paleolith

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Reviews

The Glorias
(2020)

evocative and engaging
Obviously this is the short version of the book, but that's true of most movies based on books. As a summation of a long, varied, often messy life, the movie is of necessity elliptical and often messy. But it evokes that life marvelously.

As I watched the Glorias of various ages discussion events with one another, I was reminded how often I do that with my selves of other ages. (I'm old enough that most of those other selves are younger than I am now.) One of those younger selves remembers that Newsweek cover photo.

The occasional flights of psychedelic call out the flights that our emotions take at times of stress, connecting us to the central character far more surely than would dialog or exposition.

The thread of a life and a movement kept me engaged -- I had to break my viewing but always wanted to get back ASAP.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound
(2019)

talking heads promotion
I was disappointed. Instead of going into the depths of sound, the film mostly focuses on talking heads, including directors as well as sound pros. There's a short history of sound in films (not just speech), and a short segment about the categories of sound production. These were good but far too short and shallow. I felt like I'd seen a promo, hagiography even, for the sound professions instead of a doc. Those professions deserve a much deeper and more detailed documentary.

The River and the Wall
(2019)

beauty of the land and river
The cinematography is as beautiful as the land and the river. It's an engrossing look at the place and the habitat, going far beyond what words can convey.

This picture of the place, the river, the land, the plants, the animals, the weather -- that's the great strength of the film. The river and the adjacent lands and people are the stars of this film. Embedding these in a journey provides a strong framework.

About half the film is spent on political preaching and talking heads, overlapping. I'm totally in agreement with the sermon, but no one else's mind is likely to be changed. I'd have kept the focus on nature, which I think brings more understanding to the table. Perhaps I knew too much already -- friends who are normally sensitive to preaching weren't as bothered.

Go to see it and enjoy it, but go prepared to tune out the political preaching unless you are one of the rare undecided birds or need to study the issues further.

Moynihan
(2018)

powerful story
I saw this on Sunday, January 6, at All Saints Cinema in Tallahassee, and feel lucky to have been one of the first to see it and the first to review it here.

I was certainly aware of many things Dan Pat Moynihan did, yet the film put them together and added more. He was among the very top political thinkers and actors of the 20th century, compasionate, practical rather than dogmatic, and often helped to bridge the gap between political wings. We would be better off today had more people listened more carefully to him and followed his advice. I love the quote from George Will that while Moynihan was in the Senate, "he wrote more books than some of his colleagues read". (Not stated in the film is that Will wrote those words in the Washington Post upon Moynihan's death in 2003.)

The early parts of the film drag a bit due to thinness of contemporary visual materials, especially of video, leading to a lot of pan-and-scan, talking heads, and pictures of printed words. This is unavoidable for the time frame, but the story does become more vivid when covering the era of videotape.

The Florida Project
(2017)

hilarious, poignant, and sometimes upsetting
This is perhaps an odd movie, but also far more interesting than the blockbusters. It's hilarious, poignant, and sometimes upsetting. It has the rawness, inventiveness, and locality of a movie made with minimal resources and filmed entirely on location (in Kissimmee FL, near Disney World), often without even interrupting normal events for the filming. The characters are not all appealing, but there's a mix of them which brings a serious spark of real life that's absent from even the best of the more popular movies. The characters are clear individuals with complex personalities.

The Florida Project made me uncomfortable at times. I didn't really need to know this much about the underbelly of central Florida. If I ever visit Disney World, I may avoid the cheap motels. ;-) Of low-budget films I've seen in my life, there are several I liked better. But this one is likely to stick with me. Much engagement per buck -- it cost about 1% of the cost of a recent popular blockbuster.

Black Panther
(2018)

a string of stereotypes
There are things we know.

° The technologically advanced show their power by fighting. (Though really their most impressive feat is containing a rhinoceros in a rickety wood rail fence.)

° Powerful female warriors are all tall, thin, striking, and beautifully dressed.

° Bullets bounce off magic unitards. (Of course we've known this since the first Superman comics were printed. Well, I guess I didn't know it quite that far back, since that was before I was born back in the Middle Ages.)

