The Last Duel(10/17/2021)

Warning: Minor spoilers

We talk a lot about how amazing it is that Martin Scorsese is still making large scale and vital movies at the ripe old age of 78 and yet people seem oddly less shocked that Ridley Scott, who is actually five years Scorsese’s elder, seems to be able to mount even larger (if probably less vital) movies on a near regular basis.  Scott is truly the last of a dying breed, a filmmaker in the vein of a Howard Hawkes who can make movies in all sorts of commercial genres (while specializing in a few) and can adjust himself to each of them while still having a detectable style if you know what to look for.  It’s one thing to be a director who makes a lot of movies in this day and age but the other super-prolific filmmakers these days tend to be people like Steven Soderbergh who put together smaller scale efforts but Ridley Scott seems to crank out rather massive productions, especially since he sort of reinvented himself at the turn of the millennium with Gladiator.  He’ll work in a smaller movie like Matchstick Men here or there, but the majority of his many movies are ambitious productions made for tens of millions of dollars.  Of course the downside of his productivity is that his work can be inconsistent.  I don’t get the impression that he phones in certain projects at all but he does not write his own scripts and sometimes seems to rush projects into production that haven’t quite been perfected on the page yet and for every hit like The Martian there seem to be two misses like Exodus: Gods and Kings or Alien: Covenant.  This year we’re getting not one but two Scott productions in fairly quick succession, the first of them being a medieval epic that seems to be very much in his wheelhouse with The Last Duel.

The film is set in Northern France in the late 14th century and the film’s title refers to a trial by combat that would be fought between a knight named Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and a squire named Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver), who had once been friends but who had grown increasingly antagonistic over the years, reaching a fever pitch when it is accused that Le Gris had raped de Carrouges’ wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer).  The film is presented as three separate accounts, one from each of these people, of the events leading up to this.  First we see de Carrouges’s account, in which he views himself as a perennial underdog constantly being treated unfairly by Le Gris and their mutual lord, the Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), before finally hatching a scheme to sidestep the biased courts and defend his woman’s honor.  We then see Le Gris’ account, in which de Carrouges is actually an unhinged idiot whose various problems are largely self-inflicted wounds caused by his perennial bridge burning and whose oafish abusiveness drove Le Gris and Marguerite into an affair.  We then get Marguerite’s account, which I will hold off from revealing as much about, but who has her own perspective on both of these men and the society around them leading up to the fateful duel of the title.

Akira Kurosawa made his film Rashomon in 1950 and it remains the touchstone whenever someone makes movies about diverging viewpoints of a single event.  People talk about that movie as if to suggest that it’s a movie where every character’s point of view is valid and that it’s a movie about the subjectivity of truth but I don’t think that’s exactly right.  In that movie events diverge in ways that are too dramatic to be explained away as simply differences of perspective; some of those characters have to be lying, or maybe all of them are lying, but it’s a movie about deception rather than good faith disagreement.  That is not necessarily the case with The Last Duel though.  We get three versions of more or less the same events here, there’s no voice over or anything but the title cards label them as the “truth” according to the people involved so to some extent we’re presumably supposed to view them as dramatizations of each person’s testimony and while all of them could be said to be guilty of lies of omission they actually don’t really contradict each other, at least not in matters of basic fact.  Even when it comes to the central sexual assault neither the “he said” nor the “she said” really depicts different actions, rather they only differ insomuch as the “he said” is looking at the encounter through a toxic lens in which “no” can mean “yes.”

Where the accounts do diverge are in matters of intention and emphasis.  For example we learn in Jean de Carrouges’ story that a piece of land that was promised to him in a dowry was taken from him by the Count and given to Le Gris but Le Gris’ own account asserts that this wasn’t his own machination and was instead kind of an inadvertent benefit of him being favored and we get a better idea of why de Carrouges as viewed as unfavorably as he was by the court.  Of course the story that diverges most dramatically is Marguerite’s story, which tends to more heavily emphasize how nasty the Damon character could be and how little she even knew the Le Gris character.  That story also displays the full extent of how archaic medieval views of sex and gender could be to the point of rape being viewed as a property crime committed against the husband of the victim and some very backwards notions of the science of conception.  Where the two men spend their whole narratives trying to show how much of an asshole the other is, her account basically just confirms how right both of them are: they are indeed both assholes, but their own accounts give a good idea of why they’re also both so incapable of self-reflection.

This being a period epic of sorts from Ridley Scott one feels compelled to compare it to the first costume drama that rejuvenated Scott’s career, Gladiator.  That was a movie with a much dumber script than this movie has but a lot of that movie’s faults are kind of painted over by its star Russell Crowe, who feels almost perfectly at home giving a commanding movie star performance and just seems to have a face that looks good in that environment.  As Chris Rock would say in an Oscar monologue a few years later: “if your movie’s set in the past, get Russell Crowe’s ass.”  Scott’s other period epics like Kingdom of Heaven have kind of struggled to find actors with the same timeless quality and this one is no exception.  Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (along with Nicole Holofcener) wrote the movie’s screenplay in addition to starring here and they may well have been better served by dipping out of the project once the writing is done because there is kind of something odd about seeing these two Boston bros hanging out in Medieval France in a way that might have been less jarring if they weren’t both there.  They also aren’t helped by some rather strange hairstyling ideas, which I’m sure sounds like a ridiculously superficial thing to harp on but seeing Affleck with a bleached blonde goatee and Damon with a sort of mullet and a moustache-less beard is distracting.  It just is.  I have reason to think this follicle decision is actually historically accurate but it doesn’t feel that way and Adam Driver seemed to get away with his usual shoulder length locks and his co-stars may have been better served being similarly lazy.

As for Ridley Scott’s own direction, I’d say it’s mostly solid but he is at a stage in his career where he isn’t really doing much to surprise his audience.  Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is very in line with other films he’s made with Scott and aside from the structure (which is not insignificant) this does probably feel of a piece with Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood.  In this sense Scott is perhaps simultaneously the most perfect and most imperfect person to direct a movie like this: he’s obviously well positioned to film the titular duel, which is a nicely gritty big of violence but is he really the voice that the film world wants to be commenting on rape culture and #MeToo?  Well, on that front he (Thelma and Louise not withstanding) and the epic costume drama genre in general are strange bedfellows for that hot button issue and I think that will make this a bit of a tough sell with both critics and audiences but at the end of the day I think all parties involved acquit themselves pretty nicely.  The film is especially impressive by the standards of large scale Hollywood filmmaking: everyone constantly begs for more big budget non-franchise films for adults and this is emphatically that and it’s that done pretty well on top of that.

