The Wizard of Oz (A). When I was kid back in the 70s, TV showings of this 1939 classic were a big event. When we recently tried it out on our five-year-old daughter, it had probably been decades since the last time I had seen it. Of course it holds up great, and only the scene in which the flying monkeys attack our heroes as they approach the Wicked Witch’s castle really frightened our daughter. One thing I don’t think I ever noticed before–in the opening Kansas scene, we find out that the awful neighbor lady, Miss Gulch (Margaret Hamilton, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), has gotten some sort of court order or something for Toto to be confiscated and destroyed! That loose end isn’t tied up at all at the end of the movie, but I’m sure the Gales successfully appealed that order, right?
Morte D’Urban, by J.F. Power (1962). This is an interesting novel about an American Catholic priest, Father Urban. He belongs to a down-at-heels religious order known as the Clementines, and among their mediocre ranks he is a bit of a rock star—from his home base in Chicago he travels all over the country for preaching and speaking engagements, and he excels at getting wealthy Catholics to finance various projects for the order. As another character aptly describes him, he’s an “operator.” But his regional superior decides to take him down a peg by exiling him to a poor retreat house in the Minnesota boondocks. His trials, tribulations, and triumphs there are rather comical for the most part, but the story takes a serious and philosophical turn near the end that kind of stayed with me. I recommend it.
Kung Fu Panda (B-). This is a perfectly fine little animated movie from the distant year of 2008. There’s a Chinese village that’s a veritable Zootopia of talking animals, and corpulent panda Po (voice of Jack Black, King Kong) serves noodles at his father’s restaurant while dreaming of being a kung fu master. (In an odd running joke, Po’s father is a stork.) Meanwhile, high atop a nearby mountain, the elderly kung fu master (a turtle voiced by Randall Duk Kim, The Matrix Reloaded) is about to choose a new “dragon warrior” or something like that, presumably from the ranks of the trainees coming up under the #2 kung fu master (a raccoon-looking beast voiced by Dustin Hoffman, Stranger Than Fiction). Through a strange twist of fate, chubby Po is chosen as the dragon warrior, and of course he must ultimately face the greatest kung fu villain in the land, a tiger named Tai Lung (voice of Ian McShane, Hercules). Strangely, this 92-minute trifle flew by, while the cleverer and funnier 95-minute-long Megamind (which I recently rewatched) felt very long. Go figure.
Ice Age (B-). I saw this 2002 animated film long, long ago and recently re-watched it. It was reasonably cute, if predictable. So, we’re back in the Ice Age. Our main characters are three prehistoric mammals: a grouchy but big-hearted mammoth named Manfred (voice of Ray Romano, The Big Sick), a dim but loquacious sloth named Sid (voice of John Leguizamo, Moulin Rouge!), and a sneaky saber-tooth tiger named Diego (voice of Denis Leary, The Thomas Crown Affair). It’s basically a road movie in which the unlikely trio are united in a quest to return a lost baby human to his tribe. Will Diego grow a conscience or betray his comrades to his pack (which includes a tiger voiced by comedic genius Jack Black, Nacho Libre)? Tune in and find out! I looked for the DVD at the store and was surprised to learn there have been at least four sequels, so stay tuned!
The Book of Life (C). It is easy to confuse this 2014 animated feature with Pixar’s 2017 release Coco—in fact, The Borg Queen thought we were putting Coco on when we dialed up The Book of Life. Both movies center on the Day of the Dead and feature a protagonist who would rather be a musician than follow the career path that tradition has laid out for him. But The Book of Life has a conventional love story—in a Mexican village, two boys grow up in love with their playmate Maria (voice of Zoe Saldana, Star Trek Beyond). Two manifestations of Death make a wager on which boy the girl will marry when they all grow up. There’s also a life-spirit called the Candle Maker (voice of Ice Cube, 21 Jump Street), who sounds like the Genie from Aladdin and is both amusing and tonally out of place. And there’s a terrifying bandit who is seeking a medallion that confers everlasting life on its bearer. And did I mention that Placido Domingo provides the voice for a deceased bullfighter who loved opera? There’s a lot packed in here, and lots more stars provide vocal talent (e.g., Channing Tatum, Hail, Caesar!; Diego Luna, Rogue One). But I found the movie merely average.