I understand why it was popular: the social shift, whose importance I don't dispute. But otherwise I saw little to recommend it; that social shift deserves better -- deserves real characters and drama, not poor comics. At least a third of the movie is spent in fights (seemed like more ... they felt interminable), which drew far more on CGI than on choreography. The plot is shallow and uninventive. Yes, few things in art are truly new, but this hardly has any new slants. I look at the long list of quotes from the movie on IMDb and don't see a single one that I'd call interesting.

Stereotypes abound (see above) -- I've probably forgotten some in the days since I saw it. Vibranium bears an eerie resemblance to the magic lozenge that W S Gilbert wanted to use as a plot device and which his equally famous collaborator rejected. I found it insulting that Wakandans' success was basically credited to an accident of place rather than to their skills and ingenuity.

In stories *about* the movie, much is made of African tribes, African history. I did not sense much of that in the actual movie though. Mostly lots of fights and individual posturing. Very little sense of any community. To the extent that tribal customs and dress were represented, they were so subsumed to the action as to be no more than background, and obscured background at that.

Oh, Africa? AFAICT, not a single frame was shot in Africa. Studio work was all done in or near Atlanta GA. The "British museum" scene was shot in the High Museum in Atlanta, and the "Oakland" basketball court was in Atlanta. They went to the expense and logistics of spending a lot of time filming in South Korea -- scenes which were almost entirely fights. The dramatic waterfall, scene of fights that seem to go on forever, is in Argentina. Africa is represented by three continents, but Africa is not one of them.

The soundtrack is resolutely late Romantic European style, with a few splashes of late 20th century American popular and general movie-score music. If there's anything in it that sounds African, I don't recall it, and don't hear it in the soundtrack sampler on IMDb. Isle of Dogs has more that sounds African. (The soundtrack sampler seems to consist only of the parts by Ludwig Göransson, and there are other soundtrack credits, so perhaps some are more apt. I do hear a bit of kalimba in one of the Göransson samples ... but the string orchestra accompaniment wipes out the African effect.)

OK, it was a superhero movie. I don't watch those -- this was my first ever -- so I didn't really expect much. It lived up to my low expectations but did not exceed them. I don't doubt that (as widely reviewed) it's better than all the other superhero movies, but that's a low hurdle in my book. I recognize that the black cast is an important innovation in this genre and understand why that excited many people, but the genre lags movies in general. I won't say I was bored during it, but in looking back, I'd rather I had spent my time watching something else.

Isle of Dogs
(2018)

funny, impressive, and engaging
I had read and heard very mixed opinions, and decided it must be funny enough to be worth seeing. It is. Some reviews picked nits. Notably, some objected to the pseudo-Japanese setting, but Isle of Dogs is set in Japan the same way The Mikado is: not for realism but as a distant place sufficiently removed from the present world to make the satire a bit safer.

The stop-action animation is impressive and engaging. The plot isn't much; it's there to frame the satire, which is rather heavier than W S Gilbert's. The list of famous voices may seem a bit much, but on occasion there's a real shock in hearing a familiar voice with a different face. The soundtrack is often inventive and dramatic -- and with more African-sounding material than in Black Panther. Won't go on my favorites list, but it was fun.

The Shape of Water
(2017)

conjuring mystery and romance
The Shape of Water is a bizarre but comforting, romantic and even sexy movie -- "less a movie than a conjuring" per one critic. I'm not a fan of monster movies, but this one is less about a monster than about myth, imagination, and connection. I'm sure it also holds far more references than I noticed, from the mute named Eliza (though the cast list spells it Elisa) to a Dr Strangelove persona, and many references to other monsters. It's also about color palettes, shifting dramatically through browns and golds and shades of blue and green.

The Post
(2017)

suspense and history
The Post is tight, dense, and suspenseful. This is particularly noteworthy since it sticks close to historical facts, and we already know the ending. The cast includes some of the best in the business, and it shows.

Some carp that The New York Times deserves first and top credit for publishing the story. Sure. Someone should make that movie. This is a different story.

Others carp that the defense of freedom of the press relates to current events. Though the release timing is certainly related, I did not detect anything in the movie being adjusted to make it more currently apropos. The relation is real and natural, not forced.

Lady Bird
(2017)

characters over plot
In Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig again gives us characters over plot. The plot jumps around, but the interaction among characters grows. There's deception and sweetness, weakness and strength, bouncing around just as in real life. The characters strike me as real people with one exception -- the one-dimensional Marion, Lady Bird's mom. OK, we know that she's overly critical because she wants the best for her daughter, but that's carried out bluntly, with no variation, and as a result becomes trite and unconvincing.