**** out of Five


Home Video Round-Up 10/20/2021 (Halloween Edition)


If you research horror movies for long you eventually learn about the moral panic over “video nasties” that plagued the UK during the thatcher era when, for some reason, the idea that there were horror movies being distributed over VHS led the British public to think that society would collapse in on itself.  At the end of the day it wasn’t too different from the various panics over video games and rap music that occurred through the late 20th Century, but this one left a mark on a lot of influential horror fans and has now become the setting for a horror movie itself.  The film follows a rather uptight woman who works for the BBFC in the 80s and even among those ranks she’s considered a bit prudish and eager to ban various horror movies.  The film looks at one of the central ironies of the censor, namely that their job is to watch all the “filthy” things that they feel they need to protect the public from yet somehow think they themselves will be immune from whatever ill effects they think these movies will cause.  The film has this woman sort of being possessed by one of the movies she watches and its seeming connection to something from her past, then by the end she starts to be the one who loses perspective of fact and fiction and kind of ends up being the only one actually harmed by any of these movies.  So there are definitely some cool ideas here but I’m not sure the execution was everything I was hoping for.  The film’s budget seems to be a bit short of its ambitions and I also feel like even at a very short 84 minute runtime it still feels a bit padded.  Also the appeal of this thing is going to be kind of limited.  I’m enough of a horror nerd to know what a “video nasty” is but I doubt many other people outside the UK or under forty will.  I’d like to see what the director does in the future but I don’t think this one quite made it.
**1/2 out of Five 

Blood Red Sky (10/4/2021)

Blood Red Sky is a film that gets a “A” for high concept selection and maybe a “C” for execution.  It’s a German film (though a majority of its dialogue is in English) primarily set on an ill-fated airline flight which is hijacked by European terrorists for unclear reasons, but little do these hijackers know that one of the passengers is secretly a vampire.  So from there it kind of becomes “Die Hard on a plane,” but with a lady vampire acting as the John McClane.  The lady vampire in question is not an evil vampire, she was turned against her will previously and hates what she’s become but must manage in order to raise her son but must let her more feral side go wild in order to fight back these terrorists.  It’s not really a horror movie despite playing around with horror iconography but I’m not sure I’d quite call it an action movie either.  I guess just straight up “thriller” might be the best way to describe it.  That said the movie is perhaps a bit slavish to that Die Hard formula in a bad way too, including tropes like the “asshole hostage who tries to deal with the terrorists” or its complete disinterest in the bad guy’s motivations despite those seeming kinda relevant given that this is a post-9/11 film about a plane hijacking.  I like the moxie of this thing but I didn’t necessarily come away from it thinking that director Peter Thorwarth was a great new talent as these action scenes rarely really excelled in practice and there are some not great performances here as well as a somewhat misbegotten structure involving a framing story and a finale that diverges from what the film did best.  The movie is maybe worth a look if the premise sounds intriguing but this wasn’t the next great vampire movie I was hoping it might be.
*** out of Five

Werewolves Within (10/10/2021)

The horror comedy Werewolves Within is technically based on a videogame, albeit a not very popular one which I am not too familiar with.  It’s apparently a VR game which is itself rooted on the popular hidden roles party game “Werewolf” and I can kind of see some of the same paranoia I associate with that little gaming phenomenon but otherwise I don’t think this feels much like a videogame at all.  The film is set in a small wooded town in the winter where a new forest ranger played by Sam Richardson has just arrived only to find the town tearing itself apart over a proposed oil pipeline and at each other’s throats, a situation made much worse when it’s discovered that one townsperson has been killed and it looks like a werewolf may have been responsible.  What follows is a quirky little movie about the hidden secrets and resentments hidden in small town life and something of a “And Then There Were None” style storyline about people in a small place picking each other off.  That’s a cool premise but I’m not entirely sure the film lives up to its potential.  I liked the film’s cast, particularly Richardson and Milana Vayntrub, but the film maybe lacked a really commanding improvisational comedy backbone to really keep the laughs flowing.  Also, if you’re going to make a horror comedy involving werewolves you’re going to invoke An American Werewolf in London in the minds of most audience members… and this is no An American Werewolf in London.  Overall the film is a decent enough genre diversion but one whose accomplishments are rather limited.
*** out of Five

Willy’s Wonderland (10/16/2021)

So, it’s recently come to my attention that much as there are people who find clowns to be frightening rather than amusing there are also apparently people who have some primal childhood memory of that animatronic band from Chuck-E-Cheese being scary as hell.  This was the idea behind a popular video game called “Five Nights at Freddy’s” and it’s also the idea behind the film Willy’s Wonderland which follows a guy played by Nicholas Cage as he attempts to survive a night locked into an abandoned off-brand Chuck-E-Cheese type place where similar animatronics have come to life to try to kill people.  That is certainly a unique premise and one that could be fun but I think this movie botches the execution pretty badly.  Watching the film I assumed given the general amateurishness of aspects of the film that director Kevin Lewis was a first time filmmaker but he actually has six feature length movies under his belt over the course of twenty years, all of which appear to be direct-to-DVD dreck with one of them appearing to be straight-up softcore porn and that scans with the level of filmmaking we get here.  It was the work of a first time writer however and I don’t think this guy is quite ready for primetime as some of the dialogue here is absolutely dreadful and all the characters are just ridiculous stereotypes.  The film’s visual style isn’t completely incompetent and some of the animatronic monsters are kind of interestingly designed in their way but ultimately this premise just derived a far more inventive filmmaking team than it was given and the whole thing just reeks of people trying to reverse engineer a cult film rather than letting one emerge organically.
*1/2 out of Five

In the Earth (10/20/2021)

Ben Wheatley is a filmmaker I think I should like more than I do.  He’s clearly a very adventurous and prolific filmmaker who makes movies that are really “going for it.”  However, I often finds he marries his visions to character that are hard to relate to or be interested by and all too often you just don’t care enough to try to parse through the vision on display.  His latest film, In the Earth, is a pretty good example of my mixed feelings about his work.  The film was shot last summer, so this is a pandemic era work, and that informs the set-up in which someone is going to the countryside to escape a fictional disease but once things get going that theme falls to the wayside and was likely not an element of the original screenplay.  What does follow feels a bit like a modern companion piece to Wheatley’s A Field in England, which has a similar setup in which a standoff in an outdoor area becomes increasingly surreal and trippy.  The movie tantalizes with some talk of runes and whatnot but you never really get onboard with the film’s protagonist to begin with and the story becomes increasingly strange and hard to follow as the film goes on.  The filmmaking itself does become very tantalizing as Wheatley starts using some really aggressive lighting and montage editing techniques that make the film feel like Annihilation by way of Stan Brakhage but I was pretty in the dark as to what any of it meant or was supposed to mean.  Maybe I didn’t quite give this one my due, but I kind of end up feeling like that coming out of a lot of Ben Wheatley movies to the point where I’m increasingly less willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  Still there’s too much intriguing filmmaking here to completely ignore.
**1/2 out of Five

