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Mini Movie Reviews #2

August 9, 2012 10 comments

Chris Rock standing in front of a row of women at a hair salon.Good Hair
USA
2009
PG13
Documentary
Public Library
5 out of 5 stars

This is one documentary you need to believe the hype about.  Chris Rock decided to make it after his daughter (not even five years old yet) asked him why she doesn’t have good hair.  This documentary then looks at the world and culture of African-American hair.  It covers everything from perms to weaves to hair shows.  Chris Rock interviews famous and not famous people alike with a certain charm and intelligence that gets them to really open up.  I think the scene that best demonstrates the feel of the whole movie is when Chris Rock is interviewing a white male scientist about sodium hydroxide, which is the perm that African-Americans use to straighten their hair.  The scientist has just shown Chris how quickly sodium hydroxide eats through raw chicken, and Chris says, “You know black people put that on their hair.”  Horrified, the scientist says, “Really?! Why would they do that?!” Chris says, “To look like white people.” Epic. Silence. The documentary is smart, because it doesn’t run around blaming white people for this whole culture among African-Americans against natural hair.  It kind of blames everybody, and it does it in a witty, intelligent manner.

A werewolf face and a woman who looks dead.The Wolf Man
USA
1941
PG
Horror
Netflix
4 out of 5 stars

Another from the 100 Horror Movies To See Before You Die list I’ve been working my way through.  A wayward son of a British aristocrat comes home to hopefully reestablish himself in the little town.  He starts to pursue an engaged gal, but while doing so, gets bit by a wolf.  Naturally, he turns into a werewolf.  I think what’s the creepiest about this film is how the main character goes about pursuing the engaged girl.  He starts off by watching her through a window and then hitting on her in her father’s shop in possibly the creepiest manner ever.  She resists….at first.  But then doesn’t.  The whole film sort of feels like a judgment on both him for being a creeper and the engaged girl for being seduced by the bad boy instead of sticking with her nice, stable man.  Kind of a nice change of pace from more modern films, eh?  The special effects aren’t as good as some others from this same time period that I’ve watched, but they’re still fairly decent.  It’s a fun change of pace if you enjoy shapeshifters.  Also the “British accents” are pretty much nonexistent.

Pale, white-haired man sitting in a throne-like chair.The House Of Usher
USA
1960
Not Rated
Horror
Netflix
5 out of 5 stars

When this movie started, I thought it was going to be cheesy.  But I was very wrong.  It turns out that this is an adaptation of a Poe story, and it is completely frightening, even with outdated special effects.  Essentially, this guy wants to marry this girl, but her brother insists that the Ushers need to let the family die out.  He also claims the house itself is evil.  I won’t tell you what happens from there, but suffice to say the tension builds perfectly until you are on the edge of your seat for the climax.  Vincent Price plays the brother and let me tell you, he is a legend for a reason.  When I finished this one, I was actually nervous to go to bed. Which never happens to me.

PS There is a 2007 remake. Ignore it. Ignore it so hard.

Maccauley Culkin and Seth Green.Party Monster
USA
2003
R
Biography
Netflix
3 out of 5 stars

This is based on the true story of a murder during the 1980s ecstatic clubbing days (see what I did there?), which was written about in Disco Bloodbath by James St James.  (Btw, the memoir is almost impossible to find and hella expensive).  Anyway as for the movie. It’s very campy.  The absolute best part is seeing Macauley Culkin and Seth Green play two fabulous druggy gay men.  It’s campy but not over-the-top.  I mean, these clubbers really did act like this. They weren’t exaggerating.  But the plot is oddly told, jumping around perspectives and time and can be hard to keep up with.  Also the ultimate murder is told by a rat (a man in a giant rat suit).  So yeah.  It’s odd but fun.  Recommended to fans of Seth Green.

Dracula in sepia.Dracula
USA
1931
Unrated
Horror
Netflix
5 out of 5 stars

This movie really doesn’t need much explanation.  It’s a classic (chosen for preservation) for good reason.  I have read Dracula, and I was flabbergasted at how good the adaptation was.  Modern film adaptations could learn a thing or two from this production.  Bela Lugosi as Dracula is still deliciously creepy, instilling chills.  Two cool things to know.  One, originally there was an epilogue in which the audience is told vampires are indeed real that has been forever lost so the ending does feel a bit abrupt (because it’s not actually the ending).  Also, the entire movie was shot simultaneously on the same sets in Spanish (with Latin* actors).

