Home Video Round-Up 2/1/2021

Pieces of a Woman (1/22/2021)

Pieces of a Woman certainly starts promisingly.  If you’ve heard about the film at all you’ve probably heard about its bravura opening scene, a single extended shot in which the protagonist (played by Vanessa Kirby) goes into labor while her husband (played by Shia LaBeouf ) desperately tries to get the midwife over to them for their at-home birth.  That sequence really works and the film’s director Kornél Mundruczó brings a lot of the visual ingenuity he showed in his earlier Hungarian film White Dog to the scene, but unfortunately that proves to be a pretty high peak that the film, and particularly its screenplay never really lives up to.  Make no mistake, there are elements through the whole movie that are quite good.  Mundruczó continues to shoot the film with style and there are some strong performances by Kirby and other co-stars like Ellen Burstyn, but the film never quite gets a grip on what it’s supposed to say about grief and it really becomes increasingly melodramatic as it goes.  The film is never really sure whether it wants to be a generalized film about grief or if it wants to be some sort of weighing of how to place blame for bad situations.  It reaches something of a nadir late in the film with a truly groan-inducing courtroom scene that goes well beyond your typical Hollywood film into “it’s unorthodox but I’ll allow it” ridiculousness and really kind of negates a lot of what came before.  This is a frustrating movie, it has the look and feel of something great but its script just can’t sustain it.  It’s unfortunate.

**1/2 out of Five

76 Days (1/23/2021)

I’m not sure I have it in me to watch the wave of COVID-19 documentaries that will almost certainly emerge in the coming months and years.  This damn virus has consumed so much of my mind space for a whole year that I don’t think I have it in me to keep on exploring the depths of this crisis no matter how well made these accounts may be.  I’ve already pretty much decided to skip Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control, which I suspect is already an insta-dated artifact, but I was curious enough to watch the Chinese documentary 76 Days, which looked at the very beginning of the Wuhan lockdown.  Specifically the film embeds cameras in hospitals and watches doctors and nurses desperately attempt to heal people while being under heavy lockdown restrictions.  The whole thing has an aura of crisis and almost reminded me of the Syrian wartime hospital depicted in last year’s documentary The Cave.  That having been said there are limitations to this approach.  There are some consistent subjects through the film but it’s hard to really connect with them as a lot of them are covered head to toe in hazmat suits (as time goes on they start writing their names and even drawing on these suits to differentiate themselves).  But the bigger problem is that in many ways I feel like the more interesting story of what’s going on in Wuhan during this period is happening outside rather than inside the hospital as China took some pretty drastic measures to (successfully) bring virus levels down and I frankly think there was probably more to be learned from that than from the depressing chaos inside the hospital.  Still, there was definitely drama to be found here and there are some through lines to the film that come together pretty well by the end.

***1/2 out of Five

Mulan (1/24/2021)

I have mostly avoided the trend of Disney making live action remakes of their animated classics like Aladdin and The Lion King but I had held out hope that their Mulan remake might be an exception to that lackluster trend, firstly because the original Mulan is a far from perfect movie that had plenty of room for improvement and secondly because they seemed to be turning it into a large scale martial arts epic, which is something that appeals to me.  Then the movie’s release got delayed five months by the pandemic before being released to Disney+ through a downright offensive ripoff of a release strategy that would have required subscribers to pay $30 for the privilege of seeing the movie on a TV screen, something I had no intention of paying even if the movie was great and by all accounts it wasn’t.  So now four months after that the movie is now streaming for free with that service, but I must say that having seen it probably would have disappointed under pretty much any circumstance.

The most memorable part of the original Mulan was probably the music, which was earwormy even by Disney standards… and those are all gone here.  I get why, putting musical sequences into a live action wuxia movie based on martial conflict probably would have seemed odd and I probably would have made the same decision.  They also cut out mushu the dragon, a sidekick animal voiced by Eddie Murphy in the original, which again makes perfect sense as a cut.  The problem is that that original movie was kind of creaky to begin with and without these elements it feels increasingly empty.  That wouldn’t have been a problem had they done a bit more to adapt the film and make up for what they cut but they kind of don’t, aside from those omissions it’s actually a lot more true to the original than I expected at least on a structural and story level and still inherits a lot of its flaws.  There are other execution problems here; for one the film’s Mulan is uniquely unconvincing while masquerading as a man and the fellow soldiers look like blind idiots when they’re fooled by this charade.  Also as an action movie it’s… lacking, especially when compared to the actual martial arts epics coming out of China that it’s clearly trying to imitate.  The choreography here is pedestrian when compared to something like The House of Flying Daggers or Red Cliff and most of the side characters are pretty dull.  In fact that whole movie is pretty dull, it’s kind of every bit the soulless cash grab those other Disney remakes seem like.

