Classic Movie Review: Yi Yi (2000) #AtoZChallenge



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

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: Yi Yi
Release Date: 5 May 200
Director: Edward Yang
Production Company: 1+2 Seisaku Iinkai | Atom Films | Basara Pictures |
Pony Canyon
Summary/Review:

Yi Yi is a family drama from the director of A Brighter Summer Day, and thankfully less bleak than that earlier film. It depicts the Jian family of Taipei, Taiwan: father NJ (Wu Nien-jen), mother Min-Min, early teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), and 8-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang).  The film begins at the wedding of Min-Min’s brother A-Di, introducing the main characters and setting up important plot threads. (Ever since I’ve watched The Godfather, I’ve noticed the whole “start the movie at a wedding” thing popping up in a lot of movies). At the wedding reception, NJ encounters Sherry (Su-Yun Ko), a romantic partner his university days, in the hotel lobby.  After the wedding, Mim Min’s mother suffers a stroke and ends up comatose.

The film does not have a straightforward plot, per se, but interweaves the four individual threads of the family members as they deal with their personal struggles.

  • NJ is unmotivated by his job but bonds with potential client from Japan, Mr. Ota.  On a business trip to Japan he reunites with Sherry and they have an emotional series of conversations over unresolved issues from their failed relationship.
  • Min-Min is overwhelmed by her mother’s coma and leaves for a Buddhist retreat.
  • Ting-Ting feels guilty because her grandmother collapsed doing Ting-Ting’s chore of taking out the trash. Ting-Ting talks to her comatose grandmother about her guilt and other concerns. She also befriends her neighbor Lili, and later briefly dates Lili’s ex-boyfriend, Fatty.  While not a member of the family, Lili’s life is also documented in the film apart from her interactions with Ting-Ting.
  • Yang-Yang, the MVP of this movie, is a shy kid who’s bullied by other kids and his teacher. He finds a way to express his creativity by taking photographs.
  • We also spend time with A-Di, who struggles financially, gets kicked out by his wife, gets back together with an ex-girlfriend, and hosts the worst possible baby shower imaginable.

The movie is beautifully filmed and most shots use the Ozustyle of keeping the camera still and a mid-distance rather than panning or zooming or using closeups. The acting is solid and naturalistic as well. Occasionally there are plot twists that feel a bit soap opera-ish, but largely is more about the patterns of ordinary life.  There are some joys and some sorrows but a lot just hovers in the middle.  Clocking at over 3 hours, it is a big time commitment to spend time with these people without a traditional story or payoff, but I think it’s worth it.

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: ****

Book Review: The Golden Child by Claire Adam


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Trinidad and Tobago

Author: Claire Adam
Title: The Golden Child
Narrator: Obi Abili
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 2019.
Summary/Review:

The Golden Child is a family drama set in rural Trinidad. The Deyalsingh family, Trinidadians of Indian heritage, are Clyde and Joy, and their twin 13-year-old sons Peter and Paul.  Peter is the “golden child” of the title, academically gifted, and Clyde saves all the family’s money for his future, despite his wife’s desire to move to the city or to improve the house they live in.

Despite the title, Paul is the main focus of the novel.  He is believed to be “slightly retarded” due to loss of oxygen to his brain at birth. But over the novel it is revealed that he is a kind child with many hidden talents, and most likely has learning disabilities, although this is never specifically stated.  The novel begins with Paul going missing, and then flashes back on the previous 13 years of the family from various points of view.  When we return to the present day timeline, Paul is facing a very real threat and Clyde is faced with difficult choice.

Adam does well at developing the characters and family dynamics, as well as showing everyday Trinidadian culture.  But this is also a grim and disheartening book, so don’t pick it up for light reading.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Late Spring (1949)


Title: Late Spring
Release Date: September 19, 1949
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Production Company: Shochiku
Summary/Review:

Following on Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds, watching this movie is making me a Yasujirō Ozu fan.  Conceptually it’s linked to Tokyo Story as part of a trilogy of films staring Setsuko Hara as a young woman named Noriko, although otherwise the characters and the film are related.  Two other actors who later appear in Tokyo Story are also stars in this film, Chishū Ryū who plays Noriko’s father Shukichi Somiya and Haruko Sugimura who plays her Aunt Masa.

Noriko is a single 27-year-old woman who has found contentment in supporting her aging father who is still working as a professor.  But Masa has determined that it is time for Noriko to marry, and ensnares Shukichi in helping her convince Noriko.  It’s a deceptively simple movie and one where the unspoken thoughts and desires are just underneath the surface of the smiling faces.

The movie was filmed just after World War II under the American occupation and the war and postwar are also underlying factors, from mention of Noriko’s ill health due to overwork during the war to English language signs and a Coca-Cola advertisement on the roadside.  The movie’s script was actually heavily censored by the Occupation authorities, but nevertheless a beautiful and heartbreaking story of a father and daughter shines thorugh.