P.S. Wow. I actually saw this movie back in 2014 and totally forgot about it. Apparently I liked it more then than I do now, according to my review. Go figure!
Finding Dory (C). I finally saw this 2016 release during our recent snow-in here in Texas. Apparently I liked Finding Nemo back in 2003, but this sequel struck me as just average. Dory, the amnesiac blue tang (voice of Ellen Degeneres, Edtv), suddenly and inexplicably starts to have flashes of memory regarding her parents. She sets out on a quest to find them and her childhood home, and of course the clownfish Marlin (voice of Albert Brooks, This Is 40) and his son Nemo (voice of Hayden Rolence, short film Cicero in Winter) have to go along for the adventure. They wind up at a marine life institute in California, which requires them to do a lot of inventive hopping and jumping from tank to tank. Several new characters are introduced, but Hank the agoraphobic octopus (voice of Ed O’Neill, TV’s Married … With Children) steals the show. Overall it’s fine, but why do Dory and the whale shark speak to each other in the whale language when neither one is a whale?
Soul (B-). This recent Pixar release starts out with a pretty ordinary set-up. Joe (voice of Jamie Foxx, Ray) is a middle-school music teacher who longs to be a jazz musician. He gets his big break in the form of an invitation to sit in with a famous jazz combo but he suffers a fatal injury several hours before the gig and becomes a disembodied soul riding a conveyor belt through the cosmos towards a blinding white light. Desperate to get back to Earth and fulfill his dreams, he jumps off the conveyor belt, and that’s when things get weird. Instead of finding himself back in his body, or in somebody else’s body, Joe lands in a surreal realm where little baby souls (which have heads, bodies, and arms but float around without legs) are outfitted with character traits before being dropped to Earth where they will be united with bodies. Joe teams up with number 22 (voice of Tina Fey, Mean Girls), a baby soul who deliberately never completes her outfitting and so has existed in this pre-birth limbo for eons without ever being born. Joe and 22 manage to get to Earth, but all sorts of complications ensue. It’s a weird, trippy movie, and it kept me wondering what would happen next, that’s for sure.
Coming 2 America (C). I watched this sequel on Amazon Prime. The story picks up thirty years after the original, which my barely teenage self loved. Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy, Beverly Hills Cop), when he becomes king after his father dies, fears a neighboring state will apparently assassinate him because having three (strong, badass) daughters but no sons is shameful and makes him weak. Apparently, the law in Zamunda is the throne can pass only to a male heir (or the husband of a daughter)—and women can own no businesses. So off Akeem goes to find his illegitimate son back in America that resulted from a drunken, high, and seemingly non-consensual encounter he had the night he and Semmi went to the bar and met random women in the first movie. After about four scenes we are back in Zamunda. Then the son has to learn to be a prince and questions arise—will he marry the crazy general’s offered daughter simply because she exudes sex (without even having a conversation with her first), or will the new prince marry for love? Will the now-King Akeem become enlightened and realize his daughters can rule despite lacking a “load sack,” as the crazy general calls it. Pretty much everyone from the original returns. This movie is a lot like the original and I actually did like it, but it was more crude than the first. There was a prolonged penis joke, which I always find disgusting, and it seemed unnecessary to make the story arise from laws treating women as property who have no rights. They repeatedly try to make it sound like it’s an old law and more of the dead king’s thinking so we won’t hate Akeem. But they could have simply made it that the oldest child, here an unknown son, had to rule. Aren’t we past the stage where we have to realize women can be something other than sex objects? Why do we need a movie in 2021 where someone has to come to that realization? Putting all that aside, I still enjoyed it (maybe the wine helped).
