Movie Review: Fantastic Planet (1973)


Title: Fantastic Planet
Release Date: 11 May 1973
Director: René Laloux
Production Company: Les Films Armorial | Ceskoslovenský Filmexport
Summary/Review:

Fantastic Planet is an animated film that seems made for late-night showings to an audience stoned of its gourd.  The movie is set and the planet Ygam where the dominant species are  the giant, blue, humanoid Traags.  They share the planet with the descendants of humans from Earth who are known as Oms.  Some Oms are kept as pets by Traags, but most live in the wild and are considered vermin to be exterminated by the Traags.

The story focuses on an Om named Terr who is adopted as an infant by a young Traag named Tiwa.  He is able to escape with her instructional headset and use it to share Traag knowledge with the colonies of wild Oms.  Using this knowledge, the Oms are able to begin to fight back and attempt to leave the planet.  The movie can be read as a metaphor for many things – racism, genocide, animal rights, or even the forces of nature.  The movie felt longer than its 71 minute run time and has a disappointing deus ex machina resolution, so this is less of a socio-political message and more of just a journey into the weird.

The pencil-sketch animation style reminded me of something I saw on children’s shows in the 1970s such as the “Pinball Number Count” on Sesame Street. The fanciful settings and the jazz funk fusion music are eerily similar.  I give it points for its visual imagination and funky grooves, but not much else.

Rating: ***

Recent Movie Marathon: The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (2021)


Happy New Year! I’m kicking off 2022 by watching and reviewing a bunch of movies from 2021.

Title: The Map of Tiny Perfect Things
Release Date: February 12, 2021
Director: Ian Samuels
Production Company: FilmNation Entertainment | Weed Road Pictures | Wishmore Entertainment
Summary/Review:

I saw this movie described as “If John Green did Groundhog Day,” which I think captures of the gist of the movie but undersells the originality and charm of the movie. Yes, this movie does namecheck Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow, and shares similarities with Palm Springs and other time loop movies. But as a teen comedy/drama/fantasy/romance it also uses the time loop trope to effectively examine the problems of young people ranging from dealing with grief to the fear of a future under climate change.

The movie begins with Mark (Kyle Allen) having already been in the time loop for some time and enjoying the godlike powers that come with knowing everything that is going to happen.  Things change when he meets Margaret (Kathryn Newton), a girl his own age who also is stuck in the time loop.  They begin spending time together and looking around their town for perfect moments of beauty which Mark documents each morning on a map (hence the title).  While Mark grows increasingly interested in finding a way to escape the temporal anomaly, Margaret is more reticent.  Mark is also interested in a romantic relationship which Margaret rebuffs.

Over the course of the movie, their are some interesting revelations and character growth I won’t spoil, but it ends up for making a very thoughtful and heartwarming film. With strong, nuanced performances by the lead actors (especially Newton), good storytelling, and editing, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is a lot better than I expected and better than others have been giving it credit for.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)


Title: Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Release Date: November 19, 2021
Director: Jason Reitman
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Bron Creative | Ghost Corps | The Montecito Picture Company  Right of Way Films
Summary/Review:

The long awaited sequel to the original Ghostbusters franchise picks up in the present day.  Egon Spengler (the late Harold Ramis) has abandoned his friends and family to invest himself in a paranormal manifestation on a remote farm in Oklahoma.  After his death, his daughter Callie (Carrie Coon), who never knew her father and is dealing with abandonment issues, inherits the creepy farmhouse and moves there with her two children.  Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) is a scientifically-literate but socially awkward preteen while Trevor is good with cars and eager to have a girlfriend.  Soon enough they each uncover bits of pieces of their mysterious grandfather’s past and begin to figure out how to carry his final project.

The great thing about this movie is that it is stylistically not at all much like the original Ghostbusters.  It feels a lot like a Spielberg/Amblin 80s family adventure complete with unsupervised children getting into very dangerous situations. It’s also very efficient in moving the film along without spending too much time dwelling on the various discoveries or the inevitable callbacks.  The final act is probably the most “derivative” of the original Ghostbusters movie, although as the plot centers on loose ends from that movie it makes sense.

