Crash Course: New French Extremity

Every October I like to do a bit of a deep dive into a horror sub-genre I feel I haven’t sufficiently explored and increasingly my explorations have been geographic in nature.  I’ve taken a look at Japanese horror films, English horror films, Italian horror films, as well as Australian horror films in the past and this year I’m going to be tackling a bit of national horror cinema I’ve been meaning to tackle for a while: French horror.  Specifically I’m looking at a wave of horror films that were made in France during the first decade called “The New French Extremity,” a term that some extend to films like Catherine Breillat’s Romance that are more sexual than violent but for my purposes we’re looking specifically at a handful of horror movies that were made around the first decade of the new millennium and have kind of been viewed as a Gallic response to the “torture porn” movies that were coming out of Hollywood at the time as well as some of the more extreme stuff coming out of Asia.  Some of these movies are believed to be rather difficult to watch but are nonetheless considered to be rather important examples from the fringes of the horror genre made during a time when people were indulging that genre’s extremes.

High Tension (2003)

The first of the “French Extremity” movies I’ll be looking at is Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (known as Switchblade Romance in some markets), which is by far the most mainstream of the movies I’ll be looking at and could be said to simply fit in with the likes of Saw and Hostel rather than acting as a more extreme counterpart.  In fact Lionsgate thought as much and gave the film a wide release, albeit in a dubbed and edited format, where it made about three and a half millions dollars.  That’s not a great take, but it’s certainly more than some of these other movies which I don’t think even got limited theatrical releases stateside and mostly gained their reputations through festival screenings and “unrated” DVD releases.  Still that crappy dubbed cut lingers so if you’re trying to watch this movie today be careful what version you’re paying for because some of these streaming services have not taken care to host the right version.  Anyway, the film’s release does seemed to have helped get some future extreme French horror movies get made and it was also considered enough of a success to get Aja an inconsistent if mostly steady career as a horror filmmaker in Hollywood but critically the movie was mostly savaged, including with a memorable one star pan by Roger Ebert, whose review began “The philosopher Thomas Hobbes tells us life can be ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ So is this movie.”

To the film’s credit I do think it deserves a little better than Ebert (who was never a fan of the “dead teenager movies”) was ever going to give it.  Aja is a slick filmmaker; I don’t know if he got his start in music videos but his film certainly makes it look like he did, and he and his cinematographer Maxime Alexandre give the film a nice and well produced look.  His star, Cécile de France, is also pretty well suited to be the protagonist of a film like this.  She’s not some stock blonde “nice girl” but she’s dressed in tight clothing throughout the film and is frankly rather sexy in an alternative girl kind of way and is fun to watch throughout.  Then of course there’s the film’s gore, which isn’t exactly novel for most of the film (lots of throat slitting) but it is certainly rather “in your face” in nature and you can tell Aja made this thing without worrying too much what the MPAA would think about the film.  There isn’t necessarily anything here that a seasoned horror fan will say they’ve never seen before but I would suspect it would be shocking to someone who had never heard the name “Lucio Fulci” and hadn’t yet been completely corrupted by all the Saw and Hostel sequels that were to come.

Having said all that, one should not mistake this for some sort of uniquely sophisticated horror movie just because it’s French because in many ways it’s just an iteration on the horror formulas we’ve seen before.  The first third or so is very much a home invasion slasher movie which certainly doesn’t appear to have much novelty to it.  Our protagonist is not very fleshed out and neither are the soon-to-be-victims and the killer seems quite boring as well; he doesn’t have any kind of mask to make him stand out and his signature weapon (a straight razor) is not very interesting.  He’s just a largeish middle aged dude whose severely lacking in novelty.  The second half is a bit more of a chase movie of sorts, a bit like Duel I guess you could say but still nothing too special.  And of course all of this is leading up to a twist ending which is just completely inane.  Full disclosure this ending was spoiled for me around the time the film was released so some of its impact may have been blunted, but I doubt it because it’s something that does not make a lick of sense in terms of the actual story and it’s not interesting thematically and is plainly derivative of similar endings that several other movies around this time also had.  So, between all that there isn’t really a whole lot about High Tension that really makes it stand out in the grand scheme of horror history but I also can’t quite hate on it.  It is best not to imbue this thing with too much baggage and instead look at it as a very commercial piece of genre cinema that’s better made than something like Friday the 13th but not necessarily much smarter.
**1/2 out of Five

Them (2006)

The movie Them (Ils) is probably the least famous of the five movies in my French Extremity crash course, in fact I don’t even remember hearing about it around the time it actually came out.  The first time I heard about it was two years later when Universal released a not dissimilar movie called The Strangers, which I heard some people call a straight-up ripoff of this earlier French film.  I’m not sure that accusation is entirely fair, in part because Them is such a simple movie that it can really be said to be novel enough to be stolen and the few points of novelty here (mainly the last twenty minutes and the identity of the killers) are not carried over to that movie.  The film has a very basic premise: a French couple are loving in a large house in Romania (we get a very brief scene establishing that she works in a French immersion school there) and one night a group of assailants just attack the house and the couple must find a way to survive.  That’s kind of it, it’s the home invasion movie stripped down to its absolutely basic essentials.  Now, stripping something down can be viewed as desirable if what you’re doing is cutting away whatever bullshit has pushed a given film genre into an undesirable direction, but if you strip things down too far you run the risk of basically making a movie that’s devoid of any kind of flavor that is going to make it stand out and be memorable, and I’d say this movie comes pretty close to that latter problem.

There’s just not a lot to this couple and the killers aren’t really stalking them in an overly novel way.  This movie gets lumped in with the “New French Extremity” movement a lot but I’d hardly call it “extreme” at all outside of its basic nihilism.  There’s hardly any on screen gore in it, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it’s certainly been misclassified from time to time.  I would also say that this is kind of an ugly film just in terms of cinematography.  Say what you will about High Tension but it was nothing if not slick, but this movie was shot on digital cameras back when digital cameras were still looked decidedly worse than film and the whole movie just kind of looks cheap as a result.  If you’re going to make a movie like this which is just supposed to operate on horror fundamentals the least you can do is try to make sure it’s pretty, or make it lough rough in more of a purposeful way.  So, there are clear drawbacks here but there are also some legitimately good ideas to be found in the movie.  The final act when the couple escapes the house and is pursued in the woods has a lot going for it, particularly when the killers can kind of only be seen as flashlights in the distance, and the last scene where the woman is being chased also works pretty well leading up to a strong final image before the coda.  There’s also a twist involving the identities of the killers which is somewhat interesting if not really explored to its full potential. So if you’re a horror movie looking to dig pretty deep in the back catalog this may be an interesting watch but there’s just not enough here to make it really stand out.
*** out of Five

Inside (2007)

Now this is closer to what I was expecting from the “New French Extremity!”  Like Them before it the film Inside is at its core a home invasion film but this isn’t anyone’s idea of “minimalism,” this is a movie where the plasma really flows.  The film looks at a woman who is massively pregnant but who is in mourning because her baby’s father was recently killed in a car accident that she survived.  She’s now “overdue” but the night before she’s scheduled to go into induced labor a woman breaks into her home with a scissors and tries to cut into her stomach.  She escapes from this initial attack and locks herself into the bathroom, beginning a standoff that others will soon be drawn into.  The killer woman appears to be trying to steal this baby right out of our protagonist’s womb, which is certainly grotesque in concept and I must say I’ve got to question this homicidal maniac’s logic a bit here; I’m not an expert on the topic but I suspect children are generally easier to kidnap after they’ve been born.  Regardless, the pregnancy ultimately turns out to be move of a motivating factor than a driving force in the film’s action and the fact that she’s with child does not really impede her movements too dramatically in the movie.

The film does however incorporate a device in which we periodically cut to a CGI representation of this child in the womb, which mostly serves as a bit of a distraction and frankly just doesn’t look very good as they clearly don’t have the world’s biggest budget to work with.  I also didn’t care much for the film’s cinematography, which looked a little better than the borderline consumer-grade photography in Them but which does nonetheless look like some not great digital photography.  Perhaps one day we’re just going to see this era’s digital photography with the same kind of charm we view grainy film prints, but I doubt it.  Still slick photography was never really what a movie like this was supposed to be about, it’s instead about making a grimy splatter movie and man is there a lot of splatter here.  By the end the film’s body count becomes fairly high despite essentially taking place in a handful of rooms in a single house and some of these kills are outlandish.  The R-rated cut of this thing that was released to Blockbuster video had a full seven minutes cut out of it, and I’m not really sure what the point would be of seeing that version.  This is a movie that largely seems to exist to be the ultimate in nasty home invasion cinema and nasty it certainly is.
***1/2 out of Five

Frontier(s) (2007)

On October 27th 2005 Parisian police chased down a group of teenagers of color who were alleged to have broken into a construction site, two of those teenagers tried to hide in an electrical substation and were killed by electrocution.  This was said to have been a spark in a powder keg of resentment over the way people of color are treated in France and what followed were three weeks of rioting and unrest through Paris and its suburbs, becoming one of that decade’s most prominent events in France and is of course hardly something unfamiliar to the rest of the Western World to this day.  Those events were briefly referenced in the film Inside but much more intrinsically influenced another bit of New French Extremity released that year called Frontier(s).  Directed by a guy named Xavier Gens, the film is set in a near future in which France is on the verge of electing a quasi-fascist president as riots break out in much of the city.  The film focuses on a group of mostly Arab-French youths who are looking to escape the chaos of the city and head to Amsterdam but first attempt to gets some cash from a robbery which goes wrong and leaves one of the youths dead and his pregnant girlfriend in mourning.  They do proceed with the plan however and head to a hotel in the countryside where they plan to reunite, but little do they know that this hotel is run by violent neo-nazis who will be turning this into a night of unmitigated horror.

