Movie Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)


Title: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Release Date: une 27, 2012
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Production Company: Cinereach | Court 13 | Journeyman Pictures
Summary/Review:

I went into this movie with little knowledge about what it’s about and felt as if I was plunged into a post-apocalyptic science fiction story that begins with the survivors having a big celebration. Eventually, I cottoned on that this story is set in our present day, a reminder that apocalyptic conditions already exist in many places on our earth.  In this case, it is a poor fishing community on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast called The Bathtub that is on the wrong side of the levees (and seemingly outside of governmental control) and thus susceptible to storms and hurricanes.  The movie is clearly a parable for the climate crisis, but it is also so much more.

The movie feels like a fantasy, or magical realism, because its point-of-view character is the 6-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis).  Wallis’ stunning performance captures a child both fully competent in navigating the world she’s grown up in but also still a child, who needs security.  She doesn’t find much of that in her volatile father Wink (Dwight Henry) who is dying, and her mother has gone missing some time before.

This movie defies description so I’m not going to summarize it any further. Much like Jaccques Tati’s Playtime, this is a movie unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and probably cannot be duplicated.  It’s a movie with a lot of emotion and imagination, and is a credit to Wallis, Henry, and the rest of the cast.  The direction and the cinematography are inspired, and credit must also be given to the set designers that created believable living spaces filled with floating debris.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Bill and Ted Face the Music (2020)


Title: Bill and Ted Face the Music
Release Date: August 28, 2020
Director: Dean Parisot
Production Company: Orion Pictures | Endeavor Content | Hammerstone Studios
Summary/Review:

The long delayed sequel to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) finds our heroes Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) having failed to write the song that will unite the world, despite exploring increasingly esoteric musical styles.  The strain begins to affect their marriages with Princess Elizabeth (Erinn Hayes) and Princess Joanna (Jayma Mays).  Then Kelly (Kristen Schaal), daughter of their late mentor Rufus, arrives from the future to tell them that their failure to write the song is causing time and space to collapse.

The Bill & Ted films were about goofy teenagers who talked like surfer dudes, so the challenge here is how to make these characters work as middle-aged men.  Winter and Reeves adroitly bring plenty of charm and believability to their roles as man-children.  It also helps that their main plot is to travel to the future and visit older and increasingly antagonistic versions of themselves as they attempt to “steal” the song from themselves.  But youth is served well by Bill and Ted’s daughters, Thea (Samara Weaving, the niece of Reeves’ Matrix antagonist Hugo Weaving) and Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) who travel back in time to put together a band for their dads consisting of Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ling Lun, Grom (a prehistoric drummer), and the real life Kid Cudi.

This movie is far better than it has any right to be, channeling the quirky charm and imagination of its forebears into an updated setting.  It has its flaws.  Schaal, a great comic performer, is underused and the Dennis joke is one-note and annoying.  But overall it’s a great finale to the series.  And while a fourth Bill & Ted movie would be unwise, I’m totally on board for a Billie & Thea spinoff movie.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Blindspotting (2018)


Title: Blindspotting
Release Date: July 20, 2018
Director: Carlos López Estrada
Production Company: Summit Entertainment | Codeblack Films | Snoot Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Real life lifelong friends Daveed Diggs (of Hamilton and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fame) and Rafael Casal wrote and star in this film about gentrification and police violence in Oakland.  Diggs plays Collin Hoskins on the last three days of probation after being convicted for assault . Casal plays his volatile friend Miles Turner who does things like purchase a gun illegally, smokes weed, and picks fist fights that seem destined to get Collin to violate the terms of his probation.  Collin and Miles work together at a moving company and spend much of their social time together as well with Mile’s wife Ashley (Jasmine Cephas Jones) and their adorable child Sean.

The movie starts off as a goofy comedy as Collin tries to avoid getting ensnared by Miles’ clueless misbehavior and they both make fun of the white hipsters taking over Oakland.  Things begin to shift to a more serious drama after Collin witnesses a cop murder a Black man by shooting him in the back.   This is one of those movies where the sequence of events happening close together with a lot of coincidences is extremely unlikely.  But you have to set aside plot machinations to focus on the acting performances and the underlying social message of the film. Particularly well done is that while Collin and Miles have had similar life experiences, nevertheless, the experience for Collin as a Black man is different from what Miles has as a white man, something the latter has to learn.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Zookeeper (2011)



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter Z

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

On the final day of April, I’m playing a reverse April Fools prank on you.  After of watching a month of movies considered among the “best films of all time,” I’m finishing with one that is decidedly not. This is partially because movies with Z titles are hard to come by, and partly for reasons outlined below, but mostly because it’s fun to take a break from “Classic Film” from time to time.