Mini Movie Reviews #1

July 17, 2012 2 comments

I feel like I generally don’t have quite as much to say about movies as I do about books.  Perhaps that’s because they only take an hour or two of my time, whereas books you live with for several hours, even days or weeks.  In any case, although I really don’t watch much tv (and when I do, it tends to be nonfiction like cooking shows), I do periodically watch movies.  Some of them popular, some of them older or documentaries you might not know about.  After having seen mini reviews on other folks’ pages, I decided this format would be ideal for my movie reviews.  A movie will periodically get a fully fleshed-out review if I have a lot to say about it.

So here we go, in the order in which I watched them.

Woman in Amsh bonnetThe Shunning
USA
2011
Not Rated
Contemporary Drama
4 out of 5 stars

I read the original bonnet books back when I was in middle school, which started with The Shunning.  I was happy to see it pop up on my Netflix.  (I believe it was a made for tv movie, possibly for the Hallmark channel?)  This isn’t your typical bonnet romance.  Katie Lapp is struggling with the idea of her marriage to a man she doesn’t love after the death of her first love.  She also likes playing guitar and singing, which is frowned upon in the Amish community.  When she learns that she is adopted, her whole world is rocked.  It’s a great film both to see Amish life and to consider issues of identity and adoption.  I can think of quite a few of my friends and followers who would enjoy it

Unspeakable Acts
USA
1990
Not Rated
Docudrama
3 out of 5 stars

It’s odd, I generally don’t go for courtroom drama books, but the movies sometimes work for me.  This one from 1990 is about the daycare child abuse scare that happened in the 1980s and looks at the groundbreaking case that made certain aspects of children testifying easier in court.  One fun thing, one of the mothers is Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith from Frasier), and it was pretty….odd seeing her in a loving mother role.  This docudrama addresses the controversial methods of questioning toddlers about situations at daycares.  The movie falls solidly on the pro-questioning side.  I enjoyed it.  It was a bit slow-moving and sometimes the acting was a bit over-the-top, but it does a good job encouraging parents to be communicative with each other and to actually bother to ask their kids questions like they are real people (which indeed they are).  Some viewers might be disturbed by the graphic descriptions of child abuse.

Creature from the Black Lagoon holding a woman in a white swimsuit.Creature From the Black Lagoon
USA
1954
Not Rated
Horror
4 out of 5 stars

I’ve been working my way through the 100 Horror Movies to See Before You Die, starting with the ones available on Netflix.  This one is about a group of scientists who think they’ve discovered an artifact of the missing link in human evolution deep in the Amazon.  They get there and of course discover that the missing link is actually a living creature.  Let me just say upfront, yes it is abundantly obvious that this is one of those movies about white guys being scared of non-white guys stealing their women.  Bare that in mind when watching this, and you will come away with a totally different viewing than those who don’t.  It’s easy to see why it became a classic. The underwater shots are absolutely incredible.  There are in particular these scenes wherein the woman is swimming in a gorgeous pure white swimsuit (I know, I know), and the creature is swimming underneath her in tandem.  How they pulled that off in the 1950s, I don’t know.  It is a highly watchable film and a great way to start a discussion of the racism in the 1950s.  Perhaps even to try to convince those who would say otherwise that the good old days weren’t really so good.  Side-note: there is a great scene where the woman scientist and the dude she’s dating are asked when they are gonna get married. It’s been a while. Only to find out they’ve been dating 6 months. o_O

Image of movie theater with arrows in it.Reel Injun
USA
2009
Not Rated
Documentary
5 out of 5 stars

This documentary looks at the stereotypes and use of Native Americans in American cinema as a lens for considering Native identity and the American Indian Movement (AIM, the name for the Native American civil rights movement).  The documentary eloquently moves decade by decade, presenting clips and interviewing actors, directors, and AIM activists.  It completely blew my mind.  For instance, I didn’t know that during the silent movie era there was a strong group of Native filmmakers who made their own, powerful movies.  It was when the talkies came that the cowboy and Indian trope came about and also when every Native everywhere was re-written as a Plains Indian. For ease.  Then in the 1970s and 1980s after the civil rights era, we started to get the ass-kicking Natives as a reflection of the anger in the movement.  It’s impossible to come even close to telling you all everything I learned or how powerful the movie was for me.  I will say, though, that I found the part about how Marlon Brando turned down his Oscar due to the treatment of Natives in cinema by sending Sacheen Littlefeather up in full Apache clothing to turn it down for him completely shocking.  I had no idea that such a movement exists in Hollywood, but it does, as is also evidenced by Clint Eastwood’s involvement in this documentary.  It’s encouraging to hear that not everyone in Hollywood sits by while this shit goes down.  In any case, a powerful documentary and a great starting point for getting your feet wet in the Native American civil rights movement.