No Time to Die(10/8/2021)

On November 17th 2006 the movie Casino Royale came out to great critical acclaim and popularity.  As a James Bond fan I should have been thrilled about this but I wasn’t; as a Bond purist this film did not give me what I was looking for because it gave the franchise something that in my eyes it never should have had: a beginning.  Whatever other merits that movie had, and it had many, it was impossible for me to get behind a movie that was messing with the fabric of nature by rebooting the James Bond franchise.  So, as the James Bond franchise continued for the next fifteen years through the Daniel Craig era of the series I had to keep having these awkward conversations that came down to “I get why you like these movies, but I can’t” all while sounding like an unreasonable raging fanboy… which maybe I was.  It’s now 2021 and after a protracted COVID fueled delay we’re finally getting what is maybe the logical end of the mess that Daniel Craig (or more specifically the writers during his era) started: the Bond that gave us a beginning is now giving us an ending and I have the same mixed feelings I’ve had from the start.

The film begins sometime after the end of the last James Bond film Spectre in which Bond (Daniel Craig) rather uncharacteristically makes a much stronger connection to his latest “Bond Girl” Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) than normal and it was strongly implied that he would not be discarding her in his normal fashion.  Indeed, this film opens with Bond and Swann on vacation in Italy when Spectre unexpectedly strikes back at Bond.  Thinking Swann was in on this he abandons her at a train station and runs off to retire from MI6 and live in relative solitude in Jamaica.  But five years later he is visited by Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and another American agent named Logan Ash (Billy Magnussen) who tell him that there’s a major issue in the world, one that involves Spectre and which the Americans and British are somewhat at odds over.  They want him to go to Cuba to infiltrate what appears to be a Spectre party, but once there he will need to contend with a new British agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch) that has inherited his 007 number and is attempting to deal with this issue separately.  Eventually Bond will find himself in a high stakes chase for a weaponized virus called Heracles and a sinister villain named Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) that wants to use it.

No Time to Die is perhaps notable in being the only James Bond film to be made knowing for certain that it would be the last outing for its star actor.  The rest of the Bond actors could be said to have gone out with whimpers with Sean Connery and Roger Moore simply hanging around until they aged out of the role and other actors like Geoge Lazenby, Timothy Dalton, and Pierce Brosnan having been rather unceremoniously dropped after making films that were considered to have under-performed.  Of course in many ways a “poignant sendoff” is not exactly what I want from a James Bond movie; pretty much from the beginning of the Craig era I’ve been on my soapbox about how Bond movies should be episodic and Bond should be an immortal 30-40 year old man who only references back to previous adventures on the rarest of occasions.  Given all the buildup that this would be “the last” Craig movie I was fairly sure this era of Bond wasn’t going to suddenly transform into what I’ve been wanting from it at the last minute so to some extent I had made peace with this and wanted to go in just appreciating the film as an action movie and to some extent I was not let down.

After a well shot but probably unnecessary flashback prologue and a bit of domestic catching up we’re treated to a very nice opening action sequence with Bond trying to outrun pursuers in the city of Matera in Southern Italy which makes use of one of Bond’s gadget-laden cars better than most of the chase scenes the series has given us in a while.  So far so good.  Soon after we get a pretty good heist scene on the part of the villains and it’s not long before we get a very fun shootout sequence in Cuba where Bond works with a CIA agent played by Ana de Armas, who I thought was really fun and who I was disappointed to see kind of disappear from the movie after that.  Later the movie transitions to a really beautiful segment in Norway, including a tense chase and fight in a moody woods.  The location scouting in general in this movie is top of the line and Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is probably the best one of these movies have looked in this whole sub-series of the franchise, which is saying something given that we were just handed a pair of bangers by Hoyte van Hoytema and Roger Deakins.  This is the largest scale movie that director Cary Joji Fukunaga has worked on to date and more than makes a good bid for himself as the maker of large scale Hollywood blockbusters.  The film runs a bloated 163 minutes, which is unnecessary but I ultimately didn’t really have too much of a problem with it as it’s pretty well paced throughout.

All that having been said, there’s a glaring weakness at the center of this, one that I think will bug Bond fans and casual moviegoers alike, and that’s the villain played by Rami Malek.  It’s not so much Malek himself, though he does give the character a strange scratchy voice and incorporates some makeup (kind of inconsistently) that almost makes him seem like a parody of a Bond villain rather than a true Bond villain.  But the bigger problem is just that this character’s background and motivations seem generally half-assed.  We’re told early on that he’s motivated by revenge against Specre, which probably shouldn’t put him in conflict with Bond but it does and early on.  Then later on he suddenly turns into a more typical megalomaniac who just wants to kill vast numbers of the world’s population for nebulous reasons that aren’t really explained.  He has some sort of relation to Madeleine Swann that leads to her doing something very strange about halfway through the movie but this doesn’t really go anywhere either.  Adding insult to all this injury is simply the fact that the movie positions this guy as some uniquely dangerous foe to Bond that will get under his skin in a unique way and he just does not seem remotely worthy of this.

I’m going to try to stay spoiler-free here but the film ends in a way that’s rather unconventional for a Bond movie, and it’s unconventional in much the same way a lot of Craig’s Bond films have been… which is to say I don’t like it.  But at the same time I’m not sure I really have it in me to get worked up about it at this point, my various rantings about the heresies of the Daniel Craig era have mostly gone unheard and unheeded and on some level I’m sick of ranting about it.  This ending is part and parcel with the direction they’ve chosen to go in the last five installments and on some level I feel like this die was cast way back in 2006 and Casino Royale’s original sin of rebooting the franchise in the first place.  The Daniel Craig era has basically gone out the way it came in, with a well-crafted action movie that was seemingly tailored to annoy the hell out of a particular kind of James Bond fan of which I am a member.  So all I can say is, I guess you guys made a pretty good movie, but fuck you for making it.  Good riddance to this iteration of James Bond, all I can do now is hope they have the good sense to swing back in the other direction and make something more to my liking with the next Bond.

