September 2021 Round-Up

Malignant(9/13/2021)

The trailers for Malignant prominently say it’s form the director of The Conjuring, which they presumably think is a big selling point but to me that was a big reason to be skeptical as I thought The Conjuring was one of the more over-rated horror movies of the last decade, in large part because it felt like it was just the umpteenth haunted house movie we’d gotten around the time it was just operating on a tired horror formula.  As it starts Malignant kind of feels like it too will be going on that playbook but as it goes it proves to be something much crazier than that which certainly can’t be accused of being just like its peers.  I hesitate to go too deep into the details but the movie is closer to a slasher movie than a haunting movie but it’s not really following the formula of 80s horror flicks and actually seems more like a throwback to the Italian Giallo genre or perhaps more accurately some of Dario Argento’s more supernatural horror films both for better and worse.  Like those movies this operates on a rather nutty kind of nightmare logic including an absolutely ludicrous (perhaps gleefully luiclous) twist to explain the film’s going-ons which defies any and all scientific logic.  Also like those Italian thrillers it’s gory as hell, which isn’t a surprise coming from the director of Saw but is a surprise coming from the director of Insidious.  As it goes on the film becomes surprisingly action-oriented because its central killer proves to not be a lumbering brute and instead is something of a fast-moving and agile warrior which leads to some outlandish set-pieces which are highlights of the film bordering on being worth the price of admission.  This is decidedly not a movie for “everyone” and even as I caught on to its nutty spirit I’m not sure I was completely sold on it and if you’re someone who wants your horror movies to be sensible and restrained this is not that.

***1/2 out of Five

Cry Macho(9/21/2021)

With his film Unforgiven actor/director Clint Eastwood presented us with a different and older version of his usual screen persona doing something that felt like something of a final statement by an elder statesman of cinema as he entered the final stages of his career.  Thing is it’s now been almost thirty years since he did that; his post-Unforgiven directorial career has been about a decade longer than his pre-Unforgiven directorial career and as he makes movie after movie that feels like it could be his last it’s kind of starting to take the feel of a classic rock band going on its second or third separate farewell tour.  What’s more, at this point he’s kind of repeating himself.  His latest film Cry Macho, about an old man guiding a troubled youth of color who has problems with criminals, sure feels a lot like his 2008 film Gran Torino that itself felt like something of a retirement announcement.  Of course you can watch this without thinking about the meta-narrative of 91 year old Clint Eastwood’s career I think that would largely make the film even less interesting.  It’s basically just a standard issue “generations bond while on a road trip” movie and not a particularly inspired one given that neither of the major characters here are all that fleshed out.  We get a vague understanding of the Eastwood character’s past but the details are scant and he doesn’t have many personality traits other than being old and somewhat sensible, and while we get the idea that the kid here is kind of traumatized by his crazy mother we don’t get a whole lot more past that.  From there the story doesn’t really go in any terribly interesting directions.  In many ways the whole movie seems to have been made so that Eastwood can deliver a monologue late in the film about machismo (parts of it are in the trailer), which is neat, but it deserves to be in a better movie.

** out of Five

The Eyes of Tammy Faye(9/26/2021)

It’s autumn: the air is getting chillier, the leaves are starting to turn… and we’re starting to have straight-up Oscar bait show up in theaters.  Our first contender of the year is The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a film about the marriage of the infamous televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker, who built an empire off of suckering people into donating money to people on TV who were obviously already millionaires and who are today generally looked at with disdain even by believers even as people running nearly identical hustles are as active as ever.  The film was directed by Michael Showalter but really plays more like a straight biopic than like the satire you might expect and it’s hampered by not really having as much to say about its subject than you might think outside of the rather basic observation that it’s kind of jarring to see really wealthy people beg for donations in the name of Jesus.  The film might frown on televangelism but it is perhaps a bit too forgiving of Tammy herself, a figure for whom the film kind of wants to have its cake and eat it too.  It suggests that in her own way Faye Baker was kind of a girlboss who (literally) fought for a place at the table with the boys club of evangelism and was instrumental in building the Baker empire… but also that she was a naïve ditz who was too out of the loop to be truly responsible for the corruption that ended up bringing that same empire down.  The film sticks as much to her perspective as a point of view character as possible, and given that it takes her claims of ignorance at face value this means that a lot of the juiciest corruption in this enterprise happens off screen and the film kind of assumes its audience will already know a lot of these more scandalous details, which is maybe a mistake given that this will have been before the time of a lot of viewers including myself.  I can maybe understand the instinct by the filmmakers not to go straight for the jugular with this given that the Bakers probably seem like something of an easy target but the film they made feels like a dry bite lacking the needed venom to really take down the target at hand and just kind of a waste of some decent performances by people like Jessica Chastain and Vincent D’Onofrio.

**1/2 out of Five

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Disneyology 201: The Live-Action Remakes (2010-2017)

One of the bigger box office phenomenons of the 2010s that I’d mostly avoided was Disney’s wave of live action remakes of their classic animated films.  They had tried to do this back in the 90s as well with stuff like the Glen Close 101 Dalmatians but this time they really brought their full resources to the endeavor and for whatever reasons audiences flocked to them.  But unlike Disney’s other main cash cows (Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, Disney Animation) critics are not even a little on board with this enterprise.  The films are largely seen as shameless cash grabs that are (with a few exceptions) devoid of artistic merit.  And I’ve largely just tried to avoid the damn things and I was really hoping this trend would just blow over.  It still might actually, but for the time being it seems to be going strong and it’s starting to seem like the time has come to explore what makes these things tick, which ones are better than others, and figure out why audiences are so into them.  I have already seen the remake of The Jungle Book, which looked like an interesting breakthrough in special effects (it was alright), and I saw the Mulan movie while desperate for content during the pandemic (it sucked), and I saw Cruella earlier this year because that seemed interestingly crazy (that was alright).  I guess I’ve also seen Tron: Legacy if you want to count that.  So for this series I will be watching the other fourteen live action remakes Disney made during the 2010s across two installments, and I hope it doesn’t kill me.

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

The movie that kicked off Disney’s remake rush, the 2010 Alice In Wonderland, opens up with a wealthy Victorian looking at a map and plotting out his trade empire and it ends with him conspiring with his daughter to open up China as a market for his wares… you can’t make this stuff up sometimes.  It doesn’t take too much imagination to see this as being symbolic of Disney executives viewing their movie as a cash cow as part of a multi-year strategy to expand their own entertainment empire, but truth be told I think that’s a coincidence as I actually think Disney somewhat stumbled into success with this movie.  At the very least when this came out it didn’t feel like a pilot for future remakes and for that matter it didn’t even feel that much like a Disney movie at all.  Rather, this kind of felt more like a pretty natural next step for director Tim Burton, who had been on something of a tear bringing his sensibilities to various existing properties like Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and in many ways it was almost surprising that it took him as long as it did to tackle Lewis Carol’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which had already been fodder for various gothy reinterpretations in the past.  The Disney name might have been on the poster, but this seemed less like a remake of their 1951 animated film and more like just one of many adaptations of that book and one from a director who was almost as much of a brand as that studio.  Of course Burton’s brand had its own problems, especially at that point, and so once the negative reviews poured in for this (and the reviews were pretty bad) I decided to skip it.

