Babes in Toyland

by Jack Donohue
Specifics
USA [1961] - 106m
Genre
Fantasy, Musical
More info on
rating
2.0*/5.0*
Babes in Toyland poster

A somewhat obscure but extremely colorful Disney musical. I wasn't familiar with the Babes in Toyland story, though there have been quite a few adaptations already. The story's a bit messy here (and broken down in two rather distinct parts), it's also quite dark for a Disney film, but that's hardly a bother.

Barnaby is an old miser who wants to marry Mary. Mary's engaged to Tom though, so Barnaby hires two goons to get rid of Tom. Instead of throwing him into the ocean as agreed, they sell him off to a Gipsy commune. Barnaby thinks he can finally pursue Mary, but Tom has a plan to get back at him.

Babes in Toyland is equally charming as it is daft. It's aimed at younger kids, but the colorful presentation, over-the-top performances and the somewhat grim story make for a peculiar mix that did keep me weirdly entertained. I wouldn't call it a very good film, nor a film I'd like to watch again, but it was no doubt an interesting experience.

The Big Holdup

Also known as
Da Jie An
Specifics
Hong Kong [1975] - 92m
Genre
Thriller, Crime
More info on
rating
1.5*/5.0*
The Big Holdup poster

Attempts of the Shaw Bros studio to branch out have rarely been successful. Yuen Chor takes his usual martial arts crew and turns them into bank robbers, coming out the other side with a veritable heist film. Safe one or two decent action scenes, the result is a rather slow and overly sentimental misfire.

Five men with no prior history as criminals band together and plan a heist. The heist itself goes surprisingly well, but as is always the case with this type of film, the problems start afterwards. When they get the police on their tail and the members begin to distrust each other, a fated ending seems unavoidable.

Yuen Chor doesn't do much with this film. The plot isn't anything special, the cinematography is bland, the pacing is too slow as the tension is lacking and the drama is way overblown. It's understandable that the Shaw Bros wanted something to fall back on when martial arts would inevitably go out of style, but there's more to it than just jumping from one genre into the next with the same team of people. Not very good.

Lessons of Darkness

Also known as
Lektionen in Finsternis
Specifics
France, UK [1992] - 54m
Genre
Documentary
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Lessons of Darkness poster

Herzog documents the Kuwait war, but not in a very traditional way. There are few interviews and little in the way of context, even Herzog's trademark voice-over is largely absent. Instead, he shows us hellish landscapes that often reminded me of fancy CG shots out of Hollywood disaster flicks.

Lessons of Darkness is a rather poetic documentary, with a heavy focus on aesthetics to get its message across. I can only applaud that and I readily admit that the film looks quite stunning. I did find the grandeur of the music less fitting, and the interplay between audio and video a little lacking.

The film would've been ever better without the two or three interviews, which I felt detracted from the mood Herzog was trying to create. There are quite a few impressive scenes that linger well beyond the end credits and Herzog's approach deserves some praise, the execution could've been better though.

Wolfwalkers

by Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart
Specifics
Ireland, Luxembourg [2020] - 103m
Genre
Fantasy, Adventure, Animation
More info on
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Wolfwalkers poster

The latest film by Cartoon Saloon is an Apple exclusive. We'll have to see how that pans out for them (and their brand), but it's clear they put Apple's money to good use. Wolfwalkers is an improvement on their earlier films, though I feel they're still one important step away from true greatness.

Robyn is a young girl who wants to be just like her dad, a fierce wolf hunter. When she follows her father into the woods, she meets a Wolfwalker, a young girl who can turn into a wolf when she sleeps. Robyn befriends the girl and tries to tell her dad that the wolves aren't as evil as they're made out to be, but he isn't willing to listen to her.

The oddest thing is that while Wolfwalkers is a recognizable Cartoon Saloon film, it still feels like it got its inspiration from somewhere else (namely Ubisoft's Child of Light). The art style is absolutely stunning and the music is beautiful, but the animation itself could be better. It's a little too static and uninspired. The story and characters too are a little bland, but the lore is nice and the finale is great. If they can keep evolving like this, there's no doubt they'll end up hitting a masterpiece within their next couple of films, the potential is clearly there.

Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine

by Louis Feuillade
Also known as
Fantômas - À l'Ombre de la Guillotine
Specifics
France [1913] - 54m
Genre
Crime
More info on
rating
1.0*/5.0*
Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine poster

The first film in Feuillade's 5-part Fantômas series and the second one I've seen. I can't say I've been very impressed by the work of Feuillade so far, though I fully recognize that making a compelling crime flick in the 1910s was probably a lot harder than making a frivolous comedy.

Fantômas is a master criminal who loves to challenge himself. Inspector Juve is eager to track him down, but Fantômas proves a tough criminal to catch. When Juve finally succeeds he is sure that Fantômas will hang for his crimes, but little does he know that Fantômas still has a couple of tricks up his sleeve.

The plot is extremely simple, the silent cinema approach (with its intertitles and expressive acting) isn't very suited for a film that relies on tension and mystery. Watching the Fantômas films is almost like watching an illustrated novel. Feuillade races through the plot, the static camera and poor performances just make it harder to sit through. At least the film is rather short.

Whisky Galore!

by Alexander Mackendrick
Specifics
UK [1949] - 83m
Genre
Comedy, Crime
More info on
rating
1.5*/5.0*
Whisky Galore! poster

Some themes and topic and invariably more interesting than others, so a film about whisky is always going to have a small advantage. Though the whisky in Whisky Galore! is little more than a motive for some comedy capers, the film itself didn't turn out to be completely terrible.

A small island near the Scottish mainland is craving some whisky, but the war has made it very difficult to get any supplies. When a ship with 50.000 cases of whisky sinks near the shore, the island folk are fed up with it and devise a plan to get some of those cases on their island. To do that, they'll have to get past the army though.

It's a very simply comedy really, with an extremely straightforward plot and predictable gags. The pacing is decent and the overall tone is light enough, but the performances are rather weak, the comedy just isn't funny enough and it's all just a little too predictable. Apart from the ending maybe, that at least got a real good snigger out of me.

Destiny's Son

by Kenji Misumi
Also known as
Kiru
Specifics
Japan [1962] - 71m
Genre
Drama, Adventure
More info on
rating
2.5*/5.0*
Destiny's Son poster

A classic samurai flick that isn't particularly remarkable, but benefits from a relatively short runtime and some decent cinematography. It's certainly not my favorite Japanese cinema niche and Destiny's Son doesn't do much to change that, but I've seen a lot worse.

When the wife of a lord kills his concubine, thinking it's the only way to save her clan, a string of fateful events is set in motion. The lord is forced to kill his wife and vows to become a monk, while his son is sent to a foster family. His son grows up to be a very skilled swordsman, when he finally learns about his past he sets out to find his father.

The film is quite peaceful, considering the somewhat tragic plot. Stark framing, gentle camera work and a soothing soundtrack result in a surprisingly subdued film. The story isn't all that interesting though and there's more drama than action, which makes that the limited runtime is a real blessing. Not terrible, but not very memorable either.

Happy Christmas

by Joe Swanberg
Specifics
USA [2014] - 82m
Genre
Drama
More info on
rating
3.0*/5.0*
Happy Christmas poster

A typical Swanberg dramedy. Or just drama really, not quite sure why this is booked as a comedy in some places. It's also not much of a Christmas film, just an indie film that is set around Christmas and no doubt played into that to get some free advertisement. Set all that aside though, and what is left is a decent enough movie.

After breaking up with her boyfriend, Jenny moves in with her older brother, his wife and their young kid. She crashes in the basement and lives a rather wild life while trying to get over the break-up, her brother and his family in the meantime are doing their best to get their lives in order.

The performances are solid, the drama is decent (but somewhat pointless) and the vibe is pretty chill. The baby (Swanberg's actual baby) is the star of the show though, which is rather telling. The ending trails off and doesn't lead anywhere meaningful, but the road there is fun enough.

My Ain Folk

by Bill Douglas
Specifics
UK [1973] - 55m
Genre
Drama
More info on
rating
1.5*/5.0*
My Ain Folk poster

The middle part of Bill Douglas' autobiographical drama trilogy. It's a pretty straight-forward continuation of the first film, only a bit longer and with slightly better technical qualities. It doesn't make a big difference though, Douglas' work is quite particular and will either appeal to you or push you away.

