90 Movies in 90 Days: Alice (1988)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: Alice
Release Date: 3 August 1988
Director: Jan Švankmajer
Production Company: Film Four International | Condor Films

As a fan of Lewis Carroll’s  classic novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I’ve never been quite satisfied with film adaptations.  This Czech film adheres to the spirit of the original’s surreal, dreamlike quality through a child’s point of view. It is after all, a film made for children.  Perhaps.

The only actor to appear in the movie is the exceptionally young-looking Kristýna Kohoutová (I haven’t been able to confirm her age at the time of filming) as Alice.  In the English-language version I watched, all of the dialogue is narrated by Camilla Power.  Everything else in this film is created by animating taxidermy animals, dolls, and household objects.  The herky-jerky nature of the stop-motion lends an uncanny valley quality to the animation.

The whole production teeters on the line between whimsical charm and nightmare fodder.  I’m sure this movie would’ve terrified me as a young child.  But it fascinates me now both as an adaptation of a great book and as it’s own weird and wonderful thing.

Rating: ****1/2


Book Reviews: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Malaysia

Author: Zen Cho
Title: Black Water Sister
Narrator: Catherine Ho
Publication Info: [Prince Frederick] : Recorded Books Incorporated, 2021.

Jessamyn Teoh, a recent college graduate who grew up in the United States after her family emigrated there from Malaysia during her early childhood, faces an uncertain future.  She is moving back to Malaysia with her parents where she has to adjust to an unfamiliar culture, find work, and maintain a long-distance relationship with her girlfriend while hiding that she’s lesbian from her parents.  Things grow more complicated when Jess begins hearing the voice of her deceased grandmother Ah Ma.  Soon Jess finds herself plunged into an adventure featuring a powerful real estate developer, gangsters, and gods.  To put things right, and to find justice for Ah Ma, Jess must become a medium for a vengeful goddess known as Black Water Sister.

Black Water Sister is a unique novel that blends elements of fantasy, mystery, and fish out of water story to tell a story of contemporary Malaysia.  Facets of Malaysian culture such as tradition, religion, and family are woven into the narrative.  Unfortunately for Jess (and others like her), homophobia is also a part of the Malaysian culture.  It’s an interesting and well-written story that I enjoyed.
Recommended books:

Rating: ****

90 Movies in 90 Days: Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: Meshes of the Afternoon
Release Date: 1943
Director: Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid
Production Company: Independent

Meshes of the Afternoon ranked #16 in the most recent Sight & Sound Poll of The Greatest Films of All Time. The short experimental film by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid is completely silent which serves as a good reminder of the importance of music and sound design to film even if there’s no dialogue.  The movie is reminiscent of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, which combined with the silence makes it feel around 15 years out of date.  Then again, filmed in the sun-drenched streets of Los Angeles, it also feels like a precursor to film noir.  Ultimately, David Lynch and Jordan Peele would draw inspiration from this film.

The story, as it is, involves a woman (Deren) pursuing a hooded figure with a mirror for a face. She ends up in a house and the sequence loops so that ultimately there are several versions of the same woman.  There are repeated tropes of a key, a knife, and a telephone. Eventually, a man (Hammid) appears.  Is he the hooded figure?

The movie is much darker than the previous movie I watched by the Deren and Hammid, The Private Life of a Cat.  But they share a commonality in the way the camera is moved to provide point of view as well as the exploration of domestic interiors.It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but it does invite one to find an answer to the questions it spurs.

Rating: ***1/2


Movie Review: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)

Title: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Release Date: November 9, 2022
Director:Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson
Production Company:Netflix Animation | Double Dare You! | ShadowMachine | The Jim Henson Company

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, the most recent adaptation of the 1883 Italian novel by Carlo Collodi, really leans into the horror and existentialism of a boy made out of wood.  And yet it is all the more heartwarming as the result.  As a father myself, I have to say it really tugged at my heartstrings.

The film is set during the time of Mussolini’s reign over Italy, which means it takes place at the same time the most famous adaptation of the story, Disney’s Pinocchio, was made. The movie has a strong anti-war and anti-fascist message.  The movie is made in gorgeous stop-motion animation where everything looks like it was carved out of wood.  Once again in 2022, it’s a crime that animated movies are getting only limited theatrical release at best!

There’s a lot of great talent in the voicework as well.  Gregory Mann provides the voice of Pinocchio, a wooden boy created by the grieving Geppetto (David Bradley) after the death of his son Carlo. Ewan McGregor is Sebastian J. Cricket, a talking insect who made his home in the tree that Geppetto cuts down to make Pinocchio and then later he lives in the hollow of Pinocchio’s chest, acting as his conscience.  Other voices include Tilda Swinton, Cristoph Walz, Cate Blanchett, Ron Perlman, and Finn Wolfhard.  And Mussolini is voiced by Tom Kenny.  You know, the voice of Spongebob Squarepants.

