Movie Review: The Further Adventures of Walt’s Frozen Head (2019)


Title: The Further Adventures of Walt’s Frozen Head
Release Date: March 14, 2019
Director:Benjamin Lancaster
Production Company: Just A Head In A Jar
Summary/Review:

This low-budget, indie film is known primarily for many scenes shot guerilla-style within Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. It tells the story of a hapless Disney employee, Peter (Daniel Cooksley), who his recently separated from his wife and is struggling to connect with his teenage daughter, Molly (Kathryn Jenkins), as she is growing up.  While wandering the tunnels beneath the Magic Kingdom looking for a birthday gift for Molly, Peter discovers that the Disney company keeps the frozen head of Walt Disney (Roy Schneider) there, and thaw it out once a year for 72 hours to get Walt to approve new projects.  Walt asks Peter to take him to actually see and experience the Magic Kingdom.  Hijinks ensue.

The movie is equal parts a skewering of the Disney company and a loving tribute to Walt and the Disney Parks. I think the major problem with the film is that Cooksley doesn’t really have the comic timing to be the lead, but Schneider is excellent as Walt.  It feels more like a sitcom than a movie, and I think both budgetary issues and the fact that they would never get permission from Disney to make this film hampered their ability to really run with a fun premise. So I’ll call it a failed but noble effort, but your mileage may vary probably in accordance with how much you like Disney Parks.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Brothers Bloom (2008)


TitleThe Brothers Bloom
Release Date: May 15, 2009
Director: Rian Johnson
Production Company:
Summary/Review:

I wasn’t aware of the work of  Rian Johnson before I saw The Last Jedi (which I will always love despite the concerted effort of whiny manbabies try to discredit it) and Knives Out. I was eager to see Johnson’s earlier work and The Brothers Bloom is his second feature film as director. Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody play the titular brothers Stephen and Bloom whose childhood in foster homes leads them to a life as conmen.

While Stephen has always enjoyed writing the elaborate stories behind their complex con jobs, Adrien has regretted not being able to form real relationships.  Stephen plays one last con with the mark being Penelope Stamp (Rachel Weisz), a quirky heiress who lives alone in a New Jersey mansion.  The brothers and their silent partner Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, she literally doesn’t talk, that’s the joke) carry out a multinational plot and soon it becomes hard for even Bloom to realize what is real and what is part of the con.

I thought that the movie would end up having Penelope playing a con on the brothers Bloom, or perhaps that Stephen was using the con to set up Bloom with Penelope romantically.  Neither of these twists happen although Bloom and Penelope become a couple anyway.  For some reason I can’t understand the movie appears to be set in the present day but the brothers wear 1930s style clothing and travel on a transatlantic steamship. The whole feel of the movie is kind of a cross of Wes Anderson’s precious style with early New Hollywood films of the late 60s/early 70s.  There are some good moments but overall the movie doesn’t really grab me.  I would of liked it better if Penelope and Bang Bang went off on their own adventure and left the boy drama behind.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019)


Title: The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Release Date: June 7, 2019
Director: Joe Talbot
Production Company: Plan B Entertainment | Longshot Features
Summary/Review:

Jimmie Fails (Jimmie Fails) is young Black man living in San Francisco.  Alienated from both of his parents, he lives in a cramped apartment with his friend Montgomery “Mont” Allen (Jonathan Majors) and Mont’s grandfather Allen (Danny Glover).  In his spare time, Jimmie goes to his childhood home, a Victorian-style house in the Fillmore District, and carries out repairs on the exterior, much to the annoyance of the older white couple who now live there.  When the older couple vacate the house due to an estate conflict in their family, Jimmie and Mont move in as squatters.

The movie satirizes gentrification and displacement – the Fillmore was a predominantly Black neighborhood from the end of World War II until the 1990s.  But it is also a very personal story of Jimmie coming to terms with facing reality and not cling to happy memories of his childhood. I appreciate that the two lead characters are introverted, artistic types who don’t typically get to be the main characters in a movie.  The result is a quiet and introspective film. I didn’t particularly like the dénouement where Mont confronts Jimmie during a play, but the rest of the film is golden.

Joe Talbot, like many directors before him, incorporates the beauty of San Francisco in many shots, especially ones of Jimmie skateboarding the city’s famous hills.  The soundtrack also includes San Francisco music by Jefferson Airplane and a beautiful cover of “San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair).”  Jello Biafra (of Dead Kennedys fame) and Thora Birch make brief but memorable appearances.  Talbot cites Birch’s 2001 movie Ghost World as an influence on his film.

