Home Video Round-Up 8/13/2022

RRR (7/20/2022)

I had some serious reservations about even watching RRR, despite it’s unlikely status as a critical darling, in no small part because the only realistic way to stream the copy that’s on Netflix… which is dubbed from the film’s original Telugu language into Hindi and appears to be in the wrong aspect ratio to boot, two things that made this presentation anathema to a purist like myself.  On top of that, I’m just generally uncomfortable reviewing Bollywood (or in this case Tollywood) movies; I’ve seen a handful of them but I’m not well versed in their tropes and generally feel like I lack the expertise to really contextualize them intelligently.  Eventually I was informed that Netflix’s aspect ratio was open matte rather than pan and scan, which made that issue slightly more tolerable, and I was eventually willing to hold my nose and put up with the dubbing (which, if I’m being honest I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t told about it) but my nervousness about trying to review this thing did not go away and as I watched and kind of disliked it I found myself increasingly worried about having to explain this stance and be the buzzkill in the room… and yet I feel oddly confident about my take.

RRR (which stands for Raudraṁ Raṇaṁ Rudhiraṁ, which translates to “Rage, War, Blood” and has alternately been translated to “Rise Roar Revolt”), is set in 1920 during the British Raj and is kind of a fanfic about a pair of heavily fictionalized historical figures named Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju who never actually met or interacted but who do in this movie… and who are also basically superheroes here.  Unlike the Indian films westerners are most familiar with, this isn’t really a musical (though there are a couple of musical sequences anyway and some non-diegetic songs as well) but is instead this really maximalist action movie in which two outlandishly powerful paragons of virtue seemingly singlehandedly take down British rule with their combat skills.  India is generally said to have been freed through peaceful non-resistance over twenty years after this is set but this movie doesn’t see it that way, here violence is very much the answer.  It would be like if an African American filmmaker made a film set in the mid-twenties where Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois violently overthrew the governor of New York with martial arts skills that verge on being superpowers with a tone of nutty sincerity that would make latter day Fast and Furious movies looks restrained and down to earth and did this more or less unironically.  Like, there’s a scene here where one of these guys picks up and throws a leopard at British soldier and this does not seem out of place at all in the tone of this film.

Is this stupid?  Well, on certain levels it’s kind of hard for me to judge.  Broadly speaking it’s hard to argue with the film’s anti-colonial messaging but I know the language of propaganda and dehumanization when I see it and this borders into it.  The extent to which this movie exaggerates its bad guys into outright sadists and revels in killing them sits somewhere between Rambo and D.W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World in the “good taste” scale and I’m not entirely comfortable with it.  Look, I don’t want to call “reverse racism” here, that’s stupid, really my issue here is less that it makes the British into heinous villains (the real ones probably were) so much that as a matter of taste I find these kind of black and white simplistic depictions of history to be inherently less interesting and less appealing than films that take a more nuanced approach.  I think Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist history revenge films Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained would also be fair comparison points which, in addition to several aesthetic differences I prefer, are much less hagiographic about their heroes and tend to find at least a little more human complexity in their villains even if they do ultimately make the villainousness of those regimes very clear.  Also, in the case of Django Unchained we’re dealing with a white American director criticizing the history of white Americans, which is something that’s going to have a different tone to it than a work of blatant borderline jingoistic nationalism like RRR.

But as suggested earlier my issues with this movie are much more aesthetic than moral or substance based.  I just find the action scenes and style kind of obnoxious.  The movie looks extremely digital and most of its sets look kind of fake in a manufactured way, they lack the wear that’s key to making period films look authentic.  The action scenes involve a lot of outlandish fight choreography and heroes that are inexplicably powerful despite ostensibly just being normal people and there’s a ton of Zack Snyder style speed ramping that looks kind of choppy and intelligent.  I think the biggest part of my disconnect is just how incongruous a lot of these action heroics feel against the film’s historical setting.  I’m not a hundred percent sure I have a good explanation for why this type of stuff scans better to me when they happen in dynastic China or ancient Greece than in 20th Century history, but it kind of does.  I think it’s because martial arts epics are legitimately “mythic” and it’s hard for me to accept something that supposedly happened less than 70 years before my birth as being the stuff of legend… or maybe I’m just more versed in Hong Kong action movies than I am with Indian Historical epics and that if I was used to movies like this I’d much more easily relax and go with this absurdity.

And that brings me back to the anxiety I had when I first started watching this: am I in any real position to judge this movie?  I don’t know, but as an individual I did have an experience with this movie and it wasn’t to my tastes.  Other critics are less bothered by the film’s outlandish idiosyncrasies, in fact they seem to be why a lot of people find the film refreshing.  But I must say I also wonder if these same critics are maybe giving the movie a pass for its kind of reactionary outlook; its jingoism, its shallowness, and its general blockheadedness.  It wouldn’t be the only kind of dumb jingoistic action movie these critics have given a pass to, Top Gun: Maverick was similarly given a free pass despite having many of the same problems.  I don’t know, maybe there’s something in the air during these times which has made otherwise discerning critics want to stop being so picky and just roll with whatever movie offers a good time or maybe people are so tired of Marvel-esque blockbusters that they go overboard when given any kind of large scale action movie that’s even marginally unique from that formula, but whatever trend is leading to this is not one that seems to be affecting me and I think a lot of the people who are over-rating these movies are going to look back at their reviews and be a bit puzzled by their responses.

