Classic Movie Review: Piper (2016)

Posted: October 7, 2017 in Animation


A baby sandpiper wants to be fed by its mother.  Its mother refuses to feed it, insisting that the piper learn to feed itself, but the baby piper is afraid of the water, what does it do?

The challenge for any animated film is to have animation distinctive enough to make the viewer sit up and take notice.  This movie does that for sure, the animation is so true to life, that in the first few frames of the film, the sandpipers look like real birds.

The challenge for an animated short is to get the moral of the story across in as short a time as possible.  Piper does that, in an economical 6 minutes, and it does so joyfully, and not heavy-handedly.  And it gets its message across without saying a word.  This is a wonderful little film, that everyone should take the time to enjoy and appreciate, how many people can say they’ve experienced a life affirming message in only 6 minutes?  That’s what this film offers.

Piper won the Academy Award for best animated short of 2017, and I can see why.  Written and directed by Tom Barillero, who worked as an animator for many Pixar movies including Monster’s Inc  WALL-E and Finding Nemo.

Piper:  Pipe down and watch this film.



luke cage

Luke Cage (Mike Colter) works as a sweeper in Pop’s Barber Shop in Harlem.  One night after sweeping up, Luke sees his co-worker Chico (Brian Mac) rush out to a car with his friend Shameek.  (Jermel Howard) Chico and Shameek want to take money from Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, (Mahershala Ali)  owner of a club called Harlem’s Paradise, and infamous gangster.  Luke also works at the club, and Cottonmouth offers him a job, but Luke has a quiet life, does he want to get mixed up in saving Chico from gangsters or being Cottonmoth’s bodyguard?

I like this episode of Luke Cage it has the requisite amount of mystery surrounding Luke.  It has some primarily African American references like the iconic if somewhat hackneyed black barbershop.  Luke has some interesting interactions with the ladies, some interesting black cultural references, Luke is reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. For all the good writing and the social consciousness, there’s a lot of the n-word flying around, I found it excessive.  I know the writers are trying to keep it “real” but Harlem is the epicenter of the black renaissance, let’s try to treat the characters with some respect.

The acting is great.   Mike Colter is very good as the laconic Luke Cage.  Mahershala Ali is a simmering cauldron of rage as Cottonmouth, and Alfre Woodard is also good as a corrupt politician who is all sweetness and light in public, but something else entirely when the cameras aren’t rolling.

Episode 2:  The Code of The Streets

Pop (Frankie Faison) asks Luke to find Chico, but Cottonmouth wants to locate Chico too. The police, headed by Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick) also want to find Chico.  Who gets to Chico first?

There is so much in this episode.  The viewers get a backstory about Pop.  There’s an interesting subplot between Misty and Luke.  There is real and largely unspoken tension between Luke and Cottonmouth.  There are the cultural touchpoints, Luke is reading Walter Mosely in this episode, and this episode finally provides the impetus for Luke to get off the sidelines.  The acting is superb, especially between Ali, and Colter, who holds his own in the scenes between him and Ali. There’s also some good chemistry between Colter and Simone Missick.

Episode 3:  Who’s Going to Take The Weight

Luke decides not to go after Cottonmouth directly, but let him suffer death by a thousand cuts.  Cottonmouth and his cousin Mariah (Alfre Woodard) discuss their differing visions of Harlem. Misty sees that Luke is in the middle of what’s going on lately in Harlem, but she can’t put her finger on what he’s doing. Misty’s partner Detective Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley) talks to Chico, he’s ready to turn on Cottonmouth.

This is more an action episode, and not an introspective episode, which is too bad, because I liked the quiet, introspective Cage, and not the action oriented Cage, anyone who watches the series will know why. Domingo Colon is introduced as head of a rival Latino gang, but there’s not much character development thee yet.  There’s a plot twist, but it’s badly written.  If I told you why, I’d spoil the plot. Good acting again by the principles, especially Mahershala Ali, Alfre Woodard, Mike Colter, and Frank Whaley. The acting saves a somewhat shaky script in this episode.  The episode is named after an old school rap tune.

Episode 4:  Step In The Arena

As Luke tries to extricate himself and his landlady Connie Lin (Jade Wu) from a precarious position, Luke thinks about a turning point in his life.

