The Best Animated Feature Gauntlet – Part 1

In 2001 The Academy Awards introduced a new category to their lineup, the first lasting one since 1981 when they finally started honoring achievements in makeup.  It was a category dedicated to the best feature length animated film of a given year and would join Best Documentary and Best International Feature among categories that looked at films in their entirety within a specific specialized form.  One could argue that categories like this are a problem, that they ghettoize certain kinds of movies and make it harder for them to compete in major categories like Best Picture but I’m not really here to weigh in on that.  Really my interest in this category is simply that it’s relatively new and because of that one could realistically watch all eighty nine films that have been nominated for the award, making it one of the only categories I’m likely to be able to do that for.  Between the all the various series I’ve done around animated films over the years as well as my usual yearly watching I’ve actually gotten really close already.

I’ve checked and there are actually only fifteen movies that have been nominated in that category that I haven’t seen and in this series I’m going to try to watch all fifteen of them and complete the set.  This is not, however, going to be like my Disney or Pixar series where I write outlandishly long reviews for everything.  This is going to be an exercise in speed and getting through this in a timely manner, so unless something really stands out as needing further elaboration I’m sticking to one or two paragraph long capsule reviews for everything.  I’m also bucking my usual pattern or watching things in chronological order.  If I did that a lot of the movies I’m kind of dreading having to watch will be front loaded at the beginning and that seems discouraging.  So instead I’ve used a random number generator to decided what order I watch these things in.  I’ll switch a few things around to ensure I don’t see certain sequels prior to their predecessors and I also reserve the rights to switch things around to accommodate when I’m subscribed to some streaming services, but otherwise I intend to stick to the wacky random order I’ve been dealt.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)

Though it was chosen randomly to be first, we’re going to be starting with one of the earlier films to be nominated for the Best Animated Feature category, nominated in the second year of that category’s existence, which was notable for being one of the only slates with five nominees during the category’s first decade and also for the eventual winner: Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.  The film in question is Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, one of a handful of traditionally animated movies that DreamWorks Animation made early in their history when they were trying to compete directly with Renaissance era Disney like The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado.  Though it had been in production since the late 90s, the film would not come out until the year after Shrek had been a big hit and it was clear that Dreamworks’ future would be CGI and sarcastic rather than hand drawn and Diseny-esque.  The film was a minor hit, but as with Dreamworks’ other forays into this style it proved hard to market a Disney movie without the Disney name and the movie is now mostly remembered as a movie for weird millennial horse girls.  That’s unfortunate because there are actually some pretty impressive things about the film.

The film is set during the mid to late 19th century in the American West and focuses in on a wild stallion named Spirit who gets captured by the American cavalry as they march on a campaign against the Native populations.  They try to tame him, but he eventually escapes with the assistance of a Lakota man who had been taken prisoner in the same camp.  It’s a pretty simple story as these things go but the film does some interesting things stylistically.  For one, the horses don’t talk in the film.  Spirit is sort of voiced by Matt Damon, but we only hear that through voice-over narration, otherwise the film’s equine cast sticks to making horse sounds. Unfortunately the film still feels obligated to include songs in its soundtrack and they do this by taking a page out of the playbook of Disney’s Tarzan by having omniscient songs by an adult contemporary singer play over the film but instead of hiring the already lame Phil Collins they hired the even lamer Bryan Adams which is… unfortunate.  Otherwise though this is pretty good at what it’s trying to do.  The animation is pretty high quality and the film manages to add some action scenes that are pretty high quality and the film generally carries itself with dignity… something I would not associate with the DreamWorks Animation that would soon emerge post-Shrek.
***1/2 out of Five

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

The Academy’s favorite studio, by far, is Pixar.  Second favorite is original recipe Disney, and Dreamworks racked up a ton of nominations through their general ubiquity during the era.  Beyond those you start getting to their smaller scale favorites like Studio Ghibli and Cartoon Saloon, and then finally you get to the humble British stop motion studio Aardman Animation.  Aardman came to prominence through their “Wallace and Gromit” shorts (two of which won Oscars in the Animated Short category) and moved into feature films in the year 2000 with Chicken Run (which came out the year before the Animated Feature category started).  They then brought Wallace and Gromit to the screen with The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which won them their only Oscar in the feature category but they have been nominated several times in the years since then.  At some point they also began making a series for British television called “Shaun the Sheep” which has aired off and on since 2007 and has upwards of 170 episodes, but these “episodes” are very short 7 minute episodes with no dialogue about the exploits on a farm in Northern England with a focus on a titular sheep that lives there.  So apparently the show was a hit in the UK and elsewhere but I’m not sure if it ever took off in the United States and I likely never would have heard about it had it not been for this 2015 feature film which found its way to the Best Animated feature category in a particularly non-commercial year for the category outside of the eventual winner, Inside Out, as the other nominees included Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There, and the minimalist Brazilian film Boy and the World.

So, essentially this is a TV cartoon being brought to the big screen, which is not generally the most reputable of genres but Aardman is not an ordinary cartoon maker.  The TV shorts were of course exceptionally short and none of them featured dialogue so there were some special challenges in bringing this to the big screen and their goal in upping the stakes were to push these farm animals into having an adventure in a city rather than their usual farm trappings and… chaos ensues.  The reason these farm animals find themselves in the city is some cartoony contrivance involving their human farmer accidentally rolling there in his trailer and bumping his head and getting amnesia, which you just sort of need to go with… in fact there’s a lot here you just need to go with like the sheep being able to infiltrate the city by standing on each other’s shoulders while wearing trench coats and other bits of cartoon logic.  Honestly it’s not a movie that lends itself to a whole lot of analysis beyond “its’ pretty cute and charming in that humble Aardman way.”  The Claymation style the studio has been at the forefront of works well with the material at hand and they do a pretty good job of telling the story through visuals without using real spoken dialogue.  I think it maybe loses its way a bit towards the end as it tries to ramp up to a bit of an action finale, but that wasn’t really a huge problem in the grand scheme of things.
*** out of Five

Ice Age (2002)

One of the hardest transitions in film history was the switch from silent movies to sound.  The language of silent cinema had really been perfected by the late twenties and much of that progress had to be undone in order to accommodate sets that could record sound and as such a lot of early thirties cinema feels clunky and uninspired compared to what the masters of the previous decade accomplished.  I bring this up because one can see a similar rough transition when the animation industry had to transition from traditional 2D animation to CGI and watching Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron in close proximity to Ice Age, two movies that came out within three months of each other, certainly highlights how rough that transition was both technologically and artistically.  Put simply, this movie is hideous.  I can’t imagine even at the time anyone thinking this looked “good” on any level but the film’s barely functional animation has aged like milk in the twenty years since this was released.  The environment textures look like something from a Playstation 1 game and the character designs, especially the designs on the one or two human characters here look absolutely terrible.

