Home Video Round-Up: 10/27/2019 Halloween Edition

 

 

Ma (10/1/2019)

I think I watched the trailer for this Ma movie a dozen times in front of various movies and while I was intrigued by the idea of Octavia Spencer in a horror flick I ultimately wasn’t interested enough to see it.  As it turns out having an over-qualified actress like that is pretty much the only thing the movie has going for it because it is otherwise quite boring.  The film is about a group of teenagers who start hanging out with a middle aged woman who allows them to party in their basement judgement free but then becomes obsessed and starts stalking them.  The trailer implies that there might be something supernatural about Ma or that she might be a practitioner of voodoo, but no, she really is just a crazy lady and the teens in the movie are rather slow to realize that they should probably be avoiding her.  No one actually gets killed in this movie until the last half hour and aside from some vague creepiness around the title character there really isn’t much in the way of suspense or scares at all in the first half and while things actually do start to happen in the last third they aren’t terribly interesting or nearly as outlandish as they need to be after all that buildup.  It’s a movie that’s too dull for the mainstream, too tame for the hardcore, not good enough for the critics, but there is a baseline competence to it which keeps it from being some kind of “so bad it’s good” kind of thing.  Ultimately it’s just kind of a bland horror flick, if you must watch a 2019 movie about a wacky stalker lady then Greta probably has more going for it.

** out of Five

Knife + Heart (10/5/2019)

I’m generally interested in horror movies that come from unique ambitions and I think it’s safe to say this would qualify under that umbrella.  The film is set in 1979 and is about a lesbian French woman who directs gay male porn for a living.  She has just broken up with her girlfriend, who does the editing on these movies, and seems to be going through a depressed grief when someone starts murdering the actors from her movies in highly sexualized ways.  It feels a bit cheap and lazy to automatically assume that a horror movie about gay people is meant to be an AIDS allegory but… it’s kind of hard not to go there when you’re dealing with a film where a woman sees all her gay friends dying one by one while the authorities rather coldly fail to intercede.  That’s something with potential but I’m not sure the film is ever quite able to find the right tone.  It looks really good and seems fairly serious, but the killer wears a really stupid looking mask and, well he kills people with a dildo that has a switchblade knife that comes out the tip (leading to a rather grizzly scene where someone tries to give this dildo a blowjob).  On top of that the movie just generally loses steam in the second half and gets kind of muddled at a certain point.  It’s a movie I want to support for what’s unique about it, but the simple fact is I ended up losing interest in it.

**1/2 out of Five

Inhuman Kiss (10/8/2019)

Inhuman Kiss is a Thai film which to the best of my knowledge has never received any theatrical distribution or marketing in the United States or anywhere else in the West.  It’s on Netflix, presumably to accommodate their customers in its home country more so than viewers in the English speaking world (to the point where they didn’t bother to include English subtitles seperate from the English Closed Captions).  The one and only reason I’ve even heard of it is that it has somehow been submitted by Thailand as the country’s selection to compete in the Best International Feature category at the Oscars this year and the novelty of a strange sounding horror movie like this being submitted has caught the attention of some awards observers.  The film deals with a figure from Southeast Asian folklore called a Krasue, which is a sort wereworlf-like legend where women become cursed and at night their heads become detached from their bodies and fly around (complete with internal organs dangling below) and kill people.  These things have been featured in movies horror before, perhaps most famously in the Indonesian film Mystics in Bali, but this one takes more of a “they’re misunderstood” approach to them and has you following the afflicted woman and posits as the villain someone who is going from village to village promising to hunt and kill Krasue.  The film also downplays the whole “guts dangling from the head” thing and makes them look more like tentacles than organs.  The film is better made than you might think; it’s got some pretty decent cinematography and the CGI visual effects are generally acceptable.  The film obviously won’t be for everyone.  I watched the movie out of a sort of academic curiosity about what a commercial horror movie from a very different cultural tradition would look like and that curiosity was satisfied and I also wasn’t unimpressed with the movie itself.  Not sure how many people are looking for that.

*** out of Five

Child’s Play (10/13/2019)

There have been remakes of just about every other slasher franchise of the 80s so it was probably a matter of time before someone decided that Child’s Play needed to be rebooted.  These reboots generally face a bit of a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation where they feel lame if they simply rehash the movies they’re remaking beat for beat (ala Nightmare on Elm Street 2010) but they also alienate people if they change things too radically (ala Halloween 2009).  Ultimately the filmmakers seem to have opted for a fairly radical re-invention, and I want to give them some credit for that because going too far in the other direction can really be an infuriating exercise in cynical recycling… but if you’re going to do something new it does need to be something that people want and I’m not sure that what they’ve given us is that.  The remake completely eliminates the idea of a serial killer’s soul possessing a doll and instead the idea here is that the doll was this robotic smart device which goes haywire and starts over-interpreting the distaste his owner has for various people and murders them.  On its face that’s not the worst idea, but if they were going to make that movie they might have been better off ditching the Child’s Play IP altogether and making an original movie called “iDoll” or something.  The Chucky doll they go with looks kind of bad; making an evil toy both look scary and still be believable as something that would actually get sold is kind of hard and I don’t think they thread the needle very well here, especially given the nature of what this thing is supposed to do in the remake.  There are some good elements though, some of the kills are effectively gory and the human cast is mostly pretty solid, but ultimately it’s a pretty forgettable attempt.

**1/2 out of Five

One Cut of the Dead (10/14/2019)

One Cut of the Dead is a film that had something of a Blair Witch/Paranormal Activity like reception in its native Japan in that it managed to get a lot of publicity from being a film made on a miniscule budget (reportedly $25,000) but being impressive despite this and becoming a big financial success.  These “little movie that could” success stories are usually a little more complicated than the publicity departments make them out to be, and I suspect that the true budget for this movie was a little higher than that given the size of the cast, but it is a clearly low budget production either way.  The film begins in a sort of found footage scenario where a film crew is in a remote building making a zombie movie but soon come to realize that an actual zombie apocalypse is going on around them, much to the delight of their overbearing director.  This all seems reasonably well made if a bit odd but then the movie takes a dramatic change in direction which re-contextualizes the first part and changes the film’s genre completely.  Even saying that much borders on spoiler territory but I do think it’s important to point out given that this twist could potentially annoy people who simply want to see a zombie movie.  I also don’t want to over-sell the twist either because it’s not as meta and brainy as such a thing might sound.  The second two thirds are less of a radical genre deconstruction and more of just a charming little movie about characters you come to like the company of.  I don’t really want to say too much more.  I found it to be a pretty pleasant trifle but it’s not going to change the world either.