I’m not exactly sure what this film’s title, including it’s odd plural in parentheses thing, is supposed to be all about.  Otherwise the movie isn’t exactly subtle and is somewhat bold in using racial conflict as an element in its horror but I don’t think it has anything terribly interesting to say on the subject and ultimately it feels more exploitative than enlightening.  Really this is more like a take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with the city people driving through the countryside and then being trapped by what are essentially the French equivalent of a family of violent killer rednecks.  It’s a concept that does at least have potential but, to be frank, this Xavier Gens guy seems like a total hack.  Regrettable filming formats of the 2000s have been something of a running theme in this crash course but unlike Them and Inside this film does not have early digital cameras to blame for its look; it was filmed on tried and true 35mm but it has the worst kind of “MTV” look imaginable.  Motion in several scenes is intentionally jittery and color filters are extreme and most of the chosen camera angles are completely unflattering and the editing borders on the incompetent.  I was not surprised to learn that Gens almost immediately went to Hollywood and made dreck like the 2007 Hitman and has basically been in the direct-to-video space since then.  The movie just looks horrible and beyond that its characters are bland and its scenario never comes together.  The film is indeed quite gory so if you are a connoisseur of the bloodletting and care about nothing else go ahead and give this a look but this is not some kind of bold unmissable vision by any means.
*1/2 out of Five

Martyrs (2008)

Of all the films in my New French Extremity crash course the one I’ve been most anticipating, both for good and ill, was the last of the five: Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film Martyrs.  While a lot of the other movies here have faded with time this one still gets referenced pretty widely, but often not for its quality so much as for its infamy as some view it as something of an endurance test; a film you challenge yourself to watch to see just how much violence you can tolerate.  It isn’t quite as cited for its extremity as A Serbian Film or the Human Centipede series, but it’s up there.  But what differentiates it from those two provocations is that it does have a larger fanbase of people who do sincerely view it as a quality horror film and not just a geek show.  So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the movie and I must say that what I got made both “sides” of the film’s reputation but I must say I probably lean more toward team “it’s a legitimately good horror movie” than team “it’s just violent schlock.”  For one thing I do think the movie has been somewhat misrepresented over time… or maybe it hasn’t.

“Torture Porn” is a term that was thrown around a lot to describe horror movies in the 2000s, sometimes erroneously.  Many people just use it to mean “really violent movie” whereas I view it more to be a movie that’s literally about torture, so Hostel would qualify but The Devil’s Rejects would not.  A lot of these “New French Extremity” movies have been called torture porn but most of them would not fit my definition: High Tension is merely a very violent slasher film, Them and Inside are both merely very violent home invasion movies.  Frontier(s) is closer, but I’d say that’s closer to just being a movie about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and trying to escape with your life.  To my eyes Martyrs is the only one of these that really fits the bill, but it takes longer to get there than I expected as I had heard hyperbolic accounts suggesting that the movie was 90% just watching someone get strapped down and brutalized. The first half of the movie is perhaps more of a really violent revenge movie than anything about a woman who was violently abused by some sort of cult as a child coming back to get revenge on a family she believes to have been responsible for this abuse and also about a friend of hers from an orphanage she lived in after escaping this cult.  Fully half of the movie is about her time in a house taking this violent revenge while also being stalked and attacked by some sort of strange feral woman.  Make no mistake, this section of the movie is itself extremely violent and goes far beyond what you would expect from a Hollywood horror movie but it is not really “torture.”

The film does, however, start to live up to its reputation in its third act when the second woman becomes a victim of this same cult.  Structurally that’s a bit of an odd choice as it essentially makes this a movie where we get the revenge first and then only afterwards get a full account of the brutality that’s being avenged.  It’s interesting as it denies the viewer that catharsis during the revenge as we’re left off balance as to whether the people being attacked are even guilty or what exactly they’re accused of.  It also means that when the torture does begin we’re denied any serious hope of justice after the fact.  In this section the film also famously gives an explanation for what all this torture is about: the cult inflicting violence in the belief that they can somehow induce a sort of enlightened trance state in their victims that can give them insights into the afterlife.  Crazy concept but one which could be viewed as a sort of critical metaphor for violent horror movies themselves, suggesting perhaps that the audience is in a way just as guilty of demanding violence upon the characters in the horror movies they watch for their own selfish desire for insight and catharsis… kind of like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games but with fewer literal winks to the camera more people being skinned alive… yeah, I don’t think Haneke would approve and honestly I’m not entirely sure I entirely buy that explination or necessarily think many people would consider this experience “worth it,” but I do think there’s something there.  I would also say that this is just generally better made than some of the other movies in this marathon, at the very least the cinematography is less dated and it generally feels less clichéd.  It’s the best remembered of these for a reason, but it does go off the rails in the last fifteen minutes or so and you have to be down for a very specific kind of extreme experience to want to watch it.
***1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion
Well, that was an experience.  On some level this was a bit of a disappointment: two of the five movies (High Tension and Frontier(s)) turned out to be total schlock and one (Them) was just rather unmemorable, and even some of the better movies here were reminders of some of the more unfortunate aesthetic trends of this era.  Inside proved to be better, but was more just a really bloody exercise in tension than a truly transcendent experience and really it was only Martyrs that felt like a truly worthy provocation even if it’s not necessarily a perfect movie either.  So this wasn’t exactly the particularly sophisticated horror movie that one might expect from the esteemed French cinema but maybe that was a stereotypical thing to expect in the first place.  The wave itself largely died out after Martyrs.  Pascal Laugier gave interviews suggesting that even with the relative success of some of these movies the gatekeepers of French cinema still had very little interest in funding these sort of films.  Aside from High Tension director Alexandre Aja few of these filmmakers really went on to have enduring film careers, most tried to cross over to Hollywood but made sub-par projects there and flamed out.  Still, these movies will continue to have relevance as the “shock cinema” for a generation of horror fans who had quite a bit of “shock cinema” at their disposal.

Titane(9/30/2021)

Warning: Major Spoilers

The news coming out of the Cannes Film Festival this year felt oddly… normal.  This was the first year back after the 2020 festival was cancelled because of Covid but the festival lineup seemed to be the usual mix of world cinema.  In fact things seemed especially consistent this year; you didn’t hear about much of anything being booed but not a lot was being called a true knockout masterpiece either.  It felt like a very “solid B+” festival… but there was one movie that really got people talking and that was Titane, the new film from the French filmmaker Julia Ducournau who had previously been known for her 2016 psychological body horror film RawTitane was a movie that seemed to hit the people who saw it like a truck; everything else at the festival had seemed to fit within the usual expectations of European festival fare but this movie was a big injection of genre craziness in the proceedings and the people who saw it thought it was just one of the most outlandish things they’d ever seen and it had such an impact that it ended up scoring the festival’s highest honor: the Palm d’Or.  Of course I only know all of this by reputation, I wasn’t there and it would be a few months before I actually got a chance to see it and I took care to make sure I didn’t know much more because I got word that it was a film where I would be well served by diligently avoiding spoilers so I could be similarly bowled over by its secrets.  That said I’m going to be taking the opposite approach to this review and am instead opting to take more of a deep dive into the experience of seeing this wild-ass movie and where it works and where it doesn’t.

The movie opens with our protagonist as a little girl who is grievously injured in a car accident and ends up having major brain surgery which involves having a metal plate stuck in her head leaving a very noticeable scar on her scalp around her right ear.  We then flash forward to when this woman, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is in her late twenties/early thirties and has become employed as some sort of stripper who dances on top of automobiles at car shows.  This apparently makes her something of a celebrity and one night a creepy fan follows her out to her car to harass her and she responds to this by killing him with a hairpin, something it’s strongly implied that she’s done before.  She then goes back into the car show building after hours to take a shower and is overcome with a strange urge to go back out to the car show floor where she sees a vintage Cadillac with flame decals which inexplicably has its motor running without a driver and seems to be enticing her in its direction with its headlights.  So… she makes love to the car.  The anatomical details of this act are not made clear but you did read that right and it is literal in its meaning.  A few days later she suddenly starts experiencing symptoms of pregnancy while on a date with a fellow car stripper and is already “showing.”  For whatever reason she responds to this experience by killing the other model and suddenly realizes she has three roommates that she now also needs to kill in order to cover that up, but one gets away so now Alexia finds herself on the run lest her serial killer ways get her arrested.