Jamie and Tommy are separated when their grandmother dies. Jamie is sent to live with another relative, while Tommy is shipped off to a welfare home. It's a barren time for Jamie, who is now all alone and in an environment where there's no joy or comfort, only violence and distrust.

Douglas' "show don't tell" approach is still in full effect, the grim black and white cinematography alternates between functional and aesthetic and the drama is extremely heavy-handed. This is social drama at its purest, which is not something I thoroughly appreciate, but I can't help but be in awe of Douglas' dedication to the style.

The Set-Up

by Robert Wise
Specifics
USA [1949] - 73m
Genre
Crime, Sport
More info on
rating
2.5*/5.0*
The Set-Up poster

As far as film-noirs go, I seem to prefer the shorter, limited location films. The Set-Up may be quite basic, but that's exactly what makes it fun to follow. No elaborate setups that don't really pan out, no long list of uninteresting twists, no unnecessary fat. Just a bare-bones skeleton and plenty of atmosphere.

Stoker is a boxer who is hoping to get his big break, though it never seems to be happening for him. Until one night, when he finally dominates his adversary in the ring. The only problem is that he's supposed to be throwing the match. When Stoker doesn't want to go down, it's going to cost him dearly.

Performances are decent, the tension is tangible and the stark black and white cinematography feels appropriate. The short runtime makes sure the film never gets boring, even though the pacing is quite slow (pretty much real-time). The ending is a bit bland, but otherwise not a bad film.

The Battle of Britain

by Frank Capra, Anthony Veiller
Specifics
USA [1944] - 54m
Genre
Documentary, War
More info on
rating
1.5*/5.0*
The Battle of Britain poster

One of the infamous war propaganda films directed by Frank Capra. Best known for his light-hearted feelgood dramas, the US army asked Capra to direct some uplifting and energizing documentaries that would bring hope to all those fighting the Nazi armies (from home and/or in the trenches).

This episode focuses on the Battle of Britain (duh), Hitler's first big defeat that would put a big dent into the air of invincibility that the Nazi army had created for itself. No doubt the broad lines of this documentary are accurate enough, but I wouldn't pay too much attention to any particular details.

It's quite clear that this was a film with a specific mission. Because it's so energetic it's actually quite fun to watch, pretty different from most war documentaries, but that doesn't change the fact that this is little more than a piece of dedicated propaganda, meant to raise the spirit of all those fighting in the war. A fun curiosity, but nothing more.

Mercy Black

by Owen Egerton
Specifics
USA [2019] - 88m
Genre
Horror, Mystery
More info on
rating
3.5*/5.0*
Mercy Black poster

Owen Egerton is shaping up to become a new Darren Lynn Bousman. A horror director who sticks (largely) with core genre films, doesn't set out to innovate much when he tackles a horror niche, but executes his films with care and heart for the genre. If you can appreciate that, then Mercy Black is a very fine horror flick.

After spending 15 years in a mental institution, Marina Hess is declared cured and gets to go home. She spent her time there after having assaulted a classmate when she was still a little kid. In Marina's mind, Mercy Black, an urban legend with the power to bring people back to life, was the one who orchestrated the assault. Soon after she's released, she starts to see traces of Mercy Black around her.

If the story sounds familiar, that's probably because there's plenty of films just like this one. But the performances are solid, the build-up of tension is meticulous, the styling is moody and the pacing is just right. This is pure and unfiltered genre work, nothing original, but lovingly crafted and executed. Good stuff.

Thomas Graal's Best Film

by Mauritz Stiller
Also known as
Thomas Graals Bästa Film
Specifics
Sweden [1917] - 59m
Genre
Comedy
More info on
rating
1.0*/5.0*
Thomas Graal's Best Film poster

I can hardly claim to be an expert, but the early silent cinema from Sweden hasn't really impressed me yet. Thomas Graal's Best Film is a mix of romcom and drama, but made in the old slapstick comedy style of yonder. It's not a combination that works very well, so I wasn't too disappointed to find about 30 minutes of this film are considered lost.

The titular Graal is a popular screenwriter who is very taken with this secretary Bessie. When he tries to steal a kiss, Bessie isn't too happy with his advances, but Graal isn't willing to give up just yet. He writes a screenplay inspired by her, as a way to win her for him. But dear Bessie has some secrets of her own.

