The Suicide Squad(8/5/2021)

I think I’m the only person in the world who kinda sorta liked the 2016 film Suicide Squad.  I mean, I guess that technically isn’t true, it has a 26% on Rotten Tomatoes so a quarter of all critics liked it but I’m not really sure what happened to those other people because I don’t hear from them much nowadays.  Truth be told I do get why people disliked that movie because it did make some glaringly obvious mistakes and had some very annoying habits.  But you know, maybe I was in a forgiving mood when I saw it because, man, I couldn’t get too mad at that fucking movie.  There were elements of it which I liked a lot like the performances of Viola Davis and Margot Robbie and I also thought Will Smith was in fairly good form in it.  Beyond that, there was just a certain attitude to that movie… an attitude that likely disgusted a lot of people but which I saw a certain nostalgic charm to.  It was a movie that was unapologetically made to appeal to the ids of fourteen year olds… specifically fourteen year olds from the mid 2000s… which was maybe an odd audience to target in 2016 but man my own personal inner fourteen year old sort of vibed to it.  Still, even I was more than willing to say “maybe don’t do that again” and despite that movie having been a financial juggernaut (seriously, the damn made $133 million in its opening weekend) Warner Brothers seemed to realize they needed to go in a different direction if they were going to make a sequel.  As such they hired Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn in a complicated game of musical chairs with Disney and had him make a movie that would still be within the continuity of that earlier film while having a much different feel to the point of feeling like a reboot.  That movie is The Suicide Squad (not the definite article), and it has just been unleashed on moviegoers.

The film begins some number of years after the events of the original Suicide Squad and its spinoff Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has once again come across a suicide mission to send a group of super-villain convicts to send on.  This one concerns an island nation called Corto Maltese whose regime has just been changed by a violent coup.  The new regime appears to be militantly anti-American, which is viewed as a threat, in particular because there’s a laboratory fortress on the island where a mad scientist named Gaius Grieves (Peter Capaldi) has been doing some sort of scary powerful experiments they don’t want falling into the wrong hands.  So, a rather large team is sent to infiltrate the island and take down the new regime and/or the laboratory.  Many are sent to the island but the film ends up primarily focusing in on Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and fellow carryover from the previous film Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman), a mercenary named Bloodsport (Idris Elba), another mercenary called Peacemaker (John Cena), a woman named Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior) who can make a swarm of rats do her bidding, a dude called Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian) who can throw exploding polka-dots at people, and a bipedal walking shark named Nanaue (voiced by Sylvester Stallone).

In my review of the 2016 Suicide Squad I said “for the most part they’re more like a special forces team of sorts than a conventional superhero team and it seems a bit odd to be sending them against this magical supernatural apocalyptic villain [when] these guys should be sent to take out a dictator or a cartel or a colorful gangster or something.”  Sure enough, while this sequel does eventually have them taking on a more fantastical villain eventually, the bulk of this movie does send the Suicide Squad after a more down to earth villain in the form of a Latin American dictator rather than the sorceress lady with an army of monsters they were fighting in the first film.  That kind of goes a long way and it’s in large part the result of Warner Brothers having let James Gunn make his Suicide Squad movie a hard R rated film as opposed to the lighter rating that previous movie struggled to earn through giving its squad CGI opponents to kill.  But beyond that, the harder rating here allows for a certain attitude that pervades this movie, there’s a meanness to it that isn’t quite there in Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies.  Characters are killed off here in a way that is downright flippant and the movie also dabbles in some political content that you don’t expect from a lot of studio tent poles.  The similarities between this plot and America’s history of Latin American interventionism is not lost on Gunn and the film doesn’t relegate this to subtext or blame an organization like Hydra for this, it’s flat out shady behavior by the American government behind everything.

Aesthetically one of the bigger differences you’ll notice between this and the 2016 film is actually the costuming.  You look at that movie and you notice that most of the squad aren’t really dressed like superheroes, they’re either wearing regular streetwear or they have some sort of modern looking armor and director David Ayer was generally trying to make sure everyone involved looked really cool.  Here they mostly take the opposite approach; most of the squad are dressed in very gaudy and very silver age comic book-like superhero outfits that are meant to emphasize the ridiculousness of some of these characters.  There are exceptions; Bloodsport’s costume is not dissimilar from what Will Smith was wearing in the first film, Harley Quinn’s outfits are in line with what she usually wears, and Ratcatcher is mostly dressed like a normal commando, but Peacemaker is decked out like a parody of Captain America complete with a silver helmet that gets compared to a toilet seat at one point and Polka-dot Man is in a crazy outfit covered in… polka dots.  Ovcr the course of the film you will detect something of a pattern in who is allowed to wear normal stuff and who isn’t (hint: you’ll notice that a lot of the people you meet earliest in the film are dressed the most ridiculously) but the choice points towards a larger change in the movie’s tone: it’s trying to be irreverent rather than badass… though there are also certainly badass moments.