The film opens in the “real world” of Victorian England with a teenage Alice questioning all the edicts of what’s “proper” being thrust upon her by adults, including various pressures to marry.  By all accounts slightly ham-fisted feminist pushback on the sexist tropes of fairy tale source material will be something of a running theme in these live action remakes but it feels rather curious here given that none of this sexist societal stuff was actually there in the original source material, which begins with a young Alice pretty much immediately chasing the rabbit into Wonderland… they basically just invented a frame story so they could subvert it.  Of course this technically  isn’t even a remake.  Instead it’s supposed to be a sequel, not necessarily to the 1951 film but to the book or whatever your preferred adaptation of it is, set about ten years later when Alice is a teen rather than a child but has forgotten all about the adventures in wonderland she experienced before.  That she has forgotten everything in many ways kind of makes the fact that this is a “sequel” a bit of a distinction without a difference.  She’ll meet all the usual Wonderland characters like The Mad Hatter and the Cheshire Cat and they’ll say the recognizer her but at the end of the day she’s still basically just meeting them for the first time all over again and little of what she did there before seems to have had any lasting legacy.  From there the film rather awkwardly tries to turn this into less of a surreal living dream and more of an actual fantasy story of the Lord of the Rings variety complete with a final battle scene and a chase to slay a jabberwocky (basically just a dragon).

Ultimately this movie wasn’t really sold on its script, it was sold on its visuals.  It was widely interpreted that its success came in large part because it was in 3D and it came out about three months after James Cameron’s Avatar and audiences were so desperate for their fix of that 3D goodness that they flocked to this one as well.  It probably also didn’t hurt that Johnny Depp had not yet worn out his welcome with audiences at this point and was still in his Pirates of the Caribbean imperial phase.  In fact he seemed to be front and center in the film’s advertising rather than ostensible star Mia Wasikowska (btw, what ever happened to her?) though he’s only in parts of the film and is clearly starting to take on a lot of the traits that would quickly make him a rather tedious presence even without all the bad publicity.  But the real problem with the movie beyond any dullness in the screenplay and any shortcomings of its actors is that is visuals, the very thing this is supposed to live and die by, are just not very good.  Despite the project seemingly being one that Burton could run wild with few of the designs here really break the mold we’re used to with Alice in Wonderland adaptations and Burton gives the whole film a fairly drab atmosphere.  But even more devastatingly the CGI here doesn’t hold up at all and I have my doubts that it ever looked too great in the first place.  A lot of the characters here are rendered largely by computers and a lot of them look either dated (Cheshire Cat), uncanny (The Red Queen), plain bad (The Jabberwocky), or absolutely hideous (the Tweedle twins).  I don’t want to overstate the film’s visual shortcomings too much, there are a couple of decent moments here and there and it isn’t painful to watch so much as it’s just kind of dull.  For whatever reason though audiences seemed to disagree as the damn thing made over a billion dollars worldwide and was at one point the fifth highest grossing movie of all time (it has since fallen all the way to 43rd, so inflation is a thing) and Disney definitely decided that making more big fantasy films with ties to their past would make them a lot of money.

** out of Five

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010)

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is kind of the forgotten live action remake Disney made during this era and appears to have been made for different reasons than a lot of the other ones, but I do think it counts.  The film is meant to be a modern day riff on the famous sequence of the same name from Fantasia and while it ultimately goes off in very different directions it isn’t shy about its source material and does feature a standout (and somewhat plot irrelevant) sequence based around that same “apprentice causes chaos by bringing brooms and mops to life” theme complete with Paul Dukas’ music.  Of course why they wanted to brand this otherwise unrelated movie about modern wizardry as a remake that no one was asking for of a segment of a seventy year old movie I’m not sure, in fact I’m also not entirely sure if they set out from the beginning to make that segment into a feature of if they applied the branding on after the fact, but either way they did and it counts.  Unlike a lot of the other remakes we’re going to be looking at in this series this movie, which came out the same year as Alice in Wonderland, was made less to be a recycled family movie and was instead one of several collaborations Disney made with action movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer in an attempt to re-capture that Pirates of the Caribbean magic  by mixing semi-forgotten Disney properties with the sensibilities of more modern teen targeted action cinema.  In particular this was a reunion between Bruckheimer, Nicholas Cage, and Jon Turteltaub who had collectively made the National Treasure movies into hits for Disney.  I’m also sure that the Harry Potter franchise had more than a little bit to do with this thing getting greenlit.  So, you can see the Hollywood logic that went into this thing coming to be but it’s still pretty odd that this exists and audiences seem to have agreed because it pretty much bombed at the box office (especially domestically) and was greeted by general indifference by critics and audiences.

The thing is, while I do think the movie is a failure it’s not really as bad as its “forgotbuster” status would leave you to believe.  In many ways it’s just kind of aggressively average.  The film concerns a college aged dude played by Jay Baruchel who as a child had a (seemingly) chance encounter with an antique shop run by a wizard played by Nicholas Cage where he accidentally knocks over a magic nesting doll that was imprisoning an evil wizard played by Alfred Molina and the two of them end up trapped in another magic tchotchke for ten years and then come back in the present and start fighting over that aforementioned nesting doll where other evil wizards are trapped.  So it’s a McGuffin chase… also the Baruchel character turns out to be a chosen one that the Cage character starts to train.  It’s all rather familiar and while there are a couple passable ideas prettying this up none of them really stand out nearly enough to really make this even a little bit memorable.  The film also has a bit of an inherent structural issue in that it needs to slow down after it’s first half so that the Baruchel character actually has time to take some lessons and, you know, be an apprentice to the sorcerer but this requires that escaped evil wizard to suddenly seem like a much less pressing threat for no particular reason.  It also has this romantic sub-plot between the Baruchel character and a fellow student played by Teresa Palmer which focuses entirely on this geeky guy awkwardly mustering the courage to talk to the girl and you’re just embarrassed on this dude’s behalf through the whole thing and not really in a good way.

So, the movie has problems but Disney has sold the public on mediocrities in the past, so why did this fail so hard?  The answer is probably Nicholas Cage.  It’s not too hard to see why they thought it was a good idea to put Cage in the middle of their live action Disney movie considering that he and Turteltaub had delivered strong box office with the National Treasure movies not too much earlier but kind of a lot had happened to Cage since 2004 and he was already kind of diluting his brand by doing terrible action movies like Bangkok Dangerous, Knowing, and Ghost Rider as well as idiosyncratic “wild man” performances in stuff like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and The Wicker Man.  In short he was already starting to become a joke and was certainly not someone anyone was going to take seriously as a mentor to an apprentice.  I’d say Jay Baruchel was kind of a bad casting choice as well.  He clearly has the nerdy demeanor they were looking for but was too old for his part.  The dude was 28 when they made this and didn’t really look much younger which makes his awkwardness around women feel more pathetic than sympathetic and made the already questionable decision to make this apprentice to the sorcerer be a college student rather than a kid seem like a big mistake.  Beyond that the action here mostly isn’t much to write home about beyond one kind of interesting car chase and the special effects and fantasy elements are average at best.  Between all that, a franchise attachment no one wanted, some very dumb soundtrack choices, and the fact that this thing opened the same day as Inception this thing basically flopped.  Didn’t flop in a memorable way either, it just came and went.  It made a bit more internationally but not enough to continue the franchise.  It solidified Jon Turteltaub as a hack, pushed Nicholas Cage even further from the mainstream, and after the debacle that was The Lone Ranger Disney would soon part ways with Jerry Bruckheimer outside of Pirates sequels.

