Home Video Round-Up 3/9/2021

Freaky (2/16/2021)

Freaky is a Blumhouse produced horror comedy from a director named Christopher Landon, who is probably best known for the Happy Death Day movies, which applied the Groundhog Day time loop formula to the slasher movie and with his follow-up he’s kind of trying to do the same thing with the Body Swap comedy (Get it? Freaky as in Freaky Friday).  Here you have a Jason/Leatherface-esque slasher villain played by Vince Vaughn who (through running into a magical knife) ends up swapping bodies with one of his would be victims played by Kathryn Newton, so you have a teenage girl inhabiting the body of bulky 6’ 5” Vince Vaughn while the killer takes over the body of the Newton character and starts going on a killing spree while no one suspects her.  As tends to be the case with movies using this high concept you get quite the actor’s showcase with Vaughn talking like a valley girl pretty believably, but Newton has a bit more of a challenge on her hands.  I don’t think the film did a whole lot to really make this killer interesting from the beginning and watching this teenage girl try to act like Jason and it quickly becomes apparent that these characters are only really interesting because of their imposing size and looks.  Landon might have been better served by making his killer a wisecracking villain like Freddy Krueger than Jason so that the other side of the body swap had a bit more to work with.  On the bright side, with this movie Landon had a greenlight to delve into R-rated violence he wasn’t able to use in the Happy Death Day movies and while there’s nothing unprecedentedly gory here there is definitely some solid bloodletting that genre fans will enjoy and the film employs some decent Scream-like genre riffs, so I think the film will mostly leave most people interested in the high concept reasonably satisfied.

***1/2 out of Five 

The Mole Agent (2/26/2021)

Like scripted features, documentaries can have a pretty wide variety of different aims and approaches and The Mole Agent is a decent example of this.  Those looking for a documentary with more of a journalistic approach will likely be a bit weirded out by it as, even though it sort of presents itself as an investigation, it’s a bit more staged than something you’d see in a more traditional documentary.  The film follows a private investigator tasked with looking into a Chilean nursing home where there have been some allegations of neglect and abuse, and to investigate they employ a senior citizen to be their “man on the inside.”  That’s an interesting idea for an investigative piece, but they also convince the home to let their camera crew in, ostensibly to document this one new patient’s integration into the home.  That would seem to be something that would kind of undo the investigative aim as the home would almost immediately be on their best behavior knowing there’s a camera crew around, and sure enough the film kind of gives up on really probing the home once the guy is in there to be more of a rumination on aging and the way this guy gets along with his fellow residents.  I must say as someone who was looking forward to an exposé that was a bit of a letdown, but I did like the setup, where they kind of go out of their way to make this seem like a “man on a mission” doc complete with a private eye office with Venetian blinds.  Good watch if you’re into the True/False type documentary scene, but not really my jam.

*** out of Five

Martin Eden (3/4/2021)

Martin Eden is an adaptation of the 1909 Jack London novel of the same name but with the action transposed from California to Italy by Italian filmmaker Pietro Marcello, who didn’t have much of an international profile before this film but who will likely be watched a bit more closely going forward.  The film focuses on a proletariat guy looking to rise above his station to marry a rich girl and he sort of drifts through the various labor uprising and class wars of his time writing short stories and books and getting into debates.  I certainly liked a lot about how the film is made; it has this really cool looking retro look that makes it feel like a European film of the late 60s or early 70s and I also quite liked Luca Marinelli’s performance in the title role and a lot about the general vibe of the film.  However, I don’t think the romance that sets off the plot is very well established and I also found its dive into class politics to be a bit… on the nose.  Eden often seems less like a character and more like a mouthpiece for various philosophies about capitalism and socialism (both of which he rejects to some degree or another) which feel like they would be more interesting in a novel where they could be expanded on in meaningful ways instead of just brought up as some cursory notion of individualism that never really adds up.  At times it felt like this kind of gave off the vibe of being a better movie than it actually was but I must say I was still kind of taken by it just the same.