Man wrapped in bandages, man looking at test tube.The Invisible Man
USA
1933
Not Rated
Horror
2 out of 5 stars

Another entry in the 100 Horror Movies to See Before You Die.  A scientist manages to make himself invisible but doesn’t have an antidote ready. Also he goes crazy. Allow me to say, yes I realize this is super-old and they still managed to do the slowly revealing the invisible dude scenes, which is an amazing achievement in cinema.  Watch clips of those parts on youtube.  The storyline itself is super boring and not well structured, and the science is rather shoddily done.  It was good for a few laughs. For the first 55 minutes. The rest was suffering and wanting to rip my hair out.  I think one of my live tweets from watching it sums it up best, “The best part of this movie is the knowledge that this dude is running around nekkid.” Because his clothes are visible, you see.

That’s about a month’s worth of movies.  Stay tuned for more quick thoughts next month!

Source: Unless otherwise noted, all movies watched via Netflix.

Movie Review: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

March 1, 2012 7 comments

White and black dinner plates.Summary:
A liberal couple’s beliefs are challenged when their daughter comes home from a Hawaiian vacation with a surprise fiance who just so happens to be black.

Review:
I am chagrined to say that I saw the awful, horrible 2005 remake of this classic prior to seeing the classic version.  That attempt at humor (that was totally unfunny) thus had me coming at this film rather skeptically, but it was in my suggested films pile on Netflix, and given that I’d just finished up The Real Help Reading Project, I thought a classic 1960s film exploring the black/white issues in America just might be interesting.  It certainly was not what I was expecting.

First, the cast is absolutely stellar, featuring Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton, Spencer Tracy, Beah Richards, Cecil Kellaway, and Isabel Sanford.  These people have serious acting chops, and I doubt a lesser cast could have pulled off this film.  In particular, I cannot imagine another person in the role of the mother than Katharine Hepburn.  Now THERE is an actress.

The film feels more like watching a dramatic play in three acts.  There is a lot of dialogue and emotional speeches.  It may feel a bit heavy-handed to the modern viewer, but it must be remembered the world this film was made in.  One line really reminds the viewer, when the young couple are reminded that their relationship is still illegal in sixteen or seventeen states.  Wow, ok, suddenly both sets of parents’ concern that their children are choosing an incredibly tough life for themselves doesn’t seem like such an over-reaction.  It puts the whole film a bit more into perspective.

That’s what the film is really about.  It isn’t about either set of parents being prejudiced against a skin color.  They’re concerned that the prejudice of the world will make the marriage unbearable for their children.  The movie is about choosing to stand up and hold on to the ones you love in the face of prejudice.  That’s a powerful message and not at all the issue I was expecting to come to the surface in this film.

Now consider all of those to be reasons to watch this classic that’s a classic for a reason.  I now want to talk about one character whose presence was totally different to me since doing The Real Help–that of the white family’s maid, Tillie.  Tillie’s role seems to be that of reassuring the (white) audience that not just the white parents are concerned about this black man John.  She immediately is in fisticuffs over the whole thing.  She tells John, “I don’t care to see a member of my own race getting above himself. ”  She threatens him that she knows his type and although he may be able to fool the white folks, he’s not fooling her.  She even says, “Civil rights is one thing. This here is somethin else!”  The daughter tells Tillie that she loves her and loving John is no different, and the parents even have her come sit down for the big finale stating that she’s “one of the family.”   What is fascinating about this completely false and stereotyped role of Tillie in this film is that it is there in the midst of a forward thinking main plot.  It is as if the filmmakers wanted to give the audience the familiar, non-threatening, stereotyped role of the trustworthy black help that is in favor of the status quo to help them feel more comfortable during the film.  Perhaps that is the case.  But even if the choice was deliberate and worked for the audience at the time, I personally found the role to be Tom-ing and distracting from the much better main storyline.  However, it is also fascinating how a movie with a role like this *still* is better than The Help.