**1/2 out of Five

Maleficent (2014)

In retrospect it’s not too hard to view 2010 as a year when Disney took a perhaps unintentional test run to see what they could do with their live action remakes of old properties and tried to make one fairly straightforward retelling of an old property targeted at a new generation (Alice in Wonderland), one movie that more of a sequel than a remake which is primarily targeted at fans of the original (Tron: Legacy), and one action movie that kind of tries to become its own thing with only tangential ties to an original (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice).  With this data collected they made a game plan, worked up some projects, and then three years later the onslaught began.  The first movie out the gate was Maleficent, which back in 2014 and was of course based on the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty and unlike Alice in Wonderland (which could just be interpreted as a new adaptation of that book) this was clearly and unequivocally evoking the Disney movie.  That 1959 movie is interesting in that it’s one of Disney’s three OG “princess movies” but it’s the one with by far the least interesting (and least marketable) princess.  Princess Aurora is officially a part of their merchandising line but it’s a character who’s asleep during the whole movie and is generally overshadowed by the prince, the fairy god mothers, and of course the film’s villain, who is obviously front and center in this remake.  In many ways it was a safe choice for Disney: if it was a hit Aurora might be revitalized as a marketable character and many a Maleficent Halloween costume could be sold, but if this whole live action remake thing ended up flopping out the gate the sacrificial lamb would be a property that wasn’t too important to them in the first place.

Maleficent has long been held, perhaps not as a good movie but at least as an example of what Disney should be doing with these remakes: doing something different with the property in question rather than just regurgitating the original story.  In fact I’d long assumed this was even more removed form Sleeping Beauty than it actually was, believing it to be a full-on prequel explaining how Maleficent came to be who she was before the events of that movie.  That’s sort of true in that this has a prologue along those lines, but then the movie does in fact become a retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty more or less in its entirety albeit from a different perspective and with largish changes.  Of course that perspective change is pretty radical given that the Maleficent in the animated film is probably one of Disney’s most one-note eeeevillll villains ever, so making her a sympathetic protagonist is not easy.  In short they reframe her not as a secluded sorceress but as a defender of a separate realm populated by magical creatures that the human kingdom kept trying to invade more or less unprovoked and that she ended up with a pretty legitimate beef with the king by the time she did the whole sleeping curse thing which she came to regret.  It’s all a bit of stretch but it’s kind of a tough writing assignment and they handle it about as well as they were likely to.  This whole idea of reframing the fairy tale villain as the hero is of course not exactly an original idea, it was almost certainly inspired by the success of the Broadway musical “Wicked,” but as a film concept it still felt relatively fresh.

Of course the film’s ultimate raison d’etre is to be a star vehicle for Angelina Jolie and as that it’s fairly successful.  Jolie is considered one of the last true movie stars but she didn’t really do a whole lot of high profile acting at all during the 2010s aside from her work in this movie and its sequel, which she seemingly made to keep her profile and box office bone fides intact while she pursued directing with varying degrees of success.  Still this is clearly a smart role for her given that it allows her to be this authoritative figure while also being kind of gothy and theatrical.  It’s not exactly a performance that stretches her emotionally, but she works as a screen presence, and the film was also a nice career boost for her co-star Elle Fanning but the rest of the cast is a bit shaky.  In particular I didn’t care for Sharlto Copley as the film’s villain.  That guy is just a ham and a half and it wouldn’t be long before Hollywood sort of gave up on him.  The movie was directed by a guy named Robert Stromberg, who had never directed before (or since) but who had an extensive background both in visual effects and art direction (for which he’d won two Academy Awards including one for the 2010 Alice in Wonderland).  If I had to point to a central weakness for this movie it’s probably that guy, who does seem to have a good grasp of the fundamentals of filmmaking and brings decent technical effects to the film but lacks a truly compelling vision to really bring it to life.  The movie is never a particularly interesting fantasy movie in and both its story and its visual style would seem rather odd to people unfamiliar with that 1959 film.  Overall the movie is watchable over its brisk 97 minute runtime but isn’t nearly the radical revision some people make it out to be, but could be a lot worse.

*** out of Five

Cinderella (2015)

Aside from being Disney remakes what do Alice in Wonderland, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Maleficent have in common?  They all have CGI dragons in them.  Well technically Alice in Wonderland’s dragon is a jabberwocky, but it looks like a dragon to me.  And this is kind of where Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 adaptation of Cinderella kind of stands out from a lot of the other Disney remakes: it may have magic and a couple of CGI rodents but at its heart it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be an effects extravaganza and is generally pretty low key as modern Disney adaptations go.  Where those other movies are Disney movies as blockbuster tentpoles this is more like Disney movies as costume drama, and as such Branagh was a pretty logical choice to direct given that he’s mostly made a career out of adapting older material for new audiences but isn’t beyond engaging in modern film techniques and knows his way around special effects.  The mice here no longer talk and are deemphasized and this also isn’t a musical but the main story is largely unchanged from the 1950 animated version even as certain details here are expanded.  We get more details of how Cinderella came to be in her situation and about some of the political situations with the prince and they switch things around a bit by having Cinderella and the prince meet up once before the ball to get that relationship rolling a little.

Beyond those little changes this is notable for being a very traditional take on Cinderella that doesn’t rock the boat too much.  One could say that makes it one of the more redundant of Disney’s live action remakes, but I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.  For one thing, of all of Disney’s “classics” the 1950 Cinderella was among the ones most in need of a facelift.  The animation in that movie wasn’t bad exactly but it was clearly a step down from their pre-war work and the movie generally isn’t that impressive as a visual work and its low key nature makes it so getting real live actors in on it was an upgrade.  Lily James does a very good job of selling the character’s inherent good nature without making her seem like a completely inhuman saint and Richard Madden is pretty good at making the prince seem similarly young and idealistic while still feeling sensible.  That said, I’m not sure Helena Bonham Carter brings anything terribly unique to the character of the fairy godmother and try as she might there’s only so much even a talent on Cate Blanchett’s level can do to not make the evil stepmother seem to be anything other than cartoonishly evil.  At times I do think the movie could have done more to sand down some of the fairy tale contrivances here; the midnight deadline the night of the ball still feels totally arbitrary and the comedy with the step-sisters is a bit much.  Still there is something almost refreshing rather than lazy about how confident this movie is in just letting this material work without a lot of sprucing up.  It would not have shocked me in the slightest if some Disney exec had tried to talk Branagh into adding a third act sword fight or something but they don’t really do that and instead seem almost naively willing to let the actors carry this Disney tentpole that ended up grossing more than half a billion worldwide.