***1/2 out of Five

The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo (3/6/2021)

This documentary that’s been on Netflix for a while is kind of a blend of True Crime reporting and social activist documentary as it follows the case of Marisela Escobedo, the mother of a woman who was killed in an act of domestic violence by a man who appears to have had ties to a cartel.  The evidence was clear, the dude confessed (and in doing so directed the police to the victim’s body), and even basically confessed again at the trial but was inexplicably acquitted, a ruling which was eventually overturned on appeal but not until after he’d fled and became a fugitive.  All through this Escobedo is relentlessly protesting and demanding accountability and doing everything in her power to make sure that her daughter eventually gets justice but, well, one of the deaths in the title is literal.  In general the whole story kind of makes the Mexican legal system look pretty bad and corrupt, though I don’t know that any system should be judged by its greatest failures.  Beyond that I’m not sure there’s a specific “point” to all of this beyond telling an elaborate story that was apparently a pretty big news story south of the border and to draw some inspiration from Escobedo’s persistence but it all sure seems kind of hopeless in the end.  The documentary itself is slick and professionally made and has most of the interview subjects you’d expect but I’m not sure it ever quite sets itself apart as something particularly special.

*** out of Five

Another Round (3/8/2021)

Another Round is a movie I’ve been kind of avoiding all year, in part because I’m kind of unfamiliar with its director’s work (largely because his most famous film and logical starting point The Celebration is difficult to obtain) and I feel somewhat unqualified to jump in on his latest without the background considering he’s been a pretty big fixture in Danish cinema for a while.  The film is something of a comedy, albeit a rather dry one about a group of high school teachers who become inspired by a paper they read which suggests that people are more functional when they have a raised blood alcohol content and decided to engage in a not terribly scientific experiment where they drink enough to be just below the legal limit at all times.  The movie seems to be trying to be something of an exploration of alcohol consumption without being about actual alcoholism, though it does look at the ways people can use intellectual ideas to justify irresponsible behavior but the movie never quite comes to any clear cut easy answers on the topic of drunkenness.  Thing is, I’m basically a teetotaler and there’s a lot about this movie that I don’t really relate to and I think there’s a lot of subtleties to these characters’ drunkenness that I’m not really picking up on.  I can appreciate the performances and see some of the points the movie’s trying to make about middle aged ennui, but I didn’t find it particularly “funny” and I don’t think this was ever really going to be something that was for me.

*** out of Five


Home Video Round-Up 2/14/2021

A Sun (2/3/2021)

A Sun is a Taiwanese drama that had something of a strange journey to semi-prominence.  The film had won some plaudits in Asia but in this country was sitting around in plain sight on Netflix for months without critics really bringing it up.  Netflix (who likely obtained the film with their foreign markets in mind) hadn’t publicized it and there wasn’t really a release date for critics to write for.  Then late in the year Peter Debruge at Variety (a publication that reviews everything) put it at the top of his year-end list, at which point other critics took notice and started catching up with it.  It’s kind of an off-putting release story, one that exposes the dangers of how things can fall through the cracks when uncaring streaming services view things mainly as “content” rather than prospects to be nurtured.  Regardless, this is definitely a movie worth watching.  It’s a bit like other Taiwanese classics like Edward Yang’s Yi Yi or Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Time to Live and the Time to Die in that it’s this sprawling drama about a family but it’s also probably a more accessible watch than both of those movies.  It opens with a scene of two teenagers rushing another teenager in a restaurant and cutting off his hand with a machete.  We then spend the rest of the film examining one of those attackers (the accomplice, not the hand cutter) and the effect that his arrest has on the rest of his family.  I was not familiar with director and co-writer Chung Mong-hong before watching this and suspect he may be someone I’ll need to catch up with because he shows obvious skill here.  There are a couple of visual choices here and there I might quibble with and the film could maybe stand to signpost some of the passage of time a little more clearly, but for the most part the visuals are solid and I certainly found myself interested in this family and its fate.