A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (1977). I have read praise for this memoir periodically over the years, and I finally tracked it down. The premise appealed to me: as an aimless British 19-year-old in the year 1933, the author decided to take a ferry to the Netherlands and then walk all the way to Constantinople. He kept diaries all the way, but he didn’t publish this memoir of the journey until 1977, so the result is the reflection of a much older man. Turns out this volume covers only half the trip, to the border of Hungary; the next volume is called Between the Woods and the Water. And after this adventure, Fermor had an even bigger one: during World War II, he was dropped on the island of Crete where he organized the successful kidnaping of a Nazi general! He must have been quite a fellow. But this book, famous as it is, did not sweep me away. The tales of the people and cultures Fermor encountered were interesting enough, but the many, many poetic descriptions of mountains, rivers, snow, etc., did not keep me enthralled.
Hotel Transylvania (C). So I watched the original after watching the two sequels. I don’t think watching them in order would have changed my opinions—these are generally unfunny animated comedies that try to mine laughs from a couple of premises: (1) the classic movie monsters (vampires, werewolves, mummies) are really ordinary people with the same problems as normal humans, and (2) it’s funny to juxtapose the monsters with the modern world, which is represented chiefly by a California slacker dude named Johnny (voice of Andy Samberg, TV’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine). In this first movie, we learn that Count Dracula (voice of Adam Sandler, The Wedding Singer) has built a hotel just for monsters. It’s well-hidden from the rest of the world because he wants to protect his daughter Mavis (voice of Selena Gomez, TV’s Wizards of Waverly Place) from the evil humans. (They destroyed her mother back in the 1800s, don’t you know.) But Mavis wants to spread her (bat) wings and see the world, and as luck would have it the aforementioned slacker dude stumbles into the hotel and catches Mavis’s eye just as her 118th birthday rolls around. Hijinks ensue as Drac tries to get rid of Johnny before all the other monsters find out he’s a human. Very few of the jokes come off. You can tell where you’re supposed to laugh, but I very rarely did. And yet, I chuckled just enough times that I can’t write the movie off completely. Thus, the C grade.
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation (C-). Not as amusing as the previous installment. This one starts with a quick prologue showing a crazed monster hunter named Abraham Van Helsing (voice of Jim Gaffigan, 17 Again) repeatedly trying and failing to kill Dracula back in the 1800s. Fast forward to the present, and the whole monster gang (Dracula, the mummy, the wolfman, Frankenstein’s monster, a million more) goes on a cruise to get away from it all and try to relax. Dracula (voice of Adam Sandler, Anger Management) immediately falls head over fangs for the ship’s captain, a blonde gal named Ericka (voice of Kathryn Hahn, We’re the Millers). I’m not usually one to guess movie twists in advance, but even I quickly figured out that Ericka’s last name was probably “Van Helsing.” Anyway, I didn’t find this one as entertaining as part two. I guess someday I need to go back and watch the first one. Maybe it’ll explain what Drac’s daughter Mavis (voice of Selena Gomez, Spring Breakers) sees in her goofus husband Johnny (voice of Andy Samberg, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping).
Hotel Transylvania 2 (C+). I missed the first installment of this animated series of movies, but I quickly gathered that Count Dracula (voice of Adam Sandler, Click) runs a hotel for monsters (the usual suspects—the mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, zombies) and that his daughter Mavis (voice of Selena Gomez, The Muppets) is married to a slacker-bro human named Johnny (voice of Andy Samberg, I Love You, Man). I’m guessing that the first installment revolved around a budding Mavis–Johnny romance and Dracula’s obsessive attempts to stop it. Anyway, in this one, Dracula is obsessed with whether his grandson Dennis will be a vampire or, as appears to be the case, remain an ordinary human. He tries to awaken the little guy’s inner vampire by taking him on a road trip with Wolfman (voice of Steve Buscemi, Big Fish) and some other monsters while Mavis and Johnny are off visiting Johnny’s family in California. Moderately amusing, with a long list of other famous voices involved including Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles), Fran Drescher (This is Spinal Tap) and Nick Offerman (We’re the Millers).
