Classic Movie Review: A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

Title: A Brighter Summer Day
Release Date: July 27, 1991
Director: Edward Yang
Production Company: Yang & His Gang Filmmakers | Jane Balfour Films

Something about A Brighter Summer Day reminds me of the epic tv mini-series of the 70s and 80s.  Obviously those miniseries were often sensational and kind of cheezy, which does not apply to this movie, but there’s still that feel of something big being told in detail.

Set in Taiwan in the early 1960s, A Brighter Summer Day documents a time when the Chinese Nationalists who fled the mainland in 1949 are coming to terms with their exile being more permanent than they previously realized, while their children grow in a perpetual state of uncertainty.  The film’s protagonist is a young teenage boy, Zhang Zhen (Chang Chen), whose nickname is Si’r.  At the start of the film, he begins attending a night school (although confusingly he’s also depicted attending school during the day as well).  The main storylines are a growing relationship with a girl named Ming (Lisa Yang), and while Si’r does not join a gang he grows increasingly acquainted with members of rival gangs including one lead by Ming’s boyfriend. The movie is a slow-burn of Si’r’s gradually deteriorating mental and emotional state leading to a tragic finale.

The plot of this film does not require it’s four-hour runtime.  That time does serve the purpose of fully immersing the viewer in the world of early 60s Taiwan. We see a strictly regimented society where the students wear military-style uniforms to school and the actual military parades their tanks through the streets. Si’r’s father (Chang Kuo-chu) runs into trouble for his past associations and is interrogated by the secret police.  But there also is an influx of American culture which manifests itself most clearly in the rock and roll music the children listen to and perform.

I’ve ready a lot of glowing reviews of this film and find myself unable to muster the same enthusiasm that this is a “perfect movie.”  Nevertheless, I’m glad I watched it as it is an all-around excellent production of a fictional story that illustrates a place and a time I previously knew nothing about.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Title: Rebel Without a Cause
Release Date: October 26, 1955
Director: Nicholas Ray
Production Company: Warner Bros.

Rebel Without a Cause is one of those iconic movies that seems to permeate popular culture, but having never watched it before, I was surprised that it was not what I’d imagined.  The movie begins with three of the main characters (all strangers to one another at the time) being brought to the juvenile division: Jim Stark (James Dean) is brought in for drunkeness, “Plato” Crawford (Sal Mineo) for killing puppies, and Judy (Natalie Wood) for violating curfew.  A sympathetic police inspector, Ray Fremick (Edward Platt), and the movie indicates at this point that teenagers have real concerns and worries that should be respected (the rest of the movie seems to shift back and forth in its sympathies toward the teenagers).

Jim, the rebel, actually seems to be a conscientious kid with a strong moral compass (albeit a tendency for saying inappropriate things), but is frustrated that his family keeps moving him around and he’s unable to make and maintain friendships. On his way to his first day at a new high school he meets Judy and flirts with her, but she rides off with gang of cool kids lead by Buzz (Corey Allen).  At school, Plato befriends Jim and begins to idolizes him.  It’s not clear whether the filmmakers intended it or not, but Mineo’s performance is coded as being gay.

In one, busy and tragic day, the new kid Jim goes through hazing at the hands of the cool kids, including a knife fight and a deadly game of chicken on a cliffside.  Jim, Plato, and Judy try to escape their worries by playing house in an abandoned mansion (the same one used in Sunset Boulevard), but even there they can’t escape violence and tragedy.

The acting performances of the three leads excel despite a hackneyed script and a whole lot of melodrama. There’s an underlying ugliness to the movie.  Jim attributes many of his problems to his father, Frank (a pre-Mr. Magoo/Gilligan’s Island Jim Backus), being subservient to his mother (Ann Doran).  The movie even has him wearing a frilly apron in one scene, apparently to show his lack of manliness and “castration” by his harridan wife.  Plato’s troubles are ascribed to the absence of his parents – which is plausible – and that instead he’s raised by the family’s housekeeper, a unnamed black woman (Marietta Canty), which is totally racist.

The movie is horribly dated and fails to live up to the promise of its opening scenes in depicting the real-life travails of American teenagers.  On the other hand, the movie was clearly shocking and surprisingly original in its treatment of teenagers at the time.  It’s a shame that James Dean was killed in a car crash a month before the movie’s release and he never had the chance to build on his performance.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Eighth Grade (2018)

TitleEighth Grade
Release Date: July 13, 2018
Director: Bo Burnham
Production Company: A24

More than any movie I’ve seen before, Eighth Grade captures the reality of the insecurities and search for identity of a young teacher.  Set in the last week of 8th grade, 13-year-old Kayla records advice videos to post online which act as narration as we see her attempt to build her confidence and try new things. Kayla is voted “most quiet” in her class and doesn’t have any close friends. With high school looming she has to navigate going to a popular girl’s pool party (only because she was invited by the girl’s mother) and trying to talk to her crush, awkwardly during an active shooter drill.  Shadowing a genuinely kind high school girl boosts her confidence but then she endures an awkward come-on from a creepy high school boy.

This movie is carried by Elsie Fisher, who as a young actor has the unenviable task of having the camera on her at almost all times. Even when other people are talking, the audience sees the small but telling reactions in Fisher’s eyes and face, which is actually a really good representation of how a shy person experiences a lot of social situations.  When using social media – which Kayla does often – the camera catches the reflection of her face on the screen. And while Hollywood loves to have “perfect” people in the movies, Fisher looks like a real kid with pimples and crooked teeth. Kayla’s description of having the scared feeling of waiting to go on a roller coaster without ever getting the good feeling of getting off a roller coaster is the best analogy for constant anxiety I’ve ever heard.

