so since in 2022 there are people who still lose their minds when a Black actor is cast as a character originally written as white.  Jones is great for the part and his performance brings a lot of energy and authority to the movie right at a time when it needs a jolt.

I probably sound like I’m hating on the movie, it is a thoroughly enjoyable movie, but I’m just a harsh judge since I love the book so much.  It is a bit slow-going, but then again so is baseball.  I love baseball, and I’m not immune to the magic of ballplayers emerging from a corn field or an impassioned speech about baseball’s role as America’s pastime.  For all it’s flaws, Field of Dreams is one of the best baseball movies ever made.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Being There (1979)


Title: Being There
Release Date: December 19, 1979
Director: Hal Ashby
Production Company: Lorimar Productions
Summary/Review:

This is a movie that I know I watched sometime back in the 1980s but had next to know recollection about what happens in it.  In fact, I read the Jerzy Kosiński book it is based on in the 1990s and don’t remember that either!  So it was essentially like coming to this movie anew.

Peter Sellers stars (in his last film released before his death) as a simple-minded gardener named Chance.  I think if this movie was made at a later date they would probably identify him as being on the autism spectrum. His background is a bit of a mystery as he has lived his entire life on the grounds of a Washington, D.C. mansion and no one seems to know he exists beyond his benefactor and the maid, Louise (Ruth Attaway). With such little interaction with other people Chance spends his free time obsessively watching television.  As an aside, this movie makes great use of clips from 1970s television shows and advertisements that comment on the action of the film.

When “the old man” dies, Chance is forced out on his own.  Through a series of mishaps he becomes enmeshed in the lives of the wealthy and powerful Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) and his younger wife Eve (Shirley MacLaine).  Chance’s comments on gardening are mistaken as an optimistic philosophy on business and the economy.  Ben, who is terminally ill, finds comfort in Chance’s companionship, while Eve falls in love with Ben.  As a result of his connection with the Rands, Chance is able to meet the President (Jack Warden), appear on a TV talk show, and attend a state dinner with the Soviet ambassador (Richard Basehart).

The movie is a product of the cynical 70s with the power brokers of Washington all projecting their desires onto Chance.  It also pokes fun at how easy it is for a well-dressed white man to “fail up.” But there’s also a sweetness to the movie, especially in the quick but real bond that forms between Chance and Ben.  The movie succeeds on the impressive performance of Sellers who really immersed himself in the role, finding that he identified strongly with Chance. The movie is beautifully shot, with Sellers appearing in the foreground of the Capitol building and in the Rand’s mansion (filmed at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina) being particularly iconic.  This is a movie worth remembering.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)


Title: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Release Date: October 31, 1962
Director: Robert Aldrich
Production Company: Seven Arts Productions
Summary/Review:

Got to see this on the big screen thanks to a 60th anniversary re-release last week.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were known for playing … um … confrontational characters (and were even more confrontational in real life).  So it makes sense to channel their antipathy for one another into this psychological thriller about a lifelong rivalry between two sisters.  In 1917, we see that Baby Jane Hudson (Julie Allred) is a popular child performer on the vaudeville circuit while her sister Blanche (Gina Gillespie) watches from the wings.  By 1935, their roles are reversed as Blanche (Crawford) is now a Hollywood star who insists that the less talented Jane (Davis) get film parts as part of her contract.

But the story really begins in the present day when the aging sisters now share a decaying house on the outskirts of Los Angeles.  Blanche is unable to walk due to a car crash that broke her spine and Jane reluctantly cares for her.  A revival of Blanche’s old movies on tv seems to be the last straw for Jane who essentially imprisons her sister while she goes about trying to revive her childhood singing career.  There’s nothing quite as unsettling as Bette Davis with caked on makeup, greasy hair curls, and a babydoll dress singing songs about “Daddy.” But Blanche has her dark secrets as well.