Rating: ***1/2

 

Classic Movie Review: L’Eclisse (1962)


Title: L’Eclisse
Release Date: 12 April 1962
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Production Company: Cineriz
Summary/Review:

Before I jump into the main review, I just want to note that old movies should have a warning label when a completely random scene in blackface is going to occur.  I wasn’t ready when the film’s protagonist Vittoria (Monica Vitti) visits a neighbor Marta (Mirella Ricciardi), a white woman born and raised in Kenya , suddenly has her entire body covered in dark makeup and performs a “tribal” dance.  To be fair, unlike some movies, the audience is not supposed to be on Vittoria’s side in this moment, and there’s a pointed judgement of Marta when she reveals she believes the Black Kenyans seeking civil rights are “monkeys.”

This is just one scene though in a longer film that follows Vittoria on her perambulations through Rome over an ingeminate amount of time, although it feels like it’s a few weeks at most.  The movie begins with her ending a long-term relationship with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) because she does not wish to marry.  Over the course of the film she gets to know her mother’s young stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon) and reluctantly forms a romantic partnering with him that feels doomed from the start.  Most of the film is shot on location emphasizing the post-war modernist design of Rome and its outskirts.

I feel this movie has many parallels with Cleo, From 5 to 7.  Both films feature a stylish and conventionally attractive young woman, who struggle with internal turmoil and inability to connect with others against the background of a European capital.  They even both touch upon African colonialism and independence movements.  However I feel that Cleo, From 5 to 7 is the stronger film because it makes you feel an emotional bond with the protagonist while L’Eclisse just makes you feel hollow.

There are several scenes I liked in this film.  The opening scene of the breakup is strong as both characters have things they want to say but not the words to say them. One scene in the Rome Stock Exchange lampoons the greed of capitalists forced to take a moment of silence for a recently deceased colleague as they grumble about lost earning potential.  And the final sequence of the film where there are multiple shots of Vittoria and Piero’s meeting spot with neither character ever appearing is a fascinating way to end a film.

Ultimately though, I have to agree with film critic Jon Lisi who wrote that L’Eclisse  “is beautifully made, historically important, and boring as hell.” After Blowup and L’Avventura this is the third Antonioni film I’ve watched and I’m glad there are no more on my list of Classic Films. I can see why his work is considered important but I don’t enjoy watching them.

Rating:**1/2

Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman (2018)


Title: BlacKkKlansman
Release Date: August 10, 2018
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: Blumhouse Productions | Monkeypaw Productions | QC Entertainment | 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks | Legendary Entertainment |
Perfect World Pictures
Summary/Review:

Inspired by actual historic events, or as the opening titles state “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit,” BlacKkKlansman is the story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first Black police officer in Colorado Springs.  Assigned to the intelligence division, Stallworth spots an ad for a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and calls for more information, using a white voice just like in Sorry to Bother You. Stallworth also accidentally uses his real name so a fellow detective, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), ends up meeting with the Klan members using Stallworth’s name. Flip is a composite character and in the film he’s made an unobservant Jewish man to raise the stakes of his interactions with the bigots.

Meanwhile, Stallworth continues his investigation by phone, eventually beginning a series of conversations with the KKK’s national director, David Duke (Topher Grace).  Concurrently with the investigation, Stallworth begins a relationship with Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), a Black liberation activist from Colorado College (Patrice is also invented for the film).  He meets her at at a rally where Kwame Ture (brought to life in an excellent short appearance by Corey Hawkins) is the speaker. Michael Buscemi, Harry Belafonte, and Alec Baldwin also appear in small but memorable parts.

The movie is based on absurd events and some of the wildest details are true to life.  The characters seem to be aware of the absurdity, especially late in the film when the essentially dunk on David Duke. Some of the changes are odd, like moving the events to the early 70s when they took place in the late 70s.  But as is typical for Spike Lee films, there is great attention to period details especially the fashions and music.

The movie talks about complex issues in interesting, if not subtle ways.  For example, Ron’s earnest but perhaps naive hopes of being able to change things from the inside are contrasted to Patrice’s more revolutionary approach. Lee also uses excerpts from Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation to critique how popular entertainment reinforces white supremacist mythology.  Finally, the film also incorporates footage from the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia as a chilling epilogue to a mostly comical look at the past.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Sorry to Bother You (2018)


Title: Sorry to Bother You
Release Date:  July 6, 2018
Director: Boots Riley
Production Company: Significant Productions | MNM Creative | MACRO | Cinereach | The Space Program | Annapurna Pictures
Summary/Review:

Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young man, down on his luck, and going through an existential crisis when he starts a job at a telemarketing company.  He learns that to make successful sales he has to use a “white voice” (ironically, his managers always talk in “Black voice” when pumping up the employees in meetings).  Soon he’s promoted to the Power Caller department where he makes a fortune selling unethical products and services at the same time his friends and coworkers from the lower floors are organizing a strike. Underlying everything is the growth of a new company called WorryFree that provides cheap labor by signing people to lifetime contracts and housing them in factories (which opponents call slave labor).