**1/2 out of Five

The Girl in the Picture (8/4/2022)

I mostly try to avoid the slightly half-assed true crime docs that Netflix seems to crank out on a near weekly basis.  At a certain point they seem to have just become the 21st Century version of ABC’s “20/20,” which is a formerly legitimate newsmagazine program which at a certain point transitioned into being a crime of the week series using the language of straightforward news broadcasting to give fairly sensationalistic accounts of various murders.  I did, however, hear enough about this one from enough people to give it a look.  The film tells the story of an Oklahoma woman who was found dead, and looking into her past unveiled some fairly lurid realities about her life ultimately pointing towards her adopted father who appears to be a kidnapper, murderer, and rapist.  Is there interest to be found in this story?  Well, it’s certainly a rather extreme example of the human experience, though I’m not sure how much there is to be learned from the wider world from it nor do I find it to be unique enough by the (admittedly very high) standard of true crime as to make it inherently novel unto itself.  So I think it would be fair to say this fall under the category of “exploitative true crime” but it is at least a little more aesthetically honed than your average “20/20” episode and the film does get a good array of interviews from people involved in the case.  I don’t think this one is going to stay with me for long but I guess its effective enough at what it’s trying to do even if I find what it’s trying to do to be rather dubious.
**1/2 out of Five

Hustle (8/10/2022)

I generally do everything I can to ignore Adam Sandler outside of the occasional exception when he finds himself working with a Paul Thomas Anderson or the Safdie Brothers and I didn’t think we were due for one of those again this decade but suddenly we had another seemingly dignified Sandler project in the form of Hustle and what’s more shocking is that Sandler himself seems to have had a lot more of a hand in this one getting made.  The film stars Sandler as a person working behind the scenes in the NBA, occasionally as a scout, sometimes as an assistant coach.  On a trip to Spain he encounters a diamond in the ruff (played by real life NBA player Juancho Hernangómez) playing pickup games on a local court and decides he needs to bring this guy to America and try to get him into the league.  The film appears to have been made with the cooperation and buy-in of the NBA, who have allowed them to use real teams and the film is filled to the brim with cameos by real life basketball figures to the point where I, a less than casual fan of the sport, probably only recognized 60%-70% of them.  I must say I was surprised to see that Sandler had tapped Jeremiah Zagar, director of the 2018 Malick-inspired coming of age film We the Animals, to helm this as I had assumed Zagar’s future prospects to be decidedly indie.  I wouldn’t say this in entirely in keeping with his debut and that there are limits to how much he can elevate this but Zagar does imbue the film with at least some visual flair and is legitimately impressive in the way he directs some of the basketball scenes.  He did not, however, write the film and its screenplay has its share of kind of run of the mill sports clichés like training montages and a “liar revealed” twist that you can see coming from a mile away. So, this is certainly no Uncut Gems but it’s a respectable little sports movie, one that will likely be especially loved by people who are really into basketball.
*** out of Five

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché (8/12/2022)

X-Ray Spex were one of the less conventional bands in the first wave of British punk rock in the 70s.  They were fronted by a mixed race woman who went by the name Poly Styrene (a statement on the manufactured nature of pop stardom) they never had quite the impact of The Clash or The Sex Pistols and ultimately only produced one album before Poly Styrene’s insecurities led her to have a bit of mental breakdown and break up the band.  This film is about Poly Styrene (real named Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) and is directed by her now thirty-something daughter Celeste Bell and is structured as this daughter’s traveling and trying to come to terms with her mother’s legacy and with some of the less pleasant aspects about being raised by her when she began to have her mental issues.  I can’t say I was a big fan of Poly Styrene’s music going in, I’d listened to the one X-Ray Spex album at one point when I was exploring the history of punk and thought it was fine, but the film does make a pretty good case for the band’s importance and how important it was to have a voice like her’s in that scene.  As a film unto itself the doc is alright; Bell maybe inserts herself into more than some people will like, but I think that extra bit of novelty does help what could otherwise feel like a fairly by the numbers biographical account.  I’m not sure that hardcore fans of Styrene will get much out of it but I found it a fairly interesting primer.
*** out of Five

Spiderhead (8/13/2022)

It’s really amazing how much I like Chris Hemsworth in the Thor movies compared to how much I dislike him in everything else.  The guy is too pretty to convincingly play tough and grizzled and too buff to really convincingly play an egghead, which is a big part of why he’s rather unsuited to his latest film Spiderhead.  In the film he plays a sort of mad scientist who’s been allowed to use a special prison to test out a mind control pharmaceutical on the prisoners.  That could easily be the basis for a lurid exploitation B-movie but this movie shoots more for the tone of science fiction cautionary tale along the lines of “Black Mirror,” which I’m not entirely sure really fits it.  The film has this ultramodern aesthetic but the science fiction themes it explores are not terribly cutting edge.  In fact if you had told me it was based on some Harlan Ellison short story from the 70s, when testing drugs on unsuspecting participants was a hot topic, I would have believed you.  In fact I do find it kind of amusing that so many Netflix projects seem to be inspired by MKUltra.  Anyway, the film was directed by Top Gun: Maverick “auteur” Joseph Kosinski and is a good reminder of how much of a mediocre talent he is when not somehow given access to a fleet of military aircraft.  There are some aspects of the film which aren’t too bad; it’s got a nice soundtrack and the base story is at least good enough to keep your attention, but it definitely feels like a movie that was made knowing it would end up being dumped on streaming and largely aspires to mediocrity.
**1/2 out of Five

Three Thousand Years of Longing(8/26/2022)

I didn’t expect much out of Mad Max: Fury Road, at least before the trailer dropped.  That’s partly because I had come not to expect much out of director George Miller, who had spent the previous twenty years making nothing but four children’s movies, one of which he didn’t even direct.  But Mad Max: Fury Road obliterated any expectations and became one of the most universally acclaimed films of the 2010s and at the age of seventy George Miller was being declared a visionary in a way he widely hadn’t been when he was making the previous Mad Max films and certainly not when he was making Hollywood oddities like The Witches of Eastwick.  Next thing you know Miller is getting Oscar nominations and heading up major festival juries Cannes and all eyes are on what he’s going to do next.  The path of least resistance for Miller probably would have been to rush Max Max 5 into production but before doing that he seems to have decided the time was right to do a “one of me” via his latest film, a magical realist fantasy film called Three Thousand Years of Longing.