** out of Five

Athlete A (1/28/2021)

Athlete A is a documentary about the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the world of U.S. gymnastics when it was discovered that the team doctor Larry Nassar had been molesting his patients for years.  The film takes a look at the scandal from start to finish and at the culture that allowed this to happen which seems to have started when some rather cruel Romanian coaching techniques were brought over to the United States, at which point the athletes started getting younger and were increasingly overworked.  I will say that this movie has a bit of a hurtle in that it’s coming out a bit too soon, not in the sense that it’s a sore wound but more because a lot about this scandal played out pretty publically not too long ago and that makes it so most audiences are going to be going into this with a pretty good idea where it’s going and how it ends.  Additionally, the film gives lip services to the idea that this scandal goes far beyond Nasser himself but in the end I kind of think the film falls into the same trap the media did in focusing on him rather than any kind of detailed dive into how he was enabled.  If you didn’t pay much attention at all to the scandal while it was going on this is a decent primer but I’m not sure it’s the definitive take on the subject it wants to be.

***1/2 out of Five

Kajillionaire (2/1/2021)

It’s been about fifteen years since I watched and didn’t particularly enjoy Miranda July’s first film Me, You, and Everyone We Know.  I wondered if her style would have grown on me a bit over the years and judging by her latest film Kajillionaire I think that’s a “no.”  This new film follows a weird family of con artists who live on societies fringes as extreme cheapskates.  The film looks at their daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, who has been turned into something of a stunted weirdo by this upbringing.  That would probably have a little more impact here if not for the fact that everyone and everything in this movie is kind of odd and quirky.  That was kind of the issue I had with the last Miranda July movie; she makes movies where no one speaks or acts like normal human beings and that’s not inherently a bad thing but any viewer’s mileage with that may vary depending on whether they share that same wavelength and in the case of July I don’t really think I do. I do like some of the performances here, particularly by Wood and by Gina Rodriguez and there are some bits here and there which I found amusing, but I found the movie itself to be pretty hard to engage with at all and barely feel like I have any real insights into it.

**1/2 out of Five


Promising Young Woman(2/6/2021)

Throughout the closure of theaters I’ve looked to a lot of different places to see the year’s movies: various streaming services, Netflix DVD delivery, cable broadcasts, various virtual cinema situations, etc.  But one thing I have managed to avoid up to this point was “premium” Video On Demand, which is to say studios putting movies direct to VOD at insanely inflated prices on the logic that it’s a new release.  I certainly never considered paying the $30 price tag that Disney was trying to get people to pay to see Mulan a couple of months before they started giving it away for free and I also refused to pay the “standard” $20 price tag that they’ve tried to affix to most Hollywood movies when they first emerge which strikes me as a rather obscene price to pay in order to virtually rent pretty much any movie under the sun.  For that same price I can buy most blu-rays on first release, it’s more than double the matinee price to see something in theaters (when they’re open) in my area and for that matter it’s about what you’d pay for an entire month of AMC’s Stubs A-List program, which allows you to see numerous movies a month.  Were this pricing to become “the norm” it would quickly become prohibitively expensive to see new releases and would likely dramatically affect the number of movies I watch in general.  It’s something I adamantly refuse to pay.  Except I finally did acquiesce to this highway robbery today in order to watch Emerald Fennell’s socially relevant thriller Promising Young Woman.  I didn’t pay the ransom out of a particular excitement to see the movie, in fact there are quite a few movies I was far more excited for which I saw essentially for free from Netflix, but rather because time was kind of running out to see the last of the year’s big releases and I also suspected this would have some plot twists I didn’t want spoiled.  But make no mistake I was not happy to be paying this and it kind of put a lot of pressure on the movie to deliver.

The film follows a thirty year old woman named Cassie Thomas (Carey Mulligan) who dropped out of med school after a friend of hers, now deceased, was sexually assaulted by a bunch of other students while drunk largely without consequences.  Now Thomas has opted to be something of a vigilante avenger by going to bars alone and pretending to be plastered to see which bro will try to take her home and take advantage of this perceived intoxication, at which point she reveals her sobriety and takes vengeance, sometimes violently sometimes not.  One day she encounters an old med school acquaintance named Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham) who casually mentions that the ringleader of that assault is still around and is getting married soon, which sparks an instinct in her to finally get the revenge she’d been yearning for not just against him but against a handful of other accomplices and enablers involved in that shattering event.

