Movie Review: A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Title: A Hard Day’s Night 
Release Date: 6 July 1964
Director:  Richard Lester
Production Company: Walter Shenson Films | Proscenium Films

Growing up in the 1980s meant constantly being aware that it was the 20th anniversary of something that happened in the in 1960s.  The Beatles were a frequent topic of these retrospectives and I remember watching A Hard Day’s Night during a Beatles nostalgia event on tv.  I remember it being pretty good (and that their other film, Help!, was not).

Revisiting A Hard Day’s Night, I find it even better than I remember.  In a couple of years John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr had gone from gigging in Hamburg to becoming stars in their hometown of Liverpool to being UK hitmakers to being a global phenomenon.  And now they’re appearing in a movie, filmed in a vérité style with quippy dialogue that makes it feel improvised.

The movie purports to be a day in the life as the lads travel to London to rehearse and perform on a TV program. And as miserable as it may be to feel trapped in trains, hotel rooms, and studios, unable to escape the screaming fans, the lads seem to be having fun. Irish actor Wilfrid Brambell is cast as Paul’s fiction grandfather, “a clean old man” who acts as an added chaos agent.  Hijinks ensue.  And also, one of the great bands of all time perform some classic tunes.

Some things stand out on this watch as being relevant to today.

This quote from John Lennon:

“The older generation are leading this country to galloping ruin!”

The scene where George essentially calls out influencers.

The scene when Grandfather comes very close to saying ACAB.  “Ah, sure, that’s what they want you to think. All coppers are villains.”

Of course, my favorite scene will always be John playing with toy boats in the bathtub.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Uprising (2021) #atozchallenge

Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter U that I have previously reviewed include:

Release Date: July 20, 2021
Director: Steve McQueen and James Rogan
Production Company: Rogan Productions |  BBC | Lammas Park | Turbine Studios

This three part documentary series details the emergence of a new civil rights movement among Black British people in the early 1980s.  At the time, the fascist National Front was gaining support with their anti-Black and anti-immigrant views that were echoed in the opinions of the new prime minister Margaret Thatcher.  The subjects of this documentary are primarily British-born children of West Indian immigrants who grew up in this atmosphere in the 70s and 80s.

The first part focuses on an event that catalyzed the movement, a fire at a house party in South East London in January 1981 that killed 13 children and young adults.  Witnesses believe they saw someone throw a firebomb into the house (a tactic that had been used by racists elsewhere in London) but the police investigation focused on blaming the victims.  Public officials and the news media responded with indifference and derision.

The centerpiece of the second part is the Black People’s Day of Action in March 1981 when 20,000 people marched through London.  Black people from across England came to participate in the largest protest for racial justice in the nation’s history.  With growing awareness of Black power and racial tension, the spring and summer of 1981 was marred by riots throughout England.  The third part of the series focuses particularly on the riot in Brixton.

Along with a lot of phenomenal archival footage (and scored to some terrific reggae music from the period) this movie includes interviews with several survivors of the the New Cross fire and participants in the Brixton riots.  There are also interviews with many white government officials and police officers, some of whom seem to have become more culturally sensitive as a result of their experience, and some who hang themselves with their own words.

I was not familiar with these events but they seemed sadly similar to racial history in the United States.  I also noted some parallels with how British officials mismanaged The Troubles in Ireland and the Hillsborough disaster.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Hope and Glory (1987)

Title: Hope and Glory
Release Date:  16 October 1987
Director: John Boorman
Production Company: Goldcrest Films | Nelson Entertainment

Set in London from around 1939 to 1942, Hope and Glory provides a child’s-eye view of World War II and the Blitz. In the horrors of war, Billy Rowan (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) can find joy in escaping school because of an air raid, bombed-out houses become a playground, and there’s beauty in a runaway barrage balloon.  Billy’s middle-aged father Clive (David Hayman) enlists despite his advanced age and his mother Grace (Sarah Miles) has to hold things together on the home front.  She’s unable to part with Billy and his little sister Sue (Geraldine Muir) in the Evacuation so they stay in the London for the nightly “fireworks” and gathering bits of shrapnel.  Meanwhile, Billy’s teenage sister Dawn (Sammi Davis) enjoys dancing with Canadian soldiers and ends up with an unplanned pregnancy.

