The Florida Project(10/23/2017)

When I was a kid my family was never overly prone to family vacations, but one year when I was about eleven we did go on the customary Orlando trip that most American families need to make at least once.  However, me being me, I had little interest in actually going to Disney World given my belief that Disney was for babies.  For me the big attraction was Universal Studios Florida, where I had a blast.  As a child the name “Orlando” seemed like some kind of wonderland that had wall to wall fun stuff everywhere and I could only help but be jealous of whatever kid lived in such a place.  Needless to say, I was rather oblivious of the fact that the city of Orlando actually had the reputation of being something of a tacky dump outside of its theme parks.  It’s simple economics really, it’s something of a one-industry town and people have little reason to live there unless they’re working at a theme park and that isn’t necessarily a very high paying job.  As such you’re left with a city that’s dependent on a significant unskilled workforce but also desperate to hide them away from the tourists.  It’s this hidden side of the “magic kingdom” which is at the center of the new film The Florida Project.

The film is set at a cheap motel near Disney World which, during the off season, has come to be a long term home for a variety of disenfranchised people with nowhere else to live.  We focus our attention on a young girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite).  The film is told largely but not exclusively from Moonee’s perspective and it doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining how Halley came to be in this situation, but it’s not hard to connect the dots.  Halley can’t be much older than 20 and she’s tatted up, talks like the “cash me ousside” girl, and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of long term plans.  She gets all her money through a variety of rackets and the hotel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) is increasingly having his patience tested by her reckless behavior and often late “rent” payments.  However, Moonee is largely oblivious to these adult concerns and not particularly aware of how “ratchet” her surroundings are.  Instead she spends most of her time playing with a couple of other children staying at these motels like her friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera).

The Florida Project is director Sean Baker’s follow up to his 2015 film Tangerine, which looked at a few days in the lives of a pair of transsexual prostitutes in Los Angeles.  While The Florida Project looks at characters that are straighter and whiter than those of his previous film but both films share an interest in showing the lives of the people who are normally ignored by society.  Here he’s looking at people who would not even be called “working class” exactly as many of them aren’t even working and if they are it’s in highly transient minimum wage jobs.  Halley in particular feels like she could have been a character in last year’s Andrea Arnold film American Honey; she is young, not terribly well educated, exudes sexuality, and seems to be rebelling because the alternative is to become some kind of pathetic housewife.  In Arnold’s movie that kind of behavior seemed somewhat harmless, but unlike the characters in that movie Halley is a mother and that means she’s dragging a small child into her web of dysfunction.  However, Moonee does not seem to constantly be in abject danger and she’s actually pretty well adjusted to her environment.  Much of the film is told from her perspective and you can sort of nostalgically relate to a lot of the regular kid stuff she does even if she is in a different situation and occasionally behaves in rather unrefined ways.

Outside of Moonee and Halley the main figure of the film is Willem Dafoe’s hotel manager Bobby, who has the rather tricky task of playing someone who clearly has some respect for the various tenants of the hotel even though they test his patience at times and is helpful to them in some ways even though he is in other ways complicit in their exploitation.  There is an element of suspense around his character in that the audience wants to like him for a variety of reasons but they’re also constantly weary that he’ll disappoint them.  Sean Baker never does end up judging him one way or another and a big part of the film’s success is that it never judges any of the other characters either even though it doesn’t shy away from their less flattering characteristics.  The movie is not interested in lecturing its audience about the causes of income inequality and while there are some bad people in the movie there are no true villains that it places the blame for any of the troubles on.  Instead it wants to simply be this empathetic and in some ways actually kind of funny look at the lives of the characters in this particular time and place.

Sean Baker’s previous film, Tangerine, was famously filmed using a (modified) iPhone but still looked great and perhaps took on an added energy through the use of its unconventional medium.  Working with a bigger budget this time around Baker is now actually shooting on 35mm but is once again working in a rather colorful (both literally and figuratively) location and has maintained the vibrancy.  The film may confound some audiences looking for a movie with more of a traditional narrative with a three act structure and characters with more of a clear motivation.  This is not to say that it’s a completely formless movie by any means and compared to many arthouse films it’s downright conventional.  There is a clear ending that it is building towards but that isn’t always clear when you’re watching it and the movie definitely goes against convention by including a lot of scenes that exist more to fill in the world than to advance a plot.  That could hurt its commercial prospects and so could it’s rather unusual title, which sounds like a codename that no one bothered to change, but it’s definitely a movie that’s worth checking out for its energy, its wit, and it’s willingness to look at a world that generally goes unexamined.

