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The Wind in the Willows (1996)
A Wonderful Version of a Classic Tale!
As many reviewers have mentioned, this film suffered the terrible fate of getting lost in distribution, and consequently never even got to take off from the airport. What a shame for such a charming and wonderful adaptation of the children's classic "Wind in the Willows". (Don't be confused by Disney's name change to "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride". . .It is, in fact, "The Wind in the Willows".) The misadventures of Toad (Terry Jones), Rat (Eric Idle), Mole (Steve Coogan), and Badger (Nicol Williamson) remains quite faithful to the novel, particularly in conversations, embellishing parts only to help round out what is essentially a fairly loose plot (if the novel can be said to have much of a plot at all).
A real delight of the film rests in the zany antics combined with the images of idyllic turn-of-the-20th-Century England, as well as the wonderfully clever costuming and makeup. Director/Writer Terry Jones goes for an intentionally minimal approach, casting actors who naturally resemble their animal (Idle with his naturally mousey face, Williamson with his badger-like jaw, etc.) and putting only slight touches on them- a tail, a pointy mustache/whiskers, cut-off gloves for Mole's hands. So simple, and yet each character is instantly recognizable. This is a definite British touch that is seldom seen in more obvious American movies where things are less artistic.
Yes, Python member Jones recruited his three other comedy mates (John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle) to be a part. Although this is not a Monty Python film by any means, there are a few Python-esque touches for die-hard fans- the nonsensical courtroom, for example (where Cleese plays an amusing cameo as Toad's very unhelpful lawyer), and the sudden musical number that breaks out in the middle of the Weasel fight.
This is a charming, funny, zany family film that is perfectly suitable for the entire family, with lots of whimsical fun that leaves you feeling good.
Grace Stirs Up Success (2015)
A Fun and Sweet Mixture of American Girl
American Girl's latest movie outing (and the fourth to be directed by Vince Marcello) surprisingly takes us away from America and into the iconic streets of Paris as budding baker Grace (Olivia Rodrigo) helps her French family, and of course, learns more about herself in the process.
Though some American Girl fans have lamented the change in direction of recent AG movies (which favor more sparkles, colors, giggles, and modern settings over the historical settings of Samantha, Felicity, etc.), Grace Stirs Up Success is still just as sweet and heartwarming as anything to come from American Girl. The values are very strong, with this film in particular focusing on using your talents for the benefit of others (unlike Disney Channel fare, which usually has an unpleasant "it's all about me" taste).
Olivia Rodrigo is terrific as the ever-vivacious, ever-organized, and occasionally klutzy Grace, and her relationship with her snooty French cousin is both touching. . .and funny. There is definitely more outright humor in this film than any previous AG movie, with some pratfalls, whipped cream, and clumsy antics on hand; again, perhaps a departure from American Girl's more serious historical pieces, but still just as fun and just as sweet-spirited. Music and songs also play a very prominent role, as they did in both Isabelle and Saige.
As usual with Vince Marcello's AG movies, the visuals are extremely colorful, looking like a world of dolls and doll houses, as if we are seeing the world that a girl might be imagining as she is playing with her American Girl doll. These films are first-rate family films, with excellent values that are seldom taught in modern children's entertainment. Thanks, American Girl!
Death of an Expert Witness (1983)
Superb Drama and Mystery from the BBC
Nobody knows mystery and drama better than the British, and this 1983 miniseries is first-rate British drama. As a fan of BBC drama/mystery (but unfamiliar with author PD James), I was completely unaware of the plot when I first watched this, which made it all the more riveting. From the start, the viewer is plunged into an interconnecting plot with lots of clues, suspects, red herrings, forensics, and all the usual stuff that mystery lovers love!