In the the third act of the film, the family’s house is destroyed not by a bomb but by an ordinary house fire.  They end up living in a rustic Thameside cottage with Billy’s grandparents. Thus Billy learns about rowing, fishing, and cricket from his eccentric grandfather (Ian Bannen).  The whole movie has the sheen of nostalgia, probably based on writer/director John Boorman’s own childhood experiences, which helps excuse details like the fact that the children don’t seem to age over three years or Ian Bannen’s over-the-top acting.

The story of this movie is rooted in the stories the English like to tell themselves about the home front during World War II, stiff upper lip and all that.  Yet, subtly, Boorman also satirizes all that.  We see characters being cruel, foolish, and outright stupid.  And yet, Billy’s family survives the war and even seem to be in a better place by the end of the movie, more from dumb luck than anything else. I remember really enjoying this movie in my teen years for its wry humor and its view of children running wild and thriving during the darkest times.  Revisiting Hope & Glory all these years later I still think it’s an enjoyable and underrated film.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan (2020)

Title: Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan
Release Date: December 4, 2020
Director: Julien Temple
Production Company: Infinitum Nihil | Nitrate Film | Wild Atlantic Pictures | BBC Music | Warner Music | Screen Ireland

“People were always calling me a poet, but it’s very annoying to be called a poet when you’re a musician, because it means you’ve wasted your time writing the music.” – Shane MacGowan

This documentary is a straight-forward biography of singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan, most famous for his work with the Celtic punk band The Pogues, in that it covers his life from birth to the present.  Straight-forward except that delightfully-weird animation that is used to recreate key moments of MacGowan’s life as well as what seems to be found footage to complement archival footage of MacGowan, his family, and The Pogues.  MacGowan credits his childhood years on the family farm in Tipperary, Ireland with moulding is life.  He started to drink at the age of 6, but also learned traditional music and lived on a land that still bore the scars of the Great Hunger and the Irish War of Independence.

The movie features original interviews with MacGowan and archival footage where he talks (mumbles, really) about his life and inspirations. There are also scenes of him in conversation with his friends actor Johnny Depp and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams.  Interviews with Macgowan’s parents, his sister Siobhan, and wife Victoria Mary Clarke fill out the story.  I would argue the main flaws of this film is that it is overly long and repetitive.  If there’s one thing anyone knows about Shane MacGowan is that he drinks a lot, so that point didn’t need to be beaten to death at the expense of, say, learning more about his songwriting process.  Still, this is an insightful film about a complex and talented man.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Attack the Block (2011)

Title: Attack the Block
Release Date: 11 May 2011
Director: Joe Cornish
Production Company: StudioCanal Features | Film4 | UK Film Council | Big Talk Pictures

The film begins with a teenage street gang in a South London council estate mugging Samantha Adams (Jodie Whittaker), a nurse in training.  Before the crime is even complete, a nearby car explodes in a fireball.  The boys discover that it has been hit by something containing an alien lifeform.  The gang’s leader Moses (John Boyega) determines that he will kill the creature to defend their community.  Thus begins 80 minutes of non-stop action with healthy doses of comedy and horror as they are hunted and then hunt a pack of sharp-toothed alien beasts.  The boys join forces with Samantha, the local drug dealer (Nick Frost), one of his stoned customers (Luke Treadaway), and others to defend themselves.

In addition to the alien threat, Moses and his crew also have to face down the police who are more intent on busting Black children than recognizing the extraterrestrial threat.  It’s a daring move to start the movie by showing its main characters as unsympathetically as possible and then develop the characters so well that the audience is cheering for them by the end The movie has a suitably low-budget feel, maybe even more of a tv movie.  Because of the presence of Whittaker and aliens it also feels like it could’ve been spun off from Doctor Who.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Title: Mary Poppins Returns
Release Date:
Director: Rob MarshDecember 19, 2018all
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Lucamar Productions |Marc Platt Production

It’s the Great Depression in London, and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), a recent widower with three children, is at risk of having his house repossessed by the very same bank that employed his father. His children, Annabel (Pixie Davies), John (Nathanael Saleh), and Georgie (Joel Dawson), have matured quickly and almost have to parent their grieving father. Even their Aunt Jane (a winsome Emily Mortimer), a labor organizer who has retained the joie de vivre of her childhood, is distraught by the potential loss of the family house.

