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
Summary/Review:

“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
Summary/Review:

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
Summary/Review:

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
Summary/Review:

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
Summary/Review:

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 
Summary/Review:

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
Summary/Review:

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: ****

Documentary Review: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1983) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “Z” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “Z” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and Zimbelism.

Title: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Release Date: December 23, 1983
Director: D. A. Pennebaker
Production Company: Miramax Films | MainMan | Bewlay Bros.
Summary/Review:

David Bowie finished off a world tour supporting The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars with this performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973.  Pioneering D. A. Pennebaker and a small crew were on hand to film the show.  Cinematically, this film does not hold up to the likes of The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense. Nevertheless, I appreciate the simplicity and the intimacy of this concert film.

Bowie is the focus of the film, whether he’s on stage or in his dressing room for a costume change.  It’s clear that he has a special connection with the audience, many of who are in Ziggy Stardust style makeup and costumes.  Assuming there are no overdubs in this film – and I don’t think there are – the band was on fire this night, especially Mark Ronson who has several excellent guitar solos.  Pianist Mike Garson lends a cocktail lounge jazz sound to several songs that works very well.  My only disappointment is that the band doesn’t perform “Starman” or “Life on Mars” in this set.

If you’re like me and weren’t alive to see what the big deal was regarding Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, this is a good way to found out.

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: Gaslight (1944) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Gaslight
Release Date: May 4, 1944
Director: George Cukor
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Synopsis:

This psychological thriller actually lent its name to the form of psychological manipulation and abuse depicted in the film.  The movie begins just after the murder of famed opera singer Alice Alquist as her niece Paula (Ingrid Bergman) leaves her London home and is told not to look back.  A decade later, Paula is pursuing her own singing career in Italy, but her instructor notices that she is distracted by being in love.  Turns out she’s fallen madly in love with her piano accompanist Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer).

Gregory and Paula marry and he manipulates her into moving back into her aunt’s townhouse in London.  Over the weeks and months that follow, Gregory isolates Paula by preventing her from going out and refusing to allow visitors to the house.  He begins to tell her that she’s not well, that she loses things, and is a kleptomaniac. He embarrasses her in front of their saucy, young maid, Nancy (Angela Lansbury).  Paula begins to question her own sanity.

In reality, Gregory is a jewel thief named Sergis Bauer, who murdered Alice Alquist and is now sneaking in the attic to search Alice’s possessions for her famous jewels.  Gregory’s time in the attic leads to Paula noticing the fluctuation in the gaslight (hence the film’s title) and footsteps that add to her sense that she is imagining things.  Inspector Brian Cameron of Scotland Yard (Joseph Cotten, with an unexplained American accent), who was a fan of Alice Alquist, becomes suspicious of what is happening in her niece’s house and reopens the investigation in her murder.  Eventually he is able to help Paula turn the tables against Gregory.  Watching Gregory abuse Paula is extremely difficult, but the ending is very cathartic.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This is one of the movies I watched in a film studies class in high school.  Imagine, if you will, a bunch of 15-year-old boys realizing that the same actress who played Jessica Fletcher was really hot when she was young.  We also were amused by Boyer’s outrageous French accent and spent weeks imitating the way he said “Paula.”

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered the basic plot, but none of the details, so it was really like watching the movie anew.

What Did I Forget?:

Most everything.  I’ll also add that watching as an adult, the severity of Gregory’s abuse hit me a lot harder, and I felt a lot of sympathy for Paula.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

The movie is melodramatic, but I think that it otherwise is a good microcosm of the very real psychological abuse that occurs in some relationships.  Boyer is convincingly evil while hiding it beneath his charm. Bergman does a great performance of how even a strong person can fall victim to these psychological attacks. It’s not your typical thriller.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This is a 1940s movie based on a 1930s play with a story that is set somewhere around the 1890s, so it should feel dated in some way.  But I think it holds up pretty well overall.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes. And definitely a unique addition to an all-time thrillers list.

Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with G:

  1. Genghis Blues (1999)
  2. Glory (1989)
  3. The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)
  4. Good Will Hunting (1997)
  5. The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

What is your favorite movie starting with G?  What do you think will be my movie for H? (Hint: It’s set in Brooklyn in the 1960s). Let me know in the commments.

Movie Review: A Fish Called Wanda (1988) #AtoZChallenge


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: A Fish Called Wanda 
Release Date: July 15, 1988
Director: Charles Crichton
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Prominent Features
Synopsis:

English gangster George Thomason (Tom Georgeson) and his right-hand man Ken Pile (Michael Palin) plan a jewel heist. They bring the American couple Wanda Gershwitz (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Otto West (Kevin Kline), who claim to be siblings but are actually lovers. The robbery goes off without a hitch and then the members of the gang double-cross one another.  Wanda and Otto turn in George to the police, and Wanda plans to turn on Otto too, until they discover that George moved the diamonds to a different hiding place.

Wanda decides to seduce George’s barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese) so she can learn if George plans to turn over the diamonds for a reduced sentence.  Her attempts to get to know Archie are interrupted by a jealous and stupid Otto (“Don’t call me stupid!”).  Meanwhile, Ken attempts to assassinate an elderly woman who is a witness that identified George as being a robbery.  An animal lover, Ken is broken-hearted that each of his three attempts to kill the witness lead to the deaths of one of her tiny dogs.

Despite the odds, Archie and Wanda form a real attachment and through a screwy series of events the diamonds are recovered, and they escape to the South America with them.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I was at my peak period as a Monty Python fanatic, watching all their movies and taping every Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode off of MTV and PBS, as well as various other projects involving one or more Pythons.  I was ecstatic when I learned that there was a brand new movie involving two members of Monty Python and saw it soon after release with my family.

Kevin Kline was the revelation of this movie.  At the time he’d been mostly in serious dramas up to this point (although later in life I saw Sophie’s Choice where his character was both hilarious and terrifying).  His performance as a stupid American, ultraviolent jerk steals the movie.

What Did I Remember?:

“What was the middle part?”  I remembered pretty well how the movie began and ended but it was fun to rediscover how they got from point a to point.

What Did I Forget?:

Like I said above, I forgot the middle part.  I also forgot the subplot about Otto pretending to be gay with a crush on Ken, probably because it’s one of the few gags in the movie that doesn’t hit the mark.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie features a hilarious script by Cleese and Crichton and four actors putting in one of their career best performances while all playing against type. It’s really sad that they couldn’t find the magic again when they made Fierce Creatures.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

So many comedies that I loved in the 80s cause severe cringe, and I was worried that A Fish Called Wanda would be the same. Blessedly, the movie holds up well, I think because of the fact that everyone in the movie is clearly an awful person, so it’s not like your dealing with a sympathetic character doing awful things.

Even at the time it was released, the movie was criticized for Ken having a significant stutter.  I enjoy Michael Palin’s performance so I want to find a way to justify it, but there’s no denying that the jokes come at the expense of people who stutter.

Is It a Classic?:

It’s definitely a standout comedy film, although it may fall short of the all-time great movies list.

Rating: ****

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with F:

  1. Fargo (1996)
  2. Field of Dreams (1989)
  3. Finding Nemo (2003)
  4. The Fisher King (1991)
  5. The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)

What is your favorite movie starting with F? What is your guess for my movie starting with G? (Hint: this movie gave rise to a psychological term). Let me know in the comments!