David Lynch was only a teenager when this movie was released but it is nevertheless a very Lynchian film in nature.  Davis is great in her monstrous performance and Crawford has a more subtle role where she seems to wallow in her suffering.  It’s also brilliantly meta that this movie deals with the theme of women in entertainment being disposable once they reach a certain age and stars two women whose Hollywood careers seemed to be in the past. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? actually revived their careers which seems like a just reward.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)


Title: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Release Date: 25 June 2010
Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Production Company: Kick the Machine

Summary/Review:

This surreal and slow moving film from Thailand focuses on Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), a gentle farmer who is dying of a failing kidney, and feels he’s getting karma for having killed communists when he was in the army.  He’s cared for by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas), his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and a medical assistant Jaai (Samud Kugasang).

One night while they are dining they are visited by the ghost of Boonmee’s wide Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong), who died over a decade earlier.  Then they’re joined by Boonmee’s son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong) who has been missing for years and turned into a anthropomorhic creature covered in fur with glowing eyes called a Monkey Ghost.  Then things get weird.

The story of Boonmee’s final days and funeral is intercut with visions of Boonmee’s past lives.  One of them involves an assignation between a princess (Wallapa Mongkolprasert) and a catfish.  Different parts of the movie are produced in different film styles although a general slowness and long periods without dialogue are common throughout.  Honestly, this movie is hard to summarize because it is more about a mood and a reflection on death, reincarnation, and memory.  You have to see it to believe it.

(By the way, this trailer makes it looks like a horror film, and while maybe some aspects are a bit eerie and unsettling, I don’t think it is scary at all).

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Time After Time (1979)


Title: Time After Time
Release Date: September 28, 1979
Director: Nicholas Meyer
Production Company: Orion Pictures
Summary/Review:

Time After Time is one of those movies I always liked as a child when it was frequently shown on tv. I was wondering how well it would hold up and I’m pleasantly surprised that it does.  The movie tells the story of 19th century author and futurist H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) inventing an actual time machine.  When showing off the machine to a party of fellow intellectuals, it is revealed that one of his guests is actually Jack the Ripper (David Warner).

The Ripper steals the time machine, and Wells follows him into the future arriving in San Francisco in 1970.  To Wells’ horror, the future is not the utopia he dreamed of but a place where the scale of violence is such that Jack claims he’s an “amateur.” While attempting to track down Jack the Ripper and prevent more murders, Wells forms a romantic relationship with bank employee Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen).

The movie does a really great job of blending together several genres – time travel science fiction, fish-out-of-water comedy, romance, and crime thriller.  Like a lot of time travel stories there are plot elements that don’t hold up to much scrutiny, but can be easily hand-waved away. This movie also has a great font of quirky trivia associated with it, such as:

  • Director/screenwriter Nicholas Meyer also wrote the script for another movie where time travelers arrive in present-day San Francisco, have a lot of fish-out-of-water comic experiences, and one of the time travelers forms a romantic relationship with a contemporary woman who ends up joining the time traveler.  That movie, of course, is Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
  • Mary Steenburgen appeared in yet another movie where she falls in love with a time traveler and leaves to go with him, Back to the Future III.
  • Speaking about the Back to the Future franchise, the date on which Marty arrives in the past is November 5, which is that same date that H.G. Wells arrives in San Francisco.
  • Finally, Cyndi Lauper saw the title of this film in TV Guide and used it to write one of her classic ballads.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Cousins (2021)


Title: Cousins
Release Date: 3 March 2021
Director: Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith
Production Company: Miss Conception Films
Summary/Review:

This heart wrenching drama tells the story of three Māori cousins – Missy, Makareta, and Mata (also known by her English name May Parker) – over several decades from their childhood just after World War II to something close to the present day.  Mata is the main focus of the story because after her English father leaves her behind when he returns to Britain, her guardian separates her from her extended Māori family.  The movie is not told chronologically so it takes a bit of effort to piece together the story from scenes of the characters as children, young adults, and as elders.  But the actors playing the three leads at different ages do a wonderful job of capturing their characteristics across different times.  This movie is also quite beautifully filmed.  Definitely have some tissues ready, but this movie is worth the tears.

Here is the cast as best I can figure out, although I can’t find any sources that list the actors who played the roles as children.

