movie mini-reviews: Clash of the Titans (1981) and Wonder Woman (2017)

Thanks to Natalie Haynes’s brilliant Pandora’s Jar (review forthcoming), I watched two movies over winter break that make reference to the Greek myths that I love so much.

Unsurprisingly, this one from 1981 that relies heavily on special effects plays more comically than originally intended; those special effects are almost unbelievably bad now… but the themes of the movie hold up well, and the hubris that forms such an essential turning point in the story still rings true, and fits with the Greek myths it arises from (where hubris was such a frequent theme). Clash of the Titans mashes up its myths: Medusa’s head will be weaponized against the Kraken, so Scandinavian meets Greek, but who cares: it’s actually quite fun, and the female love interest is less useless than she might have been, for her time. (Natalie Haynes writes, “It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Clash of the Titans kraken is so named purely for the delight of audiences in hearing Laurence Olivier – who plays Zeus – say, ‘Release the kraken.’ For the record, I consider this a perfectly legitimate reason to ignore any amount of mythological chronology and geography.”)

Fairly wacky, and hasn’t aged extraordinarily well (special effects!!), but still diverting, and I’m pleased to know where Haynes got her start into the myths. She’s doing them better justice herself, though.

Wonder Woman of 2017, on the other hand, was a fine romp, and I had a much easier time getting into the groove. (One wonders what this will look like in another 36 years.) There is a large dose of romance at its heart, even as the movie dances around that concept, and the astonishing good looks of leads Gal Gadot and Chris Pine make a difference. But the girl-power Amazonian island is both an appealing concept and nicely portrayed visually here, too. From their man-free paradise, Gadot’s Diana thrusts herself into the “real world” of World War I, which offers only horrors by contrast. The movie does a decent job of portraying both the light and the dark, and combines humor (Diana being “not from around here”) with pathos (war) engagingly. There’s no question this one relies on visual appeal, but that can be lovely when done well. And if it’s a bit of a simplification (of both myth and complicated gender dynamics), it’s still an empowering adventure tale. I do recommend.

movie: Everything, Everything (2017)

I loved the book so much that I thought I’d love the movie, but I was wrong. I found it more gooey and less substantial, leaning too heavily on the staring into one another’s eyes and the admittedly compelling romantic trope of the view between two windows. (Also the beauty of both starring actors – and they are beautiful! but not what makes the story work.) The mother character is less warm here, and therefore less sympathetic; the mother-daughter relationship has none of the sweetness that makes it work in the book. It’s all less developed, as is always the case with book-to-movie adaptations. If the novel rose above the potentially juvenile nature of the “young adult” designation, the movie did not.

On the other hand, there was this bookstore shot with an out-of-focus copy of Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake in the foreground as an Easter egg, so that’s worth some points.

I’m sure this movie is for somebody – perhaps it’s perfect for the young adult audience; it got good audience reviews. I found it too simple and saccharine. I watched the trailer for the movie version of The Sun Is Also a Star and decided to save my money. Oh well.


Rating: 4 books.

movie: Summer of Soul (2021)

I got to see this back at the Pickford in Bellingham with my parents, and it was a real treat.

All the voices I’ve been hearing about this movie, from friends and from reviews, have been unanimous, and I’m in agreement: this is a very special film, from a few angles. Summer of Soul is a documentary mining archival footage, never before seen, from 1969’s Harlem Cultural Festival. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising. The footage sat in storage for some 50 years; the same summer, Woodstock stole the spotlight, and this historic event (or events – the festival took place over six weekends) faded away like so much Black American history has. It’s thanks to Questlove, of the Roots, director of this film, that we’re learning about it now. The festival showcased jazz, funk, gospel, blues and soul, via names like Stevie Wonder, BB King, Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone, Fifth Dimension, and many more. These performers played to tens of thousands in Harlem each weekend (an estimated 300,000 total). Here we see original footage spliced with recent interviews with performers and audience members, and other historical footage for context, so that the music is set against the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the moon landing, the assassinations of the 1960s, and more.

The festival footage is entrancing, and the music is transcendent, and if the film had stuck to that content, it would have been worth seeing. But including the historical context lifts it up several levels, making it not only a joy to see but Important. The context is a little harder to watch – it’s serious, especially because it highlights how far we haven’t come. But the music remains an absolute joy, too. If there are moments that might make you cry (Jesse Jackson recounting Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final moments to the crowd), the footage of the sublime musical performances rarely failed to make me smile wide, as the crowd did – I loved those shots of so many joyful people of all ages and appearances. Many of those interviewed, both musicians and audience, commented on how significant it was to look out at a crowd of that many Black people gathered together. (There were non-Black attendees, but very few.) I guess I was a little surprised that Harlemites would feel that way; but the gathering itself was unprecedented, wasn’t it. This felt like an important point, especially because so many mentioned it.

