Movie Review: Orlando (1993)


TitleOrlando
Release Date: 12 March 1993
Director: Sally Potter
Production Company: Sony Pictures Classics
Summary/Review:

Adapted from a novel by Virginia Woolf, Orlando is a fantastical period drama directed by Sally Potter starring Tilda Swinton as a British noble named Orlando.  There are a couple of things you need to know about title character: 1. Orlando is seemingly immortal, living from at least the late 16th-century to the present day, and 2. About 2/3’s through this movie, Orlando goes through a magical physical transformation from a man’s body to a woman’s body.  The film explores ideas of feminism, sexuality, gender, and British history and does so with cinematic flair and fantastic costuming.  Singer Jimmy Somerville sings on the soundtrack and appears in the film, his countertenor voice appropriate to Orlando’s androgyny.

When I saw this movie back in the mid-90s, it was the first time I’d seen Tilda Swinton and I can’t imagine any actor being more perfect for this role. I love the way she looks to the camera and breaks the fourth wall.  I read the book around the same time I first saw the movie, but I can’t remember which came first.  I knew next to nothing about transgenderism at the time, but this story is obviously also a metaphor for the transgender experience.  “Same person. No difference at all… just a different sex.”

I’m glad I revisited this movie as it feels to have gained new layers of meaning in the 2020s, much as Sally Potter added layers of meaning appropriate to the 1990s to Virginia Woolf’s observations on the 1920s.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: A Hard Day’s Night (1964)


Title: A Hard Day’s Night 
Release Date: 6 July 1964
Director:  Richard Lester
Production Company: Walter Shenson Films | Proscenium Films
Summary/Review:

Growing up in the 1980s meant constantly being aware that it was the 20th anniversary of something that happened in the in 1960s.  The Beatles were a frequent topic of these retrospectives and I remember watching A Hard Day’s Night during a Beatles nostalgia event on tv.  I remember it being pretty good (and that their other film, Help!, was not).

Revisiting A Hard Day’s Night, I find it even better than I remember.  In a couple of years John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr had gone from gigging in Hamburg to becoming stars in their hometown of Liverpool to being UK hitmakers to being a global phenomenon.  And now they’re appearing in a movie, filmed in a vérité style with quippy dialogue that makes it feel improvised.

The movie purports to be a day in the life as the lads travel to London to rehearse and perform on a TV program. And as miserable as it may be to feel trapped in trains, hotel rooms, and studios, unable to escape the screaming fans, the lads seem to be having fun. Irish actor Wilfrid Brambell is cast as Paul’s fiction grandfather, “a clean old man” who acts as an added chaos agent.  Hijinks ensue.  And also, one of the great bands of all time perform some classic tunes.

Some things stand out on this watch as being relevant to today.

This quote from John Lennon:

“The older generation are leading this country to galloping ruin!”

The scene where George essentially calls out influencers.

The scene when Grandfather comes very close to saying ACAB.  “Ah, sure, that’s what they want you to think. All coppers are villains.”

Of course, my favorite scene will always be John playing with toy boats in the bathtub.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Uprising (2021) #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 U that I have previously reviewed include:

TitleUprising
Release Date: July 20, 2021
Director: Steve McQueen and James Rogan
Production Company: Rogan Productions |  BBC | Lammas Park | Turbine Studios
Summary/Review:

This three part documentary series details the emergence of a new civil rights movement among Black British people in the early 1980s.  At the time, the fascist National Front was gaining support with their anti-Black and anti-immigrant views that were echoed in the opinions of the new prime minister Margaret Thatcher.  The subjects of this documentary are primarily British-born children of West Indian immigrants who grew up in this atmosphere in the 70s and 80s.

The first part focuses on an event that catalyzed the movement, a fire at a house party in South East London in January 1981 that killed 13 children and young adults.  Witnesses believe they saw someone throw a firebomb into the house (a tactic that had been used by racists elsewhere in London) but the police investigation focused on blaming the victims.  Public officials and the news media responded with indifference and derision.

The centerpiece of the second part is the Black People’s Day of Action in March 1981 when 20,000 people marched through London.  Black people from across England came to participate in the largest protest for racial justice in the nation’s history.  With growing awareness of Black power and racial tension, the spring and summer of 1981 was marred by riots throughout England.  The third part of the series focuses particularly on the riot in Brixton.

Along with a lot of phenomenal archival footage (and scored to some terrific reggae music from the period) this movie includes interviews with several survivors of the the New Cross fire and participants in the Brixton riots.  There are also interviews with many white government officials and police officers, some of whom seem to have become more culturally sensitive as a result of their experience, and some who hang themselves with their own words.

I was not familiar with these events but they seemed sadly similar to racial history in the United States.  I also noted some parallels with how British officials mismanaged The Troubles in Ireland and the Hillsborough disaster.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Lady Macbeth (2016)


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

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

Movie Review: Brief Encounter (1945)


Title: Brief Encounter
Release Date: 3 November 1945
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Eagle-Lion Distributors
Summary/Review:

Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson), a married woman in her 30s, journeys by train to a nearby town every Thursday to do shopping and see a film at the cinema. On one occasion she is assisted by a charming doctor, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard), in the refreshment room at the train station.  They meet again and form a bond, meeting week after week over lunch, films, or a drive through the countryside.  They never “consummate” their relationship but nevertheless the strong feelings toward one another cause great guilt and they decide to end their encounters.  Their final meeting is used as a framing device to start and the film, so this is not a big spoiler.

