Classic Movie Review: Shadow of a Doubt (1943)


Title: Shadow of a Doubt
Release Date: January 12, 1943
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Skirball Productions
Summary/Review:

Shadow of the Doubt answers the question “what if a noir thriller crashed in a family sitcom?” Joseph Cotten is Charles Oakley, a man on the run, who decides to lay low with the family of his sister, Ann Newton (Edna May Wonacott), in Santa Rosa, California.  There he is reunited with his teenage niece and namesake Charlie (Teresa Wright), who adores him.  Over time Uncle Charlies strange behavior and the arrival of detectives makes Charlie suspect that her uncle is the Merry Widow Murderer.

Unlike Suspicion, the plot is never ambiguous about Uncle Charlie’s guilt, so its more of a story of what Charlie can discover and if she can avoid becoming a victim herself.  Amidst the noir thriller bits there’s a lot of comic  family squabble and a romantic comedy as Charlie is wooed by one of the detectives (Macdonald Carey).  Teresa Wright positively shines in this movie, which was her first top-billing, and it makes me wonder why she didn’t become a bigger star.  Joseph Cotten, who I’ve liked in other films, seems to be mailing it in on this one.

Rating: ***

 

Movie Review: Loving Vincent


Title: Loving Vincent
Release Date: September 22, 2017
Director: Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
Production Company: BreakThru Productions | Trademark Films
Summary/Review:

A team of Polish and British filmmakers explore the legacy that Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh left behind in France after his death through experimental animation.  Each frame in the film is hand-painted in oils in the style of Van Gogh, bringing to life the people and places he painted. This approach was previously used in a segment of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990),  but it doesn’t make it any less wondrous to watch, especially for a Van Gogh admirer.

The story takes place a year after Van Gogh’s death when Armand Roulin (Douglass Booth) is tasked with delivering a letter from Vincent to his brother Theo.  Traveling to Auvers-sur-Oise, Roulin learns that Theo has also died, but feels compelled to continue searching for a recipient for the letter.  The movie plays out like a mystery as Roulin interviews people who knew Van Gogh, and the his actions and moods on his last day are teased out.  The story does drag a bit, but the film is kept alive by its outstanding visuals as well as the  voice cast featuring stars like Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan, and Chris O’Dowd.

Just an aside, many years ago when I saw an exhibit of Van Gogh’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts, I decided it would be funny of someone made a sitcom about The Roulin Family.  Seeing Armand as well as his father, the postman Joseph Roulin, as characters in Loving Vincent is a big step toward seeing my vision come to life.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Kingdom Keepers: Power Play by Ridley Pearson


Author: Ridley Pearson
Title: The Kingdom Keepers: Power Play
Publication Info: New York : Disney/Hyperion Books, c2011
Summary/Review:

I was disappointed in the previous installment of the Kingdom Keepers, but the series regains its footing in the fourth book.  The narrative is less bloated and even when the Keepers hit a snag in one of their moonlight adventures in the Disney Parks, it feels plot-driven rather than a dead end.

There are five Kingdom Keepers, with Finn the leader getting most of the attention, and Philby growing to be the co-leader.  The other Keepers and the two Fairlies, Amanda and Jess, have had a lot to do in previous books, but this is the first book in which Willa has a big part, and it’s really great to see her character grow.

Willa is also present for a new factor in this books when she meets (and is helped) by Ariel, the Little Mermaid.  The villains – known as the Overtakers – have featured prominently in the series, but this is the first time a good Disney character plays a role with hints that more good characters are looking for a leader to drive them to action.  Later, Minnie and Pluto play a big part. It’s very bold for Pearson to wait until the fourth book to introduce this game-changing factor to the novels!

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Kingdom Keepers: Disney in Shadow by Ridley Pearson


Author: Ridley Pearson
Title: The Kingdom Keepers: Disney in Shadow
Publication Info: New York : Disney Editions, c2010.
Summary/Review:

In the third books of the Kingdom Keepers series, the story is starting to wear thin.  This book is much longer than its predecessors and feels bloated.  There are a number of false starts to getting the plot moving that don’t really add anything as far as character beats go.  There’s also a love triangle crisis among Finn-Amanda-Charlene that comes out of nowhere and seems unnecessary.

Nevertheless, when the action gets going, the Kingdom Keepers stay up all night fighting the Overtakers in Epcot in attempt to rescue their mentor Wayne.  The action culminates in a full-on tech rehearsal of Fantasmic! where they battle of good versus evil is very real.  I think the final sequence stands well by itself and if the novel were trimmed down to simply support it, the novel would be a much better addition to the series.