Narratively the film is a little different than I expected.  I’m used to seeing trailers for future installments of this series where there’s this sprawling cast of animals but in this first movie it’s mostly about a Mammoth voiced by Ray Romano, a sloth voiced by John Leguizamo, and a saber toothed tiger voiced by Denis Leary who find themselves in possession of a human infant that they need to bring back to his people.  So… basically it’s Three Godfathers but set in the Late Cenozoic era and with talking extinct mammals.  The film isn’t as bogged down by pop culture references as I expected, clearly the malign influence of Shrek hadn’t quite reached other animated movies quite yet, but the comedy that is here is pretty dumb just the same.  Otherwise there really isn’t a whole lot to say about this one, it’s dumb and forgettable and looks terrible and one would think it would belong in the dustbin of history and yet… the movie was somehow a huge hit.  It basically put its production company, the 20th Century Fox subsidiary Blue Skies Animation, on the map and it proceeded to spawn four theatrical sequels over fourteen years, a fifth one that debuted on Disney+ just this year.  It’s become the The Land Before Time of the 21st Century.  Man, kids are stupid.
*1/2 out of Five

The Croods (2013)

As an animation studio Dreamworks Animation probably peaked in ubiquity somewhere around 2010.  That’s not to say they declined artistically after then, in fact an argument could be made that at least some of their films from the 2010s are an improvement over what came before, but as a brand they feel less like an arch-rival to Pixar and more like just one of many different second tier animation studios fighting it out with each other.  Their 2013 film The Croods is a pretty good example of the kind of odd place they were in by their second decade: professionally made but formulaic, lacking in identity, and generally not terribly inspired.  You get the film’s gimmick pretty quick: we’re introduced to a nuclear family of cave people with an over-protective father, a long suffering mother, a sassy grandmother, a feckless brother, and our protagonist: a rebellious teenage girl who longs for adventure in the great wide somewhere.  So the gag is basically “cave men, they were just like us, except everything was made out of rock” which was kind of the joke of The Flintstones fifty some years earlier except that this family is isolated rather than living in a bustling caveman suburb and they’re living in some kind of fictional world with mythological flora and fauna.

Within about five minutes you can pretty easily predict exactly where this is going, the setup all but assures that this will be an arc where the over-protective father will get angry at the adventurous daughter for taking risks he doesn’t approve of, this will cause a rift between the two of them, but eventually he’ll come to learn to lighten up a little and she’ll realize she does love her family despite its dysfunctions.  Also there’s a love interest for the teenage girl, a boy from outside the family who isn’t as buff as the people in her family but is sensitive and smart enough to know how to build traps and control fire and he also plays into this conflict in predictable ways.  It’s all just so simple in its adherence to the modern family movie playbook as to be kind of uninteresting.  The animation and visual and voice cast are supposed to fill in the film’s value, and they do go some of the way to doing this.  The world of the film is certainly colorful and the technology rendering it is mostly up to snuff.  There’s also an all-star voice cast here including Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Nicholas Cage, and Catherine Keener, and they’re mostly fine in their various roles.  Overall though I don’t think this world is nearly interesting enough to make up for the film’s offensively pedestrian script, and general lack of inspiration or novelty.
** out of Five

Ferdinand (2017)

A couple movies back I looked at Ice Age, the movie that more or less “made” Blue Sky Studios in their early days and Ferdinand kind of saw them out.  It was the second to last movie the studio made (the last being Spies in Disguise) and the last one to receive an Oscar nomination.  The studio was never a heavy hitter in animation; they were basically a poor man’s Dreamworks who were in turn a poor man’s Disney, but they had managed to remain somewhat relevant and had some hits under their belt and probably could have continued were it not for some behind the scenes business machinations, namely the acquisition of their parent studio (20th Century Fox) by Disney.  It doesn’t take a genius to guess why that was going to be a death blow: Disney already specializes in animation and has two major animation studios under their belt and they didn’t need a third, especially not a third rate one like Blue Skies.  Disney does still have all of Blue Sky’s IP and intends to make Ice Age stuff for Disney+ and may also be making a Rio 3 but the studio itself has been shut down and most of their people let go, pretty much by no fault of their own.  Kind of an ignominious end to their story and it’s a little ironic that the studio seems to have been earning some respectability with their last few projects including Ferdinand.

Ferdinand is an adaptation of the picture book of the same name by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson.  That book, published in 1936, is an all-time classic of its genre.  Its depiction of a bull who preferred to relax and smell flowers rather than engage in violent bullfights was viewed by some as a pacifist parable in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and is more likely to be viewed today as a critique of toxic masculinity and a celebration of self acceptance, though Leaf denied any political undertones and claimed to have written it quickly largely as a means of giving Lawson a platform to show off his illustration skill.  Regardless it’s something a lot of people hold dear, especially the type of sensitive male children who preferred to relax and engage in “softer” interests in the face of a society that really wants them to roughhouse and play sports.  I can’t say that it was a favorite of mine when I was a kid but I do remember it having been read to me at some point or another.

This Blue Sky adaptation in many ways falls into the same place that a lot of the recent Dr. Seuss adaptations; an expanded and kind of dumbed down re-tellings made for a generation that needs a lot more stimulation in order to get their attention.  Beyond that the movie has to contend with the fact that it’s trying to be a feature length adaptation of a book that’s all of fifteen to twenty illustrated pages long.  When Disney did its own straightforward adaptation of it 1938 it ran all of seven minutes long, so obviously a whole lot of padding would be required to make this happen.  The book gives a very abridged account of Ferdinand’s childhood before sending him to the matador ring where he refuses to fight before giving him a happy ending where this film needs to add a whole bunch of other bull characters, give Ferdinand a second life where he’s raised by a little girl, add a goat character who acts as Ferdinand’s coach, bring in some silly rivalry with the farm’s horses (including a very stupid dance off sequence), and finally a big elaborate escape scene.

Does all this really add to the story? Not really, it does mostly seem like a lot of water treading and bad comedy as it leads to the inevitable conclusion.  However, I do think the film does a pretty good job of not diluting the central message of self-acceptance and pacifism in the grand scheme of things and that is a message that’s every bit as relevant in the 21st Century as it was in the 20th especially in the face of all the right wing revanchist bullshit we’re dealing with today, so on some level I can’t be too mad at all of it.  Also, while a lot of this cartoony comedy is very much not for me I do think it’s a little better handled here than it is in a lot of its competition and the animation and voice acting is by and large pretty decent.  Probably not a movie that quite needed it’s Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination but it’s not an embarrassment of a nominee either and it does make me think Blue Sky was on its way to maybe being a little more respectable than some studios out there, particularly the one that rhymes with “indoctrination.”