Rating: ****

Recent Movie Marathon: The Farewell (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: The Farewell
Release Date: July 12, 2019
Director: Lulu Wang
Production Company: Ray Productions | Big Beach | Depth of Field | Kindred Spirit
Summary/Review:

The Farewell, titled Don’t Tell Her in Mandarin, is the story of an extended Chinese family who agree not to tell the family matriarch Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-zhen) that she has terminal lung cancer. The movie is told from the point of view Billi (Awkwafina), Nai Nai’s young adult granddaughter who emigrated to New York City with her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) when she was a child. Instead the family organizes a wedding of Billi’s cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his Japanese fiancée Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara) as an excuse to gather the family together to say goodbye to Nai Nai.

The central tension of the film that the Americanized Billi believes Nai Nai deserves to know the truth about her fate while her parents and uncle (Jiang Yongbo) believe it is the Chinese tradition and collective responsibility of the family to bear the grief (Honestly, I know Irish-Americans who would do the same thing if they could get away from it). Zhao Shu-zhen is terrific as Nai Nai, who seems to be a force of nature and perhaps wiser to things than her family believes, while also showing moments of vulnerability when her illness catches up with her. Awkwafina also puts in an excellent performance as the young person between two cultures. All the performances feel natural and like a real family.

The movie is also beautifully filmed with some clever direction. In one scene Nai Nai and Billi have a meaningful conversation while the wedding couple have a ridiculous photo shoot in the background. The wedding reception scenes are also remarkable with the interaction of guests, karaoke performances, and chanting around a table all wonderfully filmed and intercut. The Farewell is an absolute joy of a movie and perfect reflection of family in all of its idiosyncrasies.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Chicken Little (2005)


Title: Chicken Little
Release Date: November 4, 2005
Director: Mark Dindal
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

Being a Walt Disney animated features completionist means watching a movie made 15 years ago that made absolutely no impact whatsoever (despite having the voice acting talents of Zach Braff, Joan Cusack, Garry Marshall, Amy Sedaris, and Don Knotts or that it’s the Disney studio proper’s first venture into 3-D computer animation).  The Chicken Little/Henny Penny is updated for the 21st century with Chicken Little (Braff) now being a teenager who has trouble talking about problems with his widowed father, Buck (Marshall). And the sky is falling because it’s really aliens in a camouflaged spaceship.  And no one believes Chicken Little because this is also “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” somehow.  And there’s an elaborate subplot where Chicken Little tries to prove himself to his father by playing baseball.

This movie came out the same year as Madagascar from DreamWorks Animation and appears to be trying the same kind of (already dated from the 90s) self-referential humor with lots of pop music interludes.  Except it’s Disney so they’re also trying to play it sweet.  And all comes out a mediocre mush of recycled gags and forced emotions.   It may be good for young children, but doesn’t have the magic to make it enjoyable for the whole family. But it also has a character who is a fish with a tank of water on his head who cracks me up, so it’s not all a loss.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Tokyo Story (1953)


Title: Tokyo Story
Release Date: November 3, 1953
Director: Yasujirō Ozu
Production Company: Shochiku
Summary/Review:

Drawing inspiration from Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, Tokyo Story is a moving film about an elderly couple and their adult children.  Shūkichi (Chishū Ryū) and Tomi (Chieko Higashiyama) live in the Hiroshima Prefecture of southwest Japan with their youngest daughter, a schoolteacher named Kyōko (Kyōko Kagawa).  The travel by train to Tokyo for the first time in their lives to visit some of their other children.

Their son Kōichi (So Yamamura) is busy with caring for patients in his pediatric practice and their daughter Shige (Haruko Sugimura) is preoccupied with her hair salon.  Their grandchildren show no interest in spending time with them.  Only Noriko (Setsuko Hara), the widow of their middle son who died in World War II service, shows interest in them and takes a day off from her office job to take them sightseeing in Tokyo.

The children decide to ship their parents off to a spa, but the lively atmosphere there does not agree with them and Tomi begins to show signs of illness.  Unprepared for their parents’ unexpected return, the couple have to spend the night separated. Shūkichi reunites with friends he grew up with and spends the night drinking while Tomi forms a stronger bond with the kindly Noriko. They decide to go home early, planning a whistle-stop visit with their youngest son Keizō (Shirō Ōsaka) in Osaka, but end up staying longer as Tomi’s health deteriorates.

Shūkichi and Tomi finally return home, but Tomi falls into a coma.  The children reluctantly travel to their parents’ home for one last family reunion, although Keizō fails to arrive before his mother’s death.  Kōichi, Shige, and Keizō leave immediately after the funeral, still selfish and indifferent to their father. Kyōko is angered at her siblings, and Shūkichi thanks Noriko for treating him better than his own family.

