TV Review: Loki (2021)


Title: Loki
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Michael Waldron
Director: Kate Herron
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of Loki, please don’t read

This Disney+ series picks up from a scene in Avengers: Endgame when the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) uses the Tesseract to escape the Avengers, and over six episodes ends up in a completely different place that appears to be setting up the next phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Loki is captured by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organization that operates out its massive mid-century modern headquarters to maintain the Sacred Timeline by “pruning” branches from the timeline.

Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) condemns Loki to be erased from existence but Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) convinces her to allow Loki help investigate another Loki variant who has killed several time agents.  They find the Loki variant and discover it is a woman who uses the alias Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Loki and Sylvie end up teaming up and begin uncovering the dark truths behind the TVA. The final episode avoids the typical Marvel battle for a quieter conversation with the TVA’s creator He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).  As someone who hasn’t read 60 years of Marvel Comics, I found it a bit frustrating to not be aware of the identity behind He Who Remains until after I read reviews of the episode, but he appears to be setting up to be the MCU’s next Thanos-level threat.

Loki is another excellent limited series that takes storytelling to new and interesting places.  The acting is on point with Hiddleston getting a chance to show his ranges as Loki and Di Martino is a great addition.  I also really enjoy the style of the TVA and the self-referential humor.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Movie Review: Gravity (2013)


Here’s my first review this week for a mini-series of Space Exploration Movies of the 2010s.

Title: Gravity
Release Date: October 4, 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Production Company: Heyday Films | Esperanto Filmoj
Summary/Review:

The explosion of a satellite in earth orbit leads to a chain reaction of destruction from a cloud of high speed space debris. The debris destroys the Space Shuttle Explorer leaving only two survivors who were performing extravehicular activity at the time of the strike.  Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist on her first mission to space while Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a garrulous NASA veteran on his final mission.  Together they need to make their way to the International Space Station and then to China’s Tiangon space station to find a spacecraft that can return them safely to Earth. The film attempts to be scientifically grounded (although I’m sure that nitpickers can find many errors) and prevent a plausible if extremely unlikely series of events in their attempt to reach safety.

I did find it weird that Kowalski and Stone talk to one another like they’re just getting to know one another when they would’ve been training together for months.  I also was a bit annoyed that Kowalski got to be confident and competent all the time while Stone panics and makes mistakes, although this does pay off later in the film.  In the 21st century, movies have been getting longer and longer, which isn’t always a bad thing, but I appreciate that Gravity is taut 91 minutes long.  It’s really all action from beginning to end, and Bullock puts in a great performance for someone who is basically carrying the movie on her own for the better part of it’s runtime.

I’m growing to appreciate the work of Alfonso Cuarón, who directed the best Harry Potter movie and one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen, and seems to excel at making wildly different styles of film.  I’ll have to watch some more of his films.

Rating: ***1/2

Classic Movie Review: Él (1953)


Title: Él
Release Date: July 9, 1953
Director: Luis Buñuel
Production Company: Producciones Tepeyac
Summary/Review:

Él (Spanish for “Him,” but also released as This Strange Passion in the United States) is a Mexican film directed by the Spanish-born Luis Buñuel.  I’m familiar with Buñuel as a figure in the Surrealist art movement and particularly as the director of the bizarre silent movie classic Un Chien Andalou. Except for a few sequences near the conclusion, Él is not a surreal movie.  In fact, it feels a lot like a classic Hollywood film.

Francisco (Arturo de Córdova) is a prosperous middle-age man who spots a younger woman, Gloria (Delia Garcés), at church an aggressively pursues her.  Gloria appears resistant to his advances but after a flash forward in time, we learn that Gloria marries Francisco.  The better part of the film then features Gloria narrating to her friend and former fiance Raul (Luis Beristáin) about how starting with their honeymoon, Francisco has tormented her with an irrational and paranoid jealousy. If you have any experience with domestic violence, be warned that this is not an easy movie to watch.

The movie reminds me somewhat of Gaslight in the way the charming older man swiftly turns into tormentor of his younger newlywed wife.  But unlike Gaslight, there is no underlying mystery to Francisco’s jealousy, he’s simply mentally ill.  There are parts of the movie that also remind me of the dangerous obsession of Vertigo, particularly a scene in a bell tower, although I have no idea if Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by Él. The direction and the action in the film is good, but ultimately there is not much to this movie beyond a startling presentation of paranoia.

