Martin Teller's Movie Reviews

I watch movies, I write some crap

  • Recent Posts

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Meta

The Search for General Tso

Posted by martinteller on July 27, 2015

Who doesn’t like Chinese food?  Crazy people.  And I should know… I used to be involved with a crazy person, and she did not like Chinese food.  As for me, I love the stuff.  I’ve had a few somewhat “authentic” Chinese food experiences (ask me about cold spicy chicken feet) but really when I crave Chinese food, I want the cheap Americanized stuff.

This highly enjoyable documentary tries to track down the origins of the now-ubiquitous “General Tso’s Chicken” (also General Tsao, Cho, Gao, or a dozen other variants).  Along the way it explores the General himself, how Chinese food became such an American phenomenon, the struggles of Chinese immigrants in America, cultural attitudes about re-purposed ethnic food in general, among other topics.  One of the most enlightening sections concerns the organizations that help Chinese immigrants get their own restaurants established, doling out territory and giving advice on how to make the dishes — usually a far cry from anything they actually ate in their homeland — that Americans want to buy.  I also loved the discussion of the value of authenticity.

Sometimes the movie skims over certain things in a way that leaves you wishing they’d dug a little deeper.  For instance there is a mention of the anti-Chinese racist sentiments that cropped up in the 50’s, but the movie doesn’t really say anything about the subject except that Nixon’s visit to China kind of turned that around.  But for a 70-minute film, it covers a lot of ground, and does so in a manner that’s often informative and always entertaining.

And mouth-watering.  I think I’m gonna try to make some General Tso’s Chicken myself next week.  Rating: Very Good (85)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Dolgie provody (A Long Goodbye)

Posted by martinteller on July 27, 2015

My first film by Soviet director Kira Muratova studies the strained relationship between translator Yevgeniya Vasilyevna (Zinaida Sharko) and her withdrawn teenage son Ustinov (Oleg Vladimirsky).  Ustinov is planning to live with his more permissive father, and Yevgeniya tries to prevent his departure in ways that make her unsympathetic.  But Ustinov is no saint either, sullen in that kind of aimlessly defiant way that teenagers often are.  The film is most remarkable for its sound design, often emphasizing the generation gap (such as when two different strains of music compete for the soundtrack) or lack of communication, sometimes by dropping out the sound completely, and sometimes by introducing snatches of circular, repetitive dialogue.  The chasm between mother and son is further emphasized by the apartment they occupy, which places them in closed quarters and yet still distant.  However, Muratova’s seemingly cynical view of the inability for these characters to connect (or really, any two characters in the film) is tempered by a somewhat more hopeful ending.  Rating: Very Good (82)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

two on a Saturday

Posted by martinteller on July 25, 2015

Welp, Ant-Man was a big piece of shit… charmless, predictable, clichéd, and worst of all, boring.  There is some mildly fun energy in the early stages, with a pretty decent training montage (although peppered with quips that were too familiar to be clever).  But the closer it gets to its so-called climax, the more generic and tiresome it gets.  I’m done with superhero movies.  Done.  Rating: Crap (33)

Earlier today I watched Deep Valley, an overcooked melodrama that is elevated by its cynical, noir-ish tone.  And by Ida Lupino, who just can’t help being a compelling presence (Moonrise‘s Dane Clark isn’t that bad either).  Jean Negulesco directs with his usual competence, but again seems to drop the ball when it comes to plot momentum.  Still, he pulls off some fine construction of mood, especially in establishing the oppressive misery of Lupino’s home life.  Rating: Good (74)

Posted in Movie Reviews | 2 Comments »


Posted by martinteller on July 17, 2015

Credit to Amy Schumer’s comedic sensibilities, there are about a dozen good laughs in this movie.  Brie Larson and Bill Hader both come off well, and it’s fun to see talented people I enjoy like Dave Attell, Kyle Dunnigan, Claudia O’Doherty, Jon Glaser and Tim Meadows.  Aaaaand that’s about all I can do as far as saying nice things.  This mess of a movie does not know what it wants to be, trying to fit into the Apatow formula but it swerves all over the place.  Scenes feel unfinished, unpolished, pasted together, just fragments of ideas that were meant to be built up later into something meaningful.  Schumer’s character is not so much “complex” or “daring” as she is “unlikable”.  Her whole relationship with Hader feels unearned, and I kept wondering why he wanted to be with her.  And the stuntcasting gets very tiring.  Hey, everything’s funnier when it’s being said by LeBron James, right?  Oh look, it’s Daniel Radcliffe doing a thing.  Here’s Matthew Broderick for no good reason.

