Movie Review: The Warriors (1979)


Title: The Warriors
Release Date:  February 9, 1979
Director: Walter Hill
Production Company: Lawrence Gordon Productions
Summary/Review:

Yet another cult film I’ve never watched, The Warriors is take on the crime-ridden New York City of the 1970s by way of an Ancient Greek story.  The Warriors are a gang based in Coney Island who with dozens of other gangs travel to the Bronx for a summit called by a charismatic leader Cyrus (Roger Hill).  Cyrus proposes unifying all the gangs and working together against the police to control the city but before he can finish his speech he is assassinated.  (The killer appears to receive his gun from the cops and thus be a police informer but this is never followed-up upon so maybe I misread what was happening).

The Warriors are falsely accused of killing Cyrus and have to flee back to Coney Island for the safety of their home turn, pursued by all the other gangs and the police.  They lose their leader in the initial scuffle and war chief Swan (Michael Beck) takes over shepherding the rest of the gang on their journey home.  He’s challenged by the heel of the gang Ajax (James Remar) who prefers conflict to diplomacy.  The cast overall does a good job of capturing the youth and vulnerability of the gang members and seeing the story from their point of view rather than a societal judgment.  The only actor who didn’t really work for me is David Patrick Kelly as Luther, who really hams things up, although he also delivers the movie’s most famous line.

For a 1970s film, the cast is very diverse although the production company insisted on white actors in the lead.  For a story about gangs of men, the women in the movie have a lot of agency and call out the men on their bullshit.  The most prominent woman character is Mercy (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who initially taunts The Warriors but then joins them as a valuable contributor to their effort to get back to Brooklyn as well as a romantic interest to Swan. There is homophobia and attempted sexual assault as you might expect from gangsters in a 70s film, but it’s almost all from Ajax, while the rest of the gang appear almost noble.

For an action film, this movie takes things slow, reveling in the scenery of the on-location settings and the quirky costumes of the various gangs while building the tension.  This really works to the film’s advantage, although the choreography of the fight scenes is also good.  Somehow the cartoonish fantasy element of the story also undergirds the gritty reality of the movie and allows for some great character moments. I was particularly impressed by a scene where the exhausted Warriors share a subway car with some wealthy kids and the contrast of their lives is quietly emphasized.

I ended up liking this movie a whole lot more than I expected I would and think it’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Reviews: The Sea Beast (2022)


Title: The Sea Beast
Release Date: June 24, 2022
Director: Chris Williams
Production Company: Netflix Animation
Summary/Review:

“But you can be a hero and still be wrong.”

In a world where the oceans are filled with giant sea monsters, the heroes of the age are The Hunters.  Salty crews of sailors on ships like The Inevitable under Captain James Crow (Jared Harris) and his adopted son Jacob Holland (Karl Urban) hunt down and kill sea monsters for rewards from the King and Queen of Three Bridges.  An orphan Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator) stow away on The Inevitable and soon ends up separated from the ship with Jacob.  They soon discover that the stories they’ve been told about the sea beasts may not be true and that there is alternative to endless war.

For a visually-compelling animated feature it’s disappointing that this movie’s primary viewing platform is Netflix, because I think it deserves the big screen experience.  Nevertheless, I think it’s an enjoyable family film with good voice work and great feel for seafaring adventure in the Age of Sail.  It touches upon a lot of topics such as political corruption, generational trauma, and reconciliation but in a way that is not too heavy-handed for younger viewers.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison


Author: Katherine Addison
Title: The Goblin Emperor
Narrator: Kyle McCarley
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2021) [Originally published in 2014]
Summary/Review:

Maia is the half-goblin son of an elvish emperor who grows up in exile as the result of his parents being married for political expediency rather than love. When his father and half-brothers are all killed in an airship crash, Maia unexpectedly ascends to the throne.  For a high fantasy, the novel deals with more down to earth details of palace intrigue. Maia has to deal with prejudice, a coup attempt, and even and attempted assassination.  And yet, despite his inexperience, Maia’s compassion is able to win over supporters and make new friends.  The book functions as an excellent character study and an uplifting story of a basically decent character persevering.

Rating: ****

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: ****

TV Review: Obi-Wan Kenobi (2022)


Title Obi-Wan Kenobi
Release Date: 2022
Creator/Head Writer/Showrunner:  Deborah Chow
Episodes: 6
Production Company:  Lucasfilm
Summary/Review:

The Star Wars franchise has a way of defying my expectations for good or for ill.  There are some things I eagerly anticipated seeing that ended up being rather bad (The Phantom Menace, The Rise of Skywalker).  Then there are things that I originally questioned why they needed to be made that turned out to be among the best Star Wars works ever (Rogue One, The Mandalorian).