Miller’s new film begins with its protagonist, Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), on a plane from the United Kingdom to Turkey where she intends to take part in a lecture on the power of mythology through the ages which is interrupted when she sees these strange ghostly visions.  Later that day she buys a little glass bottle at a flea market as a souvenir and the next morning she tries opening it only for it to shatter and swirling magical sands seep out of it and materialize into a humanoid form of a Djinn (Idris Elba) a mythological creature also known as a genie.  In typical genie fashion, the Djinn tells her she’s entitled to three wishes with many of the classic rules like “no wishing for other wishes” and the like.  Alithea, who is largely content with her life and weary of the old stories of genie’s granting wishes that turn into monkey’s paw curses, is hesitant to request anything.  Instead the two strike up a conversation and the Djinn begins recounting his own personal history of interacting with humans starting with his interactions with the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum) up to the 1800s, albeit with some centuries lost stuck in his bottle.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is based on a short story by A. S. Byatt called “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” and it will probably not be too surprising to viewers that this comes from literary origins because there are ideas and structural elements to it that are a lot more trendy in novels than they are in movies.  The film’s flashback structure, older characters, and general magical realist trappings are the kind of ideas that tend to come to authors rather than filmmakers but George Miller does a pretty damn admirable job of trying to translate them.  The film’s highlights are obviously the flashbacks to the Djinn’s life, which tend to look at aspects of mythology and historical settings that have not been very widely used by Hollywood in the recent past (not a lot of Ottoman Empire movies).  These flashbacks are a bit more mythic than they are truly historical, it’s not 300 levels of stylization but they might not be out of place in a Tarsem movie or something.  I don’t want to give too much away but each story kind of works as its own thing while also painting the picture of the Djinn’s larger arc and they also sort of tell traditional stories about the dangers of not wishing carefully while also not making the Djinn feel malevolent.

Where the movie falls off a bit is in the film’s third act, which I don’t want to give away too much about even though it doesn’t exactly have some wildly unexpected twist or anything like that.  In short, once we finally finish all of the Djinn’s flashbacks and get up to date the film has to make a tricky pivot into “the present” and I’m not sure it finds as compelling a direction to take things at this point as what came before either visually or narratively.  But’s that’s not to say the movie totally falls on its face either and there are aspects of where it goes during that back third that I do respect quite a bit.  Beyond that your mileage with this movie will probably depend on your expectations.  There are bits here that live up to the “visionary” branding that has been attached to George Miller as of late, but it’s no Mad Max: Fury Road (nor should it be) and I wouldn’t say it’s some king of visual game changer or anything.  Context may matter a lot with how you react to the film.  The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to respectful but not entirely enthused reviews and maybe opening amidst the best of world cinema didn’t necessarily do the film any favors.  The August of 2022, in the middle of one of the longer dry spells of new films of any cultural interest we’ve had in a while, this is going to feel much more welcomed by critics but even in that context I don’t know that this is going to set the world on fire.  Despite that I can easily see this becoming quite the cult film at some point in the future and you’re going to hear a lot of people mentioning it as a bit of a gem.
**** out of Five

July/August 2022 Round-Up – Part 2

Bodies Bodies Bodies(8/15/2022)

The trailer for the new thriller Bodies Bodies Bodies promises something that could very easily be pretty annoying.  The film is a sort of Gen Z take on “And Then There Were None” in which a group of young people gather at a mansion to have a wild party while waiting for a hurricane to pass where they suddenly find there’s a killer in their midst killing them one by one.  The trailer suggests that this will be a rather satirical take on this material and this generation and includes clips of them saying a lot of online lingo with terms like “gaslighting,” “triggering,” and “toxicity” being thrown around before ending on a clip of a character played by Pete Davidson saying “I look like I fuck, and that’s the vibe I like to put out there.”  That sounds like it could pretty easily be insufferable, but I will say that the actual movie is at least a little less dominated by these internet buzzwords as that trailer would suggest… though maybe it should have been?  I will say, this is going to be marketed as a horror movie because it’s about people being violently killed in a dark house but the movie largely seems to be disinterested in actually scaring its audience much at all.  Instead kind of lives or dies by its satire and just generally how interested you are in the whodunit elements, and I’d say I was moderately interested in both.  I think the movie mostly fills the house with a reasonably interested set of characters, who are certainly archetypes but not necessarily archetypes who we’re sick of just yet and the cast does a pretty good job of bringing them alive believably.  As for the generational satire… well, they walk quite the tightrope with it and I think I admire just how far they got along it.  There probably could have been a rather reactionary version of this which is essentially making this whole situation some kind of blunt statement about “cancel culture” but this doesn’t really feel like that.  The film’s thirty two year old screenwriter, Sarah DeLappe, is a little older than the characters in this film but it feels like she actually does understand this culture and is engaging in self-critique rather than punching down on people she hates from afar.  Honestly I think I could have used a little more of that tone because the film doesn’t really start letting that generational satire fly until the second half, at which point it doesn’t entirely feel like it’s been set up.  Ultimately I enjoyed my 90 minutes with the movie and its take on “the youths” is certainly more interesting than a more straightforward take on the setup, but I can also see why this will annoy the shit out of some people.
*** out of Five

Beast(8/19/2022)

Beast, the new film in which Idris Elba goes toe to toe with an angry lion, is not exactly a film I was expecting high art out of.  I was mainly hoping that it would live up to the “high standards” of the 2019 film Crawl, a creature feature of similar ambition about alligators invading a house during a hurricane which was similarly released without a ton of fanfare during the dog days of summer a couple years back.  I have oddly warm feelings about that movie despite it decidedly not being anything special and was maybe hoping for a similar kind dumb fun time.  Was it as good?  Well, no.  Its setting isn’t as interesting as a house that’s slowly filling with water over the course of day of heavy rain and I think I just generally find alligators more scary than lions.  However, Crawl didn’t have a star in it as compelling as Idris Elba, so it’s a bit of a wash.  The film involves a family that gets caught in a stuck car that’s under siege by an angry large predatory cat… so basically Cujo, but with a lion.  If that sounds like a good time to you then you can do a lot worse than this.  The film’s ending doesn’t quite work but other than that it’s a decent creature feature.
*** out of Five

Emily the Criminal(8/21/2022)

