Movie Review: The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)


Title: The Flowers of St. Francis
Release Date: 14 December 1950
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Production Company: Joseph Burstyn Inc.
Summary/Review: I saw this movie at Brattle Theater many years ago in a tribute to Roberto Rossellini (it was preceded by Isabella Rossellini and Guy Maddin’s odd tribute film My Dad is 100 Years Old).  It was my first Rossellini movie and probably my first Italian neorealist movie too.  I remember being touched by the depiction of the simple faith of Francis of Assisi and his followers in medieval Italy.

The movie features actual Franciscan brothers playing the roles instead of professional actors.  It’s broken up into several chapters or vignettes each with a different moral lesson.  This movie is less dogmatically religious as some viewers may fear, but instead focuses on the whimsy of Francis who was known as “God’s Jester.”  It’s a beautifully filmed and touching movie that I think I like even more upon revisiting.
Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Lady Macbeth (2016)


Title: Lady Macbeth
Release Date: 28 April 2017
Director: William Oldroyd
Production Company: Sixty-Six Pictures
Summary/Review:

I basically chose to watch this movie because I’ve become obsessed with the acting of Florence Pugh.  And Pugh’s acting is the main reason that this movie is worth watching at all. Despite the title, this movie has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s Scottish play, and in fact is based on a 19th-century Russian novella.  The film is set in the North East of England in the 1860s where Katherine (Pugh) is sold into a loveless marriage with a cruel older man, Alexander Lester (Paul Hilton).

Not permitted to leave the house, Katherine feels trapped.  She finally finds liberation when her husband and father-in-law both go away, and she begins a fling with a servant, Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis).  After that, Katherine takes matters into her own hands and things get … messy (there’s the reason why the movie is called Lady Macbeth).  Like I said, Pugh’s performance, is great but this movie feels like half-a-dozen indie movies I saw back in the 1990s but doesn’t have anything new to say.  There are several Black supporting characters and the movie may be saying something about Katherine’s privilege as a white woman, but I think the actual intent of this movie is to feel compassion for Katherine.  Which I don’t.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)


Title: Spider-Man: No Way Home
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Jon Watts
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Marvel Studios | Pascal Pictures
Summary/Review:

Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has been one of the best parts of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it was with great enthusiasm that I went to see the third Spider-Man movie (although it took me a while to get to theaters!).  Following up on the end of Far From Home where the Rush Limbaugh-like J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) reveals Spider-Man’s identity as Peter Parker to the world. Naturally, the publicity has a negative effect on Peter’s life, but also on his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), girlfriend M.J. (Zendaya), and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon).

Peter asks Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help casting a spell that would cause the world to forget that Spider-Man is Peter Parker.  When the spell goes wrong it draws in villains from other universes including Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church).  Peter, M.J., Ned, and May realize that returning them to their own dimension would cause their deaths, so they work on first curing them of the various maladies that turned them into villains in the first place.

BIG SPOILERS AFTER THE TRAILER

Continue reading “Movie Review: Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)”

Movie Review: The Exiles (1961)


Title: The Exiles
Release Date: July 13, 1961
Director: Kent Mackenzie
Production Company: Contemporary Films
Summary/Review:

In the early 1960s, when Native people were still routinely the villains of Hollywood Westerns, this independent film captured a day in the life of young adult Native Americans who have left their reservations for life in Los Angeles.  The movie was filmed on location in the Bunker Hill district of the city before shiny office tours replaced derelict Victorian houses, although there are some elements still recognizable today such as the Angels Flight incline railway and the Grand Central Market.

The film is kind of a hangout movie with no real plot.  The documentary-style movie follows several Native people as they socialize, drink, and finish the evening with a drum circle on top of a hill overlooking the city. In short, it’s pretty much how any group of 20-somethings might spend a  Friday night, with elements of Native tradition setting it apart from other forms of contemporary youth culture. It really feels like a remarkable document of a time and place and an honest movie at a time when Hollywood specialized in artifice.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Airplane! (1980)


Title: Airplane!
Release Date: July 2, 1980
Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Production Company: Paramount Pictures | Howard W. Koch Productions
Summary/Review:

The team of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker didn’t invent the spoof movie but their style of clever wordplay and visual gags set a pattern that’s still being followed 40+ years later.  This is a movie I remember watching again and again in my childhood (mostly in an edited for tv version, more on that later) and still remember most of the gags revisiting the movie all these years later. Nevertheless, there are so many jokes packed into this movie that you always notice something new.