Advertisements

Crash Course: J-Horror

In 1998 a Japanese filmmaker named Hideo Nakata made a modestly budgeted horror film called Ringu which brought the traditional Japanese ghost story into a modern context through a story of a ghost child who wrecks vengeance upon the rest of the world through a haunted VHS tape that kills people seven days after watching it.  I’m not exactly sure how unprecedented this was in Japanese cinema but it was a wild success there and it clearly sparked something of a movement because a lot of somewhat similar horror movies began to be made in its wake.  This sensation eventually crossed the Pacific in the form of Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake The Ring.  Like most Americans that remake was my introduction to that story and this style of horror and frankly I think it was probably an improvement over the original film.  That sort of kept me from really digging into the rest of what this early 2000s explosion in Japanese horror had to offer and the generally toxic reviews that the various remakes of these J-horror movies ended up getting kept me away from them as well.  Now however I’ve suddenly gotten the urge to go back and take a look at how this little sub-genre came to be and what it had to offer beyond the Ring movies.

Pulse (2001)

 Pulse was one of the last big J-Horror movies to get an American remake but was actually one of the first of these post-Ringu horror films to be released.  While a lot of these J-horror films have kind of disappeared over time, this one has stuck around longer, partly because of the continued fame of its director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (who is of no relation to Akira Kurosawa).  Kurosawa has never really had much of an international breakthrough and Pulse remains his most famous movie but he has a following; his movies regularly play in high profile international film festivals and he certainly sounds thoughtful and interesting in interviews.  On its surface Pulse certainly shares a lot of similarities with Ringu as both involve ghosts using modern technology to reach out to the world and haunt people, with this one using the internet rather than VHS tapes.  The bigger difference is that in Ringu (and even moreso in the remake) the ghost had a fairly rigid set of rules that it followed when it went about haunting people what with phoning people and waiting seven days.  Here the rules are a lot less clear.  Sometimes the ghosts contact people through the internet, sometimes they haunt people in person, and sometimes they drive people to suicide but it’s not exactly clear who or why.

Taken as a literal narrative Pulse does not make a lot of sense.  There’s no real rhyme or reason to the ghost’s (ghosts’?) behavior and its format of having separate simultaneous narratives is a bit confusing.  Treating the film as a puzzle is likely to lead to frustration.  Instead the film is notable for its thematic undertones.  This was made right after the turn of the millennium and the internet was still new-ish.  People were still using dial up, Facebook didn’t exist yet and for that matter neither did MySpace.  People were still optimistic about the “world wide web” would connect the world, but this movie was fairly forward thinking in asserting that it would actually lead to greater isolation and at the same time a greater reduction in peace and privacy.  That theme is actually discussed fairly directly in the film although its connections to all the ghostly goings on are sometimes more tenuous than other times.  As far as how well the movie works just as a straightforward horror movie, well, I don’t know that it has quite the visceral effect that some of the better ghost stories are likely to have but there are certainly some potent moments along the way.

Dark Water (2002)

The director who more or less started the 2000s J-horror boom was of course Hideo Nakata, who directed Ringu and its sequel in 1998 and 1999, his first horror follow up to his Ringu movies was his 2002 film Dark Water, which came out in 2002, the same year that the Hollywood remake The Ring came out and hit it big.  Dark Water certainly shares some things in common with Ringu in that both films are about divorced women with small children contending with the vengeful ghosts of drowned girls, but there are also clear differences.  For one thing, the fact that the woman at the center of Ringu is a divorcee seems to largely be thematically incidental but here it seems to be rather important.  The film is playing on this woman’s anxieties and doubts that she’s truly providing the best life for her child by moving her into this rickety old apartment and away from her seemingly wealthier father.  It just so happens that the problems with this living environment aren’t merely economic but also supernatural.

