Review: LITTLE MISS MARKER (1934) (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-/C+


Not rated (would be PG)

Child actor Shirley Temple became a household name in the 1930s and was considered to be 20th Century-Fox’s greatest asset. When she was only seven years old, the studio assigned a team of 19 writers to develop original stories for her. Discovered at age three, she became the inspiration for stage mothers all across America who pushed their own small children to become singers and dancers. Her signature song (“On the Good Ship Lollipop”) sold 500,000 copies on sheet music—presumably to those same stage mothers—while her likeness was used to sell such merchandise as dolls, clothing, plates, and glassware. She even had a drink named for her, and was the first performer to receive a special Juvenile Oscar.

By the time a six-year-old (but looking younger) Temple appeared in Little Miss Marker (1934)—the film that established her as a star—she had already acted in 13 film shorts and nine feature films. By contrast, Dorothy Bell, the female lead who plays a nightclub singer in this Damon Runyon adaptation, had only one film short and a single feature to her credit.

Runyon was a journalist whose published short stories celebrated the denizens of Prohibition-era Broadway: hard-boiled newsmen, gamblers, bookies, singers, racketeers, reformers, and other colorful characters that inhabited his little corner of Brooklyn. They were people who frequented racetracks and clubs, had colorful nicknames, yet had a soft spot. If you’ve seen Guys and Dolls, you’ve seen the most famous adaptation of two of his short stories. But “Little Miss Marker” comes in second, having spawned this film and three remakes.

In Little Miss Marker, bookie Sorrowful Jones (Adolphe Menjou) accepts an unusual I.O.U. “marker”: the daughter of a desperate man looking to get back on track with a racing win. When the man never returns to get her and pay his debt, the bookie is forced to take the child home. Soon he, his associates, and everyone under the thumb of racketeer Big Steve (Charles Bickford) find themselves being charmed by her. That includes the racketeer’s girlfriend, club singer Bangles (Dell), who envisions a more respectable life when she looks at the orphan.

Of Temple films, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “It is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.” But not everyone could forget their troubles. America wasn’t exactly equal, and films from this era, with their unfortunate racial stereotypes, are a reminder of that. Willie Best, like Stepin Fetchit, played a lazy, simpleminded, easily spooked character whose eyes bug out and words meander in a slow exaggerated drawl. But at least he received credit for his work, as did Wong Chung for a single walk-on line spoken again as an stereotypical caricature of what white America thought Asians sounded like when they spoke English. Mildred Gover, who plays the club singer’s maid, isn’t even credited . . . though at least her delivery seems less caricatured as the film progresses. At one point we even catch her having a drink and putting her feet up on the furniture when the missus isn’t home.

So yeah, a few unfortunate cultural stereotypes mar a film that otherwise is entertaining in a hokey sort of way. Hardened men and women become like putty in the hands of “Marky.” When they realize they’re having as much of a negative effect on her as the positive effect she’s having on them, they resolve to do something about it—even if it involves sabotaging Big Steve’s plan to use the girl as “owner” of a racehorse that they plan to use to fix a race, or holding an elaborate dress-up party to refuel the child’s belief in fairy tales. And even if it means kidnapping a doctor when, like Pollyanna, Marky needs emergency care.

Shirley Temple was America’s screen orphan and her movies were a mainstay on family-oriented TV movie series of the ‘50s and ‘60s. But these days the safest ones to watch with your small children remain those that are the least outdated and have the fewest unsavory characters in need of transformation.

Those would be Heidi (1937), The Little Princess (1939), Bright Eyes (1934, “The Good Ship Lollipop” film), and Captain January (1936), in that order. But Wee Willie Winkie (1937, Temple’s favorite) and Little Miss Marker aren’t far behind. While this Little Miss Marker might lose by a nose to Bob Hope’s Sorrowful Jones (1949), it remains far superior to the 1980 adaptation or looser remakes like Little Big Shot (1935) or Forty Pounds of Trouble (1962).