Now, up to this point in the movie I was really loving it.  Ducournau is a filmmaker who makes films about characters who aren’t always what you’d call “relatable” and her films often operate on a certain logic where the world around them sort of transforms to reflect their mindsets and she seems to be taking this to a bit of an extreme by making a movie about a serial killing metal fetishist.  Agathe Rousselle, who has actually never starred in a film before, gives a wild and sensational lead performance and the film’s sex and violence is presented rather fearlessly (I’m kind of surprised the MPAA let them get away with an R).  I was very intrigued to see where it went from there but then in kind of zagged in a direction I wasn’t expected rather than zigging and I’m not sure I liked where it went.  After Alexia’s big gory three person killing spree she sees her face on a wanted poster and comes up with probably the craziest escape plan possible: she cuts her hair, intentionally breaks her nose, binds her breasts and pregnant stomach with gauze and poses as a boy who’s been reported missing for several years and is taken in by the boy’s father (Vincent Lindon.  This is where the movie started to lose me.  It may sound ridiculous to be on board with a movie where a woman is impregnated by a Cadillac only to then say “that’s a bit far-fetched” when she merely tries to con a grieving man but there’s a big difference between an outright flight of fantasy like that car reproduction and something that’s just kind of an implausible bit of human behavior.

Of course I have seen the documentary The Imposter and am familiar with the Frédéric Bourdin case but this situation is even a few notches of crazy beyond that.  Bourdin was not a wanted serial killer, never went so far as to pretend to be someone of a different gender, certainly wasn’t hiding a pregnancy the whole time (and her “binding” technique stops making sense somewhere around the second trimester), and also didn’t have a telltale scar on his scalp that no one suddenly seems to notice.  So that all seemed far-fetched but, again, this whole movie is kind of supposed to be far-fetched.  I think the bigger problem here isn’t plausibility so much as the fact that this section seemed to kind of abandon a lot about the movie I was really enjoying in that first act.  Alexia doesn’t appear to be a serial killer anymore, there’s little evidence of her metal fetish anymore, and the movie instead becomes this odd story about a sad man kind of being used by a con artist.  At a certain point I was thinking, “wait, what happened to this lady being impregnated by the presumably demonic child from the gods of flesh and steel… why are we not focusing on that?”

Slowly but surely a lot of this does get back on track.  As the film goes forward it becomes clear that this father is primarily fooled by Alexia’s ruse out of sheer grief-stricken delusion… which still doesn’t explain why she tried it in the first place, but still that is at least somewhat plausible.  Eventually the film does start coming back around to the body horror provocation it started as when the pregnancy finally “comes to term” and the final childbirth scene is among the best set-pieces you’re likely to see and the film ends on the exact right note.  At that point you can kind of see the why the film needed to take the diversion it did to get where it needs to go, but I still kind of feel like the gender-bending imposter sub-plot was a lesser diversion that brings down the overall movies a bit.  But it doesn’t bring it down too much and there’s a lot to recommend in the overall film but of course only to the right audiences.  This obviously isn’t going to be a huge crossover hit like the last Neon distributed Palm d’Or winner Parasite; it’s a movie that requires an audience that’s willing to suspend a lot of disbelief, who are amenable to genre elements, and who find extreme imagery enticing rather than repellent.  In other words it’s probably not a movie I’m going to recommend to the average family member, but it’s a bold vision that will likely be pretty influential going forward and if you are someone who seeks out provocation in their cinema it’s a must-see.

**** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 8/12/2021

The Fear Street Trilogy (7/26/2021)

The Fear Street trilogy, which debuted across three weeks in July directly to Netflix, are a bit of a quandary to me simply in terms of format.  The three films were shot simultaneously, lead into each other in a very “to be continued” kind of way, and in many ways they feel more like a TV miniseries than a set of films and yet they do in many ways fit every definition of “film” you can have.  They were originally produced by 20th Century Fox pre-Disney acquisition and were intended to be released in theaters across three months, but then the pandemic made theatrical releases iffy and they sure as hell weren’t going to put this gorefest on Disney+ so they sold it to Netflix.  So they’re movies, but they don’t really stand alone at all and they are clearly intended to be watched in tandem even more so than normal sets of sequels in a way that certainly reflects television culture more than film culture as we know it.  Also curious is that the three films are actually based on books written by R.L. Stein based on his Fear Street series, which was meant to be the slightly more hardcore books kids would graduate to after they outgrew his Goosebumps books.  I never got into Fear Street (I went from Goosebumps to Animorphs to real books) but I have always had the impression they were a bit more PG-13 whereas these movies are more like hard R slasher movies aimed squarely at the audience who grew up on those books but crave something a bit more hardcore now.

The first film, 1994 (whose setting also acts as a framing story for the next two movies), is plainly trying to be a sort of Stranger Things nostalgic look at mid 90s teen culture and is set in a pair of twin towns called Sunnydale and Shady Side that have become known as the site of periodic outbreaks of serial killings over the course of its history.  That installment follows a group of teens dealing with the latest of these outbreaks and coming to find that these attacks are supernatural in nature and appear to be the result of a curse of some kind.  The second film, 1978, looks back at a previous incident caused by this curse which occurred at a summer camp, and the third movie, 1666, looks at the Salem Witch Trial like occurrence that started this curse and then returns to 1994 to wrap things up.  Of the three I think 1978 is kind of the weakest, firstly because it’s so obviously a pastiche of the Friday the 13th movies that it feels redundant and secondly because it generally feels the most disconnected from the other two films in the trilogy and adds the least to the overall mythology.  I also didn’t care too much for the 1666 parts of 1666, which rather awkwardly tries to incorporate the actors from the 1994 parts and generally lacks some of the attitude of the other parts and feels the least like pure entertainment and the most like a plot necessity.  The strongest elements are the 1994 segments across the three films, which are probably the most successful at making the familiar story elements seem relatively fresh and have the most likable and engaging characters.  I don’t know that I’d call any of these movies “scary” but there are some decent slasher movie kills across the trilogy and there are some memorable killers assembled here and some fun chases with them.

I will say I kind of dig that they were experimenting with form here but I don’t think it really worked out.  There’s not really enough here to support a six hour movie and had this gone to theaters as planned I don’t think this project, taken as a whole, would have justified the purchase of three tickets and three separate trips to the multiplex.  Meanwhile, if looked at as TV there isn’t really enough here and that pieces are missing.  In many ways it feels like they ideally should have made this into a season of something like “American Horror Story” in which we see them do this in more settings through the history of this cursed town but in shorter episodes.  As it is the whole thing just feels a bit unwieldly.  Looking past the format I think there are some fun ideas spread throughout the three films; most of the characters are likable, the teen cast is sufficient, the killers look cool enough, and while I wouldn’t say any of the films are wildly suspenseful there are some decent kills spread across the films that will appeal to audiences seeking out some simpler horror pleasures.  Not unlike the original books, I would probably say that the target audiences for these movies probably are the younger horror fans who maybe haven’t already seen all the movies that inspired these things and may be experiencing these genre pleasures (that they are maybe too young for) for the first time.  For me, eh, I was rarely bored while watching them but I can’t say I found it to be an entirely successful endeavor but as a Netflix movie it’s probably worth at least giving a look if you’re a horror fan.
*** out of Five

Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage (7/27/2021)

Woodstock 99 and the various disasters that occurred there has been something of a pet interest of mine since I first heard about it during one of those VH1 “Most Shocking Moments in Rock” lists from back in the day and I’ve looked up a lot about the incident (in which a revival of the original festival erupted into violence and chaos) and had listened to the Steve Hayden podcast that was a likely precursor to this new documentary that recently debuted on HBO.  Despite already knowing most of what was going to be said in this documentary I still found myself engrossed in the story all over again, the whole thing is just such a clusterfuck of bad preparation, angry music, and a generation of young white men who were extremely angry despite living in times where there were not many things for them to be legitimately angry about and the movie is aware of all these factors in what happened and discusses them and doesn’t go too far into simplifying it all into any one factor being to blame.  They get a pretty solid roster of interviewees from band members, concert promotors, attendees, and journalists who all have varying degrees of self-awareness about what happened though a few absences are notable (looking at you Fred Durst).  The film doesn’t really engage in cheap “gotcha-ism” through some interviewees like the promoter who blames some of the women for their own sexual assault really can’t help but hang themselves with their own words.  The final film is perhaps as telling about the 90s as the original Woodstock documentary was of that era even if it lacks the same cinematic immediacy and one could perhaps argue that it has a lot more honest in its hindsight.  Beyond that the film just narrativeizes this event in a way that really builds effectively and just becomes a rather dramatic and at times disturbing viewing experience as it goes.  It doesn’t re-invent the documentary form or anything but it does cover its subject quite well.