*** out of Five

Crash Course: New French Extremity

Every October I like to do a bit of a deep dive into a horror sub-genre I feel I haven’t sufficiently explored and increasingly my explorations have been geographic in nature.  I’ve taken a look at Japanese horror films, English horror films, Italian horror films, as well as Australian horror films in the past and this year I’m going to be tackling a bit of national horror cinema I’ve been meaning to tackle for a while: French horror.  Specifically I’m looking at a wave of horror films that were made in France during the first decade called “The New French Extremity,” a term that some extend to films like Catherine Breillat’s Romance that are more sexual than violent but for my purposes we’re looking specifically at a handful of horror movies that were made around the first decade of the new millennium and have kind of been viewed as a Gallic response to the “torture porn” movies that were coming out of Hollywood at the time as well as some of the more extreme stuff coming out of Asia.  Some of these movies are believed to be rather difficult to watch but are nonetheless considered to be rather important examples from the fringes of the horror genre made during a time when people were indulging that genre’s extremes.

High Tension (2003)

The first of the “French Extremity” movies I’ll be looking at is Alexandre Aja’s High Tension (known as Switchblade Romance in some markets), which is by far the most mainstream of the movies I’ll be looking at and could be said to simply fit in with the likes of Saw and Hostel rather than acting as a more extreme counterpart.  In fact Lionsgate thought as much and gave the film a wide release, albeit in a dubbed and edited format, where it made about three and a half millions dollars.  That’s not a great take, but it’s certainly more than some of these other movies which I don’t think even got limited theatrical releases stateside and mostly gained their reputations through festival screenings and “unrated” DVD releases.  Still that crappy dubbed cut lingers so if you’re trying to watch this movie today be careful what version you’re paying for because some of these streaming services have not taken care to host the right version.  Anyway, the film’s release does seemed to have helped get some future extreme French horror movies get made and it was also considered enough of a success to get Aja an inconsistent if mostly steady career as a horror filmmaker in Hollywood but critically the movie was mostly savaged, including with a memorable one star pan by Roger Ebert, whose review began “The philosopher Thomas Hobbes tells us life can be ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ So is this movie.”

To the film’s credit I do think it deserves a little better than Ebert (who was never a fan of the “dead teenager movies”) was ever going to give it.  Aja is a slick filmmaker; I don’t know if he got his start in music videos but his film certainly makes it look like he did, and he and his cinematographer Maxime Alexandre give the film a nice and well produced look.  His star, Cécile de France, is also pretty well suited to be the protagonist of a film like this.  She’s not some stock blonde “nice girl” but she’s dressed in tight clothing throughout the film and is frankly rather sexy in an alternative girl kind of way and is fun to watch throughout.  Then of course there’s the film’s gore, which isn’t exactly novel for most of the film (lots of throat slitting) but it is certainly rather “in your face” in nature and you can tell Aja made this thing without worrying too much what the MPAA would think about the film.  There isn’t necessarily anything here that a seasoned horror fan will say they’ve never seen before but I would suspect it would be shocking to someone who had never heard the name “Lucio Fulci” and hadn’t yet been completely corrupted by all the Saw and Hostel sequels that were to come.

Having said all that, one should not mistake this for some sort of uniquely sophisticated horror movie just because it’s French because in many ways it’s just an iteration on the horror formulas we’ve seen before.  The first third or so is very much a home invasion slasher movie which certainly doesn’t appear to have much novelty to it.  Our protagonist is not very fleshed out and neither are the soon-to-be-victims and the killer seems quite boring as well; he doesn’t have any kind of mask to make him stand out and his signature weapon (a straight razor) is not very interesting.  He’s just a largeish middle aged dude whose severely lacking in novelty.  The second half is a bit more of a chase movie of sorts, a bit like Duel I guess you could say but still nothing too special.  And of course all of this is leading up to a twist ending which is just completely inane.  Full disclosure this ending was spoiled for me around the time the film was released so some of its impact may have been blunted, but I doubt it because it’s something that does not make a lick of sense in terms of the actual story and it’s not interesting thematically and is plainly derivative of similar endings that several other movies around this time also had.  So, between all that there isn’t really a whole lot about High Tension that really makes it stand out in the grand scheme of horror history but I also can’t quite hate on it.  It is best not to imbue this thing with too much baggage and instead look at it as a very commercial piece of genre cinema that’s better made than something like Friday the 13th but not necessarily much smarter.
**1/2 out of Five

Them (2006)

The movie Them (Ils) is probably the least famous of the five movies in my French Extremity crash course, in fact I don’t even remember hearing about it around the time it actually came out.  The first time I heard about it was two years later when Universal released a not dissimilar movie called The Strangers, which I heard some people call a straight-up ripoff of this earlier French film.  I’m not sure that accusation is entirely fair, in part because Them is such a simple movie that it can really be said to be novel enough to be stolen and the few points of novelty here (mainly the last twenty minutes and the identity of the killers) are not carried over to that movie.  The film has a very basic premise: a French couple are loving in a large house in Romania (we get a very brief scene establishing that she works in a French immersion school there) and one night a group of assailants just attack the house and the couple must find a way to survive.  That’s kind of it, it’s the home invasion movie stripped down to its absolutely basic essentials.  Now, stripping something down can be viewed as desirable if what you’re doing is cutting away whatever bullshit has pushed a given film genre into an undesirable direction, but if you strip things down too far you run the risk of basically making a movie that’s devoid of any kind of flavor that is going to make it stand out and be memorable, and I’d say this movie comes pretty close to that latter problem.

There’s just not a lot to this couple and the killers aren’t really stalking them in an overly novel way.  This movie gets lumped in with the “New French Extremity” movement a lot but I’d hardly call it “extreme” at all outside of its basic nihilism.  There’s hardly any on screen gore in it, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it’s certainly been misclassified from time to time.  I would also say that this is kind of an ugly film just in terms of cinematography.  Say what you will about High Tension but it was nothing if not slick, but this movie was shot on digital cameras back when digital cameras were still looked decidedly worse than film and the whole movie just kind of looks cheap as a result.  If you’re going to make a movie like this which is just supposed to operate on horror fundamentals the least you can do is try to make sure it’s pretty, or make it lough rough in more of a purposeful way.  So, there are clear drawbacks here but there are also some legitimately good ideas to be found in the movie.  The final act when the couple escapes the house and is pursued in the woods has a lot going for it, particularly when the killers can kind of only be seen as flashlights in the distance, and the last scene where the woman is being chased also works pretty well leading up to a strong final image before the coda.  There’s also a twist involving the identities of the killers which is somewhat interesting if not really explored to its full potential. So if you’re a horror movie looking to dig pretty deep in the back catalog this may be an interesting watch but there’s just not enough here to make it really stand out.
*** out of Five

Inside (2007)

Now this is closer to what I was expecting from the “New French Extremity!”  Like Them before it the film Inside is at its core a home invasion film but this isn’t anyone’s idea of “minimalism,” this is a movie where the plasma really flows.  The film looks at a woman who is massively pregnant but who is in mourning because her baby’s father was recently killed in a car accident that she survived.  She’s now “overdue” but the night before she’s scheduled to go into induced labor a woman breaks into her home with a scissors and tries to cut into her stomach.  She escapes from this initial attack and locks herself into the bathroom, beginning a standoff that others will soon be drawn into.  The killer woman appears to be trying to steal this baby right out of our protagonist’s womb, which is certainly grotesque in concept and I must say I’ve got to question this homicidal maniac’s logic a bit here; I’m not an expert on the topic but I suspect children are generally easier to kidnap after they’ve been born.  Regardless, the pregnancy ultimately turns out to be move of a motivating factor than a driving force in the film’s action and the fact that she’s with child does not really impede her movements too dramatically in the movie.