The movie has a stellar cast supporting Stanfield. Tessa Thompson plays his girlfriend Detroit, who is a performance artist and underground activist. Steven Yuen is a labor organizer named Squeeze. And Omari Hardwick plays the mysterious Mr. _____, Cash’s Power Caller manager.  Danny Glover and Forest Whitaker also appear in small roles, and Rosario Dawson performs a voice.

I was not prepared for this movie.  I went in expecting a satirical comedy more than anything else but ended up feeling more disturbed than anything else.  Granted, this movie is supposed to be disturbing, but I wasn’t expecting creepiness approaching Get Out levels.  And that was before the scenes of full-on body horror!  I also felt the movie had too many targets.  While the satire of the corporate world and capitalist exploitation works, I felt the gags about online memes, reality tv, and performance art fell flat.  Still this is a good first film for Boots Riley and I look forward to seeing what he’ll put out next.  Oh and the music by Riley’s band The Coup and tUnE-yArDs is perfect for this movie.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: M*A*S*H (1970)


Title: M*A*S*H
Release Date: January 25, 1970
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: Aspen Productions | Ingo Preminger Productions
Summary/Review:

My mom was a fan of the tv series M*A*S*H so watching M*A*S*H was a big part of my childhood.  We could watch two old reruns every weeknight, while the new episodes on Monday night were the first show I was allowed to stay up past 9pm to watch. After the last episode of M*A*S*H was broadcast, one of our local stations showed the original movie.  As a 9-year-old, I wasn’t impressed with the movie. I liked Alan Alda and Mike Farrell a lot better than these guys I’d never heard of in the movie. I also found the movie to be very mean-spirited and was bored that so much of it took place at really stupid football game.

Revisiting the movie now as an adult, with an appreciation for Robert Altman as a director and the acting of Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, and knowing the context of the Vietnam War the movie was responding to, I figured I might like it better.  I did not.  The movie is angry and mean-spirited and really none of the jokes land for me.  And the whole football plot lasts for about 30 minutes, so it is 1/4th of the movie’s runtime.

In the context of the counterculture/antiwar movement, I guess the anti-authoritarian antics of Hawkeye Pierce (Sutherland), Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt), and Trapper John McIntyre (Gould) may have been appealing. But they’re not resisting the system so much as doing whatever they want and letting other people clean up their messes (and rushing through surgery in order to play golf is the antithesis of counterculture). M*A*S*H  is described as an anti-war film but I don’t see it actually opposing war.  Instead it falls more into the tradition going back to at least to World War II of veterans creating popular entertainment that lampoons the ineptitude of the military, but not questioning the nation’s militaristic goals (this tradition includes Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr., the politically conservative veteran who authored the book MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors under the name Richard Hooker).

But the worst part of the movie is its mistreatment of women. In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, the Swamp men make a bet regarding whether Major Margaret Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) is a natural blonde.  They set up chairs around the shower tent and watch as the canvas is lifted to expose her naked body. Kellerman’s performance captures rage, terror, and humiliation and I can’t imagine how anyone can watch it and not be on her side.  One could argue that Altman was simply reflecting an accurate depiction of how women were (and continue to be) abused in the military. But everything in the context of the film says that Houlihan is a regular Army stuffed shirt and a “bitch” who deserves her punishment and we should be laughing at her.

The Sexual Revolution that was occuring at the time this film was released brought many positive changes.  But within patriarchal thinking, sexual liberation was interpreted that women should always be sexually available to men. This attitude is prevalent in this movie which served as a progenitor to the raunchy comedies of the 70s and 80s. From Animal House to Caddyshack to Revenge of the Nerds, we see again and again that “sticking it to the Man” is accomplished by humiliating and sexually abusing women.

My feeling is that in 1970, M*A*S*H was one of the first Hollywood films to caustically lampoon the military, mock religious devotion, drop an f-bomb, and talk openly about sex. It must’ve seemed refreshing for audiences at the time to see something they’ve never seen before.  Over 50 years later, we’ve had films that addressed all of these issues in ways that are far less problematic and often in ways that actually make me laugh. M*A*S*H  will be remembered for launching the careers of Altman, Sutherland, and Gould, as well as spawning one of the most beloved tv comedy series of all-time.  But the film itself doesn’t deserve its spot on the AFI 100 or any great movies list.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Black Widow (2021)


Title: Black Widow
Release Date: July 9, 2021
Director: Cate Shortland
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

A standalone movie for Black Widow was long overdue (even before it was postponed by the COVID pandemic) and suitably the bulk of this movie takes place in 2016, just after Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) goes on the run for violating the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War. But the movie also has a prologue set in 1995 where we learn that as a child Natasha was lived as a surrogate daughter of undercover Russian agents posing as normal family in Ohio (why Russia would have undercover agents in the US just after the fall of the USSR, I don’t know, but the geopolitical realities of the world and the Marvel Universe don’t always match up).