Depending on age and background, some viewers will find this film very educational; even those familiar with the time, place and milieu will find something enlightening, and the music is sure to blow every mind. It sent me out of that theatre feeling more full and nourished than I went in. It also comments on ever-relevant parts of our ongoing history as a nation. Very strongly recommended, for music fans and for us all.


Rating: 9 smiling faces.

movie: Hemingway (2021)

Obviously I was interested in the new documentary from PBS titled simply Hemingway, and appearing in three episodes totaling just shy of six hours. I’ve read a dozen or so Hemingway biographies and almost all of his fiction and nonfiction, much of it repeatedly. Let’s say I’m a fairly serious Hem scholar for an amateur. But it’s also been a few years. This counted therefore as a good check-in and test of my continuing interest.

I think Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and their team did a good job with the nuance and contradictions, the good and the bad, of this intriguing man, his life and his work. This doc isn’t just about his writing or about the man, but both at once, back and forth, because they’re inextricable. Hem was a truly extraordinary talent, a genius; he was also a bully and a jerk in many ways; he could also, apparently, be a lovely person some of the time. He had an unfortunate tendency to be cruelest to those who most helped him. He profoundly and undeniably changed writing in the English language. He was a very ill man late in his life, in terms of his mental health. And that life was full to brimming of wildly improbable stories (two plane crashes in a row?). He was larger than life, by several measures, and so it’s a hard life to write about. And it’s easy to say (because it’s true) that he was the genius, or the asshole; but it’s harder to say that he was many contradictory things at once. This production handles it very well, in my opinion.

Hemingway constructed his myth, to a large degree, and he made the mistake that all mythmakers do: he thought that he could control it. And there comes a time that you can’t anymore. It’s taken on a life of its own. It became very exhausting to be Hemingway, the Hemingway that the public thought, and let’s face it, when he was in the public he was always in the public eye. And people expected Hemingway to be Hemingway.

–Michael Katakis

The film is packed with still images of Hemingway and the characters surrounding him; his original works; and (more limited) archival footage. It relies heavily on his own work. And it includes interviews with other writers (Tim O’Brien, Abraham Verghese, Mary Karr, Edna O’Brien, Mario Vargas Llosa, Tobias Wolff); Hem’s middle son, Patrick; John McCain (a surprise, but he made some meaningful contributions); and biographers and scholars including Mary Dearborn, Paul Hendrickson, and Michael Katakis, manager of Hemingway’s literary estate.

Even in six hours of close study, I was left feeling like this was an abridgement – and of course it is, when so many (different) biographies have been written, which would take much longer than six hours to take in. That’s the Hemingway nerd talking. It’s impressive what they do accomplish in this time (which of course would be plenty for most viewers). It gives a very thorough introduction to a complicated life. I think the only new-to-me information I noticed was the extent to which the Kansas City Star‘s style sheet prescribed what we think of as the Hemingway style: short, declarative sentences, few adjectives. I loved spending time again with the four women who married this man. They’re so different from each other, fascinating, and strong characters themselves.

He weighs about 200 pounds, and he is even better than those photographs. The effect upon women is such that they want to go right out and get him, and bring him home, stuffed.

–Dorothy Parker

In the end I found this a nicely balanced representation, which shares my view that Hem was both superlatively talented and also deeply, awfully flawed. His work and his life fascinate me no less than ever, and that’s really saying something. I do recommend this documentary, which you can stream online for free here.


Rating: 8 strings above the toilet.

Night Rooms: Essays by Gina Nutt

These 18 essays about gender, horror, grief and much more are thought-provoking, discomfiting and lovely.

Gina Nutt’s Night Rooms is a startling collection of 18 essays ruminating on life experiences, cultural tropes and horror films, examining questions of gender, fear and grief. Fragmented in form, but firmly interconnected, these essays refuse to look away. Nutt’s prose is lyrical, provocative, intimate and intelligent.