The film’s ghost also differs from the one in Ringu as it doesn’t operate on a convoluted high concept and instead haunts people in the more traditional ways you might expect from a ghost story.  He leaves objects lying around ominously, she appears suddenly in the distance and then disappears, and if she has a gimmick it’s that she makes the ceiling of this apartment leak occasionally and makes other creepy water related occurrences happen.  I don’t know that it did anything particularly unprecedented but looking at it now it’s hard not to see the roots of some of the modern haunting movies like Insidious and The Conjuring in something like this and in many ways I do think this might have been made with something of an eye on Hollywood.  This is a more streamlined and understandable version of a J-horror movie, but that’s not to say it’s a sell-out or a lesser version of the form.  Instead it’s better viewed as a very well-crafted and confidently made example of what one of these movies can be like.  Dark Water was given a remake in 2005, but it got reviews that were mixed at best and only did alright at the box office.  Unfortunately Nakata’s winning streak did not continue after this.  He was brought in to do the terrible sequel to American version of The Ring and hasn’t made anything that’s made much of a splash since then.

Suicide Club (2002)

Suicide Club (AKA Suicide Circle) is a different kind of movie than the rest of the J-horror movies I’m looking at for this piece in a handful of ways.  For one, it never got an American remake, and it also doesn’t really revolve around a ghost per se even though there is still an unseen force going after people.  What’s more it isn’t even entirely a horror film so much as it’s a sort of violent provocation along the lines of something like Battle Royale or Ichi the Killer.  The film’s opening sequence in particular is incredibly disturbing: it depicts as many as fifty seemingly normal teenage schoolgirls at a subway station suddenly line up and jump onto the tracks as a train is coming, killing them all.  Did I mention that this never got a Hollywood remake?  The focus is ultimately on the way society reacts to this and continues to react as similar incidents seem to pop up occasionally.  There’s a certain resemblance to the premise of M. Night Shyamalan awful 2008 film The Happening but the suicide epidemic here feels more like a mysterious crime wave than an apocalyptic cataclysm.  Much of the film focuses on a group of detectives who are investigating these occurrences and start to put together certain clues that seem to be leading to some sort of force causing these seemingly random mass suicides.

Unlike a lot of the J-horror movies that I’m looking at in this piece, this movie has something of a (very) dark comedic streak.  It’s not going for laughs exactly but the movie plays out its suicide sequences with a certain satirical tone which does seem to be in pretty questionable taste, but it does in some ways make what you’re watching seem even more disturbing and it does have the effect it seems to be going for.  The problem is that this isn’t necessarily the tone the rest of the movie takes.  The scenes with the detectives play out using the rather straightforward language of a mystery/police procedural like Se7en or something.  This investigation side of the movie mostly works pretty well scene to scene but there are loose threads that don’t really come together perfectly, which is partly intentional but partly not.  So what is the point of this all?  I’m not entirely sure but Japan is traditionally known to have a higher suicide rate than a lot of other countries and this is presumably a critique of that.  Perhaps it’s making some sort of point that people are complacent when fifty teenagers kill themselves separately but are suddenly shocked out of that complacency when they suddenly do it all at once and publicly.  The ultimate culprit that the movie suggests is behind all this chaos may also be something of a stand in for a wider culture that seems to in some ways give people permission to take their lives, albeit subliminally.  I don’t think I have the cultural context to connect all those dots though and with the odd shifts in tone I’m not sure the movie works.

Ju-On: The Grudge (2003)

Though there are a variety of J-Horror movies out there, in the popular consciousness the genre is largely defined by two series: the Ringu series and the Ju-On series.  The latter of those series was the source of the 2004 American film The Grudge (a film I’ve never seen), which was largely based on the 2003 Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge.  This was not, however the first movie in the series.  That distinction actually goes to a direct-to-video film Ju-On: The Curse, which was followed by another direct-to-video sequel called Ju-On: The Curse 2 (Ju-On, incidentally, is Japanese for “Curse Grudge”).  These micro-budget films were well received and led to their semi-sequel/semi-reboot Ju-On: The Grudge getting a theatrical release which was a hit and its remake would become the one clear financial success to come out of the gold rush to bring other J-Horror films to American after the success of The Ring.  All of these films including the direct-to-video ones and the American remake and its first sequel were directed by a guy named Takashi Shimizu, who by my count has directed at least six of these things and the franchise has gone on since then and has produced no fewer than twelve different movies across its various iterations including one released just last year which was a crossover between the Ju-On ghost and the Ringu ghost.