 

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: M (1931)


Title: M
Release Date: May 11, 1931
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: Nero-Film A.G.
Summary/Review:

Continuing with German cinema, this film by Fritz Lang (who also directed Metropolis) is a thriller/procedural drama that basically invented the noir genre.  Peter Lorre, an actor I’ve always liked in his Hollywood films, had is first major role as the serial killer of children, Hans Beckert.  Depicting a serial killer on the silver screen and the way the story unravels is strikingly modern, and is about 30 years of Hollywood doing something similar.

The film begins with chilling sequences of children chanting about murder and then Beckert luring away a girl while whistling “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”  In the panic that follows, people turn on one another with suspicion, and the police crack down on the criminal underworld.  The city’s mob bosses decide that they also need to track down the murderer, and the scenes of cops and criminals preparing for a manhunt are intercut, with it being deliberately hard to tell which group is which.

Beggars are able to track down Beckert who then hides in the office building.  The criminals seek him out using all the means at their disposal, including rather comically drilling a hole through the floor to access a locked office on a lower level.  Once they’ve captured Beckert, the criminals put him on a mock trial. These scenes feel didactic as Lang’s characters overtly explain the moral message to a sick society, which is a weak way to conclude the film.  The command at the close of the film to watch our children seems torn out of the present day manual of helicopter parenting.  Nevertheless, the film on the whole is a compelling drama.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Kingdom Keepers: Disney At Dawn by Ridley Pearson


Author: Ridley Pearson
Title: The Kingdom Keepers: Disney At Dawn
Publication Info: New York : Disney Editions, c2008.
Summary/Review:

Finn, Charlene, Maybeck, Willa, and Philby return for another adventure as the five young teenagers who defend Walt Disney World from the villainous Overtakers.  The story begins with a parade celebrating the return of the kids’ DHIs (holographic hosts who work in the Magic Kingdom), but the appearance of their friends Amanda and Jez forebodes dark times ahead in the Most Magical Place on Earth.

Amanda and Jez are orphans with magical powers only just being revealed to the rest of the Kingdom Keepers, and the are known as Fairlies, as in “Fairly Humans.”  When Jez is abducted the Kingdom Keepers not only need to find her but also avoid falling asleep and having their DHIs trapped in the Overtakers’ new server.  They spend the day at the Animal Kingdom struggling to keep awake as they solve these mysteries.  Charlene gets a particularly good boost in her character as she gets to disguise herself as DeVine, the camouflaged, stilt-walking performer, for reconnaissance purposes.

Aaaaaaaaand, the novel ends on a cliffhanger, meaning that my daughter and I will most certainly be reading the third book in the series.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark by Ridley Pearson


Author: Ridley Pearson
Title: The Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark
Publication Info: New York : Disney Editions, c2005.
Summary/Review:

This book is the first in a series of adventure and mystery children’s novels set in the Walt Disney World theme parks that I’m reading to my Disney fan daughter.  The basic gist is that five young teenagers have been used as models for holographic theme park guides in Disney’s Magic Kingdom known as Disney Host Interactive (DHI).  A simple one-time acting gig unexpectedly leads the kids to start crossing over in their sleep and appearing in the Magic Kingdom in the form of their holograms.  An old and mysterious Imagineer named Wayne tells them that they were created to counter the characters of Disney villains who are coming to life and trying to take over the parks (and thus known as the Overtakers).

The five teens kind of have a Scooby Doo crew crossed with a Disney Channel Original Movie vibe.  Finn is the leader and the main protagonist of the book.  Charlene is an athletic cheerleader who is often frightened about participating in the adventures. Maybeck, a tall African-American, is the sceptic of the group and typically responds with sarcasm.  Willa, possibly of Native American background, is more positive and is good at working out clues.  Philby is the redheaded tech genius of the group.  Finn’s mysterious friend Amanda also helps out, although she is not a DHI.

They have to solve a mystery by finding clues on the rides.  The Overtakers try to stop them by turning the rides against them.  Which leads to the creepiest scene ever in It’s a Small World that will totally ruin the ride for you. They ultimately have to face down Malificent and her sidekick Jez.

It’s a fun and interesting story, and much more of a literary children’s book than you might expect from it’s commercial tie-in with a big theme park.  In fact, since the Disney company is so image conscious, I’m surprised that they actually make the company look bad at some points in the narrative.  My daughter enjoyed this book and I expect we’ll be reading the whole series.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending March 16th


Twenty Thousand Hertz :: The Booj

In a world where every movie trailer sounds exactly like every other movie trailer, how does one make their trailer stand out?  The story of The Booj and other elements common to the blockbuster movie trailer formula.  Confession:  I love the sound of The Booj, but can live without the cheezy song covers.