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: The French Connection (1971)


Title: The French Connection
Release Date: October 7, 1971
Director: William Friedkin
Production Company: Philip D’Antoni Productions
Summary/Review:

In this movie we see an expose how Richard Nixon’s war on drugs is used to unleash unholy police violence on Black people. Oh wait! In fact, this film from “liberal” Hollywood wants you to believe the cops are heroes.  15 minutes into this movie I was determined to hate it.  But over time my opinion softened. For one thing, it features two of the most phenomenal actors of the time: Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider as Buddy “Cloudy” Russo.  There’s something about Gene Hackman as a person that is just likable even when he plays the most vicious characters here and in Unforgiven (I don’t even know what this feeling is based on since I don’t really know anything about the real life Gene Hackman).  In this film, Hackman and Scheider also have an easy camaraderie that makes them feel like real partners.

Friedkin shoots the film in a verite style and most of the film depicts the long hours of Popeye staking out and tailing their suspects, including the French drug dealer kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).  I don’t think a modern film would spend a fraction of the time on this details (and I don’t think earlier films did either), but it really builds the tension.  There’s a great sequence when Popeye and Charnier play cat and mouse on the 42nd Street Shuttle.  All of this leads up to Popeye commandeering a car to chase an assassin riding an elevated train above him.  I’m not usually one who cares much for chase scenes but I found this sequence to be ABSOLUTELY EXHILARATING.

The French Connection is a New York City period piece and is shot on location in many recognizable spots in at least three of the five boroughs.  Unlike Taxi Driver or Midnight Cowboy (or even The Out-of-Towners), New York is not depicted as an unredeemable hell-hole but more of the New York I knew and loved as a child.  It’s gritty and dangerous around the edges but you also see a lot of ordinary people of all backgrounds going about their business in the background.  Despite my first impressions that this film was pure cop-aganda, the film ultimately takes a morally ambiguous stance on whether Popeye’s violent obsession with taking down the French Connection is ultimately worth it.  By the end of the film, even Cloudy seems to realize that Popeye is a psycho.

Rating: ***1/2

 

Classic Movie Review: Aliens (1986)


TitleAliens
Release Date: July 18, 1986
Director: James Cameron
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
Summary/Review:

In the past few years as I’ve become something of a cinephile and watched lots and lots of movies, I often have an uneasy feeling about revisiting favorites from my childhood.  Will this movie have held up badly? Will it reflect my younger self’s bad taste?  Often, I end up delighted that I still enjoy a film I remember fondly. But what’s even better about revisiting movies is getting an entirely different perspective on a favorite movie.

As the parent of a 9-year-old girl, I was not prepared to be overwhelmed by the centrality to Aliens of the character Newt (Carrie Henn), a child who is the sole survivor of a human colony that is decimated by the parasitic xenomorphs.  Kind of like rewatching E.T. as an adult, the depiction of a child in extraordinary circumstances resonated with me more than it did when I was a child. Henn’s performance is very Spielbergian, and she joins Judith Vitter in my Hall of Fame of Child Actors Whose Great Acting Performances Somehow Didn’t Lead to Lengthy Acting Careers.

Newt plays of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley developing the star character’s maternal role in what shapes up to be a battle of mother versus mother, human versus alien queen.  It’s not subtle, but it’s fascinating that in 1986 this idea of motherhood had never really been explored in an action film.  It’s one of the many things that makes Aliens one of the great 80s blockbusters and one of the greatest sequels of all time.

It helps that Aliens is an entirely different genre than its predecessor, moving from thriller to action adventure.  Ripley is joined by the rambunctious Colonial Marines as they investigate what happened to the human colonists on the terraformed planetoid where the Nostromo’s crew found the derelict alien ship in the previous film.  Bad things happen.  And as the title promises, there is more than one Alien. The great cast includes Paul Reiser (then primarily known as a stand-up comedians) as the sleazy company rep Carter Burke and Bill Paxton steals scenes as Private Hudson who sensibly panics when they’re overrun with xenomorphs.  Game over, man!

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Alien (1979)


TitleAlien
Release Date: May 25, 1979
Director: Ridley Scott
Production Company: Brandywine Productions
Summary/Review:

At its heart, Alien is a very simple story.  The crew of the spaceship Nostromo are diverted to a mysterious planet.  They pick up a parasitic life form (in the most disturbing and disgusting way).  The creature runs amok and picks off crew members one by one.  Only a single crew member (and her cat) survive to the tell the tale.

The movie is built on atmosphere. The Nostromo is a gritty, live-in spaceship with way too many places for a hungry xenomorph to hide. The movie builds up the tension slowly making it all the more effective when things spiral out of control.  In that sense it’s not unlike another 70s film I watched recently, The French Connection. It’s also a character story.   The first hour of the movie is establishing the crew of ordinary working grunts before anything happens.