The Greatest Showman
(2017)

too little variety in the music
The Greatest Showman is fast-moving, well-paced, colorful, and easy to follow. It's worth seeing, but its faults are significant. The songs are all in just one musical style, and it's the same style as in La La Land, and I found the lack of variety tiring. (OTOH, if you like the breathy style of current pop music, you will like the movie a lot more than I did.)

I knew it was a fictional takeoff on Barnum's life, so I didn't mind hearing Jenny Lind singing songs composed for the movie. But giving her a weak and breathy voice, instead of the clear and brilliant voice that helped make her so famous, was a step too far. Over 300 credits in Special Effects speaks to an over-reliance on FX at the expense of performance, and that fits my overall impression.

Bonneville
(2006)

pleasant but unoriginal
Very little in Bonneville differs from numerous other road-trip movies. I watched it mainly for Joan Allen, and she did not disappoint. The three road-trip ladies were all worth watching, and it was good to see a story where most of the people get along and enjoy it with good humor. There's lots of fantastic Western scenery along the way. The bitter daughter was a major stereotype. All in all, glad I watched it but no desire to see it again.

Theatre Night: Arms and the Man
(1989)
Episode 1, Season 4

delightful play and production
Yes, it's a play, and luckily the director didn't try to gussy it up to look like Hollywood. It does make good use of the variety of lighting and sets enabled by the camera while staying true to its origin in the theatre.

Arms and the Man is of course a funny, philosophical send-up of pretension, and a winning romance too. In some of his plays, Shaw went on too long and too heavily on the points he was trying to make, but in Arms and the Man he hits the balance, engaging with humor.

I'm most pleased that this bright and balanced production is available.

Mistress America
(2015)

characters and change-ups
A delightful movie as long as you like characters more than plot. Comedy yes, but serious too. The word "screwball" appears often in reviews, but this is not screwball: the characters here are real.

Much is said about what Brooke brings to Tracy. But one of the revelations (and it's not exactly subtle) is how much Brooke needs Tracy and gains from the friendship. Though much younger, Tracy imbues Brooke with a degree of confidence and a sense of self that Brooke lacked.

Much is said about the pace, and it does pack in a lot. But the pace is tightly managed, and when it slows down, the impact is powerful.

The Wrong Man
(1956)

a bit clunky
The Wrong Man has lots of clunky dialog and violations of police procedure which are unlikely to have occurred even in a serious miscarriage of justice. The true story on which this was based was undoubtedly a miscarriage and its presentation was surely innovative at the time, but modern knowledge of far more serious miscarriages (past and present) makes that aspect far less chilling today.

I was also surprised at how clunky some of the dialog was, given that Maxwell Anderson wrote it.

In short, like many Hitchcock movies, it was good for its day but hasn't withstood the test of time as well as the best movies from the past.

Shadows and Fog
(1991)

absurd and vivid
Life is illusion. Shadows and Fog is a delightfully bizarre and absurd tale, with vivid theatrical images, the visual atmosphere perfectly complemented by the background music mostly by Kurt Weill. For once Allen's schmuck is merely the perfect contrast to the rest. Allen's presentation and philosophy work far better in this indirect and enigmatic setting than in the more direct New York settings he uses too often. This film is why I keep watching Allen's movies despite the many which are generously described as missteps -- this one is right up there with The Purple Rose of Cairo, Alice, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Sweet and Lowdown, Hannah and her Sisters, and Manhattan.

Slow Dancin' Down the Aisles of the Quickcheck
(1999)

sweet, quirky and funny
Starting with a concept that could have turned corny, saccharine, or just plain flat, Jackson balances and blends sweet, quirky, funny and romantic in this short. Jackson's original music worms its way into the heart of the plot, and of the viewer.

A wide variety of characters inhabits the short time and space, lending a breadth that's often lacking in a short, yet they fit together comfortably.

I saw it on a DVD that came directly from the director. It's on Youtube (I'm not sure who put it up), not quite DVD resolution but pretty good.

If you have a dream, you'll be touched. Where would we be without dreams? Reality, that's where.