Now I’ll admit that there is an element of nostalgia to this movie. Air travel has changed so much in 40 years and there are references in this movie that a younger viewer just might not get the jokes.  As always with 70s/80s comedy there’s a concern with racially and sexually insensitive jokes and Airplane! has a few (African villagers playing basketball, jiggling breasts) but fortunately not too many as much of the humor is situational rather than stereotypical. I won’t excuse Airplane for being “of its time” because I remember people in the 80s criticizing the movie for being crass.

I first watched this movie on TV in the mid-80s and I think watched a video tape of that version for years afterwards.  The TV version not only cut out the raunchier parts but actually added scenes.  I particularly remember the “Hi, Jack!” gag and more scenes with the children acting like they’re grownup business travelers.  I found a compilation of the cut scenes on YouTube and remember every single one vividly.  I would totally watch a cut of the movie that reincorporated these scenes into the theatrical version.

Rating: ****

Favorite Movies of All Time: 240-231


Over the past few years I’ve made a concerted effort to watch lots of movies considered to be among the best of all time.  Now, for the first time, I’ve made my own list of favorite movies of all time.  Every other Wednesday throughout 2022, I will be revealing ten movies in my list of 250 Favorite Movies of All Time.


240

Title: A Grand Day Out
Director: Nick Park
Cast: Peter Sallis, Peter Hawkins
Year: 1990
When did I first watch this movie?: At an animation festival at the Williamsburg Theater in Virginia, circa 1991.
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: This was my introduction to Wallace & Gromit and the greatness of Nick Park and Aardman Animations. Besides, I love cheese and I love travel, so a movie about “cheese tourism” was targeted at me.


239

Title: Lewis & Clark – The Journey of the Corps of Discovery
Director: Ken Burns
Cast: Hal Holbrook, Sam Waterston, Adam Arkin, Murphy Guyer, Matthew Broderick, Kevin Conway, Gene Jones, Tantoo Cardinal
Year: 1997
When did I first watch this movie?: I watched this when it premiered on PBS on November 4-5, 1997.
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: As someone who is passionate for history and for films, it’s not surprising that I’ve long been impressed by Ken Burns many historical documentaries.  I watched many, but not all, of Burns’ works and I think this one is emblematic of how he explores historical events while also embracing the possibilities of beauty in film.  I’m also fond of The Civil War (1990),  Baseball (1994), Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson (2005), The War (2007), The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009), and Prohibition (2011).


238

Title: Beauty and the Beast
Director: Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise
Cast: Paige O’Hara, Robby Benson, Richard White, Jerry Orbach, David Ogden Stiers, Angela Lansbury
Year: 1991
When did I first watch this movie?: When I was in college in the early 90s, I think?
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Many people consider this the all-time best animated feature from the Disney studios, and with good reason. First, there is the music created by lyricist Howard Ashman (who tragically died before the movie’s completion and composer Alan Menken.  Then there’s the seamless blend of classic Disney animation styles with new digital effects.  And Belle was really a new type of character for women in Disney, escaping patriarchal stereotypes to be her own her with her own identity.

 


237

Title: Adaptation
Director: Spike Jonze
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep,  Chris Cooper, Cara Seymour, Brian Cox, Tilda Swinton, Ron Livingston, and Maggie Gyllenhaal
Year: 2002
When did I first watch this movie?: 2007, although I saw it in a movie theatre so it must’ve been re-released at Brattle Theatre or someplace like that.
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Charlie Kaufman’s work as a screenwriter and director has produced some of the most inventive and just plain weird movies of the past few decades.  We’ll be seeing several of his works on this list. Adaptation is great because it shows the writing process and inner life of an introverted person. It also deconstructs and questions the “truth” of fiction.


236

Title: The Saddest Music in the World
Director: Guy Maddin
Cast: Isabella Rossellini, Mark McKinney, Maria de Medeiros, David Fox, Ross McMillan, Louis Negin
Year: 2003
When did I first watch this movie?: I watched this on DVD in 2007.
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Speaking of makers of weird movies, Canada’s Guy Maddin gives Charlie Kaufman a run for his money.  Frequent Maddin collaborator Isabella Rossellini stars as baroness in Great Depression-era Canada who holds a contest for the saddest music in the world to promote her family’s brewery. As Lady Helen Port-Huntley says “f you are sad and like beer, I’m your lady.”  As weird as this movie is, it may be the most accessible of Maddin’s oeuvre that I have seen.