The movie is most successful when it goes for laughs.  When it tries to do anything else, it falls flat.  Rating: Crap (37)


Posted in Movie Reviews | 2 Comments »

Daughter from Danang

Posted by martinteller on July 13, 2015

Hiep was one of thousands of “orphaned” children airlifted out of Vietnam at the end of the war, whisked away to shiny new lives in the United States.  The thing is, Hiep — now Heidi Bub — was no orphan.  Her mother, Mai Thi Kim, was abandoned when her husband ran off to fight for the Communists.  An American G.I. offered financial support in exchange for Mai Thi’s “love”, and the result was Hiep.  The mother was persuaded to give up her child, knowing that she would have a better life in America.  Now in her early 20’s, Heidi is married and has two kids.  She has easily passed as a Caucasian, and is “101% Americanized”.  She learns that her mother is still alive and travels to Vietnam to reunite with her family.

If that were the whole story, it would be a mildly interesting and probably heartwarming documentary, and also informative about the whole process of getting these kids to the US (there’s chilling stock footage of an American woman, who I’m sure thinks she’s doing the most amazing, wonderful thing, talking Vietnamese women into handing over their children).  But it doesn’t end there.  Heidi is ill-prepared for this journey, both culturally and emotionally.  Her adoptive mother was cold and abusive, and even disowned her.  Heidi, perhaps desperate for parental affection, flings herself into a situation that she just isn’t ready for.  Never mind that she can barely communicate with her relatives without an interpreter present… the Vietnamese attitudes about family are very alien to her.

I don’t want to give away too much.  The story takes a very interesting development that shocks Heidi.  It challenges the viewer to consider everything that’s going on before passing judgment.  Try to put yourself in Heidi’s shoes.  Try to put yourself in her family’s shoes.  Is either really so wrong?

This thought-provoking film is available on YouTube.  Rating: Very Good (83)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Plastic Galaxy: The Story of Star Wars Toys

Posted by martinteller on July 11, 2015

I have three toys in my office.  A Slinky, which is fun to fiddle with when you’re thinking.  A Rubik’s Cube, which I’ve never known how to solve and I’m not even sure why I have one.  And a Han Solo action figure, a reminder of a youthful passion.  From the age of 7 until 11 or 12, my universe was Star Wars toys.  I remember poring over the glossy pages of the Star Wars section of the Sears catalog, and making my Xmas list.  I wanted all of them.  I never got all of them, but I had a lot of them.  My appetite was so greedy that I even took to shoplifting them (I did a lot of stealing as a youngster, I’m not proud of it).  Eventually Star Wars toys gave way to videogames and other interests, and I gave my collection away to a neighbor.

I sometimes wonder what that collection would be worth today.  Probably not much, none of the pieces were in their original packaging.  This documentary won’t tell me.  Although it features interviews with many collectors, it isn’t about collecting.  And thank heavens.  I was dreading a “look at how nutty these geeks are!” style of film.  This is a more populist approach, focusing instead on the immense popularity of Star Wars toys at the time, and what they meant to children during that late 70’s/early 80’s culture of mass Star Wars obsession (there’s virtually no sign of the prequels or their toys, which is surely for the best).  Occasionally an interviewee will mention the rarity of an item, but it’s rarely about the act of collecting.

The real joy of this movie to me is the nostalgia rush.  I kept thinking “I had that one!”.  The one that resonated with me most was the Droid Factory.  I’d completely forgotten about it, but what an awesome toy.  And it wasn’t just the toys that brought back memories. It was also the packaging, and the commercials, and the discussions about how these toys gave you a whole universe to play with on your living room floor.  Or how you would automatically take them with you when going over to a friend’s house… no one had to ask, of course you were bringing your Star Wars action figures.