*** out of Five

Alice: Through the Looking Glass (2016)

It’s hard to think of another $170 million dollar movie that the world wanted less than Alice Through the Looking Glass, a film that was somewhat saved by international markets (where it made 75% of its money) but was roundly rejected by domestic audiences.  It only made $77 million dollars in the United States, which is catastrophic by Disney standards.  To put that in perspective, The Purge: Election Year (a movie made for $10 million ) outgrossed this thing.  That creepy movie Passengers that everyone hated made $25 million more than this.  That fourth Jason Bourne movie that no one likes to talk about made almost $100 million more than this. A total disaster.  And the critics came to it with knives out too.  They hadn’t like the original Alice in Wonderland to begin with and they could smell that people weren’t interested in this sequel and they wanted to revel in the sweet vindication that the masses had finally caught up to them.  Honestly it’s kind of remarkable how quickly people turned on the franchise, that first movie made over a billion dollars, someone must have liked it and their taste can’t have improved that much over the course of six years.  Well, six years may have been part of the problem.  It would make sense to take your time to get things right when making a sequel to an actual good movie, but if you’re just trying to cash in on a fluke hit you’re generally supposed to rush it out before people forget about the forgettable predecessor.  And despite the wait this thing still had the reek of cash-in retread.  Most of the cast was contractually obliged to return but Tim Burton declined to return and it was passed on to a guy named James Bobin, who emerged from work on new co-star Sacha Baron Cohen’s TV work and also made those recent Muppet movies.  But the bigger issue here is just that Alice In Wonderland, disreputable as it was, just doesn’t feel like the kind of movie you make sequels to (even if the original book did, in fact, have a sequel) and everyone involved did in fact need to sweat in order to make this thing make sense as a series.

Funnily enough, I was kind of rooting for this thing.  No one had any faith in it when it came out and didn’t seem to give it a chance, on some level I hoped I’d come out of it thinking it was a secret success.  It’s not; let it be known that this is officially a “thumbs down” from me but… I do think an argument can be made that it’s more enjoyable than that first movie.  For one thing, the special effects have improved quite a bit in the six years since that first movie which had some clear uncanny valley issues.  I would also say that the film’s story, loopy and ludicrous as it is, did at least keep my attention and that there were a couple of interesting visuals along the way… but man is this thing a mess.  It starts with Alice acting as a sea captain (because, girl power!) in her now dead father’s mercantile empire but comes home to find a comically evil rich white man trying to force her to sign over her ship lest her mother’s home be taken from her and the mother is down with all this because she thinks shipping is no job for a lady… real subtle messaging.  Anyway she escapes all this stress by going through a mirror (while wearing an oriental dress she appropr… acquired from her journeys to China) into Wonderland where she finds that the Mad Hatter has gone mad… well, madder than usual because he’s (just now) haunted by the death of his family, who were apparently killed by the Jabberwocky before the events of the first movie.  Alice determines that the logical thing to do is to steal a magical artifact and risk temporal catastrophe to save this one person’s family.

So with this plot device this sequel to a remake which was itself a sequel now also becomes a prequel to a remake that was also a sequel and we get a backstory for the red queen and her failed ascension to the throne as well as insights into The Mad Hatter’s troubled childhood… and that sentence should give you an idea on where they went wrong with this fucking thing.  This franchise is ostensibly an adaptation of a pair of books by Lewis Caroll that were known for simplicity and surreal dream logic, turning it into a damn time travel story where we learn people’s backstory is about as far from that as you can get, the first movie was already pretty fundamentally missing the point of the books but this is almost intentionally going out of its way to subvert both the letter and the spirit of the source material.  Still, the extent that they go out of their way to complicate this writing assignment and take this go off in weird directions with it is almost fascinating in its own way.  This thing is certainly a cash-grab but it’s not a lazy one, at least not on the part of the people actually making it… in fact they might have been a bit more successful with the public if they had done something a bit more conventional here and made something as boring as the first movie.  That is kind of the heart of the difference between the two, that first movie was pretty much exactly what you might have expected from a Tim Burton adaptation of this property done in a Hollywood blockbuster way and completely went through the motions.  This movie on the other hand is less dull than it is nutty and kind of dumb and desperate.  Neither of them are any good, but I would say the sequel had more “wtf?” energy to it that made it more fun to watch.

** out of Five

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Today the phrase “Live Action Disney Remake” is almost entirely associated with CGI-laden cash grabs that regurgitate nostalgia, but if we’re being fair there are some slightly more ambitious examples of the form out there and perhaps the one film from this cycle of remakes that has earned the strongest reputation for coming out of the process with some dignity is their 2016 remake of the 1977 live-action/animation hybrid musical Pete’s Dragon.  Truth be told I’m not entirely sure why Disney wanted to remake this particular property at all; I don’t think the original movie was ever a huge hit for them and it never had that much of a life after the fact, in part because it’s an extremely earnest (some would say corny) musical that’s directed specifically at very young audiences and its live action elements place it much more specifically in the 70s than some of their more “timeless” animated movies.  So, on that level one could argue that it’s more rife for remaking than a lot of the classics they had been remaking, it a property with room for improvement.  But Disney remakes aren’t about making tasteful decisions about what really needs improvement, they’re about exploiting IP that people have nostalgia for and I don’t think there were than many people with nostalgia for Pete’s Dragon in the grand scheme of things.  So why does this exist?  Well, if I had to guess they probably had something of an open call to filmmakers to pitch them on ideas for remakes and up and coming filmmaker David Lowery (fresh off the indie success of his film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) came to them with a vision and just impressed them in the meeting enough to get a relatively modest budget to take a swing at a different kind of more low key Disney remake.

The 2016 Pete’s Dragon does not claim to be some kind of prequel or sideways sequel to the 1977 film; it’s a straight up remake, but one that does pretty radically rework its predecessor.  Both films are about an orphan kid named Pete who befriends a green dragon that can turn invisible and who go on an adventure with him which ultimately ends with the dragon escaping people trying to kidnap him and Pete finding a new family.  Put in those vague terms this actually seems fairly faithful, but the details are completely different.  It’s not set at the turn of the century, Pete isn’t being chased by a family of rednecks, and while the dragon is pursued by some people late they certainly aren’t moustache twirling snake oil salesmen.  But really what’s changed here most radically is the tone.  That original film was a full-on musical with really over the top characters and just a totally cornball wholesome tone whereas this new movie is a lot more quiet and restrained and almost operating in the language of indie cinema rather than what you’d expect from Disney.  In this film when Pete is five his parents are killed in a car crash in the first scene and he leaves the wreck and walks into a wooded area of the Pacific Northwest where he’s raised for the next five years by Elliot before being found by loggers, who pull him away from the dragon and finds himself caught between two worlds.  The dragon is obviously a CGI creation but the film otherwise doesn’t feel overly filled with special effects and the characters all feel a bit more real than what you usually get from these movies.  The female forest ranger that starts to take Pete in behaves like an actual adult and when villains come into things in the third act to try to capture Eliot they don’t feel like over the top cartoons but like real people reacting in plausible way when they discover a damn dragon in the real world.

