Movie Review: Fantastic Planet (1973)


Title: Fantastic Planet
Release Date: 11 May 1973
Director: René Laloux
Production Company: Les Films Armorial | Ceskoslovenský Filmexport
Summary/Review:

Fantastic Planet is an animated film that seems made for late-night showings to an audience stoned of its gourd.  The movie is set and the planet Ygam where the dominant species are  the giant, blue, humanoid Traags.  They share the planet with the descendants of humans from Earth who are known as Oms.  Some Oms are kept as pets by Traags, but most live in the wild and are considered vermin to be exterminated by the Traags.

The story focuses on an Om named Terr who is adopted as an infant by a young Traag named Tiwa.  He is able to escape with her instructional headset and use it to share Traag knowledge with the colonies of wild Oms.  Using this knowledge, the Oms are able to begin to fight back and attempt to leave the planet.  The movie can be read as a metaphor for many things – racism, genocide, animal rights, or even the forces of nature.  The movie felt longer than its 71 minute run time and has a disappointing deus ex machina resolution, so this is less of a socio-political message and more of just a journey into the weird.

The pencil-sketch animation style reminded me of something I saw on children’s shows in the 1970s such as the “Pinball Number Count” on Sesame Street. The fanciful settings and the jazz funk fusion music are eerily similar.  I give it points for its visual imagination and funky grooves, but not much else.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune


Author: TJ Klune
Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea
Narrator: Daniel Henning
Publication Info: New York : Tor, 2020.
Summary/Review:

Linus Baker is an effective but unambitious caseworker in a large bureaucratic organization called the Department in Charge of Magical Youth.  Unexpectedly, he is singled out by Extremely Upper Management for a longer assignment to an orphanage on the remote Marsyas Island.  The home only has six magical children under the care of the eccentric Arthur Parnassus, but one of them is Lucifer (a.k.a. “Lucy”), the son of the Devil. (Yes, two of the main characters are named Linus and Lucy and thus prompt a Vince Guaraldi earworm). Other children at the orphanage include wyvern, a gnome, a forest sprite, a shapeshifter, and a gelatinous, tentacled child named Chauncey.

The story is fairly predictable.  Linus’ experience with the children and Arthur leads him to break out of his shell and become more of an advocate for magical children against widespread discrimination.  The children, in turn, learn to accept themselves and begin to form relationships with the nonmagical humans on the mainland.  What makes the book work though is just the wonderful characterization.  The children are so very childlike while also being fantastic and strange. It also has a same sex romance plot and the story can be read as an allegory for the treatment of LGBTQ people cis/het society.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: Encanto (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: Encanto
Release Date: November 24, 2021
Director: Jared Bush & Byron Howard
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures & Walt Disney Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

In Disney’s latest animated musical, we meet the Madrigal family of Columbia who have magical abilities and live in an enchanted house (“Casita”).   The main character is Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz), a 15-year-old who is the only member of the family who did not receive a magical gift.  The premise is simple, Mirabel must use her natural gifts of empathy and resourcefulness to hold the family together during a crisis.

This is one of those movies where a summary would not do the film justice.  This is partly because much of the “magic” of this film is the bright colors and beautiful visuals.  It’s also blessed with catch tunes by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who seems to be everywhere these days).  Finally the interrelation of the large, extended family each with individual talents and personality quirks just won’t translate to a list.

I enjoyed Encanto and it’s a worthy addition to the growing library of Disney animated features.

Rating: ***1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: The Green Knight (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: The Green Knight
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Director: David Lowery
Production Company: Ley Line Entertainment | Bron Creative | Wild Atlantic Pictures | Sailor Bear
Summary/Review: Film can be a lot of things but it is primarily a visual medium.  The Green Knight is a visual feast that uses the language of cinema to adapt poetry from the 14th century. It has all the magic and mystery of ancient tale with the techniques of modern cinema. And while a serious story, it possibly features humorous allusions to Monty Python and Ylvis.  While I enjoy movies of various styles, there are some that complain that contemporary movies are too fast-paced.  For them, this is a treat, a slow-paced film with room to breathe and ratchet up the tension (albeit not so slow-paced as to feature a character eating a pie for 10 minutes).

Gawain (Dev Patel) is the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris), who aspires to be a knight, but spends much of his time in alehouses and brothels.  On Christmas Day, he’s invited to sit beside the King and Queen (Kate Dickie) at a feast that is interrupted by the arrival of The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson).  Gawain rashly takes up the Green Knight’s challenge which requires him to journey northward to the Green Chapel to face the Green Knight again on the following Christmas.

