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: **

Movie Review: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “Q” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first “Q” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleQuest: A Portrait of an American Family
Release Date: 2017
Director: Jonathan Olshefski
Production Company: First Run Features
Summary/Review:

Quest is an intimate, vertite-style documentary focusing on several years in the life of the Rainey family of North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  The movie covers the years 2008 to 2016, although most of the film’s action is from 2012 to 2016.

Christopher Rainey, aka Quest, is a music producer and engineer, who supplements his income with side jobs like delivering newspaper circulars. Quest’s flair at tossing newspapers onto stoops in the early morning darkness is one of the great cinematic images of the film.  Christine’a Rainey, aka Ma Quest, works long hours in a shelter for domestic violence survivors and is generally regarded as a mother figure in her community, whether she wants to be or not. Christine’a’s interviews provide some of the film’s greatest moments of introspection.  Their daughter Patricia, or PJ, is a teenager with a talent for basketball who is seen seeking out her identity.  Christine’a’s oldest son Will, is 21-years-old and simultaneously being treated for a brain tumor and becoming a father for the first time.  We see the absolutely adorable Isaiah grow from baby to toddler, and generally steal the scene when his father or grandmother are trying to give an interview.  One other figure figure in the film is Price, a talented rapper who Quest records, but also has substance abuse problems that test Quest’s patience.

The film shows many everyday moments in the family’s lives such as Quest walking PJ to the bus stop or repairing a leaky roof.  It’s clear that the Raineys are an important family in their community. Quest holds open freestyle sessions in his basement studio every Friday night where neighborhood rappers gather.  They also organize neighborhood events ranging from street parties to anti-violence demonstrations. Remarkably, the Raineys are open to even have the most traumatic event in their family life documented (HUGE SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH).  On a greater scale, the film represents a slice of life for African Americans during the Obama presidency, as the movie is bookended by the 2008 and 2016 elections.

Obama is heard speaking in part of the film as he talks about the Newtown Massacre and the greater scourge of gun violence in the United States. “These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods. These children are our children,” he says.  This is immediately followed by the shocking incident of PJ being hit in the head by a stray bullet from a gun fight in the neighborhood. Blessedly, PJ recovers from the bullet wound although she permanently loses an eye.  The scenes of PJ attempting to put in her prosthetic eye and coming to terms with feeling safe in her own neighborhood.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Quest captures the beauty and love of family and community in North Philly, tempered with the constant threat of violence. The police officer who responded to PJ’s gunshot is warmly thanked, but nonetheless the police are also seen holding Quest for questioning since he meets the description of a black man who commited a crime.  Quest laughs at the meaningless of the description of a black man in a white t-shirt and jeans since it can describe just about every man in the neighborhood.  Late in the film Quest and Christine’a watch Donald Trump describe African-Americans as living in hell, and Christine’a angrily responding “You have no idea how we live!” It’s easy to recognize Trump as being willfully ignorant of the lives of African-Americans, but I believe a lot of well-meaning white Americans also have no idea how they live.  Quest is an entry point to beginning to learn.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Earlier in this A-to-Z, I watched High School, which was set in Philadelphia 50 years before Quest and is in interesting comparison of the same city at a different time.

Source: Kanopy

Rating: *****


019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films, Part II

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
O: Obit.
P: Pelotero

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Lucky 13


Today my lovely bride Susan and I celebrate 13 years of wedded bliss. It’s good to remember that day in 2005 when we had over 100 of our friends and family present, sailed on a boat, played kickball, danced, and ate yummy cake.  It was a beautiful day.  The 4748 days in-between have been pretty good too!

Happy Anniversary, Susan!

Book Review: It’s All Relative by A.J. Jacobs


Author: A.J. Jacobs
Title: It’s All Relative: Adventures Up and Down the World’s Family Tree
Narrator:A.J. Jacobs
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2017)
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Jacobs has written excellent books about his lifestyle experiments of trying to follow all the explicit rules of the Bible and reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica.  Both books offer funny observations and lots of tidbits of arcane knowledge.  In this book, Jacobs applies a similar approach to genealogy, with much of the book structured around attempting a Guinness World Record for a Global Family Reunion, inviting everyone Jacobs is genetically related to (which could be everyone in the world).

Along the way, Jacobs examines traditional genealogical pursuits of family historians, and the newer methods of genetic testing and collaborative websites, and the tensions among them.  Jacobs visits with Mormon genealogists, attends the Hatfields and McCoys reunion, explores the practice of polyamory, goes to a twins convention, and interviews celebrities who are his distant relations.

This book feels weak compared with Jacobs other books, as if he was seeking out other genealogical things to do to fill in blank spaces around his story of the family reunion.  Maybe it would’ve been more focused as shorter work rather than a book?

Recommended books:
Rating: **

City Stories #1 – The Pigeons


City Stories is a new semi-regular feature where I will write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. This series is inspired by the writings of Max Grinnell, The Urbanologist. The first City Story takes place in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.

My grandparents lived in the most boring place in the world.

Correction, my grandparents’ apartment was the most boring place, set in the middle of the world’s most exciting and vibrant city in the world.  My grandparents’ apartment was on the 23rd floor of the western building of the Towers of Bay Ridge, right where the Belt Parkway splits from the Gowanus Expressway.  My sister and I spent many a childhood weekend seeking some escape from the boredom that permeated from every corner of that apartment, including through the plastic-covered sofa.

As a child visiting this apartment – especially when it wasn’t Christmastime when at least there were new toys to play with – entertainment was hard to come by.  Television was the preferred source of diversion, but it wasn’t always available to us as my grandparents were watching their programs, or otherwise forbidden us from watching. Taking out the garbage was always a welcome chore as it meant being able to drop bags of rubbish one by one down a chute to a compactor in the basement.  After disposing our trash, we could keep the door to the chute open and if we were lucky we could see trash falling from higher stories and take the chance of trying to catch some.