Promising Young Woman was written and directed by Emerald Fennell and is her first film in those roles after a not overly distinctive acting career.  Let’s start with that script which I found both clever and at times frustrating.  The basic premise is of course… provocative.  Going in I had kind of expected that the protagonist’s vigilantism would be a bit more murdery than it was, making the film something of a female equivalent to the 1974 film Death Wish, which is a movie I find somewhat repugnant.  The actual film is a bit less clear about the extent of her actions, the opening scene seems to pretty strongly imply she kills her victims but for much of the rest of the film she seems to stop short of killing when exacting her revenge.  That is probably preferable but there’s a degree of “have your cake and eat it too” to that solution.  Ultimately it’s a movie less interested in the morality of revenge and more interested in looking at what kind of society would lead someone to these extremes and in using her revenge quest to explore and tackle various aspects of rape culture.  That is a good idea in theory but I must say I felt like the movie was more than a little in on the nose in the way it connected this story to various debates that have been going on in the culture.  For example, one of the first men she tries to pull one of her stings on expresses an attitude that because he isn’t a jock-bro that automatically makes him better than the other dude’s she deals with… and in case you haven’t already gotten the picture he rather pointedly calls himself a “nice guy” out loud multiple times in this exchange just so you know this is the chapter of the movie that’s meant to be tied to the Jezebel articles you’ve read about “nice guy” sexism.

From there the revenge quest takes Thomas on something of a tour of cultural hot points: slut-shaming friends, self-serving college administrators, sleazy lawyers, callous bystanders, each one of them more or less acting as a textbook example of the issues the film is trying to highlight.  At times one wonders how they had the restraint not to bring up “mansplaining” while they were at it.  In many ways the film feels less like a story rooted in a revenge fantasy and more like the revenge fantasy itself… to the point where I wouldn’t have been surprised if at a certain point the main character “snapped out of it” and revealed much of the plot to be a violent day dream rather than something that was literally happening, or perhaps that a certain American Psycho style ambiguity about what is or isn’t really would have emerged.  In part that’s because I there are some pretty clear logistical questions left unanswered in the film (How does she pay for all of this?  Why don’t her victims try to call and warn some of the other people on the list? How was the thing that happens at the end coordinated?) and on that level the film sort of falls short if looked at as a procedural of sorts.

Despite having said all that, I actually still quite liked this movie, in part because I think it’s made with panache and also because I think its genre provocations make up for its lack of subtlety.  Emerald Fennell definitely shoots the film with a lot of confidence despite being a first time director and she assembles a pretty impressive ensemble for the film anchored by Carey Mulligan as the film’s star.  The film also has a pretty bold if slightly implausible ending which really ends the movie with something of a bang, which I appreciated.  The movie was certainly never boring and as annoyed as I was in the directness with which it addresses these issues, that might kind of be my own fault for reading as many damn think pieces as I do and to certain audiences that don’t spend their days reading about these debates on twitter this will all probably a bit more revelatory and thought provoking.  Even when it’s being on-the-nose it still clearly has quite the dark wit and the moments in it that work do tend to work very well.

***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 1/22/2021

Possessor (1/17/2021)

Children following their parents into directorial careers are rare and generally serve as a point of trivia more than anything.  It’s interesting that Jason Reitman is Ivan Reitman’s father but aside from the fact that they both sort of make comedies that’s not overly illuminating.  Similarly I’m sure there’s someone out there trying to find deep thematic links between the movies Sofia Coppola makes and the movies her father made, but that would probably take some digging.  What does not take digging is finding the link between the works of the great body horror auteur David Cronenberg and his son Brandon Cronenberg, because if his latest film Possessor is any indication Brandon is very much trying to pick up where his father left off with varying degrees of success.  Like a lot of the elder Cronenberg’s films this is a movie that feels like a horror movie despite not really being one.  It’s really more of a dystopian, slightly anime influenced, science fiction movie that just so happens to have moments of extreme violence that stand out quite a bit.  It follows an assassin who is using some sort of future technology to literally possess other people’s bodies and use those people to kill her targets.  I think that’s a cool concept for a movie and some of these kills are genuinely distressing in their over the top gore, but where the movie loses points from me is just in the base filmmaking.  I found the film’s cinematography to be bad in a cheaply digital and rather televisual way.  I also wasn’t too impressed with the cast and thought some moments could have been handled better.  Brandon could maybe stand to take a few more notes as to how to make his movies breathe a bit more and maybe just punch up the aesthetics, but the sensibility is certainly there if you’re into that kind of thing.