The Sleepover (B). I must admit, I got a kick out of this 2020 direct-to-Netflix release. As The Borg Queen told me in advance, it’s in the same vein as Adventures in Babysitting, which is a good thing. We have a typical suburban family: competent mom (Malin Ackerman, Rock of Ages), bumbling dad (Ken Marino, Wanderlust), teenaged daughter, and younger son. Their world gets turned upside down when a gang of supercriminals kidnaps the parents and the kids have to track them down and rescue them. Lots of adventures and hijinks ensue. I got plenty of laughs from the bumbling dad’s bumbling attempts to understand what is going on and also from the many sassy wisecracks from teenaged daughter’s sidekick who goes along for the ride. Not all of it makes sense, and coincidences abound to keep the kids’ quest going, but just check your brain at the door and go with it. There’s a bit of inappropriate language (mostly “Oh my God”) I could have done without, but in fairness the movie is rated PG. My four-year-old daughter loved the movie and teenaged daughter’s fashion sense.
Trolls (C). This animated feature came highly recommended by The Borg Queen, and I did get a couple of chuckles out of it, but on the whole I thought it was just OK. In this fantasy world, trolls are these happy little creatures reminiscent of smurfs, but they’re multicolored (painfully so) and more into glitzy parties and elaborate dance numbers set to pop tunes (like Earth Wind and Fire’s irresistible “September”). Instead of Gargamel, we have a race of ugly beings called Bergens (who actually look like trolls) who want to catch and eat the trolls. Yikes! When a Bergen finds the trolls’ secret village and captures some of the delicious little guys, it’s up to trolls Princess Poppy (voice of Anna Kendrick, The Last Five Years) and gloomy Branch (voice of Justin Timberlake, Trouble With the Curve) to go to the Bergen town and save their friends. Lots of vocal talent turned out for this one, including Zooey Deschanel (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and John Cleese (Monty Python and the Holy Grail), but I still found it pretty meh.
The Good Dinosaur (B+). This 2015 Disney-Pixar release reminded me of Ice Age, which is not a bad thing. In this film, the asteroid that hit the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs is instead a narrow miss. Eons later, dinosaurs have evolved into intelligent, talking creatures (although their physical form hasn’t changed). Our protagonist is Arlo, a timid, young, undersized brachiosaur who falls into a river and is washed far from his family’s farm. He must face lots of perils and overcome his fears if he is ever to get home. (Arlo is a basically decent sort, but the movie would’ve been more aptly named “The Brave Dinosaur.”) He picks up a traveling companion, a tiny but aggressive human child he dubs “Spot,” who acts and sounds like a wolf puppy. It’s a weird movie, in which tyrannosaurus rexes might be generally friendly cowboy types and a styracosaurus might be a hippie with lots of tiny animals living on his horns. Nice voice work by Steve Zahn (That Thing You Do!) as a demented pterodactyl and national treasure Sam Elliott (The Hero) as one of the t rexes.
The Movie Snob goes back to the beginning. The real beginning….
Star Wars (A-). I recently re-watched this old classic, probably for the first time since I started this blog. Of course it’s awesome. I still wonder how our little band of heroes was able to navigate the anonymous halls and corridors of the Death Star so easily on their very first visit, but never mind. I also ding the filmmakers for not trimming the film a tiny bit to make it a G-rated movie. There are a few mild but unnecessary expletives, and a couple of scenes that are unnecessarily gruesome. (The scene of Luke Skywalker’s home after the storm troopers have murdered his aunt and uncle; the bloody severed arm in the Cantina scene.) But who knows; maybe the filmmakers reasonably feared a G rating would hurt box office. In recent years I managed to get my picture taken with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Corvette Summer) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, When Harry Met Sally) at comic-book conventions. I doubt I’ll ever score the trifecta by getting Han Solo (Harrison Ford, American Graffiti), though.