*** out of Five

Happy Death Day 2U (10/20/2019)

This was a movie I watched rather casually when it came on HBO and did not even consider at the time that it was a 2019 release and would consequently be a film I’d have to talk at some length in a canonical capsule review.   The original Happy Death Day made decent money in 2017 but it wasn’t really anyone’s favorite movie and I have a hunch that it only rather narrowly managed to get this sequel greenlit, and maybe they shouldn’t have bothered.  The first film was largely characterized by the fact that it was only barely a horror film, which was in some ways a strength because trying to make a real slasher movie at a PG-13 level probably would have sucked, but for the sequel they go even further away from being a thriller and venture into being a full-on comedy, but one that isn’t very funny.  The movie also generally over-estimates how much anyone really cares about the characters here or about the stakes involved in the first film.  If the first film wanted to be Groundhog Day this movie wants to be Back to the Future 2, but that movie worked because it was building off of a really solid foundation and you knew that first movie really well and wanted to see it get kind of deconstructed, not so much here.  The film also introduces a science fiction explanation for the repeating days thing and it makes absolutely no sense.  So, yeah, even if you found some marginal pleasure from the first movie you can skip this one.

** out of Five

Tigers Are Not Afraid (10/27/2019)

Man, I was really rooting for this thing.  This Mexican thriller spent an entire year playing festivals before it finally got a United States release and came with quotes in its marketing from Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Guillermo del Toro.  The film tells a story about children who are fleeing from vicious cartel while simultaneously having dark fantasy visions and envisioning the whole thing as a fairy tale… and you wonder why Guillermo del Toro likes this thing.  Del Toro’s shadow looms so heavily over this thing that it really can’t sustain itself, it just feels like a second rate knockoff.  The film does do an impressive job of conveying its setting, its cast is mostly solid, and the basic filmmaking is mostly solid but despite being only 82 minutes the whole thing proves to be a bit thin and repetitive.  The handful of ideas that the film does have for injecting the film with horror elements, like a CGI snake thing, don’t entirely work and the film never really establishes a logic to how the real and the unreal mix in this world.  I had assumed this was the work of a newbie filmmaker and that it maybe showed some promise for what they would give us in the ensuing years, but it turns out that this Issa López person has been making movies in Mexico for something like twenty years and if this is the best she’s got I’m not sure she’s going to become a major voice.  Still, I do get why it’s had a pretty good festival run, it probably does stand out a bit better in that environment but it was probably not fit for prime time.

** out of Five

Crash Course: British Horror (1967 – 1971)

Every October I like to do a “crash course” article around horror movies of a certain theme or type.  The last two years my crash courses have been in the horror films of a certain country, namely Japan and Italy, so I thought I’d keep that up.  This year I’ve decided to look at some uniquely British horror movies and specifically British horror movies of a specific era straddling the late 60s and early 70s.  This era of British horror is often associated with Hammer Horror, and while some of the movies I’m looking at were indeed produced by Hammer I’m trying to dig at least a little deep than the usual assortment of Dracula and Frankenstein movies they’re most known for.  It should also probably go without saying that I’ve already seen The Wicker Man, which would of course fit right in with this collection.

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)

Quatermass and the Pit (or Five Million Years to Earth as it is known in America) is the third film in a rather unconventional series of films that were based on a trilogy of televised serials that aired on the BBC in the 50s.  The first two films, The Quatermass Xperiment and Quatermass II, were made by Hammer before they were known as a horror studio in the mid-fifties not long after their respective TV versions aired and starred a guy named Brian Donlevy but before the third serial aired things changed at Hammer films.  “Hammer Horror” as a brand started taking off and the American distributors they were partnered with wanted as much Dracula and Frankenstein as they could get and the Quatermass series was put on the back burner for a decade.  Then in the late sixties it was decided that it was finally time to make a movie out of the third and at that time final Quatermass serial, which was also the best remembered of the three.  This adaptation would be disconnected from the previous two; it would be in color, it would have a new cast, and it would not really reference the first two.  This time around Brian Donlevy has been replaced by the Scottish actor Andrew Keir, who certainly seems a lot more professorial than Donlevy and original creator Nigel Kneale would have more control over the screenplay.

The story concerns a buried flying saucer which is discovered while trying doing some sort of digging on the London underground.  Surrounding the saucer are the remains of some ancient neanderthal-like humans and inside the saucer are a bunch of dead bug-like aliens.  The conclusion they eventually come to is that there was a race of Martians that went extinct on the red planet but desperately sent a ship to earth and influenced the evolution of ancient pre-humans like the Monolith from 2001 and that ancient Martian memories are also implanted into humans because of this.  That’s kind of a lot to take in and the movie brings it up kind of casually midway through.  I think the movie actually comes to this conclusion a little too quickly and would have been better served coming more towards the conclusion (this might have been a remnant of the story’s serialized origins and might have been better as an episode cliffhanger).  I would say that the movie’s other big drawback is that its technical elements are kind of garbage, especially the occasional moments where we see the small insect-like aliens who barely move their arms and the way the film’s finale hinges around a weird looking blob in the sky is just kind of terrible and I’m honestly not entirely sure what was going on in the last twenty minutes of the movie.  The film being in color also isn’t quite an asset for it as the earlier films’ use of black and white both gave them extra atmosphere and also hid some of the more questionable effects work.

