June 2021 Round-Up

The “monthly round-up” series was something I created in 2019 as a means of “rounding-up” reviews for movie I saw in theaters but didn’t feel warranted full length reviews.  Given that theatrical viewing basically went away through most of 2020 and the first half of 2021 the series became rather redundant.  But theaters are re-opened now and it now makes sense to bring the series back, although it’s going to be a little different than it was before.  This will, for the time being, focus both on movies that come out in theaters and new streaming movies that in my subjective judgement feel like more substantial releases than the films I cover in my “Home Video Round-Up” sections on a “I know it when I see it basis.”


The “Live-Action Disney Remake” has been one of the more creatively bankrupt endeavors in modern Hollywood (which is saying a lot) and I’ve ignored a lot of them, but every once in a while one comes along which looks like it might have a prayer of being more interesting and their latest movie Cruella might just be the first one to actually be at least somewhat worth the trouble.  It’s sort of meant to act as a prequel to 101 Dalmations explaining how Cruella De Vil became the over-the-top campy villainess that she was while also sort of turning her into something resembling more of an anti-hero than a true villain.  That is perhaps easier said than done given that her animated counterpart is an attempted puppy killer whose very name is a play on “cruel devil” but screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara do a fairly serviceable job with the wacky assignment they were given.  In this reboot Cruella is made out to be misfit in the 1960s who finds herself an orphan on the street who becomes a protégé of a very evil fashion designer called The Baroness and hatches a plot to usurp her through a series of heists, pranks, and double-crosses.  At the end of the day that’s kind of a silly movie to be making but director Craig Gillespie has a lot of fun with it and brings a degree of vision and inventiveness to the movie’s style.  Sometimes he provides a bit too much of a good thing, the film is longer than it probably should be and it really overdoes it with the 60s needle drops, which are nonstop throughout the movie and are occasionally chosen in ways that border on being hilariously on the nose (guess which Beatles song, well a cover of one, is used on the soundtrack when one of the heists starts to… come together.  Guess which Rolling Stones song plays when you’re supposed to be sympathetic to this devilish woman.).  At the end of the day this is not really a movie with much to say beyond some rather misapplied pop-feminism about how outsiders can become total girlbosses and I’m not sure it quite has it in itself to truly make its title character take the full heel turn she’s supposed to, but it’s a pretty fun ride along the way and is pretty much the best case scenario for one of these goofy Disney live-action reboots.

*** out of Five

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It(6/8/2021)

As theaters reopen I have some resolve to see things on the big screen when possible rather than abuse whatever streaming is available… but I was already decidedly in “wait til it’s on home video” territory with the Conjuring franchise and it would have been silly to arbitrarily wait forty five days to give the new one a watch so HBO Max it was.  I think it’s safe to say I made the right choice because this probably the weakest of the mainline Conjuring movies to date and is probably a rung below even a couple of the spinoffs.  I’ll give the movie this: it starts on a high.  In the opening minutes of the movie we get a pretty intense little exorcism scene, which is a nice change of pace from the series usual pattern of beating around the bush for an hour before any substantial horror happens, but it also leaves the rest of the film struggling to top its opening.  But the bigger problem here probably has less to do with the horror (though, make no mistake, the horror is quite mediocre) than it is with the story it chooses to tell.  The Conjuring franchise is based around the exploits of the real life Ed and Lorraine Warren, a pair of obvious grifters who exploited the popularity of movies like The Exorcist and the Satanic Panic to sell themselves as “demonologists” and ghost hunters.  I’ve found the franchise’s glorification of these people to be pretty gross from the beginning but this movie, which deals with a real life murder trial that these hucksters turned into a circus and very much takes their side (including an uncritical invocation of “devil worshipers” its villain while accepting their ludicrous justification for what was plainly a simple murder) in a way I feel borders on irresponsible.  More so even than the other two films this really feels like it’s targeted at fundamentalist Christians, albeit in a way that’s cannier and more likely to be acceptable to a wider audience than most “faith based films.”  The Warrens are figures that should have been left to be forgotten in the 70s and The Conjuring movies probably could have been left back in the 2010s when movies about haunted houses were still thought to be the height of horror cinema.

** out of Five


As theaters reopen I must say that I have my worries about the health of international cinema distribution in America.  A lot of the theaters that show these movies are not doing great and subtitled films historically have not done great on VOD.  Case in point, Christian Petzold’s latest film Undine has recently opened and it’s not really being given a whole lot of fanfare but to be fair the reception to a lot of Petzold’s previous movies has long been respectful moreso than rapturous and on this I tend to mirror the consensus: he makes movies that deserve to be seen but which often aren’t really the kinds of things that inspire you to champion them too strongly.  That’s also very much the case with his new film Undine, which tells something of a dark modern fairy tale based on the legend of the undine, which is a sort of water elemental being not unlike a mermaid.  “Undine” has also become a not entirely uncommon first name for women in Germany and the film looks at a woman named Undine (Paula Beer) working as a museum docent in modern Berlin who may be more than meets the eye.  Petzold’s last three films have dealt pretty directly with Germany’s Nazi and DDR past and while this movie is set in the present it does try to bring in this element of 20th Century German history but I’m not sure what thematic connection this is supposed to have for the rest of the film, which takes the shape of being more of haunting modern day fairy tale.  Beer and her co-star Franz Rogowski do nice work in the film, but its sense of overwhelming obsession was more palpable in Petzold’s 2014 film Phoenix and his 2018 film Transit had a bolder and more unique vision to offer.  So, while I found the film interesting and don’t really regret seeing it, I can’t say it’s a film I’m going to really cheerlead people to rush out and see and it’s not exactly the miracle elixir that struggling arthouses need.