Entire family:  Yes

Run time:  80 min. Black & White

Studio/Distributor:  Universal/Kino Lorber

Aspect ratio:  1.37:1

Featured audio:  DTS 2.0 Mono

Bonus features:  C+

Amazon link

Clip (spoiler)

Rated “Passed” (would be G today)

Review: THE FABELMANS (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  A-


Rated PG-13

The Fabelmans was promoted as a “semi-autobiographical story loosely based on Spielberg’s adolescence,” but after Steven Spielberg’s November 2022 New York Times interview, the term “biopic” seems more appropriate. As it turns out, all of the major and memorable events happened pretty much as they were depicted in this 2022 film, which earned seven Oscar nominations. That includes a memorable scene where a timed young aspiring filmmaker meets the great, gruff John Ford in his office.

Even without labeling, audiences would have picked up on at least one similarity between the boy in the film and the famous director’s work:  a scene with boy scouts reminiscent of a sequence from the third Indiana Jones film. In fact, Spielberg recreated exactly the first short films that he made, including one he made with his boy scout troop to earn his photography merit badge.

The Fabelmans (fable-man’s) are an eccentric Jewish family that’s split down the middle of their collective brain. The mother, Mitzi (Best Actress nominee Michelle Williams), is a creative right-brained talent ruled by passion and imagination. A concert pianist, she’s also a free spirit who loves life, loves to laugh, and loves to play-act. The father, Burt (Paul Dano), is a left-brained tech genius who does his best to go with the flow, despite wanting his son to make useful things, as he does does. In their own way, both parents are  creative, so it’s no wonder that Spielberg turned out to be a creative genius. The fun of this film comes from seeing how that genius was nurtured in his adolescent and teen years.

As one of Sammy Fabelman’s three younger sisters (Keeley Karsten, Julia Butters, Sophia Kopera) observes, the youth is most like his mother.

Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) is immediately drawn to filmmaking after his parents take him to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth—alternately mesmerized and traumatized by the film’s storytelling and realistic depiction of a train crash.

Mitzi is drawn to her husband’s partner and best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen), who does everything with the family except spend the night in the same house. Bennie is silly and a bit of a free spirit himself. Early on the audience can detect that their mutual attraction is a train wreck in the making.

What results is a fascinating coming-of-age film with a twist:  as Sammy teaches himself how to make movies, the audience learns all the ingenious things that young Spielberg did with a little budget and big ambitions. His special effects and utilization were a marvel, and he learns early that the power that a film can have—especially when it captures people in a way that can be missed or overlooked in daily life. Film can be a means of expression, it can evoke emotions in the audience, and it can reveal truths—some of them painful.

Michelle Yeoh deserved to win the Best Actress Oscar, but so, frankly, did Michelle Williams, who captivates the audience as much as she does her family . . . and Bennie. She brings life to the film in every frame she’s in. Gabriel LaBelle is also convincing as the young hero who copes with anti-Semitic taunts, bullying, parents who are drifting apart, an uncle (Judd Hirsch) who tells him he was meant to pursue his art at the expense of his family, and a first crush that ends up being a Pray-the-Jew-Away comedy in two acts.

Hirsch leans a little too close to familiar stereotypes in his performance as Uncle Boris, a former actor and circus performer, but the rest of the cast blends seamlessly into the landscapes of ‘50s and ‘60s Arizona and California. They were no doubt helped considerably by watching the home movies that Spielberg showed them and the recollections he shared so they could get a handle on how to play them. As Paul Dano said, “For somebody like Steven to share that much of himself with us—with the audience too—it was really a profound experience.

Knowing that this is the life story of one of the great directors of all time—the man who gave us Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Color Purple, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, War Horse, Lincoln, The Post, and West Side Story—makes an already compelling film even more so. The average viewers will make connections to many of their favorite Spielberg films, and appreciate them (and this biopic—there, I said it) all the more.

The late Roger Ebert once said, “No good film is too long,” and that almost applies to The Fabelmans, a 2.5 hour film that might prompt many people to head for the snack counter or restrooms or just stretch their legs. Some of the scenes might go on a bit long, but it’s an interesting, episodic story that covers a lot of ground: the breakup of a marriage, prejudice, a painful relocation, a first love, and, most of all, the development of a filmmaker. In the end, you’re apt to forgive Spielberg his one excess:  trying to make a biopic that does justice to his own interesting life and amazing career.