**1/2 out of Five

Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General is one of the most famous films to be made in the Hammer style even though it wasn’t actually made by Hammer.  The film was actually the work of a production company called Tigon British Film Productions, a studio which was founded in 1966 and appears to have folded sometime in the early 80s and are primarily remembered for having made a handful of low budget horror films in direct competition with Hammer and this one is probably the most famous of them.  The film was directed by a guy named Michael Reeves who started directing films at a very young age before dying at the age 25 because of an alcohol and barbiturate overdose and this was his third and final film.  It also features Vincent Price in the title role, a casting choice that was made on the behest of American International Pictures, who were co-financing and would eventually distribute the film in America under the title “The Conquering Worm” which was the name of an Edgar Allen Poe poem in an attempt to pass the film off as one of the Corman/Price “Poe” movies that had been popular earlier in the decade.

The film of course has nothing to do with that poem and is instead based on a historical figure named Matthew Hopkins who operated during the mid-17th Century English Civil War and would go from town to town trying and executing people for witchcraft.  The film is fictionalized and would never be mistaken for a documentary, but it’s more accurate to the exploits of the real guy than you might think.  There are no “real” witches in the movie, Hopkins is the villain here and his inquisitions are the film’s real source of terror. The film is actually so grounded in its period that it almost isn’t really a horror movie so much as it’s a violent for its time revenge movie which happens to be set against a strange and slightly horror adjacent moment in British history.  That violence also isn’t as shocking today as it apparently was in 1968 though there are some nasty moments like a burning at the stake and some torture scenes so it does make sense that it would disturb some audiences who were expecting something a bit more sedate.  The film is also notable for largely being set in daylight and for its ability to find some interesting British countryside locations to film in.  The film is a product of tis time and should be judged against the other films of its era, and on that front it’s an interesting work for sure.

*** out of Five

The Devil Rides Out (1968)

The Devil Rides Out (which was renamed The Devil’s Bride in America because the original title sounded too much like a western) was a Hammer produced film with a distinction of starring Christopher Lee as a hero rather than a villain.  In the film Lee plays The Duke De Richleau, a character that was created by author Dennis Wheatley and featured in a a series of pulp novels from the 1930s through the 1960s.  De Richleau was an aristocrat and a sort of amateur detective and adventurer, a lot of them took the form of regular mysteries, but a lot of them had him investigating occult dealings.  I suspect the character had some influence on the character of John “Hellblazer” Constantine and maybe even Dr. Strange, but he doesn’t appear to be one to dabble in the occult in order to fight with it, the setup to these seem to be that the occult is 100% evil and De Richleau is going to fight it in the name of Jesus.  Presumably if the movie had been a bit more films about the character would have followed, but Hammer still kept the potential series on ice for a while for fear that a movie about outright Satanism would have trouble with the censors but by 1968 they clearly had confidence in the property because they brought in Terrence Fisher to direct and he was the guy behind a lot of their biggest Dracula and Frankenstein movies.

In the film Christopher Lee finds himself in a high society party where people are behaving strangely and concludes that they are a coven that has been worshiping satan and he is right.  This is not a situation like The Wicker Man where people’s beliefs and superstitions lead them to do horrible things in service of ideas that are probably wrong, in this movie the devil is very real and the Satanists are able to successfully wield black magic to do evil stuff.  As stated previously Christopher Lee is playing the good guy this time around though he still has a somewhat malevolent look sporting this sick goatee and speaking really authoritatively.  The film’s villain is played by Charles Gray, who is the guy who played Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever, and he has this sort of effete aristocratic villainy.  The exact rules of Satanism here are a bit unclear, Satan and various demons tend to show up in visions from time to time but they often don’t really do a whole lot and some of these visual effects are kind of charmingly corny, but the movie does pick up in a big way in its second half and I’d say it’s one of the better Hammer efforts of the era.

***1/2 out of Five

The House that Dripped Blood (1971)

The House that Dripped Blood is a film from the third and probably least successful of the studios making low budget horror films during this era: Amicus Productions.  Amicus was a weird studio that for whatever reason found itself going all in on making anthology horror films that would feature a few short segments tied together by a framing story.  They made at least seven different horror films which had that format and after the studio folded their main producer appears to have gone on to produce even more anthology horror films in Canada and America including the Stephen King film Cat’s Eye.  Their interest in this format appears to have at least in part been influenced by some sort of partnership they had with the American horror writer Robert Bloch, who is best known for writing the novel upon which the movie Psycho was adapted but he also had a long and prolific career writing short stories for pulp magazines like “Weird Tales.”  Most of these anthology horror films were based on Bloch’s back catalog of stories and would be scripted by Bloch himself and The House That Dripped Blood, which is probably their most remembered film, is no exception.

The film largely consists of four stories, all of them about various people who lived in the same, apparently haunted, house: the first is about a horror writer who starts hallucinating that one of his creations has come to life and is stalking him, the second is about a man (played by Peter Cushing) who becomes obsessed with a local wax museum, the third is about a father (played by Christopher Lee) who seems mysteriously over-protective of his daughter, and the fourth is about a horror actor who comes to believe that an old cloak he found it turning him into a vampire.  The four stories are not terribly bloody (the title is strictly metaphorical) and are all big on having sort of ironic twist endings, which are kind of a staple of short genre fiction.  Of the four I didn’t really care for the second one with the wax museum, which was predictable and sort of diverted from the haunted house motif.  The first story has a pretty decent if not wildly original twist at the end, and the last story is kind of comical and was clearly meant to sort of lighten things up at the end.  I think the third story with Christopher Lee is probably the best of the three, in part because you could kind of sympathize with the nanny who is brought in to act as the audience surrogate.  All of this is wrapped in a slightly (and I do mean slightly) better framing story than these things usually have, which involves a detective investigating all the weird things going on at the house.  Not much happens in this framing story but it does a better job than usual bringing the stories together and making it feel like a real movies.  This is all very by the book standard old school horror writing and in general there’s very little in the film that will surprise you if you’re familiar with this genre, but there’s kind of a charm to that.  It’s a rather quaint movie, one of the last of a kind of horror that was about to be obliterated by the likes of The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a few years later.

