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

Movie Review: Summerland (2020)


TitleSummerland
Release Date: July 31, 2020
Director: Jessica Swale
Production Company: Shoebox Films | Iota Films
Summary/Review:

Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton) is a writer who researches and publishes studies on folklore and mythology.  She is also the village curmudgeon living alone in a seaside town in Kent during World War II where the local children call her witch.  To her surprise, she is assigned a child evacuee from London, Frank (Lucas Bond), to live with her.  Hijinks ensue.

This movie has indication of trotting out the tired trope of Independent Women Must Learn To Embrace Her Maternal Side (As Fits Her Womanly Duty).  But this movie has a few twists.  Throughout the movie Alice remembers her younger days when she had a romantic relationship with a woman named Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  Past and present intersect and both Alice and Frank have to deal with their personal traumas as they bond.  Frank also befriends a mischiveous girl named Edie (Dixie Egerickx) who is my favorite character in the movie.

There are some historically-questionable oddities about this movie.  Like, weren’t children evacuated inland rather than to a village just across the Channel from Nazi-occupied France? But if you can avoid letting little things like that from bothering you, this is a perfectly fine drama and romance film that is sweet as much as it is predictable.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)


Title: A Matter of Life and Death
Release Date: 15 December 1946
Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Production Company: The Archers | J. Arthur Rank
Summary/Review:

A Matter of Life and Death begins with a strikingly intimate conversation between British airman Peter Carter (David Niven), aboard a burning bomber over the English Channel, and American radio operator June (Kim Hunter). They bond in a few moments of shared humanity before Peter, who has no parachute, determines he would rather leap to his death than burn.  Then this movie gets very, very weird.

Carter survives his fall and washes up on the shores of England. He meets June who works at a nearby base and they fall in love. It turns out that Conductor 71 (Marius Goring), a French aristocrat killed in the Revolution, was supposed to guide him to the Other World but lost Peter in the fog over the Channel.  With a new leash on life and his romance with June, Peter argues that he should be given another chance at life.

A neurologist named Dr. Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) takes on Peter’s case, in two meanings of the word. First he assumes that Peter’s visions of otherworldly people are due to brain injury.  Later he takes on the role as Peter’s counsel in an Other World trial. Perhaps the weirdest part of the trial scene is that a becomes a debate of the British versus the Americans, with American multiculturalism ultimately being celebrated.

This movie is often compared to It’s a Wonderful Life as they both deal with the trauma of World War II and contain fantasy elements of the afterlife.  But I found it reminded me of The Devil and Daniel Webster, because both movies are built around a fantasy trial sequence. This movie also clearly was an influence for the most recent Pixar film, Soul.  Both films feature an escalator to the afterlife, heavenly bureaucracy, filing cabinets full of the details of every person who ever lived, and historical figures acting as mentors to souls. I also learned that a sample from the prologue of this movie is in one of my favorite tunes from my teenage years, “If I Were John Carpenter.”

A Matter of Life and Death (also called Stairway to Heaven in its American release) stands out as a unique and experimental film for it’s time.  And even though I wasn’t aware of it before watching it for this project, it is also clear it’s an influential film.  It’s a bit on the corny side, but I expect a lot of classic film fans will enjoy it. If nothing else the opening scene between Peter and Kim over the radio is magnificent.

Rating: ***

Movie Reviews: Mr. Holmes (2015)


Title: Mr. Holmes
Release Date: 19 June 2015
Director: Bill Condon
Production Company: AI Film | BBC Films | FilmNation Entertainment | Archer Gray Productions | See-Saw Films
Summary/Review:

This film is an adaptation of A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin that  stars Ian McKellen as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes.  Having retired to a farm decades earlier where he tends to an apiary.  Holmes struggles with losing his brilliant mind to the onset of memory loss due to senile dementia. His only daily contact with other humans is his widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker).

The movie intertwines three stories.  Holmes is working on rewriting an accurate account of his last case, one he considers a failure, and is shown in flashbacks.  Struggling to remember the details, Holmes had recently traveled to Japan, and more flashbacks show him meeting his correspondent, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), and visiting the ruins of Hiroshima.  There they retrieve prickly ash, a plant that is supposed to have medicinal properties for restoring the mind.  The main plot depicts Holmes bonding with Roger, an intelligent and curious boy, while training him how to care for the bees.