*** out of Five

A Thousand Cuts (1/18/2021)

Trump may finally be gone but the little Trumps around the world are still around.  One particularly Trumpian borderline dictator the world has to deal with is the Philippian president Rodrigo Duterte, whose rather disturbing administration is the subject of the documentary A Thousand Cuts.   Specifically the documentary focuses on Duterte’s aggressive war on the free press in that country and specifically on an online newsmagazine called Rappler and its founder Maria Ressa, who have been doing work to expose his record of extra-judicial killings in a wildly fascistic response to crime and drugs in the country.  The film mostly follows Ressa over the course of her ordeal as Duterte begins filing “cyber libel” charges against her.  The film doesn’t seem overly interested in the legal minutia of her situation and I might have liked a legal expert going into that a little more, it instead kind of takes it as a given that she’s innocent and that this is a silencing tactic (which I don’t doubt) but I might have liked a more substantive dive into that and I also might have liked a little more background into what the Filipino people see in Duterte and his violent war on drugs.  You can kind of intuit that by just viewing him as Trump on steroids but a little more about his rise might have helped.  Instead the movie is a bit more interested in watching Ressa as she responds to all of this.  She’s certainly a sympathetic figure, very much what western audiences would see as an ideal of the crusading journalist, but the film ends with her somewhat in limbo and her story incomplete.  The film is definitely a must-see if you want insights into what is happening in the Philippines and how it relates to the right-wing nationalist movement worldwide, but as a narrative documentary it has limits.

***1/2 out of Five

Let Them All Talk (1/20/2021)

One would think that a new movie from a major filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh would be a pretty big event but his latest film Let Them All Talk has stayed pretty far under the radar since debuting on HBO Max despite the presence of some pretty big high profile actors like Meryl Streep, Lucas Hedges, Candice Bergen, and Dianne Wiest.  Watching it it’s pretty apparent that this has been low profile because this is very much Soderbergh working in an experimental mode but doing it in a way that’s at least disguised with the veneer of being a “normie” movie about senior citizens going wild on a boat.  The film concerns an author played by Streep who takes an ocean cruise to England in order to accept an award and brings along her college friends, publishing contact, and her teenage/young adult nephew along with her and some tensions from their pasts arise.  The movie was filmed on an actual ship, during an actual cruise, which was populated with paying customers who were not aware that there was a Meryl Streep movie being made in their midst and while it doesn’t indulge in any candid camera shenanigans that is an interesting background and you get the impression that a lot of the scenes here are being at least partly improvised.  I tend not to be super patient with Soderbergh when he’s in understated experiment mode and that certainly went for this one as well.  These characters did not do much for me; Streep’s character has a certain New York society snobbery which did not make her overly endearing and I didn’t get much out of the various psychodrama’s she had with her friends and I found the Hedges character to be cringingly awkward and rather strange.  I can see a world where this experiment worked out better, and I’m sure there are audiences that would take to these characters more than I did, but for me this missed the mark.

** out of Five

Crazy, Not Insane (1/21/2021)

Crazy, Not Insane is one of three documentaries directed by Alex Gibney this year but probably the one least “ripped from the headlines” of all of them.  The film follows a psychiatrist named Dorothy Otnow Lewis, who has been at the forefront of studying the minds of the criminally insane including serial killers, and has over the course of her career interviewed several high profile murderers including Ted Bundy.  So this slots in pretty well with the recent trend of people being interested in true crime, but the focus here is less on the lurid details of crime than it is on Lewis’ psychological theories which involves a theory that the vast majority of killers (including Bundy) were created through abuse and that more people than they think have a sort of multiple personality disorder.  The base subject matter here, the entirety of forensic psychology, is a pretty broad subject and one that probably isn’t going to be covered in 117 minutes.  The film tries to use Lewis’ career as a structural tool but I’m still not quite sure it was able to really tie everything together.  The film was made for HBO, which seems like a pretty logical destination for it, I’m not sure I can envision this having made sense as a theatrical documentary, it’s too malformed but if you’re into this “real life serial killer” topic this may well be of interest.

**1/2 out of Five

Wendy (1/22/2021)