*** out of Five

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

In 1968 a then unknown (but soon to be very known) filmmaker named Peter Bogdanovich was given the task of making something out of some unused footage from an unfinished gothic horror film starring Boris Karloff.  Being the forward thinker that Bogdanovich was he knew the movie they were making was already an anachronism and the movie he ended up making was a film called Targets which was all about how real life violence had made movies of the kind Karloff usually made kind of obsolete.  This was a pretty astute observation given that the film was released the same year that movies like Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby would point to a new future for the genre.  But not everyone got that memo, or at least if they did they weren’t going to change fast enough to fully leave the old ways behind and change how horror movies were made completely.  Because of this people like Vincent Price, who were very much of the horror old school like Karloff, were still able to make movies well into the 70s, many of which weren’t sure how much to dip their toes into the waters of what’s new and how much to stick to the traditions that worked before.  A perfect example of this would be The Abominable Dr. Phibes, a very strange 1971 thriller which has a certain Hammer feel (though it was actually financed entirely financed and produced by Hammer’s American distributor AIP) but with a certain sadism which those movies lacked and just another layer of weirdness on top of that.

Dr. Phibes is a deranged genius who was believed to have been killed in a fiery car crash but who actually survived and now wants revenge against a whole team of surgeons who failed to save his wife.  As such he hatches a plot to kill all nine of these doctors in various elaborate ways with each of these murders thematically tied to one of the nine plagues of Egypt from the bible (albeit with some of the plagues changed from the source material).  That business with the murders resembling a set religious edicts will of course remind any modern viewer of David Fincher’s 1995 thriller Seven, and there may well have been some inspiration from this but mostly just in terms of plot and concept rather than tone because a lot of the killings here are kind of silly rather than genuinely disturbing.  That isn’t to say the kills aren’t kind of messed up, because they kind of are conceptually.  There isn’t much actual blood or gore (in fact it managed to get a PG-13 rating when it was submitted for rating during a re-release) but the basic ideas like someone getting their face squeezed in by a mechanical mask or someone getting their face eaten off by locusts are pretty out there.  In fact there’s a certain Jigsaw quality to Dr. Phibes in the way he is sort of trying to make a point with his various traps and murders and the Saw series definitely borrowed from one of his final traps which involves surgically removing a key from someone’s body.  But there’s also just a bunch of other wacky shit going on like Dr. Phibes affinity for organ music and his mute lady assistant and clockwork band, and the banter of the police trying to find Phibes is also comical at times.  Really the whole movie is kind of a dark comedy, and while it’s hardly a perfect movie it’s worth looking at.

*** out of Five

The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

If nothing else The Blood on Satan’s Claw has one of the all-time great horror titles.  The producers originally wanted to call it “Satan’s Skin,” which actually ties into the story more, but that doesn’t invoke the image of the devil scratching someone to death (something that does not really happen in the movie).  This film actually fits within the very small sub-genre of “folk horror,” which is a somewhat nebulous categorization for British movies about that country’s pagan past or neo-paganism and it’s recently being revived by movies like Apostle and Midsommar.  The most famous example of this is almost certainly The Wicker Man and the previously discussed Witchfinder General are both considered prime examples of this, and those two movies make a pretty interesting contrast if you think about it.  The Wicker Man, which not in love with the judgmentalness of modern Christianity, ultimately falls down on its pagan cult being dangerous one on the side of evil.  Meanwhile, Witchfinder General places the Christians (or at least the most fanatical example of Christianity) as being much more dangerous than the so-called witches.  The Blood on Satan’s Claw is interesting in that it sort of splits the difference and views both Satanists and anti-Satanists as being kind of dangerous forces.

This was another film made by Tigon, who also made Witchfinder General and you can kind of pick up on a different house style at play.  Their films are set earlier, have more outdoor scenes, and frankly don’t look like they’ve been recycling the same costumes and sets for twenty years.  This one is also notable for being a lot more R-rated than a lot of the movies I’ve been looking at here.  There’s full frontal nudity in the film and it also has a pretty creepy ritualized rape scene (between this, Straw Dogs, and A Clockwork Orange, 1971 was a really rapey year for British cinema).  Like with The Abominable Dr. Phibes, this cross between the old style of horror filmmaking and increased levels of sex and violence does feel a bit odd, but in an interesting way.  What the film lacks is a particularly strong protagonist and for that matter a central villain that can really embody the threat at hand but it does make up for this a little with some cool images, including a shot of someone finding a corpse half buried in a field which may or may not have been lifted by David Lynch in Blue Velvet.  That said I’m not sure if I would have been as interested in the movie if I hadn’t been watching it in conjunction with all the other British horror movies of the era recently, it’s kind of a film history curio with a weird abrupt ending moreso than a stand-alone horror experience.

*** out of Five

A Hidden Life(10/21/2019)


The 2010s have been at once a great decade and also kind of a terrible decade for Terrence Malick.  Malick, who famously only made four movies between 1973 and 2010 and refuses to be photographed or interviews, had managed to make every film he made seem like an event even if only through their rarity but without exception his films in this period proved to be worth the wait.  But in the 2010s the floodgate seemed to open and he released more films in a period of eight years than he had in the preceding 37.  This proved to be both a good and a bad thing.  He started the decade with 2011’s The Tree of Life, which was heralded as something of a landmark film when it came out and will likely be remembered as one of the best of the decade.  I personally had kind of mixed feelings about it at first and have sort of struggled with it but mostly think its reputation is earned.  Then he rather shockingly came out with a new movie just two years later called To the Wonder, which I liked quite a bit but which was also when some of the magic and mystique of a Malick release started to dissipate.  Reviews were mostly respectful but it wasn’t the event that his previous films were and it was a hard movie to recommend to everyone.  Then Knight of Cups happened in 2015, which is really where things started to go wrong.  The film was made in the same style of the two films that preceded it but it was taken to this rather irritating extreme where just about any sense of real storytelling was lost.  Even I hated it, which is crazy given how much of a fanboy I was of his other work, and I didn’t even bother to see his follow-up Song to Song in theaters.  That last film seemed like kind of a last gasp of the new direction he took with Tree of Life, and I was happy to hear that his new film would be a departure from that.