Obviously, unlike the original film this is not a musical.  Instead it has a soundtrack with a bunch of acoustic indie music by the likes of Bonnie Prince Billy, St. Vincent, The Lumineers, and even features a prominent needle drop of a Leonard Cohen song… in a Disney movie.  That’s how different this is from your average live-action Disney remake.  It’s tempting to imagine a world where Disney had no idea what they were in for when they invited the future director of A Ghost Story and The Green Knight to make their magical dragon movie, but considering that they’re bringing back Lowery to direct their upcoming Peter Pan remake I think they are more or less happy with what they got and what they expected.  But why?  Why would a company as ruthlessly profit driven as Disney be happy with a low key movie that “only” grossed $143 million worldwide.  Well, I think it was something of a soft power move.  Disney does seem to throw the snobs a bone every once in a while to build up some good will (Chloé Zhao’s upcoming MCU film The Eternals perhaps being another example of this) and they would need a lot of good will given some of the bullshit they were hoping to get away with in the next couple of years.  The thing is, I’m not sure the soft power move worked quite as wells as they hoped.  They made a movie that critics would like, and sure enough the critics liked it… but they didn’t love it.  And truth be told all this talk about the movie having “indie cred” it’s only in comparison to shit like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, not when compared to actual indie movies and I don’t want to over-sell it just because it exceeds the low expectations its studio had set for it.

***1/2 out of Five 

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

So, six movies into this trip through Disney’s live action remakes and I must say so far it hasn’t been as bad as I’ve thought.  The Alice in Wonderland stuff was junk but aside from that these movies have mostly found ways to be at least a little creative within the confines of some questionable assignments and most of the films they’ve tried to remake have been movies that had room for improvement.  But now I find myself needing to watch one of the big ones, the ones that really pissed people off and made this trend inextricably linked to soulless studio capitalism.  Up to this point Disney had opted not to try remaking anything that had been made after 1977, and if you discount Pete’s Dragon they hadn’t even  gone past the 60s.  This seemed acceptable enough but then they decided to quit waiting and cross the Rubicon into remaking one of their beloved 1990s Disney Renaissance movies and pissing off a whole bunch of millennials in the process.  Honestly I do think there’s a certain centered narcissism to all of this, the 90s kids weren’t some sacred generation whose favorite movies are inherently more off limits than others.  On the other hand, I do think (maybe like to think) that a movie like the 1991 Beauty and the Beast is still modern enough that a kid wouldn’t find it alienating or weird and why exactly is Disney, a studio built on animation, so dead set on undoing the very thing that made their film’s distinctive to begin with?

In addition to being the first of these movies to be a remake of a movie from the 90s it’s also the first one to avoid any major change in structure or style from its predecessor: it’s not pretending to be a sequel like Alice in Wonderland, it’s not from a different perspective like Maleficent, it’s not being moved to a contemporary like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Pete’s Dragon… it’s the same basic story as the first film from beginning to end.  Also unlike Cinderella this isn’t trying to eliminate the songs or deemphasize an element like talking mice.  The same old musical sequences are re-created here in more or less the same style they were from the previous movie, in fact more of them have been added and even more magical supernatural stuff has been added than before.  Video essayist Lindsay Ellis has a somewhat influential video (which I had watched in spite of spoilers because I thought I was never going to see this thing) which outlines some of the minor changes that were present here and why she hates them (despite her gratitude) that asserts that a lot of them seemed to only exist to please certain pedants and nitpickers, which they might have been but I’m not sure they’re as detrimental as she claims.  A lot of them are minor bits of dialogue that I (someone who’s maybe seen the original film two and a half times) barely even noticed as changes and I would even consider some of them like the magical jaunt to Paris to be decent enough ways to flesh out the beast’s relationship with Belle.

So, I don’t really have many problems with the changes made on a script level, but the changes made on an aesthetic level here are killer.  Why would anyone want to give up the beautiful animation of that original film for… this.  What’s more the basic way the film is shot is not very inspiring.  The cinematography is bland and kind of dark, the castle looks stock, a lot of the costumes seem to have been selected to resemble the animated film that supposedly needs replacing rather than because they would actually look good in a live action film.  And yeah, in the grand scheme of thing it is really the redundancy of it all that’s the biggest problem in all of this.  Critics understood that the was something profoundly bizarre about remaking an Oscar nominated classic that was less than thirty years old while not even bothering to fundamentally change anything about it, but audiences didn’t seem to have the same qualms about allowing classic films to stand without being deemed obsolete.  This would be the first of these movies since Alice in Wonderland to gross over a billion dollars worldwide… in fact it made one and a quarter billion.  Had Disney not released a Star Wars movie the same year it would have been the highest grossing movie of 2017 and domestically it was only $13 million short of actually outgrossing The Last Jedi to take that top spot.  The message was clear, nothing was sacred to the public and Disney should feel free to remake anything and everything and that they can do it in the laziest way possible but… truth be told they were already planning on doing this anyway given how quickly this was followed up.

** out of Five

Collecting Some Thoughts

And that is where we will be leaving things for now.  Thoughts so far?  Well, these certainly aren’t movies I would choose to watch if I wasn’t doing some heavy handed project but they’re hardly torturous watches.  Of the seven movies I watched there was certainly some variety to be found and some good ideas here and there but I don’t think I’ve really gotten to the worst this trend has to offer.  Critics were never particularly on board with these remakes but I’ve only just reached the point where they were truly offended by them.  You’ll notice that these seven movies came out over the course of seven years but when I get around to doing part two I will still be looking at seven movies but they’ll have come out across just two years: 2018 and 2019 with five of the damn things having come out in 2019 alone.  That’s crazy.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings(9/9/2021)

As of late Marvel has been adapting some of their less well known characters but I think Shang-Chi is the first title character they’ve brought to screen that I straight-up hadn’t heard of before since Guardians of the Galaxy.  He’s a truly obscure character created in 1973 as a blatant attempt to cash in on the popularity of Bruce Lee and as far as I can tell had only been used sporadically between the early 80s and his recent resurgence in the run-up to this film.  Within the odd niche of Kung Fu themed Marvel characters he was generally overshadowed by another character named Iron Fist, who the MCU kind of squandered their shot at in a bad Netflix show.  It does not, however, take a genius to guess why Marvel was so interested in digging this character up: the Chinese market.  Everyone knows that there’s billions to be made in The Middle Kingdom and it would be foolish not to seek it out but at the same attempts to cynically pander to that audience have frequently blown up in people’s faces.  Anyone remember The Great Wall?  That was supposed to unite American and Chinese audiences but mostly just alienated both of them.  Then there was the disastrous attempt to put a Chinese character into that Monster Hunter and of course there was also Disney’s own recent debacle with Mulan, which flopped in China despite clearly having been tailored to appease local censors.  Audiences there seem to be able to smell out sino-centric pandering and have frequently sent the message to Hollywood that it should stay in its lane instead of trying to compete with their domestic filmmakers, also the nationalists there can be prickly and become offended by unexpected issues (often related to the backgrounds of various actors).  In fact it’s still not entirely clear if Shang-Chi will open in that country despite clearly trying to reach out to it.  Despite all that, China has a rich culture to mine and even if it’s not going to be the easy stepping stone into a lucrative foreign market that certain studios thing it will there is value in making movies that draw on that country’s mythology and filmmaking legacy just for its own sake and with that in mind I was excited to see what Marvel would do with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

The film begins by establishing a backstory for the film’s villain Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), a Chinese warlord who has lived for centuries using the power of ten rings he keeps on his forearms and can use to do kung fu stuff.  Wenwu has also been called The Mandarin at times and it is established here that the bootleg version of The Mandarin we saw in Iron Man 3 was inspired by this true version of the character.  Then we move to the present and meet Xu Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who is living in San Francisco and has been going by the name “Shaun” and has generally been embracing a life of under-achievement alongside a friend named Katy (Awkwafina). Then everything changes for him when he’s attacked by a group of assassins on a bus attempting to steal a pendant he’s wearing on his neck.  He fights them back but loses the pendant which forces him to admit to Katy that he has a secret past: he’s the son of Xu Wenwu and was trained to be a martial arts assassin at a young age and with the Ten Rings re-emerges in his life he needs to fly to Macau and find his long lost sister, who has a pendant of her own and may be their next target.