Into this milieu steps Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt capably stepping into Julie Andrews’ shoes), who arrives to set things right by giving the children the chance to be children, help Michael recover his childlike sense of wonder, and oddly, pairing off the confident single woman Jane with a man. At least in this old-fashioned notion of forced pair bonding, Jane is matched up with Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda), a charming lamplighter who fills the role of Dick Van Dyke’s Bert.

I’m struck by how much this sequel follows the same structure as its predecessor. Mary takes the kids on a couple of fantastical adventures – an undersea journey through the bathtub and into a ceramic bowl. They visit a relative who ends up on the ceiling, in this case Meryl Streep as Topsy. They dance with the working class laborers of London, in this case Jack and his fellow lamplighters. There is a final showdown in the bank. And the film ends with a day in the park but instead of flying kites, the characters themselves fly on magical balloons, with Angela Lansbury in a singing cameo as the Balloon Lady.

The song and dance number provide wonderful choreography and spectacle. I particularly enjoy the lamplighters’ number incorporating bicycles. This is a very bike-positive movie over all. And the animation of the ceramic bowl is very well done too. Unfortunately, none of the songs really made an impression. The music isn’t bad, there’s just nothing I remember after the fact that can stand by “A Spoonful of Sugar” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

Movies made over 50 years typically do not need sequels, particularly classics like Mary Poppins. Mary Poppins Returns offers little to justify its existence. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, it just lacks the ambition to be great. Nevertheless, it does have enough whimsy and charm to fill a couple of hours should you be so inclined.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The 39 Steps (1935)

Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: The 39 Steps
Release Date: 6 June 1935
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Gaumont-British Picture Corporation

The 39 Steps is one of the many great movies I watched in my film studies class in high school.  I remember liking it but I didn’t remember anything about the movie other than the famous moment when the chambermaid’s scream is drowned out by a train whistle. The movie stars Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, an ordinary person who gets caught up in international intrigue.  The movie is a template for many spy stories and thrillers to follow, but I’m impressed by how fresh and original it seems.

The movie starts with Hannay attending a music hall performance of Mr. Memory (Wylie Watson) when shots are fired in the theater and panic ensues.  Hannay meets Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim) in the crowd and take her home for protection. Annabella confesses that she is a spy being chased for assassins because she is trying to stop the theft of valuable British military intelligence. In the morning, Hannay wakes up to Annabella stumbling into his room with a knife in her back, clutching a map of Scotland with Alt-na-Shellach circled.

The bulk of the film involves Hannay traveling to Scotland to find the spies and clear his name of Annabella’s murder. He falls into and out of trouble as he’s pursued both by the police and the spies.  Hannay doesn’t really have a plan but he’s good at improvising and has a good sense of humor.  Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), a woman who identifies Hannay to the police on multiple occasions, eventually ends up handcuffed to him by the spies in disguise.  Their scenes together, while fully in the thriller genre, also seem to be protypical tropes of the romantic comedy (and also kind of remind me of Frank Capra’s 1934 comedy It Happened One Night, which I’m going to have to rewatch to make sure).

The 39 Steps is an excellent thriller with great comic moments, inspired acting performances, and directorial innovation from Hitchcock.  It’s definitely worth a spot on lists of Hitchcock’s best movies and the best movies of all time.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: The Great Muppet Caper (1981)

Welcome to Muppet Mondays! Over the next several Mondays I will be working my way through the various movies in the Muppets and Jim Henson oeuvre.

Title: The Great Muppet Caper
Release Date: 26 June 1981
Director: Jim Henson
Production Company: Henson Associates | ITC Entertainment

A sequel that confusingly really isn’t a sequel because the Muppets play different characters but with the same names.  This was how it was explained to me as a child, especially to make sense of why Kermit and Miss Piggy were romantically involved in the movies, but Miss Piggy’s love is unrequited on the tv show.  At any rate, I don’t think I’ve watched The Great Muppet Caper since I saw it in the theaters long ago with my father, (perhaps I saw it later on tv, but never as often as the other Muppet movies I watched as a child).  The Great Muppet Caper has a reputation for being a disappointing follow-up to The Muppet Movie, but even with a sophomore slump, I think it holds up remarkably well.