A Hidden Life is set in the 1940s in Austria and tells the true story of Franz Jägerstätter.  Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) live in a remote village called Radegund with three daughters where they live a (in Malick’s eyes) idyllic pastoral life.  But as the Nazis begin to take over Franz begins to have serious doubts about what is going on around him and feels a great obligation to speak out about what’s going on.  In particular he fears that he’ll be drafted and be forced to give an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler (which was a routine requirement of the German army), which is something that is anathema to him both as a man of conscience and as a devout catholic.  From there the movie is basically a deep dive into the spiritual anguish that this predicament causes for Jägerstätter and the eventual consequences that this decision will entail.

It has been reported that sometime after he made the movie Silence Martin Scorsese received a letter from Terrence Malick about his reaction to that movie.  The exact contents of this letter have not been made public but it would seem to be that he had some kind of theological difference of opinion with that movie and his work here might add some clarity to that.  It would seem that is issue is with that film’s ending, in which (spoilers) a priest renounces his faith at gunpoint but is essentially forgiven by the film for having kept his conscience pure internally despite going along with this charade in order to stay alive.  A Hidden Life would in many ways seem to be a repudiation of that because it’s about someone who does the exact opposite of that; he refuses to take an oath that goes against his principles and his faith knowing full well that it could likely get him killed.  In essence the movie is a defense of the act of martyrdom and of placing the sanctity of one’s soul above earthly matters.  I’m not religious, I don’t really agree with all of that, but I admire Malick’s passion in bringing the case for it to the screen and definitely support the use of the cinema to make these sorts of lofty points.

So, this is certainly a very thoughtful and spiritual movie, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an entirely successful one in execution.  The film is mostly in English despite having a predominately Teutonic cast (including at least two actors who have played Hitler in the past) and I think Malick is slightly embarrassed by given that he has included some short scenes in un-subtitled German, usually scenes where Nazis are shouting at people.  But that oddness aside the acting here is generally pretty good.  Visually the movie certainly has a lot going for it.  Malick isn’t working with his usual cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki this time around, it was instead shot by a guy named Jörg Widmer who does have a number of cinematography credits (mostly for small European films) but appears to have also worked with Malick and Lubezki as a camera operator on their last four films and appears to specialize in Steadicam operation if IMDB is to be believed.  The change of personal behind the camera does not appear to have been much of an issue though because whoever his DP is Malick is a guy who can shoot the ever-living shit out of a landscape and as you can imagine he’s kind of in hog heaven filming in the Sound of Music-esque Austrian locales featured in this film.  In typical Malick fashion he manages to make all the early scenes look like the characters are living in this Edenic wonderland before everything goes wrong and also makes the interiors of the various cathedrals, prisons, and courtrooms look interesting as well.

Later in the film the camera increasingly begins to be pointed inward and seeks to document the toll this is taking on Jägerstätter, and this is where things maybe start to go a bit off the tracks.  This is a long movie (nearly three hours) and while I generally consider myself to be more patient with this sort of thing than the average moviegoer I will say that this one tested me a little.  It wasn’t the sheer running time at issue so much as a certain redundancy in just how many different shots are taken up showing Jägerstätter being ever so slightly more anguished than the last time we saw him.  There a certain “I get the point already” element to the whole thing.  Additionally I’m not sure that Malick’s usual style, which strongly de-emphasizes traditional dialogue, is entirely right for this story.  “Show, don’t tell” is of course one of the conical rules of filmmaking but that can be taken to the extreme and I think this movie could have benefited a little from letting Jägerstätter and some other character sit down and really talk out what’s going on in his heart.  There are a couple scenes here and there which come close to this but it never quite gets there and I kept hoping Malick would give us something akin to the famous conversation between Bobby Sands and the priest in Steve McQueen’s Hunger.

I worry that I’ve over-emphasized the negative here, so I do want to circle back and return to the film’s positives, which are many.  Really a majority of the film is very good, it could just use some cuts here and there and it’s hard to name what needs to go exactly because very little, if anything, in the film is actively “bad.”  In general I think the film might have been even more impressive to me if it had come out about ten years ago and had been Malick’s immediate if (for the time) characteristically late follow-up to The New World and in many ways it does feel like a return to that older mode of Malick’s filmmaking.  But I think the last ten years of increased output has maybe taken a bit of the luster out of that Malick style, like a magician having done the same trick a few too many times allowing the audience to spot where the strings are.  It just feels a little less special after seeing it every two years for a decade, is what I’m saying.  But again, I should be focusing on the positive here.  The film is certainly a marked improvement over the likes of Knight of Cups and its clear message and concrete historical context will also probably win back some of the people who were not interested by To the Wonder and even The Tree of Life.  It’s a movie that I strongly respect and am glad exists but for me, as a movie going experience, it never quite clicked as the next masterpiece that I hope this guy still has in him.

***1/2 out of Five

September/October 2019 Round-Up – Part 1

Hustlers(9/16/2019)

I’m generally used to knowing months in advance what movies are worth looking forward to but every once in a while something will come out of nowhere and surprise you, and that’s more or less what happened with Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, which tells the true story of a group of exotic dancers who form a gang of sorts which starts drugging and robbing various customers in order to “get theirs.”  In some quarters the film was being sold as a sort of economic revenge romp with women nobly fighting back against their opressors, which is not necessarily something I would have gotten behind, but the actual movie exists in a more morally nuanced place than that.  In essence the film is another entry in the much imitated formula established by Goodfellas in which we sort of watch a criminal enterprise as it rises and then falls, and while this is familiar I do think this movie iterates on the format enough to avoid simply being derivative.  Where it loses points is in the aesthetics.  The movie’s never quite sure whether it wants to be straight-up gritty or whether it wants to go for more of a flashy style in keeping with the Scorsese films that inspired it.  Some of the reviews for this thing have been a bit over the top, I think it’s been the beneficiary of lowered expectations, but it is a quality film that will connect with certain audiences very strongly.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Monos(10/6/2019)