*** out of Five

This series will continue with to further installments in the future

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness(5/5/2022)

Last year the MCU was as present as it’s ever been.  Thanks to pandemic holdovers they ended up putting out more movies in a single calendar year than they ever have before, four of them, but they also put out no fewer than five TV series on Disney+.  You’d think with all that they’d have to have one great product in the mix out of sheer probability but I’m not sure that really happened.  The TV shows ranged from “pretty middling” to “fairly satisfying” which is about what I expected but I was more disappointed with the movies.  Black Widow was barely passable, Shang-Chi had some highlights but fell apart pretty quickly, I liked Eternals better than some people but it was clearly flawed, and then there was Spider-Man: No Way Home which certainly made a whole lot of money but artistically I thought it was kind of pandering and ultimately a bit mid.  Then again my viewing of that last movie was a bit compromised.  It seemed wildly irresponsible to see that movie in the packed theaters it was playing in right in the middle of the omicron surges so I ended up waiting multiple weeks to see it and by that time a lot of its twists had basically been spoiled for me, and the screening I went to was still semi-crowded anyway.  So this time I said “screw it.”  There’s no awful variant going around, so I went ahead and saw it opening day.  And I’m glad I did because this is almost certainly my favorite Marvel movie since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.

This is the first MCU film where one of the Disney+ series is a pretty serious prerequisite: you really need to watch the show “Wandavision” before going into this one.  The story picks up some time after the end of that TV series and kicks in when Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is at the wedding of his ex-flame from the first movie Christine (Rachel McAdams), which has him a little depressed.  Fortunately he’s drawn away by a one eyed Lovecraftian squid monster from another dimension which he comes to learn was sent through the dimensions by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) in pursuit of a teenage girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who also comes from another dimension and has a unique power that allows her to travel between different worlds in the multiverse.  Maximoff apparently intends to kill Chavez and steal her powers in order to find alternate universe versions of the children she (sort of) had and lost over the course of the events of “Wandavision,” an event that Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) believe will cause dangerous rifts in the universes.  To counter the attack they take Chavez to their fortress/temple in Kamar-Taj but there’s no guaranty that those fortifications will be enough to hold off the raging Scarlett Witch.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first.  I think people are going to have some problems with the way Wanda Maximoff is depicted here.  The film basically starts with her as fully evil as the film begins and willing to kill dozens of people in her frankly selfish pursuit of satisfied motherhood.  On some big picture thematic level I kind of like this as I like it when movies call out characters for using their families as an excuse to engage in violent and destructive behavior against everyone else’s families (a staple theme of gangster movies) but this isn’t really where the character was at the end of “Wandavision,” or at least it’s not where it feels like we left her.  At the end of that show she had seemed to have taken some of the first steps toward healing enough to quit imposing her will on others but it seems this is trying to suggest that her tapping into the evil Darkhold spell book in that show’s post-credits made her backslide in the biggest way and become even more violent as a result and by the time the film has started she’s almost like a terminator in her dogged pursuit.  There were clearly some psychological developments we weren’t privy to and that’s a bit jarring.  Still, I kind of view this more as a failing of “Wandavision” than as a failing of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.  That show had one job: show how Wanda got to this point and it failed at this by soft-peddling her character arc at the end.

Outside of that though I think this movie is quite the romp and probably Marvel’s most successful movie since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.  That’s in large part due to the decision to bring veteran filmmaker Sam Raimi in to direct; it’s his first movie in almost a decade and of course is also something of a triumphant return to the superhero genre after he more or less invented the modern superhero movie in 2002 with Spider-Man.  This is of course an MCU movie first and a Sam Raimi second… but it’s a closer second than I expected it to be.  There were rumors going in that this would be Marvel’s first horror movie and I don’t agree with that at all, but there are horror elements here that at least have a certain energy that’s reminiscent of some of Raimi’s thrillers like the Evil Dead movies and Drag Me to Hell.  Horror in Raimi’s work always has sort of weird comedic energy and a sort of grisly slapstick to it, and he does push the PG-13 rating about as far as it can go to make that happen here in certain spots, especially in the third act.  I might go so far as to say it’s more identifiably Raimi-esque than any of his Spider-Man movies but that’s mostly a factor of Dr. Strange as a character lending himself to such a treatment in a way the web-slinger does not.

Beyond that though the film is pretty visually impressive ride through multiple dimensions of the multiverse.  Multiverse stories always run the risk of feeling like convoluted headaches and some of Marvel’s projects of this kind (“Loki,” I’m looking at you) have run the risk of becoming like this, but I found this movie’s multi-dimensional aspects to mostly be a breeze.  I suspect the film will draw some, in my mind, rather unfair comparisons to Everything, Everywhere, All at Once but this is really doing something pretty different and is using alternate dimensions more as a backdrop for an action movie than it is trying to take an overly deep dive into different possibilities for Strange, though there is a little of that to be found.  As an action movie the film doesn’t break too dramatically from the Marvel mold but Raimi does vary things up enough scene to scene and Doctor Strange as a character lends himself to cool trippy visuals and alternate dimensions.  The first Doctor Strange was the only Marvel film I felt compelled to watch in 3D and did the same for this sequel, which was a choice made largely out of convenience rather than desire but I’m glad I did because the film did make really good use of the format (and of course that’s also the best way to watch the attached teaser of the next Avatar film).  Ultimately this movie is not any kind of game changer either for Marvel or for superhero movies more generally, but I do think it gets things a bit back on track for the MCU and I do think it’s important to celebrate these movies when they get things right.

**** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 4/24/2022

Scream (3/14/2022)

The people behind the Scream franchise have really found quite the racket for themselves: they can make the same damn movie five times and call their similarities “commentary” instead of laziness.  Of course they’re not alone among slasher films in being repetitious but at least in other franchises they try to inject novelty here or there or perhaps go back and forth with their casting and these franchise evolutions are interesting even if they’re not great.  By contrast the Scream franchise has traded in those ups and downs in favor of a somewhat consistent if repetitive quality in which the original film’s cast keeps coming back to once again fight copycat killers trying to recreate the events of the first film albeit with fresh commentary about whatever new kinds of horror movies are out there (even if they ultimately just keep being slasher movies where people get stabbed with hunting knives).  This one in particular is kind of lazy when it comes to the fundamentals of being a slasher movie, by which I mean the kills aren’t very inventive, these movies have really been milking the “tense chase where the killer is knocked back a few times, but then catches up and after a struggle murders the victim with a knife” formula for a while now.  There’s a sort of clever explanation this time around for why these killers keep doing the same thing over and over which might satisfy some people but which feels a bit like an excuse to me.  Had Scream 2, Scream 3, or Scream 4 done more to switch things up previously this kind of back to basics approach might have resonated a bit more metatexutally and textually but they all played it pretty safe themselves and this really seems like one too many repeats of the same to me.
**1/2 out of Five

The Adam Project (3/21/2022)

I think the worst kind of mediocrity is intentional mediocracy, which is something I find to be genuinely less appealing than sincere badness, and the new Netflix film The Adam Project is intentional mediocracy at its worst.  To the film’s credit I do suspect that at some point when the project was just a spec script written by T.S. Nowlin (before three other credited writers ended up working on this thing) that someone actually had the hopes of this being a real movie, unfortunately this was clearly put through the wringer and handed off to director Shawn Levy, an absolute hack who went from making dreck like the Cheaper by the Dozen remake and the Night at the Museum movies to becoming Ryan Reynolds’ BFF and making expensive dreck like Free Guy and he is now apparently tapped to direct the next Deadpool.  Speaking of Ryan Reynolds… I think I’ve come to hate this guy?  I don’t think I’ve particularly liked him in much of anything ever and the particular pandering persona he’s adopted since his Deadpool comeback just grates on me.  Dude has a punchable face.  This particular movie is yet another movie trying to ripoff the tone and aesthetics of Amblin movies from the 80s but this isn’t even trying to ripoff the good movies from that movement and instead resembles second rate entrants like Flight of the Navigator.  It involves a time travel plotline that doesn’t do anything interesting with its concepts and also relies on an implausible amount of technological innovation happening in the next thirty years.  The film isn’t exactly as incompetent as the tone of this review probably makes it sound, but it’s definitely second rate, the product of far too much money being thrown at something devoid of inspiration and driven more by Netflix algorithms than by any actual human crafting and creativity.  It’s a movie whose existence and relative success depresses me.
** out of Five

The House (4/10/2022)

The House is an animated anthology film that debuted on Netflix early this year and tells three stories using stop-motion animation all linked by the fact that they’re set in the same house… sort of.  There isn’t a continuity between the three stories and the history of the house, in fact the three stories are clearly set in different universes what with one of them involving talking mice, one involving talking cats, and one involving humans, and the décor of the house in all three is completely different to the point where I would not have made the connection that it was the same place in all three were it not for the title and ostensible high concept.  I would also say the animation quality varied quite a bit between the three: I didn’t think the felty style really worked much for the human story but that the animators did do some good work with the fur on the one with the cats and the rodent one sat somewhere in the middle for me.  From a story perspective though I probably preferred the one with the mice, which was a funny little short about a Kafkaesque real estate transaction.  Overall though I didn’t really find that much of a through line through these segments and in some ways wonder if they would have been better served as separate shorts than as ostensible parts that don’t really fit together as a whole.  Overall I can’t say I was wildly impressed by the project as a whole, but there are some cute bits to be found in it.
**1/2 out of Five

Munich – The Edge of War (4/23/2022)

If there’s one alleged lesson in history that the world may have over-learned it’s Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler to hand over the Sudetenland in exchange for a promise not to engage in future aggressions, which was obviously a promise that Hitler did not stick to.  The perceived lesson is that “appeasement” never works and that you need to fight aggression with aggression.  It’s a historical parallel that I heard war hawks cite endlessly when trying to cheerlead America into the disastrous Iraq invasion, suggesting to me that this “lesson” is always dubious.  The notion that the allies would have benefited from starting the war earlier is dubious in the first place and viewing this as the ur-precedent in global relations ignores all the times that negotiation and diplomacy actually have worked.  Anyway, that key bit of history is at the center of the historical thriller Munich-The Edge of War, which is set during the Munich conference where those fateful decisions were made but primarily from the perspective of a young advisor to Chamberlain and an old German friend of his who now works in Hitler’s government but is part of a “deep state” of sorts hoping to bring him down.

It’s a decent set-up and Jeremy Irons is pretty good as Chamberlain, but I’m not sure the younger characters quite connect as well as the filmmakers intended.  I don’t know, I like them individually but I’m not sure I ever quite bought this old friendship of theirs, I suspect a handful of additional flashbacks to their student days were cut from the film.  Beyond that I’d say the filmmaking here is mostly just okay; it mostly manages to stay grounded, which is nice, but the handful of times it tries to dip into Hitchcockian suspense never really take off.  I suspect that the film was made in order to strike parallels between the rise of Hitler and the recent rise of Trump and other right-wing nationalists around the world today, which is interesting, but watching it now I actually saw more unintended parallels to the recent invasion of Ukraine.  Through the film Chamberlain discusses a deep psychological need on the part of his citizens to see their leaders doing everything possible to maintain the peace, and I think he was right about that.  There was, in retrospect, a major benefit to making of clear to the world that Germany was solely the aggressor in the war in much the same way it was a very canny move to never give Putin any sort of legitimate casus belli for his invasion.  But again, that’s me making connections that certainly weren’t intended when this was being filmed.  As a movie unto itself this is only okay.  It debuted on Netflix, which is probably for the best as this only sort of feels like a theatrical film and kind of reminded me of the made-for-TV movies that HBO would produce in the 2000s and which only ever seemed to be watched by Emmy voters.
*** out of Five

The Fallout (4/24/2022)

Before seeing it the new HBO Max exclusive film The Fallout mostly seemed notable for being the first instance I can recall of a movie’s trailer having a trigger warning, which was weird because said trailer was not very nasty, it mostly seemed to just be there because of the film’s basic theme of being about teenagers being traumatized by a shooting that happened at their school.  So, this would be the latest entrant in the “zoomer high schoolers being depressed about stuff” genre that usually tends to be more of a TV thing.  This sort of being an HBO production one can’t help but be reminded of “Euphoria,” in fact I think it’s fair to say that this is what “Euphoria” would be like if it wasn’t being made by a deranged edgelord, which is to say it’s less ridiculous but also a bit less entertaining.  Also the teenagers have an actual reason to be depressed messes, and that helps.  Jenna Ortega stars as the central teenager and is quite good in the film; she’s having something of a breakout year and I think we’re going to be seeing quite a bit of her in the future.  Megan Park’s direction is evenhanded and mostly sensitive but maybe lacking in reach and ambition.  I think the film was made with its inevitable streaming destiny in mind as this definitely doesn’t feel like a theatrical film but also doesn’t necessarily have the hallmarks of being a “TV movie” either.  Maybe it started as a TV pilot but wasn’t picked up when “Eurphoria” came into the picture and this was made as a conciliation prize.  Eh, maybe that’s overthinking it.  Clearly HBO is just interested in becoming the streaming service of choice for depressed zoomers and this is part of the initiative and as these things go it’s alright.
*** out of Five