The film does however incorporate a device in which we periodically cut to a CGI representation of this child in the womb, which mostly serves as a bit of a distraction and frankly just doesn’t look very good as they clearly don’t have the world’s biggest budget to work with.  I also didn’t care much for the film’s cinematography, which looked a little better than the borderline consumer-grade photography in Them but which does nonetheless look like some not great digital photography.  Perhaps one day we’re just going to see this era’s digital photography with the same kind of charm we view grainy film prints, but I doubt it.  Still slick photography was never really what a movie like this was supposed to be about, it’s instead about making a grimy splatter movie and man is there a lot of splatter here.  By the end the film’s body count becomes fairly high despite essentially taking place in a handful of rooms in a single house and some of these kills are outlandish.  The R-rated cut of this thing that was released to Blockbuster video had a full seven minutes cut out of it, and I’m not really sure what the point would be of seeing that version.  This is a movie that largely seems to exist to be the ultimate in nasty home invasion cinema and nasty it certainly is.
***1/2 out of Five

Frontier(s) (2007)

On October 27th 2005 Parisian police chased down a group of teenagers of color who were alleged to have broken into a construction site, two of those teenagers tried to hide in an electrical substation and were killed by electrocution.  This was said to have been a spark in a powder keg of resentment over the way people of color are treated in France and what followed were three weeks of rioting and unrest through Paris and its suburbs, becoming one of that decade’s most prominent events in France and is of course hardly something unfamiliar to the rest of the Western World to this day.  Those events were briefly referenced in the film Inside but much more intrinsically influenced another bit of New French Extremity released that year called Frontier(s).  Directed by a guy named Xavier Gens, the film is set in a near future in which France is on the verge of electing a quasi-fascist president as riots break out in much of the city.  The film focuses on a group of mostly Arab-French youths who are looking to escape the chaos of the city and head to Amsterdam but first attempt to gets some cash from a robbery which goes wrong and leaves one of the youths dead and his pregnant girlfriend in mourning.  They do proceed with the plan however and head to a hotel in the countryside where they plan to reunite, but little do they know that this hotel is run by violent neo-nazis who will be turning this into a night of unmitigated horror.

I’m not exactly sure what this film’s title, including it’s odd plural in parentheses thing, is supposed to be all about.  Otherwise the movie isn’t exactly subtle and is somewhat bold in using racial conflict as an element in its horror but I don’t think it has anything terribly interesting to say on the subject and ultimately it feels more exploitative than enlightening.  Really this is more like a take on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with the city people driving through the countryside and then being trapped by what are essentially the French equivalent of a family of violent killer rednecks.  It’s a concept that does at least have potential but, to be frank, this Xavier Gens guy seems like a total hack.  Regrettable filming formats of the 2000s have been something of a running theme in this crash course but unlike Them and Inside this film does not have early digital cameras to blame for its look; it was filmed on tried and true 35mm but it has the worst kind of “MTV” look imaginable.  Motion in several scenes is intentionally jittery and color filters are extreme and most of the chosen camera angles are completely unflattering and the editing borders on the incompetent.  I was not surprised to learn that Gens almost immediately went to Hollywood and made dreck like the 2007 Hitman and has basically been in the direct-to-video space since then.  The movie just looks horrible and beyond that its characters are bland and its scenario never comes together.  The film is indeed quite gory so if you are a connoisseur of the bloodletting and care about nothing else go ahead and give this a look but this is not some kind of bold unmissable vision by any means.
*1/2 out of Five

Martyrs (2008)

Of all the films in my New French Extremity crash course the one I’ve been most anticipating, both for good and ill, was the last of the five: Pascal Laugier’s 2008 film Martyrs.  While a lot of the other movies here have faded with time this one still gets referenced pretty widely, but often not for its quality so much as for its infamy as some view it as something of an endurance test; a film you challenge yourself to watch to see just how much violence you can tolerate.  It isn’t quite as cited for its extremity as A Serbian Film or the Human Centipede series, but it’s up there.  But what differentiates it from those two provocations is that it does have a larger fanbase of people who do sincerely view it as a quality horror film and not just a geek show.  So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the movie and I must say that what I got made both “sides” of the film’s reputation but I must say I probably lean more toward team “it’s a legitimately good horror movie” than team “it’s just violent schlock.”  For one thing I do think the movie has been somewhat misrepresented over time… or maybe it hasn’t.

“Torture Porn” is a term that was thrown around a lot to describe horror movies in the 2000s, sometimes erroneously.  Many people just use it to mean “really violent movie” whereas I view it more to be a movie that’s literally about torture, so Hostel would qualify but The Devil’s Rejects would not.  A lot of these “New French Extremity” movies have been called torture porn but most of them would not fit my definition: High Tension is merely a very violent slasher film, Them and Inside are both merely very violent home invasion movies.  Frontier(s) is closer, but I’d say that’s closer to just being a movie about being in the wrong place at the wrong time and trying to escape with your life.  To my eyes Martyrs is the only one of these that really fits the bill, but it takes longer to get there than I expected as I had heard hyperbolic accounts suggesting that the movie was 90% just watching someone get strapped down and brutalized. The first half of the movie is perhaps more of a really violent revenge movie than anything about a woman who was violently abused by some sort of cult as a child coming back to get revenge on a family she believes to have been responsible for this abuse and also about a friend of hers from an orphanage she lived in after escaping this cult.  Fully half of the movie is about her time in a house taking this violent revenge while also being stalked and attacked by some sort of strange feral woman.  Make no mistake, this section of the movie is itself extremely violent and goes far beyond what you would expect from a Hollywood horror movie but it is not really “torture.”