This is mostly a flashback episode that fleshes out some of the details referred to in the first episode.  It’s interesting, although it has similarities to other Marvel origin stories. The acting is very good, and the script is interesting, as it leaves many things unexplained.  This episode is named after a Gang Starr album.

Episode 5: Just to Get a Rep

As Cottonmouth extorts small businesses in Harlem, Luke tries to clean up the streets of Harlem.  Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) comes back to Harlem, why is she here?  Cottonmouth and Luke both show up to an important event in Harlem.

This episode had some interesting things going on, a new character, Cottonmouth always plotting, an evolving relationship between Misty and Luke, and lots of lectures from Luke about Harlem’s legacy.

Episode 6: Suckas Need Bodyguards

Detective Scarfe is shot and wounded by Cottonmouth, he escapes.  Now everyone is trying to find Scarfe, Misty is looking for her partner, Cottonmouth is looking is looking to finish the job, and Luke is looking for someone to protect.  Where does Scarfe go?

This is similar to the where’s Chico episode, everyone looking for Scarfe, but who finds him first.  Not sure what Claire Temple’s function is, but she’s immediately Luke’s sidekick.  I’m usually not a fan of Rosario Dawson’s acting, but she and Mike Colter have some easygoing banter.

Episode 7:  Manifest

As Cottonmouth plays the keyboard, he reflects on life with Mama Mabel, (Latanya Richardson Jackson) Uncle Pete (Curtis Cook) and little Maraih. (Megan Miller)  He wonders what could have been, but settles into what is.  Cottonmouth thinks he has a surprise for Luke, but Mariah really has a surprise for Cottonmouth.

Most of this episode was backstory on Cottonmouth and his dysfunctional family.  Let me tell you, they put the diss, in dysfunctional.  And boy oh boy  there is more than one twist in this episode, one that I never saw coming.  And this one was well-written, and well camouflaged.  The scenes with Luke and Cottonmouth sizzle with tension  as the actors try to outdo each other. Alfre Woodard is also very good in this episode.

Episode 8:  Blowin’ Up the Spot

Something happens to Cottonmouth, and Mariah blames Luke.  Misty wants to talk to Luke, but Claire is hiding him.  Luke has a new enemy, Willis “Diamondback” Stryker. (Erik Le Ray)  What’s his problem with Luke?

For a show that started out with such high minded ideals, this show has devolved into a show with lots of shooting, killing and violence.  They’ve turned Alfre Woodard into some kind of character from Empire.  Claire doesn’t really have a well-defined role, again, the viewer has to guess what she does and where she fits in.  I’m disappointed because this show had great potential, and it seems to be jumping the shark with five episodes to go in season 1.

Episode 9:  DWYCK

Claire takes Luke to visit an old acquaintance.  Misty gets interrogated by a department psychologist.  Diamondback consolidates Cottonmouth’s empire, with Mariah’s help.

I actually like the Misty interrogation, but the Claire Luke storyline is getting utterly ridiculous, and the intensity and quality of the acting has gone way down.  The writers are featuring Diamondback, Shades and Mariah, now and Luke and Claire, but Luke and Misty have the best chemistry.  The writers should pair Misty and Luke in more episodes, but I fear the series is too far gone.

Episode 10:  Take it Personal

Diamondback and Mariah plan to get a new ammunition to cops.  Luke learns more about Reva’s past.  He also learns more about Diamondback’s past.  Police get rough in their search for Luke, who is framed for killing a cop.  Misty is in danger as she enters Harlem’s Paradise.

I liked  the backstory on Reva and Diamondback, but the actor playing Diamondback is no Maharshela Ali.

Episode 11:  Now You’re Mine

Diamondback takes hostages inside Harlem’s Paradise, including Misty, Claire, and Candace (Deborah Ayoridnde) who may have evidence to clear Luke of one of the crimes he’s accused of.  Does Luke save the day?  Or will police capture him?

This was an interesting episode, for the first time in a long time, I cared about what happened to these characters.  Claire and Misty are developing a rivalry and that is also interesting.