The thing is, at this point we’re almost as over-saturated with violent and irreverent superhero movies as we are with regular vanilla superheroes.  We’ve got Deadpool, we’ve got “The Boys,” we’ve got “Invincible,” and for that matter we have Birds of Prey, so a lot of this movie’s “craziness” isn’t going to hit as hard as it might have five years ago or thereabouts.  Spoiler.  Introducing a team of heroes only to immediately kill them off is a move that would seem absolutely outrageous if not for the fact that Deadpool 2 already did it, similarly turning a flag waving Boy Scout like Peacemaker into a psycho for the establishment would seem wildly subversive if “The Boys” wasn’t already all about that.  But that’s not to say there aren’t some legitimately clever things here.  Ending the movie with a fight against a giant walking starfish is certainly not the obvious and expected choice given where this thing starts and there are other smaller choices along the way like a half animated fight scene or a person riding a floor as multiple levels of a tower collapse.  Also as jaded as we’ve all become I do think it’s safe to say that a movie prominently featuring a shark person walking around eating people is still kind of weird.

So is this better than the 2016 Suicide Squad?  Yeah, of course, but maybe not by as much as some people will say.  Even more pertinently I definitely don’t think it’s as good as the work James Gunn did on Guardians of the Galaxy with its more feel good vibes.  Honestly I think Gunn might be a filmmaker who works better under the constraints of something like the MCU forcing him to dilute his usual snark into something more human and sincere, without that his edgelord Troma side (the side that led him to post a bunch of tweets that would eventually get him in trouble with the mouse) starts to come out.  This movie doesn’t necessarily go too far in that direction but it edges up to that line here and there.  Beyond that there are some more basic issues to be found; it’s pacing is a bit weird, it’s rather inconsistent about how much Amanda Waller is able to see whenever it’s convenient, I didn’t care for a sub-plot involving Harley Quinn and the seeming villain of the film about half way through.  Also, while the film clearly has a wit to it I wouldn’t really call it “funny” exactly, I wasn’t really laughing through it.  But again, a duel with a giant starfish kind of goes a long way toward smoothing over any issues I might have with something like this.  This is definitely a movie worth seeing if this kind of “oh no they didn’t” satire is for you or if you’re just looking for a mean little action movie or if you just want to mess around in DC continuity for a while.  It’s not going to be for everyone (I suspect it will definitely alienate some audiences) but it probably shouldn’t be ignored.

***1/2 out of Five


Crash Course: Iranian New Wave Beyond Kiarostami

Given the country’s rather… fraught… position within modern geopolitics it has long been interesting that Iran has become and remains a pretty vital creator of world cinema.  For the longest time it wasn’t even entirely clear if post-revolution Iran was even going to have cinema at all, and it’s said that it was only because of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s admiration for the 1969 film The Cow and its ability to impart social value that movies weren’t simply banned from the country and instead emerged a rather brainy national cinema Vis-à-vis the Iranian New Wave.  It would not be until a good decade after the revolution that Iranian cinema would begin to be a staple of international film festivals and the 1990s would be a particularly fruitful decade for the country.  But as important as the Iranian New Wave is my own exposure to it has been rather limited to the works of one filmmaker: Abbas Kiarostami.  Focusing on him isn’t exactly a difficult choice: he’s far and away the nation’s most famous filmmaker and his films have a stellar reputation unto themselves, but I do think I need a better idea of the wider movement.  Outside of his work pretty much the only Iranian cinema I’ve experienced has been the work of Asghar Farhadi (which are more recent, and perhaps distinct from the movement we saw in the 90s), a couple of latter day Jafar Panahi movies, and some movies made by Iranian ex-pats like Under the Shadow and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.  So clearly the time to broaden my understanding is now; I want to look at six movies made during the height of this movement in the 90s and taking in a pair of movies from the three most prominent non-Kiarostami directors of the era: Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, and Majid Majidi.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf

A Moment of Innocence (1996)

The first director I’m going to be looking at in this little Iranian film marathon will be Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who I was somewhat familiar with for the fact that he’s a bit of a (mostly off screen) subject of the 1990 Abbas Kiarostami film, which looked at a young man who was arrested for claiming to be Makhmalbaf to sort of get in with an upper-class family.  So clearly Makhmalbaf was already something of a “name” in Iran way back in the 80s, but he mostly became known to western audiences in the 90s and his most famous work is likely A Moment of Innocence, which is not unlike Close-Up in that Makhmalbaf himself is in the center of it and it blurs the line between documentary and fiction film in a very meta way.   The film looks at an incident from Makhmalbaf’s life from twenty years earlier when he was a teenage malcontent involved in revolutionary protest against the Shah and at one point tried to “disarm” a police officer along with a female accomplice and ended up stabbing him, an assault which ended up landing him in jail for five years.  Twenty years later he had a chance encounter with that police officer, who is now trying to get work as an actor and hatched a plan to make a film with him.