*** out of Five

Army of the Dead(6/15/2021)

After all the drama around the Snyder cut of Justice League it’s a little odd to find Zack Snyder in a place where he’s at his most critically accepted… or at least tolerated.  People used to hate him, and I’m sure some still do, but now that it’s pretty clear that Marvel’s take on the superhero movie is the one that’s going to be dominant I think his work in that realm has been seen as less of a threat and in general I think his brand of maximalist blockbuster filmmaking feels a bit more refreshing coming out of a pandemic that stole a year’s worth of big budget filmmaking from us.  So it’s rather interesting that it was in that moment that he choose to drop what is in many ways one of his more crass films, a wildly gory zombie movie (hearkening back to his Dawn of the Dead remake debut) that opens with what feels like a ten minute opening credit sequence of slow motion zombie killing set to not one but two covers of “Viva Las Vegas.”  The film depicts a situation where a zombie apocalypse spread across Las Vegas but was somehow successfully contained by the government, who built a big wall around the city and are soon planning to nuke the place to eradicate the virus, but a crew on the city’s outskirts come up with a plan to infiltrate the city, rob all the cash that’s still in one of the casino’s vaults, and then fly out on a helicopter.  Sounds easy, but the zombies left in this city prove to be a bit more of a challenge than they had expected.

Zack Snyder is frequently compared to Michael Bay for reasons that are sometimes valid and sometimes not so valid but this is for better or worse one of his more Bay-tastic efforts in a while.  In Bay terms this feels a bit like his equivalent to something like Bad Boys II, the work of a rather vulgar person who’s been stuck making PG-13 stuff for too long and wants to really let loose and splatter some brains on screen.  Personally I’m a little conflicted about the film, on one hand I do think it has some solid zombie movie ideas (including a goddamn zombie tiger) and it does eventually start delivering on its promise in its last third or so.  However, it’s often merely stupid rather than transcendently stupid like the aforementioned Bad Boys II and I wasn’t really feeling the film’s cast of characters, which is something you really need to nail when either making a heist movie like Ocean’s Eleven or an Aliens style “dudes on a mission surrounded by monsters” movie, which are the film’s clear inspirations.  Beyond that Snyder clearly seems to have known that this was being made for Netflix and has kind of tailored his style for that both in terms of aspect ratio and pacing, and for better or worse it lacks the pretensions of some of his other films, which some may find refreshing but it does make some of his slow motion indulgences and serious soundtrack selections feel a bit more out of place.  For the film’s first half I wasn’t really feeling it, but as the film went on the tally of cool things in it did start to go up and up and all told I did end up finding it to be something that was probably worth a look, but with a bit more care it could have been something much more fun and successful than it is.

*** out of Five


A Quiet Place Part II(5/30/2021)

A Quiet Place Part II was originally supposed to come out on March 20th 2020… probably not the best choice of release date in retrospect.  It wasn’t the first movie to be postponed because of COVID but of all the major releases delayed by the pandemic it was probably the closest to having gotten release before finally blinking and postponing just eight days before it was set to open.  It had already had its red carpet premiere, certain critics had already taken in screenings (and remained shockingly tight lipped with their opinions), and I even had a ticket reserved for that original release before it became clear everything was falling apart.  Now, over a year later, this film’s release is still tied to the pandemic, but hopefully for better reasons as its looking like it’s the first of a string of major releases that will hopefully bring the theatrical exhibition business back to life.  Of course depending on your perspective this could either be the best or the worst movie for people to be watching as they come out of a pandemic given that it’s about people who have had their lives turned upside down by a worldwide phenomenon that has killed tons of people while forcing those who remain behind to keep to themselves while giving up many of the day to day activities they’ve become accustomed to… as with many post-apocalyptic movies there are some notable parallels.

This sequel opens with a scene that flashes back to the first day of the alien invasion that would eventually bring down much of society and lead to the events of the first film.  After that prologue the film picks up right were the previous entry left off; the family has found a way to stun the blind alien monsters using feedback from an altered hearing aid, but the family patriarch Lee Abbott (John Krasinski) has been killed and their home base has been wrecked and they’re stuck with a damn infant that is likely to cry at any moment and draw the attention of the planet’s new apex predators.  Evelyn Abbott (Emily Blunt) opts to move the family out of the valley they’d been living in and head toward an abandoned factory, where they meet an old friend from the “before times” named Emmett (Cillian Murphy), who has been using that factory as a bunker.  But before they enter the family’s younger child Marcus (Noah Jupe) steps in a bear trap leaving him injured and unable to move, so the plan is to lay low, but the strong willed older child of the family Regan (Millicent Simmonds) wants to bring their new discovery of an anti-alien frequency to the masses by bringing it to a nearby radio station which seems to still be broadcasting.

My eagerness to go out and see this movie, both before and after the pandemic, is perhaps a bit odd given that I actually didn’t see the first movie until a couple weeks after it released (in part because I was on vacation the week it came out and there were other movies that week I was more interested in) and also because I don’t really like that movie as much as a lot of other people seem to.  I certainly didn’t dislike it, and there were elements of it like the sound design and the set decoration and the general world building that I enjoyed quite a bit and I also liked the general ballsyness of making a mainstream horror movie that goes for long stretches without spoken dialogue.  However, I thought the movie lost its way once the CGI monsters actually showed up and in general I just didn’t find it all that scary.  Frankly it just felt like a watered down version of It Comes at Night for the masses.  But clearly I was outvoted because that movie made hundreds of millions of dollars and was generally loved by critics, and I did like it enough that I was curious to see where they’d go with it and give them a chance.