The film does, however, start to live up to its reputation in its third act when the second woman becomes a victim of this same cult.  Structurally that’s a bit of an odd choice as it essentially makes this a movie where we get the revenge first and then only afterwards get a full account of the brutality that’s being avenged.  It’s interesting as it denies the viewer that catharsis during the revenge as we’re left off balance as to whether the people being attacked are even guilty or what exactly they’re accused of.  It also means that when the torture does begin we’re denied any serious hope of justice after the fact.  In this section the film also famously gives an explanation for what all this torture is about: the cult inflicting violence in the belief that they can somehow induce a sort of enlightened trance state in their victims that can give them insights into the afterlife.  Crazy concept but one which could be viewed as a sort of critical metaphor for violent horror movies themselves, suggesting perhaps that the audience is in a way just as guilty of demanding violence upon the characters in the horror movies they watch for their own selfish desire for insight and catharsis… kind of like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games but with fewer literal winks to the camera more people being skinned alive… yeah, I don’t think Haneke would approve and honestly I’m not entirely sure I entirely buy that explination or necessarily think many people would consider this experience “worth it,” but I do think there’s something there.  I would also say that this is just generally better made than some of the other movies in this marathon, at the very least the cinematography is less dated and it generally feels less clichéd.  It’s the best remembered of these for a reason, but it does go off the rails in the last fifteen minutes or so and you have to be down for a very specific kind of extreme experience to want to watch it.
***1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion
Well, that was an experience.  On some level this was a bit of a disappointment: two of the five movies (High Tension and Frontier(s)) turned out to be total schlock and one (Them) was just rather unmemorable, and even some of the better movies here were reminders of some of the more unfortunate aesthetic trends of this era.  Inside proved to be better, but was more just a really bloody exercise in tension than a truly transcendent experience and really it was only Martyrs that felt like a truly worthy provocation even if it’s not necessarily a perfect movie either.  So this wasn’t exactly the particularly sophisticated horror movie that one might expect from the esteemed French cinema but maybe that was a stereotypical thing to expect in the first place.  The wave itself largely died out after Martyrs.  Pascal Laugier gave interviews suggesting that even with the relative success of some of these movies the gatekeepers of French cinema still had very little interest in funding these sort of films.  Aside from High Tension director Alexandre Aja few of these filmmakers really went on to have enduring film careers, most tried to cross over to Hollywood but made sub-par projects there and flamed out.  Still, these movies will continue to have relevance as the “shock cinema” for a generation of horror fans who had quite a bit of “shock cinema” at their disposal.


Warning: Major Spoilers

The news coming out of the Cannes Film Festival this year felt oddly… normal.  This was the first year back after the 2020 festival was cancelled because of Covid but the festival lineup seemed to be the usual mix of world cinema.  In fact things seemed especially consistent this year; you didn’t hear about much of anything being booed but not a lot was being called a true knockout masterpiece either.  It felt like a very “solid B+” festival… but there was one movie that really got people talking and that was Titane, the new film from the French filmmaker Julia Ducournau who had previously been known for her 2016 psychological body horror film RawTitane was a movie that seemed to hit the people who saw it like a truck; everything else at the festival had seemed to fit within the usual expectations of European festival fare but this movie was a big injection of genre craziness in the proceedings and the people who saw it thought it was just one of the most outlandish things they’d ever seen and it had such an impact that it ended up scoring the festival’s highest honor: the Palm d’Or.  Of course I only know all of this by reputation, I wasn’t there and it would be a few months before I actually got a chance to see it and I took care to make sure I didn’t know much more because I got word that it was a film where I would be well served by diligently avoiding spoilers so I could be similarly bowled over by its secrets.  That said I’m going to be taking the opposite approach to this review and am instead opting to take more of a deep dive into the experience of seeing this wild-ass movie and where it works and where it doesn’t.

The movie opens with our protagonist as a little girl who is grievously injured in a car accident and ends up having major brain surgery which involves having a metal plate stuck in her head leaving a very noticeable scar on her scalp around her right ear.  We then flash forward to when this woman, Alexia (Agathe Rousselle) is in her late twenties/early thirties and has become employed as some sort of stripper who dances on top of automobiles at car shows.  This apparently makes her something of a celebrity and one night a creepy fan follows her out to her car to harass her and she responds to this by killing him with a hairpin, something it’s strongly implied that she’s done before.  She then goes back into the car show building after hours to take a shower and is overcome with a strange urge to go back out to the car show floor where she sees a vintage Cadillac with flame decals which inexplicably has its motor running without a driver and seems to be enticing her in its direction with its headlights.  So… she makes love to the car.  The anatomical details of this act are not made clear but you did read that right and it is literal in its meaning.  A few days later she suddenly starts experiencing symptoms of pregnancy while on a date with a fellow car stripper and is already “showing.”  For whatever reason she responds to this experience by killing the other model and suddenly realizes she has three roommates that she now also needs to kill in order to cover that up, but one gets away so now Alexia finds herself on the run lest her serial killer ways get her arrested.

Now, up to this point in the movie I was really loving it.  Ducournau is a filmmaker who makes films about characters who aren’t always what you’d call “relatable” and her films often operate on a certain logic where the world around them sort of transforms to reflect their mindsets and she seems to be taking this to a bit of an extreme by making a movie about a serial killing metal fetishist.  Agathe Rousselle, who has actually never starred in a film before, gives a wild and sensational lead performance and the film’s sex and violence is presented rather fearlessly (I’m kind of surprised the MPAA let them get away with an R).  I was very intrigued to see where it went from there but then in kind of zagged in a direction I wasn’t expected rather than zigging and I’m not sure I liked where it went.  After Alexia’s big gory three person killing spree she sees her face on a wanted poster and comes up with probably the craziest escape plan possible: she cuts her hair, intentionally breaks her nose, binds her breasts and pregnant stomach with gauze and poses as a boy who’s been reported missing for several years and is taken in by the boy’s father (Vincent Lindon.  This is where the movie started to lose me.  It may sound ridiculous to be on board with a movie where a woman is impregnated by a Cadillac only to then say “that’s a bit far-fetched” when she merely tries to con a grieving man but there’s a big difference between an outright flight of fantasy like that car reproduction and something that’s just kind of an implausible bit of human behavior.

Of course I have seen the documentary The Imposter and am familiar with the Frédéric Bourdin case but this situation is even a few notches of crazy beyond that.  Bourdin was not a wanted serial killer, never went so far as to pretend to be someone of a different gender, certainly wasn’t hiding a pregnancy the whole time (and her “binding” technique stops making sense somewhere around the second trimester), and also didn’t have a telltale scar on his scalp that no one suddenly seems to notice.  So that all seemed far-fetched but, again, this whole movie is kind of supposed to be far-fetched.  I think the bigger problem here isn’t plausibility so much as the fact that this section seemed to kind of abandon a lot about the movie I was really enjoying in that first act.  Alexia doesn’t appear to be a serial killer anymore, there’s little evidence of her metal fetish anymore, and the movie instead becomes this odd story about a sad man kind of being used by a con artist.  At a certain point I was thinking, “wait, what happened to this lady being impregnated by the presumably demonic child from the gods of flesh and steel… why are we not focusing on that?”