That film would be a film about the making of a film about the incident and would follow this former cop, Mirhadi Tayebi, as he was essentially invited to co-direct: he’d select an actor who would play him in the recreation and would direct him to behave the way he did that day.  But it becomes increasingly clear that Tayebi doesn’t just want to reenact that fateful day, he wants to re-write it.  Makhmalbaf is less present in the film than you might expect and seems oddly camera-shy for someone who’s basically making a movie about his own experience.  The audience craves for him and Tayebi to interact a bit more directly but it never quite happens and Makhmalbaf seems to be trying to make his filmmaking decisions do the talking though they are a touch cryptic, especially in its final freeze-frame which puts symbols right in the audience’s face while not being entirely clear about what they mean.  By the end of the film I’m still not entirely clear how Makhmalbaf feels about the incident that sparked all of this, and I wonder what Tayebi feels about the final product.  It’s certainly not a movie that looks to give easy answers and I’m not sure I entirely “get” it but it definitely made me think.

Gabbeh (1996)

Gabbeh actually came out the same exact year as A Moment of Innocence but is in many ways a much different movie despite both having a similar mind bending quality and along with his films The Silence and The Gardener is said to form a “poetic trilogy.” The word “Gabbeh” refers to a kind of Persian carpet that has a sort of patchwork of pictorial designs that are considered to be an art form unto itself.  The film is based on a kind of blunt magical realism and kicks off with an old couple unrolling one of these carpets near a river and a woman from the past sort of magically appears on it, possibly the manifestation of one of the illustrations from the carpet.  This woman seems to be going through a sort of folkloric drama where she pines for this horse rider on the periphery of her village but has been forbidden from marrying unless her uncle marries first for some reason.  So there are shades of “The Taming of the Shrew” there, but I’m not sure if that’s an intentional reference and the specifics of her story isn’t really the point anyway.  Instead I get the impression that the filming of this thing was pretty loose and that there wasn’t a super clear structure in mind beyond a concept and some ideas and it was edited together in a way that that is rather abstract and dreamlike.  It’s really not an easy film to follow in general and the way it has the past and the present are mashed together.  I’m also not sure if there’s some cultural stuff I’m completely missing here, particularly the fact that this is set well outside of Tehran and focuses on rural people from the past who are a little hard to get a grasp of.  Looking at it in retrospect I see some interesting ideas at its core, but it wasn’t the clearest or most exciting watch, though I suppose the Iranian New Wave isn’t exactly where you go for narrative clarity and excitement.

Majid Majidi

Children of Heaven (1997)

While Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, and Panahi won the hearts of critics in the 90s, it was the filmmaker Majid Majidi who managed to score a (very relative) popular hit with his 1997 film Children of Heaven.  Now, this movie wasn’t exactly a blockbuster by any means, but it did get Miramax distribution and was the first Iranian film to be nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars (where it lost to Life is Beautiful), but more than that I also remember it being strongly championed by Siskel and Ebert (the later of whom was famously a bit of a Kiarostami skeptic) who recommended it as a film to take children to, which might have been a tad ambitious.  I’ve always viewed the Iranian New Wave as taking the techniques of Neo-Realism (performances by non-actors, a focus lowly people within society, naturalistic photography) and using them for very metatextual and post-modern ends.  But this movie leans much more toward straightforward neo-realism and has pretty clear shades of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali in that it looks at fairly impoverished conditions through a child’s eyes.  The film looks at a proletarian child who is tasked with picking up his sister’s shoes from a repairman and, through childish clumsiness, ends up losing them.  Knowing his parents can’t afford to buy replacements he and the sister work to swap his own shoes and her sandals depending on who need which when and he eventually tries to win new shoes for her in a youth foot race.

It’s well known that a lot of Iranian New Wave films focused on the lives of children, which was a trick that a lot of these filmmakers used to get around censorship issues, which were so severe in Iran that it was hard to tell a story about adults given that you couldn’t so much as show married characters kiss without getting into trouble.  That said I’m not sure this is really meant as a film about Iranian society or poverty conditions so much as it’s a sort of fable about how the stakes in life can seem different to young people.  It also has a neat bittersweet little O. Henry style ending that I appreciated.  That having been said, this isn’t 1948 and simple neorealism is not really groundbreaking in 1997, so without the metatexual noodling we’d get from some of the other New Wave directors this just doesn’t feel as special.  Then again, maybe it’s a little unfair to directly compare this with movies like Close-Up just because it happens to come from the same country around the same time, Iranians in the 1990s should have the same rights to make something relatively simple that anyone else does, and looked at in a vacuum this is a cute little movie that’s worth a watch.