The sheer number of these movies suggests that there must be something to them that’s appealing, but I really didn’t care for what I saw in this first and presumably best film in the series.  The film, like a lot of these movies, is about people forced to contend with a vengeful ghost (ghosts?) and this ghost is particularly murderous.  The spirit’s modus operandi is to curse anyone who enters the house it died in and comes into contact with anyone else who already has the curse… and that’s more or less all that happens throughout the course of the movie.  People enter the movie, get cursed, then die something like ten minutes later when the ghost decides the time is right.  Few characters are in the movie long enough for you to really care about them before they’re killed, and just to make matters even less clear the movie is told outside of chronological order to no real effect.  The basic mechanics of how the ghost stalks and kills (appearing and disappearing, that croaking sound) have a certain creepy quality to them, but their effect is quickly diminished with repetition over the course of the film.  There also isn’t really much to this ghost at the end of the day, it’s not trying to tell its story like the ghost from Ringu, it’s not trying to make some elaborate statement about the loneliness of death like the ghosts in Pulse, and it’s not even trying to find a new mother like the ghost in Dark Water, it just wants to kill everyone and that doesn’t make for a terribly compelling film.

Premonition (2004)

Premonition was a movie that came out towards the tail end of the early 2000s J-horror explosion, or at least towards the tail end of Western viewer’s initial interest in that scene.  There was a 2007 American film that was also called Premonition but my understanding is that that is not a remake.  The film was part of a loose series of sorts called “J-Horror Theater,” which was meant to be sort of an omnibus label that various directors would contribute films to, a bit like what Tarantino and Rodriguez were envisioning with their Grindhouse label or maybe what J.J. Abrams was trying to do with Cloverfield.  The film tells the story of a father who picks up a strange newspaper and sees an obituary for his (very much alive) daughter in it and then moments later this child is killed in a car crash.  The film picks up again years later when this evil newspaper comes back into his life and again starts predicting disasters that he’s largely powerless to stop and whenever he does stop them there seem to be dire consequences.  This setup is reminiscent of this TV show from the 90s called “Early Edition,” but here this magical newspaper seems more like a curse than a gift, especially given that attempts to prevent these disasters are usually punished.

In fact, the film’s “don’t mess with fate” theme actually almost harkens back to Final Destination (which does predate this), though obviously without the gory sadism of that rather unsavory franchise.  This one probably more closely resembles Ringu than a lot of the films I’m looking at for this piece, in part because there’s a clear investigative aspect to it and there are also elements Pulse in the way it seems to deal with a supernatural phenomenon that a lot of people are simultaneously trying to figure out.  The scares, however, are not really there and I’m not even sure I’d really call it a horror film so much as a kind of Twilight Zone scenario.  It’s not the most visually adventurous of these movies either and I’d say that it was pretty average for a lot of its runtime but it does pick up a little in its third act as the man tries to break the cycle to varying degrees of success.

Blade Runner 2049(10/6/2017)

It’s no secret that Hollywood is pretty desperate to make sequels to pretty much anything, but there are certain boundaries that they don’t cross every day, and in making the film Blade Runner 2049 they were certainly crossing into dangerous territory.  Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is a true science fiction classic.  It’s a film that has a truly remarkable look which holds up remarkably today and which has had a massive influence on pretty much every future city that has been seen on film since and its combination of science fiction with film noir was an incredibly smart move that was consistently fun to watch.  On top of that the movie is this really special, really deep mediation on what it means to be human and the ways societies abuse the disenfranchised and uncaringly discard unwanted elements.  It’s a brilliant movie and when I ranked my top 100 favorite films recently it came in at number 59, which also placed it as the third best movie of the last 35 years, it’s that good in my eyes.  I don’t think in recent memory I’ve been in the position or reviewing a sequel, made so long after the fact, to a top 100 caliber movie like this.  The last movie I can think of as being in a comparable position was probably 2010: The Year We Made Contact, the 1984 sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In short, the movie has some really big shoes to fill so I was certainly going into it with some a lot of skepticism.