The bulk of the movie is Gawain’s journey and the adventures he has along the way.  Patel is great in the lead role of young man who aspires to be courageous but doubts he has it in him.  Alicia Vikander plays a dual role as Gawain’s commoner lover Essel and as the Lady of the manor where Gawain stops on his journey, and if I didn’t know it beforehand I wouldn’t have realized they were same actor.  Joel Edgerton plays a key role as the Lord of the manor.

I’ve always enjoyed the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ever since I first read it in a Medieval Literature course in college.  It was also the theme of the very first Christmas Revels I ever attended in 1996 in Washington, D.C. It’s great to see the story gain new life in such a stunning medium.  This is definitely a movie I will need to watch again on the big screen.

Rating: ****1/2

Recent Movie Marathon: The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: The Map of Tiny Perfect Things
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Ian Samuels
Production Company: FilmNation Entertainment | Weed Road Pictures | Wishmore Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I saw this movie described as “If John Green did Groundhog Day,” which I think captures of the gist of the movie but undersells the originality and charm of the movie. Yes, this movie does namecheck Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, and shares similarities with Palm Springs and other time loop movies. But as a teen comedy/drama/fantasy/romance it also uses the time loop trope to effectively examine the problems of young people ranging from dealing with grief to the fear of a future under climate change.

The movie begins with Mark (Kyle Allen) having already been in the time loop for some time and enjoying the godlike powers that come with knowing everything that is going to happen.  Things change when he meets Margaret (Kathryn Newton), a girl his own age who also is stuck in the time loop.  They begin spending time together and looking around their town for perfect moments of beauty which Mark documents each morning on a map (hence the title).  While Mark grows increasingly interested in finding a way to escape the temporal anomaly, Margaret is more reticent.  Mark is also interested in a romantic relationship which Margaret rebuffs.

Over the course of the movie, their are some interesting revelations and character growth I won’t spoil, but it ends up for making a very thoughtful and heartwarming film. With strong, nuanced performances by the lead actors (especially Newton), good storytelling, and editing, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is a lot better than I expected and better than others have been giving it credit for.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)


Title: Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Release Date: November 19, 2021
Director: Jason Reitman
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Bron Creative | Ghost Corps | The Montecito Picture Company  Right of Way Films
Summary/Review:

The long awaited sequel to the original Ghostbusters franchise picks up in the present day.  Egon Spengler (the late Harold Ramis) has abandoned his friends and family to invest himself in a paranormal manifestation on a remote farm in Oklahoma.  After his death, his daughter Callie (Carrie Coon), who never knew her father and is dealing with abandonment issues, inherits the creepy farmhouse and moves there with her two children.  Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) is a scientifically-literate but socially awkward preteen while Trevor is good with cars and eager to have a girlfriend.  Soon enough they each uncover bits of pieces of their mysterious grandfather’s past and begin to figure out how to carry his final project.

The great thing about this movie is that it is stylistically not at all much like the original Ghostbusters.  It feels a lot like a Spielberg/Amblin 80s family adventure complete with unsupervised children getting into very dangerous situations. It’s also very efficient in moving the film along without spending too much time dwelling on the various discoveries or the inevitable callbacks.  The final act is probably the most “derivative” of the original Ghostbusters movie, although as the plot centers on loose ends from that movie it makes sense.

There are some great performances in this movie, especially Grace as Phoebe.  The cast is boosted by newcomer Logan Kim as Phoebe’s nerdy friend Podcast, Celeste O’Connor as Trevor’s co-worker and love interest Lucky, and Paul Rudd as Gary, a lazy summer school teacher and scientist who loves the Ghostbusters, who also becomes a love interest for Callie.  And it should be no big spoiler that the original cast of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts all return as their original characters, although not as much as you might expect.  It’s a great family/adventure/comedy movie and a loving tribute to the original film.

I also loved the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, which I think was bigger on laughs, but Ghostbusters: Afterlife is bigger on heart. Both are light years better than the awful Ghostbusters II which seems to have been ignored by the Afterlife filmmakers. Now, of course, we need a multiverse where the casts of both films as well as Filmation’s Ghostbusters come together to fight the biggest threat yet! (No, that would been awful idea, so if you’re a Hollywood producer looking for concepts to work with just pretend you didn’t see this).