The Northman(4/21/2022)

Though he has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most creative minds in the history of world literature, most of William Shakespeare’s plays were derived from existing source stories that scholars have identified.  His most famous play, “Hamlet,” is no exception to this.  That play’s story is said to originate (possibly via some derivative works) in the legend of “Amleth” as chronicled in Saxo Grammaticus’ tome “Gesta Danorum” which was of course itself derived from existing apocryphal bits of Danish history and storytelling but is speculated to have ultimately derived from some sort of Icelandic source.  Like Shakespeare’s character, Amleth found himself having to deal with a father slain by an uncle who then married his mother and needing to find a way to get his revenge and ultimately does it by feigning madness.  Unlike Shakespeare’s character, Amleth is never really hesitant about wanting to kill the usurper uncle and there’s also some weird shit at the end about having to take multiple wives or something.  Really though the bigger differences are probably cultural.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nominally set in Denmark, but it might as well be set in Yorkshire for all Shakespeare knew about that place.  He turned what was likely a pagan Viking legend and turned it into a very courtly and Christianized story.  And this is likely what director Robert Eggers set out to correct with his new movie The Northman, which aims to “take back” the Amleth story by making it an even more savage story of revenge than even the original story.

This version of the Amleth story begins in the year 895 when Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is just an adolescent boy and his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) has just returned from war to greet him and Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).  Aurvandill is a bit weary from his raids and decides to put Amleth through a rite of passage ritual overseen by their shaman/jester Heimir (Willem Dafoe) that involves taking hallucinogens and embracing his inner animal totems and also then swearing to avenge his father if ever he were killed.  This ends up coming into play sooner rather than later as right after they emerge from their ritual the king is attacked and killed by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang).  Amleth escapes from the kingdom but right before he leaves he sees Fjölnir carrying away his mother.  The film then flashes forward about fourteen years to Amleth in his fighting prime having joined up with a group of berserkers who are raiding villages in Rus when he hears that his uncle had left the kingdom he’d taken over through assassination and was now taking up on the Viking frontier of Iceland.  Realizing that this was his chance to get revenge he infiltrates a slave ship heading to that farm intending to pose as a slave and plot his vengeance and along the way he meets a Rus slave woman named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who offers to help him in his scheme.

The Northman was directed by Robert Eggers, who may well be the most exciting American filmmaker to emerge in the last ten years.  His 2015 film The Witch was a major landmark of the “A24 Horror” trend and his 2019 film The Lighthouse was one of the most formally adventurous movies to ever open on 980 screens.  It kind of seemed like he was a particularly canny horror guys but the real commonality between his movies seems to be his interest in history and folklore combined with some boldly uncompromising instincts during what would seem to be a highly risk averse era in American filmmaking.  The Northman is in some ways less complicated than his previous works in that it is essentially an action movie with a revenge arc as its backbone, but in other ways this is his biggest risk yet in that he’s playing with a serious budget this time around.  Reports have suggested that Focus Features made this movie for something in the range of 70 to 90 million dollars, so this isn’t a movie that can just live or die by being a cool indie, it’s in many ways a film that will decide both if he can work on large canvases going forward and also frankly if Hollywood sub-studios can afford to fund trippy historical epics even if they seemingly have a lot of bankable violence and action in them.

Robert Eggers is clearly something of a history buff but he’s not someone who’s interested in events so much as he’s interested in getting under the skin of the past cultures he depicts and rather than expose their beliefs as quaint he kind of engages with things on their level.  Satan was very much at work in The Witch, nautical superstitions were to be taken very seriously in The Lighthouse, and here in The Northman Viking notions of fate and honor are vitally important though not completely unquestioned.  I would almost compare it to 300 in the way that it kind of goes along with the ancient mindset of its characters, but the film’s visual style is way more earthy and realistic even if it isn’t afraid to kick some ass occasionally.  Audiences willing to go along with some occasional tippyness can enjoy this movie as little more than a 21st Century Conan the Barbarian but its interest in deconstructing the Amleth story while still respecting it does I think elevate things: there’s a twist to the whole story at about the two thirds point which interestingly reminded me less of “Hamlet” than of an even older Greek Tragedy that I won’t name so as to avoid spoilers.  Still, the film walks a tricky line, one could view it as a dumbed down version of what Eggers has done elsewhere and maybe be a bit disappointed in it or you can view it as one of the smartest and most ambitious mainstream action movies Hollywood has made in ages, which is maybe to overrate it.  Ultimately of the three Robert Eggers movies it’s my third favorite, but man, if you’re going to sell out even a little this is definitely the right way to do it.

**** out of Five

April 2022 Round-Up

You Won’t Be Alone(4/12/2022)

I think we might all be a little spoiled when it comes to horror movies.  Right now there’s a Macedonian language movie about witchcraft rooted in Blakens folklore and shot in the Academy ratio and using a lyrical style playing at hundreds of multiplexes across the country and all anyone can say is “meh, been there, done that.”  That’s not to say I’m immune from this jadedness either because I also watched Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone and also found myself watching what is by most standards an incredible unique piece of work and still thinking it was a bit of a trend hopper.  The film is set in a 19th Century Macedonian village and focuses on a girl who is claimed by a witch named Old Maid Maria as an infant.  Her birth mother strikes a deal to keep her until she’s sixteen, at the cost of the girl’s speech and the birth mother opts to raise her in a cave away from the rest of humanity.  There was no escaping this deal the deal however and the witch does come to claim the girl at sixteen, killing the birth mother, and tries to raise the girl as her own.