Episode 12: Soliloquy of Chaos

After Misty survives being shot inside Harlem’s Paradise, police arrest Luke.  He escapes and tries to find Diamondback.  Domingo, (Jacob Vargas) head of the Latin gang, is looking for Diamondback, to take back control of gun running from him.  Shades is bailed out by Diamondback, only to have his life threatened by Diamondback, so he and Mariah contact Luke with an offer to take out Diamondback, but before they can act, Diamondback shows up to Pop’s and challenges Luke mano a mano.

Here is the episode leading up to the climactic finale, I like that it was pretty much a Claire free episode, Misty is a much more interesting character, and I’m glad they’re getting her involved right in the middle of things.  Diamondback is not the villain I preferred, but he’s the villain I was given, so here goes nothing.  Let’s see what happens.

Episode 13:  You Know My Steez

The epic showdown between Luke and Diamondback ensues, but what happens next?

The epic showdown wasn’t so epic, and the other main characters squeeze through enough loopholes to ensure a second season. One of those loopholes is especially badly written, and at times this episode is edited like a Best Of Luke Cage episode.  Disappointing.


Overall, I’d say for the first 7 episodes, Luke Cage was a very sharp, well-written, intelligent series.  The acting is vibrant filled with intensity Mahershela Ali is the best actor in this cast and he brought everyone’s skill level up with him.  The scenes with him and Mike Colter crackle with excitement.  The writing was good filled with references about black writers, and lifting Harlem up.

After episode 7, the acting suffered, after an initial good impression, Rosario Dawson became nothing more than a love interest, and good actors like Frank Whaley are limited in their roles.  Even a great actress like Alfre Woodard was hamstrung by writing that turned up the violence, and turned Woodard into an Empire esque character.  I liked Simone Missick, who plays Misty Knight, but they de-emphasized her role to bring in Claire Temple, bad move.  Missick and Colter had great chemistry.  And the writers of the comic book gave Misty a lousy power, I can’t even figure out what her power is by watching the show.

The writers also forgot all the cultural touchpoints of Harlem, and Luke Cage just became another conventional show.  Too bad, it had so much potential to be a groundbreaking show and it took the easy way out. The finale was the final chance for this show to redeem itself, and it did not.

Luke Cage:  Boxed itself in.

Beatriz At Dinner

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a massage therapist and aroma therapist in California.  She visits one of her wealthy clients named Kathy (Connie Britton) to give her a massage. Kathy is having dinner prepared for her husband Grant’s (David Warshovsky) boss, Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) a wealthy global land developer, with an infamous reputation.  Unfortunately, Beatriz’s car breaks down, and she can’t go home until her friend can fix the car, so Kathy invites Beatriz to stay for dinner, she reluctantly agrees to stay.  Immediately, Beatriz feels out of place with Kathy’s friends, the women talk about the foibles of the latest reality show star, and her leaked video, and the men drink, smoke, and talk about business.  Awkwardness turns to tension when Beatriz and Doug sit down and have dinner, and Doug questions Beatriz’s immigration status, and Beatriz enquires about if Doug was involved in a development in her hometown in Mexico.  But Beatriz loses her cool when she finds out that Doug has killed a rhino during a safari.  She yells at Doug and throws his smartphone at him.  Kathy requests that Beatriz go upstairs and take a nap.  Instead, Beatriz does a Google search on Doug Strutt, and finds out a lot more than she expects. She comes back down and says she wants to perform a song, but does she have something else in mind?

I really wanted to like Beatriz at Dinner, but the script had too many issues. What the script does well is show the awkwardness between people of different classes, ethnicities, and social strata.  But it does most things very badly.  The story hinges on Beatriz not having a ride home, apparently no one in the film has heard of Uber.  The characters are mostly caricatures, with no connection to real life people, the rich guests are only interested in increasing their material well-being, and Beatriz is a saint, who feels the pain of every living thing.  For such a cutting edge story, the gender roles are disappointingly conventional, the women gossip, while the men talk business, and they are separated by gender, until the dinner.  There is a false ending, and then a real ending, which is worse than the false ending.  The writer is so eager to make a political statement about the current state of American politics that they forgot about character development and writing a story that people would care about.