**** out of Five

Night of the Kings (8/9/2021)

One of the things that I (and I suspect a lot of people) persistently feel guilty about is that despite having a lot of interest in world cinema my film going diet tends to be largely devoid of movies from Africa.  I want to blame circumstances on a lot of this: a lot of African countries don’t have the resources and infrastructure to make movies and various sectarian conflicts make building them difficult, so there’s less of a pipeline for movies from those countries and you tend to see that reflected in the makeup of major festivals and the like which otherwise raise the profile of movies from Europe, Asia, Latin America, etc.  Furthermore, the excursions I have made into African cinema have often been rocky.  A lot of the art cinema coming out of that country tends to be a touch obtuse and is often concerned with political conflicts that are not terribly easy for outsiders to parse and frankly they often aren’t made with a lot of style and pizazz.  Still, I’m increasingly trying to look harder and with that in mind I’m excited to report that an African film that truly excites me seems to have finally come my way in the form of a new release that was picked up by Neon and is currently streaming on Hulu, a film from The Ivory Coast directed by a guy named Philippe Lacôte called Night of the Kings.

The film begins with a young man getting locked up in the infamous MACA Prison, which seems to have something of an Escape From New York philosophy to incarceration in which convicts are basically thrown in and told to fend for themselves with minimal guard interference.  I have no idea if the actual prison is run this way (I’m guessing it isn’t) but that’s not really the point, though intensely political this isn’t a neorealist movie trying to shock you with authenticity and is instead reaching for more of a truth through symbolism.  As a result of some prison politics this young man, who was a member of a gang called the Microbes, is roped into a sort of prison ritual in which an inmate needs to tell a story over the course of a night that keeps everyone intrigued until the break of dawn.  In order to do this the young man starts by talking about the life and death of his former gang leader (a real life figure called Zama King) but as the night goes on he starts embellishing the story and it begins to take on legendary proportions.  It does not take an expert in the culture to get what Lacôte is up to with this, he’s taking African oral traditions and associated rituals and applying them and the myth-making they involve to the modern world and the stories that spread through a criminal underworld.

It’s an inherently fascinating concept if you’re able to go with it, though it does take some suspension of disbelief to roll with the idea that prisoners would engage in these rituals and I would say that the prison politics of all this is probably one of the film’s weaker and less understandable elements.  Still it more than makes up for this with the sheer filmmaking of it all.  While hardly an effects extravaganza this does not look like some sort of third world production made on a shoestring; it has very slick cinematography by Tobie Marier Robitaille and Lacôte shoots the film with a clear sense of purpose.  The storytelling scenes are fascinating in the way the prisoners respond to the story being told to them, with some of them ritualistically playacting elements of it in a sort of dance.  Again, I highly doubt that this is how any actual prisoners would behave but that’s really not the point, it’s about the ritual, and the story itself ends up touching on various aspects of Ivorian history as well as modern social conditions and which are occasionally dramatized in the film in interesting ways.  It would not shock me one bit if Marvel ended up signing Philippe Lacôte to helm Black Panther 3 or something, but I’m just fascinated to see what he can continue doing within a world cinema context and would really like to see his first movie (2014’s Run) if it ever ends up streaming somewhere.  It’s definitely one of the year’s best movies.

****1/2 out of Five

Wolfgang (8/10/2021)

The streaming gold rush has been quite the boon for documentaries as these platforms have been great places to debut and present non-fiction cinema but these services often aren’t after the most challenging and artistic docs and if there’s one service I definitely didn’t expect to become a destination for them it’s Disney+, which does have a history of hosting nature documentaries and movies about Disney history, but their first real venture into hosting feature length documentaries is a fairly by-the-numbers hagiographic profile of the celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.  Of course these simplistic biographical docs about famous old people are kind of the bread and butter of populist documentaries so this is hardly something unique to Disney and on some level I kind of appreciate that this movie basically knows it’s a puff piece and doesn’t try to pretend to be much more than that.  As you would expect from a Disney production this is very slickly produced and professional and has a strong emphasis on very traditional values like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and knowing the value of family.  In fact the film has a very Disney-like conflict in the third act where it talks about Puck not spending enough time with his family while he was at the height of his success, which is pretty much the only negative thing the film has to say about him, and in Disney fashion he sees the error in his ways eventually and corrects this.  Again, these are all tactics that you’re likely to see in a lot of other bio-docs like this but it’s especially transparent here.  As cinema this is pretty bankrupt but it’s not really trying to be cinema, it’s trying to be something that kind of keeps your interest while you casually watch it and it’s not exactly a failure at that, but I think it’s time to put my foot down about this trend because it really needs to stop.

** out of Five

Raya and the Last Dragon (8/12/2021)

Raya and the Last Dragon was meant to be a full-on Disney event film for the fall of 2020 but got pushed out by the pandemic to March of 2021… which was still probably a bad time to release movies but by that point Disney was in full yolo mode and just put it out.  I wasn’t going to pay their $30 blood money to watch it in “premiere access” but I was willing to catch up with it once it was on Disney+ for free.  From the outside this kind of looks like a Disney movie in the vein of something like Moana or Frozen but it’s not a musical like those movies were and isn’t as indebted to replicating the Disney Renaissance so one could maybe say it’s more like one of their more action driven efforts like Big Hero 6, but it’s still a fantasy period piece so I guess it’s kind of like a compromise between the two.  It’s set in a fictional world vaguely themed around Southeast Asia but with some clear influence from Chinese/Hong Kong martial arts cinema as well.  It’s set in a world that was torn apart by a past calamity and divided into different countries at war with one particularly bad one and focuses on one hero who is on a mission to stop them while accompanied by a mythological creature (the last dragon) while being pursued by the child of the main bad guy… it kind of reminds me of a popular cartoon that shall remain unnamed (followers of internet drama will know why) but I would say that it unlike that show this only has two hours to explore this whole world and that makes it feel kind of rushed.  The animation here is top of the line and I liked a lot of the world design but the story ultimately feels kind of formulaic and I would also say that the dialogue here, which is anachronistic and slangy, kind of drove me nuts.  Disney movies are never a place to go for period authentic speech patterns, but when you’re actively putting internet-speak in the mouths of your fantasy characters you’re messing up.  Ultimately it’s a movie that feels like it had the style to be a great Disney movie but never really had the substance and made a few unfortunate decisions that hold it back but I think I would have dug it a lot when I was a kid and appreciate the effort and feel like this creative team could do good things if they refined things into another effort.

*** out of Five

The Card Counter(9/12/2021)

Usually when a director has “lost it” they never come back to relevancy again but Paul Schrader somehow managed to do it with his 2017 film First Reformed, which reconnected with his roots as an appreciator of the European classics and which mostly avoided descending into some of Schrader’s more lurid instincts.  It won him some of his best reviews since 2002’s Auto Focus and sparked a new appreciation for his role in cinema since the late 70s and in the eyes of many put him back among the ranks of great veteran filmmakers working today.  Pretty impressive.  Of course the question that gets asked after a triumph like that is: “what’s next?”  Would Schrader use his newfound clout to make another film that would further explore that movie’s old school aesthetic?  Or would he return to some of the attempts at commerciality that often blew up in his face?  Or would the seventy five year old filmmaker simply quite while he was ahead?  Well, he certainly hasn’t taken that last route as he has now released his follow-up film, a drama starring Oscar Isaac called The Card Counter which is getting a decent if perhaps abrupt and poorly promoted release.

The film follows a man who travels under the alias William Tell (Oscar Isaac) and is already living a solitary life of routine as a card counter at various off brand casinos around the country.  As the film goes on you start to learn that his affect is the result of some extreme PTSD and deep guilt for his actions during the War in Iraq, where he was a prison guard at Abu Gharib and was one of the foot soldiers caught up in that scandal and even served time in prison because of it.  At one of his casino stops he notices there’s a national security convention going on at one of the resorts he’s frequenting and recognizes one of the speakers there, John Gordo (Willem Dafoe), as one of the architects of the torture that happened there and peaks in on one of his discussions and while their runs into a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan) whose late father was also one of the guards there, leading him to have a great resentment of the leaders like Gordo who got away unpunished.  Seeing something of a mission in Cirk, Tell decides to take the young man under his wing and travel with him and strikes a deal with a sort of gambling agent named La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) to stake him into playing in bigger tournaments so that he can make money to help this young man but this may not be as much of a road to redemption as it seems.