Overall, this is a classic deserving of the title.  Although it is a bit dated, if the audience bares in mind the actual world of race and racism at the time the film was produced, they will be surprised at how progressive it actually was.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

Buy It

Movie Review: Skin (2008) South Africa

February 15, 2012 2 comments

Young black woman with an afro.Summary:
Based on a true story, Sandra Laing was born black to two white parents.  Something that is an interesting anomaly of unacknowledged or unknown ancestors, but unfortunately for Sandra it was oh so much more than that.  Sandra was born in South Africa during Apartheid, and her white Afrikaner parents were members of the National Party.  This film chronicles her fascinating life from a young girl hidden from the sun in the hopes that her skin would lighten as she grew older to a young runaway marriage to striking out on her own with her children.

Review:
I know movie reviews have been scarce around here.  That’s mostly because since I joined the gym my evening free time is spent either there or reading.  This weekend though I had a cold and a bit of a fuzzy head from a fever so I randomly chose an interesting looking movie from my Netflix recommendations.  I had no idea when I chose it that Sandra Laing’s story is a true one.  I didn’t realize this bit of information until the end credits.  I thought it was one of those “what if” scenarios and knowing that this actually happened makes the whole thing incredibly painful.

We know that innate parental unconditional love is a myth.  And if there was ever a true story that should unequivocally dispel this myth once and for all, it’s Sandra’s.  Is there anything more abusive, more unloving than raising your child in a culture that hates her and doing, really, nothing about it?  Although her parents did fight to have her classified as white and not colored (so they could keep custody of her, because apparently children had to be raised by parents of the same race during Apartheid), they did little else to protect her.  Indeed, by her teen years her father was pressuring her to behave for white boys who were being verbally cruel at best or attempting to rape her at worst on dates.  It’s little wonder Sandra ran off to be with a black man she met.  Your role as a parent should be to protect your child and prepare her to take care of herself in the real world and advocate for herself.  But Sandra’s parents’ racism clouded everything so much that the most they did was attempt to hide her.

Of course, the problem then became that Sandra was raised in a privileged background, and that’s all some of the black South Africans could see when they looked at her, including her own husband.  He says to her at one point, “You still think of yourself as white.”  I find it fascinating how people can become so wrapped up in their own problems resulting from inequality that they fail to see the pain inflicted by it on others, even others that they love.

The actress who plays the older Sandra does a great job showing her progression from a hopeful teen to a downtrodden factory worker at the end of Apartheid.  The trauma from a life where everyone judged her either on her own skin tone or that of her parents is abundantly evident on the actresses’ face.

That said, while the topic is incredibly important and the true life events heart-breaking, I don’t think the movie itself does the real story true justice.  The actors and actresses did a fine job with what they were given, but even basic googling shows that the story was cleaned up for a mainstream audience, which I think was a very poor decision on the part of the filmmakers.  Sandra’s life was actually more difficult than they even give her credit for.  For instance, she left home at only 15 (she seems much older in the film), her first husband already had a first wife, she actually had six children not two, etc….  (Essence, The Guardian, Women and Hollywood)

Personally, I view this movie as a gateway to the far more fascinating nitty gritty true story.  I’m adding the book by the journalist Judith Stone about her work with Sandra to attempt to figure out her past called When She Was White.  But.  If you don’t have the time to get into it in depth, the short biopic is definitely a better choice than say the latest romcom out of Hollywood.  It will push you to confront the tragedy of racism and the myth of parental love against all odds.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix Instant

Buy It

Movie Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

November 2, 2011 2 comments

Summary:
Martha calls her sister to come get her from the Catskills.  She’s been missing for two years.  Over the course of the next two weeks, her behavior becomes increasingly abnormal in ways her sister cannot understand, while the audience sees flashbacks to where Martha was for the previous two years–living in an abusive cult.

Review:
This is the best representation of PTSD I’ve seen on film to date.  Martha’s outbursts of violence, sobbing, and even loss of bladder control seem completely out of the blue to her sister and brother-in-law, but she and audience can clearly see what minor things brought them on.  Anything from a pine cone falling on the roof to a spoon clanking against a glass to a hand placed in just the wrong place on her body can set her off.