It’s not a very broad look at the world of Star Wars toys, and even though there are some enlightening tidbits from designers at Kenner Toys, one senses the film could probe deeper.  Also the documentary follows a familiar and uninspired template, and the insert gags are more dumb than charming.  But for anyone who loved these playthings — which honestly meant more to me than the movies ever did — it’s a goldmine of nostalgic delights.  Rating: Good (77)


Posted in Movie Reviews | 3 Comments »

Nankyoku monogatari (Antarctica)

Posted by martinteller on July 7, 2015

Based on the true story of Akira Ushioda (Ken Takatura) and Kenjirô Ochi (Eiki Okada, Woman in the Dunes and Hiroshima mon amour).  Ushioda and Ochi are part of an Antarctic expedition, and they have a close bond with the team’s 15 sled dogs.  But extreme weather forces them to abandon the dogs, unable to even free them from the chain that ties them together.  While the two men wrestle with their guilt, the dogs wrestle with survival.

Director Koreyoshi Kurahara has a place in my Top 100 with his startling Thirst for Love (Okada, star of Woman in the Dunes, is also on my list).  While this film isn’t quite as good, it’s pretty riveting stuff.  The story unfolds slowly, taking its time to develop the connection between the humans and the canines.  It’s an hour into it (the running time is 2:23) before we get to the separation that forms the main drama.  But this is time well spent, familiarizing the audience not only with the characters (both two- and four-legged) but also showing how vital they are to each other.

Kurahara doesn’t try to humanize the dogs.  He doesn’t need to, their dogness is reason enough to empathize with them.  “All lives are equal”, Ushioda tells us… but it needn’t be said, because the movie treats them as equals, giving each species the same weight and sympathy.  This may be a spoiler, but I must tell you that not all the dogs make it.  If you’re not prepared to see dogs suffer and die (all simulated, of course, but effectively), don’t watch this movie.  It’s a gut-wrenching story… my gut actually wrenched, as tears came to my eyes.  It’s tough going… especially because the loss of my own dog last year still stings.

Obviously much of the movie is conjecture, but one senses that they recreated events as best they could.  Nothing feels sensationalized or sentimentalized (as I suspect things often are in Disney’s remake, Eight Below).  Like Watership Down, it has the thrill of adventure while acknowledging that adventure sometimes means death.  It’s a film that is touching in both its sorrow and its triumphs, canine and human alike.  The vast Antarctic scenery is beautifully captured by cinematographer Akira Shiizuka, and taken to surreal places like the inside of a whale’s carcass, or the dancing colored lights of the Aurora Australis.  And the movie may be best known for its soundtrack, with a lovely score by Vangelis.

Hard to watch, but powerfully moving.  Rating: Very Good (83)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

The Babadook

Posted by martinteller on July 5, 2015

I don’t know what it is that makes horror such an appealing genre to me on Sunday afternoons.  Why do I crave that kind of experience at that particular time of the week?  Or maybe I’m generalizing from a specific moment.  I know that this Sunday afternoon I felt like watching a horror movie, and I know having that feeling at that time seemed familiar.  Perhaps it’s because a Sunday afternoon is the most relaxed time with the fewest stressors, making it the “safest” period to introduce some creepy tension.

With The Babadook, writer/director Jennifer Kent shows that she is quite good at generating creepy tension.  I’m not the first to praise the film’s use of unpredictable dread rather than “jump scares” (although I don’t have a blanket objection to jump scares) to frighten the viewer.  She presents a family situation loaded with horrible possibilities, and enough ambiguity that you don’t know where the next threat is going to come from.  It reminded me of several other films that deal with the horrors of parent-child relationships, from both sides of that dynamic: The ExorcistThe ShiningWe Need to Talk About KevinEraserhead.  Not copying any of them (though there may be a few deliberate homages), but evoking these familiar scenarios in a manner that shifts from one to the next.  It enhances the unease, not knowing which way the balance will turn next.