Emily the Criminal is a movie that sort of just seemed to appear out of nowhere in theaters without a lot of advanced buzz.  The film is being released by Roadside Pictures and was plainly made on a modest budget so it has a bit more of that Independent CinemaTM feeling that we haven’t been getting this year, which has been oddly short on counter-programing.  It concerns a youngish woman played by Aubrey Plaza who is weighed down by debts and has trouble getting professional jobs because of an assault conviction on her record.  Eventually she dips her toe into acting as a “dummy buyer” in a credit card scam, fully knowing it was illegal, and then begins getting deeper and deeper into a criminal underworld.  She’s been around a little while but I still mostly associate Aubrey Plaza with her work on the sitcom “Parks and Rec,” where she plays this rather detached intern who was meant to be something of a statement on a certain kind of millennial type and this would seem to be something of an evolution of that.  Something of a statement about what that attitude leads to when it’s owned by someone who’s in a more precarious and less sheltered position.  The film presents a believable and down to earth depiction of how these kinds of crime rings probably operate and while its ultimately only able to get so deep into its analysis of this character it is an interesting enough portrait just the same.  This isn’t really the kind of thing that’s likely to really take the world by storm, I’d say best case scenario its greatest accomplishment will be an Independent Spirit Award nomination or two, but there aren’t a lot of options in theaters lately and this is worth a look.
*** our of Five

The Territory(8/29/2022)

Back in the 90s environmentalism tended to revolve around three core missions: fix the hole in the ozone, save the whales, and save the rainforest.  Fortunately, because of some smart policy decisions as a result of those campaigns the ozone is on its way to repair and the whale population is also in recovery.  Both are great examples of how this kind of activism can work and should give us reason for environmental hope.  Unfortunately the rainforest is more endangered than ever and is in fact a good example of how easy it is for us to back pedal on certain issues.  This brings us to the film The Territory, a documentary from National Geographic about the Uru-eu-wau-wau people, an Amazonian tribe who used to live so deep inside of the rainforest that they weren’t contacted by outsiders until the 1980s but whose territory is now surrounded on all sides by farms because of deforestation.  The tribe’s land is theoretically legally protected from encroachment but there are a number of settlers who, emboldened by Jair Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, feel entitled to illegally encroach on this territory and clear away some of the forest so they can eventually settle it and then essentially ask for forgiveness in place of permission.  It’s a situation that will not be unfamiliar to some of the darker moments in United States history when sharecroppers would feel entitled to just snatch up Native American land because they had “dreams” of starting their own farms.  There’s something rather surreal about seeing that same dynamic just playing out in the modern world.  The film itself does a pretty good job of finding the right people to follow in bringing this story to light and the various perspectives involved.  As a work of filmmaking, it doesn’t exactly break the mold but it illustrates the issue in a way that’s very human and interesting.
***1/2 out of Five

July/August 2022 Round-Up – Part 1

Fire of Love(7/29/2022)

This summer has been disturbingly devoid of theatrically released documentaries.  By this time last year we’d already gotten pretty wide releases for Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, Summer of Soul, The Sparks Brothers, and Rita Moreno : Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, but this year the one and only partial breakout has been the film at hand: Fire of Love.  Produced by National Geographic and almost entirely created through archive footage, the film tells the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, a pair of married French volcanologists who dedicated their lives to studying volcanos up close and spent their lives doing this until they were caught in an eruption and killed in the early 90s.  The Krafft’s were briefly featured in Werner Herzog’s recent documentary Into the Inferno and Herzog is apparently working on his own documentary about them but this movie seems to have beaten him to the punch.  The film takes a pretty straightforward format being built out of the footage the Kraffts took over the course of their careers, much of it quite beautiful despite having been taken with rather dated equipment.  The Kraffts themselves are, however, somewhat elusive characters.  There’s a lot of footage chronicling their various volcano expeditions, but not a whole lot in the way of “home movies” and as they had no children there isn’t a lot of info about what their domestic life was like.  The film’s title emphasizes the love story aspect of their story, which is perhaps true in broad strokes but isn’t really the focus as much as their passion for their work is front and center.  Honestly I might have liked a little more about the specifics of their work as it’s not entirely clear what scientific experiments they’re doing for much of the runtime, occasionally the film makes them seem more like daredevils than true volcanologists which I don’t think was really the case.  But ultimately that’s a quibble and this is an interesting doc that I would recommend pretty easily.
***1/2 out of Five

Vengeance(8/3/2022)

It is rather annoying that Hollywood is so focused on tentpoles that it feels like a downright novelty when a movie like B. J. Novak’s Vengeance, which is largely a dialogue driven satire, opens in wide release without any award aspirations and without playing the indie platforming game it feels like a downright novelty.  The film, Novak’s directorial effort and also starring that alumnus of The Office, is about a freelance writer from New York who stumbles upon a story of a lifetime when he learns that his “girlfriend” had died of an overdose in Texas.  The catch is that this woman is not actually his girlfriend, she’s just someone he hooked up with a couple of times, but she apparently told her family they were more serious than they were and they called him as a next of kin.  Upon arrival he learns that this woman’s brother believes she was actually murdered and enlists him to investigate, which he’s happy to do because he thinks it has the makings of a good true crime podcast along the lines of something like “Serial” or “Shittown” that would highlight certain aspects of the culture wars that interests him.  The film does not necessarily play out like a broad comedy as it does take its story fairly seriously and plays it pretty straight, but it’s certainly interested in finding the humorous side of the protagonist’s fish-out-of-water status in rural Texas.  I think the film has kind of a lousy title for what it is; “Vengeance” gives the impression this is some sort of Liam Neeson thriller, an actor and genre that’s at the center of one of the film’s more amusing gags, but clashes of culture are plainly more of a predominant theme here than revenge is.  I think the movie could have stood to maybe be 15%-20% more funny and a bit less on-the-nose than it gets at time in its analysis of the cultural rivalries at play before it could really turn into something special, but it’s a watchable enough effort.