Set thirty years after the original Blade Runner (which was set in what 1982 assumed 2019 would be like) this new film establishes that sometime after the events of the first film the old line of replicants prone to rebellion have been replaced by a new more obediant form of replicant that is allowed to operate within earth society.  One of those replicants is KD9-3.7 (Ryan Gosling), who is an LAPD “blade runner” tasked with tracking down the few remaining old world replicants and taking them out.  After the completion of one of his assassination missions KD9-3.7 finds a box filled with the remains of a long dead female replicant buried near a tree.  When these remains are discovered the autopsy shows something disturbing: this replicant seems to have died in the process of childbirth, implying that a replicant was somehow able to reproduce and also that the child that was born may still be out there.  His commanding officer, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), orders him to cover this up and tie up whatever loose ends exist so as to not cause mass pandemonium.  Meanwhile Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is also following these developments through various connections and plans to send his agent, Sylvia Hoeks (Sylvia Hoeks) to see to his own interests.

What’s immediately striking about the movie is, of course, just how well it manages of recapture the look and more importantly the feel of that original film.  That is no easy task as the set decoration of that original film is beyond iconic and Denis Villeneuve seems to realize this and is very careful to make this Los Angeles look like the Blade Runner Los Angeles rather than the various cityscapes that it inspired.  Part of the way Villeneuve accomplishes this is by knowing the value of restraint.  It would have been easy for him to pump up the CGI and gone full Fifth Element but he does hold back and it does look like that original film, but it also isn’t afraid to expand on the world of Blade Runner and show other areas of California and even another American city.  Even more impressive is that Villeneuve didn’t seem to bend to pressures to make the film more of an action movie and to speed the movie up to fit the pacing of modern blockbusters.  It’s a bit less indebted to film noir than the first movie but all the moodiness is still there and it also remains somber and doesn’t feel pressure to rush its way through its plot to appease short attention spans.

While he’s prominently featured in the film’s advertising, Harrison Ford actually has a fairly small role in the film.  Stepping into his shoes as a blade runner protagonist is Ryan Gosling, who unlike Ford is playing a character who is unambiguously a replicant.  To do this he adopts a sort of detached but not exactly robotic cool.  Unlike the replicants we saw in the last movie like Roy Batty he’s a newer model that “obeys,” but this is rendered more like a personality quirk than a hard-wired programing and Gosling does a pretty good job of rendering this spot between human and machine.  Also in a place of nebulous humanity is his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), another product of the Wallace corporation who certainly seems to have a higher degree of individuality than you’d expect from a literal consumer product and the bad guys played by Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks also prove to be interesting additions to the cast while smaller roles played by the likes of Dave Bautista and Robin Wright also fill in the world of the movie nicely.

When I first left the theater after seeing Blade Runner 2049 I was pretty high on it and was just gobsmacked that Villeneuve had managed to get something like this through the studio system and I pretty thoroughly enjoyed watching it.  In the week or so since then, my reaction has cooled on the movie just a little bit as I’ve re-considered some of its story implications.  I think in many ways the movie works better as a spinoff of Blade Runner than as a sequel to Blade Runner.  It’s great at recapturing the world of that first movie and populating it with new characters but I’m not a fan of what they do to connect all of that with the story of the original film.  Spoilers ahead.  I think the idea of a replicant having given live birth is… interesting, although it’s certainly never explained how a thing like that could happen which is perhaps understandable.  However, I kind of wish that the trail of clues related to this hadn’t led straight to Deckard and Rachael.  The romance between these two characters is not necessarily the most memorable part of the original film but it had a certain melancholy fatalism to it straight out of film noir.  This notion that they were in fact destined to give birth to “the chosen one” the whole time feels less like something from film noir and more like something out of modern franchise filmmaking.  The film also conveniently leaves certain plotlines like the fate of the Jared Leto character and the specter of a robot rebellion dangling, possibly for a future sequel if this thing does well at the box office.

Of course this movie’s box office success is far from certain.  Earlier I commended the movie for not pandering to the short attention spans of modern audiences, but truth be told this kind of pacing proved to be rather challenging for audiences in 1982 as well.  It was crazy enough that they managed to make a movie like this in Hollywood once much less twice.  If I have any reservations about where they took the story they’re more the kind of problems that emerge in hindsight than they are problems that really cloud the experience of actually watching the movie.  We don’t get movies like this every day and I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  This certainly isn’t the classic that the original film was but it’s entertaining, well-constructed, and just generally better than most of what we get from big budget movies like this.

