Nightmare Alley(12/19/2021)

What does clout buy you?  That tends to be a question every film director ends up asking right after a film they make becomes a popular hit or wins an Oscar.  That’s when their name is at its peak in Hollywood and studios and producers are eager to work with them in order to see if they can keep that winning streak going.  Occasionally it doesn’t matter as much because the filmmaker in question is already working on their next movie before those laurels arrive, which is what happened last year when Chloe Zhao won the Oscar while already in post-production on Eternals, which is probably the movie she had expected would get her the clout (maybe miscalculated there).  But when that’s not the case this peak of relevance is usually when a filmmaker will try to cash in and finally get that passion project greenlit that they’ve long wanted to make but could never get the moneymen to pony up the cash, often some sort of adaptation that they’ve long nurtured.  Sometimes this can lead to great things; for instance I for one think that If Beale Street Could Talk is an even greater accomplishment than Moonlight even if the Academy and critical consensus don’t seem to see it that way, or perhaps look at the fine Little Women adaptation Greta Gerwig was able to make after the success of Lady Bird.  Other times though this can lead to a sort of “Sophomore Slump” even if it’s not really the director’s second film just because that’s when everyone is watching them, like when Ben Affleck made that Live by Night movie with his Argo clout or when Ava DuVernay followed up her triumphant Selma with a head scratching version of A Wrinkle in Time.  Well, in 2017 Guillermo del Toro (a man who often needs to struggle to get funding for his various passion projects) found himself having rather improbably winning an Oscar for his interspecies romance The Shape of Water and all eyes were on him to see what he’s be able to get greenlit next.  The answer is a little surprising but kind of makes sense at the same time: a new big budget version of the novel Nightmare Alley.

You would think that with that title and this director this would be a horror movie but it really isn’t.  Instead it’s an adaptation of a 1946 novel of the same title by a guy named William Lindsay Gresham.  I’m not sure that book would technically be considered a work of pulp fiction but it was certainly pulp adjacent and was largely known for its dark look at the world of carnivals from an author who’d done a lot of research into their inner-workings and used it as a backdrop for a story about the rise and fall of a conman named Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper).  Carlisle is something of a drifter as the story begins and gets a job at a traveling carnival run by a guy named Clem Hoately (Willem Dafoe) featuring a lot of antiquated acts of the era ranging from a strong man named Bruno (Ron Perlman) to a truly grotesque “geek show” in which a desperate drunk bites the heads off of chickens for a crowds amusement.  One of the more popular acts is a mentalist show where a lady (Toni Collette) and her father (David Strathairn) employ various cold reading tricks to make the crowds think they can read minds and channel spirits, which Stan takes an interest in and tries to learn while seeing the electricity channeling woman Molly (Rooney Mara).  Little does he know that this interest in mentalism will eventually lead him to cross paths with a dangerous femme fatale (Cate Blanchett) and a brutal gangster (Richard Jenkins) who he’ll have to take on in a battle of wits.

This is not the first time that William Lindsay Gresham’s novel has been brought to the big screen; about a year after the novel’s release we got an adaptation directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Tyrone Power which had to bowdlerize the material a bit in order to meet the requirements of the Production Code but which made up for it by indulging in the film noir style of the time.  Despite the censorship that movie was still considered rather lurid and controversial so it hasn’t been shown a whole lot over the years and isn’t necessarily seen as an all-time classic or anything but it does have a legacy and is a pretty good movie.  I saw that version earlier this year, so I went into this new adaptation already knowing the basic story but not sure how much was changed between the two version and while this isn’t a West Side Story situation where there is this iconic movie the remake needs to live up to I must say I was maybe expecting there to be bigger changes between the two than there were.  Both movies tell the same basic story and cover most of the same sequences; the characters in the new one are allowed to curse and talk about sex and there are a couple of scenes of violence that weren’t there in the older film but the absence of these things from the older film do no fundamentally change it.  In fact I think I may well have enjoyed the new one a decent bit more of I hadn’t seen the original as it would have given me a bit more of a sense of surprise as the story unfolded.

The main difference between the two films is probably the central character, who in the original version is your typical noir protagonist who starts out as a potentially salvageable person who eventually falls when he meets the wrong femme fatale and succumbs to the green eyed monster, but in this remake it’s pretty clear that this guy was kind of fucked up from the very beginning.  Bradley Cooper is a generally more rough and tumble actor than Tyrone Powers, who was very much playing against type when he was in this role, but also an actor who can clean up and blend better into high society in the film’s second half.  This is not the most challenging role he’s taken on, but he does make it work pretty well.  The other big difference here is that the Richard Jenkins character is greatly expanded here.  In the 1947 version he was a mostly innocent sucker but here he’s a vicious gangster with a whole lot to atone for.  I think that was cut from the original mostly for purposes of time and I can see an argument that that was for the best (at two and a half hours this movie does feel like it could have been trimmed) but the version of the character here is certainly more interesting and does give the film a bit more to chew on in its second half.

As I said earlier this is not a horror movie and in some ways it may seem like an odd choice for Del Toro given that there aren’t any literal monsters here.  I would also say that the movie is generally a bit less humanist than some of his other films, which usually do have sympathetic characters at their center or are interested in finding sympathy in monsters whereas this movie is pretty unrelentingly dark and cynical.  I think what attracted him to the story, aside from how fun it would be to bring cool carnival noir imagery to the screen, is the theme about the ethics of fortune telling and séances that the Cooper character wades into in the second half.  Del Toro has made it known that despite his love of bringing monsters to the screen he is in fact highly skeptical about any sort of claims of the paranormal in the real world and I suspect that as a horror filmmaker he has some complex feelings about depicting ghosts and goblins without indulging in suggesting that they’re real.  I cannot, however, say that this theme ever feels like it’s completely explored here and it’s also not the deepest exploration of other themes like alcoholism either and I do suspect there will be people who watch this and find themselves wondering what the point of all this really is.  That said, I have very few specific complaints about the movie and there’s very little in it I would change, it just kind of never comes together into something greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s a good movie, but I’m not sure it’s entirely more successful than its predecessor and never quite feels like it lives up to its potential.

