Movie Review – The Witches (2020)

The Witches (2020)
Written by Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis, like I said about John Landis while reviewing An American Werewolf in London, is a director that gave us some fantastic movies in the 1980s and then seemed to fade in subsequent decades. In Zemeckis’s instance, he seemed to keep putting out quality work in the 1990s, but it was the new millennium and deluge of motion capture technologies that took him into a new realm of filmmaking that often hasn’t paid off. These instances always cause me to wonder if all that success ultimately had a negative consequence, removing the things that made Zemeckis’s movies fun because he simply wanted to play with some complicated new toys.

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Movie Review – A Little Princess

A Little Princess (1995)
Written by Richard LaGravenese & Elizabeth Chandler
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

When I watch films intended for families or children, I always focus on the theme or lesson being communicated. I think, as an elementary teacher, I want to know what this picture is telling kids about the world and humanity. I’d heard very positive things about A Little Princess, mainly from the perspective that Alfonso Cuaron did a great job directing. From that technical perspective, the film is well done, save for some poorly aged computer special effects. But I actually found the lesson of the picture to be deeply troubling yet very much in line with many of the films that come out of Hollywood for kids.

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Movie Review – The Indian in the Cupboard

The Indian in the Cupboard (1995)
Written by Melissa Mathison
Directed by Frank Oz

Frank Oz is one of my favorite comedy directors of the 1980s and 90s. I consider Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and What About Bob? among my favorite movies from that period. He was also no stranger to making family-friendly fare with The Muppets Take Manhattan directorial credit as well as being one of the top performers among Jim Henson’s Muppet troupe. That’s what makes The Indian in the Cupboard feel so strangely disappointing and lifeless. The movie isn’t horrible, but it feels like it’s missing a critical emotional component that ends up leaving the picture ultimately forgettable.

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Movie Review – Babe

Babe (1995)
Written by George Miller & Chris Noonan
Directed by Chris Noonan

I recall this movie being huge when it came out, and when looking at the box office returns and critical reviews, it truly was. Babe was a phenomenally popular film, one of those rare family films that didn’t pander to its audience and told a layered, thoughtful story. Most people probably just remember the cute little pig and his sweet voice, but there is a lot of heavy, dark material. The film doesn’t shy away from touching on the cruelty of factory farming and the eating of meat. With the talented work of filmmakers George Miller & Chris Noonan on the script, they never become didactic, though, making sure the story is always entertaining.

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Movie Review – Follow That Bird

Follow That Bird (1985)
Written by Judy Freudberg & Tony Geiss
Directed by Ken Kwapis

The late 1970s/early-mid 1980s was the era of the Muppets and Jim Henson. The world-famous puppeteer worked to show the audience what his creations could do and expand the public consciousness about puppetry. He showed us a comedic variety program with The Muppet Show, a road trip picture with The Muppet Movie, action & adventure in The Great Muppet Caper, and a Broadway-style musical with the Muppets Take Manhattan. Henson created work aimed at older audiences with The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. In the middle of all of this, Henson’s company decided to bring their phenomenally successful public television series Sesame Street to the big screen with Follow That Bird.

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Movie Review – Matilda

Matilda (1996)
Written by Nicholas Kazan & Robin Swicord
Directed by Danny DeVito

Roald Dahl has always been one of my most favorite children’s authors ever since I had first Charlie and the Chocolate Factory read to me. Dahl has an incredible nastiness in his writing that appeals to kids, he reveals the truth of the world, mainly that adults are often gluttonous buffoons. There are also monstrous children, usually offshoots of their rotten parents. The child protagonists on Dahl’s work are overwhelmed by these abrasive forces but typically find a source of internal strength to overcome them and triumph. Matilda is one of the most archetypal Dahl heroes, and her story is very much centered in a nuanced examination of the education system.

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Movie Review – The House with a Clock in Its Walls

The House with a Clock in its Walls (2018)
Written by Eric Kripke
Directed by Eli Roth

The name Eli Roth is typically associated with, what I consider, mediocre horror films. He made Cabin Fever, the first two Hostel movies, among others. I’ve never clicked with the style and tone Roth goes for in his films, they feel like horror movies intent on undercutting any potential fear or creepiness, almost parodies of horror movies. I was a bit surprised when this was announced, an adaptation of a children’s fantasy novel written by John Bellairs in the 1970s. I feel like Roth hasn’t found his niche in the type of films he makes typically so I thought this could be a chance for him to make something I’d enjoy.

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Movie Review – Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann (2016, dir. Maren Ade)

toni-erdmann

German music teacher Winfried Conradi is happy in his simple life, playing oddball pranks that no one actually falls for and just create awkward moments. His favorite prop is a pair of novelty teeth he wears and fails to get a laugh out of anyone. His daughter, Ines, is a business consultant working out of Bucharest, Romania currently trying to outsource labor for the oil industry. Winfried decides to surprise her with a visit and discover she not the sort of person he hoped she’d become. Ines has been consumed by her work and adopted a very corporate philosophy through every aspect of her life. The trip goes south when Ines sleeps through a meeting with a client because he father wanted her to get her rest. He retreats back to Germany and Ines goes about trying to salvage things on her end. But then man in a tangled messy wig and novelty teeth pops up calling himself Toni Erdmann. He claims to be a life coach and looks a hell of a lot like Ines’ father.