In many ways A Quiet Place Part II is a lot different from the original film; Krasinski and his co-writers seem to know that they won’t be able to replicate the first movie’s slow burn structure and that most of the world building has already been done.  So instead the film uses its higher budget and makes a bit more of a full-on monster movie, which would seem to be the opposite of what I’d want given that I thought the monsters actually showing up was what hurt the first film but they make a little more sense here.  That opening prologue is a good example; while the first movie almost treated these creatures like off-screen ghosts who would only be seen in brief glimpses up until the film’s finale, here we get to see them wrecking large portions of a city in what feels more like War of the Worlds than Night of the Living Dead.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call this the Aliens to the original film’s Alien, because it does calm down some after that and it never really becomes an action movie, but there is a noticeable shift.

For the most part this works, but it doesn’t necessarily stand out a whole lot.  It was interesting to see the various ways the family in the first film tried to soundproof their lives but there’s less of an emphasis on that here and most of the world building we do get is closer to rather typical post-apocalypse stuff.  It also has this structural issue in its second half where it splits its story into two or three different locations in its second half as characters go off in different directions which forces the film to cut between certain suspense sequences which sort of hurts the momentum of both scenes.  Those complaints aside, I do ultimately find myself with the same basic level of enthusiasm for this that I had for the first film.  There’s clearly some talent behind it, the cast is decent, there are some strong scenes… it’s a generally decent time at the movies.  But let’s not make this into something more than it is.  This to me is a slightly above average horror movie coming out in a cinematic landscape where there should be better options for the discerning horror fan.  Here’s hoping that if and when they make a third part (which I’d say is a near certainty) they finally find a way to kick this series up to the next level.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 5/16/2021

The Man Who Sold His Skin (4/23/2021)

I’d seen four of the five “Best International Feature” nominees in the days leading up to the Academy Awards so I wanted to catch the fifth one The Man Who Sold His Skin.  This film was submitted to the Academy by Tunisia, which is the director’s home country and where his production company is set up, but none of the film is actually set there.  The film’s main character is a Syrian refugee who’s stuck in Lebanon but wants to go to Belgium where his girlfriend ended up.  To get there he ends up agreeing to a strange deal with an artist that tattoos a Schengen Visa on the guy’s back and made him sign a contract that he would appear at various art galleries to be a living artwork.  Needless to say, the morality of such an art project is rather dubious and the artist who created it seems to be upfront about that, almost challenging people to point that out as a means of challenging society’s hypocracy, but the fact that the artist is self-aware about his own immorality is not much of a comfort to the guy who he’s exploiting “ironically.”  So, there is a lot of food for thought to be mined from this whole scenario but I’m not sure I’d call The Man Who Sold His Skin a terribly compelling work of cinema.  Neither the protagonist nor the artist in question ultimately prove to be terribly compelling personalities in their own rights and its satiric portrait of the modern art world never quite rang as true as I think it was supposed to.

*** out of Five

Kid 90 (5/2/2021)

I must say, a documentary about the life of “Punky Brewster” star Soleil Moon Frye is not exactly something I ever thought I’d be interested in, especially given that I’ve never so much as seen an episode of that show and did not know her name until the documentary started being talked about, but word on the street was that Frye had put together an interesting portrait of child stardom and I’d say there was at least some truth to the hype.  The film primarily focuses on Frye’s life after “Punky Brewster” ended and she found herself struggling to make the transition from child star to teen star to adult star while also hanging out with a bunch of other teen stars of the 90s and getting into some teenage shenanigans behind the scenes.  Frye was apparently in the habit of carrying around a camcorder everywhere during this period and as a result got a lot of home video footage of all this.  I don’t know that Frye’s teen years were wildly different in terms of experience from what most other upper-class L.A. teens of the era went through (at least if Bret Easton Ellis is to be believed) but the people she went through it with were moderately famous and that kind of intrinsically makes it more interesting.  The documentary interestingly does not go out of its way to delve into the big names when B and C listers had more of an influence on her life, so people like Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg get only passing references while forgotten people like Danny Boy O’Connor (from House of Pain), Brian Austin Green, and Stephen Dorff are discussed more extensively.  The documentary is not exactly a “must see,” its profundity is rather limited, but as a piece of personal biography it’s pretty well made and accomplishes what it sets out to do.

*** out of Five

The Mitchells Vs. The Machines (5/3/2021)

The new Sony-produced Netflix distributed animated film The Mitchells Vs. The Machines was written by Mike Rianda and Jeff Rowe and directed by the former but is largely being sold on the talents of its producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who have become pretty large voices in cinematic comedy both through live action projects like 21 Jump Street and animated projects like The Lego Movie and perhaps most relevantly here their work bringing Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse to the big screen.  Personally I’m a bit agnostic about the two, they make clever and enjoyable films but their self-referential snark does sometimes go too far and undermine the movies they’re making and this latest project has a lot of their usual strengths and weaknesses.  The film’s protagonist is a girl named Katie who enjoys making odd Youtube videos and has just been accepted to film school but rather than flying out to California her father surprises her with a plan to make this a family road trip instead in hopes that it will shore up the family’s fractured relationship before she’s gone for good.  Katie is an interesting protagonist for an animated family film as she’s older than the film’s ostensible target audience but the film portrays her discontent well and does a pretty good job of illustrating why she would think her parents and particularly her father was rather insufferable.  Then the movie takes a left turn when a very PG-rated robot apocalypse breaks out around them and it essentially becomes a zombie movie for kids (but with robots, to keep things less gory) and it becomes a “family unites under pressure” situation.