One of the things making Chinese nationalists leery about the film is that the original comic book iteration of Shang-Chi’s origin was that he was an estranged son of Fu Manchu, the racist stock villain from the pulp novels of old.  They certainly wanted to avoid that association for both progressive reasons and reasons of copyright so instead they’ve made his father an original character that is a version of The Mandarin, an Iron Man villain from the silver age who also has some problematic aspects.  So it was clearly important to them that they make their villain distinct from all that and I think it may have made them rather awkwardly go too far in the other direction because they’ve made Xu Wenwu into what they expect to be an oddly sympathetic figure for a guy who acted as a warlord for centuries before then forming a shadowy assassination league.  It’s the kind of approach that is perhaps understandable given that this is a character that’s related to the protagonist and obviously it’s generally good to give your villains shades of grey, but I’m not sure they really pulled it off here.  His motives are rather nebulous and a bit removed from his, uh, usual criminal career.

As for Shang-Chi himself… I don’t know, he seems alright.  For most of the movie he doesn’t really have superpowers aside from his kung fu skills, making this the second straight Marvel film (the other being Black Widow) to be about a hero who’s basically human, though there is a fairly substantial amount of magical stuff in the surrounding story.  As for the action scenes, they’re a bit of a mixed bag.  The opening action scene, a fight in the Jackie Chan style between Shang-Chi and some thugs on a moving bus, is awesome and is almost singlehandedly worth the price of admission, but the rest of the movie never really lives up to that first action scene and the film’s finale (which involves CGI dragons fighting each other) is particularly woozy.  The film’s overall aesthetic seems to be trying to do for Chinese culture what Black Panther did with African culture, but that seems a lot less special here given that China has a rather long tradition of big budget filmmaking that Africa does not and in many ways this can only really feel like something of diluted and westernized version of the martial arts movies that we’ve seen coming from China for decades and people who know their wuxia and their Jackie Chan will see the reference points this is drawing on.

I should probably disclose that I was in a bit of a grumpy mood when I saw this and that might have affected my take slightly.  I think this review is coming off a bit more negative than I mean it to.  There are some neat things here, I liked Awkwafina a lot as the sidekick here and even in concept it’s very cool to be seeing Hong Kong legends Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh working in a high profile Hollywood franchise blockbuster like this: paychecks well earned.  Still this never really gave me that giddy feeling that MCU films gave off when they’re in top form like they often were leading up to the final Avengers movies.  In many ways it feels like they’re putting more of their ambition into their Disney+ TV shows than they are into their movies at the moment while their actual movies are kind of feeling perfunctory.  “WandaVision” felt far more adventurous than this and “Loki” felt far more important to the overall MCU story going forward while this just kind of felt like a run of the mill origin story about a character whose origin only moderately interested me.  Still I do think that with the origin out of the way Shang-Chi himself may prove far more interesting in future sequels and crossover projects.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 7/23/2021

Supernova (7/9/2021)

Supernova was a movie that some thought would be an Oscar contender in 2020 and was released in late January of this year in hopes of exploiting the extended eligibility window that was afforded to movies for that ceremony but it didn’t really work out for them.  The movie was completely overshadowed by bigger things and it never got any real awards traction, but maybe it deserved better.  The film stars Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci as a gay couple who are facing a rather grim future as Tucci’s character has been diagnosed with early onset dementia.  That is perhaps another reason why this movie didn’t really take off in the 2020 award season, it had to live in the shadow of The Father, which is actually a pretty different movie in terms of content and structure, but you can only really invite so many depressing stories about mental decay into your life at any given time and this one was left on the outside.  That’s probably unfortunate because there is some good stuff here.  Tucci and Firth are both really good here and generate a lot of empathy for these two characters who are in a tragic and unenviable situation.  That said, the film doesn’t really have an x-factor beyond the performances that really makes it stand out or feel like something more than a nicely calibrated drama.  It’s a movie that I think deserves to be seen but it’s not one that’s super easy to recommend since it lacks a certain novelty that really rewards audiences for their willingness to look into the abyss.*** out of Five

Summer of Soul (7/10/2021)

What is probably the most talked about documentary of the summer is this half concert film half talking head documentary looking at a series of concerts that were performed in Harlem during the summer of 1969 that some people called “The Black Woodstock.”  Among the performers at this concert series were Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight, along with several other less well remembered acts. The film shows some of this footage while also cutting in interview footage with some of the artists who played there as well as people who attended as well as some historians and other commenters who can provide context.  The footage itself has issues as it was plainly shot with television broadcast in mind; it’s in 4:3 and you can see some distortion on its edges of the kind you associate with that format during that time.  Still, these are some of the greatest artists in history at the peak of their talents so obviously there are some really solid musical performances here.  As for the interview footage, well, there are definitely going to be people who think there’s too much of it and wish the film had just let more of the performances play out uninterrupted and at times I would agree.  There’s a bit of an ADD quality to the movie in that it is trying very hard to keep its running time down and maybe tries a little too hard to keep things moving along.  Still there are some quality interviews here like the chat with the members of The Fifth Dimension, who seem to be very happy to be given a spotlight for the first time in decades.  First time director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (famed drummer for The Roots) is perhaps a bit too excited to pull off some tricks at the editing table, but for the most part he manages to tell the story in question pretty well and finds a nice balance between music, history, and politics for his documentary.  I will say that after all the hype this movie got I was a touch disappointed with the final result; the movie resurfaces some good footage and has decent enough commentary for it but it’s not a revelation.  Still, well worth two hours of your time.***1/2 out of Five

Shiva Baby (7/19/2021)

I wasn’t really sure what to make of Shiva Baby when I first heard about it, in part because it was less than 80 minutes and debuted on VOD and it wasn’t clear to me if it was a “real” movie, but it is.  The film looks at a woman in her twenties of relative privilege who nonetheless moonlights as a sex worker (specifically a “sugar baby”) in order to fund a certain lifestyle.  The bulk of the film concerns a very awkward Shiva she attends for what appears to be a rather distant relative who has departed in which she is surprised to learn that her “sugar daddy” is also attending alongside his wife and infant daughter.  Cringe comedy ensues.  The film does a good job of portraying the sheer unpleasantness of attending one of these awful over-crowded family gatherings that seemingly only exist to torture us introverts but obviously the specifics of this situation really kick things into overdrive.  In some ways the film is almost too laser focused on expressing that feeling and I feel like it could have maybe benefited from a few more plot points to fill out the running time a bit.  The film is adapted from a short film and at times you can kind of feel it, or perhaps it feels like an episode of a larger TV show as it kind of starts and ends rather abruptly within a central character’s life.  It’s a movie that is perhaps better at coming up with an interesting setting and situation than it is at really doing something with it, but there’s enough there to make it worthwhile.
***1/2 out of Five