*** out of Five

Prey(8/11/2022)

It’s kind of crazy just how much trouble 20th Century Fox has seemed to have had trying to turn the 1987 film Predator into a franchise.  Logic would dictate that the predator would be as conductive to sequalization as his studiomate and sometimes adversary the Alien xenomorph and yet they never seemed to find a foothold, possible because that original movie was ultimately an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle and for reasons that are not entirely clear Schwarzenegger has never felt the need to return to the franchise.  1990’s Predator 2 was okay, 2010’s Predators was okay, 2018’s The Predator was by all accounts less than okay (I didn’t bother with that one), but none of these attempts really lead to the sustained franchise that the studio was hoping for.  Which brings us to Prey, the third straight reboot attempt over the course of twelve years, and I feel like this is on some level the franchise’s last chance to make this thing happen given that they’re kind of running out of reboot title conventions to try.  This reboot, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, actually goes for the prequel approach as it’s actually set in 1719 on the great plains and follows a teenage Comanche girl who goes along on a hunting trip (despite being doubted by the otherwise all male hunting party) only to become the hunted as she encounters a Predator who is apparently scoping out Earth for its suitability for future hunts.

In certain ways this is an exercise “back to basics” for the franchise as it once again seemingly has a single group of people being hunted down by a single Predator, which is certainly a lot simpler than the “Most Dangerous Game” setup used by Predators.  Its novelty of course is its period setting which means that the characters will not have an arsenal of modern weaponry to fight the monster with, which is perhaps less of a disadvantage when you remember to Schwarzenegger was only able to finally defeat his predator once he abandoned his armaments and embraced more primal means of warfare.  Of course Prey’s star Amber Midthunder is not a 235 pound Austrian bodybuilder, so it’s still interesting watching her and her hunting party try to take on this creature using bows and tomahawks.  Beyond that it’s a fairly straightforward adventure film that doesn’t fundamentally re-invent the wheel.  Trachtenberg stages his action scenes quite effectively and embraces the series’ gorier tendencies.  The protagonist’s journey ultimately boils down to something pretty shallow, which is also true of the original which has a bit more originality to its name, but it’s certainly worth watching for the set pieces.
***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 7/18/2022

Ambulance (6/28/2022)

Well, here’s a hot take: I think Michael Bay is a filmmaker who is lacking in artistry and good taste.  Shocking opinion, I know.  Of course I say he’s back but I guess he never technically left so much as he spent the better part of fifteen years making crap I did not feel obligated to see like Transformers sequels and movies about Benghazi.  But now he’s come out with a movie called Ambulance which does seem to be trying harken back to when action movies could simply exist by having a high concept instead of being part of some elaborate franchise.  On that level alone this feels like a bit of a breath of fresh air, but make no mistake, this is still a Michael Bay movie with most of the drawbacks that entails.  Honestly I’d kind of forgotten just how pushy and over the top his visual style is and it’s in full effect here.  There are also some issues with the premise.  Starting this I had thought Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II were playing EMTs who had their ambulance hijacked but it turns out they were actually the hijackers who steal the ambulance after engaging in a violent bank robbery filled with gunfire and are holding an injured guard and an EMT hostage while engaging in an extended chase with police.  These are… not easy protagonists to sympathize with and it’s a little odd that they feel so particularly frightened by the idea of the hostage dying in the ambulance when they’re already guilty of several counts of felony murder and kidnapping at that point and are engaging in a chase that certainly risks causing several manslaughters.  The film certainly doesn’t completely ignore that its protagonists are unlikable anti-heroes but it also tries to give at least one of them a redemption arc when it’s already a bit too late for that.  On the bright side, the film is certainly less obnoxious than some of Bay’s worst movies and less CGI driven than his Transformers movies and it uses Los Angeles geography fairly well, but at a certain point I feel like that’s kind of lowering the bar just because expectations are so low for Bay.
**1/2 out of Five

Operation Mincemeat (7/8/2022)

I recently reviewed a movie on Netflix called Munich – The Edge of War, a not terribly original but mostly effective little spy movie about the days leading up to World War II.  That movie made me wonder just how much movies can kind of coast on my inherent interest in that period of history to keep me more interested than the filmmaking probably deserves.  The new direct to Netflix movie Operation Mincemeat probably reveals to me exactly where that limit is because this movie just wasn’t good enough.  The film looks at a real life MI5 op carried out in the lead-up to Operation Husky to provide false intelligence to the Germans suggesting the invasion would happen in Greece rather than Sicily, and they did this by dressing up a corpse in a military uniform with forged intelligence documents showing that as the plan.  It’s an interesting little footnote in history but it’s not an epic story that screamed for dramatization and it kind of feels like the film had to pad a bit to even get it up to feature length.  I think the movie it’s modeled after is The Imitation Game, or at least the codebreaking elements of that movie, which is not really something that should be emulated.  The film sports a fairly impressive cast including Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen but none of them are playing terribly complex or interesting characters and the whole story is basically only interesting for its “truth is stranger than fiction” value.  It’s not terrible movie or anything, but it’s just not good enough to really stand out or really be worth your time unless you’re really interested in this story.
** out of Five

The Janes (7/13/2022)

The latest documentary from HBO is nothing if not timely… sadly, tragically, irritatingly timely and relevant.  The film is about abortions in a pre-Roe America, specifically in Chicago during the late 60s where a group of young activists took it upon themselves to secretly help desperate women obtain illegal abortions while using the codename “Jane” to make their arrangements.  The film’s style is straightforward, but in a good way that avoids gimmickry and flash.  Most of the narrative is built around interviews with the former “Janes,” most of whom are of retirement age now and seem to have settled into middle class life away from “revolutionary” politics in much the way other boomers have.  But unlike a lot of people of that generation, these women have a lot to be proud of; they were plainly interested in helping people rather than just espousing rhetoric to seem cool and unlike other groups like the Weather Underground who “lived their politics” during that era they didn’t hurt anyone.  The film gives a pretty clear overview of how they started, how they managed their clandestine operation, what complications they ran into along the way, and how everything came to a conclusion.  There’s not really a whole lot else to point out, it’s just an efficient and dignified piece of non-fiction storytelling that tells a highly relevant story deftly.   Kind of wish it had come out before 2016, but otherwise it does pretty much everything right for what it is.
**** out of Five

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (7/17/2022)