**** out of Five

The Social Dilemma (2/4/2021)

The Social Dilemma is a documentary about the ill-affects of social media on society and it’s a movie where, while watching it quickly occurred to me that it was probably a movie made for a slightly different audience than the one I belonged to.  This seems to be very much made for people who don’t spend inordinate amounts of time reading Wired articles and don’t know the name “Kara Swisher” and might find the notion that facebook is tracking your activity to be something of a revelation.  Personally, I didn’t get much out of this which I didn’t already know and I must say I found its presentation rather obnoxious.  The film is beyond over-produced and uses far too many visual tricks including these hokey filmed sequences where a fictional family starts to get torn apart by phone addiction and alt-right propaganda.  It feels less like a feature film and more like a sort of PSA video that you would show to classes or families on retreats or something.  Specifically I think it’s intended for teenagers as a sort of primer on the consequences of getting too attached to smartphones but as an adult with some education on these topics I didn’t have much use for it at all.

** out of Five

The Climb (2/5/2021)

The Climb is an indie comedy which harkens back to something of an earlier era of “Sundance success” stories where an unknown person kind of comes out of nowhere and writes, directs, and stars in a dialogue driven comedy that ends up hitting above its weight class… except the market is so saturated now that very few movies can really get that much attention and really build into a mainstream success anymore.  Anyway, this movie looks at a fraught friendship between a couple of guys over the course of several years where they end up fighting over a couple of women they get into love triangles with.  You kind of feel like you’ve got the movie pegged because of its visual style but it ends up throwing some real narrative curveballs, in part because it’s set over the course of years instead of days.  On a narrative level it’s almost like they took the entire run of a sitcom and cut all the day to day jokes and will-they/won’t-they delaying and just went straight through the plot points of one of those series all in one 95 minute film.  That’s interesting and there are a handful of scenes here that I quite admired, but I don’t think I ever quite came to care about many of these characters more deeply and I also never quite found the movie to be laugh out loud hilarious either.

*** out of Five

Notturno (2/12/2021)

Without fail I pretty much always find myself watching at least one depressing documentary about conflict in the Middle East and this year it would seem that the film Notturno would slot into that role.  This was made by the Italian filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi, who made the acclaimed film Fire at Sea (which is one of my few major blind spots in the field of contemporary documentaries) and seems to specialize in making films where he sort of embeds himself into locations of world strife to see what he can assemble.  This film fits that mold but seems to be taking a much broader subject with less of a clear focus.  The film is described as being “shot over the course of three years in Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan, and Lebanon” and depicts several different people in several different situations.  These vignettes are linked thematically by the fact that they they’re all about people kind of recovering from the various conflicts that were going on in these places, but that’s a pretty broad theme to build a documentary like this around if you ask me and I never quite saw all the connective tissue that the director was apparently intending.  Beyond that a lot of these segments are not terribly eventful and are meant more to be these sort of Fred Wiseman-ish observations of people in action, which is nice if that’s what you’re into but I kind of wanted a bit more meat on the bones.  Maybe I’m missing something but this just didn’t really work for me.

**1/2 out of Four

Miss Juneteenth (2/14/2021)

Miss Juneteenth is an odd movie in that I basically like it and yet it left very little impression on me and left me with very little to say about it.  The film debuted at Sundance, which makes sense to me because this definitely feels like the small town set regional character piece that tends to thrive at that festival.  The film is set in Fort Worth Texas and follows an African American woman played by Nicole Beharie who had once thrived in the Miss Juneteenth beauty pageant and is now kind of pressuring her daughter to participate in that same pageant despite her not really being that into it.  Like a lot of these Sundance movies the film at times feels more like a sort of excuse to portray a certain location and community and it does that well, giving you an interesting peek into the this neighborhood, but the actual family story kind of never really got going for me.  The characters here are mostly interesting and you can see some of the conflicts there but they were never really as fascinating as the environment for me and that’s a problem.