The animation is a bit reminiscent of “Spiderverse,” I don’t think it’s animated “on twos” like that was but there’s a similar stylization and an even greater willingness to break the fourth wall.  The characters are engaging, though certain characters definitely get more screentime than others.  The mother in the family gets shortchanged a bit and the brother is kind of a one-joke entity.  I think what ultimately kind of brought the movie down for me was the story, specifically the way it kind of makes this family the center of the universe in its third act.  There’s a bit of a cheap childhood wish fulfillment to having your family save the world and to do make that happen here the script takes some kind of silly shortcuts and indulges in some goofiness like making robots short-circuit at the sight of a dog.  Had they made it a slightly more lowkey tale of a family surviving through some crazy times I think it might have been better off and frankly a bit more relevant to recent events, though I guess it’s not the movie’s fault it didn’t play into that a bit better.  But then again maybe that’s just me being a picky grump because I do suspect that this is going to be a very popular movie with audiences and that few people are going to find themselves not at least finding something to enjoy about it.  It is perhaps a shame that the aforementioned recent events have basically forced this go straight to Netflix because I think it would have caught on pretty strong in theaters and been quite the event for Sony if they hadn’t sold it off.

***1/2 out of Five

Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal (5/4/2021)

Streaming services are hungry for content and that means they’re greenlighting documentaries en masse and this has led to a sort of ambulance chaser mentality in the world of nonfiction film to be the first to make documentaries about various current events.  That’s how we ended up with competing Netflix and Hulu documentaries about the Fyre Festival in early 2019 and why there are currently three documentaries in production about the Gamestop stocks thing and I think it was that same mentality that led to this film about the College Admissions Scandal to debut less than two years after that even went public directed by the guy behind the Netflix Fyre Festival movie.  The film interestingly downplays the involvement of the most prominent people charged in the scandal, Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, and instead focuses on the ringleader behind it all: a weird con artist named William Singer.  There isn’t really much to the actual investigation (basically, one of Singers customers was arrested for an unrelated white color crime so he snitched on Singer and Singer snitched on all the rest of his clients) so it’s not really about that so much as its about the mechanisms he used to manipulate the admissions system but… I already knew most of that from when this scandal was first being reported on.  So, this feels a bit redundant but if you weren’t paying much attention in 2019 and need a primer this isn’t a bad option aside from a strange device where they have actors re-enact wiretapped phone calls. It’s fine.

*** out of Five

Concrete Cowboys (5/16/2021)

Concrete Cowboy is a coming of age drama about a black teenager who has been getting into some trouble, so his mother sends him to Philadelphia to live with his father (played by Idris Elba) who is part of a rather peculiar sub-culture of black men who, despite living in an urban center, keep and ride horses and consider themselves cowboys.  I wonder how deep into the chart run of “Old Town Road” Netflix waited until they decided to greenlight the film.  The story reminded me a lot of a book I read in grade school called “Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World” by Mildred Pitts Walter, which was similarly about a African American youth who similarly has a bit of a coming of age experience when sent to live with a (rural) cowboy relative, but this film is about an older youth and is a bit more “streetwise” though I’m not sure that the central story has all that much more to say.  Ultimately the film is probably meant more as an entry point to explore this sub-culture, which I can’t say I knew about prior and were I to have them described to me I’m not sure I’d have felt that people keeping farm animals in the middle of the city was a good idea… and I’m not sure I feel much differently after seeing it.  The film kind of takes it as a given that its audience is going to be charmed by this group and see the wisdom in their lifestyle but I’m not sure I did, or at least I’m not sure why they feel riding horses around Philadelphia (or much of anywhere else) is fun or meaningful to them and the whole exploration of this sub-culture feels pretty surfacey.  Still, I think the core coming of age narrative is functional and the filmmaking is decent.  It’s a neat little movie, but probably not a particularly memorable one.

**1/2 out of Five

Spiral: From the Book of Saw(5/14/2021)

There’s a much quoted line from the sitcom “Parks and Recreation” where in an argument Ann says to Leslie “you made me watch all eight Harry Potter movies, I don’t even like Harry Potter” to which Leslie responds “that’s insane, you love Harry Potter, you’ve seen all eight movie!”  Well, I’m in a similar position with the Saw movies, I’ve consistently said I hate them… but I’ve also seen all nine of them and I don’t even have someone else I can blame for this, I did it to myself.  So why did I do that?  Well, it’s for much the same reason I’ve seen every Friday the 13th movie or every Halloween movie, at a certain point when a franchise can stick around for years and keep making instalment after installment a certain curiosity takes over and once I start watching the movies I start to take a certain interest in seeing how the franchise owners are going to find ways to keep their cash cows alive and evolve their properties over the years and decades even if I’ve never really liked them.  And I’ve never like the Saw movies, not even the first Saw which I always found to be a cheap and silly movie powered by ludicrous plot twists and with some rather irritating music video-like filmmaking driving it.  I’ve never really talked about any of the movies at length, mainly because I’ve generally caught up with them long after the fact rather than in their initial run and under normal circumstances that would have been the case for the latest Saw movie as well, the oddly named Spiral: From the Book of Saw.  But these are not normal circumstances, I’ve just become fully vaccinated and wanted to make my return to movie theaters and this just so happened to be the new release this week and between that and curiosity about Chris Rock’s involvement in this one I found myself seeing one of these in theaters for the first time.

This installment of the franchise is technically another sequel insomuch as it acknowledges that Jigsaw was a serial killer in the world of this film, but it doesn’t really specifically bring up any of the events of the later sequels or the events of the movie Jigsaw, which was the last attempt at rebooting the franchise.  That movie was much more interested in tackling this series’ convoluted timelines, but this one makes more of a clean break and focuses on a homicide detective named Zeke Banks (Chris Rock).  Banks is the son of a former police chief named Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson) and has become something of a pariah within his department because he “snitched” on a dirty cop twelve years earlier.  He seems to be at a bit of a low point when he’s assigned as the lead detective on a particularly brutal murder in which someone was hung by his tongue over subway tracks and forced to choose between mutilation and being hit with a train and the guy’s hesitation led to the latter.  The method of murder suggests that this was a copycat murder in the style of the Jigsaw Killer’s old crusade against human self-worth deficiencies.  However, it becomes apparent that this first victim was actually a cop and clues indicate that he was targeted because of this and because he was dirty and that future victims will also be dirty cops and that makes the whole case extra urgent and Zeke’s role as the lead detective rather fraught.