I’d heard some pretty positive things about this movie, which I had heard was a clever and postmodern romp produced by The Lonely Island but at the end of the day it was still an adaptation of “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers,” a kids show from the 90s that I was in the age demographic for but I don’t think I watched it much and remember nothing about aside from the theme song.  As it turns out this is not a direct adaptation of the cartoon, rather it’s set in a Roger Rabbit-esque Hollywood in which cartoon characters are real and have jobs acting in television programs.  The 90s cartoon series “Chip ‘n Dale” exists in this world but has been cancelled for decades and the duo who starred in it have gone their separate ways but are re-united over the course of the film as they track down their kidnapped co-star.  Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit this is something of a cavalcade of animated cameos, putting it in line with other recent “IP explosion” movies like Ready Player One and Space Jam: A New Legacy, but this project feels a bit more overtly comedic than the former and feels like a specific studio’s advertisement than the latter.  Instead this almost reminded me more of something like The Lego Movie, which could be said to be an originator of sorts for this recent iteration of the trend both in its tone and in how it seeks to exceed audience expectations about the kind of weird IP at its center.  The film is certainly packed with neat easter eggs and jokes but I will say that there are some issues holding the movie back a little for me.  For one, the story at the heart of the movie is extremely simple to the point of being formulaic.  Additionally I found some of the acting here to be kind of annoying; I don’t think John Mulaney was quite the right voice for Chip and I also feel like KiKi Layne is a bit awkward as the film’s most prominent human character and probably could have been directed differently.  Still, I can’t deny that this was a pretty damn fun experience and probably deserved a real theatrical release that it was never given.
***1/2 out of Five

The Bad Guys (7/18/2022)

This Dreamworks Animation product came out in the spring and seemed to do decent at the box office and decent among critics but otherwise didn’t seem to leave much of an impact.  Seeing it now I’m rather conflicted because the things it does well it does really well and the things it does poorly it does very poorly.  Starting with the good, in matters of style I think this has a lot going for it.  It’s got a cool cel-shaded animation style, sports some nice voice acting from a hip cast, has some inventive set-pieces, and sports a slick score from Daniel Pemberton.  But in matters of substance this thing is a mess.  Its basic premise of certain types of anthropomorphized animals being villainized for being predators was already done in Disney’s Zootopia and I suspect this was something that was more heavily emphasized in earlier versions of the screenplay that needed to be delayed and re-written lest this be perceived as the Shark Tale to that movie’s Finding Nemo, but it’s still at the heart of this and doesn’t make a lot of sense given that most of the rest of the world in the film consists of humans rather than docile animals and the versions seen here are so heavily anthropomorphized that its odd they’re perceived as animals at all.  Beyond that the criminal justice system in this world seems to be entirely based on whims of public opinion in ways that do not make sense and the whole thing is predicated on an incredibly predictable twist villain turn.  It’s lazy crap.  Also it’s weird that this is a kids movie that seems super interested in parodying Tarantino movies and Ocean’s Eleven.  So yeah, despite attempts to conceal it this still is pretty much the Shark Tale to Zootopia’s Finding Nemo, but it is certainly a more stylish and entertaining movie that that Will Smith vehicle and does come away with a little more dignity than that, so it probably will have a better reputation ultimately.
**1/2 out of Five

Closure: Ridley Scott


Today marks the introduction in a new kind of special retrospective article I’m going to try out which I’m calling “Closure.”  Unlike the “Crash Course” posts I’ve been doing that are intended to act as introductions and kick starts to certain cinematic topics, these are meant to close out various lifelong pursuits once and for all.  More than likely this will focus on certain auteur’s filmographies, situations where I’ve already seen the lion’s share of a director’s work but just need that extra nudge in order to finish things off and watch the last handful of films I haven’t seen from them.  Of course most of these are going to be filmmakers who are alive and working, so there’s some possibility I’ll just fall behind later as the continue making films, but at least I’ll be caught up in the first place.  For my first “closure” article I’ll be looking at the work of a filmmaker who has been something of a white whale for me for a while: Ridley Scott.  I still like Scott a lot but when I was a teenager he may well have been in my all-time top five directors and I sought out a ton of his work including some lesser works like Black Rain and White Squall but there were certain films like 1492: Conquest of Paradise (which I did finally see two years ago when it showed up on CBS All Access, not good) that were going to be unavailable to me so gaps remained and then later in his career he made some stuff that seemed skippable and my interest waned.  But looking at what remains, there are only five Ridley Scott movies I haven’t seen: one from the 80s, one from the 2000s, and three from the 2010s, and it seems like a good time to just finish this out.

Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)

In 1982, Ridley Scott cashed in his clout from making Alien in order to make his masterpiece Blade Runner, a film that’s now considered a classic but underperformed with audiences.  Scott still impressed people enough with that movie to get 1985’s Legend greenlit, and that didn’t really succeed either critically or financially so it’s pretty clear that by 1987 he needed to maybe scale down his ambition and make a “normal” movie and the result was a film starring Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers called Someone to Watch Over Me.  You don’t really hear much about the movie these days, and for good reason, because it’s quite forgettable.  The film is about a police officer tasked with acting as a bodyguard for a socialite who has witnessed a crime and starts to fall for her.  This, of course, is basically the same plot as 1985’s Witness except without the Amish angle and without most of everything else that made that movie good and interesting.  The one difference here is that the cop is married and his bodyguarding antics bring him to the edge of infidelity, which maybe could have been the germ of something interesting but it never really goes anywhere and there isn’t that much chemistry between Tom Berenger (who does not aquit himself as a leading man here) and Mimi Rogers.  Directorially, Ridley Scott is a bit out of his element here, he sets some scenes at New York landmarks like the Guggenheim Museum but otherwise isn’t able to turn this into a spectacle like his previous films and isn’t able to transcend the film’s uninteresting script.  These days we lament that every movie coming out of Hollywood is seemingly trying to be an epic tentpole, and yeah that’s not ideal, but it’s worth remembering that the previous system used to involve pumping out a lot of uninspired movies like this that were just hoping that some star chemistry would bring them to life and when they didn’t the results were total nothingburgers like this.