At its heart this is a movie about a tortured man with a rough past he regrets trying to find some measure of redemption by helping a younger person with their own demons in a world that is harsh to them… which is a story type we’ve seen a lot of especially lately.  I call it the “Shane” formula and we often see it play out in more literal and violent ways, frequently against post-apocalyptic landscapes and I’m a bit over it.  This one is at least aesthetically different from a lot of those by being a simple drama set in the modern world and the ending is slightly different from the usual formula.  Beyond that the movie is classic Schrader almost to the point of self-plagiarism; it’s about a self-loathing, often nocturnal man wrestling with demons who ultimately goes through a violent catharsis, seemingly only finding some semblance of peace in a coda (which, possible spoiler, involves the same Robert Bresson homage he’s used in two other films).  The difference is that this character, at least outwardly, has quite a bit more self-control than some of his other protagonists like Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta who are more openly tortured and self-destructive.  This guy has a certain military precision to his travels and his movements at the card table and to most outside observers would seem like a pretty normal guy at least until they learned more about his isolated lifestyle.

Visually the film is a bit more straightforward than First Reformed and is less of a outwardly obvious homage to other films.  It does become more adventurous in its flashback scenes which are shot with this super wide lens that reminded me a bit of the photography in Steven Soderbergh’s recent No Sudden Move but here it has more of a purpose as it’s trying to make his time as a guard at Abu Gharib look as nightmarish as possible.  Speaking of Abu Gharib, that aspect of the story is probably its closest linkage to First Reformed as both movies are trying to apply Shraderian meditation to very post-millennial political issues.  Abu Gharib is an event that feels oddly “old news” at this point which is partly the point here, the world has moved on but this character hasn’t and the scars of that recent dishonor are there whether people want them to be or not and there is something interesting about the fact that the film calls out that incident by name rather than dancing around it.  By and large it’s a pretty well made movie but hardly a revelatory career highlight for Schrader like his last film was and when all is said and done will probably fit in better with some of his more “average” projects like Light Sleeper or Adam Resurrected, but it will probably be more seen than those films were and there isn’t much “wrong” with it outside of redundancy and is certainly a lot better than some of Schrader’s occasional low points.

***1/2 out of Five

September 2021 Round-Up

Malignant(9/13/2021)

The trailers for Malignant prominently say it’s form the director of The Conjuring, which they presumably think is a big selling point but to me that was a big reason to be skeptical as I thought The Conjuring was one of the more over-rated horror movies of the last decade, in large part because it felt like it was just the umpteenth haunted house movie we’d gotten around the time it was just operating on a tired horror formula.  As it starts Malignant kind of feels like it too will be going on that playbook but as it goes it proves to be something much crazier than that which certainly can’t be accused of being just like its peers.  I hesitate to go too deep into the details but the movie is closer to a slasher movie than a haunting movie but it’s not really following the formula of 80s horror flicks and actually seems more like a throwback to the Italian Giallo genre or perhaps more accurately some of Dario Argento’s more supernatural horror films both for better and worse.  Like those movies this operates on a rather nutty kind of nightmare logic including an absolutely ludicrous (perhaps gleefully luiclous) twist to explain the film’s going-ons which defies any and all scientific logic.  Also like those Italian thrillers it’s gory as hell, which isn’t a surprise coming from the director of Saw but is a surprise coming from the director of Insidious.  As it goes on the film becomes surprisingly action-oriented because its central killer proves to not be a lumbering brute and instead is something of a fast-moving and agile warrior which leads to some outlandish set-pieces which are highlights of the film bordering on being worth the price of admission.  This is decidedly not a movie for “everyone” and even as I caught on to its nutty spirit I’m not sure I was completely sold on it and if you’re someone who wants your horror movies to be sensible and restrained this is not that.

***1/2 out of Five

Cry Macho(9/21/2021)

With his film Unforgiven actor/director Clint Eastwood presented us with a different and older version of his usual screen persona doing something that felt like something of a final statement by an elder statesman of cinema as he entered the final stages of his career.  Thing is it’s now been almost thirty years since he did that; his post-Unforgiven directorial career has been about a decade longer than his pre-Unforgiven directorial career and as he makes movie after movie that feels like it could be his last it’s kind of starting to take the feel of a classic rock band going on its second or third separate farewell tour.  What’s more, at this point he’s kind of repeating himself.  His latest film Cry Macho, about an old man guiding a troubled youth of color who has problems with criminals, sure feels a lot like his 2008 film Gran Torino that itself felt like something of a retirement announcement.  Of course you can watch this without thinking about the meta-narrative of 91 year old Clint Eastwood’s career I think that would largely make the film even less interesting.  It’s basically just a standard issue “generations bond while on a road trip” movie and not a particularly inspired one given that neither of the major characters here are all that fleshed out.  We get a vague understanding of the Eastwood character’s past but the details are scant and he doesn’t have many personality traits other than being old and somewhat sensible, and while we get the idea that the kid here is kind of traumatized by his crazy mother we don’t get a whole lot more past that.  From there the story doesn’t really go in any terribly interesting directions.  In many ways the whole movie seems to have been made so that Eastwood can deliver a monologue late in the film about machismo (parts of it are in the trailer), which is neat, but it deserves to be in a better movie.

** out of Five

The Eyes of Tammy Faye(9/26/2021)

It’s autumn: the air is getting chillier, the leaves are starting to turn… and we’re starting to have straight-up Oscar bait show up in theaters.  Our first contender of the year is The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a film about the marriage of the infamous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, who built an empire off of suckering people into donating money to people on TV who were obviously already millionaires and who are today generally looked at with disdain even by believers even as people running nearly identical hustles are as active as ever.  The film was directed by Michael Showalter but really plays more like a straight biopic than like the satire you might expect and it’s hampered by not really having as much to say about its subject than you might think outside of the rather basic observation that it’s kind of jarring to see really wealthy people beg for donations in the name of Jesus.  The film might frown on televangelism but it is perhaps a bit too forgiving of Tammy herself, a figure for whom the film kind of wants to have its cake and eat it too.  It suggests that in her own way Faye Baker was kind of a girlboss who (literally) fought for a place at the table with the boys club of evangelism and was instrumental in building the Baker empire… but also that she was a naïve ditz who was too out of the loop to be truly responsible for the corruption that ended up bringing that same empire down.  The film sticks as much to her perspective as a point of view character as possible, and given that it takes her claims of ignorance at face value this means that a lot of the juiciest corruption in this enterprise happens off screen and the film kind of assumes its audience will already know a lot of these more scandalous details, which is maybe a mistake given that this will have been before the time of a lot of viewers including myself.  I can maybe understand the instinct by the filmmakers not to go straight for the jugular with this given that the Bakers probably seem like something of an easy target but the film they made feels like a dry bite lacking the needed venom to really take down the target at hand and just kind of a waste of some decent performances by people like Jessica Chastain and Vincent D’Onofrio.

**1/2 out of Five

Disneyology 201: The Live-Action Remakes (2010-2017)

One of the bigger box office phenomenons of the 2010s that I’d mostly avoided was Disney’s wave of live action remakes of their classic animated films.  They had tried to do this back in the 90s as well with stuff like the Glen Close 101 Dalmatians but this time they really brought their full resources to the endeavor and for whatever reasons audiences flocked to them.  But unlike Disney’s other main cash cows (Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, Disney Animation) critics are not even a little on board with this enterprise.  The films are largely seen as shameless cash grabs that are (with a few exceptions) devoid of artistic merit.  And I’ve largely just tried to avoid the damn things and I was really hoping this trend would just blow over.  It still might actually, but for the time being it seems to be going strong and it’s starting to seem like the time has come to explore what makes these things tick, which ones are better than others, and figure out why audiences are so into them.  I have already seen the remake of The Jungle Book, which looked like an interesting breakthrough in special effects (it was alright), and I saw the Mulan movie while desperate for content during the pandemic (it sucked), and I saw Cruella earlier this year because that seemed interestingly crazy (that was alright).  I guess I’ve also seen Tron: Legacy if you want to count that.  So for this series I will be watching the other fourteen live action remakes Disney made during the 2010s across two installments, and I hope it doesn’t kill me.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

The movie that kicked off Disney’s remake rush, the 2010 Alice In Wonderland, opens up with a wealthy Victorian looking at a map and plotting out his trade empire and it ends with him conspiring with his daughter to open up China as a market for his wares… you can’t make this stuff up sometimes.  It doesn’t take too much imagination to see this as being symbolic of Disney executives viewing their movie as a cash cow as part of a multi-year strategy to expand their own entertainment empire, but truth be told I think that’s a coincidence as I actually think Disney somewhat stumbled into success with this movie.  At the very least when this came out it didn’t feel like a pilot for future remakes and for that matter it didn’t even feel that much like a Disney movie at all.  Rather, this kind of felt more like a pretty natural next step for director Tim Burton, who had been on something of a tear bringing his sensibilities to various existing properties like Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and in many ways it was almost surprising that it took him as long as it did to tackle Lewis Carol’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which had already been fodder for various gothy reinterpretations in the past.  The Disney name might have been on the poster, but this seemed less like a remake of their 1951 animated film and more like just one of many adaptations of that book and one from a director who was almost as much of a brand as that studio.  Of course Burton’s brand had its own problems, especially at that point, and so once the negative reviews poured in for this (and the reviews were pretty bad) I decided to skip it.