Once these options were exhausted, my sister and I diverged on what to do next.  She often ended up in our uncle’s former room, excavating old issues of Mad magazine that were still piled in his closet.  I made my way to the terrace – what my grandparents called the small concrete balconies that clung tenuously to the brick facade of the Towers.  From here I could get a view of  New York City’s famous skyline, bridges, and even a tiny green dot I knew was the Statue of Liberty. I could also see a massive bus yard, where half-concealed by a building, I got a tantalizing view of what looked like red London-style double-decker buses, but could never verify for sure if that’s what they were. *

Eventually, one of our grandparents would have to take us outside. If it was our grandmother, we would typically end up in the Tower’s playground. The centerpiece of this playground was a geodesic half-dome one could climb up and dangle by one’s knees, knowing that should one fall, one’s head would be protected by a thin layer of rubber spread over the asphalt.

I always preferred it when our grandfather took us out. We would escape the Brutalist hellscape of the Towers for a stroll into the more human-scaled row houses and shops along Third Avenue. Our destination was The Three Jolly Pigeons. In the official nomenclature of restaurateurs, The Three Jolly Pigeons is classified as an “Old Man Bar.” True to form, the Pigeons (as my grandfather always called it) featured a long bar of a dark wood with a line of rickety stools, lots of oak paneling, and stained glass windows and light fixtures. The back room was separated from the main bar by a particularly attractive wood-panel and stained-glass partition.

My grandfather was an old man so naturally an “Old Man Bar” suited him. But I’m going to tell you something about my grandfather that I didn’t know. My grandfather was an alcoholic, and a particularly troubled one at that. One of my earliest memories of him was visiting the hospital after he crashed his car on Brooklyn Bridge. The “car crash” and “drunk driving” didn’t connect for me until years later. Children were not allowed to visit the patients’ rooms, so instead we stood outside waving at the window where purportedly my grandfather was waving to us. I was never quite sure that I actually saw him or was even waving at the correct window.

The stories I would later hear of his drunken anger and violence never matched the cuddly old man who’d bring us to this lovely oasis, buy us a glass of Coke, and give us quarters for the arcade games that we could enjoy while he spoke to his bookie. Yes, this is the other thing that I didn’t know at the time. It was not normal for one’s grandfather to regularly meet with a bookie, and I’d learn later that the other adults in our family were not aware of this habit. This is probably because he never said to anything like “Don’t tell anyone I’m seeing my bookie,” because then we totally would’ve ratted him out rather than going along as if it were normal.

But let’s return to those glasses of Coke and arcade games. The Coke was dispensed from a fountain over the rocks into a small glass. I can’t verify this, but it is my belief that the Coke served at the Three Jolly Pigeons was the best tasting Coke anywhere. The bartender would set our Cokes at the end of the bar for us to pick up and from there we made out way through the partition to the back room.

The entertainment equipment in the back room changed from time to time, but the mainstay was a coin-operated bowling game. The shuffleboard-style game was built on a long waist-high table (or shoulder-high table if you were under ten) along which one would slide a heavy, metallic puck. The bowling pins hung from a cabinet at the far end, and the puck wouldn’t actually come in contact with the pins, but you could knock them over if the puck slid over what looked like giant staples under each pin. The surface of the table was very slick and one could make the heavy puck move wickedly fast, smashing into the wall at the far end with a satisfying crash, and rebounding into one’s palm.

Over the years, I got very good at this game. Fueled by Cokes and quarters, I smashed my way into the ranks of shuffleboard bowling greats. Or so I’d like to imagine. I never saw another game like this until about a decade later while in a pub in St. George, Bermuda. I challenged my compatriots to a game and drawing on my skill honed at the Pigeons, I won a round of beer. In another timeline, I may have gone pro as a shuffleboard bowler.

In my memory, it was always daylight when we went to the Pigeons. The late afternoon sun shone through the stain-glassed windows with the multi-color rays tinted by smoke and dust in the air. I can still see the silhouettes of my grandfather and his bookie sitting across from one another at the table by the window in a mostly empty bar. But there’s one occasion I recall being at the pigeons after dark and in a crowded room, on the day after Thanksgiving when the sun sets early. I’ve never paid much attention to college football, but while waiting for another Coke at the bar, by chance I happened to look up at the tv to see Doug Flutie’s famous “Hail Mary” pass. There was some celebration among the assemblage of old men and I before they returned to their beers, and I returned to bowling.

Unlike many places from my childhood for which I have fond memories, the Three Jolly Pigeons still survives in Bay Ridge. Reading the reviews online, it’s hailed as a great place to see rock bands and karaoke, two things I could never imagine in the Pigeons of my time. But I like to think that in the dying rays of afternoon sunlight, the old men still gather to nurse a quiet drink, confer with their bookie, and perhaps buy a Coke for their grandkids.

 

 

* Seriously, this was decades before double-decker buses were used for sightseeing tours in New York City. If anyone could verify if and why these buses were in New York circa 1980-1984, I will love you forever.

2018 Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon #BAT2018


On Sunday, June 10th, my daughter Kay (a.k.a. “The Toothless Wonder”) and I rode in the Bikes Not Bombs 31st Annual Bike-A-Thon.  The ride helps raise funds for Bikes Not Bombs’ social justice programs in Boston and abroad.

We met our goal for fundraising (including for my son Peter who was not able to participate), but Bikes Not Bombs is still accepting donations if you wish to contribute.

It was a beautiful day to ride, and except for the steep uphills right at the beginning, it was a terrific ride.

 

Read about our previous Bike-A-Thons in 2011, 201320152016, and 2017.