**1/2 out of Five

News of the World(2/15/2021)

If ever there was a year we needed Tom Hanks it was probably this one.  Hanks is about the closest things to a unifying force we have left: there’s no wild gossip about him, he always seems like a class act in interviews, and almost all of the films he appears in are consistently dignified and while he is willing to take roles that are flawed or darker than his public persona his onscreen presence is almost always that of a someone you just can’t help but like.  But 2020 has been kind of a weird year for him: right as it was dawning on the public that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to affect the world it was announced that he and his wife had contracted the virus, thus making them among the first celebrities to be affected by it.  But he recovered from that and while I don’t know about anyone else I certainly watched some of his older films that year and found him to be as soothing a presence as anyone.  Oddly enough this unifyingly beloved actor then became the center of some truly insane QAnon rumors, which kind of underscore just how delusional those people are. Anyway, the actual new movies he was in this year oddly also seem appropriate given how we were all looking to him to be something of a model American: he played a World War II soldier (well, ship captain) in the movie Greyhound and in his latest film News of the World he plays a cowboy of sorts, or at least an inhabitant roaming the old west, and in both of those roles he kind of modifies those archetypes into a more thoughtful and modern version of what both of those character types can be.

News of the World is set in Reconstruction-era Texas and focuses on a man named Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks), a former confederate soldier who is now employed as something of a traveling bard who carries around newspapers from around the country and reads them to paying illiterate audiences town to town.  At one point during his travels he comes across a crime scene where a black soldier has been lynched by a local mob and left behind is a kid he was escorting, a white girl of about 10 or twelve who goes by Cicada (Helena Zengel).  Cicada was the daughter of German immigrants (originally named Johanna Leonberger) who tried to settle in Kiowa and were killed during one of the conflicts between the settlers and the Kiowa, who then took the child in and raised her under their traditions, but then the Kiowa were also killed by the military so by the time Kidd finds her she’s been orphaned twice over and is stuck between worlds.  The nearby troops basically take a “you found it you deal with it” attitude to Kidd’s situation and basically leaves him to escort this kid to an Indian Agent in a nearby town, but the travels that ensue prove to be fairly perilous.

News of the World was directed by Paul Greengrass, which is interesting given that he’s primarily known for very modern films that are at least partly “ripped from the headlines” like Captain Phillips, United 93, and Bloody Sunday and even his forays into Hollywood action movies have been movies like The Bourne Ultimatum which are still kind of trying to invoke things like the modern surveillance state.  So suffice it to say I did not really predict that he’d be interested in making a western but watching it things did start to make a little bit more sense.  The film is set in rather loaded period of history in which a divided country was sort of being forced to reconcile, which would seem to make it a fairly apt setting for a movie released in the December of 2020 and I can see why Greengrass would gravitate to it after having just made 22 July, which was a movie about rightwing violence.  Additionally, Kidd’s occupation of reading news articles to crowds that aren’t always entirely receptive to said news does kind of mirror modern day issues of people dismissing things as “fake news” when it isn’t what they want to hear.  That having been said, I’m not sure that the film really digs too deeply into many of these themes so much as it simply acknowledges them and then kind of moves on with the story.  The character of Cicada/Johanna in particular sort of feels like she isn’t rally explored too much more than other “whites raised by Indians” in previous westerns like The Searchers, Hombre, and Dances With Wolves.

Those who have taken issue with Greengrass’ “shaky cam” visual style will likely be pleasantly surprised that he’s adjusted his style quite a bit here.  While it might have been interesting to see him do a Public Enemies type thing with the material he has instead taken a more traditional and reverent approach to the western.  The film has some really nice cinematography and Greengrass and his team shot the film in New Mexico and got some really good scenery to be their backdrop.  Where the movie perhaps falls a bit short is in its structure which is largely episodic.  It’s established pretty quickly that it’s going to be a movie about Kidd and Cicada’s journey and they occasionally run into obstacles along the way that you think are going to end up being through lines for the rest of the movie but they end up getting resolved faster than you expect and I’m not sure that the sum of these events quite adds up to exactly the kind of character piece the film thinks it does.  Still, theirs is something pretty interesting about the way the film looks at this genre in a new way by making its central cowboy an older and more literate hero that we usually get in the western and having him ultimately act as a father figure for this kid is also a neat twist.  I don’t think this is going to go down as one of the great neo-westerns, but it’s close to being in that league and is defiantly worth watching.

**** out of Five