***1/2 out of Five


Home Video Round-Up 11/11/2021

The Velvet Underground (11/4/2021)

The Velvet Underground is one of those bands you are likely to have never heard of if you don’t seek out information on the history of rock and roll.  I first encountered them in high school when I was looking up all the albums that were within the top 100 or so of the Rolling Stone Top 500 albums list, and while I didn’t know what to make of “The Velvet Underground & Nico” at first it did stick with my and I’ve revisited it quite a lot and increasingly understand its influence.  Generally speaking I tend to focus on the grittier “streets of New York” elements of the band but of course they also arose out of a damn art collective, so there are clearly layers to them which Todd Haynes has opted to untangle with his new documentary about the band which is simply titled The Velvet Underground.  Making a documentary like this in 2021 is kind of challenging.  Lou Reed is dead, so are a lot of the other band members, so is Andy Warhol, so is Nico, so the roster of talking heads they can go to is pretty thin at this point so a lot of the story had to be told by John Cale and Maureen Tucker.  There’s archival footage to work with as well and Todd Haynes does give the film a bit of a distinct style despite being an “archival footage and talking heads” piece by giving it this split screen motif but otherwise the film seems a bit dry for a documentary about a revolutionary rock band.  What’s more it’s not really a documentary that bothers to introduce the band to people who weren’t already familiar with them while also not telling longtime fans a whole lot they don’t already know, so I’m not exactly sure who this is for.

*** out of Five

CODA (11/5/2021)

The film CODA famous sold at Sundance to Apple for a record setting $25 million dollars and it’s not hard to see why.  The film has exactly the lovable “little movie that could” feel that we’ve come to expect from other feel-good Sundance pickups like Little Miss Sunshine or The Kids are All Right or Minari, but when it was finally released it was never really able to work up that same word of mouth audience or sport impressive box office figures because it went straight to a not terribly popular streaming service and never really had that narrative.  That’s unfortunate because as these things go CODA is pretty good.  The title is an abbreviation which stands for “Child of Deaf Adults” and the film focuses on a teenage girl who, as that would imply, is the only hearing member of a deaf family.  That can be a rather stressful position for this girl because, in addition to all the normal teenage stresses she needs to act as an almost full time interpreter for her parents while also helping them in their family business (they’re fishermen).  To make things even more awkward this girl is a bit of a music buff and aspires to be a singer, which is a hobby she can’t really share with her family at all.  Emilia Jones has a pretty difficult role as the film’s star as she needed to learn sign language for the role (large portions of the film are in ASL), fake an American accent (she’s British), and also do some pretty impressive singing during the performance segments.  The deaf actors here are also pretty strong, especially Troy Kotsur as the father.  Glamourous Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin is perhaps a bit miscast here as a fisherman’s wife but still does a decent job giving her character nuance.  Overall it’s not exactly a movie that’s breaking the coming of age movie mold outside of the deafness angle, but it does manage to stay just on the right side of corny for most of its runtime, crossing that line only in its finale.

***1/2 out of Five

Fathom (11/8/2021)

Fathom is a documentary looking at the scientific quandary of whale calls and the extent to which they can be considered linguistic communication, a topic that has fascinated filmmakers since at least as far back as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  The film is not, however quite what I was expecting which was a nature documentary with an emphasis on underwater whale footage and is instead more interested in the scientists doing the research and frankly I found the scientists kind of dull.  There’s some slight interest in seeing them go through the slow scientific process but they don’t stop a whole lot to explain exactly what they’re doing as much as they could and frankly this maybe could have used a bit more dumbing down or at least some additional explanation of the goals and results of what they’re doing.  At times it strays from the whale research entirely just to show the scientists hanging out and talking amongst themselves, which could be interesting but I don’t think they curate this moments or cut around them very effectively.  I think Apple acquired this expecting to have a nature doc to show off their 4K streaming but I don’t think the one they chose was all that wisely picked.

** out of Five

Finch (11/9/2021)

They say that an actor’s name is no longer enough to sell a movie but Tom Hanks seems to be among the select few who has never even touched the world of franchise filmmaking (well, unless you count the Dan Brown movies and/or his voice work in Toy Story) and can still basically get a movie made with his presence alone as long as the budget is reasonable.  He mostly makes traditional movies with likable protagonists (last year he put out a World War II movie and a western) but he does do some adventurous things like Cloud Atlas here and there and with his latest film he’s made another science fiction film, one of the post-apocalyptic “last man on Earth” variety although there do appear to be other people in the world of the film, but they’re off screen and untrustworthy so Hanks is pretty much alone except for his dog, a small robot, and finally a larger android which he turns on early in the film and much of the film’s plot revolves around him and this robot getting to know each other and going on a little road trip to escape a sandstorm.  For a movie about the end of the world, this feels pretty low stakes and kind of hinges on the audience enjoying the company of this robot, and I kind of didn’t.  Caleb Landry Jones’ voice performance as Jeff the robot makes him sound kind of pathetic in a way that is probably intentional but which I found just very unappealing.  It’s like that movie Chappie but without all the wild stuff that made that movie kind of an interesting mess.  Skippable.

** out of Five

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for it (11/11/2021)

I’ve complained a lot about these hagiographic profile documentaries but there is a reason I still watch them: sometimes they surprise me.  This Rita Moreno documentary follows the usual formula pretty much to a T: it follows an old person around for a little while and intersperses this with interview footage both with the subject and with others familiar with their career to put together a biographical account.  What sets this one apart isn’t really anything to do with the filmmaking (which is above average at best as these things go) but more to do simply with the fact that the subject has some pretty good stories.  Moreno has been getting a lot of attention lately because of her status as a spry octogenarian but her career has otherwise been kind of under the radar, so the film isn’t just regurgitating a career trajectory that everyone already knows and Moreno turns out to be very candid in her recollections.   Again, this isn’t to say that the film is itself is some kind of glorious piece of cinema but I did enjoy my time with it.