“I used to imagine wanting someone alive would revive them, if caught right after dying.” This opening line establishes one of Nutt’s main subjects: the deaths of loved ones and how people do (or don’t) handle them. She wants to find “a balance between mourning and moving on. How does it look to not be so enamored with the image of the final girl–the one who survives–that we forget, or disavow, our dead (selves).” That final girl of horror movies is objectified: a symbol, a survivor, part of a lineage.

Nutt (Wilderness Champion) is also a poet, and has a way with a simple line in brief scenes and observations: in grief or depression, “time pulls thick, opaque as taffy.” “I am making this [darkness] a buoy.” Her voice is vulnerable and frank. Repeatedly she describes a cultural artifact rather than naming it, so it is recognizable to most readers, but made unfamiliar: “the cartoon mouse dressed in a red sorcerer’s cloak and a pointy violet hat with white stars on it.” Quoted sources are named in footnotes, but those only paraphrased are not, so that different readers will find themselves involved to different degrees–as is true with the cultural artifacts themselves.

Haunted houses, horror flicks with sharks in them, ghost stories and slasher films meet beauty pageants, ballet lessons, sexual explorations and home d├ęcor to question what it is about the macabre that fascinates. Although subtitled as “essays,” Night Rooms feels more like it contains chapters, which make reference to one another as much as within themselves. The deaths that occupy the narrator in the book’s beginning are relevant again at its close. Indeed, while these essays are fragmented, cinematic in flashes of image, sound and feeling, they are equally fragments of the whole. Together, these pieces form an experience that is sensory, intellectual and emotional, illuminating difficult and even uncomfortable truths.

Part personal reflection and part cultural study, this unusual collection will haunt readers, in the best ways.


This review originally ran in the March 15, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 insects framed in flight.

movie: 17 Blocks (2019)

A filmmaker meets two brothers – Emmanuel, 9, and Smurf, 15 – at a pickup basketball game in southeast Washington, D.C. They strike up a friendship. Film footage from the following twenty years, shot by both filmmaker and the family members themselves, eventually yields this documentary: 17 Blocks, in reference to the distance between the Sanford family home (at the film’s opening) and the nation’s capitol building. Count that as a not-completely-subtle cue to consider certain contrasts.

The Sanfords and Durants are poor and Black and plagued by social ills including addiction, gun violence, and incarceration. They live through terrible tragedy. Their lives are presented here seemingly unmediated: they speak directly to the camera; raw footage is edited together. (All narratives are mediated, of course. And it’s worth nodding to the feat of culling 1,000 hours of footage to create such an intelligent narrative in 90-something minutes.) There is plenty of opportunity to think through larger issues, beginning with the commentary implied by the title. What is most horrifying about this movie is the pain in the lives of the Sanfords; what is perhaps even more horrifying is that they are representative of so many lives, that their pain is so common.

There’s a quite good review over at Rogerebert.com (although it gets the Sanford kids’ birth order wrong), to which I’ll refer you for a deeper look; reviewer Matt Zoller Seitz makes some good points that I agree with about why the film is excellent, as well as a few mild criticisms. I appreciate his point that the film “probably doesn’t push hard enough against reactionary, Puritan, possibly racist readings of the Sanford family’s misery as it should have.” He also warns viewers of how hard 17 Blocks is to watch, and he’s right: it’s awful, discomfiting stuff, and the discomfort one feels watching it is only appropriate and reasonable. There’s another layer for me, though, too. The first half or so felt awfully close to ‘poverty porn’ (a term I may have first learned when I first started to get to know Appalachia). The problem is that in order to recognize problems in communities, in systems, we have to look at people’s suffering. But there’s something inherently problematic about the looking at – something voyeuristic – that’s discomfiting in a different way. I haven’t quite sorted my feelings about this. Possibly, if we are to make a movie of the Sanfords’ lives and look at it like this, we have a responsibility to work harder to do the work Seitz mentions, the pushing back, “in order to guard it more righteously against bad faith interpretations.” I’m not sure. This is not properly a criticism I’m offering, but a question. Also, it is very relevant that Sanford matriarch Cheryl was an active part of the production and promotion of the movie; the family is on board and involved, which we should keep in mind in considering the complicated situation with this (white) filmmaker and any potential question of exploitation.

I don’t know. But I do know that the film is artful, wrenching, visually intriguing and deeply affecting, and I’ll be thinking about it for some time. If you check it out, please let me know what you think.


Rating: 7 t-shirts.

movie: Escher: Journey Into Infinity (2018)

I had left Italy. I lost the Italian landscape and architecture and something else had to take its place. This stimulated the formation of inner images. I started working with passion when I discovered that I had things of my own that had to come out, that I could express something others don’t have.

