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


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