Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)


Title: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Release Date: une 27, 2012
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Production Company: Cinereach | Court 13 | Journeyman Pictures
Summary/Review:

I went into this movie with little knowledge about what it’s about and felt as if I was plunged into a post-apocalyptic science fiction story that begins with the survivors having a big celebration. Eventually, I cottoned on that this story is set in our present day, a reminder that apocalyptic conditions already exist in many places on our earth.  In this case, it is a poor fishing community on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast called The Bathtub that is on the wrong side of the levees (and seemingly outside of governmental control) and thus susceptible to storms and hurricanes.  The movie is clearly a parable for the climate crisis, but it is also so much more.

The movie feels like a fantasy, or magical realism, because its point-of-view character is the 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis).  Wallis’ stunning performance captures a child both fully competent in navigating the world she’s grown up in but also still a child, who needs security.  She doesn’t find much of that in her volatile father Wink (Dwight Henry) who is dying, and her mother has gone missing some time before.

This movie defies description so I’m not going to summarize it any further. Much like Jaccques Tati’s Playtime, this is a movie unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and probably cannot be duplicated.  It’s a movie with a lot of emotion and imagination, and is a credit to Wallis, Henry, and the rest of the cast.  The direction and the cinematography are inspired, and credit must also be given to the set designers that created believable living spaces filled with floating debris.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Wolfwalkers (2020) #AtoZChallenge



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

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.

I couldn’t find a “W” movie to watch from these lists so I’m watching a highly-regarded recent release instead.

Title:Wolfwalkers 
Release Date: December 2, 2020
Director: Tomm Moore | Ross Stewart
Production Company: Cartoon Saloon | Mélusine
Summary/Review:

Kilkenny, Ireland – 1650.  The town faces the threat of a pack of wolves outside its walls, and the draconian rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) within.  Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) is an English hunter charged with eliminating the wolf problem while raising and protecting his adventurous young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey).  Naturally, Robyn makes her way into the forest where she discovers the secret of the wolfwalkers, people who are human when they are awake and wolves when they are asleep, living among the wolfpack.

Robyn befriends the young Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whitaker) and they join together to try and find Mebh’s missing mother and help save the wolf pack.  It’s a wonderful adventure full of great imagination, action, and camaraderie. The animation is absolutely beautiful and effortlessly melds together the historical with the fantastical.  Computer-animated films are getting better and better, but it is also really lovely to see a traditionally animated film like this one again.

Tomm Moore also directed The Secret of Kells which I also loved so now I need to seek out the rest of his films.  In the meantime, I highly recommend this as a great film for the whole family.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) #AtoZChallenge



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

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: The Spirit of the Beehive
Release Date: 8 October 1973
Director: Víctor Erice
Production Company: Elías Querejeta Producciones Cinematográficas S.L. | Jacel Desposito
Summary/Review:

Set in a small Castilian village just after the Spanish Civil War, The Spirit of the Beehive is a film that captures the intersection of childhood wonder and fantasy with grim realities.  If that description seems to fit Pan’s Labyrinth as well, then you won’t be surprised that Guillermo del Toro drew inspiration from this film.  Ana (Ana Torrent) is an adorable 6-year-old with a vivid imagination.  Her father (Fernando Fernán Gómez) is a beekeeper and writes extensively about bees.  Her mother (Teresa Gimpera) writes letters to distant lovers.  Neither of them seem to be all to involved in the lives of their children.

The film begins when a traveling movie show brings Frankenstein to the village.  Ana becomes entranced by Frankenstein’s monster, especially the scene when he kills the little girl. Ana’s older sister Isabel (Isabel Tellería) tells her that “Everything in the movies is fake” and that the monster didn’t kill the girl and that in fact he lives in a nearby sheep shed. Ana visits the sheep shed often and finding a wounded republican soldier hiding there, she brings him food and clothing.

The Spirit of the Beehive is set at the beginning of the Franco regime and was released shortly before Franco’s death. Erice gets a lot of credit for telling a story that is critical of Franco through metaphor and thus evading censorship.  But beyond the plot that I’ve summarized here, much of the film is more of a tone poem capturing the everyday wonders and fears of a young child.  It’s beautifully filmed and Ana Torrent’s performance is remarkable.

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 Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien


Author: J.R.R. Tolkien
Title: The Fellowship of the Ring
Publication Info: George Allen & Unwin, 1954
Summary/Review:

I read this book aloud (along with my wife) to my daughter for the first time.  It’s still a classic, imaginative adventure that I remember.  Although there are some slow and boring parts when reading to a 9-year-old.  You begin to notice how tedious the lists of names and places and the songs and poems are when you’re reading aloud.  Nevertheless, we had a good time reading it and are looking for to the more action-oriented The Two Towers next.

Rating: *****

Book Review: Thrawn: Treason by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Treason
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2019) 
Summary/Review:

In the finale of this trilogy of books, Grand Admiral Thrawn finds himself in the middle of a conflict between Governor Tarkin (of the original Star Wars fame) and Director Orson Krennic (of Rogue One fame).  Even more pressing is an incursion by the war-like Grysks from the Unknown Regions into Imperial territory.

