Category Archives: Movies

Watching FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (1962)

After enjoying the Jules Verne novel (just reviewed here), I was curious about the Irwin Allen Technicolor film. I’ve rarely liked anything Allen did, so I wasn’t expecting much, but even my low expectations were not met. I found the film on YouTube, not a great copy, but good enough to learn that I could only watch about a quarter of it. The film draws very little from the book, just the basic idea of a balloon voyage across central unexplored Africa, the name of the balloon inventor, Fergusson, and a few greatly distorted events from the book. Visually, the effects are cheap and ineffective from the first frame, as we see the balloon on a demonstration flight for the Royal Geographical Society (not in the book). The gondola of the balloon is laughable, one end looks like the head and neck of a giant unicorn for no good reason. Cedric Hardwicke plays Fergusson ineffectively, he’s dull and uninteresting. His assistant Jacques (replacing black manservant Joe in the book) runs the balloon machinery, thereby giving Hardwicke little to do other than act stuffy and officious. Jacques is played by teen idol Fabian in an obvious ploy to attract a young audience. He’s fine, but completely out of place in this story.

Before the balloon launches, the mission is changed by Britain’s Prime Minister from exploration to a silly military/patriotic one where Fergusson must secretly plant the British flag on the west coast of Africa to thwart some slavers there. In charge of this, and going along is Sir Henry Vining (not in the book) played by Richard Haydn. Haydn’s comic performance was the one thing I did like about the film. A British character actor, he’s best known today as the voice of the Caterpillar in Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland,” he’s always fun to watch and listen to. Other cast members of note like Barbara Eden, Peter Lorre and Billy Gilbert were wasted on nonsense and looked uncomfortable. Red Buttons was awful as the reporter sent along to cover the flight for an American newspaper. In the book, there were only three passengers on the balloon…two for a while when Joe jumps overboard into a lake to help keep the balloon aloft. In the film we end up with about eight people on the balloon, none of them interesting except Haydn. I will admit I skipped through a lot of scenes looking for something enjoyable, so I might have missed a few worthwhile moments, but I doubt it. Even the final thrill ride from the book is made silly and dull here.

Verne’s book is not great literature, but it’s a lot more fun than this awful film!

Watching WONDER WOMAN

Image © Warner Bros.

I’m going to begin this with general comments. Later, after a spoiler warning, I’ll address some specific points that I think won’t give anything important away, but if you want to avoid all mention of plot elements, you might want to come back after you’ve seen the film.

I enjoyed the film, I think in large part because of the performance and persona of Gal Gadot, who is an example of perfect casting, born for the part. Sure, others could play the King of Siam, but Yul Brynner was perfect for it, it’s that kind of thing. Her every move, expression, word, gesture and emotion seemed true and right for Wonder Woman. Even her slight Israeli accent works well here. Gal’s skills in the action scenes as well in the character ones hit the mark every time. Chris Pine was fine as Steve Trevor, the rest of the cast, who are largely supporting players, were good too, but Gal made it work for me.

There were no boring parts, always a good sign, though lately I’m more impressed with a film, script and actors who can carry quiet moments equally well, and this film does that. There aren’t many of them, but they work. The effects and action sequences were fine, if a little too frequent in the second half for me. Mixing in moments of super-slow-motion has become a familiar thing in action films, but I kind of like it as it gives my old eyes a chance to see what’s going on better. I saw it in 3D, but did not notice any particularly great uses of it, and often saw none for long periods, so I expect the 2D version would have been fine.

Okay, on to more specific plot and script comments, in case you want to stop here. More below.

 

 

 

 

The top screenwriting credit goes to Zack Snyder, and this film is crafted to fit in with the other DC character films he’s directed, so it’s framed in a brief modern-day sequence, but we don’t learn a great deal from that except that Diana is unchanged, has an impressive base of operations, and is still being heroic. Most of the film is a flashback to her origin, beginning on Themyscira. That sequence is handled quite well, I thought. Young Diana wants to train for battle, her mother wants to protect her. Other Themyscirans help Diana learn what she needs to know. In one early moment, Diana’s mother tells her a bedtime story about her origin that seems too simplistic, but later we learn part of it is not true, so that leaves the rest as just a bedtime story and not necessarily so. A nice, subtle idea.

When American Steve Trevor arrives in his crashing plane, I got the first jolt of unexpected plot: it’s a World War One German plane. In the comics, of course, Wonder Woman was created in the early years of World War Two. When Steve succeeds in convincing Diana to join him in fighting the Germans, it’s all World War One, “The Great War,” with Steve working as a spy for the British. In retrospect, I can see why this was done. It avoids the film becoming “Wonder Woman vs. Hitler.” It also means that, for Diana in the present, this entire story happened over a hundred years ago, freeing later stories from being tied to this continuity and these supporting characters. That could be a good thing or a bad one, depending on how she’s handled in later films.

Once Diana and Steve meet, the language question is always a problem, but here they at once speak to and understand each other perfectly. This seemed odd and wrong at first, but it is explained later, and by inference, subtly lets us know that Themyscira is not ignorant of the world at large, another nice touch.

There are several villains in the story, some obvious ones who are not particularly interesting or well-rounded, and an implied hidden one who is revealed late in the film. He’s the only one who really worked for me.

The usual clash of cultures when Diana enters man’s world takes place in London in this film, and I thought was well handled and entertaining.