There’s been some quality cinema coming out of Columbia as of late and their submission for this year’s iteration of the Best International Feature category at the Academy Awards suggest that Ciro Guerra is far from the country’s only filmmaking talent.  Monos is set in a remote region of the country and follows a group of teenagers who are enlisted in a paramilitary group called only “The Organization” who I assume are meant as a fictionalization of real life groups like FARC.  This band of The Organization is largely left to its own devices with only one adult commanding officer who only visits them every once in a while to deliver orders.  These kids carry around assault rifles and occasionally engage in drills but do not seem to be very involved in frontline combat, instead their main duty is to guard an American woman that The Organization has kidnapped and is holding hostage, presumably until a ransom is paid.  Much of the tension of the film is in seeing these young people reacting to this extreme situation while still very much being teenagers who are prone to the same kind of irresponsibility as teenagers who live less stressful lives.  The film sports some really nifty cinematography and has a lot of great scenery and environments and things do get rather exciting towards the end when tensions boil over and “Lord of the Flies” is directly invoked but the film meanders a bit in the middle.  The cast is generally quite good but the size of the film’s ensemble sometimes works against it as we never manage to really know any one of these kids all that well and the film never gets into how they found themselves in this situation or what keeps them there.  It’s an interesting piece of world cinema, but I wouldn’t call it a “must see.”

*** out of Five

 

Gemini Man(10/10/2019)

I was not expecting much from Gemini Man, which is an odd thing to say from a movie directed by Ang Lee and featuring a major star like Will Smith, but the trailer really looked awful and the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score is very low.  I had pegged Lee’s continued obsession with high frame rate presentation as the thing that was probably going to torpedo the movie, which was by all accounts the thing that killed his last film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  My first (and until now only) experience with high frame rate presentation was from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 60 fps back in 2012 which, ironically enough, was a film I saw on the very same day I saw Ang Lee’s Life of Pi which is likely the movie which convinced Ang Lee that he should be a technological innovator in the first place.  That viewing of that Hobbit movie was, in many ways, one of the worst theatrical experiences I can remember and I spent most of the movie wishing I’d just seen it in a regular theater (or not seen it at all, frankly).  If any movie was going to be a terrible showcase for the technology it was going to be that one since it invited an apples-to-apples comparison to the previous Lord of the Rings movies and because its medieval fantasy setting invited a certain traditionalist approach.  I could tell that the 3D was a little smoother than usual but that was a movie that probably shouldn’t have been in 3D at all and the drawbacks to the format like the fact that it makes everyone on screen look like they’re moving at something like 1.25x speed at times and that it gives the whole film a sort of sterile look like you’re watching a British soap opera or something.

So it was with some surprise that the thing I dreaded most about the film, the tech, was the thing I ended up being most interested by.  I don’t know if the difference between 60 and 120 frames was the difference or if the technology has just gotten better in the last seven years or if the movie was just significantly more suited to it, but the presentation was way more intriguing this time around.  I say “intriguing” and “interesting” rather than “good” because for me the jury is still very much out on this and there are only a limited number of movies I’d actually want it used for, but this time around I did finally kind of see why filmmakers like Lee, Jackson, and Cameron were chasing this technology.  The 3D in the movie seems a lot deeper than what you usually see from 3D movies and you really seem to see the characters and a lot of detail right down to every pore on their face.  It almost looked less like a movie and more like some kind of VR video game experience, which is both a good and a bad thing.  The movements of the characters is still unusual, you don’t notice it this the whole way through but every once in a while some of the onscreen movement will just seem unnaturally faster than what you expect in movies, but during certain action scenes this actually ramps things up.

Now I’ve talked almost exclusively about this film’s presentation technology to this point because it is frankly the most interesting aspect of what is otherwise a painfully mediocre Bourne Identity ripoff movie.  As I’m sure most are aware, the big high concept here is that it’s a movie where Will Smith is an assassin who has to face off against a younger version of himself who is presumably a clone.  That is of course its own technological challenge as they’re using de-aging technology to bring this younger Will Smith to life, and the do a reasonably acceptable job of doing it.  You do see the seams there and you certainly sense that you’re looking at a special effect while he’s on screen (Captain Marvel remains the gold standard for this technology, at least until I get a look at The Irishman), but technologically it’s acceptable.  What’s less acceptable is Will Smith’s performance in these scenes. As the older version of the character Smith is basically doing a variation on what he usually does when he’s in relatively somber movies and he’s fine at it, but he really doesn’t seem to know what to do when playing the younger version and never finds the right voice or find an interesting way to turn down his usual confidence.  The movie also doesn’t do anything wildly interesting thematically with this setup beyond what giving older Will Smith some really under-developed “regrets” and giving younger Will Smith some lame daddy issues with his creator.  Otherwise the whole thing is totally cookie cutter.  Some of the action scenes are impressive, in part because they’re being given a lot of extra punch by the 3D, but some of them are a lot less effective than others.

On some level I’m glad that Ang Lee is using this nothing of a film in order to act as a guinea pig for his technological experimentation rather than applying it to a movie with real potential for which it would largely be a distraction, but what I really want is for him to stop pretending he’s James Cameron and get back to making small movies about emotions.  That or maybe make an action movie with more of a human touch like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, because with or without technical wizardry Gemini Man is plainly beneath him.  Actually it’s beneath a lot of people; the screenplay has apparently been bouncing around Hollywood since the late 90s and it does feel kind of dated as a result.  It’s one of a lot of spy movies from the 2000s that used rogue fictional spy agencies as the villains because they couldn’t find an international enemy of interest at the time and also didn’t quite have the balls to suggest that the actual CIA might be evil.  In general its conception of how espionage works is idiosyncratic; too ridiculous to claim any sort of realism but not fantastical enough to be particularly fun.  It’s also got some really bad on-the-nose dialogue and boring characters.  I’d normally implore people to not waste their time on such a movie until it’s on HBO or something, but I can’t this time because the only real reason to see this thing at all is because of the visuals and how they play out in 120 FPS 3D and I suspect from the trailer that the movie’s going to kind of look like crap in any other format.  So if and only if you’re curious about the tech give the movie a look if you can do so cheaply, otherwise just skip it.