Entire family:  No (junior high age and older)

Run time:  251 min. Color

Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen

Featured audio:  Dolby TrueHD 7.1

Bonus features:  B

Includes:  Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Code

Amazon link


Rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use

Language: 5/10—1 f-bomb plus a peck of lesser swearwords

Sex:  3/10—Just the start of a teen make-out session, an embrace and hand-holding as signs of an affair, plus Sammy’s mom dances nude in a see-through dress (though all the audience sees is the outline of her shape)

Violence: 3/10—A character is pushed and punched in the face (nose bloodied), and an adult slaps a teen across the face; it hardly counts, but the young director films a war movie with realistic blood and gore from his high school “actors” not that severe because we see the secret behind the screen magician’s tricks

Adult situations:  3/10—Social drinking and smoking, plus the sadness of anti-Semitic bullying and a marriage on the rocks

Takeaway:  Spielberg said he almost abandoned his dream of being a filmmaker after seeing Lawrence of Arabia, thinking he could never reach the heights that David Lean did in that film. But he has done so a number of times, even if he fell just shy of perfection with this one

Review of A MAN CALLED OTTO (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-


Rated PG-13

A Man Called Otto (2022) offers another serving of a Hollywood trope we’ve seen many times over: the grumpy widower whose life is brightened somehow by a younger person.

In Finding Forrester the old man was a Salinger-like recluse dogged by a young wannabe writer. In Gran Torino it was a crusty racist war veteran softened by a teenage Lao Hmong refugee. In About Schmidt it was a still-numb and rudderless old coot that found some sense of purpose by corresponding with a Tanzanian boy through a Plan USA program. In Murphy’s Romance it was a widowed druggist who found an unlikely romance with a young single mom. And in Disney’s animated Up it was a gruff old codger with a cane who became stuck with an overly talkative boy scout insisting he help the elderly man in order to earn a merit badge.

There are many more examples to cite, but this Tom Hanks film tweaks the trope to make it both schmaltzier and darker. Otto (“O-T-T-O”) is so lost and depressed after losing his beloved wife to cancer that he tries to take his life onscreen—multiple times, and by multiple means. If this were a Taika Waititi film, those attempts would have been rendered more comically. But director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner) goes for a deadpan blend of dark humor and pathos that doesn’t quite scream “Don’t try this at home,” the way broader humor might have done.

A Man Called Otto is a bit of a Hanks family affair, with Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, sharing a producing credit and son Truman playing a younger Otto in flashbacks. In the early going those flashbacks with Sonya (Rachel Keller) keep the film from being a total downer, like a film version of “Bolero” that plays over and over again because Forster tends to overstate Otto’s grumpiness, anger, and unexplained Barney Fife-like mission of guarding a gated cul-de-sac block of row houses in the Pittsburgh, Pa. area. The average viewer will, at some point, think, Okay, I get it. He’s an angry old bird. Move on. The film runs six minutes past two hours, so it could certainly have used a heavier hand in the editing room.

Though Hanks—like Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, James Garner, and Ed Asner before him—is the focal character and the one who grows and changes, the heart of the film belongs to a pregnant Mexican woman named Marisol (Mariana Treviño), her two young daughters, and her bumbling husband (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Without this family, Otto is a dead man, and without Treviño the film is a train wreck. Treviño has been acting for 10 years, but A Man Called Otto has to be considered her breakout role for U.S. audiences. She received no nominations for her performance, but Marisol’s exhuberance, honesty, and literal foot-in-the-door no-nonsense approach to life and relationships model the kind of virtues and values that parents might hope their children could attain. And her onscreen daughters Abbie (Alessandra Perez) and Luna (Christiana Montoya) get the assist. Scenes with them and Otto can seem cloying at times because they’re so purposefully intended to show Otto beginning to soften, but the young actresses channel their screen mother’s knowing enthusiasm along with their own characters’ innocence and naiveté to make those scenes funny.