The third act of the film takes Diana, Steve, and a band of comic misfits to the front lines where various plans and plots are to take place. Here Diana asserts herself and becomes the true hero we all want to see. I liked that, but the war scenes do go on for a long time. Some of the plot gets too convoluted and tricksy for me, too. Finally, Diana’s growing powers seem to go even beyond anything in the comics, but there is an explanation of that in the film that works when you think about it.

In all, I enjoyed the two hours I spent watching “Wonder Woman,” and recommend it, particularly to witness Gal Gadot’s wonderful performance. Perhaps a second film might be even better, we’ll see.

About Mary Poppins

Image © Disney.

My first exposure to the characters and story of Mary Poppins was in the books by her creator P.L. Travers. Then came the Disney film version in 1964. I loved much of it, but at age 13 was already critical of the changes Disney made to the characters and storyline in the books. And even then I knew Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent was terrible. This past Thanksgiving weekend, Ellen and I saw a performance of the Mary Poppins musical at Centenary College in northern New Jersey, thanks to Dave and Ann Greene. I enjoyed it, but was struck by the strange mixture of elements from the books, elements from the film, and some all-new things created by adapter Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame. It made me want to reread the books for the first time in decades, and I did that through December, specifically the four main books by P.L. Travers. Here are some thoughts on all this, with SPOILERS if you haven’t read or seen any of these things and plan to. Continue reading

Watching FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

fantasticbeasts

Here’s where I stand on Harry Potter. I read all of the main series of books by J.K. Rowling and enjoyed them but didn’t love them, though I thought the writing improved over the course of the series. Probably if I first came to them as a teenager I would have loved them. I saw the first two or three films, and thought they were well done, but was not motivated to see the rest. I haven’t read the short book that sparked this new film or any other newer writings by Rowling. What got me to the theater for this film was the trailer, seen when viewing “Doctor Strange.” I liked what I saw, and I liked the idea of finding out what Rowling herself would put into a film she wrote and co-produced.

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a Hogwarts graduate who has become a specialist in magical beasts, traveling the world in search of them, and putting some of them into his magic suitcase which is MUCH larger on the inside. He comes to New York, where there is a well-developed society of wizards, but one which hides itself from the common people. (This reminded me of Bill Willingham’s FABLES.) Soon after his arrival, he meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) a non-magic New Yorker with the dream of opening his own bakery. In the old switched suitcase gambit, Kowalski unwittingly allows some of Newt’s fantastic beasts to escape. Newt is soon collared by New York witch Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) who tries to convince her superiors to help Newt regain his beasts, and failing that, decides to help him herself. Newt and Jacob end up at her apartment where Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol) takes a shine to Jacob and wants to help, too.

Other plot lines involve a cult-like society out to destroy wizards and witches, a very dangerous evil force spawned by a mistreated child, a high-ranking New York wizard, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) who is playing a deceptive game to gain power, and of course the beasts themselves, which are all made-up creatures of varying kinds. The one we see the most and earliest is a Niffler, which loves to steal and horde gold and jewelry. It looks something like a cross between a mole and a platypus, and is charmingly naughty. All the beasts are interesting and visually impressive, as are the effects in general. The true focus of the story, though, is people. The four heroic leads, some mistreated children, the devious wizard, and more. There’s plenty of action, plenty of magic and magical destruction, mentions here and there of Harry Potter connections, and all taking place in 1920s New York, adding historical charm of its own. There’s also a nifty reveal near the end.

I liked the film a lot. Not sure that I loved it, but I would certainly go see the next one. I’m generally impressed with Rowling’s work here. The emotional strings are pushed a bit harder than necessary, but I liked the characters, and would enjoy seeing more of them. I also liked the expansion of Rowling’s magical world both back in time and out to America, and further by implication. More of that, please.

Recommended.

 

Watching DOCTOR STRANGE

drstrangemovie

I’ve been looking forward to this one, and I was not disappointed, even though they did NOT use the odd variation of my Doctor Strange logo that appeared with a lot of the publicity images in the actual film, but went instead with the ever boring Trajan font with a gold metallic Photoshop effect. It’s the one on many of the newest movie images. Sigh.

When I first discovered Marvel comics in the early 1960s, I loved the original Doctor Strange stories by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. I was already a fan of magic and fantasy, and this was the biggest use of it in comics at the time. Ditko’s visuals were mind-bending and wonderful in every way. Lee’s dialogue was corny, with some silly made-up magic words and names, but heartfelt all the same.

The movie, in my view, takes the best of the original ideas and builds on them in many ways, with respect, intelligence and even some humor. It puts the characters in a believable present without taking away what I liked about them in the comics. Yes, there are some obvious changes that some have found troubling—The Ancient One, Strange’s teacher being played by Tilda Swinton rather than an Asian actor being the main one I’ve heard about—but I thought she did an excellent job. Benedict Cumberbatch was superb in the title role. All the actors were great. The only role I found predictable and kind of one-note was that of the main villain Kaecilius, a former student of The Ancient One who has rebelled and stolen a spell to bring the Dreaded Dormammu and his dark world to Earth, or rather, Earth to it.

The effects and visual look of this movie are truly mind-boggling. Many had a sort of mad clockwork approach that I first remember seeing in some of the Harry Potter films, but taking that idea to artist M.C. Escher impossibilities and beyond. Even the little things like makeup that mimics very real scars was impressive.

Some of the Marvel films I’ve seen, like the first Avengers one, were too much all-out action and fighting. I thought this was a better balance of story and action, character moments and violence. Many times in the film I had feelings of “yes, that was done right.” Never did I feel bored. You can’t ask for more than that in a film of this type, I think.

Highly recommended.