To fight this new threat, Thrawn must work with his own people, the Chiss, with Admiral Ar’alani leading a fleet in an uneasy alliance with Thrawn and the Empire. This book also marks the return of Eli Vanto, who has defected to the Chiss, and it is great to have him back.  Commodore Karyn Faro is established as another great character who becomes a great leader under Thrawn’s tutelage.

It’s interesting that Thrawn is associated with the evil Empire, because he’s an excellent example of leadership in the way he establishes Vanto and Faro as his proteges and then trusts their experience. It’s very different than the rest of the Empire where the “leaders” either step over one another or cower in fear. Brierly Ronan, Krennic’s deputy who is sent along to watch over Thrawn, is a slippery character who is more typical of the Empire we know, although his character also develops in interesting ways.

This book is excellent at building intrigue and gamesmanship.  The only flaw in my mind is that when the story finally builds to a climactic battle, it’s not all that interesting to read about, compared with how exciting it would be depicted in film.  There is more Thrawn to read, as Zahn is now publishing an Ascendancy trilogy about Thrawn’s experiences before he joined the Empire.  And this trilogy of novels I just completed also tie in with the animated series Star Wars: Rebels, so I’m going to have to catch up on that too!

Rating: ****

Book Review: Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn


Author: Timothy Zahn
Title: Thrawn: Alliances
Narrator: Marc Thompson
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, [2018]
Summary/Review:

This second book of the new trilogy, after Star Wars: Thrawn, teams up Grand Admiral Thrawn with Darth Vader. In a parallel narrative, a younger Thrawn still with the Chiss Ascendency meets up with Anakin Skywalker during the Clone Wars. In both stories their mission brings them to the remote planet of Batuu, which just happens to also be the planet used for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney theme parks (if Disney’s going to Star Wars synergy like this, at least they did it very well!).

Thrawn and Vader make an interesting pair because they seem to be the only individuals who can trip one another up. There’s a lot of tension due to their mutual mistrust and competing goals.  While I didn’t think it was a good as the first book as it gets bogged down in plot details, it’s still a compelling novel.  I also felt Eli Vanto’s presence was missing from this book.  Still, I’m looking forward to book 3.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Portrait of Jennie (1948)


Title: Portrait of Jennie
Release Date: December 25, 1948
Director: William Dieterle
Production Company: Vanguard Films
Summary/Review:

Set in the heart of the Great Depression, a struggling artist named Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) finds his muse in a girl he meets in Central Park, Jennie Appleton (Jennifer Jones).  His art dealer and mentor Miss Spinney (Ethel Barrymore) sees promise in a sketch he makes of Jennie and encourages him to paint her portrait. The problem with Jennie is that she wears long out-of-fashion clothing, talks about a no longer extant theater in the present tense, and every time Eben meets her appears to have aged in years rather than in the days or weeks that have passed.

This movie has a lot of flaws. The dialogue is wordy and clunky, Jones is not at all convincing at portraying a child or even a teenager, and the romance that blossoms between the adult Eben and underage Jennie is downright creepy.  I guess it presages teen paranormal romances where a teenage girl finds romance with a centuries old immortal. Nevertheless, I am won over by the romantic charm of this movie, and it is one I enjoyed in my own youth as well.

Unusual for the time, the movie made use of extensive (and expensive) location shooting.  The shots of the snow-covered and sun-drenched Central Park are worth every cent, and it’s great to see the Cloisters museum doubling as a convent school, and the Graves Light in Boston Harbor appearing in the film’s denouement. There’s also a nice effect where many scenes begin as if they’re painted on canvas.

It’s interesting to watch this movie so soon after A Matter of Life and Death, as both movies are romances that deal with life and afterlife.  Portrait of Jennie even uses a switch from black-and-white to full color for effect, although in a much smaller amount. My favorite scene when I watched this when I was younger is when Eben gets a commission to paint a mural of Michael Collins in an Irish pub, and it remains a great scene.

Portrait of Jennie doesn’t seem to be as well-known or highly-regarded as other movies of its time, but it’s worth seeking out if you like a sweet and romantic fantasy movie with a mix of humor and mystery.

Rating: ****

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 Review: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)


Title: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Release Date: 17 December 2003
Director: Peter Jackson
Production Company: New Line Cinema | WingNut Films
Summary/Review:

The trilogy finishes with a bang with the most action-packed and exciting film of the series.  Once again, Jackson emphasizes being an epic war movie, but in this case it is appropriate since the story concludes in an epic war.  Plus we get great character entries as Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are split up and become members of the Rohan and Gondor forces.  Meanwhile, Eowyn (Miranda Otto), has the greatest character moment in the enter series when she declares “I am no man!”

The quest of Frodo (Elijah Wood), Sam (Sean Astin), and their guide Gollum (Andy Serkis) is not given short-shrift.  Frodo and Sam are put through the wringer and their pure exhaustion is evident. The whole trilogy is a wonderful movie-going experience, and a great story of hope in time of strife, collaborative effort, and friendship.

By the way, my daughter is now fully on board with The Lord of the Rings and wants to dress as Legolas for Halloween.

Rating: ****