In 2012 Benh Zeitlin came pretty much out of nowhere and earned a (somewhat controversial) Oscar nomination for his debut film Beasts of the Southern Wild and then kind of disappeared for eight years.  But in early 2020 he came back with his sophomore effort Wendy, which was met with mixed at best reviews from critics before having its released completely overshadowed by the looming virus and eventually limping out of sight.  That’s a bit of a shame because while I’m not the biggest fan of the film either I do think it was somewhat denied its day in court.  I must say that the movie had quite the steep hill to climb in order to impress me given that it’s a reworking of the story of “Peter Pan,” which is a bad story that has produced pretty much nothing but garbage from anyone who touches it but this fairly radical re-working is at least interesting.  Here it’s moved from Edwardian England to the American South and Never Never Land (which isn’t called that here) is made to be a sort of isolated bayou area that an Afro-Caribbean Peter Pan transports a trailer-trash Wendy and her brothers to but once they get there things stagnate for a while.  I must say that for a while there it reminded me a bit of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, a movie that was pretty visually striking but which I found to be something of an endurance test because it was far too interested in just tossing the audience into the fantasy mind of an eight year old and hoping they want to indulge him in his ever goofy fantasy.  Similarly here we do get a lot of the lyrical camerawork and musical flights of fancy that made Beasts of the Southern Wild an interesting experience but it lacks an adult character for long stretches to ground some of the more “childhood fantasy” style elements.  I might go so far as to suggest that Zeitlin had taken this style about as far as it needed to go with his debut film and that he maybe should have tried something different with his follow-up rather than trying to push things even further.  Still, the movie has perhaps stuck with me a bit more than I expected since watching it and I do think of it as a generally noble effort that deserved a bit more leeway than it got.

**1/2 out of Five


[Editor’s note: this review was written in mid-December but held back until the film was released to the wider public]

It’s been a long and winding year since premiered to much praise at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was picked up by A24, a studio that was kicking ass and taking names the last few years but hasn’t quite known what to do over the course of the pandemic.  They’ve been holding most of their movies until later when they can really do theatrical runs, which is probably my preferred move but it’s painful nonetheless.  In fact I’m still not sure if Minari is on track for a clear release plan, I watched it through a one-week only virtual cinema thing, but you can clearly envision a world where there wasn’t a pandemic and this would have been perfect arthouse counter-programing in the middle of a summer filled with bigger movies like Wonder Woman 1984 and Soul… though I suppose we’re about to be getting them soon as well so maybe destiny was fulfilled just the same.

The film is set in the 1980s and follows a family of Korean immigrants who had moved from the peninsula to California and then to (of all places) Arkansas where the family patriarch Jacob (Steven Yuen) has a dream of starting a farm for Korean produce that he can sell to ethnic markets.  His wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) is skeptical about this plan and isn’t thrilled to be living in a manufactured home but has gone along with his dream just the same and while it’s getting off the ground they need to hold down a day job at a chicken plant.  They also decide to bring in Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to help around the house with raising the children, David (Alan Kim) and Anne (Noel Kate Cho) as they adjust to their new surroundings.  A local man named Paul (Will Patton) helps with the agriculture and they have some luck, but there are great challenges.  Getting fresh water to grow the crops becomes a challenge and the financial troubles test Jacob and Monica’s marriage and all the while and David has a heart murmur that becomes a topic of much anxiety for the entire family.

Minari was directed by a guy named Lee Isaac Chung, who has actually made three scripted features previously but I don’t know that any of them really had much of a life outside the festival circuit.  I haven’t seen those earlier films but two of them seem like kind of standard American indies and the other seems to be tied into humanitarian work he’s done in Uganda.  With this latest film he appears to be taking a more personal approach to the point of making a film that is openly autobiographical.  The names here are changed but Chung did in fact grow up in an Arkansas farm and even if you don’t know that autobiographical fact it’s not hard to intuit that the film, while also showing things not directly witnessed by him, is essentially being told from the perspective of the little boy in this house and is ultimately about his early life.  His telling of the story seems rather clear-headed, he does have a certain nostalgia for this town and land and has a certain pride and affection for his parents’ desire to make a good life for themselves in a new country but he’s also more than willing to show their flaws; how his fathers’ dreams of success could make him a rather cold parent and husband at times and the mother isn’t always the strongest advocate for herself or for the kids.

That it is so clearly rooted in Chung’s own memories does have a couple of drawbacks, namely that it kind of gives short shrift to his older sister’s story, which I would have liked to see a bit more of given that she probably had a clearer perspective on these events, but having that personal touch probably adds more than it subtracts.  The film is primarily in the Korean language (if I were to hazard a guess I’d say its maybe 20% in English), but make no mistake this is an intensely American story.  Movies about the immigrant experience are perhaps inherently going to have a bit of extra power and weight when they’re made in the era of Trump even as that winds down here in late 2020 given his attacks on that American institution.  Minari doesn’t exactly break the mold in how these stories are told, in fact this could be read as a pretty traditional take on the pursuit of the “American dream” in many ways but that vague familiarity in many ways grounds it within that tradition.  In many ways it’s an interesting movie to watch in relation to this year’s other big Sundance movie The Nest, which also deals with a man who’s maybe in a bit over his head convincing his family to make a move they maybe aren’t comfortable with, but this tells a version of that story that a bit less operatic and a bit more optimistic in the end.  It’s keenly observed and thoughtful cinema constructed well and what it lacks in novelty it makes up for with truthfulness.