Home Video Round-Up: 10/11/2017 (Halloween Edition)

A Cure for Wellness (9/25/2017)

A Cure for Wellness was Gore Verbinski’s “one for me” after making four a whole lot of commercial Johnny Depp movies and was his long awaited return to horror after making his great remake of The Ring back in 2002.  It seemed like this really bold and original idea… so what went wrong?  Well before we get to that let’s consider what went right.  The film is in many ways feels like a slick attempt at making a modern Dario Argento film with its visual focus and a dreamy atmosphere but instead of focusing on gore it focuses on trying to find some fairly original horror imagery.  The basic production values here are really strong: Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography looks really sharp and the art department does a great job of making the Swiss spa that the film is set in look really cool.  The basic ideas that the film was built around were strong, unfortunately it had to be saddled with a rather meandering screenplay that never really kicks into gear.  The villains’ evil scheme really doesn’t make very much sense if you hold it up to even a little bit of scrutiny (Why are they keeping Dane DeHaan around? Why are they choosing as their victims rich and powerful people who will be missed?) and the protagonist doesn’t prove to be as interesting as the movie thinks he is.  I kept hoping for a twist that would make all of this seem worth it, but one never really came.  There is also the little fact that the movie bears a fairly strong resemblance to Scorsese’s recent film Shutter Island.  The two movies have their differences and Scorsese’s movie has its problems too, but the similarities that are there are just a little too big to ignore.  Having said all that I do still kind of like this thing, or at least I can’t dismiss it.  The atmosphere and visuals go a long way and even when it starts getting downright silly towards the end I was still largely entertained, especially when compared to other horror movies that don’t try nearly as hard.

***1/2 out of Five

The Belko Experiment (9/30/2017)

The Belko Experiment is less of a true horror movie and more of an exercise in violence mixed with what are at least attempts at a satire of office culture.  The movie it most closely resembles (to the point of basically being a ripoff) is the Japanese film Battle Royale in which a group of school children are dumped onto an island and forced to fight to the death for what are basically unknown reasons, and the usual tensions of grade school life are played out in rather extreme form in their fights.  Here we are instead focusing on office workers who are trapped in their building and told over an intercom that if they don’t begin killing each other they’ll all be killed by small bombs that have been implanted in their heads.  What follows is a movie where people who essentially like each other are forced to murder each other in fairly brutal fashion.  The derivativeness and general sadism of this idea probably made it unlikely to succeed no matter what anyone did, but there were additional mistakes it also makes along the way.  I feel like I would have liked the movie better if it had stuck to its guns and populated this office who were more or less average joes, but instead the movie take a pretty deliberate step to add a clique of “bad guys” and since everyone’s essentially being forced to be bad in this contrived situation the film needs to make them really just cartoonishly awful people, which kind of robs the movie of any nuance potential it might have had.  That and some routine bad performances and just a general lack of suspense make this a pretty nasty piece of work without a lot to redeem it outside of its decent pacing and occasional witty moments.

*1/2 out of Five

Colossal (10/5/2017)

Colossal is a unique little movie about a woman who is something of a functioning alcoholic and who is close to hitting rock bottom after she loses a job and gets kicked out of her apartment by her boyfriend and returns to her home town after years away.  Things start to get weird, however, when a giant Godzilla-like monster suddenly begins attacking Seoul, South Korea during her blackouts and she begins to have legitimate reason to believe there’s some connection between her behavior and the monster attacks.  I certainly give the film points for originality, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to come up with a way to combine a Sundancey indie movie with a damn Kaiju movie, but somehow it happened and the combo works better than you’d think for the most part and some of the monster effects are actually pretty impressive for a lot budget movie like this.  The problem is that, while the movie works as a metaphor, it kind of gets a bit ridiculous if you are just watching it as a regular narrative.  The film is meant to show a rather extreme example of how self-destructive behavior can actually be pretty destructive to other people as well and to show the danger in enabling such behavior.  That fits for the most part, but it also sets up the consequences for this kind stuff to be so extreme that it becomes hard to believe that anyone would continue to be as much of an unrelenting jerk as Jason Sudeikis becomes at the end of the film.  In some ways I kind of wish they’d made this thing as a short film or as an episode of an anthology TV series or something because I’m not sure there was enough material in the idea as a feature film warrants, but when the film is working it works quite well.