** out of Five

Jojo Rabbit(10/16/2019)

For about as long as there has been Nazis there have been people making fun of Nazis.  Carlie Chaplin made and released The Great Dictator before the United States even entered the war, Ernst Lubitsch made To Be or Not to Be at the war’s height, and even Disney was known to put out cartoons of Donald Duck wreaking havoc behind German lines.  Granted, those movies were made before the details of the Holocaust were public and some of those jokes about “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” and the like do take on a new meaning in hindsight, but these movies remain prime examples of the power of laughing in the face of evil.  The game of making fun of the Nazis didn’t exactly end there though and through the rest of the 20th Century you can find any number of movies like The Producers or the show “Hogan’s Heroes” that would use the goose stepping and thoughtless hate of Nazi totalitarianism as a source of dark humor and a similar streak of satire tends to run through a lot of other movies that take a more irreverent look at the past like the Nazis in the Indiana Jones franchise or in Inglourious Basterds or even in the Wolfenstein series of video games.  So it wasn’t really a huge shock to me when I learned that the New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (who is apparently Jewish) was making a satire about life in Germany during the end of the Second World War which would feature some rather irreverent Hitler imagery, but I was curious to see what he’d do with the concept.

The film concerns a ten year old boy named Johann “Jojo” Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), who is living in a town somewhere in western Germany during the last year of the Second World War.  Jojo’s father is said to be away fighting in the war and his sister apparently died earlier so he is living alone with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson).  Jojo has been caught up in the madness of Nazi Germany and views Hitler as something of a rock star and Hitler (Taika Waititi) actually talks to him from time to time as a sort of hallucinatory imaginary friend and as the film begins he’s excitedly running off to a Hitler Youth jamboree.  This gathering is being overseen by a wounded German officer named Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who at one point demands that Jojo kill a rabbit in front of him to demonstrate his willingness to kill for the Fatherland and despite Jojo’s enthusiasm for the cause can’t bring himself to do this, at which point he is mocked and given the nickname “Jojo Rabbit.”  Compounding his problems he ends up having an unlikely grenade accident, which he survives but is left with some scarring on his face and leg.  Because of that he’s stuck home most days and starts to hear noises from the second floor and discovers a hidden door and when he looks behind it he learns that his mother has been hiding a seventeen year old Jew named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in her attic, a discovery that will make him question his commitment the Nazi ethos.

Jojo Rabbit won the Audience Prize at the Toronto Film Festival this year and I suspect that it will be a pretty big hit with audiences generally; the one I saw it with certainly seemed to like it and gave it a big applause at the end.  I will say, I can sort of see why certain audiences would react that way.  Taika Waititi is a skilled director and does have a certain knack for juxtaposing slightly difficult coming of age stories with wacky humor as evidenced by his previous film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  I can also see why people would find the film to be pretty funny as there are certainly moments in it that are recognizably witty and Waititi’s performance in it as hallucination Hitler is certainly broadly memorable entry in the ranks of Hitler parodies (of which there are many) and the performances in general are pretty strong.  The audience I saw it with was laughing uproariously through much of the movie but while I could recognize some decent comic beats this movie did not really make me laugh all that much, which could mostly be a matter of taste or could be a function of me just not finding all of this as shocking or outlandish as some people may.  As I discussed in the opening paragraph there’s kind of a long history of movies making fun of the Nazis and on some level I’m kind of over it, or at least harder to impress with it.

That having been said, I am glad that Waititi did add that level of overt comedy to the film because without that this movie would really be a pretty insufferable.  I mentioned earlier that this was the winner of the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival, and that is an award that has something of a history of not aligning with my tastes as the last film to win it was last year’s inexplicable Oscar winning film Green Book.  I bring that up because this movie and Green Book have more in common than you might think from the advertising campaigns.  At its core this, like Green Book, is basically the story of a white (or in this case gentile) person slowly coming to decide the minority he’s forced to have dealings with isn’t so bad after all and how the power of friendship triumphs over hate or some shit.  This isn’t to say the two movies are identical.  For one thing this is about a child coming to this realization and not a grown-ass man and it’s a child who grew up in a somewhat extreme environment to boot.  But still, I must say I find something kind of trite about this whole message of intolerance being overcome through personal interactions and especially find it to be rather out of place here given that Nazi Germany certainly wasn’t a place that improved their race relations through gradual self-improvement and civility.  On the contrary, it took an overwhelming military defeat at the cost of millions of lives, a series of trials that ended in many of its leaders being executed, and a five year occupation in which all former Nazi organizations and symbols were illegalized, and decades of shame and a conspicuous demand for atonement from the rest of the world thereafter.

If Waititi really wanted to explore Nazism he probably would have been better served exploring what made Jojo (and by extension the rest of Germany) find that party appealing in the first place rather than how he came to dislike it all of a week before the allies were about to force the issue anyway.  The opening credits, set to a German cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” compares the rise of Hitler to Beatlemania, which is the kind of provocation and insight I would have liked from the rest of the film but it doesn’t fully explain why this kid (who would have only just been born around the time Triumph of the Will came out) would be such a fan.  He clearly didn’t get this from his parents, who clearly weren’t true believers in Aryan Ideology and presumably would have tried to instill in him some of those values even if they needed to be careful about preventing him from spilling the beans.  The imaginary Hitler friend also doesn’t provide much insight.  The character is presumably supposed to be a sort of devil on this kid’s shoulder and from time to time he sort of acts in this capacity but more often than not he’s just there to be a goofy onscreen presence rather than some hateful part of his psyche.  In many ways making the film about a child just seems like a bit of a copout, it doesn’t explain why a struggling country would have found comfort in authoritarianism and it makes anti-Semitism into an exaggerated joke about childish misconceptions of people with horns rather than the result of a paranoid conspiracy theory mixed with a strong desire to feel superior to others.

Despite the Audience Award win at Toronto the film’s response at that festival by critics was kind of polarized.  This didn’t get a whole lot of press, in part because the critics were even more polarized by Joker and the endless arguments about that movie have kind of overshadowed any other cinematic divisions.  But Joker is perhaps another interesting point of comparison because I think my view of Jojo Rabbit is not dissimilar from how a lot of that film’s detractors felt: namely that I think it has a premise that promises a strong insight into society that it never really delivers on and ends up feeling especially shallow as a result.  That might not be entirely fair: much as I basically view Joker as elevated genre fare rather than a work attempting true social insight, there will probably be a lot of people who view this as simply a smarter than average comedy which provides a better than average theatrical experience and that’s probably fair enough.  Additionally I could see myself having gone along with this a lot more if it had hit my funny bone more than it did, instead I found some of its quirks kind of annoying especially given the setting and how little insight I think it really has into it.