The movie is a good adaptation of the book.  It’s gorgeous film and McKellen is perfect at the elderly Holmes.  I don’t know if he watched Jeremy Brett’s performance as Holmes, but there are times where he seems to be channeling Brett’s physical tics.  The movie is also a moving depiction of Holmes struggling with the most difficult thing to lose, his mind, and the emotional breakthrough he makes with Roger and Mrs. Munro.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer


Author: Ian Mortimer
Title: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century
Publication Info:  New York : Simon & Schuster, 2011. [Originally published, 2008]
Summary/Review:

The book is written tongue-in-cheek as a guidebook of what one would find should they travel through time to 14th-century England.  Mortimer is particularly concerned with debunking popular myths and stereotypes of medieval times.  Tidbits include a breakdown of fashion, with the caveat that clothing styles changed rapidly over the course of the century (with an emphasis on men’s clothing showing off the form of the body). Traveling about the country is a challenge since people didn’t use maps and relied on spoken instructions of what road to follow.  The diet of a peasant may have actually been healthier than that for the working people of our day.  And while the Bubonic Plague is the most fearsome disease of the century, the people were also tormented by many other diseases, including leprosy.  This book is a fun, popular introduction to understanding everyday life in medieval England.

Recommended books:

  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman
  • Memoirs Of A Medieval Woman: The Life And Times Of Margery Kempe by Louise Collis
  • Life in a Medieval City by Joseph and Frances Gies
  • Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages by Frances Gies
  • Black Death by Philip Ziegler
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Rating: ****

Movie Review: 63 Up (2019)


Title: 63 Up
Release Date: June 4, 2019
Director: Michael Apted
Production Company: Albert+ Sustainable production | ITV Studios | Shiver
Summary/Review:

It’s December 2019, and I’m thrilled to see the 9th installment in a legendary movie saga on the big screen!  No, not Star Wars, that’s next week.  This is the Up Series, a documentary focusing on the lives of a group of British individuals starting with the a tv special produced by Granada Television for ITV in 1964 called Seven Up!  The premise of the series is based on the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” and the original filmmakers thought that the rigid class structure of England would show that the futures of these children would be locked in at 7-years-old.

Director Michael Apted has interviewed the participants every year since while wholesale social changes have gone around them. Their lives depicted in this interviews over time show things that could’ve never been predicted from their 7-year-old selves, and yet a lot of the character established early in their lives shines through over time.

As the participants approach retirement age in 63 Up, the focus of the interviews naturally focuses on subjects like grandchildren, declining health, and mortality.  Lynn, on of my favorite participants because she spent much of her life working as a devoted children’s librarian in London’s East End, died since the last movie was made. Apted interviews her children to reflect upon her life.  Nick, another favorite, after growing up on a farm in Yorkshire has lived much of his adult life in Wisconsin as a physics professor.  He is suffering from throat cancer and is visibly weakened.  He may not make it to 70 Up.

There have been some big events in Britain in the past 7 years, and several participants are asked about Brexit.  In general, almost every participant mentions growing inequality and the sense that for the first time the next generation will not have it better than their own.  The movie is not all bummers though as almost all the participants take the time to reflect on positive accomplishments in their life, the love of family, and even the connections they’ve made with other participants.

Jackie is another participant I always like in this movies, especially in the way that she’s frank about calling out Michael Apted for his shortcomings in making the movies.  She correctly notes Apted’s blindspot regarding feminism and women entering the workplace in greater numbers, while focusing on domestic questions.  In 63 Up, Jackie admits to really liking Apted. “I only told him off, I didn’t kill him!”

The screening of 63 Up I saw at Landmark Kendall Square Cinemas in Cambridge was followed by a short Q&A with Apted himself.  At 78 years old, he is looking frail and seemed to have diminishing mental faculties.  He noted himself that it would be unlikely he would be able to make 70 Up, but he hopes that someone else would carry on the project. Nevertheless, it was great to be in the presence of the famed director and hear him speak about his experience working on this great experiment in humanism.

Rating: *****

Related post: Movie Review: 56 Up