This movie is absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking.  Like Ozu’s later film Floating Weeds, it features his trademark style of fixing the camera in a low position without any pans, zooms, or tracking shots (I believe the camera moves once in the entire movie) while cutting to different angles.  This movie also makes me realize that I’m enamored with Japanese domestic architecture.  It’s a great work of film art that touches on family, cultural changes in modern Japan, and the lingering after effects of the war.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Frozen II (2019)


Title: Frozen II
Release Date: November 22, 2019
Director: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

The sequel to 2013’s extremely-popular Frozen, picks up some loose threads from its predecessor such as Anna and Elsa’s parents’ story and the origin of Elsa’s powers.  Elsa (Idina Menzel) is now comfortable with her magic, but uncertain if ruling as Queen of Arendelle is her destiny.  Anna (Kristen Bell) remains so concerned for Elsa’s well-being that she ignores her own pursuits.  Meanwhile, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) just wants to find the right opportunity to propose marriage to Anna.  And the sentient snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is learning about the world much like a child. He is also once again the movie’s comedy MVP with his many whimsical quips.

Wisely, though, Frozen II is a stand-alone story that is more of a true fantasy adventure than its fairy tale predecessor.  When the elemental spirits of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth drive the people of Arendelle from their city, Elsa, Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and the reindeer Sven must travel north to an Enchanted Forest that has been trapped in mists since the time of Elsa and Anna’s grandfather. There they meet the Northuldra, a people inspired by the Sámi, much as Arendelle is a fictionalized Norwegian town.  Together they must work to solve the mystery of the elemental spirits before they are all destroyed.

The movie is a great adventure, with good subplots for all the lead characters.  The animation is absolutely gorgeous especially the depictions of the autumnal Enchanted Forest.  The music is good in that it serves the movie, although I don’t think anything stands on its own the way it did in Frozen.  At least I haven’t heard thousands of kids singing “Into the Unknown” the way they did “Let it Go.”  My favorite song is Anna’s “The Next Right Thing,” because it’s lyrics offer a great philosophy and it’s performed in one the movie’s most emotionally powerful scenes.  At the other end of the spectrum is Kristoff’s power ballad “Lost in the Woods” which is filmed as if Kristoff and a group of reindeer were in a 1990s boy band music video.  I’m not sure if I was supposed to be laughing.

Frozen II falls short of being as good as the original, but it is good enough to justify existence as much more than just a cash grab.  It’s definitely worth watching if enjoy emotionally-packed fantasy adventure with musical interludes.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Great Mouse Detective (1986)


Title: The Great Mouse Detective
Release Date: July 2, 1986
Director: Ron Clements, Burny Mattinson, Dave Michener, and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation | Silver Screen Partners II
Summary/Review:

Adapted from Basil of Baker Street by Eve Titus, itself a pastiche on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, The Great Mouse Detective is a classic mystery in Victorian London starring mice and rats. There’s the great detective, Basil (Barrie Ingham), his new acquaintance-cum-sidekick, Major Dr. David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin), coming together to help an adorable young Scottish mouse, Olivia (Susanne Pollatschek).  Her father, the toymaker Hiram Flaversham (Alan Young), is abducted by the evil Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price, who steals the movie as well) and forced to work on his evil plan.

The movie is delightful with a lot of imagination and Rube Goldberg devices. I can’t help but wonder what this movie would’ve been like if it had been made a couple of years later in the Disney Renaissance era and given the tender-loving care it deserved.  New Disney CEO Michael Eisner cut the films budget and sped up the release date.  He also renamed the movie because he thought “Basil” sounds too British. Disney animators famously circulated a memo illustrating the bland and generic nature of the new title by renaming Walt Disney animated classics.  It may be past time for a Basil of Baker Street movie reboot (but not a “live action” version please!)

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Home on the Range (2004)


Title: Home on the Range
Release Date: April 2, 2004
Director: Will Finn  & John Sanford
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

It’s hard to understand what happened to Walt Disney animated features in the first decade of the century.  Hot on the heels of the 1990s Disney Renaissance, when the opening of every Disney animated movie was a big event, suddenly you have a string of around 11 movies that opened with a whimper and are remembered well in retrospect either (with the exception of Lilo & Stitch, which is a masterpiece that arose from low-budget experimentation).

The concept behind Home on the Range, a Western movie from the perspective of cows, is a clever one.  And with women voicing the three lead cow characters and the owner of the farm they hope to save, it’s a strong women-lead story as well.  The animation style is reminiscent of the Post-Walt/pre-Renaissance features of the 1970s and 80s. But the movie seems unable to decide if it’s light family fare of that earlier era, or if it is the brash ironic comedy of the 1990s with bodily function jokes.  I mean, I like a good belching joke, but it has to be good, and a joke, not just belching.

Roseann Barr is surprisingly not irritating as the lead cow, Maggie, a new arrival on the Patch of Heaven farm.  When she learns that the farmer Pearl (Carole Cook) may lose the farm due to debt, she enlists the fussy, older cow, Mrs. Calloway (Judi Dench) and a spacey, younger cow, Grace (Jennifer Tilly) on a mission to save the farm.  This means hunting down the cattle rustler Slim Alameda (Randy Quaid) who uses his mesmerizing yodeling skills to lure cattle away from their ranches.

There are some good gags here and there, but it’s a bit one-note and feels padded to make very little story into a feature film.  My guess is that very young children may enjoy this movie, but it’s not one of those movies with the Disney magic that makes it entertaining for all ages.

Rating: **