Merry & Bright (B-). It’s still the Christmas season according to some calendars, so let’s keep enjoying Hallmark holiday movies as long as we can! This light confection from 2019 stars Full House‘s Jodi Sweetin as Kate, a single lady in small-town Ohio who recently took over her late grandmother’s struggling candy-cane company. As Christmas approaches, a corporate consultant from NYC named Gabe (Andrew W. Walker, A Dream of Christmas) shows up and starts tossing off advice for improving the company’s bottom line. (I wasn’t clear on exactly who hired him, since Kate is plainly none too thrilled to have him around.) Things unspool nicely and predictably, but the movie is woefully short of musical montages. Still, it features veteran TV actress Sharon Lawrence (TV’s NYPD Blue) as Kate’s mom, a small-town Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony, and a cute dog, so it hits many other high notes.
Arthur Christmas (B). I just saw this 2011 animated film for the first time. It’s a wild, frantic movie, and I was somewhat distracted while watching, so I feel like I missed about a third of what was happening. Here’s what I picked up: Santa Claus (voice of Jim Broadbent, Moulin Rouge!) is real, and he comes from a long line of Santa Clauses going back to St. Nicholas. Nowadays he and his elves use a super high-tech spaceship to deliver toys all over the world on Christmas Eve night. But the current Santa is getting on in years, and his super-capable older son is chafing to take over the big red suit. Meanwhile, Santa’s inept younger son Arthur (voice of James McAvoy, The Last King of Scotland) works in the mailroom, and Santa’s retired father hangs around cackling absurdities. When it is discovered very early Christmas morning that one little girl’s bicycle went undelivered, Santa and the older son decide it just can’t be fixed. But Arthur refuses to give up, and when Grandpa Claus (voice of Bill Nighy, Shaun of the Dead) hitches the reindeer up to his old sleigh, Arthur and a stowaway elf named Bryony (voice of Ashley Jensen, The Lobster) are in for the ride of their lives. Although I missed a lot, I still laughed a bunch, especially at Grandpa Claus’s wacky comments.
Switched for Christmas (B). Candace Cameron Bure (TV’s Full House) stars in this delightful 2017 Hallmark Christmas movie. Bure plays identical twin sisters, Kate and Chris, who couldn’t be more different. Kate is a successful corporate type in Denver with no husband or kids, while Chris is a divorced mother of two who teaches art in a nearby small town called Littleton. They are somewhat estranged, but then they decide to switch places (like they used to when they were kids) because Kate doesn’t want to plan her office Christmas party and Chris doesn’t want to plan the Littleton Christmas festival thingie. Does each sister excel at living the other’s life and then find romance under false pretenses? Do bears like honey? Not very plausible, but perfectly enjoyable!
A Dream of Christmas (B+). This 2016 Hallmark Christmas movie hits all the right notes. Our cute heroine is Penny, an advertising copywriter who keeps getting passed over for a promotion. (Actress Nikki Deloach, The House Bunny, looks like a young Erin Gray, which doesn’t hurt.) She’s also vaguely unhappy with her husband, a traveling nature photographer who looks like a knock-off Eric Bana. So when she wishes out loud that she hadn’t gotten married, an angel (?) hears her and grants her wish. Suddenly she’s a senior VP at her ad agency, drives a cherry-red sports car, and is blissfully unmarried, having never met the man she was married to in her previous life. (In a nice twist, her previously married-with-kids sister is also now single—because Penny and her husband introduced the sister to her husband.) Three guesses whether Penny turns out to be happier in her new life. To complete the package, the movie delivers both a musical montage and a faded star in a supporting role—Cindy Williams from TV’s Laverne & Shirley as the Christmas angel! Set your DVR, folks!
Christmas in Rome (B). Tis the season for Hallmark Christmas movies, and because this 2019 release stars Hallmark veteran Lacey Chabert (Pride, Prejudice and Mistletoe) you know you’re in for a treat. Chabert plays Angela, an American who works as a tour guide in Rome. She’s passionately in love with the city, but unfortunately that doesn’t keep her from getting fired right before Christmas. But fortunately, while walking across the scenic Ponte Sant’Angelo, she runs into a theoretically handsome American guy who’s in town to try to buy up a venerable Italian ceramics company for his big New York firm. He quickly hires her to help him connect with the company’s crusty old owner Luigi, who doesn’t appreciate Yankee directness, and he in turn may be able to help her attract investors to start her own tour company. The show is missing a musical montage, but on the plus side it’s got lots of pretty Roman scenery and has a plot that involves almost no conflict or other unpleasantness. Pure holiday gold, I say!