The audience is left with many gaping holes and unanswered questions in the plot line, but this is one of the rare instances where that works.  We are seeing things through Martha’s eyes in the bits and pieces typical of someone with PTSD.  The film is more about giving us a sense of what it is to be Martha than telling us the story.  It is a character study through and through.

The filmography feels documentary style instead of film style.  It is gritty and sometimes shaky.  This sets the appropriate tone for the film.

The acting is what seals the deal for this film though.  Everyone is excellent, but Elizabeth Olson is superb.  She *is* Martha Marcy May.  She acts from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.  I hope she continues to make wise movie role choices, because she could have a major acting career ahead of her.

The one drawback to the film is the ambiguous, sudden ending.  I get it that the director was trying to help the audience feel the paranoia Martha feels, but the ending was so jarring that it drew away power from the rest of the film.

Overall, this is a serious, powerful look at PTSD through the eyes of a sufferer.  I highly recommend it.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Movie Theater

Movie Review: Them! (1954)

June 1, 2011 2 comments

Giant ants.Summary:
When a small southwestern town sees a spate of sugar theft mixed with mysterious deaths, a scientist and his daughter are brought in to investigate.  They soon discover that a new breed of giant ants have mutated from local nuclear testing and must fight against the odds to preserve the human dominance of earth.

Review:
I watch classic horror movies more for the lols than anything, but every once in a while, one manages to actually stand the test of time and still scare me.

Anyone who knows much about ants knows that they actually are rather awful creatures.  They’re vicious, disturbingly strong for their size, and single-minded to the point of obsession.  That’s the perfect recipe for a formidable opponent if they were any larger.  Combine this with the very real threat of nuclear mutation, and you have the recipe for an ideal horror film.

Something the classic movies did better than today is establish a strong plot-line.  The action is not constant.  It is interspersed with scenes in which the characters attempt to figure out what is going on and determine what to do about it.  This ups the tension for the inevitable “battle the monster” scenes that eventually play out.

Of course a strong idea and plot can still be undermined by outdated special effects.  These effects, however, have truly stood the test of time.  The ants look frightening, not comical.  The scenes are shot in such a way that it all appears to be fairly real, particularly for the decade.  When the sound effect given to the ants–a sort of high-pitched squealing–is added in, it becomes quite easy to suspend disbelief.

If you enjoy a good creature feature as well as an old movie periodically, you won’t regret your time spent watching Them!

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

Buy It

Movie Review: Thor 3D (2011)

May 11, 2011 3 comments

Super sexy man faceSummary:
Thor, the son of Odin of Asgard, is more than ready to take the throne, but his father, not to mention his younger brother Loki, believes he’s too arrogant.  Thor gets banished to earth and finds himself at the mercy of a young astrophysicist studying what appear to be wormholes.

Review:
Thor had a huge opening weekend and with good reason.  The classic mythology mixed with science is an interesting change from the machine suits of Iron Man and the web spinning of Spiderman, yet it still allows for awe-inducing action sequences that put the 3D technology to good use.

The storyline isn’t incredibly complex, but it is unpredictable enough to remain entertaining.  The movie definitely ends with enough strings left hanging to easily make a sequel, as indeed Hollywood is probably planning on doing.  Although strings left untied usually annoy me in movies, they simply don’t bother me in the Marvel movies.  These are huge series they’re adapting, and it honestly makes me happy to think that I’ll have more and more Thor movies to go see.

The acting was quite good, if we ignore the hideous fake British accents all gods in Hollywood movies seem to be forced to use.  What is with that?  Is it supposed to make us think they’re older or something?  It was kind of giggle-inducing, which wasn’t entirely a bad thing.  In any case, the acting was very good with a fairly decent cast including Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins.  Chris Hemsworth certainly did his part in beefing up for the role of a hunky Norse god.  Ladies and gay gentlemen, you will not be disappointed in getting to watch him run around the screen for a couple of hours.

The special effects were very good.  Things fly at the screen, but the director doesn’t go out of the way to make that happen.  The storm clouds look amazing, as do the Ice Giants.  Frankly, I could find nothing wrong with the special effects.

Overall, although Thor is a bit kitschy, it’s still a highly enjoyable start to the summer action blockbusters.  I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good action flick with a side of kitsch.

4 out of 5 stars

Source:  Movie theater

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