**** out of Four

Home Video Round-Up 1/14/2021

The Midnight Sky (1/10/2021)

The Midnight Sky would be this year’s biting-off-more-than-it-can-chew science fiction movie and this one was directed by and stars George Clooney, who has at this point made more bad movies than good movies when behind the camera.  As a filmmaker Clooney has never been technically incapable but has generally been one of the blandest voices this side of Ron Howard and on a science fiction film like this that is especially problematic.  The film’s story is essentially split into two with half of the film following Clooney’s character, who is stationed on an arctic research base in a future where an indistinct catastrophe has set earth careening towards apocalypse.  He finds himself needing to travel to another base with a stronger antenna so that he can communicate with a space ship in orbit to warn them about the crisis and needs to bring along a mute orphan child with him.  From there we also cut to that spaceship and get a view of how they are dealing with things.  Neither half of the film really impressed me too much; the space stuff was not overly creative and is plainly done less well than other recent space movies like Sunshine, Interstellar, and Ad Astra and the stuff with the grizzled George Clooney escorting a kid through the apocalypse essentially boils down to yet another variation on the template set out by Children of Men, The Road, Logan, and “The Last of Us.”  That lack of originality wouldn’t be the biggest deal if it was done with style but it’s not, frankly it was kind of boring.

** out of Five

John Lewis: Good Trouble (1/11/2021)

John Lewis: Good Trouble is pretty much the documentary you expect it to be.  It looks at the career to the recently deceased congressman from his time at SNCC and participation in the Selma march up through his election to congress while intercutting this with footage of Lewis’ day to day life now that he’s a house representative and living civil rights icon.  I think this can rightly be called a hagiography, and granted, if anyone deserves a hagiography it’s probably John Lewis but that doesn’t always make for the most interesting or dramatic movie.  Occasionally the film will bring up something that seems nuanced or questionable, like what sounds like a somewhat dirty campaign he ran against former civil rights colleague Julian Bond for his congressional seat, but then the movie will just kind of move on from that without really digging in.  The material that was shot in modern day, presumably not knowing that they were capturing some of Lewis’ final days, are not completely without interest but you are clearly seeing an image that the politician is projecting to the public rather than candid moments and the material looking back at his time in SNCC is interesting but if you want to know about the Selma march you’re probably better off just watching Ava DuVernay’s film about the event.  I’ve long grown a bit tired of “profile documentaries” like this but I also don’t exactly think that watching this was a waste of anything, being in this guy’s presence is mostly a good thing.

**1/2 out of Five

Blow the Man Down (1/12/2021)

Blow the Man Down was a somewhat under the radar film from earlier this year and I think was one of the movies that suffered from not having some sort of platformed theatrical release to build its buzz.  The film is set in modern day but in a remote Maine fishing town, the film bears a strong resemblance to the 2010 film Winter’s Bone in that it has a teenage girl forced to fend somewhat for herself and finding herself delving into a criminal underbelly of the town she’s grown up in.  That resemblance to Winter’s Bone is a hindrance as it kind of needs to live in that other movie’s shadow through its general derivativeness but the New England rather than Missouri location does give it some flavor of its own.  It is surmised in the film that crime in this town is in many ways run by women since most of the men are out at sea much of the year and particular there’s a focus on a crime ring being run by certain generation of older women played by the likes of Margo Martindale and June Squibb.  Additionally the town just looks cool and nautical and the film’s soundtrack is periodically extenuated by fishermen singing sea shanties (did this movie somehow start that trend?) which act almost as a sort of Greek chorus for all the craziness here.  Going back to the Winter’s Bone comparison, I’d say the other big difference is that the protagonists here aren’t quite as blameless for their situation as Jennifer Lawrence’s character was in that film and there’s a certain degree of Blood Simple/Shallow Grave to the whole thing.  I’ve compared this to Winter’s Bone over and over, but truth be told I was never exactly that movie’s biggest fan to begin with (I maybe need to give it a revisit) and not taking originality into account I might prefer this one, but again, it’s hard to go too crazy for something that feels like a bit of a copy like this.

***1/2 out of Five

MLK/FBI (1/13/2021)

MLK/FBI is a fittingly to-the-point title for this documentary about the FBI’s surveillance effort against Martin Luther King throughout the 1950s and 1960s.  This is a topic I’ve personally been thinking about a lot lately because, in and of itself I think there is a certain argument to be made that the FBI is justified in trying to surveil certain political movements: frankly some better surveillance might have prevented the damn mess at the capitol a few weeks ago and they’re probably going to need to be doing more surveillance on groups like that rather than less and while it may seem like heresy to defend the same kind of surveillance being used against a group like King’s SCLC that’s maybe something that’s easier to say in hindsight than it was at the time.  Where the FBI stopped being remotely defendable in this affair was when they plainly started taking sides (and the wrong side at that) and began trying to put their fingers on the scales through intimidation, harassment and blackmail, which is what the film lays out in pretty good detail.  Part of this is the uncomfortable task of acknowledging that one of the main tools FBI used to harass King was to uncover evidence of his having been unfaithful to his wife and to use this against him.  The film does a great job of walking the tightrope between acknowledging this and its ramifications while not needlessly wading too far into sensationalistic waters and letting the FBI’s sins live forward.