The film opens in the “real world” of Victorian England with a teenage Alice questioning all the edicts of what’s “proper” being thrust upon her by adults, including various pressures to marry.  By all accounts slightly ham-fisted feminist pushback on the sexist tropes of fairy tale source material will be something of a running theme in these live action remakes but it feels rather curious here given that none of this sexist societal stuff was actually there in the original source material, which begins with a young Alice pretty much immediately chasing the rabbit into Wonderland… they basically just invented a frame story so they could subvert it.  Of course this technically  isn’t even a remake.  Instead it’s supposed to be a sequel, not necessarily to the 1951 film but to the book or whatever your preferred adaptation of it is, set about ten years later when Alice is a teen rather than a child but has forgotten all about the adventures in wonderland she experienced before.  That she has forgotten everything in many ways kind of makes the fact that this is a “sequel” a bit of a distinction without a difference.  She’ll meet all the usual Wonderland characters like The Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat and they’ll say the recognizer her but at the end of the day she’s still basically just meeting them for the first time all over again and little of what she did there before seems to have had any lasting legacy.  From there the film rather awkwardly tries to turn this into less of a surreal living dream and more of an actual fantasy story of the Lord of the Rings variety complete with a final battle scene and a chase to slay a jabberwocky (basically just a dragon).

Ultimately this movie wasn’t really sold on its script, it was sold on its visuals.  It was widely interpreted that its success came in large part because it was in 3D and it came out about three months after James Cameron’s Avatar and audiences were so desperate for their fix of that 3D goodness that they flocked to this one as well.  It probably also didn’t hurt that Johnny Depp had not yet worn out his welcome with audiences at this point and was still in his Pirates of the Caribbean imperial phase.  In fact he seemed to be front and center in the film’s advertising rather than ostensible star Mia Wasikowska (btw, what ever happened to her?) though he’s only in parts of the film and is clearly starting to take on a lot of the traits that would quickly make him a rather tedious presence even without all the bad publicity.  But the real problem with the movie beyond any dullness in the screenplay and any shortcomings of its actors is that is visuals, the very thing this is supposed to live and die by, are just not very good.  Despite the project seemingly being one that Burton could run wild with few of the designs here really break the mold we’re used to with Alice in Wonderland adaptations and Burton gives the whole film a fairly drab atmosphere.  But even more devastatingly the CGI here doesn’t hold up at all and I have my doubts that it ever looked too great in the first place.  A lot of the characters here are rendered largely by computers and a lot of them look either dated (Cheshire Cat), uncanny (The Red Queen), plain bad (The Jabberwocky), or absolutely hideous (the Tweedle twins).  I don’t want to overstate the film’s visual shortcomings too much, there are a couple of decent moments here and there and it isn’t painful to watch so much as it’s just kind of dull.  For whatever reason though audiences seemed to disagree as the damn thing made over a billion dollars worldwide and was at one point the fifth highest grossing movie of all time (it has since fallen all the way to 43rd, so inflation is a thing) and Disney definitely decided that making more big fantasy films with ties to their past would make them a lot of money.

** out of Five

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is kind of the forgotten live action remake Disney made during this era and appears to have been made for different reasons than a lot of the other ones, but I do think it counts.  The film is meant to be a modern day riff on the famous sequence of the same name from Fantasia and while it ultimately goes off in very different directions it isn’t shy about its source material and does feature a standout (and somewhat plot irrelevant) sequence based around that same “apprentice causes chaos by bringing brooms and mops to life” theme complete with Paul Dukas’ music.  Of course why they wanted to brand this otherwise unrelated movie about modern wizardry as a remake that no one was asking for of a segment of a seventy year old movie I’m not sure, in fact I’m also not entirely sure if they set out from the beginning to make that segment into a feature of if they applied the branding on after the fact, but either way they did and it counts.  Unlike a lot of the other remakes we’re going to be looking at in this series this movie, which came out the same year as Alice in Wonderland, was made less to be a recycled family movie and was instead one of several collaborations Disney made with action movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer in an attempt to re-capture that Pirates of the Caribbean magic  by mixing semi-forgotten Disney properties with the sensibilities of more modern teen targeted action cinema.  In particular this was a reunion between Bruckheimer, Nicholas Cage, and Jon Turteltaub who had collectively made the National Treasure movies into hits for Disney.  I’m also sure that the Harry Potter franchise had more than a little bit to do with this thing getting greenlit.  So, you can see the Hollywood logic that went into this thing coming to be but it’s still pretty odd that this exists and audiences seem to have agreed because it pretty much bombed at the box office (especially domestically) and was greeted by general indifference by critics and audiences.

The thing is, while I do think the movie is a failure it’s not really as bad as its “forgotbuster” status would leave you to believe.  In many ways it’s just kind of aggressively average.  The film concerns a college aged dude played by Jay Baruchel who as a child had a (seemingly) chance encounter with an antique shop run by a wizard played by Nicholas Cage where he accidentally knocks over a magic nesting doll that was imprisoning an evil wizard played by Alfred Molina and the two of them end up trapped in another magic tchotchke for ten years and then come back in the present and start fighting over that aforementioned nesting doll where other evil wizards are trapped.  So it’s a McGuffin chase… also the Baruchel character turns out to be a chosen one that the Cage character starts to train.  It’s all rather familiar and while there are a couple passable ideas prettying this up none of them really stand out nearly enough to really make this even a little bit memorable.  The film also has a bit of an inherent structural issue in that it needs to slow down after it’s first half so that the Baruchel character actually has time to take some lessons and, you know, be an apprentice to the sorcerer but this requires that escaped evil wizard to suddenly seem like a much less pressing threat for no particular reason.  It also has this romantic sub-plot between the Baruchel character and a fellow student played by Teresa Palmer which focuses entirely on this geeky guy awkwardly mustering the courage to talk to the girl and you’re just embarrassed on this dude’s behalf through the whole thing and not really in a good way.

So, the movie has problems but Disney has sold the public on mediocrities in the past, so why did this fail so hard?  The answer is probably Nicholas Cage.  It’s not too hard to see why they thought it was a good idea to put Cage in the middle of their live action Disney movie considering that he and Turteltaub had delivered strong box office with the National Treasure movies not too much earlier but kind of a lot had happened to Cage since 2004 and he was already kind of diluting his brand by doing terrible action movies like Bangkok Dangerous, Knowing, and Ghost Rider as well as idiosyncratic “wild man” performances in stuff like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and The Wicker Man.  In short he was already starting to become a joke and was certainly not someone anyone was going to take seriously as a mentor to an apprentice.  I’d say Jay Baruchel was kind of a bad casting choice as well.  He clearly has the nerdy demeanor they were looking for but was too old for his part.  The dude was 28 when they made this and didn’t really look much younger which makes his awkwardness around women feel more pathetic than sympathetic and made the already questionable decision to make this apprentice to the sorcerer be a college student rather than a kid seem like a big mistake.  Beyond that the action here mostly isn’t much to write home about beyond one kind of interesting car chase and the special effects and fantasy elements are average at best.  Between all that, a franchise attachment no one wanted, some very dumb soundtrack choices, and the fact that this thing opened the same day as Inception this thing basically flopped.  Didn’t flop in a memorable way either, it just came and went.  It made a bit more internationally but not enough to continue the franchise.  It solidified Jon Turteltaub as a hack, pushed Nicholas Cage even further from the mainstream, and after the debacle that was The Lone Ranger Disney would soon part ways with Jerry Bruckheimer outside of Pirates sequels.

**1/2 out of Five

Maleficent (2014)

In retrospect it’s not too hard to view 2010 as a year when Disney took a perhaps unintentional test run to see what they could do with their live action remakes of old properties and tried to make one fairly straightforward retelling of an old property targeted at a new generation (Alice in Wonderland), one movie that more of a sequel than a remake which is primarily targeted at fans of the original (Tron: Legacy), and one action movie that kind of tries to become its own thing with only tangential ties to an original (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).  With this data collected they made a game plan, worked up some projects, and then three years later the onslaught began.  The first movie out the gate was Maleficent, which back in 2014 and was of course based on the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty and unlike Alice in Wonderland (which could just be interpreted as a new adaptation of that book) this was clearly and unequivocally evoking the Disney movie.  That 1959 movie is interesting in that it’s one of Disney’s three OG “princess movies” but it’s the one with by far the least interesting (and least marketable) princess.  Princess Aurora is officially a part of their merchandising line but it’s a character who’s asleep during the whole movie and is generally overshadowed by the prince, the fairy god mothers, and of course the film’s villain, who is obviously front and center in this remake.  In many ways it was a safe choice for Disney: if it was a hit Aurora might be revitalized as a marketable character and many a Maleficent Halloween costume could be sold, but if this whole live action remake thing ended up flopping out the gate the sacrificial lamb would be a property that wasn’t too important to them in the first place.

