January 2022 Round-Up

Being the Ricardos(1/1/2022)

Being negative about Aaron Sorkin is fairly common these days but I think the first time anyone had anything negative to say about the guy was when his quickly cancelled TV series “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” debuted in 2006.  That show, about the behind the scenes of a show not unlike Saturday Night Live, caused a lot of dissonance with people because it was a rather serious minded show about the making of a comedy series.  I actually liked that show just fine but it was clearly a failure among the wider public so when it was made known that Sorkin was writing and directing a new film about the behind the scenes of the making of another comedy show, this time the landmark series “I Love Lucy,” there were red flags but I thought there was some clear potential there.  This vintage sitcom is in fact extremely important to me, I watched the “Nick at Night” reruns of the show religiously when I was a kid and its place in the history of television, comedy, and pop culture in general is undeniable: if ever there were a comedy show worth imbuing with importance it was this one.  Unfortunately I don’t think the movie really lives up to its potential, in part because Aaron Sorkin seems to have gotten himself a bit too attached to a rather regrettable framing story.  The film is structured in such a way as to have a main story be centered around a week in the life of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz while they make an episode of the series and also deal with two ongoing crises: having to pitch writing Ball’s oncoming pregnancy into the series and Ball dealing with rumors that she had communist sympathies as part of the red scare waves, and then intercutting this framing narrative with flashbacks to earlier in their lives.

In many ways I wish the film had lived more in these flashbacks than in the framing story for a variety of reasons but mainly just because I wanted to see more of the history of the show and of these people.  I don’t know that I would have dropped the framing story altogether as there was interest to be found in watching the making of an episode while all this is going on but, it maybe should have been de-emphasized.  I would also say that this particular moment in their lives was kind of an odd choice to build that framing story around.  Ball’s brush with McCarthyism is interesting, but is hardly defining, as shown in the movie it’s something she was able to overcome and move on from without very much trouble.  A title card at the end says that (years after the events of the film) Arnez and Ball divorced shortly after filming the final episode of their show… it kind of feels like it would have been a no brainer to have used the filming of that episode as the framing story instead of this random season one episode and then flashed back to some of the events depicted here.  That probably would have gotten to the heart of things (namely the tumultuous marriage in question) a lot more clearly.  So, that’s the heart of the problem but I have quibbles beyond that, mainly in the casting.  Nicole Kidman does an alright job playing Lucille Ball but it’s hardly a stunning transformation.  Javier Bardem manages to look decently enough like Desi Arnez, but doesn’t really match his trademark voice at all.  And while J. K. Simmons does a good job matching William Frawley’s mannerisms he is a noticeably more slender man than that actor.  All in all Being the Ricardos is mostly watchable but is hardly the definitive account of this story that I was hoping for and is a pretty minor entry in Sorkin’s oeuvre.
*** out of Five

The Lost Daughter(1/4/2022)

I’m not sure I knew the name “Olivia Colman” before her Oscar-winning star turn in the 2018 movie The Favourite but she’s certainly been everywhere since then… to the point that I think I might have already gotten sick of her.  Her whole sarcastic lady schtick seems to show up to some extent in ever role she plays and it’s kind of making me question her range and it feels particularly odd in her latest film, the Maggie Gyllenhaal directed Elena Ferrante adaptation The Lost Daughter.  This isn’t to say I completely hated her performance here, I didn’t, but there always seems to be something of a layer to it that didn’t quite seem to match the movie which is otherwise very serious.  The film looks at a woman who’s vacationing in Greece when she spots a mother and daughter on a beach and it triggers some memories of her own time being kind of a terrible mother.  The setup of the film with a sort of epiphany being brought on by seeing a child on a beach somewhat invokes Visconti’s Death in Venice though the nature of the epiphany is pretty different and the film is overall quite different in tone.  That this was adapted from a novel shouldn’t be too surprising as this definitely has one of those structures that’s clearly meant to give a lot of space for internal monologue and at times characters behave in ways that are perhaps more symbolic than realistic.  The film is ultimately a character study about someone’s past catching up with them and I might have liked the film’s sporadic flashbacks to have been a bit more extensive, but I can kind of see why they didn’t do that as well.  Not sure this movie was really for me, but it has a good command of tone and some decent acting and I can’t complain about it too much.
*** out of Five

The Tender Bar(1/11/2022)