What a beautiful, completely absorbing and eventually transcendent film. For starters, something like Fantastic Fungi, there is such a rich body of work in the weird world of M.C. Escher that any proper documentary should turn out to be visually stunning, and this one does the job properly. I loved the animations of his prints, which it turns out he’d imagined happening. (There was a moment when a tessellated lizard clicked, came to life, and clambered out of its print. Hops lost his shit.) What I didn’t see coming was such a fascinating life – I’d known nothing of Escher the man, I guess, and in fact hadn’t realized how recently he lived and worked, and therefore how World War II and the rise of fascism had affected his life. I had not expected Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills and Nash) to be onscreen early, telling the amusing story of Escher’s claiming he was a mathematician and not an artist at all. The Escher that emerges here is grumpy and flummoxed by the hippies’ interest in his work, and their annoying tendency to colorize his black-and-whites with such bright hues. His eldest son is there too, describing (chillingly) how the family chose to leave Italy 1935 after the son (as a small child) showed a disturbing interest in playing the baby fascist. This whole story was fascinating, whimsical, frequently funny and also pathos-ridden.

I appreciated Escher the romantic (in his relationship with his wife), the curmudgeon, and the tortured artist:

What I can say is that no print ever succeeds. They all fail. Simply because I always pursue a vision that cannot be realized… my prints, none of which were every made with the primary aim of making something beautiful, simply cause me headaches… that is the reason that I never feel fully at home among my colleagues. They pursue beauty first and foremost. Perhaps I only pursue wonder.

And this film was simply mind-blowing. The music, the diegetic sound, the still photography, the video of landscapes and architectures referred to in Escher’s work, the animations from his work, the delightfully performed narration (“told in his own words from hundreds of letters, diaries and notes”) by Stephen Fry – it all came together for a very special experience. I’m so glad my parents clued me in. (This has inspired purchase of an Escher art book, so stay tuned for more reviews. Always more.) Definitely recommended.


Rating: 9 steps.

movie: Roald Dahl’s The Witches (2020)

I recently assigned my Comp I class a book, movie, or television review, and then went looking online for examples of movie and TV show reviews, since I don’t so much specialize in those. I came across a review of a new production of one of my favorite childhood reads: Roald Dahl’s The Witches. (Dahl remains a favorite.) The TV channel who *exclusively* owns this movie offers a free trial, so off I went.

This version blends live-action and special effects to land in a place that is visually rich and simple at the same time. It’s rather beautiful (and often horrifying), but a little cartoonish. Anne Hathaway is the Grand High Witch, Octavia Spencer is Grandma, and Chris Rock narrates as the voice of the older version of the Boy; the Boy himself is played by Jahzir Bruno. The Grand High Witch has a vaguely Germanic accent (nope, wrong again). I found this movie visually pleasing, scary in all the right places, and generally a good, nostalgic return to the novel that I grew up with and loved so much. It matches the book fairly closely, with only a few variations. The pet mice from the book here become a single mouse with a backstory that the novel did not supply. And I regret that they cut the logical argument about (spoiler here; highlight to read white text) the fact that the witch-mice will be twice as dangerous as they were in womanly form, and thus will need to be swiftly dealt with as they were in the hotel, but I guess no one will miss that who doesn’t remember the novel. (The 1990 film version, which I have not seen, changed the ending. That, I don’t think I could forgive.)

What I most missed is one of my favorite details from the novel, although I think I may give it more significance than Dahl necessarily intended: all the ways that witches can disappear children, with examples, as told early in the story by Grandmother. I guess it would have been hard to put that in to a film version, and we get a parallel story instead, that of Grandma’s childhood friend Alice. It’s something I missed, though.

This film does bring race into the story in a way (as far as I know) entirely new to Dahl’s work, and I dug it. It’s just a bit under the surface, but the boy and his grandmother are Black, living in Alabama in the late 1960s, and the fancy seaside resort where they go to stay (and then encounter the massive coven of witches) is a former plantation. They are reminded that perhaps they don’t belong there – for class reasons, of course. The film makes no more of this, but there’s plenty to sit with, anyway.

Perhaps not a masterpiece of film, but a fine story to sink into for an evening. Good for nostalgia; makes me want to go back and read some Dahl all over again. I think I’d started with The BFG.


Rating: 6 drops.

movie: The Dark Divide (2020)

Click that beautiful image to enlarge. Go ahead. Isn’t it lovely?