John Lithgow plays a character with obvious similarities to our current President, but as hard as Lithgow tries to humanize Doug Strutt, the writing makes Strutt a cartoonish oaf.  He doesn’t have or show any empathy or even a simple connection to another human being. Salma Hayek is a good actress, she de-emphasized her beauty for this role, as in Frida, but Beatriz is too good to be true.  She’s a holistic healer who feels the pain of her animals and in all things from nature.  Now outside of California, no one knows what a holistic healer is, never mind being able to relate to who she is, and what she’s going through. The only thing Beatriz doesn’t do is walk on water.  If the writer gave her some flaws, she would be more interesting and more relatable. Salma Hayek pours a lot of emotion into the role, but she is boxed in by bad writing, and isn’t allowed to explore the full dramatic arc of the character. The rest of the actors have even less material on which to build their characters.

The direction is a mixed bag.  Miguel Arteta definitely has an eye for visual direction, there are some beautiful shots of the Mexican waterways, but the pacing of this movie is painfully slow.  This movie is less than an hour and a half long, but it seems much longer.  The performances are ok,  but I don’t know that Lithgow or Hayek need to have their performances shaped by any director.

Beatriz At Dinner:  Lots of sizzle, very little steak.

a monster calls

Conor (Max Golds, Lewis MacDougall) is a 12 year-old  boy with a lot to cope with, he is haunted by nightmares, victimized  by bullies, who beat him up every day in school, and traumatized by his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness.  His father (Toby Kebbell) has divorced his mom and lives in America.  Conor doesn’t want to live with his grandmother (Sigorney Weaver) who is a strict disciplinarian .One day, in the midst of all his troubles, Conor sees a giant, tree-shaped monster(Liam Neesen)  in his backyard. The monster proceeds to tell Connor three stories and demands one from Conor.  The first one is about a king, his young wife, and the king’s grandson. A second story about an apothecary, and a priest, the third one is about an invisible man, who yearns to be seen.  What do these stories mean?  What story does the monster demand from Conor?

A Monster Calls is one of the most emotionally honest movies I’ve seen in a long time.  There are no easy answers in the problems that Conor faces, his grandmother is not sweet and loving, Instead, she is is all rough edges and sharp elbows.  His father comes and goes like a distant memory, and the monster who would make everything better if this was a conventional story, only serves to muddy the waters.  There is real compassion coming from Conor’s mother, but she is slowly slipping away from him, so what is Conor to do?  The story that Conor tells the monster holds the key to this movie, and the answer doesn’t shrink at all from its honesty, and that’s what makes this movie so rewarding in the end.  It sugarcoats nothing, and that is rare in a Hollywood film.

The acting is superb. Lewis Mac Dougal conveys so much emotion in this movie, anger, sorrow, regret, pain, these are difficult emotions for an adult to convey convincingly, young McDougal does an outstanding job.  Conor is also not an especially likeable character, but McDougal makes him sympathetic. Felicity Jones is also outstanding, she tries to be a constant source of love and support for her son, but she is also vulnerable because of her illness, it’s a tough balance to maintain, being strong and vulnerable, but Jones pulls it off.  Liam Neeson does another laudable job as the Monster, he is stern with Conor, but also tender when Conor needs some understanding. Sigourney Weaver plays a hard-edged grandmother, she has no time for tenderness, her daughter is dying, and she needs to express the urgency of those feelings to her grandson.  Weaver is also not playing a likeable character, but she makes the audience understand why she is the way she is.

The direction is visually captivating, not in the way it portrays London because London is always portrayed as gray and dank.  It is stunning because of the way J.A. Bayona seamlessly integrates the Monster’s stories, which are animated, with the live action, so the story never loses its sense of continuity.  The Monster also seems natural, despite his enormous size, because the Monster as Deus Ex Machina is used sparingly in the plot, and only as necessary.  Bayona also gets excellent performances from the cast, especially Lewis MacDougal, it’s not always easy to get a good performance from a young actor, but Bayona brought the best out in MacDougal.  Neeson and Weaver.

A Monster Calls:  Say hello to intelligent moviemaking.