TitleZookeeper
Release Date: July 8, 2011
Director: Frank Coraci
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Broken Road Productions | Hey Eddie | Happy Madison Productions
Summary/Review:

I’ve been curious about this movie for some time because it was filmed at Franklin Park Zoo in Boston which is walking distance from my house.  I used to go the zoo more frequently when my kids were little and I remember when the center of the zoo was taken over by a massive film set.  I wondered why if they were going to film on a massive set, why didn’t they do it in a studio instead. Having watched the film, very little of the real Franklin Park Zoo is seen in this movie so I wonder this even more now. And all the animals are CGI so it’s not like they needed to be in proximity to real animals.

What I didn’t realize is that they needed proximity to Boston. I’d just assumed that the movie would be about a generic zoo, but in the film it is very much the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.  In fact, they digitally altered the Boston skyline in some shots to make it appear like the zoo is much closer to downtown.  The protagonist lives in a three decker, there’s a bicycling scene on Boston Common and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall, and the denouement of the movie occurs on the Zakim Bridge.  So “yay Boston!,” I guess.

As for the actual story, Kevin James plays Griffin Keyes, the titular zookeeper (I know nothing about James but reading Letterboxd reviews he seems to be a hated figure).  He suffers continued heartbreak when his girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) rejects his marriage proposal and breaks up with him because she thinks being a zookeeper is a job for losers (which really doesn’t make any sense).  Within in the first ten minutes of the movie it becomes abundantly clear that this is one of those movies where the protagonist will pursue someone who is clearly awful, when his perfect match, zoo veterinarian Kate (Rosario Dawson), is right there. Because Griffin is so hapless, the zoo animals break their code of not talking to humans and offer him advice for wooing Stephanie. Hijinks ensue.

The movie has a subplot where Griffin bonds with a depressed gorilla Bernie (Nick Nolte) and they go out partying at TGI Fridays.  Honestly that part could’ve been spun out into an entire movie and it would’ve been much better than what we got. When he’s not doing pratfalls or acting like an alpha male, James actually has some charms, and Dawson who is usually in much better movies brings some “much better movie” magic to her scenes.  Among the celebrities voicing animals are Sylvester Stallone and Cher as lions and Adam Sandler as a crude capuchin monkey. But overall for a comedy the jokes are just not, you know, funny.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Yi Yi (2000) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter Y

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Yi Yi
Release Date: 5 May 200
Director: Edward Yang
Production Company: 1+2 Seisaku Iinkai | Atom Films | Basara Pictures |
Pony Canyon
Summary/Review:

Yi Yi is a family drama from the director of A Brighter Summer Day, and thankfully less bleak than that earlier film. It depicts the Jian family of Taipei, Taiwan: father NJ (Wu Nien-jen), mother Min-Min, early teenage daughter Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), and 8-year-old son Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang).  The film begins at the wedding of Min-Min’s brother A-Di, introducing the main characters and setting up important plot threads. (Ever since I’ve watched The Godfather, I’ve noticed the whole “start the movie at a wedding” thing popping up in a lot of movies). At the wedding reception, NJ encounters Sherry (Su-Yun Ko), a romantic partner his university days, in the hotel lobby.  After the wedding, Mim Min’s mother suffers a stroke and ends up comatose.

The film does not have a straightforward plot, per se, but interweaves the four individual threads of the family members as they deal with their personal struggles.

  • NJ is unmotivated by his job but bonds with potential client from Japan, Mr. Ota.  On a business trip to Japan he reunites with Sherry and they have an emotional series of conversations over unresolved issues from their failed relationship.
  • Min-Min is overwhelmed by her mother’s coma and leaves for a Buddhist retreat.
  • Ting-Ting feels guilty because her grandmother collapsed doing Ting-Ting’s chore of taking out the trash. Ting-Ting talks to her comatose grandmother about her guilt and other concerns. She also befriends her neighbor Lili, and later briefly dates Lili’s ex-boyfriend, Fatty.  While not a member of the family, Lili’s life is also documented in the film apart from her interactions with Ting-Ting.
  • Yang-Yang, the MVP of this movie, is a shy kid who’s bullied by other kids and his teacher. He finds a way to express his creativity by taking photographs.
  • We also spend time with A-Di, who struggles financially, gets kicked out by his wife, gets back together with an ex-girlfriend, and hosts the worst possible baby shower imaginable.