The Color of Paradise (1999)

This is Majid Majidi’s follow-up to Children of Heaven and it’s pretty clear looking at it that he was given a bigger budget to work with after that film’s relative success and while Sony Pictures Classics did try to recreate that previous film’s success stateside it never really caught on the same way and Majidi has never really been able to win over the world audience since despite consistently working in Iran.  Here the welfare of children is once again a central theme but with a focus on disability rather than poverty.  At its center is a child of about seven or eight named Mohammad who is blind (and played by an actual blind kid) who has a difficult relationship with his father, a widower and general dickhead who begins the movie trying to avoid taking any responsibility of this kid.  The father is played by Hossein Mahjoub, who is an experienced actor, but in typical Iranian New Wave fashion most of the rest of the cast is made up of non-actors.  That said there is a bit of a stylistic shift from Children of Heaven here.  That movie was definitely made within the tradition of neorealism while this one, despite the non-actors, has maybe more of an Ozu feel at least in terms of story and emotion if not exact visual style.  During the scenes focused on the blind kid Majidi does some smart things with the film’s sound design in order to give you a good idea of what the child is focusing on and sort of getting a good idea of how he senses the world.  The melodrama with the family to me was perhaps a bit less successful and there are some dynamics with dowries and whatnot that I never really understood, but taken on their own terms they work well enough.  I can kind of see why this didn’t catch on with a wider public but I don’t necessarily think it’s a lesser film than Children of Heaven and if you’re looking for some more accessible Iranian fare this isn’t a half bad option.

Jafar Panahi

The White Balloon (1995)

I started this little marathon of Iranian New Wave films in large part because I wanted to broaden my knowledge of that movement beyond the work of Abbas Kiarostami, but even in doing that I can’t entirely get away from the guy because he actually wrote the screenplay for this next film, which is the acclaimed debut feature from filmmaker Jafar Panahi.  Panahi was a filmmaker I did have a bit more experience with than Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Majid Majidi; years ago I stumbled across his cheekily feminist 2006 film Offside but more importantly I was aware of the fact that he became something of a cause célèbre within the film world when the Iranian government charged him with making propaganda against the state and issued a 20 year ban on all filmmaking activities by him.  That ban has proven to be less strict than was initially believed and he’s managed to make four films since then and smuggle them out of the country, including his 2011 film This is Not a Film, which I watched at the height of this controversy.  What I had not watch, however, were the earlier films from the 90s that built up Panahi’s profile (and among Iranian censors, infamy) and there seemed like no better place to start than with this debut film The White Balloon.

Now, when I undertook little marathon I ended up watching Majid Majidi’s films before Panahi’s work, largely for logistical reasons, and that might have been a mistake.  Watching The White Balloon it’s hard not to realize that Majidi’s film Children of Heaven (made just two years later) was definitely in dialogue with Panahi’s film what with the common theme children over-reacting to mistakes they’ve made and the use of symbolic goldfish.  The film is about a young girl who wants to buy a goldfish, so her mother gives her a 500-toman note and tells her to buy the fish with it but bring back the change, but once the girl gets into the town she manages to lose the bank note and spends the rest of the film desperately trying to get it back.  So, like Children of Heaven this is a movie about a kid kind of over-reacting to a situation adults are kind of indifferent to (I’m not sure what the exact exchange rate of Iranian Tomans, but considering a single goldfish costs 100 of them I doubt this bill is really that valuable), and of course Panahi didn’t invent this idea.  Abbas Kiarostami’s 1987 film Where Is the Friend’s House? also had a similar concept I’m sure there were other examples, it seems like it’s as common an idea in the Iranian New Wave as cameras closing in on people driving around in cars.  Anyway, if Children of Heaven was meant to be a riff on this idea one could call it the streamlined and accessible version of this more raw original that’s a little less audience pleasing but is perhaps a bit more honest.  It is not necessarily a movie I’d show to someone who wasn’t pretty deep into cinema as this is definitely the kind of movie that would make certain people go “nothing happens,” but it you’re interested in making a bit of a humanistic connection it can be rewarding.

The Mirror (1997)

Jafar Panahi’s follow-up to The White Balloon, The Mirror, starts out looking a lot like it will be similar to the predecessor albeit perhaps with a bit more suspense.  It begins with a very young girl finding herself alone at school without having been picked up by her mother.  She tries to take the bus home alone but gets mixed up and finds herself going off in the wrong direction and before you know it she’s completely lost.  But then there’s a twist: the little girl suddenly stops and says she doesn’t want to be in the movie anymore and with the fourth wall broken we zoom out and see Jafar Panahi reacting to his star refusing to continue with the shoot.  This is probably the great nightmare of anyone who works with young actors, non-professional actors, or non-professional young actors but Panahi (or perhaps the character he’s playing) decides to make the most of this situation and decides to leave the actress mic’d up and follow her as she makes her way home, essentially finishing their fictional story by proxy.  Though I’m note entirely certain I’d say more likely than not that none of these supposedly documentary elements are real, I suspect this fourth wall breaking tantrum was scripted and so was the adventure the actress goes on for the rest of the film as allowing this kid to go home alone would basically be child endangerment.  Still, that sort of line between scripted filmmaking and reality is exactly the sort of thing that often gets explored in the Iranian New Wave and Panahi is definitely leaving that open to interpretation for a reason.  I would say though, that once that fourth wall break happens the movie maybe doesn’t have a whole lot of places to go from there.  The fact that they continue to follow the girl from there is interesting conceptually but her adventures from that point aren’t themselves necessarily that much more interesting than they were in the first half and then ending is kind of an intentional anti-climax.  Still, definitely a must see if you’re looking into this movement.