** out of Five

A Good Year (2006)

A Good Year feels like a strange aberration in Ridley Scott’s career in that its mostly devoid of the big production values that tended to define his career, especially in this post-Gladiator period.  A romantic comedy about an investor deciding what to do with a vineyard he inherited from a dececed uncle certainly isn’t a project that screams “Scott Free Productions.”  On the other hand there was a certain logic to it: Scott had scored a solid critical success with the small scale conman film Matchstick Men three years earlier and it was starting to look like he’d make a habit of making similarly small movies in between his epics and he had an obvious report with Russell Crowe that he wanted to revisit with this breezy little project.  Unfortunately this is no Matchstick Men.  So, there’s this formula that exists in Hollywood movies where people with busy urban lives wind up through circumstances traveling to small towns (often their hometowns) and dislike it at first but slowly come to see the charms in the slower rural life and decides to settle down there with some local they find themselves romancing.  It’s the formula of Hallmark movies and I hate it.  Firstly because it’s trite and predictable but also because it’s implicitly insulting to the wide swaths of people who choose to live in cities.  Also the movies have a strong whiff of hypocrisy; the people making them plainly don’t actually believe in leaving behind fast moving urban careers (as evidenced by the fact that they’re making a Hollywood movie) but are just adopting this bullshit to pander to middle America.  However, at the very least most of those movies have the common sense to be set in actual middle America, this movie on the other hand has the gall to apply that formula to a character who has the luxury of inheriting a vineyard estate in the South of France.

Yeah, I’m not normally much of a class warrior but this thing kind of did have me wanting to find a guillotine.  It’s probably for the best that this got made in 2006 because you probably couldn’t make a movie that’s this blasé about lives of luxury two years later after the 2008 economic crisis. Indeed, later in his career Scott would in fact become a lot more critical about what wealth does to people but here he’s just pushing this very out of touch story about someone trying to decide whether to trade one life of luxury for another one with minimal real consequences involved in making one choice or another.  Beyond that this is a pretty good example of why they normally don’t hire people like Ridley Scott to make lightweight romcoms.  The extra skill he brings behind the camera kind of subconiously make you expect something better to be on the screen than the formulaic nothing you’re getting.  The actors certainly try their best to make the material work.  Crowe does a decent job of making his character an arrogant asshole without making him completely unlikable and both Marion Cotillard and Abbie Cornish are charming and attractive in their roles but they can’t overcome the script’s shortcomings.  After this thing came and went Scott maybe overlearned the lessons of this and probably leaned too much in the other direction towards making nothing but dour large scale movies and wouldn’t try to make something that’s even a little bit light and comedic again until The Martian almost a decade later.

** out of Five

The Counselor (2013)

Of the five Ridley Scott movies I’m looking at to clear up his filmography this is definitely the one that had me the most intrigued.  In addition to being directed by Scott the sported an all star cast including Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Cameron Diaz, and perhaps most intriguingly the film had an original screenplay written by the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, whose No Country for Old Men and The Road had been brought to the screen around the same time with great success.  Rarely has a film looked so promising on paper to just die an ignoble death upon release.  The film was defended by some critics but was by and large dismissed, earning just a 34% on Rotten Tomatoes and mostly bombed at the domestic box office (though it did do a little better internationally, saving it from being a complete boondoggle).  I came close to seeing it back in 2013 out of sheer curiosity but I was busy at the time and on a budget and ultimately opted not to and never really caught up to it until now.

In some ways Ridley Scott made sense as a person to direct this somewhat opaque and literary take on the drug trade.  He’d long been rumored as a potential helmer of an adaptation of McCarthy’s most acclaimed novel “Blood Meridian” and in general he’s considered a top talent and he’s one of only a few auteurs on his level that generally don’t write their own screenplays.  However, in a lot of ways he was actually an odd choice for this project.  Scott is, if nothing else a very straightforward filmmaker whose films tend to be a bit surface level.  Occasionally he’ll make something like Blade Runner that is a little more interested in subtext but normally what you see is what you get from him, so he isn’t necessarily the most obvious choice to be parsing something that’s sparse and literary in the way that McCarthy’s prose often is.  Scott certainly lives up to his end on a technical level; the film is beautifully shot by Dariusz Wolski and has some moments of violence that are pretty striking and memorable.  There are also some fairly opulent sets here, and you can kind of see the roots of some of his more recent movies about the dangers of opulence like House of Gucci here.  However, this screenplay is quite the headscratcher.

On a surface level this story feels like some fairly insubstantial crime hokum, which would of course also arguable be the case with No Country for Old Men, but the Coen Brothers were much more of a position to make that story work cinematically and bring its themes to the surface.  Here we don’t really have an intermediate writer to make McCarthy’s style work more cinematically, nor do we have a director who’s inclined to really challenge the writing or recontexualize it, so this is very much McCarthy’s world and it’s kind of up to you to find meaning in it… and I can’t say I was able to do that.  I can’t exactly dismiss the film, it looks good and it’s just generally interesting that it exists, but I don’t know that there’s much of anything in the way of a profound message at its center beyond some fairly obvious points about greed and human nature, and it’s in this kind of odd place where it’s too weird to be conventionally entertaining but not weird enough to feel like some kind of gonzo romp.  Just kind of a missed opportunity all around.  Had McCarthy stuck to what he was good at (writing novels) and just left it to someone like Paul Thomas Anderson to adapt said novel we would have been on to something, instead we have… this.

*** out of Five

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Ridley Scott has at times been called the Cecil B. DeMille of his times, perhaps rather superficially, because he’s basically the only director left standing who could be said to specialize in making period epics with “a cast of thousands” (even if that cast of thousands are conjured by computers these days).  Slightly less superficially he may have earned this comparison because he’s a commercial Hollywood filmmaker whose style is very much defined by his sense of production, particularly large and elaborate sets, which are present even when he’s making non-period epics like Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, or The Martian and is even present when making things like House of Gucci that are filled with mansions and scenery.  This comparison can, however, be taken far too literally.  This was the blunder that Scott himself seemed to make when he agreed to make Exodus: Gods and Kings, a take on the biblical Exodus story, which was famously brought to the screen by DeMille both in the silent era and again at the tail end of his career with the 1956 blockbuster The Ten Commandments and it’s pretty much impossible not to compare this version to that one and the comparison kind of puts into relief how different Scott actually is from DeMille and how different the idea of an “epic” is today.