235

Title: Intermission
Director: John Crowley
Cast: Colin Farrell, Kelly Macdonald, Cillian Murphy, Colm Meaney, Shirley Henderson, David Wilmot, Deirdre O’Kane, Michael McElhatton, Tomás Ó Súilleabháin, Brían F. O’Byrne, Ger Ryan, Jane Brennan
Year: 2003
When did I first watch this movie?: At the theaters in 2003.
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: This is a movie I found myself thinking about and quoting years after I first saw it – especially the parts about brown sauce and Celtic Mysticism.  This movie stars some of the biggest Irish actors of its time, but it eschews movie stereotypes of Ireland. Instead it’s a comedy and crime caper with an ensemble cast set in Dublin’s residential neighborhoods that focuses on extraordinary moments in the lives of very ordinary people.


234

Title: Zootopia
Director: Byron Howard and Rich Moore
Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J. K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, and Shakira
Year: 2016
When did I first watch this movie?: June 2016
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: It’s a very clever comedy that revels in creating a world populated by anthropomorphic animals, all while being a critique of systemic racism.


233

Title: Dreams
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Akira Terao, Mitsuko Baisho, Martin Scorsese, Chishū Ryū, Mieko Harada, Yoshitaka Zushi, Toshie Negishi, Hisashi Igawa, Chosuke Ikariya
Year: 1990
When did I first watch this movie?: At Williamsburg Theatre, circa 1991
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: I remember being entranced by the visual splendor and imagination in the eight vignettes, which were based on Kurosawa’s actual dreams.  The images of walking inside Van Gogh paintings and the platoon of ghostly soldiers have stuck with me.  This was the first Kurosawa film I ever saw and I need to revisit it to see how it holds up.


232

Title: Airplane! 
Director: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Cast: Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack, Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Lorna Patterson
Year: 1980
When did I first watch this movie?:
Why is this one of my all time favorites?:


231

Title: WALL-E
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver, and Fred Willard
Year: 2008
When did I first watch this movie?: Summer 2009
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Another movie that has light comedy and romance with an underlying story of environmental catastrophe.  I like that it shows humans at our worst and yet still has hope for humanity.

Movie Review: Class Action Park (2020)


Title: Class Action Park
Release Date: August 27, 2020
Director: Seth Porges, Chris Charles Scott III
Production Company: Pinball Party Productions | Strategery Films | Warner Max
Summary/Review:

As a kid growing up in Connecticut, ads for Action Park were constantly on the tv and radio, but my requests to go there were denied.  My mother was not fond of driving to New Jersey nor did our family budget have much room for visits to theme parks.  It was only until years later that I learned that I may have dodged a bullet since Action Park had such a reputation for guests getting injured and sometimes killed.  In fact, back in the 80s, I remember New Jersey’s other theme park Great Adventure having the reputation for danger since several teens were killed in a fire and one person fell off a roller coaster.

Class Action Park features interviews with former employees and guests of Action Park mixed with archival news footage and old home movies.  The general theme of the movie is “can you believe how dangerous this place was” and the strange nostalgic feeling of having survived it.  The jokey tone of some of the commentators is placed at odds with survivors of people who died at Action Park, with the ending of the film actually featuring the most uncomfortable contrast of narration and film.

The villain of the piece is Gene Mulvihill, a shady investor in penny stocks who opened Action Park as a summer activity at his ski resort in 1978.  Action Park was a pioneer of the modern waterpark, so a lot of the rides were  experimental to begin with, but Mulvihill refused to hire professional ride engineers and often redrew the plans himself to make them more extreme. If the rides weren’t dangerous enough, the park was run almost entirely by teenagers with underage drinking and drug use common among the staff.  Mulvihill’s libertarian emphasis on freedom and profits with his callous disregard of people injured and killed at the park becomes emblematic of the USA in the Reagan Era.