The movie is very restrained in a characteristically British way.  The acting is top notch and I really feel the conflicting emotions simmering beneath the surface of Laura and Alec. I also like that with many scenes set in the train station’s refreshment room that there is another entire story going on with the staff at the bar. It all makes for a well-structured and moving work of cinema.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Aardman Animation Short Film Festival


I felt like revisiting some of my favorite animated comfort food by watching a bunch of from Britain’s Aardman Animations studio. This will just be the shorts, not feature films like Chicken Run and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.

TitleCreature Comforts
Release Date: 15 July 1989
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: Aardman Animations.
Summary/Review:

“In Brazil you have the space.”

In my college years (1991-1995), I went to a lot of animation festivals at the local arthouse cinema.  I remember Creature Comforts being a big hit at one of the first festivals I attended. It’s a simple concept, in which various animals discuss their lives in a zoo.  It’s even better when you learn that the voices are from unscripted interviews with various everyday people.  They weren’t necessarily talking about zoo animals, yet it all fits.  I only just learned that Creature Comforts was spun off into a tv series in the UK in the 2000s.

Rating: ****


Title: A Grand Day Out
Release Date: 4 November 1989
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: National Film and Television School | Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“Gromit, that’s it! Cheese! We’ll go somewhere where there’s cheese!”

This is the first Wallace & Gromit short, and the most absurdist of them all, and I probably saw it in the same animation festival as Creature Comforts.  Wallace wants somewhere to travel and they’re out of cheese. So he decides to go to the one place that combines both – the Moon.  They build a rocket and fly to the moon where they meet a coin-operated oven on wheels that issues parking tickets.  And you’ve never seen a coin-operated oven on wheels look so indignant!  This film is especially fun for all the little details you can pick out on repeated viewings.
Rating: ****


TitleThe Wrong Trousers
Release Date: 17 December 1993
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“It’s the wrong trousers Gromit! And they’ve gone wrong!”

Wallace & Gromit come into their own in this short which establishes their home setting as a kind of theme park nostalgic vision of a post-war village in the North of England.  In this case they deal with techno-trousers, a shortage of money, a paying houseguest, and a jewel heist!  You’ll never hear “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” the same way again.  The chase scene on the model railroad is one of the greatest things ever animated.

Rating: *****


TitleA Close Shave
Release Date: 24 December 1995
Director: Nick Park
Production Company:Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“Aye, I’d better see to him. The bounce has gone from his bungee.”

Wallace & Gromit was such a big hit at animation festivals that by the time A Close Shave was released, we were pretty much going to see Wallace & Gromit.  Like, I think they may have put a couple of other animated shorts before it, but it was promoted as your chance to see the new Wallace & Gromit.  In this short, Wallace & Gromit deal with a wool shortage, sheep rustlers, and a new member of the household: Shaun the Sheep (who would spin off into his own media empire).  This is the first short where Wallace & Gromit have a business – in this case window washers.  It’s also the first time there’s a character other than Wallace who speaks, who becomes the first of Wallace’s love interests, Wendoline.  I go back and forth over whether I like The Wrong Trousers or A Close Shave better, but together they are peak Wallace & Gromit.

Rating: *****


Title:  A Matter of Loaf and Death
Release Date: 3 December 2008
Director: Nick Park
Production Company: Aardman Animations
Summary/Review:

“Farewell, my angel cake. You’ll always be my Bake-O-Lite Girl.”

I didn’t know that this short existed until I saw it in the package with the other Wallace & Gromit shorts I was streaming.  It follows the same formula as A Close Shave and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit where Wallace is enchanted by a love interest and the duo run a business with a lot of Rube Goldberg devices.  In this case they are bakers and the love interest, Piella Bakewell, a former beauty queen for a bread company.  There’s also the mystery of 12 local bakers gone missing.  Will Wallace make a baker’s dozen?  It feels like the formula has gone a bit off in this short, and it feels a bit grim for a cozy comedy to have a story involving a serial killer.  And the villain’s motivation is basically a fat joke. Also, we get to see Wallace’s bare buttocks, which was not necessary.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Hope and Glory (1987)


Title: Hope and Glory
Release Date:  16 October 1987
Director: John Boorman
Production Company: Goldcrest Films | Nelson Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Set in London from around 1939 to 1942, Hope and Glory provides a child’s-eye view of World War II and the Blitz. In the horrors of war, Billy Rowan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) can find joy in escaping school because of an air raid, bombed-out houses become a playground, and there’s beauty in a runaway barrage balloon.  Billy’s middle-aged father Clive (David Hayman) enlists despite his advanced age and his mother Grace (Sarah Miles) has to hold things together on the home front.  She’s unable to part with Billy and his little sister Sue (Geraldine Muir) in the Evacuation so they stay in the London for the nightly “fireworks” and gathering bits of shrapnel.  Meanwhile, Billy’s teenage sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) enjoys dancing with Canadian soldiers and ends up with an unplanned pregnancy.