The Botany of Desire
(2009)

excellent video with a few flaws
The Botany of Desire is a very well done, enjoyable, and informative documentary, though with some flaws. The cinematography is gorgeous. The time spent on talking heads is reasonable for a documentary, and much of the time they are outside, demonstrating as they talk. Unfortunately the academics, including Pollan, are filmed inside, but they are engaging too. The visuals are carefully and artfully matched with the dialogs and monologues. The entire concept and framework remain intriguing, and the video keeps them fresh.

The greatest flaw is weak support for Pollan's hypothesis, that plants control us as much as we control them. The first two segments (apples and tulips) illustrate this thesis beautifully. The support is weaker in the cannabis section, where I detect a bit of the joy of intoxication infiltrating the scientific viewpoint as well as an unclear statement of how an accident in the plant's evolution constitutes control of our behavior toward it. The support weakens even more in the potato section, where i gather that somehow our attempt to control the plant constitutes the plant's control over us. I did not follow that argument.

But those sections remain highly engaging and informative despite the tenuous connection to the hypothesis. Had Pollan been a bit broader in his claim, these objections would fall by the wayside.

Roving Mars
(2006)

good material but disappointing emphases
I was disappointed. With all the pictures sent back by the rovers even before the movie had to cut and run, the film devotes only a couple of minutes to these. The landing doesn't even occur until the halfway point (20 minutes), and the first pictures from the rovers at 26 minutes. Meanwhile, more of the limited (40 minutes) time is devoted to talking heads than to anything else. There are CGI fly-overs of Mars when there could have been actual photos.

The interviews, CGI flyovers, and simulations of the rovers are very good stuff -- accurate and informative -- and would have been excellent in a 2- or 3-hour film. The problem is the emphasis, which needed to be "what we saw on Mars". Forty minutes didn't give time for all the rest. This is the rare documentary which would have been much better expanded. Keep all the good stuff, add even more about the difficulties of getting to Mars (there's brief mentions of past failures, and these are fascinating stories of their own), and add a lot more about the scientific goals and successes, and a great deal more photographs sent back from the rovers, and a lot more explanations of what is seen in these photos. It's as though the makers assumed viewers were only interested in the people behind the mission, and not the mission itself.

Then there's the emphasis on water, life, and preparation for manned visits. This does not accurately represent the mission. While water and life detection was part of it, the mission was a lot more. And the idea of manned visits to Mars is a pipe dream, driven by emotions and politics, not science. The film makers would have served us better by emphasizing the excitement in the exploration by proxy, rather than viewing it as merely a preparation for manned flight.

The film does prove, once again, that Philip Glass can write astoundingly good film music.

There's a huge need to convey the enormous excitement in the actual unmanned missions, to Mars and to the other planets. This documentary chose instead to keep the blinders on, emphasizing what's believed to be already exciting to humans.

Note that I only saw this on a home screen, not IMAX. I'm sure some parts would have been much more impressive on IMAX. But that's all the more reason to upend the emphases. Who wants to go into an IMAX theater, for only 40 minutes, and watch talking heads?

Cross Creek
(1983)

lovely film despite flaws
There's a lot in Cross Creek that's excellent. Several fascinating performances create well-honed characterizations of complex, sometimes-likable characters.

The visuals are beautiful, mostly shot on location in Cross Creek. It certainly evokes this part of Florida. (I grew up about 25 miles from the setting.) Some negatives lower my rating. But despite these, I still highly recommend the film.

Though many like the score, I found it mostly sappy, the only exceptions being the music created by the characters.

Summer never seems to come. Once we see MKR wipe her brow. We get no sense of the oppression of the summer heat and humidity.

But likewise, winter never seems to come. For goodness sake, when you're lighting fires to protect orange trees, that's because it's FREEZING! Those orange trees won't be hurt above about 25F. And freezing weather in Florida is normally accompanied by wind. This may not seem like much to those who live farther north, but it requires more serious clothing than most of the characters don. Yet none seem to notice that it's cold. And MKR's house wouldn't have been so well heated that she could sleep in that weather with only light clothes and covers.

It never gets muddy. The movie shows some torrential downpours, yet when the characters get back out on the roads and paths, it's all dry and neat. That doesn't happen in the swamp.

And it never seems to get buggy. We hear a couple of mentions of mosquitoes but mostly they don't seem like a big problem. People just sit and walk around with no sign that they notice.