This lowkey essentially direct to Amazon Prime coming of age movie was pretty far off my radar until Ben Affleck started getting some surprise Best Supporting Actor nominations from various awards bodies.  Is that award deserved?  Eh, probably not.  Affleck is pretty good here and works against some of his normal acting tics, but for the most part these awards seem to be more out of career sympathy than deep admiration for this particular performance.  The movie also, it should be noted that despite Affleck being the face of the film during its promotion he is legitimately a supporting actor here and is not really at the center of the film.  The movie is actually an adaptation of a memoir by some sort of human interest journalist named J.R. Moehringer, mostly about growing up and being angry about his deadbeat dad played by Max Martini, with Affleck playing an uncle who steps in as something of a father figure for the kid.  The movie was directed by George Clooney so between him and Affleck you have two fairly large celebrities behind the movie, which is probably why they were able to convince Amazon to fund this mid-budget drama but I must say this is a pretty good example of why studios stopped routinely greenlighting anything and everything movie stars were willing to involve themselves with because nothing else about this seems terribly novel or eye catching.  I tend to be a bit skeptical of the memoir as a form, they strike me as being rather self-indulgent exercises by people whose lives are not as interesting as they think they are and this is a pretty good example of why they tend not to make for great film adaptations.  I don’t doubt that growing up with daddy issues was tough on young J.R. Moehringer I’m not sure they were interesting enough to write an entire book about and I’m kind of baffled that Clooney thought this story was so stirring that it needed to be brought to the silver screen.  These kind of things can still work if they’re mounted with great skill and inspiration but George Clooney is not the guy you go to if you want anything truly inspired out of a film.  That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the direction here, on the contrary I think it’s entirely competent throughout and is in fact one of Clooney’s better pieces of work behind the camera but he certainly doesn’t elevate this into something worth caring about.  It’s certainly a watchable movie that passes the time and I suspect I’m making it sound worse than it actually is, but in the middle of an award season there are much better options.
**1/2 out of Five

The Tragedy of Macbeth(1/14/2022)

When Joel Coen alongside his brother Ethan won his Oscar for writing the adapted screenplay for No Country for Old Men he somewhat memorably quipped “I think whatever success we’ve had in this area has been entirely attributable to how selective we are, we’ve only adapted Homer and Cormac McCarthy.”  Well, add Shakespeare to the list as Joel Coen’s latest film (his first made without Ethan) is a faithful adaptation of “The Scottish Play,” which I must say was something of a surprise to me given just how many different cinematic Macbeths we’ve already gotten, including one with Michael Fassbender not too long ago, many of them made by pretty high profile filmmakers.  That said, if Coen was going to take on Shakespeare it definitely makes sense that it would be this play given that so many of the Coen Brothers’ films are all about people succumbing to greed and ambition and getting caught up in murderous schemes in an attempt to get rich quick and suffering the consequences for it.  On the other other hand The Tragedy of Macbeth is in face quite a bit different from the movies Coen made with his brother as it obviously lacks (to some extent) the duo’s signature dialogue and humor and feels much more like a sort of experimental piece of work, which is perhaps for the best because we’ve already seen Macbeth done in an imitation of the usual Coen style in the 2001 film Scotland PA.

As far as that lineage of previous Macbeth adaptations goes, this is pretty far removed from Roman Polanski’s blunt and earthy 1971 adaptation (aside from a common interest in expanding the role of a minor character named Ross) and Justin Kurzel’s mumbly take on the play.  Instead this hues stylistically closer to what Orson Welles was going for with his 1948 adaptation, albeit without that film’s rougher edges.  The film is shot in black and white and in the Academy Ratio and is clearly trying to harken back to the German expressionist style of movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Metropolis.  Much of the action takes place on sets that are not trying to disguise the fact that they’re sets and often exist at odd M.C. Escher like angles that almost seem to exist to cast interesting shadows.  You can imagine how cool that approach can be to bring some of the play’s witchcraft elements to life, which in this case is being done by taking one actress (stage veteran Kathryn Hunter) optically multiplied into three and using various hallucinatory tricks on Macbeth.  This is not, however, necessarily a movie that’s trying to look like an ancient cinematic artifact.  The film’s cinematography is plainly a work of the digital age that employs a very slick look devoid of film grain and willing to use CGI effects and other modern techniques when necessary.

Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand do of course make for a rather unconventional Lord and Lady Macbeth as they are older actors than you normally see in these roles and both actors are decidedly American.  No attempt is really made to have any of the American actors here to adopt Scottish or English accents, which would seem odd in a movie that wasn’t already filled with multiple lairs of abstraction like this but is fine here.  The age of the lead actors does give a different spin on the proceedings by making this less of a pure act of ambition and more the product of resentment at being held back when running out of time to achieve greatness.  As mentioned previously the film does toy around with the Ross character (played here by Alex Hassell) and leans into the much discussed theory that he was something of a double agent and takes this to something of an extreme here.  This serves its main purpose of giving the audience something new to watch for but in the grand scheme of things the take isn’t necessarily relevatory and probably isn’t supported by the text.  Beyond that this is basically the same Macbeth story we all know and love.  The film runs a brisk 105 minutes so clearly there have been some trims around the edges though I’m not quite enough of a Shakespearian to know exactly what’s been omitted and wasn’t missing much though the film probably could have been served by an extra bit of room to breathe.  Ultimately though what this does to the text of Macbeth is secondary to what it does to the visuals, which quite simply, look really damn cool.  I’m going to play the “pure cinema” card here and while this likely isn’t among the absolute greatest of Shakespearian cinema it certainly good enough to deserve the company it’s in.
**** out of Five


In 2008 we got the first “animated documentary” in the form of the Israeli film Waltz With Bashir, which was a great movie but was not by my definition (at the time anyway) really a documentary.  To me a documentary is defined by being built of authentic footage and with few exceptions that movie didn’t really have any kind of real documentary footage, it was a constructed animated film that just so happened to have the real subject narrating it.  Twenty three years later we’ve gotten a new “animated documentary” also nominally about conflict in the middle east, and I think I’m a little more comfortable with calling this one a doc.  The film is mostly told via a set of interviews with a man named Amin Nawabi, a naturalized Dane who was born in Afghanistan and had to flee with his family after the Taliban took over that country from the Soviets in the early 90s and much of the film is about him recounting the various ordeals they needed to go through in order to get into Western Europe.  The film is rendered predominantly through traditional 2D animation, which is used to reenact all of Nawabi’s stories about his emigration attempts that obviously weren’t filmed but the film also continues using the animation when it cuts to his “talking head” interviews and other bits depicting his life within the present.  The film does use some live action stock footage from time to time however, and in some ways that gives it a bit of a clearer connection to that documentary format and given that the interview segments were presumably “filmed” but then animated just to make everything a little more uniform I don’t think I’ll be questioning the documentary designation.

In many ways the animated Middle East set this more closely resembles than Waltz With Bashir is the film Persepolis, about a girl whose family leaves Iran after that country’s revolution.  Both films look at the European immigrant experience of fairly young people around the same point in history and both have their occasional points of levity centered around the character listening to cheesy 80s music.  This one though is more specifically about the challenges of refugees and is clearly trying to build empathy for those escaping from dangerous places, possibly in hopes of making its audience more accepting of modern refugees from places like Syria.  As such this is not exactly the most complex case study in the refugee experience: Nawabi has basically been handpicked for this project because he’s something of a best case scenario, someone who fled from certain death at great hardship as a child to one day become a highly productive member of society in his host country.  Still, the film is good at eliciting interesting little details of his escape that you might not expect like the major role that corrupt Russian cops played in this guy’s life or the perils of wearing light-up sneakers when attempting to flee a country.  In broad strokes I can’t say there was much in the movie that truly surprised me but it certainly tells its story with style and definitely kept me pretty interested throughout.
***1/2 out of Five


Disneyology 201: Live Action Greatest Hits (1980-1993)

What follows will be my fourth and final installment of my Disney Live Action Greatest Hits series and by extension the finale of the Disneyology 201 project.  In previous installments I looked at how Disney first started making live action films in the 50s, how they became a pretty substantial force in live action during the early 60s, and also how they struggled to stay relevant during the 70s.  This installment will look at an even stranger period in their history during the 1980s, a decade when they were slowly struggling to get their animation division back in order and when their live action division was starting to branch out from their usual brand and became a little harder to distinguish from some of the younger skewing content from their counterparts at Universal, Warner Brothers, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox.  Having seen the success of Star Wars and the rise of other such blockbusters from Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers like him Disney increasingly saw value in making movies that could be simultaneously marketed to children, families, teens, and adults and increasingly tried to expand into content that, while still being in the PG range, was not entirely synonymous with young children, and even when they were making movies mostly for kids they tended to have at least a little more of an edge.  This was also the decade where “Touchstone Pictures” was invented as a distribution arm to put out movies that were even more mature, but for the purposes of this series I will be focusing on movies that still do have that Disney branding on them… even when they seem oddly dark for such a brand.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