When I heard there would be a show about Obi-Wan Kenobi set between Revenge of the Sith and Star Wars, I didn’t really think that there was any good story to be told during that time.  Then the news that Hayden Christensen was cast to return as Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, I wondered what the point was since he’d be behind a mask and voiced by James Earl Jones.  Well, all of my questions were answered to my satisfaction and beyond in this series that really delves into some of the most compelling characters in the Star Wars universe.

For all the flaws of the prequels, it did have some talented actors with Ewan McGregor among this best.  This show allows McGregor to flourish as he portrays the Jedi master dealing with guilt and isolation as he’s separated himself from the Force while watching over they young Luke Skywalker (Grant Feely).  Christensen, who was criminally underserved by the poor scripts in the prequel, gets to show off his acting chops as well.  Newcomer Moses Ingram appears as Reva Sevander, a Force-sensitive Inquisitor working for the Empire to hunt down Jedi, also does a great job.

Of course, the best part of this series was a huge surprise and I’m going to hide it below the trailer in case you’ve read this far but don’t want to see spoilers.

Continue reading “TV Review: Obi-Wan Kenobi (2022)”

Movie Review: Swiss Army Man (2016)


Title: Swiss Army Man
Release Date: June 24, 2016
Director: Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan
Production Company: Tadmor | Astrakan Films AB | Cold Iron Pictures |
Blackbird Films |  Prettybird
Summary/Review:

Animated GIF of Mary Elizabeth Winstead delivering the final line of the film Swiss Army Man, "What the fuck?!?"
Mary Elizabeth Winstead saying what we all feel upon watching this film.

Hank Thompson (Paul Dano) is stranded on a desert island and contemplating suicide until he sees a corpse wash up on the shore.  Hank learns that the corpse has “magical powers,” mainly farting, and forms a friendship with him calling him Manny (Daniel Radcliffe).  Manny learns to talk or at least Hank imagines he can. Things get really weird as Hank and Manny travel through the wilderness and Hank tries to teach the ways of humanity to Manny. Of particular significance is Hank working through his regret about not talking to a woman he was attracted to on the bus named Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

The movie is gross and uncomfortable.  But it’s also kind of the point.  Life is gross and uncomfortable and rules of society mean hiding these things about yourself from others.  The movie is kind of a long metaphor about how one has to let down your defenses and show your real self to form connections in relationship with others.

Manny: But maybe everyone’s a little bit ugly. And maybe we’re all just ugly, dying sacks of shit, and maybe all it’ll take is one person to just be okay with that, and then the whole world will be dancing and singing and farting, and everyone will feel a little bit less alone.

Hank: Manny, you have no idea how nice that sounds.

And there are a lot of fart jokes.  The more I think about this movie the more I like it.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Black Tides of Heaven by Neon Yang


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Singapore
AuthorNeon Yang
Title:The Black Tides of Heaven
Narrator: Nancy Wu
Publication Info: ©2017 Neon Yang (P)2019 HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
Summary/Review:

Akeha and Mokoya are the twin youngest children of the cruel and dictatorial Protector.  In The Protector’s empire, people called Tensors are able to control elemental forces using a magical skill known as slackcraft.The Protector’s control of the Tensors enables her absolute rule.  Children in the Tensorate are raised without gender with physical differences suppressed by slackcraft. When they come of age they can confirm their gender.

The twins are initially raised at a monastery until The Protector learns that Mokoya has developed a gift of prophecy and forces them to return to the empire.  Akeha flees to aid a nascent revolutionary moment while Mokoya tries to avoid having their mother abuse their gift.  All of this builds to a final confrontation with the lingering question, can Akeha and Moyoka defeat their mother without succumbing to her dependence on violence.

This book falls into a genre called silkpunk, fantasy fiction that draws on aspects of Asian antiquity with more modern technological elements.  I can’t say that I quite “get” it but it is a unique and interesting novella.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki


Author: Ryka Aoki
Title: Light From Uncommon Stars
Narrator: Cindy Kay
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

Shizuka Satomi is a world-renown violin instructor who has made a deal with a demon to trade the souls of 7 violin prodigies for success.  She has one more soul to collect and has returned home to Southern California to find a likely candidate.

Lan Tran is a starship captain who has escaped a galactic war with her family, and now operate a doughnut shop as their cover.

Katrina Nguyen is a teenage transgender girl who has run away to Los Angeles from her abusive family and supports herself making YouTube videos.  She also plays the violin.

Somehow not only are all these characters in the same novel, but their interactions create a heartfelt human story that transcends genres. Shizuka and Lan meet, share their strange histories, and strike up a romance. And of course, Shizuka takes on Katrina as her student, and yet treats her with such tenderness that it’s hard to believe she plans to sell Katrina’s soul to the Devil.

And that only scratches the surface of the brilliant, warm, funny, and creative novel!

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

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

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: ***