Roy Marsden is superbly natural as detective Adam Dalgliesh, portraying a man who is both charming and hardcore (a little like Sherlock Holmes, and his assistant, played by John Vine, as a kind of Watson). The supporting cast features such familiar BBC players as Geoffrey Palmer, Brenda Blethyn (long before her Academy Award nomination), and wonderful Barry Foster (who still impresses me with his incomparable performance of Kaiser Wilhelm in Fall of Eagles). The rest of the characters are well played (ignore the reviews that say otherwise; this is British mystery, remember, and a little theatrics is expected). Since juvenile actors are never mentioned in reviews, another minor but featured supporting player is Annabelle Lanyon, a terrific child actress who appeared in a bunch of BBC shows around this time (a notable performance being the Marchioness in The Old Curiosity Shop; she is still recognized today in the cult classic arena for playing Oona the fairy in Ridley Scott's Legend).
Remember that this was filmed in the early 80s, so it is shot on video rather than film, which gives it a little less visual style. But this was true of most of the BBC shows of the time, and once the story gets moving, you forget all about camera techniques and find yourself fully engrossed in the twisting, turning plot.
A great experience for mystery and drama fans, and especially for fans of classic BBC productions, which, granted, were thin on action and technique, but big on acting, characters, dialogue, and plot!
Ballet, Dance, and Heart from American Girl
This latest movie from American Girl is the gift you give to your daughter, granddaughter, or niece who loves ballet and dance, because Isabelle not only dances into the spotlight but also on the screen for most of the film! While the previous two American Girl movies of recent years focused on a specific talent (gymnastics with McKenna and painting with Saige), this one really, really focuses on ballet, so ballet students will feel right at home with all the dancing, ballet terms, rehearsals, and of course, the production of The Nutcracker (which any and all dancers could probably do in their sleep). For non-ballerina girls, it's still good fun, but ballet girls will especially enjoy and identify with it.
The production is very handsome and colorful, this being director Vince Marcello's third consecutive outing with American Girl. It looks and feels very much like McKenna and Saige, which means there are plenty of giggle scenes and lots and lots of sweetness, quite a bit more than in the earlier AG films that were based on the historical dolls.
Yes, some could comment on the sugary approach or the giggle dialogue, but here's the deal. American Girl is one of the only companies in the known world producing clean, wholesome, innocent entertainment for children. I am very glad they continue to dance in the spotlight with fun and suitable family viewing. It's sweet and heartfelt, and our children need as much of that as they can get. Thanks, AG!
The Miracle Worker (2000)
A Wonderful Version of Helen Keller's Story!
Obviously, everyone has their personal opinions on which version of The Miracle Worker is the best, the 1960s one, the 1970s one, or this 2000s one. The truth is, when you have such a moving, powerful story as the life of Helen Keller, then it can be filmed many times and each version will have its own quality and value to it. After all, great stories can be told more than once.
This Wonderful World of Disney made-for-television version is lovely and handsome, with a charming "family film" quality that makes it a great version for kids, young and old, to view it and understand it. It accurately follows the true story of how Annie Sullivan taught communication to blind, deaf, and dumb Helen Keller. (Any strict comparisons to the stage play, upon which this is based, or the excellent 1960s film are not necessary; after all, if you want to view the 60s film or the stage play, go view them.) Hallie Kate Eisenberg is perhaps the most underrated little actress on the planet, giving a totally believable and intricate performance as Helen. Just watching her movements and body language in each scene makes you fully believe that she is a blind and deaf child. Patty Duke deservedly won an Academy Award for her performance as Helen Keller in the 60s film. I think Hallie Kate Eisenberg deserves an Emmy for this one! In addition, Hallie Kate is the first screen Helen Keller who is literally the spitting image of the real Helen Keller, both in age and in looks.
Alison Elliott is very real and genuine as the plucky Annie Sullivan, as is the rest of the cast, which includes hard-working character actor David Strathairn as Helen's father. This is a lovely, well-made, believable version of Helen Keller's extraordinary story, and it stands completely on its own in comparison to previous versions. It is highly recommended for families, and could be a great version for children who have not yet heard about Helen Keller.
Santa Claus (1985)
Charming, Uneven, But Very Christmas
This is a big-budget Christmas movie that has both considerable charm and glaring weaknesses, but hopefully this review can help potential viewers understand the film (and its oddities) a little better. The main thing to understand is that the film is basically two movies in one. There is almost literally a split in the middle of the movie, effectively separating the first half from the second half.