The One and Only Dick Gregory (7/22/2021)

This Showtime documentary is not necessarily the easiest movie to talk about, in part because its filmmaking is pretty standard documentary stuff: talking heads, archival footage, voice-over.  You know that drill.  It does differ from some other borderline hagiographic documentaries of late in part because it was made entirely after Gregory’s passing in 2017 and doesn’t play the game where they follow the old guy around for a couple of days to prove how vital they still are in their advanced years, but it’s still that basic format otherwise.  The film more or less starts with Gregory already functioning as something of a successful comedian and doesn’t dwell too much on his childhood or comeup.  In fact the focus is a lot less on his actual stand-up comedy than you might think given the participation of people like Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, and Kevin Heart as talking heads.  Instead the focus is very much on Gregory’s life as an activist, especially in the 1960s when he got very involved in the Civil Rights Movement, to the point where he was arrested several times during protests and faced some really dangerous situations.  It then gets into some of his hunger drives as well as his second career as the seller of a line of diet food as well as his late career return to stand-up comedy which was notable for its boldness and rage.  As I said, as a work of filmmaking there isn’t a ton to write home about, it’s standard biographical documentary work.  But Gregory certainly seems to have lived quite a life and if you need a primer on it you might as well make it this one.*** out of Five

Voyagers (7/23/2021)

Voyagers came out about a week after Godzilla Vs. Kong so it was theoretically possible for it to have found an audience but the studio never really bothered to market it and no one was really interested.  On some level I find that disappointing because for whatever its faults it is an original IP that’s trying to do something and probably at least deserved a chance, but on the other hand the final movie is pretty mediocre and I can’t exactly blame the studio for not throwing good money after bad.  The movie is set in the future and is largely set on a spaceship that’s on an 86 year mission to reach the closest inhabitable planet and set up a colony and given the length of the mission the idea is that the crew will reproduce on the ship and the colony would be set up by their grandchildren, so they raise the crew from infancy in a lab and send them off to space when they were pre-teens.  The story picks up a few years later when the crew is around sixteen or seventeen and stop taking a drug they were being given to suppress certain hormones and urges and some of them start getting aggressive and “Lord of the Flies” breaks out.   And when I say “Lord of the Flies” I don’t mean that just generally, the film really goes beyond merely jumping off from William Golding’s concept to basically being an unlicensed adaptation of that book.  This is probably a mistake given that the characters here are a lot older than the boys on that island were and have a lot more resources, so the trajectory of their issues should probably go off in slightly different directions.  What’s more I think this screenplay sort of misunderstands that book, viewing the situation as being less about an inevitable societal decay and more just a function of Jack having been a bad apple whose elimination would get everything back on track.  Beyond that the movie just doesn’t excel generally; the actors feel like boring teen YA types and the space elements aren’t really us anything terribly interesting or new and the movie doesn’t really have the courage to lean into some of the more “out there” ideas that this premise could lead to.  I don’t necessarily need or want them to go for something as wild as Claire Denis’ High Life but maybe going a little further than they did would have helped.  As is the movie is watchable and engaging enough and would probably be liked by a slightly less jaded teen audience, but it never really rose to being anything all that memorable to me.

*** out of Five

Annette(8/7/2021)

Who is Leos Carax?  It’s not the easiest question to answer.  The man is clearly one of the most important and beloved French filmmakers of our time and yet his movies are few and far between and aren’t always the easiest to catch up with.  The first of his movies I ever saw was his 2012 film Holy Motors, which I had to watch with very little context as to his earlier works in no small part because that was his first film in thirteen years, and his previous film (Pola X) was his first film in nine years and the film before that (The Lovers on the Bridge) is probably the earliest of his films anyone talks about.  So even though he’s been working since 1984 the guy has as of now only made six films, and a lot of those earlier ones are not tremendously easy to find in this country.  Hell, it’s been nine years since I saw Holy Motors and I still haven’t seen any of his other movies, which is weird because I found Holy Motors to have been quite the experience.  That film, which is kind of like a series of almost performance art vignettes set across the city and forming a very abstract story that has been interpreted as an elegy for the cinema as a form, is certainly a rather singular vision, the kind of thing that could almost be a final statement on the art form from an aged filmmaker.  But Carax was actually only 52 when he made that so he certainly wasn’t retiring but had given himself quite the strange film to have to have to follow up, but follow it up he has and with a project I certainly wouldn’t have expected: an English language musical (of sorts) produced by Amazon and starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard… which is every bit as uncompromising and weird as anything else he’s ever made.

Annette is ostensibly a musical though I hesitate to even call it that because I fear some unsuspecting boomers who have never heard the name “Leos Carax” are going to hear “musical starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard,” show up to the theater expecting something along the lines of La La Land, and then angrily walk out.  Thing is, with a simple plot synopsis this actually doesn’t sound dissimilar from something like La La Land.  The film concerns a stand-up comedian named Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) who begins the film in a relationship with Ann Desfranoux (Marion Cotillard), the two marry, have a daughter named Annette, tensions and jealousy get the better of them, and tragedy is on the horizon.  Sounds like A Star is Born, right?  Well, what if I told you that most of this courtship is off-screen, the film spends large portions of its runtime in theatrical quasi-real half sung stand-up routines… and that the daughter Annette is played by a what is clearly a Pinocchio-like wood puppet.  That’s kind of the level of expressionistic anti-realism we’re dealing with here.  Most Hollywood musicals barter in a certain kind of unreality: do the people know they’re stopping to sing?  Is the singing just how the audience witnesses what are normal conversations in the “real” story?  It’s all ambiguous but we accept it because of certain conventions we’re used to.  Here that same ambiguity exists for pretty much everything that happens in the movie whether people are singing or not.

The actual music here was composed by the synth-pop band Sparks, who also have a “story by” credit and appear to have originated the project before Carax came on board.  I must confess I’m not particularly familiar with Sparks’ music.  Edgar Wright released a documentary about them this year, I’ll probably catch up with it, but while watching this movie they were pretty unknown to me and while I wouldn’t call the music here “bad” I can’t say this left me wildly curious about their other work.  It should be noted upfront that this is not a musical that operates in the tradition of Broadway or classic Hollywood.  In fact it reminded me a lot more of movies based on “rock opera” albums like Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall in that it’s largely from the perspective of one central (and rather difficult) figure, it doesn’t have much spoken dialogue between the songs, and has a rather loopy and archetypal story.  That said the tunes here do not necessarily feel like music by a pop band, a lot of it simple recitative in which characters sing dialogue to one another instead of speaking it, which is sometimes framed interestingly (like an interrogation scene where a cop and a “perp” are singing at each other or a childbirth scene where doctors are singing instructions to the woman in labor) but there are other moments where this gets a bit tedious and by and large most of the songs here by design would not work very well out of context at all and little that will get caught in your head.