The film’s outdoor trappings and earthy witchcraft themes certainly suggest this is trying to be an “elevated horror” movie (for lack of a better term) but the thing is, this isn’t really a horror film at all despite the subject matter and occasional graphic violence.  The movie doesn’t really engage in suspense at all and isn’t really trying to “scare” the audience at any time.  Instead the movie is kind of trying to answer the question “what if Terrence Malick tried to make a movie about Balkens witchcraft… and also wasn’t as talented of a filmmaker.”  The film has a similar technique of focusing on nature and occasional odd angles of the day to day moments of village life as the witch goes about her thing with a lot of the storytelling done through voiceover reflecting the protagonists’ thoughts.  That voiceover is a bit odd because the protagonist, having been raised in a platonic cave and not being able to actually speak hasn’t fully grasped speech and her internal monologue has something of a caveman quality to it, which is maybe a layer of strangeness the movie didn’t need.  Otherwise the movie does get into a bit of a groove as it goes and becomes a story about someone literally trying on different lives over the course of years and coming to learn what humanity is about, which is certainly interesting in theory but I’m not sure it ever quite connects and the overall film never quite comes together in my opinion, but still, the movie has too much going for it to be ignored.  It is worth a look even if it never quite jived with me.
*** out of Five

Morbius(4/17/2022)

Like a sane person, I normally don’t go to see movies that I expect to be bad, but something about the word “Marvel” makes me do insane things… things like knowingly going to bad movies.  It’s a sickness really.  And it’s that sickness that made me take time out of my weekend to see the new film Morbius, which isn’t even produced by Marvel and is instead another example of Sony abusing their Spider-Man license like they did with the Venom movies.  My expectations for this were subterranean and that maybe worked to the movie’s benefit because my overall response to the movie was more that it was middling to bad rather than terrible.  In fact I probably liked it better than either of the Venom movies, but that’s not a very high bar.  The film stars Jared Leto as the titular character, a vampire themed villain from the Spider-Man comics who became an unconventional bloodsucker by splicing his DNA with that of vampire bats in an attempt to cure an unnamed blood diseased he’s afflicted with.  The science fiction here is quite nonsensical and the movie wildly misrepresents Vampire Bats as a species, which are in reality tiny little docile animals.

Like Venom this in many ways feels like a pre-MCU superhero movie from the 2000s, which isn’t an inherently horrible trait but does feel weird and out of place.  Unlike Venom this is not about a particularly popular character from the comics but that’s not entirely a bad thing either, and as someone who is famously kind of interested in film vampirism I would say this appeals to me at least on a conceptual level more than that symbiont.  I would also say that while I’m no fan of Jared Leto I do think his casting here does make sense, certainly more sense than Tom Hardy’s casting in Venom and some of the vampire effects inherent in the character are at least a little cool.  However, make no mistake, this movie is dumb and it cuts a lot of corners.  Questions like “why are they doing science on a tanker filled with trigger happy mercenaries” go unaddressed and most of the side characters are both underdeveloped and generally unlikable and the dynamic with the eventual villain mostly fell flat.  And don’t get me started on the post-credit scenes, which don’t make a lick of sense.  Still, there are worse superhero movies out there and some of the negative reviews out there for this thing strike me as being somewhat hyperbolic pile-ons.
** out of Five

Apollo 10 1⁄2: A Space Age Childhood(4/19/2022)

One of the funny ironies in life is that often the people who are considered to be “the voice of a generation” are people who don’t even belong to that generation.  For example, Bob Dylan is not actually a baby boomer: he was born in 1941, that makes him part of The Silent Generation.  Similarly, Eminem is not a millennial.  He was born in 1972, that’s Generation X.  Then, to get to the point at hand, there’s Richard Linklater who sure reads as being one the defining cinematic voices of Generation X and yet he was born in 1960 which does make him a young baby boomer.  This was never really a secret: one of his most famous movies, Dazed and Confused, is about what it meant to be a teenager in 1976 and if you did the math that does technically make it a movie about baby boomers, but it was made in the early 90s and starred up and coming Gen X talent so it read as a Gen X movie.  His new movie, which has been dumped on Netflix without much fanfare, is much clearer reminder that the dude who damn near invented the “slacker” label for a generation was actually a child of the 60s as it’s a movie all about what it was like to be a child in the summer of 1969 in the Houston suburbs and in a way that’s blatantly autobiographical.

The film is animated using something like the rotoscoping style he used for his films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly but otherwise doesn’t really have that much in common with either of those films.  One could instead think of it as something of a prequel to Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some in its autobiographical nature, but those were comedic ensemble hangout movies set over limited timeframes.  This plays out much more like one of those celebrity memoirs where the author takes ages to get to the actual meat of their life because they get way way way too caught up in telling stories about what their childhood was like in incredible detail.  The film’s ostensible gimmick is that it has a fantasy subplot where the central kid imagines himself being recruited by NASA to pilot a lunar lander, and I suspect that at one point this was supposed to be a bigger part of the film than it ended up being in the final product because this ultimately doesn’t really amount to much and you can tell this didn’t end up being the part of the film that Linklaters heart was in.  Instead its in these endless nostalgic stories about his youth, and don’t get me wrong some of these stories do end up being somewhat interesting observations in their way and Linklater does have a knack for finding little specific details that make them come to life a little.

However, in the end this movie kind of frustrated me, many will watch it and kind of think they’re just replicating the experience of having a talkative grandfather who thinks you care a whole lot more about his recollections of “the good old days” than you actually do.  I may well have had more patience for all of this if the childhood Linklater was describing was a bit less… over-exposed in popular culture.  Movies and TV shows about what it was like to grow up in the suburbs in the 60s are kind of a dime-a-dozen whether it’s “The Wonder Years” or “Oliver Beene” or The Sandlot or Stand By Me or any number of other examples… maybe give another generation a shot at this.  Hell, Linklater kind of already did that by making his Boyhood project into something like the first millennial nostalgia movie almost by accident and he almost certainly put a lot of his own memories of childhood into that as well in a less on-the-nose way and throughout his career he’s found similar ways to channel his experiences without just diving into the nostalgia pool like this.  Still, as a fan of the guy and his work I can’t be too mad at this.  As I said some of these stories do resonate and I also like the way the film handled the main character’s actual experience watching the moon landing and how it becomes something of an anti-climax for him (even if it kind of clashes with the fantasy gimmick).  It fits well with a running theme in Linklater’s recent work about how most people don’t really experience history as vividly as they like to believe they do.  So, there are moments of good to be found here but I can’t get behind the overall project which just feels a bit too self-indulgent for its own good.
**1/2 out of Five

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent(4/28/2022)

There’s Nicholas Cage the actor and then there’s Nicholas Cage the meme, and I’m kind of sick of the latter.  Look Cage has kind of done a lot of the damage to his own image by making all these bad direct-to-VOD movies and just kind of seeming like a weird guy both on and off screen but… I’m kind of sick of hearing about it.  It’s almost like the whole “is Die Hard a Christmas movie” debates, kind of cute at first but if you’re still bringing it up now as if it’s some kind of revelation it kind of makes you look like you’re kind of basic.  And it was with that in mind that I wasn’t too excited about this movie, which frankly looked like a product of that meme interpretation of Cage’s acting, but the reviews have mostly been positive so I decided to check it out.  The film has Nicholas Cage playing a fictionalized version of himself in which he’s going through career frustrations and is estranged from his (fictional) teenage daughter and her (fictional) mother.  He then takes an easy paycheck to attend the birthday party of a millionaire Spanish superfan of his (played by Pedro Pascal), but shortly after arriving he learns that this superfan is an organized crime figure involved with a recent kidnapping and Cage is recruited by the CIA to help them investigate them.