The movie is beautifully filmed and most shots use the Ozustyle of keeping the camera still and a mid-distance rather than panning or zooming or using closeups. The acting is solid and naturalistic as well. Occasionally there are plot twists that feel a bit soap opera-ish, but largely is more about the patterns of ordinary life.  There are some joys and some sorrows but a lot just hovers in the middle.  Clocking at over 3 hours, it is a big time commitment to spend time with these people without a traditional story or payoff, but I think it’s worth it.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: 12 Years A Slave (2013) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter X

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

As is my practice in the A to Z Challenge, I interpret “X” algebraically, and use it to represent a number.  In this case it is the number “12” from a Best Picture award winning historical drama that is not on these classic movie lists, but probably will be in the future.

Title: 12 Years A Slave 
Release Date: November 8, 2013
Director: Steve McQueen
Production Company: Regency Enterprises | River Road Entertainment | Plan B Entertainment | New Regency Productions | Film4 Productions
Summary/Review:

This film is an historical drama based on the real life experiences of Solomon Northrup who wrote a memoir of his life as an enslaved person that was published in 1853.  Northrup’s narrative and the film capture an aspect of slavery not often discussed in popular history. While most people know that Africans were kidnapped and brought to the Americas to be enslaved and that their descendants were born into slavery, they are less likely to know that free Black people in the United States like Northrup were kidnapped into slavery as well.

In the film we meet Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a freeborn Black man living in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children who is a talented performer on the fiddle.  Two con men lure him to Washington on the promise of a job performing music for a circus, but instead they drug him and deliver him to a slave trader. He is then transferred to Louisiana and sold to a man named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is depicted as an enslaver who attempts to be kind but is too weak to do anything that would upend the system.

Later, Northrup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic and abusive man.  On Epps plantation, Northrup befriends Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), an young enslaved women who Epps praises for picking the largest amount of cotton. Epps routinely rapes Patsey while his equally disturbed wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) abuses and humiliates her. Nyong’o deservedly won an Best Actress award for this role, but I nonetheless can’t imagine how harrowing it was for her to play this part.

The film dodges some conventions of historical drama by dropping the audience right in the narrative with no narration or titles introducing the situation. The film also makes effective use of flashbacks to Northrup’s  life in New York and earlier days in slavery as he remembers them.  It is also an oddly beautiful film as if to contrast the grim violence of slavery against the natural beauty of a Louisiana plantation.  One scene that is seared in my mind shows Northrup hanging from a noose, just barely able to get his toews on the ground, while in the background other enslaved people go about their work and children play.

The film is unrelenting in its portrayal of violence against Northrup and the other enslaved people depicted in the film.  I’m of two minds on this.  On one hand, no film can even approach the horrors of slavery, and as brutal as this film is, it is only a small approximation of reality.  On the other hand, is there not already enough historical depictions of the torture, rape, and murder of Black people that we don’t need to add to them in 21st Century?  Ultimately, I believe this is a necessary film, but I can understand if some people would not want to view it.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Wolfwalkers (2020) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter W

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

I couldn’t find a “W” movie to watch from these lists so I’m watching a highly-regarded recent release instead.

Title:Wolfwalkers 
Release Date: December 2, 2020
Director: Tomm Moore | Ross Stewart
Production Company: Cartoon Saloon | Mélusine
Summary/Review:

Kilkenny, Ireland – 1650.  The town faces the threat of a pack of wolves outside its walls, and the draconian rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) within.  Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) is an English hunter charged with eliminating the wolf problem while raising and protecting his adventurous young daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey).  Naturally, Robyn makes her way into the forest where she discovers the secret of the wolfwalkers, people who are human when they are awake and wolves when they are asleep, living among the wolfpack.

Robyn befriends the young Mebh Óg MacTíre (Eva Whitaker) and they join together to try and find Mebh’s missing mother and help save the wolf pack.  It’s a wonderful adventure full of great imagination, action, and camaraderie. The animation is absolutely beautiful and effortlessly melds together the historical with the fantastical.  Computer-animated films are getting better and better, but it is also really lovely to see a traditionally animated film like this one again.

Tomm Moore also directed The Secret of Kells which I also loved so now I need to seek out the rest of his films.  In the meantime, I highly recommend this as a great film for the whole family.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: Van Gogh (1991) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter V

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Van Gogh
Release Date: 30 October 1991
Director: Maurice Pialat
Production Company: Erato Films | Le Studio Canal+ | Les Films du Livradois | Films A2
Summary/Review:

I admire the artwork of Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh.  I’ve been to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and seen his art at other museums, watched the film Loving Vincent animated in the style of his art, and “Vincent and the Doctor” is one of my favorite episodes of Doctor Who.  Despite all that, I am only familiar with the basics of Van Gogh’s biography, so I was looking forward to this film.