*** out of Five

West Side Story(12/9/2021)

If ever there’s a filmmaker that deserves some benefit of the doubt it’s probably Steven Spielberg.  The guy hasn’t necessarily had the greatest stretch in the last ten years or so but the man made Jaws dammit.  Even the movies he makes that aren’t terribly inspiring like The Post or Ready Player One tend to be well made enough to be a good watch and even when he does strike out like with War Horse and The BFG the final movies end up at least being… kind of interesting just because you’re watching one of the most successful filmmakers of all time dedicating himself to a very bad idea.  Despite this, I don’t think I’ve ever been more skeptical about the guy than when it was announced he would be making a remake of the 1961 Academy Award winning musical West Side Story.  I’m not even the world’s biggest fan of the original West Side Story for a variety but I do recognize its status as a classic and doing a more or less straightforward remake of an acknowledged classic is kind of a losing game.  Even if you knock it out of the park you’re probably you’re still kind of just going to be viewed as a usurper to the throne and everyone’s just going to spend all their time comparing whatever you did to the original.  I could kind of give it some leeway since the original is itself a stage adaptation but the trailer sure made it look like a pretty direct take on what Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins had already done.  What’s more, given that it was set to come out the same year as In the Heights this kind of looked primed to feel like the stodgy old version of western Manhattan next to the fresh new vision, but now that the movie has come out Spielberg seems to be having the last laugh because the film is being very well received.

The film opens with the sight of a wrecking ball tearing down tenements in the rapidly changing Lincoln Square neighborhood (then frequently called San Juan Hill) to make way for the Lincoln Center complex, a project they broke ground on about two years after the musical premiered and two years before the original film came out.  This sets up a section of New York that is in flux and we are then introduced to the two gangs set to fight over what remains: the gang of second or third generation white immigrants The Jets, and the gang of newer Puerto Rican arrivals The Sharks.  Currently leading The Jets is Riff (Mike Faist), a hot head who is extremely resentful that the neighborhood has been “taken over” by Puerto Ricans and that has led to clashes with Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez).  These tensions escalate at a school dance when a former Jet named Tony (Ansel Elgort) spots Bernardo’s younger sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) and is immediately struck by her beauty.  It feels like love at first sight on her end as well, but the second Bernardo sees the two of them dancing he splits them up and storms out with Maria.  Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) warns that the two of them could start “World War III” between the two gangs and the gang leaders start plotting to have a “rumble” that could well end in bloodshed.

So I should probably lay my cards on the table about the original West Side Story, which is a movie I have my problems with.  My first exposure to it was in middle school when my Spanish teacher decided to take it easy for a few days and felt the musical was sufficiently close to the subject matter to work.  At the time I thought it was “totally lame” because gang members singing and dancing in the street was a ridiculous concept to me at the time.  Revisiting it as an adult with a more mature sense of musical conventions I was able to get over that but I still think there are legitimate problems with the movie.  There’s the brownface aspect of course, that’s been an acknowledged blemish for a while, but beyond that I’ve never been the biggest fan of stars Richard Beymer or Natalie Wood as Tony and Maria and the slower ballad type songs between them never did much for me.  Beyond that, while I can be more of an adult about the musical numbers some of the dance scenes in that first movie seem to go on endlessly and do tax my patience a little.  Ultimately though personal preference only goes so far with something that’s this iconic, the film has certainly earned its place in pop culture regardless of my quibbles with it.

This remake follows the same basic story of the original film and includes most if not all of the same songs but the screenplay has been re-written by Tony Kushner in a number of ways.  The dialogue has been re-worked, mostly for the better, and there a more knowing and 21st Century perspective on some of the underlying socio-political context of all this.  It is not a coincidence that Spielberg and Kushner decided to start making this film about conflict between working class whites and Latino immigrants right in the middle of the Trump years and that particular dynamic definitely informs much of how this remake is written.  Early in the film the Jets are established as a rather humiliated community of poor whites who still live in a ghetto that’s been increasingly populated by new arrivals and lash out at said new arrivals instead of their own conditions, while the Sharks are depicted as people defending themselves from this while also personalizing this conflict in ways that aren’t terribly productive either.  I would also say that the movie fleshes out the romance between Tony and Maria in some useful ways; it makes Tony’s differences from his Jet comrades a bit more palpable and Maria’s own differences with her family a bit clearer and I would also generally say that Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler are both generally more charismatic and authentic than their 1961 counterparts and have more chemistry generally.  In the old movie I never cared for the slow songs between them, but I liked them a lot more here in large part because I was just more sold on the genuine infatuation between the two.

Where the film is less successful is in it rendition of some of the more iconic musical numbers from the first movie.  The staging of “America,” probably the most widely remembered song from the first movie, seems to have the hardest time living up to its predecessor.  Where the scene was a pretty straightforward Broadway style number in the first movie with two sets of Purto Ricans debating each other on a roof at night, this time it’s staged in broad daylight in the style of a golden age film musical as extras join in while people dance on the street.  This is the one part of the movie that kind of does draw some unflattering comparisons to In the Heights which pulled this kind of thing off better and in general it feels a bit overblown and out of keeping with the style of the rest of the film.  The film also kind of botches its handling of the song “cool,” which is moved to an earlier moment before the rumble and lacks a lot of the jazzy aura that the first movie was able to achieve with the number.  Other songs are shuffled around and re-imagined a bit more successfully.  Setting “Gee, Officer Krupke” in a police station instead of the city streets is a nice switch up (kind of ridiculous that they still end with “Krup you!” at the end) and putting “I Feel Pretty” in a department store also makes sense.

This new adaptation does not entirely leave behind the theatricality inherent to this property; the film’s sets remain somewhat heightened, more like exceptionally large stages than truly naturalistic environments and I do think that’s at least partly by design.  Across the board I’d say that the cast here works quite well, though some are a forced to live more in the shadow of their predecessors.  In the case of Rachel Zegler this is beneficial as it’s not that hard to rise above Natalie Wood in brownface (though I will say Wood probably handles the film’s climactic scene a little better), though this works less well for Ariana DeBose, who needs to live up to Rita Moreno’s Academy Award winning turn as Anita and all involved might have been better served by departing a bit more from that version of the character.  Mike Faist stands out quite a bit for his take on the character of Rif and I quite liked Josh Andrés Rivera’s new take on Chino.  Ultimately though, no matter how much the film succeeds in so many ways, at the end of the day it still needs to overcome the “why did we need this” question, and while it does make a much more convincing case for itself than I expected I’m not sure it ever quite got entirely over that hill and to some extent I’m not sure who this is for.  The people Spielberg’s age are never going to abandon that original film and I don’t necessarily see this thing being hip with “the kids” either.  Personally I was interested to see Spielberg work at such a high level and was fascinated seeing how they handled the material but can’t help but think that they’ve put all this effort into something that will inevitably still feel like it lives in the shadow of that first movie.  This is definitely worth seeing if you’re even a little bit interested but I don’t know what kind of legacy this will leave behind ultimately.