Slowly but surely a lot of this does get back on track.  As the film goes forward it becomes clear that this father is primarily fooled by Alexia’s ruse out of sheer grief-stricken delusion… which still doesn’t explain why she tried it in the first place, but still that is at least somewhat plausible.  Eventually the film does start coming back around to the body horror provocation it started as when the pregnancy finally “comes to term” and the final childbirth scene is among the best set-pieces you’re likely to see and the film ends on the exact right note.  At that point you can kind of see the why the film needed to take the diversion it did to get where it needs to go, but I still kind of feel like the gender-bending imposter sub-plot was a lesser diversion that brings down the overall movies a bit.  But it doesn’t bring it down too much and there’s a lot to recommend in the overall film but of course only to the right audiences.  This obviously isn’t going to be a huge crossover hit like the last Neon distributed Palm d’Or winner Parasite; it’s a movie that requires an audience that’s willing to suspend a lot of disbelief, who are amenable to genre elements, and who find extreme imagery enticing rather than repellent.  In other words it’s probably not a movie I’m going to recommend to the average family member, but it’s a bold vision that will likely be pretty influential going forward and if you are someone who seeks out provocation in their cinema it’s a must-see.

**** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 8/12/2021

The Fear Street Trilogy (7/26/2021)

The Fear Street trilogy, which debuted across three weeks in July directly to Netflix, are a bit of a quandary to me simply in terms of format.  The three films were shot simultaneously, lead into each other in a very “to be continued” kind of way, and in many ways they feel more like a TV miniseries than a set of films and yet they do in many ways fit every definition of “film” you can have.  They were originally produced by 20th Century Fox pre-Disney acquisition and were intended to be released in theaters across three months, but then the pandemic made theatrical releases iffy and they sure as hell weren’t going to put this gorefest on Disney+ so they sold it to Netflix.  So they’re movies, but they don’t really stand alone at all and they are clearly intended to be watched in tandem even more so than normal sets of sequels in a way that certainly reflects television culture more than film culture as we know it.  Also curious is that the three films are actually based on books written by R.L. Stein based on his Fear Street series, which was meant to be the slightly more hardcore books kids would graduate to after they outgrew his Goosebumps books.  I never got into Fear Street (I went from Goosebumps to Animorphs to real books) but I have always had the impression they were a bit more PG-13 whereas these movies are more like hard R slasher movies aimed squarely at the audience who grew up on those books but crave something a bit more hardcore now.

The first film, 1994 (whose setting also acts as a framing story for the next two movies), is plainly trying to be a sort of Stranger Things nostalgic look at mid 90s teen culture and is set in a pair of twin towns called Sunnydale and Shady Side that have become known as the site of periodic outbreaks of serial killings over the course of its history.  That installment follows a group of teens dealing with the latest of these outbreaks and coming to find that these attacks are supernatural in nature and appear to be the result of a curse of some kind.  The second film, 1978, looks back at a previous incident caused by this curse which occurred at a summer camp, and the third movie, 1666, looks at the Salem Witch Trial like occurrence that started this curse and then returns to 1994 to wrap things up.  Of the three I think 1978 is kind of the weakest, firstly because it’s so obviously a pastiche of the Friday the 13th movies that it feels redundant and secondly because it generally feels the most disconnected from the other two films in the trilogy and adds the least to the overall mythology.  I also didn’t care too much for the 1666 parts of 1666, which rather awkwardly tries to incorporate the actors from the 1994 parts and generally lacks some of the attitude of the other parts and feels the least like pure entertainment and the most like a plot necessity.  The strongest elements are the 1994 segments across the three films, which are probably the most successful at making the familiar story elements seem relatively fresh and have the most likable and engaging characters.  I don’t know that I’d call any of these movies “scary” but there are some decent slasher movie kills across the trilogy and there are some memorable killers assembled here and some fun chases with them.

I will say I kind of dig that they were experimenting with form here but I don’t think it really worked out.  There’s not really enough here to support a six hour movie and had this gone to theaters as planned I don’t think this project, taken as a whole, would have justified the purchase of three tickets and three separate trips to the multiplex.  Meanwhile, if looked at as TV there isn’t really enough here and that pieces are missing.  In many ways it feels like they ideally should have made this into a season of something like “American Horror Story” in which we see them do this in more settings through the history of this cursed town but in shorter episodes.  As it is the whole thing just feels a bit unwieldly.  Looking past the format I think there are some fun ideas spread throughout the three films; most of the characters are likable, the teen cast is sufficient, the killers look cool enough, and while I wouldn’t say any of the films are wildly suspenseful there are some decent kills spread across the films that will appeal to audiences seeking out some simpler horror pleasures.  Not unlike the original books, I would probably say that the target audiences for these movies probably are the younger horror fans who maybe haven’t already seen all the movies that inspired these things and may be experiencing these genre pleasures (that they are maybe too young for) for the first time.  For me, eh, I was rarely bored while watching them but I can’t say I found it to be an entirely successful endeavor but as a Netflix movie it’s probably worth at least giving a look if you’re a horror fan.
*** out of Five

Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage (7/27/2021)

Woodstock 99 and the various disasters that occurred there has been something of a pet interest of mine since I first heard about it during one of those VH1 “Most Shocking Moments in Rock” lists from back in the day and I’ve looked up a lot about the incident (in which a revival of the original festival erupted into violence and chaos) and had listened to the Steve Hayden podcast that was a likely precursor to this new documentary that recently debuted on HBO.  Despite already knowing most of what was going to be said in this documentary I still found myself engrossed in the story all over again, the whole thing is just such a clusterfuck of bad preparation, angry music, and a generation of young white men who were extremely angry despite living in times where there were not many things for them to be legitimately angry about and the movie is aware of all these factors in what happened and discusses them and doesn’t go too far into simplifying it all into any one factor being to blame.  They get a pretty solid roster of interviewees from band members, concert promotors, attendees, and journalists who all have varying degrees of self-awareness about what happened though a few absences are notable (looking at you Fred Durst).  The film doesn’t really engage in cheap “gotcha-ism” through some interviewees like the promoter who blames some of the women for their own sexual assault really can’t help but hang themselves with their own words.  The final film is perhaps as telling about the 90s as the original Woodstock documentary was of that era even if it lacks the same cinematic immediacy and one could perhaps argue that it has a lot more honest in its hindsight.  Beyond that the film just narrativeizes this event in a way that really builds effectively and just becomes a rather dramatic and at times disturbing viewing experience as it goes.  It doesn’t re-invent the documentary form or anything but it does cover its subject quite well.