The film was directed by Sam Pollard, who was one of the co-directors of the famous “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series and that probably gives you something of an idea of his filmmaking sensibilities: a sort of no-nonsense straightforward account of history.  It’s primarily told thorough contemporary interviews with historians as well as some of King’s confidants as well as some former FBI agents, including James Comey.  These interviews are audio-only rather than talking heads for much of the film and the visual component is largely stock footage from the time both of the Civil Rights Movement and from the FBI’s various propaganda efforts.  That cool headed and detailed approach might seem a bit dry for some sensibilities but after watching some fairly overdone docs recently like John Lewis: Good Trouble and All In: The Fight for Democracy I found this more striped down almost PBS style approach to the documentary rather refreshing.  That’s not to say that there aren’t some very smart choices being made here presentationaly, the idea of waiting until late in the movie to put faces to the various voices you’ve been hearing was smart and gave the film’s ending a bit more punch.  There are a lot of docs about black history out this year and I’d say this one more than any others is a must see.

**** out of Five

Saint Frances (1/14/2021)

For much of the year I’ve been getting the movies Saint Frances and Saint Maude mixed up and in many ways I actually added this to my Netflix queue mainly so I could finally keep the two straight.  To clarify: Saint Maude is a horror movie and it looks like it’s release date has been pushed to 2021 in this country, while this movie is more of a mumblecore-esque movie about a woman in her early thirties coming to terms with her modest accomplishments while working as a nanny after having an abortion.  The film was written by and stars Kelly O’Sullivan, an actress I was not overly familiar with prior to this film and while I don’t get the impression that the film is autobiographical it does seems to be rooted in some personal anxieties.  This is decidedly a movie that’s “not for everyone” and your mileage with it will largely depend on one’s interest in movies about the experience of aimless young people, though the film’s central character is thirty four, so she’s not that young and much of her anxiety is rooted in the fact that she feels she’s getting too old to be so aimless.  The “Frances” in the title is the child that out protagonist is nanny-ing and she seems to be a little over-perceptive for her age from time to time, which is the film’s primary concession to “quirk” but it’s otherwise more of a grounded Frances Ha sort of thing.  Wasn’t really a movie for me though I can see some skill in how it was put together and I wouldn’t say I was ever bored while watching it.

*** out of Five


I’m a more than a bit of a tightwad and one of the ways that this manifests is that instead of staying subscribed to all the streaming services that I want I instead swap a lot of them out at various points.  I stay subscribed to Netflix, Hulu, and now HBO Max pretty consistently but with the second tier services like Amazon Prime, CBS All Access, Apple+, and Shudder I’ve instead opted for a cheapskate approach where I’ll subscribe to each occasionally for one month and just binge up everything they’ve released over the course of a year and then cancel before the next month’s bill is due.  One of the services I’ve been doing this for is Disney+, which is all a long way of explaining that I was not in a position to watch when the Mouse House decided to send their latest Pixar film Soul straight to their steaming service almost a month ago and instead used Wonder Woman 1984 as my Christmas Day streaming premiere viewing of choice.  I was in the middle of a month’s long Amazon subscription period when that premiered (as you may have been able to intuit from some of my reviews from the time) but I’m in a Disney phase now, and given all the stuff they announced at their latest investor call I have some reason to think I’ll be sticking with that for longer than a month this time and of course one of the first things on my “to watch” list upon re-subscribing was of course that promising new Pixar film which has indeed proven to be one of that studio’s best efforts in a long time.

The film follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a New York pianist who is currently working as a middle school band teacher but still dreams of having a career as a jazz performer and has long tried to “gig” without ever really breaking through much to the frustration of his mother (Phylicia Rashad), who wants to encourage him to just settle down and work as a full time teacher.  One day a former student named Lamont (Questlove) calls him and offers him the chance to audition to play in the band of a famous saxophonist named Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), that audition goes alright and he’s told to come back that night and perform with the band in front of an audience.  He’s so excited by this that he dashes recklessly through the street and falls down a manhole… seemingly killing him.  He then “wakes up” as a disembodied soul going up a sort of stairway towards a shining light, but, having no interest whatsoever in going to “the great beyond” without having his shot to prove himself as a jazz great he jumps off the stairway and into an adventure that will have him going throughout the afterlife and beyond.