Home Alone (C). I missed this allegedly beloved film when it was in theaters and eventually began to pride myself on being one of the few living human beings who has never seen it. That’s what a good movie snob would do, right? But The Borg Queen finally cornered me into watching it, and to my chagrin I actually laughed a few times. Not that it’s a good movie, mind you; it’s quite mediocre. Macaulay Culkin (My Girl) plays a little boy (around 8 maybe?) who accidentally gets left home alone when his large family takes a Christmas trip to Paris. (The film’s explanation for how this could happen is actually pretty reasonable.) While awaiting their return, young Culkin lives it up, squares off against a pair of bumbling burglars (Joe Pesci, My Cousin Vinny; Daniel Stern, Whip It), and supposedly learns the importance of family. The sentimentality feels tacked-on, and there’s some crude language that was totally inappropriate in what I guess is supposed to be a family-oriented movie. Still, it made me laugh a few times, and that’s better than I was expecting.
Cinderella (B). I may have seen this animated classic as a child, but I really don’t think I did. Seeing it for the first time as an adult, I thought it was a charming entertainment. The story is really stripped to the essentials: A few sentences of voice-over narration and boom, we are in the middle of Cinderella’s story, not long before the Royal Ball. (The film is only 74 minutes, which is nice.) There are really just a few scenes: an intro in which the friendly mice elude the wicked cat (Lucifer!), the making and unmaking of Cinderella’s dress, the fairy godmother, the ball, and the denouement. Oh, and a couple of scenes in which the king blusters about how hard it is to get his son the prince to marry and settle down. (The Prince himself is barely in the movie.) And there’s a little bit of a surprising twist at the end that I don’t recall ever hearing in any other version of the story. (SPOILER: When the royal servants show up at Cinderella’s house to let the girls try on the glass slipper, the wicked stepmother causes it to be broken before Cinderella can try it on—but Cinderella still has the other one, and the servants accept that as adequate proof of her identity.) Enjoyable for all ages.
Voyager: Season 5. This season achieved a 2.5 grade-point average, which is slightly lower than the 2.58 grade I gave season four. However, season five was the first in which I gave any episode a grade of “A,” and I actually handed it out to three different episodes: “Drone,” “Course: Oblivion,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Not surprisingly, Seven of Nine figures prominently in two of those three excellent episodes. In “Drone,” she becomes a maternal figure to another Borg drone who develops an individual personality, and in “Someone to Watch Over Me,” she takes the Doctor’s advice and experiments with dating. “Course: Oblivion” is an affecting episode in which we find out that the aliens from season four episode “Demon” have somehow built their own duplicate starship Voyager and now believe that they are the real Voyager crew. Otherwise, I handed out nine B’s, thirteen C’s, and one F for the bizarre episode “The Fight.” Stay away from that one, but definitely check out the A-listers and the many killer B’s: “In the Flesh,” “Infinite Regress,” “Counterpoint,” “Bride of Chaotica!,” “Gravity,” “Bliss,” “Dark Frontier Part I” (Part II got only a C), “Warhead,” and season ender “Equinox Part I.”
Pinocchio (C). I finally saw this Disney classic from 1940, and I would describe it as both bizarre and intense. I knew the general outline of the story: the Blue Fairy blesses humble woodcarver Geppetto by bringing the puppet Pinocchio to life, and Pinocchio (with his sidekick/conscience Jiminy Cricket) gets into some misadventures before the Blue Fairy finishes the job by making him into a real flesh-and-blood boy. But I wasn’t prepared for just how strange and even nightmarish these misadventures are. I won’t commit any spoilers just in case you haven’t seen it, but there’s some strange stuff in here. I’d say it might be too scary for the smallest and most sensitive kids, so parents should give it a watch first.