Is it manipulative? Heck yeah. You’ll find yourself near tears one minute and laughing the next, and you know it’s because most of the scenes seem shot with the sole purpose of moving the audience. Some viewers will resent that, while others will appreciate a roller coaster ride that dips down for much of the first half and climbs throughout most of the second.

But if you give it any thought, Otto’s depression and anger would have been plenty to pull at audience’s heartstrings without the filmmakers adding a seemingly tacked-on side plot about a friendship that dissolved over automobile makes and a parallel sad medical situation. All of that feels like unnecessary piling on. The film would have been helped by fewer downer subplots, fewer trips to the cemetery, and more diverse characters like Malcolm (a transgender kid who had Otto’s wife for a teacher) and Jimmy (a neighbor whose fitness walking style will crack you up). There’s no happy ending here, only a happy transformation.

Is it family fare?  Perhaps, for families with tweens and older children. I’m a film critic, not a mental health professional, but a UCLA study reported that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people age 15-24, with nearly 20 percent of high school students admitting that they’ve had serious thoughts of suicide. That’s a crazy statistic. Would it help them to watch a depressed and angry man who thinks he has nothing to live for find his way? Parents who know their children might have the answer. I don’t. I do know this: a film isn’t a substitute for professional evaluation and treatment, but it could very well be a starting point for a discussion that could lead to seeking outside help.

Entire family:  No

Run time:  126 min. Color

Studio/Distributor:  Columbia/Sony

Aspect ratio:  1.85:1

Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 5.1

Bonus features:  C

Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital Copy

Amazon link


Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving suicide and language

Language:  7/10—Some audience members seem to bristle at the mere mention of “transgender,” and that word is spoken, along with an f-bomb, a few profane God damns, shits, hell, SOB, etc.; turns out that angry old men have a potty mouth

Sex:  1/10—Nothing here, even in flashbacks, which are intended to be tender; just a few kisses

Violence:  3/10— Otto loses it with a honking driver, physically manhandling the guy and threatening him, and there are lesser examples of physicality

Adult situations:  7/10—Aside from the multiple suicide attempts, two of which have him experiencing a near-death vision of his wife, there’s some alcohol and smoking, and one death

Takeaway:  A Man Called Otto is based on a best-selling novel by German writer Fredrik Backman, so given the number of aging male actors in Hollywood I would say there’s a pretty big incentive for future novelists to keep feeding this trope

Review of TOP GUN: MAVERICK (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+/A-
Action-Adventure Drama Romance
Rated PG-13

Top Gun: Maverick outgunned all other films at the box office so far in 2022, besting #2 Jurassic World: Dominion by nearly half-a-million dollars. It’s slick Hollywood action blockbuster filmmaking at its finest. 

Critics thought it better than the first Top Gun because of the increased number and authenticity of the aircraft action sequences. With the cooperation of the U.S. Navy, a film crew spent over a year working with six cameras placed inside the cockpits and additional cameras mounted at various spots on the planes’ exteriors. Reportedly more than 800 hours of aerial footage was shot, so the sequences that made it into the film were really something special.

And the planes? The production crew used 20 functioning aircraft and modified them to have the look that they wanted, including the fictional “Darkstar” that was designed with the help of actual engineers from legendary aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

The 1986 Top Gun was so popular that composer Giorgio Moroder and performer Kenny Loggins probably expected to see a hastily produced sequel and earn residuals for their “Danger Zone” theme. But it took almost 25 years before Paramount announced a sequel with Cruise signed, Jerry Bruckheimer onboard to produce, and Top Gun director Tony Scott expected to work behind the cameras again. Then, later in 2012, Scott died and production didn’t begin until 2017, with Joseph Kosinski directing. Then came delays related to COVID-19 and the prolonged filming of those complicated action sequences. But the results speak for themselves. If you don’t already have a big TV, this might be a reason to splurge. Top Gun: Maverick was made for the big screen.