What counts as “creative” in cinema is in many ways a matter of perspective.  For example, compared to a lot of what Hollywood puts out this could be considered “creative” and I’m sure there are a lot of audiences that would consider this whole concept “different.”  But to anyone who’s seen the right films it’s readily apparent that this is a highly derivative mashup of three different Charlie Kaufman movies.  The “cult celebrity plays themselves” element comes from Being John Malkovich, the “movie star working with the CIA” element comes from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but most of all the film starts drawing from Adaptation (which Cage starred in) as Cage and the superfan start collaborating on a screenplay, which starts to reveal itself as basically being the movie we’re watching which sort of starts to sell out as it proceeds.  So yeah, this isn’t as clever as it thinks it is, but to be fair it’s not every day that Hollywood opts to ripoff Kaufman instead of Indiana Jones or Die Hard or something so maybe it’s best to view the glass as half full here.  And there is definite fun to be had with The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, the film is chock full of somewhat entertaining references to Cage’s career and he and Pascal do have some pretty good chemistry and you do believe their bromance in the movie.  I’m not sure the film’s ending works and I’m not sure that its “meta” excuse for going in that direction really justifies it, but again, in this film landscape maybe don’t let perfect totally be the enemy of the good and on balance I would say this is good.
*** out of Five

Crash Course: Radu Jude

The “Romanian New Wave” has proven to be a rather slippery thing to keep track of, largely because a lot of the best movies from that movement don’t get very widely released even in the arthouse world in this hemisphere and they don’t always make the absolute biggest of splashes when they premiere at festivals.  Every time I think I’ve reasonably caught up with I find out about a couple other acclaimed Romanian films that my radar didn’t pick up on until it was too late.  Recently it’s come to my attention that there was an entire major filmmaker from that southeastern European nation who I’ve been sleeping on: Radu Jude. This guy, whose name is pronounced like “Rah-Doo Gzu-Day” has made a number of daring movies in the last ten years or so and with his last couple of projects appears to have begun making some highly topical films that I feel like I should be paying closer attention to.  So, seems like no better time than the present to step in and check these movies out.

The Happiest Girl in the World (2009)
Radu Jude’s debut feature is the 2009 film The Happiest Girl in the World, whose title is most certainly ironic but this is nonetheless lighter (or at least it sounds lighter) than a lot of the other films that are in Jude’s future.  The film follows a girl in her late teens who lives in a rural area of Romania who’s won a new car from a contest on a juice bottle and is being driven into Bucharest by her parents to star in an advertisement by this juice company before she can claim her prize.  The thing is her parents want to sell this car and put the money towards a real estate investment instead of letting her keep it, which causes some conflict between them and her mood isn’t helped when she arrives at the advertisement set and has to deal with a rather blunt and profane film crew… which is a problem because the central line of the advertisement (which she says over and over again over several takes) is “I’m the happiest girl in the world!”  So, it’s a film that is set over a single day as this 30 second TV commercial is being shot and we get an idea of how much work goes into even the most banal of television content and we see the tensions rise between her and her parents (who are in fact dipshits) over the course of this day.  None of this necessarily leads to any major catharsis and I do suspect certain audiences would lose some patience with this over the course of it as the high concept plays out, but the movie doesn’t feel like some kind of unwatchable pretentious experiment, there’s humor along the way and the film’s dialogue and storytelling is not opaque.  Not a movie that’s going to conquer the world but it’s a fun little piece of work and a good start to a career I have high expectations for.
***1/2 out of Five

Aferim! (2015)
After making The Happiest Girl in the World Radu Jude made a feature in 2012 called Everybody in Our Family, which is even harder to find than Jude’s other films (which are themselves, not the easiest to get a hold of) and also made some short films and documentary type things (this guy has a lot of side projects).  So for the next movie I’ll be looking at I’ll be jumping to his 2015 film Aferim!, which from a production values perspective is probably his most ambitious work. The Romanian New Wave is generally not associated with period pieces, or at least not period pieces set earlier than the Nicolae Ceaușescu but this film is set in 1835 Wallachia.  This region is not terribly developed and everyone is riding around outdoors on horseback so in a way this is kind of cinematically invoking the western… but not the fun kind of western with lots of shooting, more like the revisionist westerns where you need to ruminate on how violent and backwards the old west used to be.  In the place of Native Americans, the oppressed group here are the Roma people who are rarely even referred to as “gypsies” here, rather they are described as “crows” and are apparently regularly enslaved by the area nobility.  The film follows a lawman who, assisted by his son, has been tasked with tracking down a runaway Roma slave who is rumored to have had an affair with his owner’s wife.

The film’s depiction of early 19th Century Wallachia is rather bleak.  Almost everyone in the film is casually hateful both of the Roma people but also of Jews, Turks, and pretty much every other ethnic and national group in the region and the enslavement of the Roma people is done with casual brutality not unlike the chattel slavery of the American South around this time.  The film is shot in slightly sepia tinged black and white, which goes a long way toward establishing this time period and while this isn’t a massively budgeted costume drama there does appear to have been some effort and resources put into the film’s look.  The film’s ending is ultimately fairly nihilistic with the lawman carrying out his mission, the consequences playing out as one would expect, and the lawman riding away telling his son they can’t change what the world is.  One could view that as sneakily hopeful, nearly two hundred years later Romania is not still enslaving Roma people, or less hopeful given that mistreatment and divisions exist both there and in most other societies to some extent to this day and likely long into the future.  It’s not a rosy movie but it isn’t one that revels in misery even if it’s always there surrounding the characters, it even has a definite wry sense of humor even in its darkest moments.
**** out of Five