Maleficent has long been held, perhaps not as a good movie but at least as an example of what Disney should be doing with these remakes: doing something different with the property in question rather than just regurgitating the original story.  In fact I’d long assumed this was even more removed form Sleeping Beauty than it actually was, believing it to be a full-on prequel explaining how Maleficent came to be who she was before the events of that movie.  That’s sort of true in that this has a prologue along those lines, but then the movie does in fact become a retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty more or less in its entirety albeit from a different perspective and with largish changes.  Of course that perspective change is pretty radical given that the Maleficent in the animated film is probably one of Disney’s most one-note eeeevillll villains ever, so making her a sympathetic protagonist is not easy.  In short they reframe her not as a secluded sorceress but as a defender of a separate realm populated by magical creatures that the human kingdom kept trying to invade more or less unprovoked and that she ended up with a pretty legitimate beef with the king by the time she did the whole sleeping curse thing which she came to regret.  It’s all a bit of stretch but it’s kind of a tough writing assignment and they handle it about as well as they were likely to.  This whole idea of reframing the fairy tale villain as the hero is of course not exactly an original idea, it was almost certainly inspired by the success of the Broadway musical “Wicked,” but as a film concept it still felt relatively fresh.

Of course the film’s ultimate raison d’etre is to be a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie and as that it’s fairly successful.  Jolie is considered one of the last true movie stars but she didn’t really do a whole lot of high profile acting at all during the 2010s aside from her work in this movie and its sequel, which she seemingly made to keep her profile and box office bone fides intact while she pursued directing with varying degrees of success.  Still this is clearly a smart role for her given that it allows her to be this authoritative figure while also being kind of gothy and theatrical.  It’s not exactly a performance that stretches her emotionally, but she works as a screen presence, and the film was also a nice career boost for her co-star Elle Fanning but the rest of the cast is a bit shaky.  In particular I didn’t care for Sharlto Copley as the film’s villain.  That guy is just a ham and a half and it wouldn’t be long before Hollywood sort of gave up on him.  The movie was directed by a guy named Robert Stromberg, who had never directed before (or since) but who had an extensive background both in visual effects and art direction (for which he’d won two Academy Awards including one for the 2010 Alice in Wonderland).  If I had to point to a central weakness for this movie it’s probably that guy, who does seem to have a good grasp of the fundamentals of filmmaking and brings decent technical effects to the film but lacks a truly compelling vision to really bring it to life.  The movie is never a particularly interesting fantasy movie in and both its story and its visual style would seem rather odd to people unfamiliar with that 1959 film.  Overall the movie is watchable over its brisk 97 minute runtime but isn’t nearly the radical revision some people make it out to be, but could be a lot worse.

*** out of Five

Cinderella (2015)

Aside from being Disney remakes what do Alice in Wonderland, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Maleficent have in common?  They all have CGI dragons in them.  Well technically Alice in Wonderland’s dragon is a jabberwocky, but it looks like a dragon to me.  And this is kind of where Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 adaptation of Cinderella kind of stands out from a lot of the other Disney remakes: it may have magic and a couple of CGI rodents but at its heart it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be an effects extravaganza and is generally pretty low key as modern Disney adaptations go.  Where those other movies are Disney movies as blockbuster tentpoles this is more like Disney movies as costume drama, and as such Branagh was a pretty logical choice to direct given that he’s mostly made a career out of adapting older material for new audiences but isn’t beyond engaging in modern film techniques and knows his way around special effects.  The mice here no longer talk and are deemphasized and this also isn’t a musical but the main story is largely unchanged from the 1950 animated version even as certain details here are expanded.  We get more details of how Cinderella came to be in her situation and about some of the political situations with the prince and they switch things around a bit by having Cinderella and the prince meet up once before the ball to get that relationship rolling a little.

Beyond those little changes this is notable for being a very traditional take on Cinderella that doesn’t rock the boat too much.  One could say that makes it one of the more redundant of Disney’s live action remakes, but I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.  For one thing, of all of Disney’s “classics” the 1950 Cinderella was among the ones most in need of a facelift.  The animation in that movie wasn’t bad exactly but it was clearly a step down from their pre-war work and the movie generally isn’t that impressive as a visual work and its low key nature makes it so getting real live actors in on it was an upgrade.  Lily James does a very good job of selling the character’s inherent good nature without making her seem like a completely inhuman saint and Richard Madden is pretty good at making the prince seem similarly young and idealistic while still feeling sensible.  That said, I’m not sure Helena Bonham Carter brings anything terribly unique to the character of the fairy godmother and try as she might there’s only so much even a talent on Cate Blanchett’s level can do to not make the evil stepmother seem to be anything other than cartoonishly evil.  At times I do think the movie could have done more to sand down some of the fairy tale contrivances here; the midnight deadline the night of the ball still feels totally arbitrary and the comedy with the step-sisters is a bit much.  Still there is something almost refreshing rather than lazy about how confident this movie is in just letting this material work without a lot of sprucing up.  It would not have shocked me in the slightest if some Disney exec had tried to talk Branagh into adding a third act sword fight or something but they don’t really do that and instead seem almost naively willing to let the actors carry this Disney tentpole that ended up grossing more than half a billion worldwide.

*** out of Five

Alice: Through the Looking Glass (2016)

It’s hard to think of another $170 million dollar movie that the world wanted less than Alice Through the Looking Glass, a film that was somewhat saved by international markets (where it made 75% of its money) but was roundly rejected by domestic audiences.  It only made $77 million dollars in the United States, which is catastrophic by Disney standards.  To put that in perspective, The Purge: Election Year (a movie made for $10 million ) outgrossed this thing.  That creepy movie Passengers that everyone hated made $25 million more than this.  That fourth Jason Bourne movie that no one likes to talk about made almost $100 million more than this. A total disaster.  And the critics came to it with knives out too.  They hadn’t like the original Alice in Wonderland to begin with and they could smell that people weren’t interested in this sequel and they wanted to revel in the sweet vindication that the masses had finally caught up to them.  Honestly it’s kind of remarkable how quickly people turned on the franchise, that first movie made over a billion dollars, someone must have liked it and their taste can’t have improved that much over the course of six years.  Well, six years may have been part of the problem.  It would make sense to take your time to get things right when making a sequel to an actual good movie, but if you’re just trying to cash in on a fluke hit you’re generally supposed to rush it out before people forget about the forgettable predecessor.  And despite the wait this thing still had the reek of cash-in retread.  Most of the cast was contractually obliged to return but Tim Burton declined to return and it was passed on to a guy named James Bobin, who emerged from work on new co-star Sacha Baron Cohen’s TV work and also made those recent Muppet movies.  But the bigger issue here is just that Alice In Wonderland, disreputable as it was, just doesn’t feel like the kind of movie you make sequels to (even if the original book did, in fact, have a sequel) and everyone involved did in fact need to sweat in order to make this thing make sense as a series.

Funnily enough, I was kind of rooting for this thing.  No one had any faith in it when it came out and didn’t seem to give it a chance, on some level I hoped I’d come out of it thinking it was a secret success.  It’s not; let it be known that this is officially a “thumbs down” from me but… I do think an argument can be made that it’s more enjoyable than that first movie.  For one thing, the special effects have improved quite a bit in the six years since that first movie which had some clear uncanny valley issues.  I would also say that the film’s story, loopy and ludicrous as it is, did at least keep my attention and that there were a couple of interesting visuals along the way… but man is this thing a mess.  It starts with Alice acting as a sea captain (because, girl power!) in her now dead father’s mercantile empire but comes home to find a comically evil rich white man trying to force her to sign over her ship lest her mother’s home be taken from her and the mother is down with all this because she thinks shipping is no job for a lady… real subtle messaging.  Anyway she escapes all this stress by going through a mirror (while wearing an oriental dress she appropr… acquired from her journeys to China) into Wonderland where she finds that the Mad Hatter has gone mad… well, madder than usual because he’s (just now) haunted by the death of his family, who were apparently killed by the Jabberwocky before the events of the first movie.  Alice determines that the logical thing to do is to steal a magical artifact and risk temporal catastrophe to save this one person’s family.

So with this plot device this sequel to a remake which was itself a sequel now also becomes a prequel to a remake that was also a sequel and we get a backstory for the red queen and her failed ascension to the throne as well as insights into The Mad Hatter’s troubled childhood… and that sentence should give you an idea on where they went wrong with this fucking thing.  This franchise is ostensibly an adaptation of a pair of books by Lewis Caroll that were known for simplicity and surreal dream logic, turning it into a damn time travel story where we learn people’s backstory is about as far from that as you can get, the first movie was already pretty fundamentally missing the point of the books but this is almost intentionally going out of its way to subvert both the letter and the spirit of the source material.  Still, the extent that they go out of their way to complicate this writing assignment and take this go off in weird directions with it is almost fascinating in its own way.  This thing is certainly a cash-grab but it’s not a lazy one, at least not on the part of the people actually making it… in fact they might have been a bit more successful with the public if they had done something a bit more conventional here and made something as boring as the first movie.  That is kind of the heart of the difference between the two, that first movie was pretty much exactly what you might have expected from a Tim Burton adaptation of this property done in a Hollywood blockbuster way and completely went through the motions.  This movie on the other hand is less dull than it is nutty and kind of dumb and desperate.  Neither of them are any good, but I would say the sequel had more “wtf?” energy to it that made it more fun to watch.