The cast is made up mostly of older characters actors.  In fact at least four of the crew members are played by That Guy.  Tom Skerrit, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, and Yaphet Kotto are all “That Guy!” when you recognize them in the many movies and tv shows they appeared in. Veronica Cartwright is not a That Guy but her career ranges from a child actor appearing in The Birds to playing an astronaut’s wife in The Right Stuff.   Ian Holm is far from being a lovable hobbit in his creepy performance as Ash. Sigourney Weaver was unknown in film at the time and there’s little indication that her character Ellen Ripley will be the sole survivor early on in the film.  And yet, Ripley is also smart and confident, and if the rest of the crew had listened to her, none of the bad things would’ve happened.  Weaver also has to carry the film for basically the final half hour on her own and does a terrific job of showing pure terror and yet the necessity of doing what needs to be done.

When I was a kid I saw Aliens first and watched it repeatedly before ever seeing Alien.  I remember liking it less because of its spareness and the lack of humor and camaraderie that is found in Aliens.  I may have only watched it twice before.  I’m glad I’ve revisited it as an adult because I realize it is actually a masterpiece.  It’s a lot like Jaws in that it is a lot deeper than the horror/thriller blockbuster it appears on the surface in the way that it works with realistic depictions of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  I’ll will have to revisit this film again soon.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: Blue Velvet (1986)


Title: Blue Velvet
Release Date: September 19, 1986
Director: David Lynch
Production Company: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG)
Summary/Review:

I’ve long liked the work of David Lynch, but I missed this one so it was good to have an excuse to finally watch it.  The story tells of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) who returns home from college to his hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina to help out when his father is hospitalized.  On a walk through the woods he finds a severed ear and becomes obsessed with discovering the mystery behind it.  The daughter of a police detective, Sandy Williams (a very young Laura Dern), informs him that the police suspect a singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) may be connected to the case.  Jeffrey begins to surveil Dorothy which leads him into a world of trouble.

I won’t go into the details but Jeffrey uncovers a criminal conspiracy lead by the extremely disturbed Frank (Dennis Hopper). I really enjoyed the first part of the movie when it was  a stylish noir mystery, but once Frank is revealed and Jeffrey is brought into his orbit I found it less interesting.  Frank is an amalgamation of every abusive, gaslighting, self-aggrandizing asshole I’ve ever know and I really don’t need to spend my time watching that.  I was also disappointed that both Dorothy and Sandy tended to fall into the “damsel in distress” trope.  There are reasons for that, but I think there were opportunities to have one of them seize initiative.

Overall though I appreciated that direction, cinematography, and overall mood of the film, which is aided by the selection of great music to fit the scenes.  The acting of all the leads is excellent, even Hopper as the all-too-convincing raging psychopath.  I’m really surprised to learn that Dern is about a decade younger than I realized.  I guess since she was making movies when I was in middle school it didn’t occur to me to realize she’s just a few years older than me.

Rating: ***

Classic Movie Review: The Maltese Falcon (1941) #AtoZChallenge



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

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: The Maltese Falcon
Release Date: October 3, 1941
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Warner Bros.
Summary/Review:

I watched The Maltese Falcon several years ago – maybe at The Brattle Theatre or maybe I just borrowed the DVD from the library – and I also read the Dashiell Hammett book it is based upon around the same time.  But I didn’t remember much about it, which is a good thing since it meant I could enjoy the mystery of it once again.  I also felt that I thought the movie was good but not great, so I was also surprised to find I was really enjoying it the second time around.

The Maltese Falcon is a detective story featuring Humphrey Bogart as the hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade.  The movie is considered to be one of the examples of the film noir genre, or at least a predecessor to film noir.  Spade is definitely a morally ambiguous character and it is unclear whether he is actually willing to go along with the criminals’ plans or if he is just playing them.  When he does the right thing at the end of the movie, it seems like he does it more out of spite than justice.

The story begins when a woman, Ruth Wonderly or Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) depending on which version of her life she’s telling, hires Spade and his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan).  When Archer is murdered, Spade finds himself drawn into a plot around finding the titular MacGuffin, a medieval figurine covered in valuable gemstones.  Also seeking the Maltese Falcon are conman Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and mobster Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).

This was John Huston’s first film as a director, and despite the detective story, it is not really an action film.  In fact, I found it has a lot of unexpected parallels to Huston’s final film, The Dead, which is also a book adaptation about people who spend a lot of time talking but rarely speak the truth.  Subtext is key in the battle of wits among Spade, Brigid, Cairo, and Gutman.  The film succeeds because of the high quality acting of its cast.  Surprisingly, this was Greenstreet’s first film, while Lorre was just making his way into American films, and even Bogart was just becoming an A-list celebrity.  They’re firing on all cylinders in this film and the trio would reunite in Casablanca the following year, and Greenstreet and Lorre would make a total of nine movies together!