**** out of Five

Disneyology 201: The Live-Action Remakes (2018-2019)

Last summer I took a dive into Disney’s recent trend of remaking their animated classics into these effects laden live action blockbusters and the mixed to negative results that’s provided.  Honestly I found the movies we were given to be a bit (and I mean a small bit) more eclectic than I expected as the studio experimented a bit to see what audiences wanted out of these movies.  But it ended on an ominous note as we got 2017’s Beauty and the Beast, which is the movie that really exhausted whatever patience critics had with this trend and really marked them as something of a plague.  But that’s also when Disney decided to put the petal to the metal: in the last two years of the decade they put out as many live action remakes as they did in the entire rest of the decade combined including remakes of some pretty sacred cows.  2019 in particular was a year that was just rotten with them, like they knew audiences were going to get sick of the fad so they just wrung it dry.  So, without further ado let’s finish this up.

Christopher Robin (2018)

Though they are generally thought of as being money machines there have definitely been Disney remakes that have more or less landed with thuds.  One of them, seemingly, was the 2018 Winnie the Pooh riff Christopher Robin which sure seemed to just “come and go” in theaters.  Looking at the actual numbers you see that the movie actually made a respectable $99 million domestically and about as much internationally so it certainly wasn’t the flop it felt like but there certainly wasn’t enthusiasm for it.  That’s partly because the film just feels like something of a misbegotten concept in general.  On one hand it feels like one of the few Disney remakes with some legitimate creativity behind it rather than a straightforward remake: rather than simply presenting familiar animal antics in the Hundred Acre Woods but in CGI this time the team here (including screenwriters Alex Ross Perry and Tom McCarthy) sought to tell some sort of story about innocence lost by having an adult Christopher Robin rediscover these characters… seems promising, but what they forgot was that this is Winnie the fucking Pooh we are talking about.  Pooh is a Disney IP that isn’t just for kids, it’s for babies, and the exceptionally young audiences that this movie would attract are likely to be bored by all this angst about an adult Christopher Robin while any adults who might find some interest in that are not going to go to something in this franchise unless dragged by very young children.

Of course this plot about a kid from a famous children’s story growing up to forget his former adventures while neglecting his children to dedicate too much time to work might sound familiar and that’s because it’s basically the setup to Hook in many ways.  I thought it was pretty tired when that movie indulged in the this “shaming fathers for working too hard” trope way back in 1991 but it’s absolutely ridiculous to build an entire movie around it in the 2010s.  I hate this trope both because it’s overused but also because it absolutely reeks of privilege.  I’m sure it resonates to studio heads working long hours despite already being millionaires but most people being forced to neglect their family isn’t some voluntary decision that they can opt out of after being visited by three ghosts or something and I’m sure those people aren’t very happy about Hollywood constantly telling their kids “if your father really loved you he’d walk out on his boss.”   The movie even seems like it should have some self-awareness about this given it’s weird ending in which Robin somehow convinces his boss that giving his employees more vacation time will solve their financial woes (good luck selling that one in real life).  Beyond that the film is just kind of boring and forgettable.  The film actually got a surprise Academy Award nomination for its visual effects, which I can maybe see an argument for as the animals (which are depicted as living stuffed animals here) do seem to interact with reality pretty seamlessly, but it’s not otherwise a terribly interesting movie visually and I just didn’t really care about any of the characters.  Not the worst of these Disney remakes but probably the most forgettable and the one the world was least interested in.

** out of Five

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Unlike a lot of the remakes that Disney suddenly jumped on when they became trendy, the company had actually been trying to make “sequel to Mary Poppins” happen for a while.  In fact they wanted to do a sequel right away after the box office success of the first movie but author P. L. Travers would not let them given her objections to the first film (which you can see chronicled in the Tom Hanks/ Emma Thompson film Saving Mr. Banks).  They tried again in the late 80s but again Travers proved to be stubborn and irascible well into her old age.  The old bat finally croaked in 1996 so by the time Disney began exploiting every last piece of IP in the 2010s the door was open and after Disney approached director Rob Marshall in 2015 things came together pretty quickly.  The film they envisioned would be something more akin to a “Legacyquel” (meaning something that’s technically a sequel to a previous franchise but which feels like a reboot) than a true remake and picks up 25 years after the first film with one of the kids having grown up to be kind of fiscally irresponsible and is about to get his house foreclosed on if they can’t find the bank shares that have been misplaced.  I would suggest that these people need an estate lawyer more than they need a nanny, but like in the first movie Mary Poppins manifests and starts to get up in everyone’s business.

Now, if you’ve been following this Disneyology series you’ll know that I’m no fan of the original Mary Poppins and in that capacity I actually think this sequel is a slight improvement.  The episodic adventures that Poppins takes the kids on generally feel a bit stronger here, there generally seem to be higher stakes to the story, and the film’s music is a bit more to my taste than the songs in the original.  Having said all that, this is still a movie that’s very much meant to invoke that original film and please its fans and that is a problem because there are things about this franchise I just can’t stand.  The whole franchise just seems to rest on these annoyingly wholesome stories about precious little moppets you want to kill and that’s the case here.  I would also say that all this drama around the home foreclosure is kind of silly given that Mary Poppins herself seems to have borderline omnipotent power and could theoretically solve all these problems with a snap of her fingers but doesn’t, presumably because she’s trying to teach this family some kind of lesson but I’m not sure what because they basically just get saved by a deus ex machina anyway.   Setting personal taste aside I would say that this probably is made with a little more class and care than your average Disney remake, but even the most successful remake of this movie was not going to be my cup of tea.