That Chris Rock stars here is a bit of a coup and also a departure from how this series normally operates.  Aside from Danny Glover’s work as a secondary character in the original film and Donnie Wahlberg starring in the second film this series has not bothered to cast anyone even remotely famous in any of the other sequels.  I’m guessing that was mostly a choice driven by budgetary concerns and the fact that they’ve mostly been working with “discount” casts has been one of the franchises more glaring weaknesses.  If studio publicity is to be believed, Rock’s presence here was something he himself lobbied for; the story being that he met the head of Lionsgate at some party or other and made a pitch for a Saw movie that was so compelling that they just had to give him and installment.  Frankly I find that story to be rather suspect, firstly because Rock doesn’t have any kind of “story by” credit and secondly because, well, the elevator pitch for this half-baked movie could not have been half as interesting as that story makes it sound.  The basic premise of “new Jigsaw killer now targets dirty cops” is basically in line with what you’d expect this franchise to do when exploiting current events (not unlike Saw VI, in which Jigsaw decided to start torturing health insurance executives right at the height of the Obamacare debate) and they sure don’t do anything overly pointed or interesting with the idea.

But let’s say Rock did pitch that idea and everyone really was earnestly excited to make a Black Lives Matter Saw movie.  You’d think that the next step would have been to hire some young African American writers and directors to bring that idea to life, but they didn’t.  Instead they just got some series regulars to do it.  It was written by the same white guys who made Jigsaw and it was directed by the white guy who directed Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV.  That’s not to say that Caucasians can’t make a movie like this but from a creative standpoint this is neither the radical reboot it sells itself as nor is it an authentic attempt at bringing a black voice.  That isn’t to say that there isn’t something brought to the table here by Rock as its star.  He clearly was given some power over the script or perhaps a lot of leeway to adlib on the set because there are lines here that are clearly consistent with his voice as a comedian which are some of the film’s highlights, but it’s not really a laugh out loud comedy or anything and its moments of effective levity are fleeting and I must say.  What’s more I think the money that went to Rock and Samuel L. Jackson ate into the film’s gory deathtrap money because a lot of what we’re given here in that department feels both less inspired and less elaborately constructed than what we see in other installments of the movie.

As for the film’s actual Black Lives Matter subtext: it’s half-assed.  That’s in large part because the movie’s entire conception of “the police” seems to come less from reality and more from bad buddy cop movies from the 80s that it shamelessly recycles right down to the last cliché.  This is literally a movie that opens with the “detective who plays by his own rules” who wants to work alone being forced by his long suffering chief to partner up with a naïve rookie detective and it doesn’t get less shamelessly derivative from there and most of the police corruption that gets punished is more of the overt Serpico variety rather than the systemic unconscious bias variety aside from a few moments that are very clumsily “ripped from the headlines.”  What’s more a lot about this new copycat killer’s plan does not really make a lot of sense.  Why, for example, does he follow Jigsaw’s lead in allowing each of his victims a fleeting chance at escaping their torturous deaths through self-mutilation?   He plainly doesn’t care about making these people “appreciate their lives” like Jigsaw did and is more interested in “sending a message” so that really doesn’t fit.  What’s more if “sending a message” is the idea, why does he do it by playing mind-games with Zeke, who would seem to be the last person on the force that needs to have a “message” sent to when it would be significantly more interesting for him to have sent his messages directly to the media and think about how the public would react to his sanguine shenanigans.  There could have been an interesting exploration here of the efficacy of using violence to make political statements, but this script is far too stupid for that.

So, not exactly the return to theaters I was hoping for.  Truth be told I probably should have seen this coming what with my history of distaste for the series.  I mean, I’ve given negative reviews to almost every installment of the franchise but something about them kind of makes me look back at them and remember the more interesting parts of each movie while forgetting how shoddy a lot of them are when I actually watch them.  What’s more, I somehow let myself be punk’d into thinking they’re going to do new and interesting things to come back over and over when they generally don’t.  In fact I’d say this was a much less successful attempt at reviving the series than the 2017 film Jigsaw, which didn’t have many new ideas to work with either but it at least looked better than most of the other movies whereas I’d say this one is actively a step backwards.  I’m not sure the Saw series is ever going to be effectively rebooted until it’s out of the hands of the people at Twisted Pictures who clearly can’t let go of the old assembly line that used to make them so much money.  On the other hand, maybe there’s not much room for this to comeback at all, it’s very much a relic of the early 2000s torture porn trend; it didn’t fit in well to the 2010s haunted house trend, and if this movie is any indication it sure as hell doesn’t fit in with the recent trend of post-Get Out overtly political horror movies either and that it should probably take a long break before they try again.

*1/2 out of Five

Crash Course: Lois Weber

Last year I broke out my “Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers” set and looked at their selection of short films from Alice Guy-Blaché.  That seemed to work out well enough so I thought it was time to look at the films from the other major figure in that boxed set: Lois Weber.  Weber came to cinema a bit later than Guy-Blaché but was of the same basic generation and ended up making movies around the same time as Edwin Porter and D.W. Griffith.  She started her career in entertainment as a stage actress before finding her way into the just established film industry.  There her and her first husband Phillips Smalley collaborated to become a pioneering filmmaking team (with most agreeing Weber was the real vison behind their films) and she ended up with a key role in a production company that would eventually be absorbed into Universal Pictures.  Of course among lovers of silent cinema that’s a bit ominous because Universal was rather infamously the studio that did the worst job of preserving their silent movie catalog and sure enough a vast majority of the estimated 200 to 400 movies that Weber directed have been lost.  In fact there are only about twenty or so films she made which a preserved today, and this boxed set only includes about twelve, of which several exist only in fragmentary form.  Because of that it’s going to be a little harder to really “review” some of these movie, but I am going to give them a watch and share some thoughts.