**1/2 out of Five

Raw (10/10/2017)

The influence of Roman Polanski on the horror genre is becoming more and more clear to me as I see more and more psychological freak-out movies in which the viewer follows a character as he or she slowly goes insane.  The new franco-Belgian film Raw is also one of these movies, but it also has elements from Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon and Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day.  The film concerns a freshman student who is starting out at a truly out of control veterinary school that puts her through some absolutely wild hazing rituals, one of which involved eating a raw rabbit kidney, which really sets something off in the mind of this former vegetarian and sends her off in some rather murderous directions.  The film is plainly a metaphor which takes the anxieties that students feel when suddenly on their own and surrounded with various pressures to conform to the sometimes wild things that the people around them are doing and tells it from the perspective of someone who maybe can’t handle those things as well as the others.  Not the most insightful metaphor but one that certainly leads to some memorable moments like a very awkward scene about half way through the film involving Brazilian waxes, a pair of scissors, and cannibalism.  I’m not sure that it ultimately adds up to something profound and I also wasn’t a fan of the film’s ending, which offered something of a pat explanation for what came before, but there’s no doubt that it’s an interesting little horror film for the adventurous viewer.

*** out of Five

The Mummy (10/11/2017)

In response to negative criticism director Alex Kurtzman famously said “we didn’t make this movie for critics, we made it for the fans.”  The “fans” of what, exactly?  This is a movie that actually has less in common with the 1932 Boris Karloff movie than the 1999 remake with Brendan Frasier did and given that Universal’s “Dark World” doesn’t have any fans yet on account of this being its first entry and no one seems to have liked it.  The movie actually has more in common with the Hammer version of The Mummy than anything, but its relation to past movies isn’t really the problem here so much as its own failure to know what it wants to be.  It feels like there are about three different movies in this thing competing with each other: there’s the dark semi-horror movie that wants to mix Egyptian adventure with gothic imagery, there’s the jokey action movie starring Tom Cruise, and there’s the 21st century franchise/superhero movie.  That middle one is probably the biggest problem: Tom Cruise makes zero sense as the star of this thing and it feels like they adjusted the movie a lot in order to fit in with what people expect from Tom Cruise action movies and add in some really strange attempts at humor (including an element which is a blatant ripoff of An American Werewolf in London) that feel like they were added in at the last minute in response to a studio note.  The franchise stuff setting up a shared universe is also a problem of course, I can maybe envision a version of this where that stuff works better but it still seems like a mistake to have even tried to do that.  Hollywood, take a closer look at Marvel before you try to rip them off, you’ll note that they focused on just making good movies and kept that shit contained in the post credits sequences until they knew people were hooked and on board.  The Mummy does have its moments here and there, I don’t think it’s quite the disaster that its 16% Rotten Tomatoes score suggests, but it is a mess and a missed opportunity.

** out of Five

Battle of the Sexes(9/30/2017)

I’m not exactly sure why it is that Tennis is the one sport where people seem to be genuinely just as interested in the female competitions as the male competitions, outside of certain Olympic events anyway.  The WNBA has a small fraction of the viewership of the NBA for example but at least there is a WNBA, I don’t even know if there’s a comparable league for female baseball players or hockey players and I don’t even know of any female football teams even at the collegiate and high school levels.  There’s some interest in female soccer in America, largely as a product of the U.S. female soccer team being noticeable better than the men’s team, but that also sort of seems to be a product of the European and Latin American markets that actually love soccer not really caring enough to build up competition for them.  As for other individual sports I know there are some female boxers and female MMA fighters, but again, they don’t seem nearly as popular as their male counterparts.  Clearly there must be something about tennis that leads to equal coverage, maybe it’s that it’s such a finesse sport that the difference in strength just isn’t apparent on TV… but then you’d think that female golfers would have more of a platform.  Maybe it’s just a matter of female tennis players having gotten a useful platform from early on in the sport’s history.  They play in the same Grand Slam tournaments at the same time as the men and tend to get coverage at the same time.  Whatever it was it was something unique and the new film, Battle of the Sexes is about (among other things) a moment where a major star in women’s tennis stood up to defend that one shard of relative gender equality in sports and managed to make a statement about gender equality in the rest of society as well.