The first half of the film is a quaint, heartwarming depiction of the origins of Santa Claus and his wife Anya- how they came to the North Pole, fulfilling an ancient prophecy from the elves, and various origins of famous Christmas associations (such as the boy who prompted Santa to start the "Naughty and Nice" list).
The second half of the film all but ignores Santa and heartwarming feelings and becomes a zany slapstick comedy involving one of the elves (Dudley Moore) and his dealings with a dastardly businessman (John Lithgow) who schemes to take over Christmas.
The curious aspect of a feature film with two distinct parts to it might be slightly jarring to the viewer, especially since both halves of the movie differ so much in tone. If you think of it, however, as like watching two different episodes of a television show, it might help to ease the feeling of unevenness.
In short, this is a movie where the ingredients are more entertaining than the actual plot. David Huddleston and Judy Cornwell are very nice as the traditional Mr. and Mrs. Claus, and the North Pole toy shop is how you always imagined Santa's workshop to be. Wonderful John Lithgow is completely hilarious as the comically villainous B.Z., and he pretty much steals the show in the second half of the film. But many questions about Santa Claus are neatly answered in this movie (such as how the reindeer fly and how Santa is able to fly around the whole world in just one night).
It's a Christmas movie that both works and doesn't work, but there are many ingredients- the cozy Christmas feel of the first part and the zany comedy of the second- that make for satisfying holiday viewing, and might enhance a Christmas movie collection, as long as you just sit back and let the ingredients of the film carry you through.
The Book Thief (2013)
Riveting, Thought-Provoking, and Powerful
This is without a doubt one of the most riveting, thought-provoking, and utterly powerful movies for young people (or any people, for that matter). Unlike most movies for young people, which usually encourage selfishness, lust, and who knows what else, this is a film that promotes such qualities as self-sacrifice, courage in the face of unspeakable difficulties, and using your life to make a difference for others.
Based on Markus Zusak's novel, The Book Thief expertly tells the story of a young German girl named Liesel, who is thrust into the horrors of World War II Germany and its many complications. The scope of the story is seen through the eyes of Liesel, making it quite an intimate tale that is less about war and more about the importance of remaining human in inhuman surroundings, and affecting those around you in a positive and profound way.
The film is hauntingly beautiful, and moves at an effortless pace- not too fast, not too slow- allowing the viewers to become immersed in the realities of Liesel's situation. Lovely Sophie Nelisse is stunningly perfect in the role of Liesel, capturing both the bright-eyed innocence and the eventual world-weary quality needed for the role. Liesel's good-natured friend Rudy is also expertly and realistically portrayed by young Nico Liersch. It is a delight to watch such wonderful young actors at work. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson, of course, are their usual extraordinary selves as Liesel's adoptive parents.
This is truly a movie that is not just for young people. It operates on many levels, as a commentary on the disastrous effects of World War II or a poignant tale of one small soul fighting for her own sense of humanity. While it might be a bit intense for small children, a film such as this should be mandatory viewing for older children and teenagers- a thoughtful and heart-tugging reminder of the fragility of life, and the importance of looking beyond yourself. It is the sort of film that will leave viewers young and old just a bit speechless.
A Curious and Possibly Enjoyable Film
There are many possible reactions to this curious adaptation of Astrid Lindgren's classic children's books, with most reactions being a bit polarized on the "liked it" or "hated it" scale. This review will hopefully be a non-polarized summary for those who are interested in finding out more about this movie.
This adaptation is true to the spirit of Lindgren's books (though it is set in America rather than Sweden), faithfully recreating the plucky, wildly pigtailed Pippi Longstocking and her endearing anarchy at the Villa Villekulla, complete with her horse, her monkey, her gold coins, her "whopper" tales, her superhuman strength, and her constant besting of adults. Though a bit old-looking for the role of a (supposedly) nine-year-old girl, Tami Erin does manage to capture Pippi's spunk, mischief, and childlike appeal.