Where the Wild Things Are
(1984)

staging is better than the music
Where the Wild Things Are is an opera based on Maurice Sendak's book, with Sendak writing the opera libretto and doing the production design. Visually it's as exciting as one would expect directly from Sendak: the costumes and motion evoke the whimsy and the beauty and the emotions that we see in Sendak's drawings. The sets are similarly detailed and lovely.

Aurally, it's a different matter. Oliver Knussen's music screams mid-century academic classical music, under the philosophy that if it sounds like anything familiar, it must be bad. One result is that the music is immediately unappealing. Another is that the excellent vocalists end up screaming half the time because they are struggling so hard to find the pitch -- which they accomplish but at the cost of attention to vocal quality. Yet another is that it's nearly impossible to understand the lyrics without turning on the subtitles (which thankfully are present most of the time) -- comprehension is always a problem in opera, but it should have been possible to do better in a recording! So fans of mid-20th-century opera may appreciate the composition -- though Knussen is certainly no Carlisle Floyd. Others may prefer to ignore the soundtrack and just watch.

It's available on DVD with Higglety Pigglety Pop! on the same disc. Netflix carries it. This review is basically the same for both films.

Higglety Pigglety Pop!
(1985)

staging is better than the music
Higglety Pigglety Pop! is an opera based on Maurice Sendak's book, with Sendak writing the opera libretto and doing the production design. Visually it's as exciting as one would expect directly from Sendak: the costumes and motion evoke the whimsy and the beauty and the emotions that we see in Sendak's drawings. The sets are similarly detailed and lovely.

Aurally, it's a different matter. Oliver Knussen's music screams mid-century academic classical music, under the philosophy that if it sounds like anything familiar, it must be bad. One result is that the music is immediately unappealing. Another is that the excellent vocalists end up screaming half the time because they are struggling so hard to find the pitch -- which they accomplish but at the cost of attention to vocal quality. Yet another is that it's nearly impossible to understand the lyrics without turning on the subtitles (which thankfully are present most of the time) -- comprehension is always a problem in opera, but it should have been possible to do better in a recording! So fans of mid-20th-century opera may appreciate the composition -- though Knussen is certainly no Carlisle Floyd. Others may prefer to ignore the soundtrack and just watch.

It's available on DVD with Where the Wild Things Are on the same disc. Netflix carries it. This review is basically the same for both films.

Iron & Silk
(1990)

simple surface, complex currents
Deceptively simple on the surface, Iron and Silk is complex beneath, with clashes and harmonies between East and West, old and new, open and closed, never pitting one against the other but exploring the interlocking elements. The plot isn't much; the joy is in the interplay of currents. This is a beautiful movie.

It's worth pointing out that IMDb's vote weighting hurts Iron and Silk badly. With only 310 votes as I write, apparently IMDb doesn't believe that so many people vote it a ten, or perhaps they discount bimodal vote distributions. IMDb's 6.4 is about what you get if you throw out all the tens! If you're into kinds of averages, the mode is 10, the median is 9, and the mean is 8.1. Those represent the movie better than IMDb's weighted 6.4.

Where the Wild Things Are
(1975)

several interesting facets
Don't know how kids like it, but it's interesting for adults. The animation is good, the narration by Peter Schickele is very good, and the score by Schickele is excellent.

The DVD also contains "In the Night Kitchen" and four other Sendak shorts, and the extras include Sendak talking about his books.

This version would be a good lead-in to watching the 2009 movie (I did it backwards) since it turns out that the 2009 movie is closely based on the book/animated short, just greatly expanded. It even contains many of the lines from the original, and these make more sense when you know they are from the original.

Edward

The Thin Blue Line
(1988)

great sound track, avoids clichés
Morris avoids the documentary clichés: no narration, no questions heard. The re-creation which bothers many is limited to the undisputed facts, and Morris uses it to keep the horrific crime firmly front and center even while examining the subsequent perversion of justice.

Morris presents no evil dragons. Even while he shows men making serious errors, he shows them as men (mostly public servants) trying hard to do the right thing. It's a classic case of good people doing something bad, and Morris says this better than any thick philosophy book.

The wonderful soundtrack by Philip Glass is more than just the icing on the cake. It helps to tie together the mood of the entire movie.

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