** out of Five

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Today the phrase “Live Action Disney Remake” is almost entirely associated with CGI-laden cash grabs that regurgitate nostalgia, but if we’re being fair there are some slightly more ambitious examples of the form out there and perhaps the one film from this cycle of remakes that has earned the strongest reputation for coming out of the process with some dignity is their 2016 remake of the 1977 live-action/animation hybrid musical Pete’s Dragon.  Truth be told I’m not entirely sure why Disney wanted to remake this particular property at all; I don’t think the original movie was ever a huge hit for them and it never had that much of a life after the fact, in part because it’s an extremely earnest (some would say corny) musical that’s directed specifically at very young audiences and its live action elements place it much more specifically in the 70s than some of their more “timeless” animated movies.  So, on that level one could argue that it’s more rife for remaking than a lot of the classics they had been remaking, it a property with room for improvement.  But Disney remakes aren’t about making tasteful decisions about what really needs improvement, they’re about exploiting IP that people have nostalgia for and I don’t think there were than many people with nostalgia for Pete’s Dragon in the grand scheme of things.  So why does this exist?  Well, if I had to guess they probably had something of an open call to filmmakers to pitch them on ideas for remakes and up and coming filmmaker David Lowery (fresh off the indie success of his film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) came to them with a vision and just impressed them in the meeting enough to get a relatively modest budget to take a swing at a different kind of more low key Disney remake.

The 2016 Pete’s Dragon does not claim to be some kind of prequel or sideways sequel to the 1977 film; it’s a straight up remake, but one that does pretty radically rework its predecessor.  Both films are about an orphan kid named Pete who befriends a green dragon that can turn invisible and who go on an adventure with him which ultimately ends with the dragon escaping people trying to kidnap him and Pete finding a new family.  Put in those vague terms this actually seems fairly faithful, but the details are completely different.  It’s not set at the turn of the century, Pete isn’t being chased by a family of rednecks, and while the dragon is pursued by some people late they certainly aren’t moustache twirling snake oil salesmen.  But really what’s changed here most radically is the tone.  That original film was a full-on musical with really over the top characters and just a totally cornball wholesome tone whereas this new movie is a lot more quiet and restrained and almost operating in the language of indie cinema rather than what you’d expect from Disney.  In this film when Pete is five his parents are killed in a car crash in the first scene and he leaves the wreck and walks into a wooded area of the Pacific Northwest where he’s raised for the next five years by Elliot before being found by loggers, who pull him away from the dragon and finds himself caught between two worlds.  The dragon is obviously a CGI creation but the film otherwise doesn’t feel overly filled with special effects and the characters all feel a bit more real than what you usually get from these movies.  The female forest ranger that starts to take Pete in behaves like an actual adult and when villains come into things in the third act to try to capture Eliot they don’t feel like over the top cartoons but like real people reacting in plausible way when they discover a damn dragon in the real world.

Obviously, unlike the original film this is not a musical.  Instead it has a soundtrack with a bunch of acoustic indie music by the likes of Bonnie Prince Billy, St. Vincent, The Lumineers, and even features a prominent needle drop of a Leonard Cohen song… in a Disney movie.  That’s how different this is from your average live-action Disney remake.  It’s tempting to imagine a world where Disney had no idea what they were in for when they invited the future director of A Ghost Story and The Green Knight to make their magical dragon movie, but considering that they’re bringing back Lowery to direct their upcoming Peter Pan remake I think they are more or less happy with what they got and what they expected.  But why?  Why would a company as ruthlessly profit driven as Disney be happy with a low key movie that “only” grossed $143 million worldwide.  Well, I think it was something of a soft power move.  Disney does seem to throw the snobs a bone every once in a while to build up some good will (Chloé Zhao’s upcoming MCU film The Eternals perhaps being another example of this) and they would need a lot of good will given some of the bullshit they were hoping to get away with in the next couple of years.  The thing is, I’m not sure the soft power move worked quite as wells as they hoped.  They made a movie that critics would like, and sure enough the critics liked it… but they didn’t love it.  And truth be told all this talk about the movie having “indie cred” it’s only in comparison to shit like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, not when compared to actual indie movies and I don’t want to over-sell it just because it exceeds the low expectations its studio had set for it.

***1/2 out of Five 

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

So, six movies into this trip through Disney’s live action remakes and I must say so far it hasn’t been as bad as I’ve thought.  The Alice in Wonderland stuff was junk but aside from that these movies have mostly found ways to be at least a little creative within the confines of some questionable assignments and most of the films they’ve tried to remake have been movies that had room for improvement.  But now I find myself needing to watch one of the big ones, the ones that really pissed people off and made this trend inextricably linked to soulless studio capitalism.  Up to this point Disney had opted not to try remaking anything that had been made after 1977, and if you discount Pete’s Dragon they hadn’t even  gone past the 60s.  This seemed acceptable enough but then they decided to quit waiting and cross the Rubicon into remaking one of their beloved 1990s Disney Renaissance movies and pissing off a whole bunch of millennials in the process.  Honestly I do think there’s a certain centered narcissism to all of this, the 90s kids weren’t some sacred generation whose favorite movies are inherently more off limits than others.  On the other hand, I do think (maybe like to think) that a movie like the 1991 Beauty and the Beast is still modern enough that a kid wouldn’t find it alienating or weird and why exactly is Disney, a studio built on animation, so dead set on undoing the very thing that made their film’s distinctive to begin with?

In addition to being the first of these movies to be a remake of a movie from the 90s it’s also the first one to avoid any major change in structure or style from its predecessor: it’s not pretending to be a sequel like Alice in Wonderland, it’s not from a different perspective like Maleficent, it’s not being moved to a contemporary like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Pete’s Dragon… it’s the same basic story as the first film from beginning to end.  Also unlike Cinderella this isn’t trying to eliminate the songs or deemphasize an element like talking mice.  The same old musical sequences are re-created here in more or less the same style they were from the previous movie, in fact more of them have been added and even more magical supernatural stuff has been added than before.  Video essayist Lindsay Ellis has a somewhat influential video (which I had watched in spite of spoilers because I thought I was never going to see this thing) which outlines some of the minor changes that were present here and why she hates them (despite her gratitude) that asserts that a lot of them seemed to only exist to please certain pedants and nitpickers, which they might have been but I’m not sure they’re as detrimental as she claims.  A lot of them are minor bits of dialogue that I (someone who’s maybe seen the original film two and a half times) barely even noticed as changes and I would even consider some of them like the magical jaunt to Paris to be decent enough ways to flesh out the beast’s relationship with Belle.

So, I don’t really have many problems with the changes made on a script level, but the changes made on an aesthetic level here are killer.  Why would anyone want to give up the beautiful animation of that original film for… this.  What’s more the basic way the film is shot is not very inspiring.  The cinematography is bland and kind of dark, the castle looks stock, a lot of the costumes seem to have been selected to resemble the animated film that supposedly needs replacing rather than because they would actually look good in a live action film.  And yeah, in the grand scheme of thing it is really the redundancy of it all that’s the biggest problem in all of this.  Critics understood that the was something profoundly bizarre about remaking an Oscar nominated classic that was less than thirty years old while not even bothering to fundamentally change anything about it, but audiences didn’t seem to have the same qualms about allowing classic films to stand without being deemed obsolete.  This would be the first of these movies since Alice in Wonderland to gross over a billion dollars worldwide… in fact it made one and a quarter billion.  Had Disney not released a Star Wars movie the same year it would have been the highest grossing movie of 2017 and domestically it was only $13 million short of actually outgrossing The Last Jedi to take that top spot.  The message was clear, nothing was sacred to the public and Disney should feel free to remake anything and everything and that they can do it in the laziest way possible but… truth be told they were already planning on doing this anyway given how quickly this was followed up.

** out of Five

Collecting Some Thoughts

And that is where we will be leaving things for now.  Thoughts so far?  Well, these certainly aren’t movies I would choose to watch if I wasn’t doing some heavy handed project but they’re hardly torturous watches.  Of the seven movies I watched there was certainly some variety to be found and some good ideas here and there but I don’t think I’ve really gotten to the worst this trend has to offer.  Critics were never particularly on board with these remakes but I’ve only just reached the point where they were truly offended by them.  You’ll notice that these seven movies came out over the course of seven years but when I get around to doing part two I will still be looking at seven movies but they’ll have come out across just two years: 2018 and 2019 with five of the damn things having come out in 2019 alone.  That’s crazy.