For whatever reason, this movie failed to make a big impression on my around 17 years ago.  But upon revisiting this movie I feel it has earned a spot among my favorite movies of all time.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Parasite (2019)


Title: Parasite
Release Date: 30 May 2019
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Production Company: Barunson E&A
Summary/Review:

The Kim family are unemployed and struggling to make ends meet while living in a semi-basement apartment in a run-down looking part of a South Korean city. Their fortunes start to look up when the college-aged son Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) gets the opportunity to substitute for his friend as a tutor of the daughter of the prosperous Park family, despite not having qualified for the university himself. Ki-woo notices the anxiety the Park family’s mother (Cho Yeo-jeong) has for her young son and recommends his artistically-talented sister Kim Ki-jung (Park So-dam) as an art therapist he’s knows named “Jessica.” Ki-jung is able to get the driver of the Park family father fired, and recommends to Park Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun) her own father Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) as a replacement driver (again in disguise).  Finally, the trio work to get the Park’s long-term housekeeper, Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), and replace her with their mother, Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin).

With all four members of the family gainfully employed by the Parks, they take the opportunity of the Parks leaving for a camping trip to celebrate in the Park’s elegant house, designed by a prominent architect who once lived there. Things look good until Moon-gwang arrives claiming that she left something in the basement. She reveals a shocking secret which unleashes a series of events that lead to a tragic final act.

The movie is a dark satire of socially-stratified society. Despite the fact that the Kims do some morally reprehensible things, you still find yourself rooting for them because people as clearly talented and motivated as them should not be living in poverty (of course, no one should live in poverty). The conflict that arises between the Kims and Moon-gwang is also emblematic of how the poor are forced to fight amongst themselves for the scraps thrown by the wealthy. Without going into spoilers, the grim events of the final act are an indication that actual class war would be devastating for all involved, but that inequality is going to have be addressed by other means.

The movie is very cleverly-written and the acting is all-around terrific.  I really felt like I knew all these characters and they were fully-rounded humans, not just types.  I was also impressed by the direction.  One sequence shows the Kim family running from the Park’s house to their own neighborhood by way of descending a series of staircase.  The social stratification between the families is made literal. There’s also a shot where flood waters rise into the frame and everything above the waterline wipes into the next shot, an effect I’ve never seen before.

Parasite is a clever, funny, thoughtful, and disturbing film.  It’s received a lot of awards and accolades, and I guess I’m adding mine to the pile.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Night of the Hunter (1955)


Title: The Night of the Hunter
Release Date: July 26, 1955
Director: Charles Laughton
Production Company: Paul Gregory Productions
Summary/Review:

This movie is not what I expected.  I knew this was the movie with Robert Mitchum as a preacher (named Reverend Henry Powell) who has “LOVE” and “HATE” tattooed on his knuckles.  I was under the impression that it was a noir detective film but it is not.  Instead, Powell is a man who marries widows and kills them for their money.

During one prison sentence he meets a bank robber/murder, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), and learns that the $10,000 he stole was never recovered. Upon release, Powell finds, woos, and marries Harper’s now widow Willa (Shelley Winters).  What he doesn’t count on is the stubborn resistance of the Harper’s son John (Billy Chapin), who is devoted in care of his little sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce).

What I didn’t expect about this movie is just how weird it is.  The editing feels arbitrary and disjointed at times.  There are probably very expensive aerial shots early on, but then other parts of the film are deliberately filmed to appear like silent movies from 30-40 years earlier.  One sequence shows the children floating down a river (in a sound studio) with various live animals appearing in the foreground.  The sets often look deliberately artificial, like it’s a stage show. Then there’s an amazing shot of a dead body in a car under a river. It has to be seen to be believed.

Mitchum puts in the perfect performance as the charming and charismatic preacher who wins over the rural community before wooing and bringing Willa under his spell.  He then can also be thoroughly terrifying as he commits murder and relentlessly pursues John and Pearl.  Silent movie superstar Lillian Gish puts in a amazing performance as Rachel Cooper, a stern but kindly woman who takes in orphans. Billy Chapin holds his own as a child dealing with the most traumatic situations with resilience and initiative.

This movie came out at the height of the Cold War era when Christianity was touted as the answer to “godless Communism.” This movie must’ve seemed incredibly radical in the way that it skewers the hypocrisy of American Christianity.  At no time is it ever confirmed that Powell is not actually an ordained minister (although some guess that he’s a fraud), and he certainly seems to be acting on a real – if twisted – belief in God to justify his actions. That the everyday Americans in the West Virginia village immediately fall for him is even more damning.

It’s hard not to watch this movie without thinking of Donald Trump, whose professions of Christian faith have never been backed up by anything he’s ever done in his life, but he has nevertheless become the hero of a certain strain of white evangelical Christianity.  The only difference is that when Reverend Powell’s crimes are revealed they form a lynch mob to kill Powell, whereas Trump’s supporters doubled down and attacked the US Capitol.

Rating: ****