It’s no secret that Hollywood is obsessed with franchises and remakes, much to the chagrin of film buffs like me who thinks certain Hollywood classics are sacred and shouldn’t be touched.  Thing is, if I’m being honest I realize that the public does not share my reverence for movies like Clash of the Titans, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or The Poseidon Adventure and will happily take in a new version with “better” special effects but I’m not sure the same can be said for The Ten Commandments, one of the most widely seen “old” movies thanks to the annual broadcasts it still gets to this day on network television around Easter/Passover season.  So this had a lot to live up to, especially given just how long this story has cinematically been synonymous with the very idea of “special effects spectacle” and truth be told I don’t think there was any possible way for anyone to ever turn this story into an eye-popping spectacle in the way that other movie was to audiences in 1956.  This is kind of where the DeMille comparison becomes a problem for Scott as, however epic his movies are, he hasn’t truly shown audiences anything they haven’t seen before since 1982… in reality the moniker probably fits someone like James Cameron, who’s always been on the cutting edge of effects and setting box office records, a little bit better.  Beyond that though, Ridley Scott’s movies tend to be a bit darker more down to earth and more R-rated (or hard PG-13 rated) than DeMille’s movies ever were.  In the case of something like Gladiator or The Last Duel that’s a big plus, it makes the genre more relevant to modern audiences but I think I can safely say it’s probably not the right approach to bible stories.

Exodus: Gods and Kings was originally envisioned as… well I’m not exactly sure what the vision was.  On some level Scott seemed to view this as a more down to Earth and historical version of the bible story but… well, it’s kind of impossible to do a historical version of the Exodus story because there’s basically no historical record to back up the Moses story at all.  There’s literally more secular evidence of Noah’s flood than there is of Jewish slaves in Egypt.  Scott at one point discussed looking for “natural causes for the miracles, including drainage from a tsunami for the parting of the Red Sea” and star Christian Bale was at one point thinking that Moses was “likely schizophrenic” to explain his visions.  So I guess they were planning to make a borderline atheistic Moses story… which on some level is something that I should appreciate as a secular person who isn’t in the market for bible movies, but I’m pretty obviously not the target audience for one.  The final movie is much less ambiguous about the divine intervention in the story and the “Tsunami drainage” idea doesn’t make the final film, but that mindset is still present and the whole movie feels like something of a cynical compromise between religion and secular tone that will basically please no one.

But really, the movie’s ultimate downfall isn’t its tone or approach to religion; it’s its uninspired screenplay and frankly lifeless direction.  The film does very little to make the political dynamics of Egypt’s supposed slave economy interesting and the film’s characters feel like uninteresting archetypes.  Bale isn’t doing one of his signature transformations and the supporting cast isn’t doing much either.  The film was criticized at the time for casting white actors in middle eastern roles, which seemed a little weird to me at the time given the long history of Hollywood stars playing bible characters, but seeing a shaved head Joel Edgerton in an Egyptian pharaoh getup I was kind of swayed to think that casting was misguided.  The film does kind of come alive during the plague scenes and during the red sea parting at the end, making it rather obvious what interested Scott in the production and what didn’t, but if all you’re going to bring to a project is well rendered disaster scenes then you might as well hand off the project to Roland Emmerich.  And this also brings up the fact that, in 2010s these effects scenes are just never going to be as impressive to audiences as they were in the 50s so unless you have a very novel take on it this material just isn’t going to be the same kind of spectacle as it once was and it’s probably a mistake to invite the comparison.

** out of Five

All the Money in the World (2017)

I think it’s a near certainly that the ultimate thing the 2017 film All the Money in the World will be remembered for is the rush reshoots it had to make at the last minute to replace Kevin Spacey with a (more age appropriate) Christopher Plumber after abuse allegations came out about Spacey.  That’s certainly a fascinating bit of trivia, and while watching the film you can’t help but try and spot which of Plumber’s scenes were shot on a green screen, but there is a movie beyond that story and I do want to try to see if it works on its own merits.  The short answer is that it kind of does but there’s probably a reason people talk more about its behind the scenes drama than the actual movie.  The film is about the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, a teenage heir to the Getty Oil fortune, while traveling in Italy.  Family patriarch J. Paul Getty famously initially refused to pay the ransom, reasoning that doing so would put a target on the rest of his family.  The film is primarily told from the perspective of the kidnapped boy’s mother (played by Michelle Williams) and a former CIA agent on J. Paul Getty sr.’s payroll (played by Mark Wahlberg) who is trying to track down the kidnappers and negotiate the release.  The film does not really play particularly well as a thriller, as this dilemma takes place over such a long time and Scott doesn’t really go too far out of his way to put Getty III in a lot of real danger.  So, this is more of a procedural about the negotiation and tracking process, which is hampered a bit by Whalberg, who is not great a playing characters who are supposed to seem… intelligent.  And then of course the film is meant to be something of a study of the senior J. Paul Getty’s lifestyle and greed, which is probably the film’s most interesting element but it doesn’t take up a ton of the film’s actual runtime.  Ultimately the movie’s just kind of average; not a terribly deep exploration of wealth and class, but a decent rundown of the true story at its center.

*** out of Five

In Conclusion

And with that, I can now say that I’ve seen every one of Ridley Scott’s movies… for now anyway.  Scott is of course still alive and working so keeping up with his work will be a continuing process for the forseeable future, in fact he as a Napoleon movie in the pipe right now with Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby which will probably be coming next year or maybe 2024 and with how prolific Scott is I imagine he’s got something else lined up after that.  The five movies I watched for this were… not great, that’s kind of in the nature of the assignment as the last movies I haven’t seen from a filmmaker have usually been put off for a reason, but I think I got some insights into Scott just the same.