There are some great performances in this movie, especially Grace as Phoebe.  The cast is boosted by newcomer Logan Kim as Phoebe’s nerdy friend Podcast, Celeste O’Connor as Trevor’s co-worker and love interest Lucky, and Paul Rudd as Gary, a lazy summer school teacher and scientist who loves the Ghostbusters, who also becomes a love interest for Callie.  And it should be no big spoiler that the original cast of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts all return as their original characters, although not as much as you might expect.  It’s a great family/adventure/comedy movie and a loving tribute to the original film.

I also loved the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, which I think was bigger on laughs, but Ghostbusters: Afterlife is bigger on heart. Both are light years better than the awful Ghostbusters II which seems to have been ignored by the Afterlife filmmakers. Now, of course, we need a multiverse where the casts of both films as well as Filmation’s Ghostbusters come together to fight the biggest threat yet! (No, that would been awful idea, so if you’re a Hollywood producer looking for concepts to work with just pretend you didn’t see this).

Rating: ****

Book Review: Cobalt Squadron by Elizabeth Wein


Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: Cobalt Squadron
Narrator: Kelly Marie Tran
Publication Info: Listening Library (2017)

Other Books Read by the Same Author:

  • Code Name Verity
  • Rose Under Fire

Summary/Review:

When browsing downloadable audiobooks on my library’s ebook app I immediately hit borrow when I saw that Elizabeth Wein wrote a Star Wars novel! As an added bonus, the audiobook is narrated by Kelly Marie Tran who portrayed Rose Tico in The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. Wein’s expertise at writing stories of women pilots and the relationships among them is perfectly suited for the story of sisters Rose and Paige Tico.  The story is about their involvement in a covert Resistance effort to provide supplies to a planet under the thumb of the First Order.  But overall it’s a character story about Rose learning to emerge from her sister’s shadow and assert her own skills.  It makes me wish all the more that we got to see more of Paige in the movies than the one scene in The Last Jedi and that Rose wasn’t done dirty in The Rise of Skywalker by having her screentime cut to appease MRA manbabies who whined about a woman of color having a prominent role.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Stalker (1979)


TitleStalker
Release Date: 25 May 1979
Director:  Andrei Tarkovsky
Production Company: Mosfilm
Summary/Review:

As I started watching Stalker, I started having flashbacks.  Filmed in sepia tones with long shots and slow pans, the camera spends a lot of time focused on grimy interiors and muddy landscapes.  As I watched absolutely nothing happen in great detail, I felt like I was reliving Sátántangó.  Granted, Stalker is only a third of the length of Sátántangó, but it’s still a long time to watch the back of three men’s heads as they walk slowly through meadows and tunnels.

Stalker is a science fiction story about the Zone, an area struck by a meteor and possibly even visited by extraterrestrials, where the normal laws of physics don’t apply.  Within the Zone is the Room where anyone who enters is granted their deepest desires. The Zone is encircled by a military cordon, but guides known as “stalkers” will lead people past the military and the presumed hazards of the Zone for a cost. In this film we see a Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) take two clients, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone.

Much like The Wizard of Oz, once they enter the Zone, the film changes from sepia tones to full (albeit muted) color.  Unlike The Wizard of Oz, the hazards seem to be entirely in the mind of the protagonists and they spend a lot of time debating philosophy and religion.  The Room ends up being a metaphor for belief and futility of existence. Stalker is clearly a well-made film with excellent cinematography, sound design, and set design.  Everyone on Letterboxd raves about it in their reviews.  But watching this movie felt like a slog for me and left me feeling cold.

Rating: ***

Book Review: From a Certain Point of View: Star Wars by Various Authors


Author: 40 Authors
TitleFrom a Certain Point of View: Star Wars
Narrator: Multiple Narrators
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
Summary/Review:

This book celebrated the 40th anniversary of Star Wars in 2017 with a collection of 40 original short stories by 43 authors. Each story is told from the perspective of a different character in the Star Wars universe, hence the title cribbing Obi-Wan’s famous line “From a certain point of view.”  The authors include a lot of well-known writers such as Rae Carson, Claudia Gray, Chuck Wendig, Wil Wheaton, Elizabeth Wein, Jeffrey Brown, Kieron Gillen, Nnedi Okorafor, Jason Fry, and Greg Rucka.  I suspect that if you are a bigger fan of science fiction/fantasy writing, you will recognize even more of the authors!