In the the third act of the film, the family’s house is destroyed not by a bomb but by an ordinary house fire.  They end up living in a rustic Thameside cottage with Billy’s grandparents. Thus Billy learns about rowing, fishing, and cricket from his eccentric grandfather (Ian Bannen).  The whole movie has the sheen of nostalgia, probably based on writer/director John Boorman’s own childhood experiences, which helps excuse details like the fact that the children don’t seem to age over three years or Ian Bannen’s over-the-top acting.

The story of this movie is rooted in the stories the English like to tell themselves about the home front during World War II, stiff upper lip and all that.  Yet, subtly, Boorman also satirizes all that.  We see characters being cruel, foolish, and outright stupid.  And yet, Billy’s family survives the war and even seem to be in a better place by the end of the movie, more from dumb luck than anything else. I remember really enjoying this movie in my teen years for its wry humor and its view of children running wild and thriving during the darkest times.  Revisiting Hope & Glory all these years later I still think it’s an enjoyable and underrated film.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Moonfleet (1955)


Title: Moonfleet
Release Date: June 24, 1955
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: MGM
Summary/Review:

I decided to watch the movies listed by the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma as the greatest of all time to supplement the AFI and Sight & Sound lists with movies that aren’t in English.  So I’m continually surprised at the appearance of Hollywood movies in the French list that seem to have been forgotten in the United States.  Moonfleet (like Letter From an Unknown Woman, which I also watched recently) does have notable European director. In this case it’s a late-career work of Fritz Lang, famed for making Metropolis and M.

Moonfleet is a full-on gothic adventure tale set on the coast of England in the 1750s and is reminiscent of Jamaica Inn and Treasure Island.  The Fritz Lang touches include dramatic use of light and shadow, impressive set design, and underlying mood of menace.  The titular village of Moonfleet is home to gangs of smugglers under the direction of a “gentleman,” Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger).  9-year-old orphan John Mohune (Jon Whiteley) arrives in Moonfleet on the instruction of his recently deceased mother who was an old lover of Fox.

Fox is not too keen on having a child in his manor, but John shows surprising devotion to him as a “friend.”  Eventually they get caught up in seeking the  lost treasure of John’s ancestor “Redbeard.”  Plots are made, some buckle is swashed, betrayals are made, and characters grow.  It is a fun adventure with a lot of “mood.”  But I don’t think our French friends have discovered a lost Hollywood masterpiece.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Sorry We Missed You (2019)


Title: Sorry We Missed You
Release Date: 23 October 2019
Director: Ken Loach
Production Company: Sixteen Films | BBC Films | BE TV | BFI Film Fund | Canal+ | Ciné+ | France 2 Cinéma | France Télévisions | Les Films du Fleuve | VOO | Why Not Productions | Wild Bunch
Summary/Review:

Sorry We Missed You documents one working class family’s struggles with the modern economy in Newcastle, England. Ricky takes an opportunity to become a self-employed delivery driver although in reality he’s under the strict supervision of Maloney (Ross Brewster) and suffers steep penalties for not hitting benchmarks. He has to sell the family car in order to buy a delivery van, forcing his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) to take the bus for her work as a home care nurse. Abby is a deeply compassionate person wanting to spend time with her elderly patients but having too tight a schedule for anything but the bear necessities. The family’s children react to their parents long absences and stressful jobs in different ways. Teenage Seb (Rhys Stone) retreats from the family, skips school, and posts graffiti with his friends. Preteen Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) suffers anxiety and takes on more responsibility than she should at her age.

Things spiral out of control for the family as setbacks affect their work performance. Their story is a grim reality for many under the uncaring guise of capitalism. This movie pairs well with Nomadland, although unlike that film, Sorry We Missed You does not offer any idea of freedom or escape in any of this, which is probably more honest.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Ammonite (2020)


TitleAmmonite
Release Date: September 11, 2020
Director: Francis Lee
Production Company: BBC Films | British Film Institute | See-Saw Films
Summary/Review:

This film is based on the real life of Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) who was an underappreciated pioneer of paleontology who found and studied fossils along the coast of the English Channel at Lyme Regis. The film begins with Anning reluctantly guiding a geology enthusiast, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) on one of her collecting trips on the shore.  Accompanying Murchison is his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) who is suffering severe depression.  Roderick arranges for Charlotte to remain in Lyme Regis for convalescence and pays Mary Anning to take Charlotte on her trips to the shore.

The better part of the movie is Mary and Charlotte slowly lowering their defenses, becoming friends, and then beginning a romance.  I thought with the stellar lead actors and the true life story of Anning’s contributions to science that this would be an interesting film. Winslet and Ronan do their best, but the whole movie has a paint-by-numbers approach full of well-worn tropes of period dramas and lesbian romance.  We certainly don’t learn much about the real Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison, which is a shame, because even their short Wikipedia entries detail fascinating lives.

I’m not sure if this is a noble failure or if Francis Lee just totally missed the point, but what we end up here is a pretty, but hollow, film.

Rating: **1/2