Cruise at 60 looks boyish as ever and because of his action roles has maintained his muscle tone and slender frame. In Top Gun he was paired romantically with Kelly McGillis, five years his senior, but McGillis said she wasn’t asked to be in the sequel. Instead, writers gave Cruise another love interest to take his breath away:  Navy hangout bar owner Penny (Jennifer Connelly, age 48), with whom it’s implied he had a previous relationship—the old heartbreaker.


Review of ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS (1964) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Not Rated (would be PG)

Island of the Blue Dolphins was released just four years after the 1960 Newbery Award-winning book on which it was based. If you’re a fan and haven’t seen this film by James B. Clark (A Dog of Flanders, Misty), you’ll be glad to know that the writers and director steered as close to Scott O’Dell’s book as anyone could. And both the book and the film have been used in classrooms to broach discussions of feminism and the mistreatment and resilience of indigenous people.

Parents should be cautioned that this children’s book was written originally for adults, which means that there are some adult things here. Island of the Blue Dolphins has more in common with a novella like John Steinbeck’s The Pearl than it does your typical Newbery Medal recipient. Though there isn’t much blood, many people die in a brief battle, a main character is killed off-screen, and a beloved animal dies onscreen. Through it all, what’s emphasized is the strength and fortitude of a female character that is 12 years old when the story begins.

Black-and-white promo (film is in color)

Celia Kaye, part Cherokee, won a Golden Globe for Best Newcomer as Karana, who must learn how to fend for herself in Robinson Crusoe fashion after her people decide to leave their Channel Island off the coast of southern California following a battle with Russian fur traders and their Aleut trapper allies. Karana is in the evacuation boat when she realizes that her six-year-old brother (Larry Domasin) is still on the island. Rather than leave him, she dives into the water, which is indeed populated by dolphins. That split-second decision will lead to many years of relative solitude and self-sufficiency.

The book and film are set in 1835, and Karana must learn how to do things that were forbidden for her to learn because she was not male—things like how to string a bow and shoot arrows to protect herself from the feral dogs on the island, and how to feather arrows and make nets. When the film was first released, a New York Times reviewer pronounced it a film for children. Maybe that’s because the script calls for the characters to speak in simple language with no contractions to suggest an earlier time period; maybe it’s because the plot itself is as simple as a fable, but with a less obvious lesson; or maybe it’s because the reviewer was conditioned to think of it as a children’s story since it had been published as a children’s book. But for a 1964 production, Island of the Blue Dolphins doesn’t seem all that dated because of these things. And it’s not nearly as slow as the film version of Robinson Crusoe due to the constant presence of a threat on the island.


Review of WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING (Blu-ray combo)

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Grade:  B+
Rated PG-13

Unlike many reviewers of Where the Crawdads Sing (2022), I don’t have an axe to grind or a subject to bludgeon. I never read the first novel by 70-year-old Delia Owens that this Olivia Newman film is based on, and only heard about the hype—a Reese Witherspoon book club selection that sold 12 million copies in four years—and the controversy after watching the film. For some people, Owens’ background makes a difference, so I’ll address it briefly, though even without the backstory there’s plenty enough to get riled up about.

The film, like the novel, tells the story of a girl who is forced to fend for herself in the marshes of North Carolina after her abusive father drives off her mother and older siblings, and later bows out of the picture as well. Shamefully, it doesn’t occur to any of her family to take her with them. They just take off, leaving her alone with him.

The townspeople aren’t much better. They dub her “the marsh girl” and obviously recognize her situation, but only one couple shows her any kindness. And they certainly could have done more for her. Kya attends school barefoot, but is treated so shabbily that she never returns. Later, as a teenager after living in the marsh for years, she draws the attention of two young men: one a rich boy with a penchant for partying and taking what he wants, and the other a college-bound youth who at one point decides to teach Kya how to read. Some think that sweet; others call it condescending and controlling or a perverse sort of  relationship imbalance fetish.

Maybe the razors were sharpened after it was brought to everyone’s attention that Owens, like Kya, was (and is still) a suspect in an unsolved murder. In the film, one of Kya’s suitors ends up dead and she stands trial, with David Straithairn playing the kind of down-home country lawyer with uncommon wisdom and empathy that we saw in Harper Lee’s attorney, Atticus Finch. In real life, Owens and husband Mark were working as biologists and environmentalists in Zambia and were being filmed when a poacher was shot and killed . . . on camera. The couple left the country and was advised not to return because they remain persons of interest, as shown on ABC’s 1996 special Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story.