No character is too small to be a point of view character, thus there are tales told by droids, Jawas, Tusken raiders, bounty hunters, rebels of various ranks, stormtroopers, Imperial officers, a numerous other sentient beings.  A few bigger characters including Greedo, Obi-Wan, and Biggs get their stories as well as characters like Yoda, Palpatine, and Lando Calrissian who don’t even appear in the movie!  Perhaps the strangest story of all  is “Of MSE-6 and Men” by Glen Weldon, told from the perspective of a Death Star mouse droid and written in some kind of machine language, that tells the story of an ill-fated romance between a storm trooper and Grand Moff Tarkin.

Some stories are better than others, and I like it when the author takes a small character and builds a whole world around their life before and after their appearance in the film’s narrative.  Other stories are less successful because they basically just have the scenes and dialogues repeated from the movie interspersed with the thoughts of the point of view character.  The stories are arranged in sequence to the movie’s plot and things really get bogged down with five different stories about characters in the Mos Eisley cantina, and again during the Battle of Yavin.

Some of my favorite stories include:

  • “The Sith of Datawork” by Ken Liu, about an Imperial bureaucrat who is able to fix things in the records for the gunnery captain who failed to shoot at an escape pod.
  • “Laina”  by Wil Wheaton, which tells of a widowed rebel sending his young daughter away for her safety in a story which packs a lot of emotional punch.
  • “An Incident Report” by Daniel M. Lavery, in which Admiral Motti files a formal complaint against Darth Vader for force choking him.
  • “The Baptist” by Nnedi Okorafor is a life account of Omi, the creature that grabs Luke in the trash compactor.
  • “Time of Death” by Cavan Scott details Obi-Wan’s experience of joining with the Force immediately after his death.

I get why they wanted to go with 40 stories for the 40th anniversary, but this book could be improved with some judicious pruning.  Nevertheless, this is a fun book and I’m sure Star Wars fans will find something in it they like.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Men in Black (1997)


Title: Men in Black
Release Date: July 2, 1997
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Parkes/MacDonald Productions
Summary/Review:

Men in Black could’ve easily been “Ghostbusters with aliens” or just a star vehicle for Will Smith, but it turned out to be a whole lot more.  The movie draws upon the UFO conspiracy theory of government agents in dark suits who cover up alien encounters and more directly from The Men in Black comic book series based on the lore. I was impressed by the economy of the opening scenes in establishing the role Men in Black in policing refugee extraterrestrials on Earth (with a subtle political message about immigration built into it).  The rest of the film builds on the concept as we follow new recruit Agent J (Smith) learns from the grizzled veteran Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).

The stakes are high, the destruction of earth, but the conflict with the villain, a roach-like creature in a human skin named Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio) is very down to earth. Linda Fiorentino fills out the cast as Laurel, a doctor in the city morgue who has her memory erased multiple times for discovering aliens on Earth.  The film has a lot of great sight gags and humor and Jones and Smith have a great chemistry together.  This is also a great New York City film where the Guggenheim Museums becomes the perfect setting for a foot chase and the 1964 World’s Fair New York Pavilion is home to flying saucers in disguise (with a cameo by my late, lamented Shea Stadium).

I never saw the Men in Black sequels, and I don’t know if I want to, but this original film stands the test of time. My kids liked it too. A recent podcast episode from Unspooled discusses Men in Black and the hosts get into the weeds of an interesting conversation of how this movie marked the end of an era for blockbuster films preceding our current comic book/superhero dominated film landscape.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004


Title: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Release Date: March 19, 2004
Director: Michel Gondry
Production Company: Anonymous Content | This is That
Summary/Review:

The premise of this film is made clear in the trailer: After ending their troubled relationship, Clementine (Kate Winslet) uses a service provided by a company called Lacuna to erase all memories she has of her ex-boyfriend Joel (Jim Carrey).  When Joel discovers what she’s done, he decides to erase her from his memory as well.  The brilliance of the movie is that knowing this does not spoil the movie, and in fact the opening scenes defy the moviegoer’s expectations.  In fact, the movie plays with chronology to support the central idea of memory being lost. It all works in visually presenting a metaphor of how the mind works while Joel’s experience makes him realize that memories, even the bad ones, are what defines him.

Carrey and Winslet are great in their roles and their performance captures both the little things that are great about a romantic relationship as well as the little irritants that can build up and cause a relationship to fail.  The typically manic Carrey is reserved, even introverted as Joel, but even as the film’s straight man his comic instincts are well served, especially when he has to play his character as a child.