This film is definitely visually pleasing, but that’s not all it has to offer. The Dark Divide is based on a Robert Michael Pyle book, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide. I have not read this book, but I have it on my shelf, and I know that I appreciate Bob Pyle’s writing. (Small disclosure, I guess: I’ve met Bob a few times.) A film based on a memoir by a writer I admire is always a solid bet. Plus, a small part is played by somebody else I admire.

Patterson Hood is more or less as niche as Bob Pyle, I guess, and it’s just downright fun that they’ve ended up in a project together, certainly in part because Patterson now lives in the same Pacific Northwest region. At any rate, this was enough to bring me in.

The story is this. Bob Pyle is an academic, lepidopterist and writer, portrayed here as pretty bumbling and goofy. His beloved wife Thea is dying of cancer, and his colleagues are ribbing him about this great butterfly hunting expedition he talks about but never undertakes. Shortly after losing Thea, he gets a grant from the Guggenheim to actually do it: hike from route 12 in southern Washington state, over Mt. Adams to the Columbia Gorge, seeking butterflies (and moths) along the way. It’s intended to be a 30-day trip. “You’ve been camping before, right?” ask Bob’s colleagues. “Cub scouts, or…?” They’re being a little mean, actually, especially in light of the Thea situation, but the viewer has to admit that Bob is unconvincing as a backcountry hiker. (Because I barely-a-little-bit know Bob, and like him, I was a little sorry to see him made fun of. But then, he wrote the book.)

The film follows Bob’s hike through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (aka the dark divide), with flashbacks to life with Thea. There is not a ton of dialog, because for much of the time Bob is alone. He talks to himself a little (less than one might expect), and he occasionally meets with other humans, although this rarely turns out to be a good thing. As a ranger tells him when he asks about Bigfoot: “If you were one of them, wouldn’t you hide from us? I know I would.”

It’s a charmingly simple story. Beautiful scenery, elemental challenges (bear, food, water, weather, gravity at cliff’s edge), stark human grief, scant dialog. Look at these stunning views, consider the horror of losing one’s life partner. See the rare endangered species, howl for help from the bottom of a cave. An encounter with a crew of loggers encapsulates some conflicts – a bit simplified, but effective. There are some logical or factual goofs, like the fact that Bob seems to carry a solitary quart-sized water bottle (Nalgene, of course), and we never see him refill it (except when the rangers do so for him). But this isn’t meant to be hyperrealism, nor a how-to-backpack guide (seriously, don’t use this movie as a how-to).

Visually stunning, thoughtful, poignant, funny, honest, and a decent introduction to the Bob Pyle character. Recommended.


Rating: 8 hoots.

four Hunger Games movies (2012-2015)

They made the three Hunger Games books into four movies, which I watched over a week or so with halfhearted interest. This is a brief review, but tldr: the books are better.

It was neat to see the characters brought alive onscreen. The visual interest of the Capital and its weird denizens was not, I think, exploited to its potential, but it was still worth seeing. And I confess I am as susceptible as anyone to the appeal of seeing the young love play out live-and-in-person (sort of). I was disappointed with the casting of Peeta’s character at first, but he won me over. Gale just looked old – too old for the character’s age – like, as usual, they picked a 30-year-old to play a 17-year-old. (Turns out Liam Hemsworth was 22 when the first movie came out, but this was my reaction.) Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss felt a little unconvincing; or maybe the acting in the final two movies (when her character is herself failing as an actor in the Mockingjay role) was a little too good? Most of my impressions can be summed up as ‘meh.’ The biggest problem, of course, is the one consistent with book-to-movie adaptations: they couldn’t fit the story and all its nuance, backstory, character motivation, interiority, etc. into this format. The movies failed to develop the history of Panem and of Katniss’s own family; they cut too many minor but instructive sideplots; minor characters were underdeveloped (Cinna!!) or missing; and Katniss’s thoughts and feelings, which make her human and complicated and conflicted, were entirely lost. I understand the challenge. It’s hard to do thoughts and feelings without straight narration, which comes with issues and dragginess of its own. But I thought a lot of what was best about Collins’s novels was missing from these films. I can see the appeal, and note I watched all four movies. But I watched them with about 65% of my attention. I think my recommendation would be to just stick to the books.

Anybody read the new prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes yet? Reviews are indifferent; not sure I’ll bother. Oh, well. The trilogy’s pretty great!


Rating: 5 meals.
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