**1/2 out of Five

Dumbo (2019)

Out of the many remakes that Disney had lined up for 2019 Dumbo actually seemed like the one that had the most potential to me.  The original Dumbo was the oldest film that Disney had attempted to remake in this wave and in some ways did feel like a movie that could maybe benefit from some re-thinking and expanding.  What’s more they managed to bring in director Tim Burton to helm the film, and while his previous excursion into Disney remakes (Alice in Wonderland) had been less than ideal there was still some promise to that.  This was probably a miscalculation as I had forgotten that Tim Burton kind of sucks now, or at least it’s been over a decade since he’s made a live action film anyone gives a damn about and Disney seems to bring his most sellout instincts to the table.  The public ultimately didn’t seem to be terribly excited about the film either, the film managed to make over a hundred million at the domestic box office but considering it cost a hundred and seventy million to make it’s likely that even when you bring in the two hundred million the film made internationally it probably didn’t break even when marketing costs are accounted for.

So, what went wrong?  Well, kind of everything.  There was a lot of talk when  the film came out about the fact that they choose not to use any real animal performers in the film since it would be hypocritical to do that in a movie about the cruelty of animal captivity.  I can see the logic there but that doesn’t change the fact that these CGI animals just look fake as hell.  I don’t know if there were just so many shots with animals that there was no way to make them all look pristine or what, but the film’s $170 million dollar budget was not enough to make the elephants look real.  The human characters here also kind of suck despite the film having a fairly impressive cast.  Michael Keaton and Danny DeVito are both kind of fun as the villain and semi-villain (and the fact that this is something of a Batman Returns reunion is amusing) but I didn’t care one bit about Colin Ferrell and his family and the movie didn’t really make Dumbo himself as interesting as it thinks it did.  Burton does give the film some visual touches here and there, particularly in terms of set decoration (still his biggest talent after all these years) but there’s nothing here striking enough to save the film and you likely wouldn’t be able to identify it as a Burton film at all if you weren’t told it was.  I would also note that this is the third straight Disney remake I’ve watched that has some kind of weird contrived anachronistic ending where the corporate villains just kind of become enlightened apropos of nothing and solve everyone’s problems.  I guess in its own way that’s in keeping with the “happily ever after” tradition of fairy tales but at least in the old fairy tales you had to, like, kill the dragon or whatever in order to earn that happy ending.

** out of Five

Aladdin (2019)

By the time the 2019 Aladdin came around critics were firmly opposed to this whole trend of live action Disney remakes on principle and I remember this one having the added infamy of becoming a bit of a laughingstock after a poorly executed trailer came out that made the genie in it look pretty bad.  So I must say that when I turned it on my expectations were pretty low but funnily enough I actually kind of liked the actual film (at least a little) and am in the awkward position of having to defend the indefensible.  I think part of that reaction comes down to the fact that in my eyes the original Aladdin is one of the less successful of Disney’s 90s “renaissance” movies.  It’s the one I should have the most nostalgia for given the age I was at when it came out but it stands out to me as the one that’s aged the least gracefully, in part because the Robin Williams’ performance as the Genie just strikes me as a bit awkward and a bit rooted in dated pop culture references.  That is something that could have used some updating and beyond that the whole Arabian Nights milieu in general doesn’t strike me as one that’s been overdone by Hollywood and which could benefit by being scaled up into a live action epic.  And that is more or less what director Guy Richie (of all people) did with this movie.  It’s more or less a plot point by plot point remake (with a few additions) and fairly openly reuses a lot of the art assets of original film but it’s not what you’d call a shot for shot remake.

Richie’s version of Agrabah is pretty well rendered, certainly heavily following the lead of the animated film’s aesthetic but expanding on it and there was a bit more of a thrill in seeing the Sultan’s palace and the Cave of Wonders made “real” than there was in seeing the Beast’s castle brought to life in that remake.  The script hues very closely to the original and I can probably take or leave most of the changes that were made.  A love interest is added for the Genie for once he’s freed at the end, which ties into a slightly clever framing story.  No big deal, but its fine.  Less successful is an attempt to make Jasmine more palpably embrace her inner girlboss through a song called “Speechless” (the reprise of which hilariously ends with her being hypnotized and literally rendered speechless).  Beyond that the film’s finale is a bit expanded and made more of an action set-piece.  Finally I think I’m going to defend the Will Smith take on the Genie, which is less of an imitation of the Robin Williams version and instead kind of takes on Smith’s natural charisma and creates something of a Fresh Prince Genie and as a purely subjective preference I think I have more affection for that than I do for Robin Williams doing anachronistic celebrity impressions.  The visual effects are also a major step up from what we got from Dumbo despite the two films having fairly comparable budgets though they’re hardly mindblowing.

Having said all that my defense of this movie is modest and tepid as there are some serious drawbacks, none bigger than the guy at the center of it all: Mena Massoud.  This actor was a relative unknown before he was cast in this movie and frankly I think he’s in a bit over his head here.  He seems like a perfectly functional actor who’s trying his best but this is a pretty iconic character he’s trying to inhabit and I just don’t think the pure star power and charisma is there.  I didn’t care too much for the guys they got to play Jafar or the Sultan either, but everyone is largely competent.  At the end of the day, this is certainly every bit the product of soulless number crunching it looks like; whatever mild defense I make of it is in relation to the other Disney remakes and my low expectations for the whole endeavor, but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t think Richie did about as much as he could to make this seem like a real movie and one that mostly flows about as well as it could.

*** out of Five

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019)

Going by straight continuity I should probably be following up my viewing of Aladdin (released 5/24/2019) with The Lion King (released 7/19/2019), but I’ve decided to save that one for last in this viewing series for dramatic effect and will instead jump straight to the October release Maleficent: Mistress of Evil instead.  Out of all the movies in this series this is almost certainly the one I was the least curious about going in both for better or worse.  It wasn’t a movie I was looking forward to but also wasn’t exactly one I was dreading having to sit though… it was just kind of there.  I feel like audiences and critics were similarly disinterested back in 2019.  I don’t remember hearing a single thing one way or the other from critics at the time and while the film (like basically everything Disney releases) was a financial success to some extent but it made about a million dollars less than Dumbo domestically (they were numbers 22 and 23 at the domestic box office) but did noticeably better internationally (out grossing Dumbo by a hundred million worldwide) which is probably enough that it sounds like a Maleficent 3 will be happening.  Still, it’s a movie that made minimal impact on pop culture and might have been a bit better served if it hadn’t come out during the remake-a-palooza that was 2019.