The Green Knight(7/30/2021)

Last year when Covid was destroying the film industry we saw major releases like F9: The Fast Saga, Black Widow, and No Time to Die play musical chairs with release dates as they moved back to maximize profits through theatrical releases.  But that didn’t happen so much with that year’s indie releases like Nomadland and The Sound of Metal, which were low budget enough that they didn’t need millions in box office revenue to make a profit, so rather than waiting for true theatrical releases they found various ways to show up on streaming and went out.  There was, however, one indie distributor which (with a few exceptions) opted not to play that game and that was A24.  In particular I think their film The Green Knight was emblematic of this: it was set to debut at the 2020 South By Southwest Film Festival leading up to a May 2020 release, but the festival was cancelled, the release was cancelled, and fun and good times were cancelled.  But A24 didn’t go running to CBS All Access or whatever with their movie; instead much like the big studios they decided to hold out for a theatrical release for their crazy looking horror inflected Arthurian Legend movie… a decision I support wholeheartedly.  Well, the time has finally arrived for David Lowery’s new movie to come out so the big question is “was it worth the wait?”

The film is a cinematic adaptation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a fourteenth century epic poem from an unknown author that exists within the legend of King Arthur and concerns a wager made between an impulsive young knight named Sir Gawain and a supernatural entity called simply The Green Knight.  In the poem the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who here is this strange entity which resembles a walking tree, rides into Arthurs court on Christmas Day and gives an open challenge to those present: fight him in one on one combat and if you can land a blow on him you get to keep his axe but must meet him at his green chapel a year later and take a blow from him.  Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) accepts the challenge but once the duel begins The Green Knight drops his weapon and sticks out his neck, which Gawain takes advantage of and lops off the creature’s head.  This was a mistake however, as the creature simply picks the head back up and rides off laughing.  Gawain is now on the hook to venture out a year later to meet his fate at the chapel and much of the film concerns that journey.

Going into The Green Knight I was not really aware of how much of a direct adaptation of a particular old text it was; indeed the film very closely follows the opening setup of the original text but greatly expands its middle and completely changes its ending but despite those changes it does seem to be very interested in preserving the legend’s medieval peculiarities even as it uses very modern techniques and aesthetic sensibilities to bring them to the screen.  The film’s opening wager, for example, makes very little sense.  What exactly does this guy have to gain from taking up this duel with the Green Knight?  “Winning” this duel seems to do little except place a burden on his head, we have no idea why having this axe for a year will be of any use to him, and the whole thing really obviously seems like a trap.  Still he goes ahead with it anyway, seemingly out of some arcane notion of honor, and the film goes along with it fairly unquestioningly and it also shows certain supernatural moments pretty overtly in a way that was almost reminiscent of Darren Arronofsky’s radically literal adaptation of the Noah story.  Then when the Gawain goes on his journey the film departs from the original text, which I understand sort of yada yada yadas the actual journey, but I get the impression that the stories along the way which the film does depict are also drawn from legend and folklore to some extent, particularly a stand-out section involving a skull in a spring.

The film was directed by David Lowery, who is certainly an auteur but one who does tend to switch up his choice of subject matter and sort of leaves you guessing as to what to expect from one of his movies.  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and The Old Man & the Gun both revealed an aesthetic love of 60s and 70s cinema while A Ghost Story is very minimalist and psychological but all of his films betray a certain interest in legend as a storytelling method and that is perhaps taken to its logical extreme with this movie that almost wants to be a medieval chronicle, but one brought to the screen using the aesthetics of the “A24 horror film” (despite not being a horror film).  The Green Knight himself looks like a creature out of a Guillermo del Toro movie and the film’s sets are built in a way where they feel intimate despite being literal castles and the forests are moody in a way that’s almost expressionistic.  The film’s title, applied to the modern vernacular, would suggest that the whole thing may have an environmentalist message and there are a couple shots in there that suggest that there may be something of that hidden in there, but the bigger message is probably more of a modern twist on the moral of the original story which is to do with chivalric virtue and masculinity of which this is a lot less forgiving than the original bard who came up with all of this.  I’ll leave it at that for now as this is probably not a movie to be decoded on a first viewing, but needless to say I think this movie is a cool and kind of trippy experience that is more than worth a viewing though it certainly won’t be for everyone.

**** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 7/1/2021

The Mauritanian (6/18/2021)

As a film year 2021 is odd because we got an influx of Oscar hopefuls at the beginning of the year and while I watched a lot of them leading up to the big award shows there were some stragglers I’m still catching up with and The Mauritanian is one of them.  As an awards contender the film turned out to be something of a dud; it won Jodie Foster a Golden Globe but outside of that it mostly felt like fodder for a future episode of the “This Had Oscar Buzz?” podcast.  However, as not overly popular awards wannabes go I’ve seen much worse than this.  The film is about the fight for the release of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who was arrested during the “war on terror” and placed in Guantanamo Bay for over a decade without being charged for a crime, primarily told from the perspective of his attorney played by Foster.  I’ve seen kind of a lot of these movies about Bush-era torture and Guantanamo like Rendition and The Report and most of them are… well meaning but kind of lacking in true profundity.  In particular this film really resembles The Report but it has a bit more of a heart to it in part because it focuses in on an actual victim of this war on terror rather than staying in a sort of theoretical place.  On the other hand this is still very much a movie that’s trying to “raise awareness” by targeting some theoretical Middle American audience that doesn’t actually go to see movies like these and that ends up making it feel rather middlebrow and preachy.  Still I do think it’s generally better made than some of the other movies that exists in this space and has a nice eye for detail as well as some decent performances from Jodie Foster and Tahar Rahim (though not so much Benedict Cumberbatch).

*** out of Five

WeWork: or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn (6/20/2021)

I’ve talked a lot recently about documentaries about current events managing to get rushed into production at a shocking pace these days and, well, this is one of those.  WeWork basically imploded in September 2019 and yet this film managed to be produced, shot, and edited last year (presumably during a pandemic) and premiered at South By Southwest this March… that’s quite the turnaround time… but I’m not sure the film really suffered because of it.  For those who don’t know WeWork was (is?) a rather strange company that carried itself like it was an emerging tech giant but it was really more of a real estate company that subleased office space for companies, which really isn’t as exciting as they seemed to think it was but that didn’t stop them from blowing ungodly amounts of money on worker amenities and parties and whatnot while not actually having a profitable business model.  Little of what the company did seems to have been criminal and ultimately their actions do not really seem to have hurt anyone except themselves and their outrageously rich and unsympathetic investors (including the Saudi Royal family).  The film interviews a number of former employees and some outside analysts and they all basically paint exactly the picture most people had about this company: that its demise was almost entirely the result the hubris of its wacky forty year old founder Adam Neumann and that the whole story was a large scale example of what happens when trying to “fake it ‘til you make it” goes wrong.  The bigger question is why more people didn’t call this company on its rather obvious shortcomings beneath the surface, and the answer seems to be that they were so dazzled by the swank office and bluster that they weren’t looking at the company’s real substance and on some level I think the documentary falls into that trap as well.  You hear a lot about what it was like to work in the company’s cult-like environment, not so much about what they actually do as a business.  Ultimately there is some interest in this story but… it’s no Theranos, and as a documentary this doesn’t really have the goods to really transcend into the realm of being particularly notable cinema.

*** out of Five

City of Lies (6/25/2021)

I hadn’t heard many nice things about this movie but did decide to watch it anyway, in part because of my pathological need to see seemingly every project that gets made about the various theories about the deaths of Biggie and Tupac, which I have been mired in to the point where it may make it hard to objectively view anything based in this subject matter.  This particular film has had something of a troubled history as its release was delayed in part because of a lawsuit that was filed over star Johnny Depp having assaulted someone on set as part of a (probably drunken) argument.  There was, however, a report suggesting that this lawsuit was actually a pretext used to harm the movie because the LAPD didn’t want it released… but I don’t really believe that at all because everything in this movie is very, very, very old news.  The movie is based around arguments made by former detective Russell Poole that would be laid out in Randall Sullivan’s book “LAbyrinth.”  Sullivan is a character in this movie’s framing story, which depicts him as learning all of this shortly before Poole’s 2015 death, but that’s clearly a fabrication as that aforementioned book was published in 2002, about five years after Biggie Smalls’ death.  That “LAbyrinth theory” has been the basis for most media about this subject; it was the basis for Nick Broomfeld’s 2002 documentary “Biggie & Tupac” and a version of the conspiracy theory was also the basis for the recent mini-series “Unsolved.”

In essence the “LAbyrinth” theory is that Death Row Records CEO Suge Knight ordered the killings of both Tupac and Biggie, the former over a contractual dispute and the latter in order to drive suspicion away from himself in that first killing so that the “coastal feud” between the two rappers would take the blame.  Also that Knight employed various corrupt LAPD officers to engage in these killings.  I’ve always found this conspiracy theory to have a few holes in it and Poole’s account of the investigations to be… rather self-serving.  The main issue with the theory is that it’s a little hard to swallow that Knight would try to have Tupac killed while he was in the same car with him, also Occam’s Razor would strongly point towards that murder having been retaliation for the fist fight that Knight and Tupac had engaged in fifteen minutes earlier.  It is possible for Knight to have ordered the Biggie shooting without having been involved in the Tupac killing and there does seems to be some evidence of police corruption around the margins but Poole was never really able to do much more than find a bit of smoke that may or may not indicate fire.