**** out of Five

Night of the Kings (8/9/2021)

One of the things that I (and I suspect a lot of people) persistently feel guilty about is that despite having a lot of interest in world cinema my film going diet tends to be largely devoid of movies from Africa.  I want to blame circumstances on a lot of this: a lot of African countries don’t have the resources and infrastructure to make movies and various sectarian conflicts make building them difficult, so there’s less of a pipeline for movies from those countries and you tend to see that reflected in the makeup of major festivals and the like which otherwise raise the profile of movies from Europe, Asia, Latin America, etc.  Furthermore, the excursions I have made into African cinema have often been rocky.  A lot of the art cinema coming out of that country tends to be a touch obtuse and is often concerned with political conflicts that are not terribly easy for outsiders to parse and frankly they often aren’t made with a lot of style and pizazz.  Still, I’m increasingly trying to look harder and with that in mind I’m excited to report that an African film that truly excites me seems to have finally come my way in the form of a new release that was picked up by Neon and is currently streaming on Hulu, a film from The Ivory Coast directed by a guy named Philippe Lacôte called Night of the Kings.

The film begins with a young man getting locked up in the infamous MACA Prison, which seems to have something of an Escape From New York philosophy to incarceration in which convicts are basically thrown in and told to fend for themselves with minimal guard interference.  I have no idea if the actual prison is run this way (I’m guessing it isn’t) but that’s not really the point, though intensely political this isn’t a neorealist movie trying to shock you with authenticity and is instead reaching for more of a truth through symbolism.  As a result of some prison politics this young man, who was a member of a gang called the Microbes, is roped into a sort of prison ritual in which an inmate needs to tell a story over the course of a night that keeps everyone intrigued until the break of dawn.  In order to do this the young man starts by talking about the life and death of his former gang leader (a real life figure called Zama King) but as the night goes on he starts embellishing the story and it begins to take on legendary proportions.  It does not take an expert in the culture to get what Lacôte is up to with this, he’s taking African oral traditions and associated rituals and applying them and the myth-making they involve to the modern world and the stories that spread through a criminal underworld.

It’s an inherently fascinating concept if you’re able to go with it, though it does take some suspension of disbelief to roll with the idea that prisoners would engage in these rituals and I would say that the prison politics of all this is probably one of the film’s weaker and less understandable elements.  Still it more than makes up for this with the sheer filmmaking of it all.  While hardly an effects extravaganza this does not look like some sort of third world production made on a shoestring; it has very slick cinematography by Tobie Marier Robitaille and Lacôte shoots the film with a clear sense of purpose.  The storytelling scenes are fascinating in the way the prisoners respond to the story being told to them, with some of them ritualistically playacting elements of it in a sort of dance.  Again, I highly doubt that this is how any actual prisoners would behave but that’s really not the point, it’s about the ritual, and the story itself ends up touching on various aspects of Ivorian history as well as modern social conditions and which are occasionally dramatized in the film in interesting ways.  It would not shock me one bit if Marvel ended up signing Philippe Lacôte to helm Black Panther 3 or something, but I’m just fascinated to see what he can continue doing within a world cinema context and would really like to see his first movie (2014’s Run) if it ever ends up streaming somewhere.  It’s definitely one of the year’s best movies.

****1/2 out of Five

Wolfgang (8/10/2021)

The streaming gold rush has been quite the boon for documentaries as these platforms have been great places to debut and present non-fiction cinema but these services often aren’t after the most challenging and artistic docs and if there’s one service I definitely didn’t expect to become a destination for them it’s Disney+, which does have a history of hosting nature documentaries and movies about Disney history, but their first real venture into hosting feature length documentaries is a fairly by-the-numbers hagiographic profile of the celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.  Of course these simplistic biographical docs about famous old people are kind of the bread and butter of populist documentaries so this is hardly something unique to Disney and on some level I kind of appreciate that this movie basically knows it’s a puff piece and doesn’t try to pretend to be much more than that.  As you would expect from a Disney production this is very slickly produced and professional and has a strong emphasis on very traditional values like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and knowing the value of family.  In fact the film has a very Disney-like conflict in the third act where it talks about Puck not spending enough time with his family while he was at the height of his success, which is pretty much the only negative thing the film has to say about him, and in Disney fashion he sees the error in his ways eventually and corrects this.  Again, these are all tactics that you’re likely to see in a lot of other bio-docs like this but it’s especially transparent here.  As cinema this is pretty bankrupt but it’s not really trying to be cinema, it’s trying to be something that kind of keeps your interest while you casually watch it and it’s not exactly a failure at that, but I think it’s time to put my foot down about this trend because it really needs to stop.

** out of Five

Raya and the Last Dragon (8/12/2021)

Raya and the Last Dragon was meant to be a full-on Disney event film for the fall of 2020 but got pushed out by the pandemic to March of 2021… which was still probably a bad time to release movies but by that point Disney was in full yolo mode and just put it out.  I wasn’t going to pay their $30 blood money to watch it in “premiere access” but I was willing to catch up with it once it was on Disney+ for free.  From the outside this kind of looks like a Disney movie in the vein of something like Moana or Frozen but it’s not a musical like those movies were and isn’t as indebted to replicating the Disney Renaissance so one could maybe say it’s more like one of their more action driven efforts like Big Hero 6, but it’s still a fantasy period piece so I guess it’s kind of like a compromise between the two.  It’s set in a fictional world vaguely themed around Southeast Asia but with some clear influence from Chinese/Hong Kong martial arts cinema as well.  It’s set in a world that was torn apart by a past calamity and divided into different countries at war with one particularly bad one and focuses on one hero who is on a mission to stop them while accompanied by a mythological creature (the last dragon) while being pursued by the child of the main bad guy… it kind of reminds me of a popular cartoon that shall remain unnamed (followers of internet drama will know why) but I would say that it unlike that show this only has two hours to explore this whole world and that makes it feel kind of rushed.  The animation here is top of the line and I liked a lot of the world design but the story ultimately feels kind of formulaic and I would also say that the dialogue here, which is anachronistic and slangy, kind of drove me nuts.  Disney movies are never a place to go for period authentic speech patterns, but when you’re actively putting internet-speak in the mouths of your fantasy characters you’re messing up.  Ultimately it’s a movie that feels like it had the style to be a great Disney movie but never really had the substance and made a few unfortunate decisions that hold it back but I think I would have dug it a lot when I was a kid and appreciate the effort and feel like this creative team could do good things if they refined things into another effort.

*** out of Five