Radiolab :: Asking for Another Friend

This episode investigates several mysteries, including people who don’t clean up their dog’s poop, racist dogs, and why the New York City subway plays the opening notes of a song from West Side Story.

Re:Sound :: Lefty Disco

The first story is the oddly fascinating story of how discrimination against Black and gay people, a radio shockjock, and a baseball double-header collided to become a disastrous promotional event and The Night That Killed Disco.

Best of the Left :: Democratizing our presidential elections (National Popular Vote) ​

The Electoral College is anti-democratic and despite what its supporters say does not help smaller states.  This episode discusses alternatives such as the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, replacing “winner take all” with proportional allotments, and eliminating the Electoral College entirely.


Running tally of Podcast of the Week appearances:

Movie Review: Tommorowland (2015)


Title: Tommorowland
Release Date: May 22, 2015
Director: Brad Bird
Production Company:Walt Disney Pictures
Summary/Review:

Brad Bird, writer and director of animated films like the Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, brings his utopian vision to live action films. The basic gist is that a group of creative geniuses make an alternative reality called Tomorrowland which is an amalgam of the optimistic views of a space age future that were common in culture circa the 1950s-1980s (it’s never explained how this alternative universe works).  The major characters are George Clooney as an older man who has been exiled from Tomorrowland, Britt Robertson as a teenage scientific enthusiast who is the latest recruit for Tommorrowland, Raffey Cassidy as the Audio-Animatronic who recruits new members, and Hugh Laurie as the villain who desires to make Tommorowland exclusive, and ultimately destroy the real world.

The movie is full of fantastic visuals and great ideas.  But ultimately, it feels hollow at the heart of it.  There’s a preachy vein that we should feel bad about giving up on our optimistic vision of tomorrow, but never gives a reason why, especially since the effort to get to Tommorrowland is full of violence and a Libertarian idea of some people being naturally better than others.  There’s a lot that’s good about this movie, from the acting to the visuals, that it’s doubly disappointing that it misses the mark by so much.

Rating: ***

TV Review: Broadchurch (2017)


Title: Broadchurch
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 3
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

I recently watched the third and final series of the the British program Broadchurch.  I watched the first two series a few years ago back before I started writing reviews of tv series so I’ll sum up my thoughts on them first.  Series 1 focuses on the murder of an 11-year boy in a small, coastal town of England and the effect that the murder and mystery has on that town. It’s visually striking, well-acted, and takes the time to explore the feelings of grief, anger, and suspicion among the characters.  The second series focuses on the trial of the murderer intercut with the investigation of an unrelated cold case.  This series veered into being too silly and contrived and paled in comparison to the first series.

I really enjoy the work of the actors Olivia Colman and David Tennant as the detectives Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy.  They play ordinary, rumpled people with complicated lives, not at all the typical glamorous television detective.  I love the interplay between them and how amidst the bickering they develop mutual respect and friendship.  The rest of the cast are made up of talented British actors, and a large number of them have been involved in Doctor Who (as has the creator and writer of Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall, who is now the showrunner for Doctor Who).

The third series takes place a few years after series 2, with the focus set on the rape of a middle-aged woman named Trish (Julie Hesmondhalgh).  The explores her personal trauma as well as effect the crime has on Trish’s family, friends, and the townspeople in general.  The first episode is a very stark portrait of Trish being taken into the rape crisis response system.  Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker) – the mother of the murdered Danny from the first two series – returns, now working as a Sexual Assault Response Association counselor assigned to work with Trish.

While Beth works to channel her grief into helping crime victims, her estranged husband Mark (Andrew Buchan) can’t let go of Danny’s murder and becomes increasingly unstable. Meanwhile, the men in Trish’s life, even those she’s tangentially associated with her all seem to have secrets and lies, and histories of bad behavior.  Ellie and Alec soon have a long list of suspects as they find toxic masculinity and rape culture at every corner of this small town.  The whole series is best summed up by Alec when he says “What’s bothering me about this case is that it’s making me ashamed to be a man.” Even when the actual rapist is identified, you’re left feeling concerned that there are so many scuzzy men walking free in this town.

Series 3 is a definite improvement over Series 2, although it falls a bit short of Series 1.  It’s good in how it takes the time to respectfully and realistically depict a rape case.  The show feels even more bleak this series, not that you’d consider a show about a murdered child to have much humor, but it did have more light moments than this series.  On the downside I think the mystery part got a little too contrived with a half-dozen suspects all having done something nasty and creepy related to Trish.  It’s weird too that everyone seems to know one another and get together for soccer games or flashlight marches, but don’t seem to know one another at other times. Overall though, this is a well-acted – if harrowing – procedural drama.