I go into depth about this because this movie, in many ways, is looking to do for the “LAbyrinth Theory” what Oliver Stone’s JFK did for the “grassy knoll” and I’m not sure that’s inherently a good thing.  There are, however, many reasons why this movie has failed to impress a lot of people who don’t come into it with strong feelings about the theory at its center.  For one thing it’s kind of not great optics to take a story about the death of two black icons and center it on a white cop.  This was also a complaint about “Unsolved” and is perhaps unavoidable if this is the story you’re trying to tell, but it is off-putting to many and the film certainly didn’t do itself any favors by looking to Johnny Depp to play this guy, firstly because a lot of people have come to dislike Depp as a person but more importantly because Depp is an actor who is quickly running towards Harrison Ford levels of not taking his job seriously and he rarely really brings life to this rather talky movie filled with arcane and hard to follow facts and names.   Beyond that director Brad Furman just can’t really inject the film with the same kind of energy and interest you get from something like JFK or to make the umpteenth repetition of this theory a real reason to be presented yet again all these years later.

** out of Five

Some Kind of Heaven (6/27/2021)

Some Kind of Heaven is a new, somewhat anthropological documentary peeking in at “The Villages” in Florida, which is one of the largest retirement communities in the world.  Seemingly inspired by Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven, the film focuses on a handful of people at this village and tries to analyze what brings them to a place like this at the end.  The filmmakers are plainly not a fan of “The Villages” and film them in a way that make them look like these rather odd and artificial places filled with people who have become disconnected from the rest of the world and are now wasting away in Margaritaville (yes, Jimmy Buffet is mentioned by name at one point).  The film eventually ends up focusing on a couple inhabitants who maybe don’t have the easiest time fitting into the community, including a guy who lives in a trailer on its periphery and ends up in some trouble with the law.  There is interest to the film, but I’m not sure it entirely sustains its runtime and wonder if it might have been better served as some sort of short form documentary than as a feature and I’m not exactly sure who its audience is supposed to be.  It a touch to arty for the casual viewer but I’m not sure that its going to be blowing the minds of more dedicated cinephiles.  Nonetheless there is a decent message somewhere in there about whether “paradise” is ever really “paradise” that one can find if they dig for it.

*** out of Five

Chaos Walking (7/1/2021)

Chaos Walking was put out in theaters about a month before Godzilla Vs. Kong as something of a guinea pig to see if people were ready to go back to theaters and as it turns out they weren’t, though I’m not sure people would have been terribly interested in this movie even under better circumstances.  From the outside this kind of just looks like Lionsgate grasping at straws to try to make the dystopian YA thing come back and… yeah, that’s pretty much what it is.  I had some higher hopes for it because of the people involved; director Doug Liman usually does good work and its stars Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland are red hot right now and should be able to associate themselves with good stuff, but this one just doesn’t come together at all.  The film is set in some distant future where humans have colonized other planets and is set on one of these colonies about a generation removed from its initial settlement but as it starts the colony’s women have all been killed by an indigenous alien species and the planet has a strange effect on the survivors where it makes all their thoughts audible and in some instances visible to everyone around them and the plot kicks in when a small spaceship crashes onto the planet with the Ridley character on board and she and the Holland character have to go on the run from some bad guys.  I don’t really like what Daisy Ridley is doing here; they’ve given her a very stupid looking blonde wig and her character has to spend the whole movie being scared and acting with hostility toward everyone trying to help her.  Tom Holland’s character is also totally bland.  And on a more fundamental level I think there may be a few too many high concepts here that the movie doesn’t really do a whole lot with.  The bit where thoughts are revealed would have been enough, or the planet with nothing but men would have been enough, or escorting a more technologically advanced stranded person might have been enough but the movie tries to do all of these things at once and never really goes deep on any one.  And on just an aesthetic level it doesn’t have much to offer; the visual style is vanilla and the action scenes are mediocre at best.  It passes the time alright and is never offensively bad or anything but at the end of the day it’s a deeply average and inessential film.