In 2016, Natasha learns that the Red Room, the secret Russian program that uses mind control to turn girls and young women into assassins called Widows, is still active.  As a result she has to reunited with her “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh, whose mix of humor and hidden vulnerability make her the MVP of the movie), “father” Alexei Shostakov (a super soldier known as Red Guardian played with chaotic glee by David Harbour), and “mother” Melina Vostokoff (a former Widow and scientists played by the criminally underused Rachel Weisz).

The better part of the movie is fighting and action sequences, perhaps even more so than your typical Marvel movie.  I tend to like the slower, more thoughtful types of scenes in between the fighting.  Still, Black Widow does a great job of developing it’s story of this “fake family” coming together to work out their differences and solve a problem in a way that feels natural when it could’ve been cheezy.  And while this is a popcorn movie, the underlying theme of young women and girls suffering abuse in an uncaring world is a terrifying reality.

Rating: ***

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Movie Review: Arrival (2016)


In the final installment of my miniseries of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s, the aliens come and discover us!

Title: Arrival 
Release Date: November 11, 2016
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Production Company: FilmNation Entertainment | Lava Bear Films | 21 Laps Entertainment
Summary/Review:

A dozen strange spacecraft arrive in various parts of the Earth.  One of them is in the United States in a remote part of Montana.  The US Army recruits Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a renowned professor of linguistics, to help them learn the aliens’ language so they can communicate.  With the help of physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Dr. Banks races to create some rudimentary form of communication the giant squid-like creatures before the more military-minded in the US and abroad take defensive action.

I like how this movie has a slow build.  We see the arrival of the alien ships from Banks’ perspective as it goes from a news story that interrupts her work day to something she’s personally involved in. The design of the ship and how the alien “heptapods” interact with the human scientists has brings a nice level of strangeness.  I’m sure actual linguists can poke lots of holes in how linguistics is used in the movie, but it works as a plot device for novices like me.

The basic premise of the film is one that goes back at least to The Day the Earth Stood Still, in that aliens are trying to help humanity from our own self-destruction.  Having recently watched Gravity and Interstellar, I also see a lot of common plot points, expressing our present-day concerns.  One weird overlap between Arrival and Gravity is that the lead woman character is grieving the death of a daughter (although that plays into a plot twist in Arrival).  The movie rests on a terrific performance by Amy Adams and the interesting direction and design of the spacecraft and aliens.  The rest of the cast doesn’t get to do much and various subplots are kind of “meh,” which keeps this from being a great film, but it’s still a pretty good one.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)


Here is part two of my miniseries of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s!

Title: Interstellar
Release Date: November 5, 2014
Director: Christopher Nolan
Production Company: Paramount Pictures | Warner Bros. Pictures
Legendary Pictures | Syncopy | Lynda Obst Productions
Summary/Review:

In the near future, the Earth has reached a crisis point and after a population crash, the surviving humans focus on raising food while facing blight and Dust Bowl-like conditions.  Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot forced into farming who raises his children to be intellectually curious about science, especially his daughter Murph (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy).  Cooper and Murph discover a secret NASA base and Professor John Brand (Michael Caine) recruits Cooper to pilot a space mission along with his daughter Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway).

Their goal is to explore a wormhole that sentient beings have opened near Saturn that may lead to habitable planets that humanity could escape to.  Because of relativity, Cooper and the crew of the Endurance, which includes a couple of weird looking robots named TARS and CASE (operated by Bill Irwin, of Mr. Noodle fame), age at a slower rate that the people on Earth.  So while Cooper and Dr. Brand are making contact with previous explorers who identified promising planets, an adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) works on a gravity propulsion system that would allow a mass exodus of humanity.

This movie feels a lot like science fiction films of the 1970s and 80s than the flashy sci-fi movies of the 2010s. It’s also reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey because it tells a story mostly within the parameters of hard science, although like 2001, the denouement is fantastical.  McConaughey delivers all of his dialogue in a gravely near-whisper, which gets grating at times, but it’s a different role for him than say Dazed and Confused or How to Lose a Guy in 10 DaysInterstellar felt overlong as a movie, although I could see it being fleshed out into a successful limited TV series. Overall, Interstellar is an interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining film of adventure and human drama.

Rating: ***