From Death to Life (6/8/1911)

“From Death to Life” is one of the first movies that Lois Weber has a director credit on (it’s her fourth credit on IMDB, but she appears to have made ten movies in 1911 so who knows what order they were really made in) and it certainly has the look and feel of an early work.  The film is set in ancient Greece and appears to be something of a riff on the Pygmalion legend.  In it an ancient alchemist develops a serum that can turn living things into stone.  He tests it out on some animals but then in a “shocking” twist his wife, who he neglected in favor of his work, falls into the petrifying pool and becomes like a statue.  That’s kind of all there is to it.  One can imagine that this could have been fleshed out a bit with an extra reel but as it is it feels like it just kind of establishes its gimmick, goes to the inevitable twist, and then just ends.  Of course you have to keep these super early films in perspective and I imagine this would have stood out at least a little big compared to more pedestrian fare it would have been played next to.

Fine Feathers (2/1/1912)

This short, made just one year after “From Death to Life,” already shows a lot more comfort with the format and manages to tell a more complete story in a similar brief amount of time.  The film is about a painter (Smalley) who meets a poor cobbler’s daughter (Weber) and asks her to pose for him, first in her hobo rags and later in finer clothing, and the two paintings contrasted with one another are very well received by the art world, then the two spark a simple little romance.  I would hazard to guess that that the fact that Weber and Smalley are the key collaborators here both in front of and behind the camera here is rather pointed as the narrative of the short is about a creative collaboration between a man and a woman mirrors their own collaborative history to some extent. 

The Rosary (5/4/1913)

This is a short film that’s loosely based on a popular song of the day and is probably most notable for a technical trick it employs where the image is matted all around so all of the action is happening in a circle in the center of the screen with a rosary painted around it complete with a crucifix hanging from the top of the circle.  The film itself tells a pretty standard issue tragic story about a man who has to go off to the Civil War (on the union side) and his wife waits nervously for his return.  As a basic story that’s pretty familiar but Weber and Smalley sell it pretty well with some solid acting for the period and Weber does a pretty good job of wrenching the drama out of the film and hitting a pretty mournful tone.  I was not so into the device with the matting, which was an interesting little experiment but one that probably didn’t catch on for a reason.

Suspense (7/6/1913)

Suspense would be the Lois Weber movie I’ve been waiting for and is almost certainly her most famous short and possibly her most famous work overall.  The short tells a story that would not be unfamiliar even in 1913 of a woman being threatened by an intruder, in this case a deranged hobo, as her husband rushes to try to save her.  The film is perhaps notable for its use of split-screen, a device that had been used before (mostly for phone calls) but here is used for purposes of, well, suspense.  The film captures the deranged hobo at some pretty dramatic angles throughout and it also dos a pretty decent job, for 1913 anyway, of dramatizing the husband’s rush to come to the rescue.  This is a short that could really stand to actually be a bit longer and one can imagine a filmmaker of a later generation (or Weber later in her career) wringing out even more suspense from this scenario.

Hypocrites (1/20/1915)

Hypocrites is the first feature length film featured in this set (well, 51 minutes is technically feature length) and was almost certainly her most bold movie to date in terms of content… to the point that it would probably still be rated “R” if it came out today. The film is a rumination on the topic of hypocrisy and is set over two time periods, one medieval and one in modern day and feature pious characters who are actually bad.  The film shows this by having the personification of “truth” show up in the film as a sort of invisible spirit that holds a literal mirror up to them.  This personification of truth is a woman played by the actress Margaret Edwards… and she’s completely naked through the whole movie.  Full frontal.  Even pre-code that is some wild shit. The image of a female figure acting as the “naked truth” was apparently inspired by the painting “La Vérité” by Adolphe Faugeron and the film was something of an experiment to see how the “tasteful” artistic nude could be used in cinema and the movie had certain defenses for itself built into its story to kind of condemn those prudes who would be offended by such things.  The film apparently got away with this in some places while other places banned it for being filth flarn filth (this sort of thing was why the code was eventually invented, so there would be a uniform conduct standards nationwide).  The film is certainly bold and visionary for its time, but it’s also a touch pretentious and oddly judgey for a movie that’s filled with imagery that could be interpreted as “sinful.”

Sunshine Molly (3/18/1915)

Sunshine Molly is one of many films here that are considered to be “fragments” in that parts of the film are lost.  This one is particularly hard hit as it’s missing both the third and fourth reels (out of five) and we aren’t even presented text summaries of what’s gone.  That’s unfortunate because what we do have here is pretty promising.  It’s a story set in an American oilfield and is told from the perspective of a woman who arrives in the town and brings “sunshine” to it.  The town itself is quite well rendered and you can tell that a lot of work was put into making the community feel lived in and interesting.  Beyond that I’m not sure I can really reach much of a verdict on the movie given that two fifths of it are gone. 