Of course a bit part of why I was so disinterested was that the original Maleficent has proven to be an exceptionally unmemorable movie… to the point where I barely remembered what happened in it even though I’d only seen it something like four month ago.  That having been said I did end up getting caught back up and did end up kind of enjoying certain aspects of the film to some extent.  Particularly, the movie has a final battle scene at the end between an army of humans fortified in a castle and the various fairy people and winged beings that are attacking them.  I’m not saying that this is some great battle scene for the ages but it was able to pretty nicely differentiate itself from the cookie cutter battles between CGI armies we normally get in these post-LOTR fantasy movies.  Outside of that though I don’t think there’s a lot of inspiration to be found here.  The film basically undoes a lot of the developments in the previous film in order to find a way to rekindle the fight between humanity and fairy people and our title character kind of gets sidelined for a while toward the end and kind of becomes the least interesting character in her own movie.  All told I do still think this is one of the more dignified franchises in the Disney remake trend and becomes even more its own thing here given that it no longer has any need to retell the original Sleeping Beauty story but it still never quite comes together as a truly needed thing.

**1/2 out of Five

Lady and the Tramp (2019)

For however much I complained about all these other Disney remakes, one thing is undeniable: they were pretty big deals.  Even the less successful among them made a good hundred million dollars and caught the interest of the masses, and they did this because whatever their faults they were at the very least films constructed to be big modern spectacles.  The same cannot be said of Disney’s remake of Lady and the Tramp, which was not even made to be released in theaters.  Instead the film, from the moment it was announced, was set up to be a launch title for Disney’s then new streaming service Disney+.  This certainly gives me a number of feelings.  On one hand I’m not inclined to dignify these remakes in the first place but if they must make a remake of something like Lady and the Tramp I kind of want them to at least make said bastardization a big deal rather than a cheap throw away freebie, which is sure what this movie feels like.  I must say, I kind of find that inherently offensive because in my opinion Lady and the Tramp is one of the best of Disney’s classic back catalog.  It’s got this really thoughtful animation style and it takes the relationship at its center a lot more seriously than a lot of the company’s films and is also oddly class conscious, so seeing it turned into mere “content” is kind of infuriating.

The visual style of the original Lady and the Tramp was carefully calibrated; it was made in the new ultra-wide CinemaScope ratio with the idea of making it a film told from the low to the ground point of view of its canine protagonists.  This remake throws that whole idea out and uses the 2.00:1 ratio that is otherwise mostly used for streaming television shows.  There were some real dogs used in the film but obviously whenever they talk to each other it’s CGI city and the animals frankly look kind of uncanny and bad during the close-ups.  The basic story is more or less identical to the original film but it feels a lot less meaningful with this presentation.  Where that first movie felt like a capital F film this almost feels more like a Hallmark movie for pet lovers.  Also, while I’ve generally been fine with Disney’s tendency to engage in race blind casting in their Disney remakes I think it bristles a bit more here given that this is set in a very specific time in U.S. history (turn of the century Missouri) rather than some fantasy realm and the notion that everyone in this area would be nonchalant about the mixed race couple at the center of the film in this time and place feels less like wishful thinking and more like a sort of delusional whitewashing of social mores.  But that would have been less of a distraction if this movie made any other case for its existence.  It’s not a wretchedly unwatchable piece of work but its sheer blandness makes it even worse than its over-produced counterparts.

** out of Five

The Lion King (2019)

So, I’ve finally gotten to “the big one.”  The second highest grossing movie of 2019 behind Avengers: Endgame and the movie that made many a film critic completely blow a gasket with the sheer insanity of its existence… the live action remake of The Lion King.  Actually calling this a “live action” remake is a bit dubious considering that the film has no human actors and is by all accounts almost entirely computer generated outside of a single shot of a rising sun at the beginning.  Directed by Jon Favreau this can likely be seen as a follow-up to his 2016 version of The Jungle Book, which is one of the better received Disney remakes in part because it was a remake of a movie that was a touch stale and in part because it made changes and also had some pretty interesting technical achievements.  Most of that does not apply to The Lion King: the original film is still one of the studio’s most beloved films, one that even I can’t really hate on, and the movie pretty slavishly follows the original film’s script.  Some would say that the decision to cast black actors as all of the lions, which I don’t think was responding to a complaint much of anyone actually had with the original and mostly just serves as a flailing attempt to find a reason why this needed to happen at all.  As for its technical merits… I don’t know, I mean, the animals certainly look real which is impressive on some level but it’s also true that they’re less expressive than their animated counterparts and generally have less artistry to them.

So, most of what you’ve heard about this is true, however, The Lion King remains a very durable piece of storytelling and at a certain point there’s only so much you can do to screw it up.  As creatively bankrupt as the film’s borderline shot-for-shot similarities are, the approach does mean that quite a bit of what did work about that original film does seep through into the new version.  I would be curious to see how someone who’s been living under the rock for the last twenty five years (or, you know, a kid) would react to this absent any baggage for the original movie because in a vacuum I think this would be less offensive than it seems to the rest of us.  But the movie doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists in a reality where there was already a perfectly good animated version of this movie and the utter absence of any changes here is basically an admission that there was nothing broken about the original version.  Who was asking for this?  Well, a lot of people I guess, if the film’s outlandish box office is any indication.  I don’t know, I guess “normies” just look at this stuff differently and view classic films less as these totems to stand the test of time and more as disposable products to be replaced by the new model even if the new model turns out to have defects.  To me though this feels kind of like an insult to the legacy of 2D animation that Disney was built on.  But again, that’s the meta-view of it, as a product unto itself all I can really do is shrug, I didn’t actively hate sitting through it or anything.

**1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

Well, this experience both confirmed and confounded most of my expectations about these movies.  The movies they made between 2010-2018 weren’t all “good” exactly but there was some interesting variation to be found between them as they tested out new ideas for how these movies could be but over time they worked out the “kinks” and by 2018 the conveyer belt was really churning these things out in the blandest way and the movies in this half of my survey mostly lived down to their reputation, many of them not even having the decency to be bad in a way that I find interesting and I kind of struggled to find anything to say about a lot of them.  Since their overstuffed 2019 Disney has slowed down their output of these remakes a lot.  I’m not sure how much the pandemic played into that but they only released one live action remake in 2020, the live action Mulan, which sucked in a lot of the same ways a lot of these have sucked despite having more potential than most.  Then in 2021 they released Cruella which I actually liked quite a bit though it does have some glaring problems and looking back I think my three and a half star review might have been a bit too generous, still that’s one of the best things to come out of this trend and points to things may be getting a little better as we move forward.