Scarred Hearts (2016)
The third Radu Jude film I’m going to look at, Scarred Hearts, in some ways feels a bit closer to what I normally expect out of the Romanian New Wave than what came before, namely in that it’s kind of following someone through a miserable experience and using a lot of long shots and stark techniques to do it.  The film is based on the writings of a man named Max Blecher, who was an early 20th Century Romanian author who, in the 1930s was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis and spent the last ten years of his life confined to his bed before dying in 1938 at the age of 28.  While in an out of various sanatoriums he did, however, manage to write a pair of novels including the autobiographical “Scarred Hearts” of which this is an adaptation.  The film follows a character who’s basically Blecher as he finds himself checked in to a sanitarium and, well, life in a 1930s Romanian sanitarium is about as fun as it sounds.  The film is shot in the Academy Ratio and runs a pretty lengthy 140 minutes in which we watch this character’s day to day life as he goes through the various indignities of disability.  We also get some acknowledgement of the day to day horrors of this man, who is Jewish, reading about the rise of Hitler while he’s confined and surrounded by a number of anti-Semites who find the rise of fascism appealing.  The film is not 100% miserablist however as there are places where the character’s youth and humanity shine through, mainly in a subplot where he begins an affair with a fellow patient.  So, I see what Jude was going for this one and respect it to some extent but the whole thing is a bit Cristi Puiu-esque in how slow and dark it is and I did not care at all for a device where the film rather frequently brings up title cards with passages from Blecher’s writing on screen, which got old fast.  Not a movie for everyone, and at the moment I’m not sure it’s a movie for me.
**1/2 out of Five

I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018)
This movie and its eye catching title is in many ways the film that first started to build Radu Jude’s reputation with international audiences even if it still didn’t get very wide distribution in the United States.  In large part that’s because the subject matter is extremely relevant to modern discourse even if it’s theoretically hyper-focused on Romania.  The title is a quote from Ion Antonescu, Romania’s wartime dictator during World War II who aided vicious genocide by their Axis allies between 1941 and 1943 including the 1941 Odessa massacre.  These are facts undisputed by most reputable historians and Antonescu was executed for war crimes, but in this film Jude paints a portrait of a modern Romania that is in heavy denial about its own Axis history and that there’s a degree of widespread denial amongst portions of the populous about their own holocaust.  The film follows a woman who is in the process of making an art project, sort of a televised theater piece in the city square that will involve recreations of Romanian atrocities and ends up running into controversy and denialism at every turn.

In a number of ways this movie could be viewed as something of an excuse to put various arguments into the mouths of its characters with some of its highlights being these extended conversation between the star and gender flipped filmmaker self-insert played by Ioana Iacob and a government official involved in this project’s funding played by Alexandru Dabija who makes some really devilish devil’s advocate arguments for sanitizing her depiction of history out of a sort of cynical appeasement of the most “patriotic” audience members who will reject the director’s vision.  The final performance of the play-within-a-film also doesn’t really work out the way the director intends with audience members cheering on the Romanian troops in the reenactment even as they set forth to engage in a slaughter and boo the Soviet troops even though they are ostensibly setting forth to fight Nazis, almost like Sasha Baron Cohen getting audience to cheer him on when he makes comically horrible arguments.  The film’s modern setting and borderline satirical tone allows it to sidestep having to recreate the graphic realities of these massacres to make its point and allows it to make a more pointed point rooted in modern political concerns while asserting the truth of this history.  And despite the film’s specificity in Romania’s historical legacy, this point is hardly irrelevant outside that country’s border.  These debates about telling the truth about unpleasant aspects of history exists to some extent in every nation and is certainly relevant in the United States during the era of so-called “anti-CRT” legislation.
**** out of Five

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021)
Radu Jude’s most recent film, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on March 2 2021, which is worth noting because the film is very much a movie that is about a very specific moment in history and that moment is now.  The film was presumably shot sometime late in the year 2020 because it is more or less the first major film to truly acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic.  In broad strokes the movie is about a woman who finds her life turned upside down when a sex tape she shot with her husband found its way onto the internet, putting her job as a history teacher at a high end private school in jeopardy.  We see that extremely sex tape at the beginning of the film, or at least we do if you watch the uncensored version that’s available on iTunes, the version on Hulu is visibly censored with comical title cards on top of the image.  From there it’s a film in three distinct acts.  The first act follows this teacher as she goes through a day; the purpose of this scene is partially to set up the story and how stressed the character is, but its larger purpose is just to paint a portrait of life during the pandemic.  I’m not sure exactly when this was filmed or the exact social trajectory of the pandemic was in Romania but it seems to be set after the point where everyone was quarantining at home but before people stopped masking.  Masks are omnipresent through much of the film, possibly the only film I’ve seen to date where that’s the case, and this first act is very much about how ornery and disruptive the whole situation has made people.

I’ll set aside the second act for a moment and move to the third, which is a sort of makeshift informal trial the protagonist goes through in front of a bunch of angry parents who want her fired for the sex tape having come out.  Here the film gets more directly to the point of the film’s critique of the prudishness of society and the way people hypocritically invade people’s privacy while also judging them as many of the parents do here with their pearl clutching “think of the children” nonsense.  The angry parents also betray all sorts of anti-Semitism and racism as they complain about the teacher’s “liberal” history curriculum with one parent accusing her, without a shred of irony of “indoctrinating kids about the holocaust… with lies about Romanians killing k***s and crows [a racial slur against the Roma people].”  This is of course right in line with Jude’s critique of the sanitization of Romanian history seen in his film I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians and like in that film it hits plenty close to home with American audiences as well who are currently witnessing the hysteria around “Critical Race Theory in schools.”  Ultimately the section ends by presenting the audience with three possible endings: one where she keeps her job, one where she’s fired, and one that gives the character an outrageous if satisfying deus ex machina to go out on.

That’s all really biting and good and it’s more than enough to recommend the film, however, I do think it falls short of true greatness and that’s largely because of the film’s middle act which sets aside the film’s story in place of a procession of mini twenty second video essays on various subjects.  Some of them are solid bits of satire but a lot of them are either quick sexual shocks or are rather sophomoric observations on politics that are rather on the nose at best.  It’s all very Godardian, not necessarily in a good way, and while these bits do kind of fit within the satirical tone the film is going for they just go on forever and aren’t nearly as interesting to me as the rest of the film and kind of feel like padding in the grand scheme of things.  That aside I think this movie is kind of awesome, it takes on very modern debates with incredible wit and the fact that it was as made as quickly as it was is really amazing.
**** out of Five

In Conclusion
I’m so glad I decided to catch up on this guy.  He pretty much has the perfect voice for our times and his movies are exceptionally smart and fearless in their execution.  He’s plainly one of the most important voices in contemporary European cinema and cinema in general for that matter and watching his movies in order told a clear story about the progression of his thoughts on certain issues.  There’s still a lot to catch up with from him as he has several documentary projects and another feature I couldn’t get my hands on and of course I’m excited to see what comes from him next.