There are also overt cinematic references on the television that Amelia watches in her exhausted haze, from the supernatural experiments of Méliès to Phantom of the Opera to Carnival of Souls.  Movies feed our nightmares, stimulate the imagination.  They are real and unreal.  How real are they to Amelia?  How real is the Babadook?  I honestly don’t know if we’re meant to question that.  The ambiguity seems to give way to certainty later in the film, but I see a little wiggle room for interpretation.

If nothing else, it’s an unsettling movie with a gripping sense of the horror narrative.  To various degrees, it touches on the horrors of parenting, coping with consuming grief, and the effects of sleep deprivation on an increasingly fragile psyche.  Very gripping performance by Essie Davis, and young Noah Wiseman handles his role well.  Rating: Very Good (82)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Bless Their Little Hearts

Posted by martinteller on July 3, 2015

In South Central L.A., Charlie Banks (Nate Hardman) is endlessly looking for work, picking up occasional day jobs while his wife Andais (Kaycee Moore) picks up the slack in providing for their three children.  Adding additional strain to the household is Charlie’s affair with an old flame.

The most celebrated movie of the “L.A. Rebellion” movement, an African-American collective of independent filmmakers, is Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep.  This movie has much in common with it, starting with the fact that Burnett both wrote the screenplay and did the cinematography (not to mention the three Banks children are Burnett’s own kids).  It has a similar root in Italian neorealism — the episode with the fish may be a direct reference to La Terra Trema — with the use of non-actors and a focus on the social issues facing the underclass.

Like Killer of Sheep, the movie has a rambling structure that may make some viewers crave a stronger narrative.  However, it’s important to keep in mind that Hollywood was not telling this kind of story in 1984.  African-Americans were generally portrayed as pimps and thugs… if they were lucky, they got to be the sidekicks of white protagonists.  This was a rare opportunity to see African-Americans dealing with real life problems, as ordinary citizens.  There is no mention of drugs here.  The only evidence of gangs is the graffiti Charlie paints over on one of his odd jobs.  Charlie and his friends briefly bat around the idea of getting into robbery as a way to make a living, only to dismiss it as not right for them.  The problem they face is the same one that gives rise to drugs, gangs and crime: the lack of other opportunities.

And yet, Burnett and director Billy Woodberry don’t let Charlie completely off the hook, the hapless victim of an unjust economic structure.  Charlie doesn’t try as hard as he protests he does, or at least, he doesn’t appear to.  He lies to and cheats on his long-suffering wife,  who calls him out for hanging on to pipe dreams instead of facing the reality of their situation.  It evokes conflicted feelings for the viewer… we want to sympathize with Charlie’s situation, and yet he isn’t the greatest guy.  We must accept that the conditions are unfair, even when we don’t particularly like everyone affected by them.

The performances are sometimes glaringly amateur.  Hardman (who previously had a small role in Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding, another movie hampered by poor acting) is not especially convincing and often seems to be searching for his lines.  However, the film’s most powerful scene is a 10-minute argument between Hardman and Moore.  The accounts I can find suggest this scene was improvised.  Whatever they did, it paid off.  Moore — in general, the strongest of the cast — is especially riveting here, and her repeated cries of “I’m tired” have a mighty impact.

The film ends on a solemn note of hopelessness, in an ambiguous scene that again makes us question how we feel about Charlie’s character.  Is he walking away from a potential opportunity, or does he feel the futility of it all?  The film may be rough around the edges, but it has some complexity, honesty, and is of significance in America’s cinematic history.  Rating: Good (79)


Posted in Movie Reviews | Leave a Comment »

June 2015 Recap

Posted by martinteller on June 30, 2015

3 new viewings
1 revisit

1. What We Do in the Shadows
2. Spy

3. The Future

The slowest month I’ve had since I started keeping track 12 years ago.  Hell, even when I was an ordinary, non-cinephile person I probably watched more than 4 movies a month on the average.  It’s just been a busy month for me and as I said before, we’ve been spending most of our free time (i.e., time not spent looking at and talking about houses) binging on television.  I expect July will be much the same.

Posted in Monthly Recaps | 2 Comments »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 423 other followers