But back to the film. Lucy Alibar (Beasts of the Southern Wild) wrote the screenplay, Witherspoon co-produced, Polly Morgan (The Woman King) was responsible for the gorgeous location cinematography, Taylor Swift co-wrote and sang the theme song (“Carolina”), and Daisy Edgar-Jones (Normal People, Under the Banner of Heaven) headed a talented cast as Kya. Though men also are involved in the project, Where the Crawdads Sing feels very much like a female empowerment story and holds considerable appeal because of that.


Review of TWICE TOLD TALES (1963) (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-/C+
Not Rated (would be PG)

Rewatching Twice Told Tales on the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray, I found myself wondering about the ideal audience for this film adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne stories featuring screen legend Vincent Price.

Children old enough to have read the stories in school might be curious to see how the 1963 film treatment was handled, but I’m not sure that they will appreciate a tone that tends toward the melodramatic. Director Sidney Salkow took a break from directing popular TV series like Death Valley Days to churn out seven B-movie genre films: four westerns, a mystery, and two fantasies—one of them being this anthology of Hawthorne tales.

Whether by design or coincidence, the three stories are presented in descending order of appeal. The strongest tale, “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” is a short story that plumbs the depths of human desire for a fountain of youth or immortality. Like the frequently anthologized Edgar Allan Poe story “The Cask of Amontillado,” it involves a friendship that’s solid on the surface but bubbling beneath with hidden emotions. Sebastian Cabot—whose voice children may recognize as the narrator of Disney’s Winnie the Pooh films and the character Bagheera in Disney’s animated Jungle Book—plays Carl Heidegger, who celebrates his 79th birthday with best friend Alex (Price), his only companion since his beloved fiancée Sylvia (Mari Blanchard) died the night before they were to be married 38 years ago. But a “dark and stormy night” causes the door to a crypt in the backyard where her coffin is housed (yep, we’re talking Gothic romance) to open. Carl feels compelled to check on her, and both men are shocked to see that her body appears as it did when she was alive. The rest of the tale follows Dr. Heidegger’s drive to discover what preserved her and maybe even bring her back to life.

The type of horror included in these Price Told Tales is the same sort one would find in a Jaycee’s haunted house: skeletons, dead bodies, creatures dying instantly as if from witchcraft, blood oozing from strange places, etc.—minus the jump scares. It’s pretty tame but still somehow memorable . . . because of the images or concepts, or because of their pairing with old-time melodrama?


Review of COSTA BRAVA, LEBANON (Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B-
Not rated (would be PG-13)

Americans have never been good at thinking about the future. A 2019 Northwestern Mutual poll found that 15 percent of Americans age 40 and older haven’t even put aside a single dollar toward their retirement years. And if the price of gas isn’t too crazy, no one gives a second thought as to whether the oil will run out some day, or whether the polluting side-effects of petroleum consumption will one day become intolerable. Same with the mountains of trash that Americans produce on a daily basis. Does anyone wonder if there will ever come a time when all the refuse becomes too much for the government to handle?

Costa Brava, Lebanon (2021)is an environmentalist fable in Arabic (English subtitles) from Mounia Akl and the Lebanese entry for the Best International Feature Film category at the Oscars. A cautionary tale set in the near future, it has an engaging cast and some powerful moments as it tries to sound the alarm to alert people to an impending crisis of waste management. Except that in some countries it’s not all that impending. It’s already happening. Visitors to Egypt’s pyramids, for example, must first drive past mounds of trash pushed to the sides of roads and freeways. And that could happen anywhere . . . and everywhere.