Scandal Mongers (7/19/1915)

The 1915 film Scandal Mongers, which is sometimes just called Scandal was originally over the forty minute mark that would make it a feature film, but its fourth reel (out of five) is considered lost, so it only runs about thirty five minutes in its current form and some of the remaining scenes have some really extreme print flaws that almost entirely obscure the action in certain shots.  The film is meant to be a rumination on the evils of gossip and looks at a couple that are broken apart because a series of misunderstandings lead the people around them to mistakenly believe an affair is happening.  It’s probably best known for a technique where a dude in a weird looking swamp monster costume is placed in the frame to exist as a sort of personification of lies and rumors (kind of like a more PG follow-up to the idea first explored in Hypocrites).  Honestly I think this is one that could have benefited from being a touch shorter, the web of back and forth between this couple post breakup gets a bit tiresome and it may have benefited from just breaking up the marriage and then saying “what a tragedy” and ending.

Where Are My Children? (5/1/1916)

Where Are My Children? Is possibly the most famous movie that Lois Weber made, it’s of interest beyond the world of cinema and into the worlds of people interested in the history of feminism and public health.  The film is something of a polemic about birth control and abortion made during the era of Margaret Sanger and comes with a very carefully worded disclaimer from Universal trying to explain that because birth control was a matter of public debate in the press they believe it’s also worth exploring on the cinema screen.  In the film Weber makes a feminist argument but one that will not necessarily jive with the feminist thought of 2021 as she makes her argument in favor of birth control by demonizing abortion (essentially saying that we need birth control in order to prevent abortions from happening) and even more disturbingly her reasoning is also colored by arguments rooted in eugenics, a word the film uses openly.  The actual story is about the prosecution of an illegal abortion doctor who the D.A. in question comes to learn had had the D.A.’s wife as a customer on multiple occasions along with several other high society women.  The notion that abortion doctors are mainly bad when used by selfish rich women is… rather strange, and the movie also uses this device throughout about infant souls being sent down to earth and then returned as “unwanted” which I’m not sure ever really held together even if the film does use some interesting techniques to try to portray this in literal terms.  So we have here is a well-made if highly unsubtle and didactic movie that is nothing if not an interesting artifact, but one that makes some rather noxious and dated arguments.  It’s hard to call a movie that openly supports eugenics “good” but it’s also fascinating to watch in hindsight so we have a bit of a mini-Birth of a Nation situation on our hands here.

Idle Wives (9/1/1916)

This 1916 film is another of Lois Weber’s movies that only exists as a fragment and even more of it is lost than is lost with some of the other ones.  Only its first two reels remain and its final three are gone.  That’s unfortunate because the opening 23 minutes we do have shows some promise.  In the film we have we see a family in the slums and establish some of their problems and then see them go to a movie, which is specifically established to be one of Lois Weber’s films.  That’s where what we have cuts off but by all accounts what happens next is that the family sees in the movie some versions of their own problems and are inspired to become better people because of it.  So, there’s this sort of meta element involved where a filmmaker is commenting on the power of their own cinema to save the world… which could certainly be interpreted as being wildly conceited and indicative of a massive savior complex as well as a certain condescending attitude that Weber is showing these stupid poor people the right way to live (an attitude not incongruous with the eugenics stuff in Where Are My Children?), but given that we don’t have those last three reels it might be unfair to judge.  Either way, that kind of metatexutality is certainly clever and ahead of its time in 1916.

Two Wise Wives (5-22-1921)

For the last two movies we’ll look at we jump forward some five years to 1921 to look at a couple of movies that were made pretty late into her main run as a filmmaker.  The film Two Wise Wives is probably not one of her most noteworthy films, but it does at least seem to exist in its entirety, which is more than can be said about a lot of her other features.  The film is basically a domestic drama about a pair of marriages and is said to have been something of a response to some of the sex comedies that were coming out around the same time and wanted to provide a movie that would be a bit more “moral” and positive in its outlook on the institution of marriage.  I haven’t really seen many of the movies its ostensibly responding to, so that went a bit over my head.  Also, I’m not sure this kind of middle class domesticity lends itself terribly well to silent cinema; the visuals just aren’t as intriguing.  Weber’s visual style has changed a bit here, it’s a bit more confident and professional, but perhaps also a bit stale.  There aren’t any wild visual experiments here and, well, frankly it was kind of boring.  The commentary track Kino provided on the blu-ray seemed to have some pretty elaborate thoughts on what the movie had to say about attitudes toward femininity and domesticity in the early 20s, so clearly there are some people who got more out of it but I didn’t care for it.

What Do Men Want? (11-13-1921)

Unfortunately we need to end our look at Lois Weber’s cinema on another mangled incomplete fragment, this one only having reels 3, 4, and 5 out of seven, but it is a pretty important movie to Weber’s career insomuch as it was the movie that kind of ended it.  The film doesn’t seem terribly out of line with her slightly churchy and didactic brand of first wave feminism, it looks at infidelity and whatnot and apparently ends with a pregnant unmarried woman who was cast off by her lover.  Subtle.  I’m not going to completely judge this movie given how much of it is missing but these last two movies kind of paint a picture of an artist in decline.  Maybe the curation that Kino did is throwing my impression but I think Weber might have been better off if she hadn’t tried so hard to make social impact with these rather didactic films which seem to have gotten less formally exciting as things moved forward. 

In Conclusion

I’ve come out of this crash course with some definite reservations about Lois Weber, but for the most part I think her reputation as one of the great unsung (until recently) voices of the silent era is mostly warranted.  On one hand, yes, she could be something of a moralistic scold whose films could occasionally come off like dated tracts about various social issues and her embrace of eugenics in “Where Are My Children” is not super easy to defend, but this was early days for cinema and there were certainly worse offenders in these regards.  The incompleteness of many of these films is also quite the barrier to fully assessing her work, but of course that’s not her fault.  One has to wonder, if more of her work was intact would we have gotten more daring formal experiments like “Suspence” or Hypocrites or more Wilson era lectures about how poor people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps?  I like to think it would be more of the former but there’s a distinct chance it would have been more of the latter.  Either way, even when she was making misguided anti-abortion eugenics movies there was still some clear formal experimenting going on and as “on the nose” as her social commentary could be there’s little doubt that such experiments helped legitimize cinema as a medium that could do different and more adventurous things.