I found this movie to be interesting in how it showed how the most unbelievable aspects of Action Park came to be and persisted.  But I also don’t think it is a very well-made documentary.  For one thing, it could’ve used a wider of variety of commentators as the handful involved said mostly the same things.  Also, the frequent reuse of b-roll footage throughout the movie feels lazy and unprofessional.  Still it’s an interesting movie to watch if you’re curious about how an experiment in pure libertarianism in Greater New York City went horribly wrong and why regulations may be good, actually.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Black Girl (1966)


Title:La noire de…
Release Date: 1966
Director: Ousmane Sembène
Production Company: Filmi Domirev | Les Actualités Françaises
Summary/Review:

This film was made a few years after Senegal gained its independence from France and is considered one of the first feature films created by people from sub-Saharan Africa.  It explores the themes of lingering colonialism and imperialism through the story of a young woman named Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop).  She leaves her impoverished village near Dakar to work for a French couple in their apartment on the French Riviera.

While she expects to care for their children, Diouana is surprised that the woman, known only as Madame (Anne-Marie Jelinek), makes her do all the household chores and cooking. In flashbacks, we learn that Diouana worked as a nanny for the couple when they were living in Dakar and that Madame was treated her much more generously.  Over time Diouana feels trapped in the apartment, not allowed to explore the French village where they live, and falls into a depression with tragic consequences.  The final scene is a haunting image of how colonizers will always be haunted by their past, especially if they fail to make reconciliation.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: She’s Gotta Have It (1986)


Title: She’s Gotta Have It
Release Date: August 8, 1986
Director: Spike Lee
Production Company: 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks
Summary/Review:

I watched She’s Gotta Have It way back in the 1980s and remember liking it, except for THAT SCENE (but we’ll get to that latter).  This was Spike Lee’s first feature film as director, shot in black & white (except for one brilliant burst of color mid-movie), and has more of an arthouse vibe to it than any of Lee’s later work.

The movie focuses on Nola Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns), an artist in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, and her romantic sexual relationships with three different men.  Jamie (Tommy Redmond Hicks) is presented as the “good guy” and I think the narrative wants the audience to believe that until the rug is pulled out from us later on.  Greer (John Canada Terrell) is a vain model.  Mars Blackmon (Spike Lee) is a goofy sneakerhead and basically a Brooklyn hipster before his time.  Lee has also portrayed Mars in commercials and his own identity and the character’s are sometimes intermingled.

The movie basically does a good job of deconstructing the double standards of a woman who wants to be sexually active with more than one man.  In the documentary-style interviews with the men, they basically “self-own” themselves with their hypocritical views.  This movie is also sex positive in the way that it depicts how Nola is sexually fulfilled in different ways by each of the men.  Still though, this movie fumbles at times where it clearly feels it was written by a straight man. One of the worst is examples is a lesbian character portrayed by Raye Dowell acts like a male fantasy of a lesbian woman.

And now we come to the end of the movie for which I will have to discuss SPOILERS. Angry that Nola won’t choose to be only with him, Jamie brutally rapes her. Later Nola calls it a “near rape” which is an understatement at best. She decides to break it off with Mars and Greer and be exclusive with Jamie but also to be celibate for a time.  Now, it is not unrealistic for a seemingly “good guy” in a patriarchal society to become a rapist, nor is it unrealistic for a woman to internalize abuse and feel that she has to be the one to change her behavior but it does seem to send the wrong message that undercuts everything that came before.  In the final shot, Nola abruptly admits that her period of celibacy was short and she eventually broke it off with Jamie, which, good for her, but it also feels like this movie is trying to have it both ways.

Despite its flaws, She’s Gotta Have It, was a groundbreaking film.  It kicked off Spike Lee’s career, and was in the vanguard of movies by Black filmmakers that shook off the Hollywood stereotypes of Black stories in film.  The movie depicts Brooklyn as home to successful Black people pursuing their interests in careers and personal lives in a way that sadly hadn’t been seen in movies before.  It was also a big boost to independent movies at a time of major studio dominance, and the indies still flourish today because of it.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Circus (1928)


TitleThe Circus
Release Date: January 6, 1928
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: United Artists
Summary/Review:

This Charlie Chaplin film comes in-between The Gold Rush and City Lights but is not as highly acclaimed as those two movies, and I can see why.  Chaplin’s Tramp stumbles into a circus and inadvertently becomes a comic star.  He also falls in love with the horse rider Merna (Merna Kennedy) who is brutally abused by the Ringmaster (Al Ernest Garcia).  The arrival of a new tightrope walker, Rex (Harry Crocker), leads to a love triangle among the Tramp, Myrna, and Rex.  There are a number of good gags and stunts in the film, but overall the movie just feels thin.  It’s like a good short film got stretched to be a feature.  Still, Chaplin’s comedic brilliance is always worth a watch.

Rating: ***