The supporting cast is mainly the crew of Lacuna who turn out to be a messed-up and unprofessional bunch.  Stan Fink (Mark Ruffalo) is the technician assigned to erasing Joel’s memory who uses the time to invite his girlfriend and Lacuna receptionist Mary (Kirsten Dunst) over for marijuana and sex.  Mary meanwhile has a crush on Lacuna’s director Dr. Howard  Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) who has skeletons in his own closet.  And Patrick (Elijah Wood) is the creepiest of all, using knowledge gained from the procedure to pursue women.

This is an excellent movie and I’m glad I revisited it after many years. Bonus points for having significant scenes set on the frozen Charles River.

Rating: *****

Classic Movie Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)


Title: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Release Date: April 3, 1968
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey as a kid, excited to see a science fiction classic.  I was not at all prepared to watch a slow-moving film with limited dialogue that touched upon themes of evolution and existentialism.  It left me feeling a way I couldn’t describe with words, somewhere between disturbed and confused.  Upon repeated viewings I was still confounded.

It’s been decades since the last time I watched 2001, yet it’s a movie I still think about a lot. So I was glad to revisit it as an adult with an appreciation for the the film’s cinematic innovations.  I am also in a place where I’m much more comfortable with watching something and not having to know what it “means.” The film is impressive from the very beginning with the shot of the earth from the moon, released to cinemas before astronauts got the same view for the first time on Apollo 8 later the same year. The effects used to create weightlessness are also terrific and I particularly like the scene in the airlock.

The opening segment, “The Dawn of Man,” which particularly bored me as a child went by quicker than I remembered.  It still feels like dioramas in the natural history museum have come to life, particularly since Kubrick shot it against backdrops rather than on location in Africa.  The “Star Gate” segment, however, goes on for far longer than I remembered.  Did hippies really even need to take hallucinogens before watching this?

The core of the movie is aboard the spacecraft Discovery One on a mission to Jupiter with astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood).  They grow increasingly mistrustful of the intelligent computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) which leads to horror and tragedy.  The scene where Dave disconnects HAL’s circuits leading to HAL’s “death” is one of the most heartbreaking in film history even though it’s for a murderous computer.

In summation, 2001 is still a slow and “boring” film, but in a good way.  It’s predictions of the future seem way off since humans have not left low-earth orbit since 1972.  On the other hand, the corporate branding we see on everything seems spot on even if Pan-Am, Bell Telephone, and Howard Johnson’s restaurants didn’t make it to 2001.  The movie is stunning visually, and it will make you think about important topics even if you can never figure out the right answers.  This is definitely a movie I’d like to see on a big screen when I get the opportunity.

Rating: *****

 

Movie Review: The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021)


Title: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Release Date: April 23, 2021
Director: Mike Rianda
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Sony Pictures Animation | Lord Miller Productions | One Cool Films
Summary/Review:

Katie Mitchell (Abbi Jacobson) is a misfit kid who finds her passion in filmmaking and is excited to begin attending film school in California.  She’s often in conflict with her overprotective father Rick (Danny McBride) who doesn’t understand her artistic and technological interests.  In order to promote family bonding, Rick decides to take the whole family – including mother Linda (Maya Rudolph) and dinosaur obsessed little brother Aaron (Mike Rianda) – on a cross-country drive to college.  While they’re en route, the Apple/Facebook-style company PAL introduces robot assistants who immediately rebel against humanity.  Only the Mitchell’s avoid capture and it’s up to them to fight the robot menace and come together as a family.

Overall, this movie feels very familiar (it’s the same basic plot of Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg-Nick Frost’s Cornetto trilogy) and has a lot of gags similar to other recent animated family adventures.  The Mitchells have a funny car and a funny dog.  And there’s deadpan dialogue like the PAL tech CEO saying ““It’s almost like stealing people’s data and giving it to a hyper-intelligent AI as part of an unregulated tech monopoly was a bad thing.”  Despite the lack of originality the movie is very sweet and has some good, funny bits.  The animation is fluid and for added effects, other types of animation are overlaid on the computer animation.  Extra points for LGBTQ+ representation in the movie’s protagonist by having Katie be gay without that being a controversy in her family or playing into a romantic storyline. This is a good, fun movie suitable for the whole family.

Rating: ***