There are two of these remakes on tap for 2022.  The first is a Peter Pan adaptation Peter Pan & Wendy, which is being directed by David Lowery (promising!) but it’s apparently being released directly to Disney+ (not promising).  The other movie is also set for Disney+, an adaptation of Pinocchio to be directed by Robert Zemeckis… lot of ways that can go wrong.  Then we’ll get another theatrical release in the form of The Little Mermaid, which is being directed by Rob Marshall and is set for release in 2023.  After that we’re getting a wave of sequels to the remakes including The Jungle Book, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Cruella and while it’s not clear how deep they’re in production on any of them there is some preliminary work being done on remakes of Snow White, Bambi, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Hercules.  So this trend isn’t going anywhere.


For a while there it seemed like Paul Verhoeven was done.  Though his last two movies in Hollywood, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man were both basically financial successes the opportunities still seemed to dry up for him in the 2000s as Hollywood became increasingly franchise oriented and PG-13ified.  There just wasn’t room for a provocateur like him when Hollywood’s idea of a success started looking less like Basic Instinct and more like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  Then he returned to his home country of the Netherlands and it seemed like he’d simply restart his career there and in 2007 we got a slick World War II spy movie called Black Book that didn’t set the world on fire but was generally positively received.  But despite that success we wouldn’t see another Paul Verhoeven movie for another ten years and given his relatively advanced age it was hard to tell if that was just a matter of him not being able to find funding or if he’d given up and gone into retirement.  Turns out he did still have gas in the tank however as he kind of came roaring back with his 2016 French film Elle, a film that managed to walk a very fine line in telling a story about rape and seemingly wound up managing to avoid strong controversy and earning Isabelle Huppert an Oscar nomination.  Clearly working in France seemed work well for him as he’s made his follow-up to Elle in that country as well with much of the same production team: a characteristically provocative film about the intersection of religion and sexuality called Benedetta.

Though the film is in the French language it is actually set in Italy during the early 17th century and is a fictionalized account of the life of the real life nun and mystic Benedetta Carlini (Virginie Efira) who had been living at an abbey in a Tuscan town called Pescia since her adolescence.  From a young age Carlini describes getting certain signs and visions from god but they really seem to come to the fore in her early twenties after the Abbey takes in another wayward young woman named Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia) and her visions become more vivid than before and she starts exhibiting signs of it like an incident where she seems to experience the stigmata.  A lot of people within the convent believe these visions and Carlini picks up something of a following within the surrounding countryside but she is not universally believed and something of a battle of wills between Carlini and covenant’s abbess (Charlotte Rampling) and another nun named Christina (Louise Chevillotte) and things will become even more heated once it’s learned that Carlini has been having a lesbian affair with Bartolomea.

Now, I know what this looks like.  “Lesbian nuns” is an inherently salacious topic and with Paul Verhoeven’s reputation as a provocateur who shoots pervy scenes it’s pretty easy to assume that this is going to basically be an exploitation movie that exists to offend the easily offended prudes of the world… and I can’t say it’s entirely not that.  The film certainly uses nudity more liberally than your average movie and there are definitely things in the presence of a dildo carved out of a Jesus statue that are certainly in the Bunuelian tradition of prodding at Catholic iconography.  Having said that, this isn’t like a Lars Von Trier movie or something that only exists to piss people off and it also isn’t a movie that’s made inaccessible through complicated symbolism either.  In general it’s a fairly earnest attempt at telling this true story and explore some of the religious and thematic implications of the story.

At the center of it all is the question of whether Carlini is on the level about her visions or is she faking them in order to gain status and attention.  And if she is honest about them are they merely the delusions of an unhinged fanatic or are they in fact actual messages from God… or perhaps messages from the devil.  The film never really falls on any one of these answers and there are scenes in the film that seem to pretty strongly support every one of these interpretations.  We do see some of her “visions” produced and displayed in the movie, so clearly she is seeing something and likely isn’t making her story up from whole cloth, but on the other hand there are moments where you can clearly see her manipulating the situations in ways that invite fairly cynical readings.  For example when she has “the stigmata” we are shown that she did in fact have the motive and the means to have faked this with a piece of glass and there’s another point where she “predicts” that someone will be cursed with the plague but only after having discovered a tell-tale boil first.  At one point she suggests to Bartolomea that maybe she is faking certain things but only because God is telling her to do so, but there are other points like when she seems to speak in a man’s voice that sure seem like they defy rational explanation.

You also see some of the various interpretations in the ways the people around her react to all of this and their responses are likely to make certain points about society at large.  The people of Pescia and some of the lower level nuns at the Abbey seem eager to believe her out of a sort of instinctive desire to believe while others like the local priest sees enough “miracles” and is happy to go along with it.  Meanwhile The Abess seems kind of agnostic about the “miracles” but mostly views the situation based on how it will affect her status while Christina is straightforwardly skeptical and wants to expose Carlini at all costs.  Bartolomea on the other hand views the whole thing as a likely scam, but digs it at a scam against those in power which she can benefit from as Carlini’s lover.  By contrast The Nuncio seems less interested in whether these visions are true or not than he is in putting these women in their place.  It’s all a bit complicated, but perhaps not quite complicated enough.  Verhoeven wants to maintain a certain level of ambiguity to all this but perhaps goes a bit too far in certain directions so as to replace ambiguity with evidence that is just plainly contradictory.  He’s also makes his film while still working in a relatively accessible film grammar that is perhaps a bit less adventurous than some audiences may want from their European provocations but which may be a benefit to others.  I’d say the overall film is actually less difficult than this year’s other major provocation from France, Julia Ducournau’s Titane, which has probably rightly become the bigger arthouse sensation.  Still, by the standard of most of what you’re likely to see this is some good scandalous and sexy stuff that’s more than worth a watch.

**** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up11/2/2021

Don’t Breathe 2 (10/29/2021)

2016’s Don’t Breathe was a movie I liked but I certainly didn’t love it and I was surprised to see they were making a sequel.  This one takes a bit of a turn from what we saw in the first film in that the blind killer from that movie becomes something of a protagonist here and it goes from being a reverse home invasion movie to being a regular home invasion movie.  While watching it I had assumed the movie was a prequel that would come to explain how he came to be the trigger happy fellow we saw in the original film, but now that I’m looking at synopses now it appears that this really is supposed to be a straight sequel to that movie, which is very odd.  In order to make him seem like more of a good guy they make the villains here wildly and almost cartoonish evil so he has a good reason to seem good by comparison.  The film also gives him a child who he’s trying to protect, presumably a grandchild or something although the film does complicate that narrative a little as it goes on.  As a simple horror movie this does have its moments of effective suspense that are decent enough onto themselves as well as some gory moment for fans looking for simpler thrills, but nothing too special.  Generally speaking though this really is not a very successful sequel; it doesn’t recapture much of what people liked about that first movie and it also doesn’t re-invent itself in ways that feel invigorating.  Really it just kind of feels like the studio told the producers that the first movie made enough money to make them want a follow-up and the writers involved sort of flailed to find a way to do that.

** out of Five

Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (10/30/2021)

It is not hard to guess why this documentary about the early days of the show “Sesame Street” was made recently: it’s clearly capitalizing on the success of the Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor recently, just moving on to the next beloved PBS children’s show.  So it’s not too hard to be cynical about this project and indeed I’d say that this movie is a not very probing look at the show and at times almost feels like an advertisement for its continued legacy.  The film is not a particularly detailed making of: we don’t get overly in depth interviews with a lot of the people who were there or discussion of a number of the puppets nor is it overly interested in the technical aspects of making the show happen.  The film is also generally uninterested in looking at how the show has evolved since the 70s and early 80s, how it’s made today, or how its empire has expanded around the world.  Instead the focus here is actually on trying to dig into the shows politics and the way it was something of an innovator in bringing diversity to television both in the way it was set in an urban environment and that it had an integrated cast and covered some tricky themes at times.  There’s certainly some interest in that and it can kind of be taken for granted how innovative the show was in its day so there is merit in highlighting this, but in many ways this does kind of feel like the show patting itself on the back for being progressive and I suspect the show wasn’t always as successful in these regards as the film suggests.  There are definitely some interesting stories here but it’s not necessarily the definitive take on the show that that Mr. Rogers documentary probably was and there are definitely gaps here.

**1/2 out of Five

The Killing of Two Lovers (10/31/2021)

The Killing of Two Lovers is one of the relatively few “out of nowhere indie hits” of the year being a rather regional production from an unknown director and with a mostly unknown cast.  The film is set in rural Utah and looks at a messy separation between a married couple with four children with the man in the relationship seeming to show some violent tendencies that, along with the title, kind of lend an aura of dread to the whole film.  I don’t want to talk too much more about it in detail as I do think it sort of expects you to be in a sort of state of suspense through much of the film, but what follows is a pretty stark look at a rather tough domestic situation.  The film does a good job of establishing what this family is like and does make you want them to find a solution to all of this.  I am not however much of a fan of how all of this resolves.  The film runs a scant 85 minutes and kind of feels like it’s missing a final half hour as things wrap up in a way that feels both abrupt and anti-climactic and a bit at odds with what the film actually seems to be building towards.  It’s a movie that feels like it’s a rung above the kind of thing that would primarily play at festivals but only the one rung, and it never really gets out of second gear.

**1/2 out of Five

Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry (11/1/2021)

In my continued attempts to stave off cultural irrelevance and keep up with the youths of today I tend to sample a lot of popular music of today and while I’m not exactly a Billie Eilish fan I would say she was something of a breath of fresh air compared to a lot of what’s out on the charts these days… well, the first album anyway, the second one was kinda dull.  Anyway I was interested enough in the phenomenon to give her documentary a shot while I had a month long Apple TV Plus subscription, though I must say I went into it with a healthy dose of skepticism because a lot of these pop star documentaries are basically glorified advertisements.  In terms of format this is following the Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back formula in that it’s a cinema-verite look at a pivotal moment in a musician’s career (namely the rollout for her first album) as they deal with a lot of pressure and stupid questions from the press interspersed with some concert footage along the way.  Generally speaking I want my “rock docs” to basically do everything in their power to puncture the image their subjects have been setting up and generally making them look like total assholes.  This movie doesn’t exactly do that, but I’m not sure I’d call it propaganda either… or maybe I kind of do.  It’s clearly not a movie that’s trying to make Eilish look perfect but being imperfect and wounded is kind of her brand so in many ways this kind of is advancing the company line more or less, but still there’s a lot of material here and it can’t all be staged.  Really my main complaint about this isn’t that it may or may not be market tested but rather that it’s kind of ridiculously long for what it is.  This movie is two hours and twenty minutes… I’m interested in this person but I’m not that interested in her, but this probably will serve the people who are that interested pretty well as these things go.

*** out of Five


Cherry was meant to be a very splashy awards type movie that Apple was going to invest in and would also be The Russo Brothers’ first foray into prestige drama after having directed four straight MCU movies while also giving Tom Holland a showcase, but the movie sort of crashed and burned.  So what went wrong?  Well, let’s look at the movie itself, which is based on an autonovel (a book that’s nominally fictional but might as well be a memoir) by a guy who came home from Iraq and became addicted to opioids when he got back.  So this is in many ways supposed to be a story about how the war and the system’s failures ruined this man’s life, but frankly the guy seemed like kind of a dipshit prone to making terrible decisions both before and after his time in the military and I can’t say that I had the sympathy for him that the movie wants me to.  The film’s structure also really jumps all over the place from being this far too detail oriented coming of age story to being a kind of Jarhead-like look at the mundane realities of military life, then it transitions to an Another Day in Paradise-like look at the depths of drug addiction.  In some ways the movie is trying to be a jack of all trades and a master of none as it tries to go to from place to place in this guy’s life and I’m not sure that Tom Holland proves elastic enough to really handle these swings either.  The movie does look like it had a lot of money invested in it for what is essentially a character based movie for adults, which feels almost odd and discordant at this point in a way, but ultimately it’s the kind of failure that kind of explains why that doesn’t happen anymore.  The Russos should maybe stick to making superhero movies, if they’re out of their depth for this they’re probably going to be out of their depth for a lot of things.

** out of Five