Pinocchio is worth a watch as a family film, although there may be parts that could freak out a more sensitive child.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)

Title: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Release Date: November 11, 2022
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: Marvel Studios

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a sequel that has to contend with death of it’s charismatic star and generational talent, Chadwick Boseman.  The movie begins with T’Challa dying of an incurable illness much like Boseman in real life, handling the problem with greater gravitas and respect for the deceased actor than Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker did for Carrie Fisher.  The women of Wakanda step into the void both as leaders of Wakanda and as the series’ protagonists, particularly scientist and T’Challa’s sister Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), warrior general Okoye (Danai Gurira), Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and former spy and romantic partner of T’Challa Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

T’Challa’s opening Wakanda and its technology to the world has the downside of world powers seeking sources of vibranium.  This in turn leads to the emergence of the Talokan, another hidden society of people descended from the Maya whose discovery of a source of vibranium and the herb that grows from gives the ability to live in a kingdom under the ocean.  Their king, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), seeks an alliance with Wakanda to destroy the rest of the world.  With Shuri unwilling to carry out mass destruction, the two kingdoms go to war. Wakanda and Talokan each offer an interesting perspective on how colonialism has hurt the non-white people of the world and the lasting trauma contributing to ongoing violence. Namor is also like Kilmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in the first film in that he’s a villain with a very good point, and the question remains how to channel that revolutionary fervor to constructive rather than destructive ends.

There’s also a sideplot with Shuri and Okoye needing to protect a scientist from Namor because she’s invented a device that can locate vibranium.  It turns out that the scientist is Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne)  a teenage prodigy who studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  This means that as a Bostonian we finally get to see the greater Boston area in the MCU, although they never quite make it across the bridge to Boston proper.  Riri also is able to build her own armored suit like Tony Stark and takes on the superhero name Ironheart.  I have a feeling that with Cassie Lang, Kate Bishop, America Chavez, Love, Kamala Khan, Riri, and others that we’re totally being set up for a Young Avengers team.

The original Black Panther is still the best movie in the MCU, in my opinion, and Wakanda Forever had a lot to live up to under the best conditions.  At nearly three hours in length, it is like a lot of MCU movies in being just too long.  I also feel that despite the great performances by all the stars that the movie suffers from not having a single protagonist for much of the first two acts as well as too many sideplots.  That aside, it is still an enjoyable and heartfelt film and a worth successor.

Rating: ***1/2





Movie Review: My Father’s Dragon (2022)

Title: My Father’s Dragon
Release Date: November 4, 2022
Director: Nora Twomey
Production Company:Netflix Animation | Mockingbird Pictures | Cartoon Saloon
Summary/Review: An adaptation of a 1948 children’s book by Ruth Stiles Gannett, My Father’s Dragon is the latest offering from Cartoon Salon, the Irish animation studio that created standout films like The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea, and Wolfwalkers. It’s streaming on Netflix and not for the first time this year I’m left wishing that there was more widespread opportunity to see the brilliant visuals of an animated film on a big screen.

Elmer (Jacob Tremblay, of Luca fame) is a resourceful kid who helps his single mom Dela (Golshifteh Farahani) run her store. When the Depression hits they are forced to move to a big city where they struggle to make ends meet. Some encounters with magical talking animals leads Elmer to Wild Island where he rescues a Boris (Gaten Matarazzo), a young dragon who is clumsy and rather goofy.  A gorilla named Saiwa (Ian McShane) chained Boris to the peak of the island to prevent it from sinking.  On the run from Saiwa, Elmer and Boris need to find an alternate way of saving Wild Island.

This movie is pure adventure, and full of fanciful images and ideas.  As always, the Cartoon Salon animation-style is vivid and imaginative.  The voice cast is stacked with noted actors including Dianne Wiest, Rita Moreno, Chris O’Dowd, Judy Greer, Alan Cumming, Yara Shahidi, Jackie Earle Haley, and Whoopi Goldberg.  I think this movie would appeal especially to families with younger children as the sentimentality might turn of bigger kids and teens.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia

Author: Kate Racculia
Title: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Publication Info: HMH Adult Audio, 2021

Tuesday Mooney is a researcher at a hospital in Boston who looks into the backgrounds of prospective donors.  When an eccentric millionaire, Vincent Pryce, dies at a fundraiser, it kicks off a city-wide treasure hunt for the deceased’s fortune.  Tuesday teams up with her best friend Dex, her teenage neighbor and mentee Dorry, and Arches, the charming son of another first family of Boston.

There is a lot going on in this book with the treasure hunt a fun main plot around which various subplots orbit.  For one thing, Tuesday is dealing with her best friend Abby going missing (and presumably dead) when they were teenagers.  She can still hear Abby’s voice talking with her and advising her as an adult.  Arches, meanwhile, has famously had his wealthy father go missing in a boating incident 6 years earlier, the truth of which is something he is grappling with.  And that’s just scratching the surface.

I think the many stories going on within the novel make it needlessly complicated.  But it’s still a fun mystery/adventure/paranormal/romance novel with a lot of great Boston details.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Wendell & Wild (2022)

Title: Wendell & Wild
Release Date: October 21, 2022
Director: Henry Selick
Production Company: Monkeypaw Productions | Gotham Group

Kat Elliot (Lyric Ross) is the only survivor of a car crash that kills her parents, the owners of successful brewery in the town of Rust Bank. After five years cycling through foster service and juvenile detention, Kat returns to her home town to attend a private girls school on a rehabilitation program. Kat is accidentally marked as a “hell maiden,” which draws the attention of the demons Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (Jordan Peele).  They wish to escape their father Buffalo Belzer (Ving Rhames) and return the land of the living to create an amusement park.  Wendell and Wild strike a deal with Kat to have her summon them to the surface in return for their resurrecting her parents.