As a story this is essentially a story about the price of fame, but it’s not terribly sympathetic towards the famous people paying that price.  The Adam Driver character starts the movie seeming like a bit of an asshole and spends the rest of the movie proving himself to be more and more of an asshole than you think he is, then hits the point of the unforgivable before finding other new and innovative ways to be even more of an asshole.  It’s not a terribly sympathetic portrait is what I’m trying to say and it’s never terribly clear what the Marion Cotillard character saw in him in the first place.  We rarely see either of them interacting like regular humans; their relationship is mostly just introduced through a song called “We Love Each Other So Much” in which they establish that they love each other so much by repeatedly saying “we love each other so much,” also we get some relatively graphic sex scenes.  There is a certain satire of the way the public likes to build people up to tear them down but most of the building up is off screen and the tearing down seems largely deserved here so I’m not sure how profound that is as an observation and the film goes off in a new direction in its third act that is rather absurdist in nature and will likely alienate a lot of audiences who were still with it up to that point.  Really the whole movie is alienating.  It feels odd to say this is, in its own way even less accessible than Holy Motors (an essentially plotless movie involving sentient limousines) but in its own way it is because it occasionally fools you into thinking it will behave like a proper love story or musical before pulling the rug out from under you, which can be a harder pill to swallow than a movie that’s just full tilt boogie into the abstract from moment one.

So far this has read like a pretty negative review… and maybe it is one but I’m not quite ready to declare this a naked emperor as it’s a little too interesting to be dismissed.  For one thing I think there are individual sequences here that are worth seeing.  Carax managed to con Amazon into giving him fifteen million dollars to make this thing despite it being a movie that will actively piss off 95% of audiences and you can definitely see that relatively large budget on the screen.  Certain sequences like Driver and Cotillard ill-fated boat trip midway through the film are shot in very interesting ways and there are bits like an onstage breakdown by the Driver character that do start to display some of the film’s messages about fame in ways that are intriguing.  This is the ultimate “it’s not for everybody” movie and I don’t think it’s for me either, but I don’t regret seeing it.  Carax is clearly a major talent and this was a good reminder that I need to catch up with some of his older films and I hope he doesn’t wait another decade before making a new one, but I wouldn’t recommend this as a place to start.

**1/2 out of Five

August 2021 Round-Up

Reminiscence(8/25/2021)

You know, for how much we complain about the lack of non-franchise blockbusters from Hollywood we sure are bad at actually welcoming original science fiction movies when people actually make them.  Reminiscence, Warner Brothers’ newest $68 million dollar science fiction noir directed by “Westworld” co-creator Lisa Joy sure looks like the kind of thing we say we want to support but it’s looking like it’s going to end up being a pretty major box office bomb though that’s partly because of the film’s simultaneous HBO Max launch (which, admittedly, is how I watched it).  I for one certainly wanted to like it but… what can I say, the movie’s just a total snooze.  I will start with the positive: the movie looks pretty good.  Set in a not too distant future where Miami has been half flooded as a result of climate change the movie builds a pretty interesting looking world with skyscrapers rising above water level and humans working around them in various ways. The cinematography is also really sharp and you can certainly imagine a really good movie playing out in this world but this isn’t that movie.

In fact a big part of the problem here may simply be that the film was so busy worrying about world building that it forgot to make an actual compelling mystery plot for the film.  In fact it’s not hard to think of this as feeling more like an elaborate television pilot than as a film unto itself and you can imagine a world where this world was instead used to create a weekly series instead of a self-contained film which needs to tell a bit of a cleaner and more streamlined story.  As science fiction a lot here is familiar; it’s future-noir aesthetic certainly brings Blade Runner to mind, the idea of using machines to replicate memories was used more entertainingly in Total Recall, and the crime/action story against a near future reminded me of Minority Report… so I guess I’m saying Phillip K. Dick was probably owed a credit on this thing.  But that also could have been overcome with a better characters and storytelling but that’s not really here.  Hugh Jackman seems to have been cast here more for his marquee value than for his appropriateness for the role in question as I’m pretty sure this character was supposed to be a touch sleazier than muscular action hero/song and dance man Hugh Jackman is going to bring to the table.  Watching the movie is downright depressing; you can see a lot of hard work and good intentions being thrown at a project that was just half-baked at its core and the resulting film will be forgotten almost immediately.

** out of Five

The Night House(8/26/2021)

I didn’t know much of what to expect from The Night House; I didn’t remember seeing a single trailer, there wasn’t much buzz for it leading up to its release, and while it had a very strong Rotten Tomatoes score it wasn’t really a movie critics were going too far out of their way to champion, which is a shame because it’s a very solid horror movie.  The film is essentially a combination of the two most recent trends in horror cinema: the haunted house movies and the moody “elevated” horror rooted in trauma.  The film follows a woman living in a lakeside home that her husband had built for the two of them but who killed himself shortly before the start of the film.  The woman is grieving this loss but starts to suspect that this husband may have been leading a double life and also that there’s something odd going on in the house.  I’ll stop the description there before I go into spoiler territory.  If there’s a problem with the film it’s familiarity.  On a basic plot level this is a somewhat unique riff on the haunted house film, but not a radical one, and on a thematic level its themes of manifested grief will be familiar to people who have been following “elevated” horror trends as of late.  It is perhaps a bit ungrateful to suggest that the well is already dry on some of these themes and trends after less than five years, but it’s hard to deny that some of the impact has been diminished a bit.  Still, this is a very well made (if not particularly scary) horror film with a strong performance at its center by Rebecca Hall that’s well worth a look.

***1/2 out of Five

Candyman(8/30/2021)

Slasher movie remakes were very much the rage about ten years ago when movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th were being rebooted.  It’s a trend that’s coming back around now what with the recent Child’s Play and Halloween reboots and the latest entrant is a new reboot of Candyman a slasher series that couldn’t be more relevant now and the film was even produced and co-written by Jordan Peele, so expectations were pretty high for it.   I’ll start with the positive: the film looks great.  Director Nia DaCosta gives the film some really slick cinematography and the film’s slasher kills are really well staged.  Someone simply looking for cinematic bloodletting will be satisfied.  The film is also ambitious; it wears its politics on its sleeve and is very interested in tying in Candyman, a movie that was already to some extent about America’s racial sins manifesting as an avenging ghost, with this current Black Lives Matter era.  So it looks good and it’s trying to do something more challenging than your average slasher movie, so why doesn’t it entirely work?  Well, the script is kind of a mess.  I’ve called the movie a remake but it’s actually a direct sequel which specifically and extensively references the events of the first movie.  I would think that was a cool approach to rebooting a series normally but it may have backfired here.  The original Candyman is a very messy movie in terms of its mythology and internal logic and this movie wants to both accept all that as canon while also adding its own messy rules, logic, and mythology that contradicts both the old movie and often itself.  Also, while I admire that the movie is trying to inject politics into its proceedings, I’m not sure that it ever really manages to say anything particularly original or profound about any of them.  Gentrification is invoked as a concept frequently but isn’t illustrated all that vividly and police violence is also central but is generally addressed in fairly obvious ways.  Ten or twenty years ago a horror movie addressing politics in overt rather than subtextual ways would have seemed sufficiently novel to be impressive unto itself but increasingly I think we’re going to need a little more than that.

**1/2 out of Five