The Zookeeper's Wife

Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenberg) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) run a zoo in Warsaw Poland. In the summer of 1939, just before the German blitzkrieg, they befriend a German zookeeper named  Lutz Heck. (Daniel Bruhl)  After the Germans take over Poland, Jan and Antonina decided to stay in Poland and Lutz, now a Nazi officer, makes them an offer to breed their best stock in a zoo in Germany.  The couple accepts the offer, and also an offer by Lutz to breed an extinct species of cattle called aurochs, from modern day bison in the Warsaw Zoo.  Johan wants to breed pigs to feed the German troops guarding the zoo, and Lutz accepts the offer.  But the pig-breeding is just a smokescreen to allow Jan to smuggle Jewish men women and children out of Poland during the height of the war.  Antonina is initially hesitant, but she is won over when she sees the brutal condition of the children Jan rescues from the Warsaw Ghetto.  Does Lutz Heck ever find out the true nature of what’s going on at the zoo?

The Zookeeper’s Wife may not be as gripping a story as Schindler’s List or Judgement at Nuremberg, but it’s a far more personal story, and in that way it makes it a more intriguing story in some ways, than the more well-known stories.   Jan and Antonina were ordinary people, they weren’t a famous industrialist or member of a military tribunal, they saw society starting to turn evil before their eyes, and they did something, at great risk to their own lives.  Depictions of Jews wearing armbands and being segregated for their faith into ghettos, and finally being “resettled” to the death camps in Poland like Auschwitz and Treblinka are always riveting and heartbreaking, and this movie is no exception.  But the writers exaggerated the advances that Heck made toward Antonina, and that is a mistake, the story itself is dramatic enough, it needs no embellishment.

The performances are very good.  I love Jessica Chastain, and although she struggles with the Polish accent, she gets the right tone for Antonina, somewhere between sorrow and desperation, and giving the character the courage to help those in need. The best acting job in the film was not from Chastain however, the best performance in the film is by Johan Heldenberg, as Jan.  He balances his concerns for the fate of the Jews in Poland with concerns about the health of his marriage. Heldenberg gives a complex performance, Jan is sensitive yet strong.  Daniel Bruhl overdoes the evil Nazi routine with his portrayal of Lutz Heck, but Heck was interested in genetics, and that in the context of Mengele’s experiments on Jews, is evil.

The direction is ok, the pacing is good, but this is a somewhat sanitized view of the Holocaust, there’s not much evidence of the Nazis’ brutality, a lot of the brutality is inferred, which is dangerous, because the assumption made is that everyone watching this movie knows about the Holocaust, and with each passing generation, that’s a dangerous assumption to make.

The Zookeeper’s Wife: A powerful story despite not visualizing Nazi atrocities.

love and friendship

The recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckensale) has gone to live with her brother-in-law, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine, (Emma Greenwell) in their palatial home Churchill.  Susan has her eye on the much younger Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel) who is also Catherine’s brother.  The age difference is shocking to Reginald’s father, Reginald Sr. (James Fleet) who is determined to stop the courtship. Quite suddenly, Susan’s daughter, Fredrica (Morfydd Clark) shows up at Churchill , and she is panicked at the thought of marrying Sir James Martin (Tom Bennet) a wealthy dolt, who wants very much to marry Fredrica, but Fredrica has fallen for young Reginald at first sight.  Nothing seems to be standing in the of Susan and young Reginald getting married, but then Lucy Manwaring  (Jenn Murray) confronts Reginald with some shocking news about Susan.  What is this news?  Does it make Reginald rethink his upcoming nuptials?  Who does Susan marry?  Who does Fredrica marry?

This is a period piece, set in 1790 based on a Jane Austen novella.  It’s a comedy of manners filled with polite titters and not large guffaws.  Most of the laughs come from Susan manipulating her daughter, her best friend and the men in her life to get her desired result. The James Martin character provides more laughs with his absurdist, buffoonish character.  If one digs deeper, there is a bit of social commentary about why women married in the late 18th century, but it’s subtle like the rest of this movie.  I’ve seen better Jane Austen adaptations, Emma and Sense and Sensibility, but this is pretty good.