Mortal Kombat(4/24/2021)

There are a lot of people who look back on their childhood and have vivid memories of playing little league baseball or going camping or riding bikes through the suburbs to save alien or whatever else normies do.  But some of my most vivid memories involved spending summer days in my basement den trying to finally beat Motaro, the cheap-ass centaur sub-boss from “Mortal Kombat 3” on my Super Nintendo.  In fact the number of hours I’ve dedicated to the Mortal Kombat franchise is right up there with James Bond and Universal Horror for me as far as things I became obsessed with as a child.  On some level I always knew that Street Fighter was probably the mechanically superior fighting series to Mortal Kombat but the mechanics of actually playing the game had very little to do with it: Street Fighter just never let you rip a dude’s spine out or cut a dude in half with a hat, so it was never going to stand out as much to me.  But my interest in the series wasn’t just rooted in bloodlust, like a lot of people I came for the gore but stayed for the lore.  It had a large roster of colorful characters each with their own backstories and a lot of the fun of the franchise came from trying to piece together the canon series of events from each game based on the limited info you got from the various intros and ending texts, in fact I might have spent more time looking up stuff about each character online than I ever did playing the actual games.

Was all of this actually worth my time?  Well, I’m not sure I can answer that objectively. I certainly wouldn’t tell an adult looking at these story elements that it was actually good and worth their time given that it’s actually a bunch of weird bullshit that probably doesn’t actually cohere outside of my imagination, but I still like it and I don’t think I’m alone because the new games have kind of doubled down on story despite what most people actually know the games for.  I don’t actually buy the games anymore because I’m actually terrible at playing fighting games, but every time one comes out I immediately check youtube for montages of the latest fatalities and for the cutscenes so I know what Johnny Cage and Scorpion are up to these days.  Anyway, people have seen the potential in this character roster outside of the gaming context for ages, most notably in the 1995 Paul W.S. Anderson film that I certainly enjoyed at the time but which most people view as being “fun trash” at best these day, but there have also been several attempts to bring the series to television and the internet for a while and I will neither confirm nor deny having read a Mortal Kombat tie-in novel at the height of my youthful fandom.  And now, while the games are as popular as ever, Hollywood has come knocking again and the result is the new Warner Brothers (theoretically) theatrical release Mortal Kombat.

Unlike the 1995 film, which revolved around the actual Mortal Kombat tournament and is instead set before the critical tenth tournament as fighters start assembling and the forces of Outworld try to kill some of them before it begins.  Our point of view protagonist is an original character named Cole Young (Lewis Tan), who is a low level MMA fighter.  When Young is attacked by Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim) a fellow fighter named Jackson “Jax” Briggs (Mehcad Brooks) and his colleague Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee) help him escape and tell him that a birthmark on his chest means he’s destined to fight for Earthrealm in the Mortal Kombat and that Shang Tsung (Chin Han) is sending assassins to kill these champions before the tournament begins.  The trio, along with their prisoner Kano (Josh Lawson), eventually regroup and assemble at a temple where they meet the thunder god Raiden (Tadanobu Asano), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), Kung Lao (Max Huang), and others and need to prepare for further attacks by Shang Tsung’s attack squad.

This is going to be a difficult movie to talk about because it’s a movie that’s clearly made “for the fans” and as a fan I quite enjoyed it but it’s the guiltiest of pleasures and I don’t know that it’s something I can actually defend.  At the very least I expect a lot about this plot is going to sound like absolute nonsense to people who haven’t been exposed to this stuff before as the movie does very little to either slowly introduce all the weirdness or bring it down to earth like the 1995 film did.  The appeal of the movie is largely in bringing these famous characters to the screen and doing so without making too many concessions to watering them down; if the 1995 film was the equivalent of the 2000 X-Men giving its heroes black leather suits this one is like an MCU adapting their characters’ to the screen complete with outfits that are colorful and not too dissimilar from their comic book origins.  For some characters that works better than others.  Kano is his usual over the top seedy self and it’s cool seeing Sub-Zero finally unleash his powers in maximally gory ways, but some characters just don’t have the screen time to really be done justice.  Liu Kang and Kung Lao are both relatively relegated in the film despite the former basically being the series’ protagonist in the video games and some fan favorites like Mileena and Kabal are basically turned into background henchmen.

Did I mention that this movie was dumb and pandering?  Because it totally is.  It’s the kind of movie that goes out of its way to stop in the middle of certain fight scenes to deliver catch phrases like “finish him” and it’s willing to ignore certain aspects of logic and consistency in order to make the characters exist in their most iconic forms, namely through a device where characters just sort of magically acquire certain powers at random.  It’s dumb, but the fight choreography isn’t half bad.  I mean, nothing here is going to make Iko Uwais or Donnie Yen fear for their jobs, but people looking for some decent fight scenes won’t come away disappointed.  It was nice to see this film able to unleash the gory mayhem that made the games famous but which was missing from the PG-13 90s movies, but the special effects here are passable at best and its cast is B and C tier and the presence of just one legit celebrity might have elevated the movie a bit.  The movie ends with a clear set-up for a sequel which I wouldn’t mind seeing as there is a decent foundation here but as a story unto itself there’s not a ton to write home about.  I don’t know, the more I write the movie the more I talk myself out of thinking it was any good at all, but that wouldn’t be true to my actual experience while watching it.  As an MK fanboy I did have a lot of fun with it, but I would have grave reservations about recommending it to anyone else.

*** out of Five