The curious aspect of the film comes in the form of its incongruously modern-sounding songs, playing against a 1950s backdrop (though the songs are quite catchy), as well as a slightly choppy narrative, with several abrupt scene changes that make certain sections of the movie seem somewhat incomplete. There is a silly, cartoon-style feel to parts of the movie, though other parts are quite amusing.
It is a G-rated movie in the first sense, with absolutely nothing inappropriate (though do keep in mind that Pippi can do anything she wants, including climbing all over the roof of her house), and its fine supporting cast of adults include Dennis Dugan as the ever-exasperated father of neighbors Tommy and Annika, John Schuck as Pippi's father, and Eileen Brennan, who is her usual hilarious self as the stuffy head of the orphanage.
The most curious thing about this film is that, in spite of its little oddities, you find yourself feeling quite happy when the film is over. I was eight years old when the movie came out in 1988, and I absolutely adored it at the time. After all, Pippi gets to do all the things that children wish they could do if they knew they could get away with it. Though there is a slight 80s quality to the film, it seems to hold up fairly well, and can still be seen on video shelves at major retail stores, which says something about its appeal these decades later. It is a children's film (as opposed to a family film), which means it will greatly appeal to, of course, children. . .or children-at-heart. But since that is the essence of Pippi herself, then the film seems to hit the mark.
Radioland Murders (1994)
Entertaining for 1930s Fans
George Lucas' forgotten comedy-mystery is a masterful work for those who understand what it is. Radioland Murders is not a spoof or a parody of a 1930s comedy, as many people suppose. It is, literally, a 1930s comedy! Meaning, of course, that it is written as if it is a 1930s comedy, with physical gags and witty dialogue straight from the Golden Age of the 30s. Think about The Thin Man, or Abbott and Costello, or a Bert Lahr film, or You Can't Take It With You. If you love those films, you will love this movie. If you've never heard of those films, then you may find it hard to understand exactly what George Lucas was doing.
Brian Benben and Mary Stuart Masterson head up an all-star cast in pure 1930s fashion, as people one by one begin to die off during the opening night of a new radio station. The antics are wholly 30s, with plenty of running into doors, falling out of chairs, and lots of humorous chatter that one might call "intelligent humor" (you have to be listening in order to find it funny). You won't be rolling on the floor in hysterics, because 1930s humor wasn't that sort of humor. You don't roar with laughter when you watch The Thin Man, but you chuckle at the clever dialogue and amusing antics of the characters, in a more refined way which characterized the manners of the era.
As with all his movies such as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, George Lucas pays great homage to the Golden Age of cinema, and Radioland Murders is no exception. It is a fun, rollicking film, not for a mass audience, perhaps, but for those who enjoy the sophisticated humor from the 30s and 40s, a genre that is seldom, if ever, seen in comedy today.
The Secret Garden (1993)
A Fantastic and Enchanting Adaptation
The Secret Garden has been adapted many times, but perhaps none so beautifully as this 1993 adaptation, which evokes both the tenderness and haunting beauty of Francis Hodgson Burnett's classic novel (which is one of the finest children's books of all time).
The story of Mary Lennox and how her transformation of an abandoned garden at her uncle's Yorkshire manor changes the lives of all around her is lovingly portrayed, with brilliant direction from Polish director Agnieszka Holland, a wonderfully ethereal score by Zbigniew Preisner, and a marvelous cast that seems to come straight out of the pages of the book. Kate Maberly is perfect as the cold, sour little Mary who blossoms inside just like her garden, and there is more fine youthful casting in Heydon Prowse as the spoiled, fragile Colin, Andrew Knott as the gentle-natured Dickon, and Laura Crossley as sweet, talkative Martha. Maggie Smith is fantastic as usual as the stern Mrs. Medlock, and John Lynch gives a haunting performance as the nerve-shattered Lord Craven.
It is rare to find family entertainment that is clean, well-scripted, and visually stunning, but this movie fits the bill perfectly. It is a timeless movie that captures the spirit and quality of the timeless story it is adapted from!