**1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 9/22/2019

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (9/8/2019)

I was hesitant about reviewing this as an official 2019 release as it was a movie which played in TIFF in 2018 to some good reviews but didn’t get picked up by a major distributor and to the best of my knowledge never played in any theaters before getting a fairly unceremonious VOD release.  Honestly I mainly watched it because I was about to cancel my Hulu membership and decided to quick watch some of the 2019 movies on there before I did.  The film is basically a single location Reservoir Dogs like thing but it’s set at a compound where militia types are held up and are panicking because there was a shooting at a police funeral and they believe they will be blamed for this.  On the positive side I think the movie looks really good and manages to do cinematography in low light darkness a whole lot better than any number of movies with much bigger budgets.  The movie also has an ending which is kind of interesting.  However, if you’re going to make a movie about straight-up domestic terrorists you’re going to have a bit of an uphill climb in trying to get any kind of sympathy or even investment in them from the audience.  The aforementioned Reservoir Dogs was also certainly about unsavory people, but those people had personality, these people just aren’t that memorable.  All in all, despite there being some talent behind this I can’t exactly say it was a grave injustice that this didn’t get picked up, it feels small but not in a charming way and there isn’t much of an audience for it.

**1/2 out of Five

The Great Hack (9/9/2019)

And in the “we need to immediately make a feature film out of every news story” department we get this film about the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  There isn’t really a whole lot to say about it aside from the fact that it’s a slick but not overly revelatory overview of the scandal.  We are given some behind the scenes access as the director follows a subject of the investigation named Brittany Kaiser as the scandal starts to become a big media story but her testimony in the film never quite amounts to a fully argued case and I’m not entirely sure how on the level she is.  Ultimately there’s not a lot here you couldn’t have gotten from simply following the media coverage at the time, which isn’t an automatic deal breaker, but I’m not sure it presents everything in an ideally clear way either.  It’s a movie that’s too muddled for people who don’t know much about this story to use as a starting point but not substantial enough to give people who were paying attention anything new.

**1/2 out of Five

Dogman (9/10/2019)

When Matteo Garrone made the 2008 film Gomorrah he was greeted as one of the premier directors of world cinema and while he’s made a number of well liked films in the years since then he’s never really had a breakout hit and I’m not sure that he’s quite lived up to his reputation.  Honestly I was never really sold on him in the first place.  Gomorrah, to me, was an interesting twist on the mafia crime film but it didn’t really work for me as a cinematic experience and I had similar problems with the execution on his follow-up film Reality.  His newest film, Dogman, has kind of the opposite problem in that it’s an easier watch than those two films were but its ambitions are lower and it generally feels less important an accomplishment as a result.  The film revolves around a meek dog groomer and his odd one-sided friendship with a local bully.  This bully is a gigantic person who’s big enough to basically get anything he wants by brute force and has basically no qualms or morality as a result.  He’s a truly awful person with no redeeming qualities whatsoever and yet this dog groomer seems to be willing to defend him.  That central friendship kept me interested but I ultimately felt a bit let down by the film’s ending which, rather than shed new light on why he would be friends with this guy, instead sort of just bluntly put an end to things.  I’m not really sure what the point of all this was supposed to be in the end and I don’t think the movie itself will prove all that memorable to me.

*** out of Five

The Edge of Democracy (9/21/2019)

Around the world and at home we’ve seen a disturbing rise in far right wing parties and politicians and last year we learned that even multi-racial societies like Brazil were not immune from this when they elected the horrendous Jair Bolsonaro to be their president.  I had expected this documentary to be about that guy’s rise but it’s actually more about the political scandal that sort of set the table for Bolsonaro’s rise, a scandal involving the left wing party that was in power for many years and was seemingly successful but who seem to have occasionally dipped into some of the country’s more corrupt practices in trying to get things done.  The documentary seems to suggest that the investigation into that corruption experienced some serious mission creep and really turned into a total witch hunt.  The film’s director, who also narrates the film, is open about her biases in all of this, which is admirable but also makes it a little hard to quite grasp how much to trust all of this.  The scandal at the center of the film is incredibly complex and the movie struggles to really present all of it while also giving needed context (the film was plainly made with a non-Brazilian audience in mind), and while I sense that what she’s saying is true the film also doesn’t feel like its showing all the facts, though to be fair I’m not sure a two hour film ever could provide all the facts.  In many ways I kind of wish the film had spent less time explaining the details of the scandal and more time explaining who the Brazilian voters are and how and why they responded to this so strongly.  It did definitely provide some strong food for thought though and I’m ultimately glad I watched it.

*** out of Five 

Missing Link (9/22/2019)

Laika has long been a studio more beloved by critics than by general audiences, and that’s only gotten more true as time goes on.  If the place weren’t being run by an heir to the Nike fortune it likely would have gone bust by now, but I’m certainly glad they persist.  That said, not all of their problems are simply the fault of a small-minded public and their latest film was probably their biggest boondoggle both critically and commercially.  Made for $100 million dollars (about $40 million more than their other films) and yet it barely made more than $15 million at the box office.  I’d like to say this failure was unearned, and to some extent it was because the movie’s certainly better than that, but it is certainly a movie that didn’t play into the studio’s strengths.  People like Laika because they make these quirky gothy stop-motion movies that are different from what the conventional animation studios do but with Missing Link they seem to be selling out a bit and taking on a more conventional family movie sense of humor and adventure and frankly I liked them better when they were being goths.  The film follows an arrogant 19th Century cryptobiologist who seeks out a Bigfoot in Washington and upon realizing that Bigfoot is a nice guy agrees to take him to the Himalayas to seek out the Yetis who are rumored to be there but are chased by some bad guys who have too much time on their hands.  It’s not without some charm and the stop motion effects are good, but that darkness you hope for from this studio isn’t really there and the story and characters just seem kind of stock.

*** out of Five