The afterlife has been depicted several times throughout film history, usually in comedies like Defending Your Life and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey but sometimes also in more serious works like What Dreams May Come, Jacob’s Ladder, and A Matter of Life and Death, and despite being a staunch atheist who does not even believe in the concept of the afterlife and the soul I am kind of a sucker for people using the limitations of a medium like film to represent what are in fact incredibly abstract concepts like heaven, hell, and purgatory.  Animation, and especially computer animation would seem to be a rather ideal medium to tackle that in and in that and Pixar has actually tackled the afterlife (and the afterlife of musicians at that) previously in their 2017 film Coco, which used the Day of the Dead holiday as a take on the afterlife.  That was a movie that never quite lived up to its potential for me for reasons I’ve never quite been able to place my finger on.  That is ultimately a pretty different movie though, one that’s more about coming to term with the deaths of loved ones than with facing one’s own mortality, what’s more the city of the dead in that felt less like an analogue for heaven and more like a sort of alternate dimension where everyone’s a skeleton.

The afterlife depicted in Soul is a much more sterile and orderly one than the one in Coco.  It’s probably more rooted in Christianity than in say, Hinduism, but it doesn’t refer to itself as “heaven” and generally tries to remain somewhat ecumenical if not secular.  We get a “stairway to heaven” but an automated one very much of the computer age and the overseers of this afterlife are not angels so much as these rather ethereal and detached bureaucrats who seem to exist on a 2D plain in a 3D world while the deceased and the yet to be born are these disembodied blue souls.  The film presents a view of a rather ordered if imperfect universe where souls move into and out of the world almost on an assembly line complete with an auditing process and a training process, but this isn’t necessarily some sort of statement about industrialization so much as it’s establishing conceptual framework to understand this world.  Meanwhile a lot of the animation used for the earthly scenes in New York are themselves quite impressive in their realism and you can tell they spent a lot of time in Gotham trying to get every detail of how that city feels, albeit done in something of a sanitized PG way.  The characters here are caricatured, but not wildly, it’s generally trying to depict more of a realistic world than something like Up but does not go into uncanny valley motion-capture type territory.

As the film goes it does find ways to return to Earth, at which point it starts to fit a bit into the mold of those 1940s “afterlife comedies” like A Guy Named Joe and Here Comes Mr. Jordan.  The film is perhaps notable among Pixar films in that it focuses on an adult human rather than a child or some sort of anthropomorphized animal or object.  In fact its protagonist might be a touch old for what they’re doing as Joe Gardner reads as a man in his forties despite being somewhat oblivious about his personality and goals.  I have a hunch that in earlier versions of the screenplay he was younger but at some point it was decided that the idea of a film opening with the seeming death of a man in his twenties was a little too depressing to get past.  As his soul goes through the afterlife and begins finding his way back to Earth the film actually indulges in quite a bit of comedy, both through some slapstick body-swapping antics and through some light prodding at New York culture.   There’s a certain Ratatouille-like cartoon logic at play in the way Gardner interacts with a certain feline sidekick during these sequences which takes a certain leap of logic to accept but I enjoyed it and found the adventure elements here to be much more original and enjoyable than in other Pixar movies like Inside Out which take on formats like that almost as an excuse to drag things out as the characters develop.

I’ve gone on quite a journey with Pixar over the years and I’ve rarely been in lock step with critical consensus about them.  In the early days when they were first becoming critical darlings I wasn’t even bothering to watch them and when I did catch up with them I never really felt like they lived up to the hype.  But then when the studio stopped being such a cause célèbre and began harming their legacy with questionable sequels and the like I oddly found myself becoming something of a defender of the studio and suggested that some of their films like Finding Dory, Toy Story 4, and Onward were being unfairly undervalued or taken for granted by critics who perhaps thought the bar set by their older films was higher than it really was, and frustratingly enough I also was never quite as into some of the supposed highlights of this period like Inside Out and Coco.  With Soul though I think we might finally have a movie that everyone can agree on.  It’s hardly a flawless movie, I think the ending is a bit of a copout and at the end of the day I’m not sure it really has anything terribly original to say about death or about following your dreams, but the movie does do a whole lot right.  I haven’t even had a chance to get into its canny roster of voice talent or the film’s amazing score by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste.  To me this is plainly Pixar’s best work since their 2008 film Wall-E, which has been consistently held up as the studio at its height, so it’s basically a movie that more than achieves what can reasonably be expected of it.

****1/2 out of Five