Saleh Bakri and Nadine Labaki star as Walid and Soraya, a couple who eight years earlier decided to leave their Beirut home because of the poor air quality, pollution, and corrupt politics that made life there untenable. Now they live in the mountains with Walid’s aged mother and the couple’s two daughters: a teenager eager for more than the sheltered life her parents provide, and a precocious adolescent. Presumably because of the mother’s previous income from her pre-marriage career as a popular singer, they were able to build a house in the country’s last unspoiled place, an idyllic hillside home that even has the luxury of a small in-ground swimming pool. But it doesn’t take long for this paradise to be lost, and that’s the whole point of the film. Society’s problems are everyone’s problem. There’s no escaping them—even if you try to live off the grid.

You’d think that Walid and Soraya, former activists who met at a protest, would know that. But the impulse to survive and protect loved ones is even stronger than the drive to fight for the change that society needs. Alas, not long after we meet this family, men from the government show up. And like the earth-moving equipment operators from earlier films such as The Emerald Forest or Avatar who displaced forest-dwellers, the workers force the family to make the same hard decision that drove them to the mountains in the first place. On a micro level, Costa Brava, Lebanon could have been about any disaster, because it’s an intimate look—rendered so by Akl’s directorial style—of how one family deals with adversity.


Review of FIRE IN THE MOUNTAINS (2021) (DVD)

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Grade:  B-
Not rated (would be PG-13)

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page,” St. Augustine wrote way back in the 4th century. Travel broadens your world. It increases your understanding, gives you perspective, and, if you’re able to see the world through the emotions of people whose lives are incredibly different from yours, travel also develops your sense of empathy.

If you can’t travel, film is the next best thing. Consider this: if all you and your family watch on your home theater are Hollywood-made formulaic action films and comedies, you’re “reading” just a few pages of the human experience. So I’m going to suggest, as I have in the past, that families with children old enough to manage subtitles should agree to watch a foreign film once a month, then hopefully talk about it afterwards. You could even make it a themed affair, with movie snacks or food from the culture.

Fire in the Mountains is a film in Hindi that offers plenty of possibilities for discussion, starting with the film’s background, which children can research on the Internet. This Indian film debuted in 2021 at Sundance, but for director Ajitpal Singh it was the culmination of many years of work to become a self-taught filmmaker. That’s right. No film school, no mentor—just the spark that came from seeing Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which Singh says really touched him, enough to where he kept at it and finally created his first full-length feature at age 43.

“I connected so deeply with that film. And then I suddenly realized that cinema can be so much more than Bollywood,” he told No Film School. “I realized, I don’t need to know any language. I can just learn this visual language, and I can make films. What I didn’t know at that time, it would take me another 10, 15 years to learn that language.” But he did. First he tried imitation, and it didn’t work. Finally he realized that he needed to film a subject close to his own experience. When he did that, “Suddenly the framing changed, editing changed. Everything changed because this time, I knew what I’m trying to say.” That kind of passion and persistence is certainly worth talking about with children.


Review of DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA (4K UltraHD, Blu-ray)

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Grade:  B+
Rated PG

It’s almost a cliché that in Hollywood (and presumably everywhere else films are made) there are two main plots:  something comes into the heroes’ world, or the heroes leave their world. Either way, they encounter the sort of challenges, adventures, or drama that come from a disruption of routine.

The first Downton Abbey movie (2019) was about something coming into the world of the Crawley family and their servants. It revolved around a visit to Downton from King George V and Queen Mary, and the only exit was one of the staff, who went to New York to visit parents and got arrested at an underground gay nightclub. Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022) seems more richly plotted because there is a balance between the coming and going, with heftier plotlines that are equally intricate and dramatic. 

Robert and Mary

On the home front, a film company requests permission to shoot a silent film at Downton, and Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) is opposed . . . until oldest daughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) convinces him that the income would pay for the new roof they so desperately need. She assures her father that she will supervise the affair and keep a close watch. Naturally, the staff gets as excited about a movie being made at Downton as they did when the King and Queen visited—except, of course, for the ever-so-grumpy Mr. Carson (Jim Carter)—but their excitement is tempered by a less-than-congenial leading lady (Laura Haddock) and the disappointing announcement that funding for the movie is being pulled because only “talking pictures” are making money. Of course, shades of Singin’ in the Rain, they decide to improvise in order to make a film with sound, and even the staff gets into the act. Literally.


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