I see a lot of my younger self in Kayla, but all the more so, I get a glimpse of my future self in Kayla’s dad, Mark, portrayed by Josh Hamilton.  Hamilton captures all the dorky awkwardness, anxiety, and pride of being a dad when one doesn’t quite know how to connect with the child changing before one’s eyes.  This is brilliant movie and it honestly captures life experiences that many people will relate too, albeit not without cringing, because it cuts so close.

Rating: *****

Podcasts of the Week Ending March 24

To the Best of Our Knowledge :: What Can We Learn From Teenagers?

Teenagers kick our butts.

Hidden Brain :: Guys, We Have A Problem: How American Masculinity Creates Lonely Men

Performative masculinity is cutting men off from connecting with others.

The Truth :: The Hilly Earth Society

A stunning one-person audio drama told entirely in voice messages from an angry recluse to a persistent journalist.  There’s a couple of interesting twists at the end, only one I saw coming.

LeVar Burton Reads :: “The 5:22” by George Harrar

A Twilight Zone -esque story about when one’s routine daily commute changes.

Podcasts of the Week Ending March 3

WBUR News :: Rarely Heard Worcester Speech Shows Another Side Of MLK

Hear Martin Luther King speak in a more relaxed setting than most previously released King recordings, while talking about some familiar themes.

Have You Heard? :: Am I Next? School Shootings and Student Protests

Best of the Left :: The kids are alright and they are leading the way again (Parkland Shooting)

Two podcasts about school shootings and the brave teenage activists leading the way in opposition to gun violence.

links of the day for 31 January 2008


  • Must We Fear Adolescent Sexuality? (Feministing, 1/24/08) – “”basically that adolescent sexuality is dramatized in one country (good ol’ U.S. of A.) and normalized in the other. Parents in the Netherlands repeatedly expressed believing that love between teens is very possible, whereas American parents scoffed at it.”
  • One Bush Left Behind (Greg Palast, 1/29/08) – “Of course, there’s an effective alternative to Mr. Bush’s plan – which won’t cost a penny more. Simply turn it upside down. Let’s give each millionaire in America a $20 bill, and every poor child $287,000.”
  • The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Independent (Easily Distracted, 1/29/08) – “I tend to look at politics the same way Jane Jacobs looked at cities, as something that grows organically out of experience and usage. The strong party or movement loyalist looks at politics the way that Le Corbusier looked at cities: as a thing to be built by rigid principles, and damn people if they’re too stupid or recalcitrant to live in the city of tomorrow the way that they’re supposed to.”
  • The Last Article On The Traveler/Tourist Distinction You’ll Ever Read (Brave New Traveler, 1/30/08) – “The whole point of travel is to pursue the meaning behind the milieu: to discover oneself in the mirror of the Other. Travel isn’t dictated by fad or tradition, but by curiosity. It is internally directed. Fixation on the role or material affairs only distracts from issues of real importance. We are all tourists. We learn by doing. Our knowledge comes by the fine art of making our screw-ups something beautiful. And unless you’re willing to go down roads unfamiliar to the cowards and cynics, the art never arrives. It is upon these are the roads where we are made travelers.”


Today is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Explorer 1, the United States’ response to Sputnik, which also carried out important scientific research discovering the van Allen radiation belts:

  • Scientific American podcast Science Talk (1/30/08) – “Carl Raggio, formerly of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, talks about the efforts to launch Explorer 1, the first US satellite, which went into orbit on January 31st, 1958, exactly 50 years ago this week.”
  • 50 years after Explorer 1 (Bad Astronomy, 1/31/08)

Free Stuff:

Movie Review: Dazed and Confused (1993)

In 2019 I found some old Word documents with movie reviews I wrote back before I had a blog. I’m posting each review backdated to the day I wrote it.

Title: Dazed and Confused
Release Date: September 24, 1993
Director: Richard Linklater
Production Company: Alphaville

So this is one of those “cultural flashpoint” movies I never saw until last week. It was actually very different from what I expected. On the last day of school in Austin, TX in 1976 a bunch of high school and junior high school kids hang out, drink beer, smoke pot, drive around, make out and have inane conversations – not too unlike real teenagers. There is absolutely no plot to speak of, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing here.

As far as teen movies go, Dazed and Confused can be judged on what it’s not. No one gets the girl (not really anyway), no one gets in a car wreck, no one learns a valuable lesson, really it’s just a bunch of kids having fun with little parental supervision. All the teen movie archetypes are there – the jock, the stoner, the geek, the popular girls – or so you think, but none of the characters really hold to type.

The cast of this movie is huge and there’s no lead character, and its hard to keep track of who is who because they keep switching cars. But overall the cast puts in some heartfelt portrayals of typical teens. One major theme of the movie I didn’t get at first was a town-wide hazing of graduating junior high kids by the rising seniors. I’d never heard of such a thing happening, but it seemed to be the accepted thing in this fictionalized town. Maybe it’s because I never lived in a small town, I dunno. I found it interesting that the kids could go from being mercilessly cruel during the hazing to quite tender and affectionate later on, again another slice of reality.

Dazed and Confused is not one of the all-time greats but an interesting and funny movie, and I guess since I’m still thinking about it a week later, thought-provoking too.

Rating: ***