There’s already a lot going on in this summary, and I’m barely scratching the surface.  If there’s a major flaw to this movie, it’s that it has too much plot.  Nevertheless, it is an imaginative and visually impressive film.  Director Henry Selick’s previous films include The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), James and the Giant Peach (1996), and Coraline (2009), and fans of his stop-motion animation style will like this film as well. Jordan Peele co-wrote the script with Selick and it reflects his comedy, horror, and social justice instincts.  The metaphors are very heavy in this movie (one scene depicts a literal “school-to-prison pipeline” and one of the villains looks a lot like Donald Trump), but again the creativity of the story and imagination more than make up for any heavy-handedness.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: Beetlejuice (1988)

Title: Beetlejuice
Release Date: March 30, 1988
Director: Tim Burton
Production Company: The Geffen Company

Beetlejuice was on cable TV a lot in my youth, and despite seeing it multiple times, I never really liked it.  I’m not quite sure why it rubbed me the wrong way, but as a Harry Belafonte fan it did annoy me that so many people acted like his calypso music was original to his movie.  I thought my younger child might enjoy seeing a young Winona Ryder after watching Stranger Things, and that I would warm to the movie since my surly teen days are long behind me.

But it didn’t.  I still don’t find it funny.  It’s almost funny which can be worse than not being funny at all.  The basic plot is kind of a take on gentrification.  Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam (Alec Baldwin) Maitland are a young couple restoring a large Victorian house in Connecticut.  When they die in a car crash, they find themselves trapped in the house as ghosts.  When an awful yuppie couple from New York, Delia (Catherine O’Hara) and Charles (Jeffrey Jones) Deetz, Barbara and Adam try to use their ghostly powers to scare them away.  They do bond with the Deetz’s goth daughter Lydia (Ryder), but ultimately call on the creepy “bio-exorcist” Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) to help them drive out the Deetzes.  Hijinks ensue.

There are aspects of this movie I like, starting with just the general weirdness of everything that is distinctively Tim Burton.  The stop motion animation effects are well-done and a lot of fun.  And Ryder is terrific in one her earliest roles.  But overall, Beetlejuice just doesn’t do it for me.

Rating: ***

Scary Movie Review: Hocus Pocus (1993)

Title: Hocus Pocus
Release Date:  July 16, 1993
Director: Kenny Ortega
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures

I was 19-years-old when Hocus Pocus was released to theaters in 1993, so I quickly judged it as “not for me.”  But over the decades, the Millennial generation have made it loudly be known that this is a Halloween classic, so I figured I’d give it a try.  The movie is very 1990s, sometimes painfully 1990s.  And very Disney.  And very sitcom-ish.  And very 1990s Disney sitcom, although I should note once again it was released in theaters.  And yet, despite the cringe moments, I found myself warming to the quirky charm of Hocus Pocus and its absolutely bonkers plot points.

Max (Omri Katz) is a teenager who just moved from California to Salem, Massachusetts and is having trouble fitting in.  That the movie depicts the people of Massachusetts as obsessed with Halloween and prone to making fun of Max for being from Los Angeles are some of the most accurate parts of the movie (I’m also impressed that so much location shooting was done in the real Salem!).

On Halloween, Max reluctantly takes his little sister Dani (Thora Birch) trick-or-treating.  Stopping at the house of Max’s crush Allison (Vinessa Shaw) the three decided to break into the shuddered historic house museum of the Sanderson sisters, three women executed for practicing witchcraft in 1693. Trying to impress Allison, Max accidentally casts the spell that brings back the Sanderson sisters – Winnifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Mary (Kathy Najimy).  With the help of Thackery Binx (Sean Murray),  a colonial boy cursed by Winnifred to live in immortality as a talking cat (voiced by Jason Marsden), Max, Dani, and Allison must stop the Sandersons and save Salem.

This movie is a lot weirder than I thought.  Midler is obviously having fun in her over-the-top performance as Winnifred.  For my money, though, the MVP is Parker is almost always doing something bizarre around the edges of the shot (I’d forgotten how goofy Parker could be in her career before Sex and the City, although I haven’t seen any of her more recent work).  Birch is also excellent in the sarcastic, cute kid role.  And the great Doug Jones has a small part as the zombie Headless Billy.

This movie is a lot hornier than you’d expect for a Disney film.  A key plot point is that Max is “still” a virgin at 15-years-old and everyone gives him a hard time for it!  Also, a bus driver quips that he would be willing to impregnate all the Sanderson sisters.  Not for nothing,  there are also some scares in the movie, including a child being killed on screen within the first five minutes and a cat getting flattened by a bus.  Still though, this is light comic fair for the most part, and I’m not surprised that a generation of kids could enjoy watching this every October on tv.

Rating: ***