Toni Erdmann is being referred to as a comedy, but it does everything it can to defy many audiences’ expectations of what makes a film comedy. The traditionally set up and pay off formula for gags is not present. Scenes open without any clear sense of where we are going, and sometimes we get a pin on some moment. Other times the scene just ends, and we move onto the next one. This is all very intentional and not the sign of poor writing. Rather this is a deliberate subversion and makes the film a representation of everything Winfried is trying to do to his daughter. There are some scenes where he pulls the omnipresent novelty teeth from his pocket, pops them in his mouth, begins to play out a bit, and just as quickly slumps his shoulders, and the teeth go back in the pocket. He perpetually seems to be met with incredulity by Ines and her associates. An incidental laugh will occasionally occur but never for the reasons Winfried intends.

Ines is forever frustrated by her father and focuses on gaining the respect she believes she deserves in her very male dominated profession. Her adherence to stepping in line with Western capitalism elicits a quandary from her father about her humanity. That comes at a very tense moment and acts as the crux on which the film flips. She has tolerated him to this point but after this she tells him he must leave. Later, her boss labels her a feminist as he goes on about the direction he believes their business proposal should take. Ines replies “I’m not a feminist, or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you.” This is less a commentary on a feminism than it is the way in which the world she finds herself is systematically erasing a sense of self. Every decision she makes is calculated based on the effect it will have on her career interests. Winfried seems to believe he can save her through his shtick and that eventually her shell will crack.

Toni Erdmann is a long film, just short of three hours. This is also a part of the subversion. Jokes are meant to be punchy and quick. The film, like Winfried, lingers longer than we expect it to. The awkwardness increases and we wonder when this nuisance will just move along. We also see Ines as the pestered working parent and Winfried as the obnoxious child fawning for attention. Through all of this subversion and intentional annoyance, there is a genuinely real story about parent and child trying and failing to reconnect. It’s a situation many of us have faced as we get older and find ourselves distanced physically, emotionally, and ideologically. Even the way the film brings about it’s “happy ending” doesn’t follow the conceits you would expect to see. Toni Erdmann is a truly bizarre but fantastic film that earns the “it’s not for everyone” motto.

Film Review – The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011, dir. Terence Malick)
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn

“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” – Stanley Kubrick

In the first hour of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life we see the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, the violent volcanic upheavals of land masses on a young earth, and the evolution of animal life. This massively cosmic scope is sandwiched in the middle of an equally intimate examination of a young boy in smalltown Texas during the 1950s. Malick presents all of this in the form of a prayer, beginning with The Mother (Chastain), a red-haired aging woman who receives a letter that her son has died overseas in the Vietnam War. She must relay this news to The Father (Pitt) and the entire scene is done with as a little dialogue as possible. We also have the surviving eldest son, Jack (Penn), in present day still struggling with childhood anger towards his father and the loss of his brother. All of these plot pieces are purely interpretive though. What I stated in the most obvious, traditional narrative way of describing the film, but much more in happening underneath it all.

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Film Review – I Am Love

I Am Love (2009, dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Starring Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini

I Am Love is attempting to tread the same territory of Italian cinema in the late 1950s and 60s, in particular I was reminded of Visconti’s The Leopard. They were films about the aristocracy and the secrets that lied beneath the clean and constructed surface. I Am Love brings modern elements into its plot, but still manages to evoke a sense of the classical. Swinton is perfectly cast as a Russian-turned-Italian via marriage. And the cast around her does an excellent job in their roles. The plot is fairly straightforward, there are only a few twists, but its the cinematography and music that really raise the picture above the rest.

Emma Recchi (Swinton) is the matriarch of an Italian family who has made its fortune in textiles, even during the time of Mussolini, an element that plays a bit part sub-textually in the film. Her husband and son have inherited the business from the elderly father and a tension exists, as Emma’s husband believed he would be the sole inheritor. Emma has recently met her son’s friend, Antonio, an aspiring chef. Emma’s son is helping fund Antonio’s first venture into the restaurant business and so she and the young man become more acquainted, eventually starting an affair.

You will be an awe of the camera work in this film. It is some of the most lush and gorgeous work I have ever seen on film. Director Guadagnino is able to pull the warmth right out of his bright spring scenes and bone chilling cold from the winter ones. This is a very sensual film, constantly focused on sex and food, and to get those themes across you need powerful cinematography just like this. In addition, the choice to use musical pieces by John Adams was brilliant. Adams’ contemporary orchestral music helps to create momentum and then a sense of urgency, especially in the film’s surprisingly frantic finale. A great overlooked picture that every fan of good foreign cinema should check out.