Set in the early 70s, the film follows tennis great Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), who is already more or less at the peak of her career at this point and has just won a major tournament which has netted her a hundred thousand dollar check.  News of this gets to Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), a 55 year old man who was a tennis champion in the 1940 and was old enough to actually have his career interrupted by World War II.  At this point in life he’s playing on the senior circuit and is having marital problems caused in no small part because of his compulsive gambling.  Jealous that King is able to get those kind of paychecks he starts to get it into his head that even in his advanced age he could still beat her and feels like he deserves to still be making that kind of money because of it.  He approaches her with the idea of doing a “battle of the sexes” exhibition match but King has a million other things on her plate at that time.  She’s in the middle of a boycott of the main tennis authority because their director Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is refusing to offer them equal prize money with the men, and she’s also in the process of beginning an affair with a hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), unbeknownst to her future ex-husband (Austin Stowell).  However, when Riggs manages to win a similar exhibition match against the other female tennis great of the era, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) King decides that enough’s enough and accepts Riggs’ challenge.

Battle of the Sexes was directed by the husband and wife pair of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who are probably still best known for having made the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine and that gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of filmmaking you’re in store for with the film.  This is a pretty safe and pretty straightforward telling of this period of Billie Jean King’s life.  I’m sure some of the standard issue creative liberties have been taken (I think some of the events are compressed into a shorter period of time) but otherwise the film does not take too many risks in its format and aims.  Emma Stone does some of the best work of her career as King and does a good job of changing herself into this butch athlete and capturing the uncompromising but at times playful aura that King needed to take on through this whole episode.  Steve Carrell perhaps unsurprisingly emphasizes a lot of the over the top and comical elements Bobby Riggs’ persona and doesn’t need to go too far outside of his usual wheelhouse to do it.  The movie is a bit on the fence about how much of a sexist Riggs really was; on one hand it’s very clear that his main motivation for making this happen was money and that some of his “male chauvinist” bluster was not too far removed from the antics of a bad guy professional wrestler taking a heel turn.  On the other hand, some of his resentment does seem legitimate.  He sees himself as being equally talented to King (and given his performance against Court that might not have been completely irrational) and felt that because of this he was deserving of an equal amount of money and attention despite not being in the same league as younger male players anymore.

Ultimately I don’t think it matters too much what Riggs’ true motivation was because at the end of the day he was probably doing a lot of harm.  His trolling plainly brought out the worst in a lot of people (the number of people who showed up to the big match carrying signs like “Team Male Chauvenist” is kind of disturbing) and he also may well have done some real damage to the entirety of women’s tennis if he had actually won his big match against King.  At a certain point it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for greed, lulz, or genuine hate, the end result is still shitty and saying “I didn’t really mean what I said” just isn’t a good excuse.  That little observation is mostly something I’m bringing to the movie as the film itself is not overly hard on Riggs and instead largely just dismisses him as a clown rather than a truly insidious figure when compared to the real institutional sexism represented by Jack Kramer.  That would be easier to roll with if not for the fact that this country recently went through another battle of the sexes of sorts in which a vulgar self-promoting asshole challenged an over-qualified female to a contest of sorts in a cynical attempt to regain relevance in his old age, and unlike this event the heroine didn’t vanquish the unrepentant chauvinist.  Clearly this movie was already well into production before the final results of the 2016 election were known and had sanity prevailed during that contest I suspect that seeing the feminist kick the chauvinist’s ass would have had a lot more resonance, but the actual election results really just make the film’s “and then everything got better” ending ring kind of false despite obviously being historically accurate.

Battle of the Sexes is the kind of movie that won’t really leave you with many concrete complaints.  The performances are all solid, the look is appropriate, it gets exciting when it needs to, it’s hard to really place your finger on a single element that you want to change really and yet it also leaves you wanting more.  The movie takes a pretty safe approach that guarantees it will be warmly received by most audiences but never really rises too much above the level of average.  Then again maybe that’s the right approach for this particular story.  This was after all a silly exhibition tennis match whose ultimate effect was largely symbolic.  Hyping it up further might not have worked and taking a more overtly satirical approach might have cheapened it a bit too much.  Maybe the light prestige approach was perfectly suited to the story but I consequently my personal response to it was a bit muted.