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018)


Title: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Release Date: 19 May 2018
Director: Terry Gilliam
Production Company: Alacran Pictures | Tornasol Films | Kinology | Entre Chien et Loup | Ukbar Filmes | El Hombre Que Mato a Don Quijote AIE | Carisco Producciones AIE | Recorded Picture Company
Summary/Review:

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is reminiscent of The Fisher King in that that protagonist must deal with redeeming himself for past offenses with the help of someone who is delusional.  It also reminds me of Time Bandits in the way it moves among places and times to increasingly surreal settings.  And it is like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen in that it has a brilliant set-up and design but somehow fails to deliver on a great premise.  In short, it is a Terry Gilliam film through and through. And it is one that is very close to his heart in that it took him 29 years to realize, as documented in Lost in La Mancha.

Toby Grummett (Adam Driver) is a self-centered director filming a commercial in rural Spain which is not going well.  He flashes back to his student movie, an adaptation of Don Quixote made with with non-professional actors from a Spanish village. Returning to the village he learns that the film had long-lasting negative effects on its participants.  These include Javier (Jonathan Pryce) who has come to believe that is actually Don Quixote, and Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), who has essentially became a courtesan for the Russian oligarch Alexei Miiskin (Jordi Mollà).

The film starts really well with Toby cast by Javier as his Sancho Panza and joining him on his quest.  It’s especially effective with Toby traveling in time between the present day and medieval Spain, which may be dreams or may be costumed locals, depending on the moment.  But towards the third act the film goes off the rails and just becomes a jumbled mess of ideas and images that don’t really seem to fit the established story.  The final scenes are absolutely excellent, but it’s not enough to make up for the fact that everything leading up to it did not earn this finale.

Rating: **1/2

Scary Movie Marathon: The Phantom Carriage (1921)


Title: The Phantom Carriage
Release Date: 1 January 1921
Director: Victor Sjöström
Production Company: AB Svensk Filmindustri
Summary/Review:

According to the legend at the heart of this film, the last person to die before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve will have to spend the next year as the driver of Death’s carriage and collect the souls of the dead.  Naturally, ne’er-do-well drunkard David Holm (Victor Sjöström) dies after hearing this story and is introduced to his new existence by an old friend Georges (Tore Svennberg).  Through flashbacks, they revisit David’s life and mistakes in kind of a topsy-turvy It’s a Wonderful Life.  The story is intercut with the present day story of Salvation Army Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) who is dying of tuberculosis and wishes to see David to see if her prayers have changed him any.  The movie is very much a morality play more than a horror film, but it does have a great spooky atmosphere and special effects that are still impressive 100 years later.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Marathon: Ganja & Hess (1973)


Title: Ganja & Hess
Release Date: April 20, 1973
Director: Bill Gunn
Production Company: Kelly-Jordan Enterprises
Summary/Review:

As a film made in the 1970s by a Black filmmaker with a Black cast, I’ve seen Ganja & Hess filed under the Blaxploitation label.  I think this is a mistake as this movie is an experimental, art house film in the horror genre. In Ganja & Hess, the craving for blood serves as a metaphor for substance abuse. It also deals with issues of religion, Black assimilation, and relationships.  Pretty heavy stuff.

Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones, Night of the Living Dead) is a wealthy anthropologist who lives in a mansion in the Hudson River Valley.  He hires a live-in assistant, George Meda (Bill Gunn) who suffers from mental illness, and in an altercation stabs Dr. Green with an ancient artifact. The infection on the blade grants him powers over death and an insatiable craving for human blood.  Later, Meda’s wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes looking for her husband, but instead develops a romance with Hess and eventually is also turned into a vampire.

It sounds like a simple plot, but it’s hard to describe what’s so different about this movie.  The cinematography, the lighting, themusic, and the acting all create an atmosphere of the ordinary world turned akilter.  It’s definitely worth checking out, even as I can’t say I totally “get” it.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein


Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: Cobalt Squadron
Narrator: Kelly Marie Tran
Publication Info: Listening Library (2017)

Other Books Read by the Same Author:

  • Code Name Verity
  • Rose Under Fire

Summary/Review:

When browsing downloadable audiobooks on my library’s ebook app I immediately hit borrow when I saw that Elizabeth Wein wrote a Star Wars novel! As an added bonus, the audiobook is narrated by Kelly Marie Tran who portrayed Rose Tico in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. Wein’s expertise at writing stories of women pilots and the relationships among them is perfectly suited for the story of sisters Rose and Paige Tico.  The story is about their involvement in a covert Resistance effort to provide supplies to a planet under the thumb of the First Order.  But overall it’s a character story about Rose learning to emerge from her sister’s shadow and assert her own skills.  It makes me wish all the more that we got to see more of Paige in the movies than the one scene in The Last Jedi and that Rose wasn’t done dirty in The Rise of Skywalker by having her screentime cut to appease MRA manbabies who whined about a woman of color having a prominent role.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2