Mata – Tanea Heke (Older), Ana Scotney (Younger)
Makareta – Briar Grace Smith (Older), Tioreore Ngatai-Melbourne (Younger)
Missy – Rachel House (Older), Hariata Moriarty (Younger)

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Between the Lines (1977)


Title: Between the Lines
Release Date: April 27, 1977
Director: Joan Micklin Silver
Production Company: Midwest Films
Summary/Review:

This ensemble film broadly tells the story of an alternative newspaper in Boston as the deal with evaporation of the idealism of 60s counterculture and the threat of takeover by a corporate publisher.  More specifically it is a group of character studies and an examination of gender dynamics in relationships.  The film feels a lot like a television “dramedy,” maybe even a pilot to an ongoing series.  This isn’t criticism, but more of an observation that they just don’t make movies like this anymore.  Nowadays this would probably be made as a limited streaming series.

The cast includes John Heard, Lindsay Crouse (who appeared in Slap Shot the same year), Gwen Welles (following up on her work in Nashville), Jeff Goldblum (another Nashville veteran appearing in this Altman-esque film), Stephen Collins (as a controlling character that seems to match his later real life sexual misconduct), Bruno Kirby (following up on The Godfather, Part II, Jill Eikenberry, and Michael J. Pollard (most famous for Bonnie and Clyde). The running plots in this movies, as they are, include:

  • The on-again/off-again relationship of disillusioned writer Harry (Heard) and photographer Abbie (Crouse)
  • Another relationship between writers Laura (Welles) and Michael (Collins) where Michael has used his success in writing a book to run roughshod over Laura’s hopes and dreams
  • Rock critic Max (Goldblum) just trying to get a raise
  • Idealistic young reporter David (Kirby) trying to report on a scandal in local government
  • Also, the filmmakers got Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes to perform in this film and really felt good about that get

Overall, the men in this film are narcissistic and a bit creepy.  The women seem eager to enjoy the sexual revolution but questioning why they have to do it with these men.  Since this is the 1970s the movie features a lot of gratuitous nudity.  But one of the better scenes is when Harry and Abbie go to interview an exotic dancer (Marilu Henner) and Abbie is able to strike up a genuine rapport when Harry just relies on the same stereotypical questions of sex workers.  It’s a nice touch that I think benefits from having a woman director.

This movie is set in Boston but doesn’t have any of the usual Hollywood stereotypes of Boston. The characters generally grumble about their lives and are snarky in their conversations, which is on point for Boston.  And we get to have fun with movies and their convoluted geography.  The newspaper is supposed to be based in Back Bay, but their office (in a converted house) is decidedly not in Back Bay.  I think it’s actually shot in Cambridgeport.  There’s also a scene where Goldblum and Kirby exit the office and suddenly are in Harvard Square.  Over all though, they make good use of the city as a set.  I particularly like the overhead shot of Copley Square before it was renovated and before the construction of Copley Place Mall, as well as a scene on the platform at Charles/MGH when the Red Line trains weren’t Red.

Should you be curious, watching this prompted me to make a list of every Boston film I could find on Letterboxd.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Children of Heaven (1997)


Title: Children of Heaven
Release Date: February 1997
Director: Majid Majidi
Production Company:The Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children & Young Adults
Summary/Review:

Ali (Amir Farrokh Hashemian) and Zahra (Bahare Seddiqi) are a brother and sister in a poor family of Tehran.  Ali picks up Zahra’s shoes from the cobbler but misplaces them on the way home.  Knowing that their father (Reza Naji) won’t have money to buy new shoes, they come up with a plan to share Ali’s canvas sneakers.  Apparently, Zahra only goes to school in the morning and Ali in the afternoon but the time they have to change the shoes cuts things close.

The movie is sweet in following the adventures of ordinary children sharing a pair of shoes, but something heartbreaking happens every few minutes. It’s a good reminder of the little ways that poverty can interfere with a child’s education contrary to the “No Excuses Charter School” ideology that places all the burden on the child to have the “grit” to learn.  But I digress.  This movie reminds me a lot of Bicycle Thieves although not quite to that level of tragedy.  Ali and Zahra are also absolutely adorable.

Rating:  ****