Jacques Dutronc portrays Van Gogh in the final two months of his life in the village of Auvers-sur-Oise on the outskirts of Paris.  It’s largely a straightforward biopic, and Pialat’s approach eschews sentimentality and sensationalism.  For example, the story takes place after Van Gogh mutilated his ear but Dutronc’s ears appear in perfect condition.  The movie focuses less on Van Gogh as an artist and more on his interpersonal relationships.  This means a lot of people being goofy about trying to find something to talk about with an artist and Van Gogh being incredibly grumpy about it.

Key relationships include Dr Paul Gachet (Gérard Séty) the physician and amateur artists who Van Gogh consults who is ultimately helpless in dealing with Van Gogh’s mental illness.  Vincent also has several conflicts with his brother Theo (Bernard Le Coq), the art dealer who supports his career.  Theo’s wife Jo (Corinne Bourdon) is sympathetic to Vincent and advocates for him.  Van Gogh also forms a romantic and sexual relationship with Dr. Gachet’s daughter Marguerite (Alexandra London) while continuing an existing sexual relationship with Cathy (Elsa Zylberstein), a prostitute from Paris.

The movie is basically a sequence of Van Gogh having arguments and sex and there being very little emotion involved in either.  I know it’s probably more my fault than the film’s but I had a lot of trouble watching this movie. I ended up watching it over the period of four days because it just couldn’t hold me attention.  If the purpose of Van Gogh is to recreate the feeling of  emptiness the leads a talented artist to chose suicide, it does its job.  But ultimately I can’t say that is what I want from a film.

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: Trouble in Paradise (1932) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter U

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

I couldn’t find a “U” movie to watch from these lists, so I’m going to just review another “T” movie and “U” will have to live with that.

Title: Trouble in Paradise
Release Date: October 21, 1932
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

The film begins with a romantic dinner in Venice between Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins). They gradually learn that they are both posing as aristocracy: he’s a master thief and she’s a pickpocket and a con artist.  They decide to team up and find their next mark in Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), a recent widow who owns a famous perfume company.  Gaston is able to get himself hired as Mariette’s secretary (and get a position for Lily as well) and work his way into her confidence to set up robbing her safe.  There’s one problem though – Gaston and Mariette fall in love.

Thus you have the perfect escapist fare for The Great Depression – the meaningless problems of the rich, a love triangle, and nonstop droll humor.  The three leads are terrific and have a great supporting cast.  I wouldn’t say this movie is laugh out loud funny, but these characters are so smart and effortless in their banter, I can’t help but enjoy it.  I’d never heard of Kay Francis before, but I learned she was the top-paid Hollywood actress of the early 1930s, and I can see why.  You can also tell this is a pre-Code film because they’re never explicitly sexual, they don’t hide its sexiness either.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Touki Bouki (1973) #AtoZChallenge



#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter T

Welcome to the Panorama of the Mountains Blogging A to Z Challenge. This year I’m watching and reviewing movies from A-to-Z based on my ongoing Classic Movie Project. Most movies will be featured on one or more of three lists: AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies (USA), The Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time (UK), and Cahiers du Cinéma Greatest Films of All Time (France). In some cases, I will be very creative in assigning a Classic Movie to a letter of the alphabet, and in a few cases the movie I watch will not be Classic Movies at all.

Title: Touki Bouki
Release Date: May 1973
Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty
Production Company: Cinegrit | Studio Kankourama
Summary/Review:

Before the opening credits of Touki Bouki are finished, the film depicts the slaughter of cattle in graphic detail. So I knew this would be a tough film to watch.  In fact, slaughtering animals is a repeating motif of this film.  If you are squeamish, consider this your warning.

The nation of Senegal does not have an extensive film industry, but Touki Bouki  stands out as a highlight of the 1970s golden era of Senegalese cinema. The film draws influence from the French New Wave and relies on some deft editing.  Scenes from the present, past, and fantasy are intercut, with some images repeated multiple times in the film.  At times it feels as surreal as Un Chien Andalou and other times it feels like an music video from the 1980s. The edits create contrasts between natural and urban settings, the ancient and modern, and the African and colonised.

The story is about a young man, a cowherd named Mory (Magaye Niang) who drives a motorcycle with a cow skull on the handlebars, and a young woman, a university student named Anta (Mareme Niang).  They meet in Dakar and decide to run away together to Paris where they hope to make their fortune.  Much of the film depicts their attempts to steal the money they need to travel to Paris.  But really the plot is secondary to the imagery. I confess that I don’t quite “get” this movie, but I do appreciate what Mambéty is doing.

Rating: ****