It's a simple romance set in the Swedish film industry of the 1910s. There's quite a lot of reading involved, the acting is poor for a drama and the film really isn't very comical. It just kind of drones on, and without interesting characters, remarkable cinematography or a decent plot, there's just not much to get excited about.

The Cry of Jazz

by Edward Bland
Specifics
USA [1959] - 34m
Genre
Documentary, Music
More info on
rating
0.5*/5.0*
The Cry of Jazz poster

After seeing this, I had to double-check whether this documentary wasn't just some ironic riff on the usual racial discussions happening in America, but apparently it was meant to be 100% serious. Maybe it was more groundbreaking 60 years ago, but I found it really hard to sit through.

Jazz is used as a template to explain the black communities and their plight. It starts off quite theoretical, with a little introduction into the world of jazz, but it quickly ventures into racial stereotyping, with strange and almost poetic parallels between drawn between jazz and their creators.

I found the narrative extremely farfetched, the faux discussions cringeworthy and the message way too forceful. The second half in particular ventures into territory that feels like the director has been navel-gazing for just a fraction too long. Again, this kind of provocation might've been useful/interesting in the 50s, now it's just crazy talk.

One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train

by Ignacio Agüero
Also known as
Cien Niños Esperando un Tren
Specifics
Chile, UK [1988] - 55m
Genre
Documentary
More info on
rating
1.0*/5.0*
One Hundred Children Waiting for a Train poster

A documentary about the wonders of cinema, seen through the eyes of a group of about 100 Chilean kids who've never watched a film before. Each Saturday to go to a class where they learn about the technical background, about genres and actors. They watch and ultimately create their personal film.

I'm not a big fan of art praising art, so this documentary wasn't really for me. I do like the initiative, it's nice to give these kids a chance to see something more of the world, but that doesn't make it necessarily fun to watch them do it, not does it mean that cinema is the best way to do it.

In the end, there's not much of a point to this film. There's a million ways to stimulate kids' creativity, the focus on the history of cinema is something that would've irked me no end when I was a kid and the things that the kids have to say aren't all that interesting. But if you need something that tells you cinema is wholesome and good for humanity, you can't go wrong with this one.

The Prom

by Ryan Murphy
Specifics
USA [2020] - 130m
Genre
Comedy, Musical
More info on
rating
2.0*/5.0*
The Prom poster

When you see the name Ryan Murphy and the word musical in close proximity to each other, you immediately think Glee. Luckily The Prom offers more than just that, but mostly in the first hour. After that things get a lot mushier and a bit tougher to digest, but at least it was a lot better than I expected.

Emma is a gay teen living in Louisiana. Because she outed herself, her entire school's prom is scrapped. A bunch of disgruntled Broadway artists see Emma's story on Twitter and decide it would be good press to support her in her quest to reinstate the prom. When they get there though they only make things worse for Emma.

There's quite a bit of comedy here, which is nice when it is directed at the fake/glam side of Broadway. The whole gay/acceptance plot is terribly mushy though and seeing it play out throughout the entire second hour is a bit much. Like most musicals, a shorter runtime would've made it a lot easier to stomach.

Soul

by Pete Docter, Kemp Powers
Specifics
USA [2020] - 100m
Genre
Fantasy, Music, Animation
More info on
rating
2.5*/5.0*
Soul poster

There's a lot of Up-like disappointment in Pixar's latest film. What starts as something quite different, even lovely, quickly turns into typical Pixar nonsense, with cutesy ghosts and fake-emotional afterlife gibberish. It's astounding how afraid Pixar is to make films for a mature audience.

Joe Gardner is an aspiring artist, but his career doesn't come off the ground and he ends up settling for a job teaching the school band. Joe gets one last shot when an old student of his calls him and invites him for a gig with one of his all-time idols. He aces the audition, but on his way home a fateful accident happens.

The first 5 or 10 minutes are something completely new. More life-like character models, more mature direction (though they need a new editor, as everything feels way too rushed) and themes that feel like they could be quite profound. What follows is a complete mess that ventures in a million different directions. It's a shame they don't seem to be able to get it together, that said, it's quite a step up from earlier Pixar features.