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
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