In this movie Kermit and Fozzie are twin brothers who work as reporters, with Gonzo as their photographer, who travel to London to investigate the theft of fashion designer Lady Holliday’s (Diana Rigg) jewels. There they meet Miss Piggy, Lady Holliday’s new receptionist with aspirations for modelling, and several other Muppets who populate the fleabag Happiness Hotel.  Lady Holliday’s brother, Nicky (Charles Grodin), and a trio of models are behind the jewel heists and its up to the Muppets to foil their plot.

Much like it’s predecessor, this movie relies on meta-fictional humor and recurring sight gags.  Movie tropes, particularly heist movies, are parodied and there are grand song and dance numbers that harken back to Astaire & Rogers and Ethel Merman, except they feature Miss Piggy.  While The Muppet Movie wowed us with Kermit riding a bicycle, this movie shows the whole cast of Muppets bicycling and performing tricks!  Throughout the movie, Muppet characters seem to move autonomously in remarkable ways.

The criticisms that I have for this movie is that it feels very episodic and the humor is not as sharp. Joe Raposo’s soundtrack doesn’t include any songs as memorable as Paul Williams’ Muppet Movie soundtrack.  And the cameo performances aren’t as funny, with one notable exception. John Cleese and Joan Sanderson appear as an upper-class British couple carrying on the most boring, awkward conversation as Miss Piggy breaks into their house.

The Great Muppet Caper is not the all-time classic of its predecessor, but it’s still a funny and creative step forward for Jim Henson and the Muppet performers in film-making

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: The Man Who Knew Too Much
Release Date: December 1934
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Gaumont British Picture Corporation 

As a child, I watched the 1956 Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Although the only thing I can remember about the movie is Doris Day singing “Que Sera, Sera,” I remember liking it well enough. The critical consensus, however, is that the 1934 version of the movie is better.

The movie begins with the British Lawrence family enjoying a vacation at a Swiss ski resort.  Jill Lawrence (Edna Best) is dancing with a French ski jumper they befriended, Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), when the latter is shot from outside the ballroom.  In his dying moments, Louis tells Jill to have her husband Bob (Lesley Banks) to find in his room a secret message for the British Consul about an international crime.  Bob finds the secret note, but is witnessed in the act, and in retaliation, a criminal gang lead by Abbot (Peter Lorre) kidnaps the Lawrence’s young daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam).

The Lawrence’s return home to London and refuse to cooperate with the government officials, knowing it could lead to the gang killing Betty.  Instead, Bob begins an investigation with his comic relief brother-in-law, Clive (Hugh Wakefield).  Their investigation leads to a dentist office, a church for sun-worshipers, the Albert Hall, and eventually a massive shootout that would put Quention Tarentino to shame. Bob really doesn’t go into any of this with a plan and succeeds by luck, so much of the tension is around whether his latest improvisation will work.

Lorre is great as the villain, as always, but many of the other performances are kind of flat.  If you think too hard about a lot of Hitchcock films, the plans of the characters don’t make too much sense in retrospect, but in this movie they don’t even make much sense as you’re watching it.  This film is a serviceable thriller, but I wouldn’t rank it among the all-time classics or even the best Hitchcock films.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Title: The Lavender Hill Mob
Release Date: 28 June 1951
Director: Charles Crichton
Production Company: Ealing Studios

The Lavender Hill Mob is an Ealing Studios comedy starring Alec Guinness, much like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), and directed by Charles Chrichton, who later directed A Fish Called Wanda (1988).

Guinness plays Henry Holland, a fastidious bank clerk who spends twenty years in charge of transfers of gold bullion.  While known for his honesty, he’s in fact playing a long game to steal the bullion.  The only problem he faces is how to smuggle the bullion abroad so that he can sell it.  The solution comes when he meets a new boarder at his boarding house, Alfred Pendlebury (Stanley Holloway), who runs a foundry that produces souvenirs for the export market.  The two men come up with a plan to steal the bullion, melt it down, make it into Eiffel Tower paperweights, and then ship it to France.

Things, of course, go very wrong.  But the way they go wrong and how the characters react is where the humor lies.  As an added bonus, much of this film was shot on location in London and Paris.  We get to see London still bearing the damage of World War II, and a stunning sequence where Henry and Alfred run down the circular staircase of the Eiffel Tour.  It all makes for an enjoyable, laugh out loud film with many twists right up to the conclusion.

Rating: ****