The acting is good.  Beckensale seems very comfortable with the Jane Austen turn of phrase, and she probably feels good being able to act in a role that doesn’t involve vampires or werewolves.  This is the kind of role she should be playing. Tom Bennett is extremely funny as the clueless suitor of Morfydd Clark, I wish he had a bigger role.  The rest of the actors play their character roles well, but no one really stands out, other than Beckinsale and Bennett.

There’s not much that stands out about the direction, the pacing is very slow, dull Victorian England looks appropriately dull, there’s nothing visual to spice thing up.  The director does something rather amateurish, in my opinion.  He puts the character’s names in the opening scenes, so instead of explaining who they are through exposition, the viewer reads who they are, which is an immature way to tell a story.

Love and Friendship:  Beckinsale is no plain Jane, in this Austen adaptation.

sing movie

Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a koala bear music promotor who fell in love with live musical shows at a very young age.  Buster’s father worked very hard to buy Buster a theater, and now the theater has fallen into disrepair.  Buster has an idea, to put on a live musical competition and offer 1,000 dollars as the prize money to the winner.  But his secretary, Miss Crawley, (Garth Jennings) an elderly glass-eyed lizard misprints the fliers for the show and offers 100,000 dollars for the prize without Buster’s knowledge.  All the finalists have talent, but they also have issues.  Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is a pig songstress with 25 piglet children and an overworked husband.  Mike (Seth McFarland)  is a mouse with the voice of Frank Sinatra, who also has a gambling problem.  He’s being chased by bear gangsters.  Ash (Scarlet Johansson) is a porcupine teenage rock guitarist, whose boyfriend is cheating on her.  Johnny (Taron Edgerton) is a gorilla with a beautiful voice, but he’s part of a gang, headed up by his dad, Big Daddy, (Peter Serafinowicz) the gang robs banks, and has one last big job coming.  Meena is an elephant with a powerful voice, who is too shy to sing.

Buster has a bigger problem, he doesn’t have the prize money, but he has an idea, impress Nana Noodleman, (Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson) grandmother of his assistant, Eddie, (John C. Reilly) and Buster can have the prize money for the concert to save the theater.  So Buster makes some ill-advised repairs to the theater to impress Nana, does Buster’s plan work?  Do the performers overcome their problems in order to perform?

Sing is a movie with a lot of promise, but the script has its fair share of issues with negative racial and ethnic stereotypes   When one of the main characters is a gorilla, and a gang member, that’s got a lot of negative racial baggage attached to it.  Also the relentlessly happy Japanese J-pop group is also a stereotype, also why is the elderly secretary portrayed as a screw-up always searching for her glass eye?  Is it ok to teach kids ageism also?  Despite these stumbles, the theme of music helping people rise above their particular circumstance is a good one.  Music is the perfect vehicle to illustrate this theme because a good song can lift people emotionally, spiritually and even physically if the song is done well enough.  Great acting by all the leads, and great singing by the lead actors makes this movie better than its script.

Matthew McConaughey loses most of his Texas twang for this role and makes Buster a multi-dimensional character.  Buster loves music, he loves the theater, because the theater is symbolic of his love of music and his love of his father.  So it’s a complex performance, and McConaughey pulls it off. Thankfully, he doesn’t sing. Reese Witherspoon also does an outstanding job as a haggard wife and mother who finds a release in singing and she does do her own singing, as she did in I Walk The Line, and she has a great voice.  Her acting skills also make the overworked mom who nonetheless loves her kids convincing. Scarlet Johansson plays a rebellious teen guitarist, who has to cope with a cheating boyfriend. Johansson also has a good singing voice, and amply conveys the pain of being cheated on.  Taron Edgerton is torn between his love of singing and his love for his criminal father, and illustrates the anguish well.  Who knew he had such a good voice? Not me. Seth McFarland hams it up as the Sinatra sound alike mouse, but his voice is better than his acting.

The animation in this movie is beautiful, the first scene of the original theater is so true to life that the viewers will believe that he or she is going into a real theater.  The pacing is good, the director, Gareth Jennings is also the writer.  I would say he gets good performances from the cast, but this is an all-star cast, but this cast doesn’t need any director to shape their performances.

Sing: A few sour notes can’t spoil this film.