**1/2 out of Five

Black Widow(7/11/2021)

On July 2nd 2019 the movie Spider-Man: Homecoming came out in U.S. theaters.  It was the third Marvel Cinematic Universe movie of that year and was supposed to be the last one before a relatively lengthy break in the run up to the May 2020 release of the next film: a long awaited solo venture for the popular Black Widow character.  Little did we know at the time that a worldwide pandemic would make that break even longer but after a 738 day wait (slightly over two years) the MCU is finally back in action.  Of course one has to wonder if that delay was to the franchise’s benefit, since it gave audiences a break and built up demand, or was it to their detriment since it kind of slowed the momentum?  I know that when F9: The Fast Saga opened a couple of weeks ago the former was true: a bit of extra time away broke up the monotony and made things feel fresher.  That might not necessarily be the case there, in part because Marvel/Disney did spend some of the pandemic releasing Marvel themed TV shows like “Wandavision” and “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” so we haven’t ha d a break from Marvel so much as we’ve had a break from Marvel opening weekends and also the MCU left us in kind of a weird place where we’d just had a finale with Avengers: Endgame and a partial new beginning with Spider-Man: Homecoming.  So this return was a little awkward, but even if it isn’t ideal I was more than a little ready to show up during the opening weekend of Black Widow.

Black Widow opens with a fairly lengthy prologue to when Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) was eleven or so and was apparently living in Ohio with her younger sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) and her parents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz), who are all apparently in the kind of deep cover situation made famous by the show “The Americans.”  That mission ends pretty suddenly and the four of them go their separate ways within the world or Russian espionage with Natasha eventually becoming the agent who would be a fixture of the MCU’s first three phases.  The bulk of this movie is set in 2016 and covers what Black Widow was up to while she was on the run for violating the Sokovia Accords after the events of Captain America: Civil War.  During that period her attempts to lay low were apparently cut short because of her sister, who was still part of the Black Widow program and has come into contact with vials of a substance that cures a form of mind control that many of those agents have come under and tries to get this to Natasha, an action that puts both of them in the crosshairs of a ruthless and methodical assassin called The Taskmaster.

Getting Black Widow a solo movie was something of a cause célèbre around phases one and two of the MCU, in part because the whole enterprise was being criticized for its lack of female superheroes being given solo films.  Personally I sympathized with the frustrations that caused that uproar more than I agreed with the proposed solution.  Black Widow to me was not a terribly interesting character: essentially a super-spy rather than a true hero, her solo film was inevitably just going to be a more explosion filled version of a Bourne movie or a James Bond movie, which obviously isn’t an inherently bad thing but wasn’t necessarily what this franchise needed and in general I didn’t see any more of a need such a film than I did for a Nick Fury or Hawkeye solo effort (though we now essentially got the former through Captain Marvel and are getting the latter via a Disney+ show).  That said, if they were going to make a Black Widow movie that probably would have been the time to do it and making one now, after the character already supposedly died in Avengers: Endgame (we’ll see if that lasts) is particularly head-scratching.  Still there were some spots of lore to fill in and the movie does a reasonably good job of doing that by explaining some of Romanoff’s backstory and however this fits in there’s obviously could simply be an opportunity for some solid action thrills.

I will say I found the first half of this movie rather disappointing.  The prologue was kind of neat (though I hated a musical choice used to transition out of it) and thought there was some promise in the setup, but something felt off about the whole thing.  There was comedy, but it wasn’t as sharp and I didn’t like the film’s look, which was drab and gray even by Marvel standards.  I would also say that Taskmaster was a very lame villain, a total retread of The Winder Soldier who brings nothing new to the table and had they not revealed themselves to be more of a henchman than a villain in the second half it would have been a pretty big problem.  Fortunately things do improve at a certain point.  Eventually the family from the prologue come together as adults and we get a sort of fun take on the dysfunctional family comedy by being given a dysfunctional family of super-spies and the comedy starts working better when David Harbour shows up as the bumbling patriarch.  The second half also introduces a better villain who provides some interesting moments in the finale.  Still I’m not sure I ever quite felt that Marvel magic at work.  A lot of the action here felt a bit perfunctory; it had the scope of destruction from the other MCU films but the absence of actual superpowers did detract from them and the comedy never quite clicked with me.

It is of course not lost on the filmmakers that this film is trying to bring depth to a character that was rather heavily sexualized during her first couple of outings in the MCU and director Cate Shortland throws some jabs in that direction and the film’s ultimate villain is pretty clearly supposed to represent the patriarchy at its most extreme.  Still these themes don’t run terribly deep and don’t feel overly unprecedented; Captain Marvel operated at a similar level but generally had more fun with it.  Beyond that the whole thing just felt rather inessential both as a Marvel movie and as an action movie.  It’s not a disaster or anything, go see it and you will be amused at the very least, but Marvel has raised the bar quite a bit in the last four years or so and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold them to their own high standards and this doesn’t really stack up.  Then again, maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed the day I watched it?  This is only really the second major blockbuster we got in theaters post pandemic and I must say I think F9: The Fast Saga delivered for its fans more than this one did.  That movie was all kinds of stupid but it was at least interested in topping its predecessors, this one on the other hand almost felt like a contractual obligation that was fulfilled with minimal enthusiasm.

**1/2 out of Five