If Disney was trying to show increased maturity in their family films going into the 80s you can’t blame them for being too subtle about it as they actually found themselves making a number of films early in that decade that bordered on being works of outright horror.  There was their 1980 film Watcher in the Woods, which I looked at in another series, which I’ve heard many a gen Xer say they were freaked out by as kids and then there was this 1983 film Something Wicked This Way Comes, which really doesn’t feel a thing like their old “house style.”  Of course part of this was that the film was never really meant to be a Disney movie when it was first conceived.  Famed sci-fi/fantasy author Ray Bradbury originally wrote it as a screenplay in the late 50s and when that didn’t work out he converted it into a successful and highly regarded novel.  Later in the 70s the idea of bringing it to the screen was revived by, of all people, Sam Peckinpah.  Eventually the British filmmaker Jack Clayton came on board and it went into production at a company owned by Kirk Douglas’ less famous son Peter and Paramount was going to be on board to distribute.  At some point Paramount was replaced by Disney however and, as interested as they were to break their “kiddie” image there was only so far they were going to take it and they had the script watered down a bit, leading to a fallout with Bradbury.  It seems to have been a fairly troubled production beyond that too with Clayton eventually being sidelined as well and heavy changes being made in post-production, which you can sort of see in the final product but it’s not completely egregious.

Watching the movie the first thing that came to mind was “wow, I bet Stephen King LOVES the book this thing was based on.”  The themes of ordinary people and children fighting a cosmic evil that comes to town that you can see in King’s works like It or Needful Things are all over this movie and presumably its source material.  Is it a “kids” movie?  Kind of, I would say it fits well in the context of something like Poltergeist, which came out the year before and it kind of fits within that “Stranger Things” aesthetic of kids on bicycles taking on supernatural evil.  Speaking of that supernatural evil, the rather dapper avatar of evil here is played by a then relatively unknown Jonathan Pryce and he definitely proves to be a nicely imposing presence in the film and his carnival of evil is pretty cool as well.  Where the film is a lot less strong is with the forces of good.  The kids in this movie just aren’t very interesting either in their writing or in the performances of the young actors and the Jason Robards character’s presence in all this isn’t overly compelling either.  You can also see the hand of the Disney execs in making the evil here from being too evil for their tastes, a little bit more satan in all of this would have gone a long way.  It’s ultimately just a movie that works less well than it’s better images and bits of iconography, but as Disney products go there’s definitely stuff to like here.
*** out of Five

Return to Oz (1985)

Walter Murch is a very important figure in 20th century film.  Murch was a double threat as both an editor and a sound designer; a three time Oscar winner who worked on some absolute classic films including The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now, and American Grafitti and continued to be credited on more modern films like The Talented Mr. Ripley and Jarhead and still occasionally works today.  What’s more he’s credited with a number of technical innovations in his field and holds a number of “firsts” for editing and sound design and his 1995 book “In the Blink of an Eye” is considered a canonical work on the craft of editing.  The man is a legend… which is why it’s so damn weird that he put his editing and sound careers on hold for most of the 1980s to focus on his one and only directorial credit on a weird oddity of a movie that’s mostly remembered for scaring the crap out of Gen X children: the Wizard of Oz pseudo-sequel Return to Oz which is possibly one of the strangest movies ever released by Disney. How?  Why?

Well, in some ways this was a long time coming.  Disney had nothing to do with the making of the 1939 The Wizard of Oz but at a certain point they sort of adopted it.  Seemingly out of a jealous need to own all things family entertainment Walt Disney bought the rights to all of L. Frank Baum’s remaining Oz books and had intended to make a live action movie in the 50s called “Rainbow Road to Oz,” which reportedly got really far into production before being shelved for unclear reasons and being replaced by their Babes in Toyland production.  And of course later on in the early 2010s Disney would once again leverage this old acquisition to produce Sam Raimi’s mostly forgettable Oz: The Great and Powerful.  But the first time they took the plunge into making a was at the convincing of Murch, who proposed the project to Disney and wrote the screenplay, so this is not a situation where an important figure stumbled into some studio head’s misguided project, this was all him.  It should be noted that despite the film’s title this is legally considered not to be a sequel to MGM’s film (though a deal would be struck to let them use the Ruby slippers) but a “separate” adaptation of the literary works of Baum. And it seems that in Murch’s mind this wasn’t just a legal loophole, he seems to have been rather serious about bringing in the new characters and darker themes of Baum’s sequels and that is probably where he went wrong.

By 1985 those L. Frank Baum books were weird relics of the early twentieth century, everyone associated these stories with the 1939 movie and I don’t think there was some rabid L. Frank Baum fanbase asking for anything like this.  So you had all sorts of families showing up to this expecting another fun colorful romp through the land of Oz and instead they got an adventure through a dilapidated world that had been overthrown by a rock monster and repopulated with roving roller people and headless witches and the Tin Man and Cowardly lion replaced by a fat robot and a dude with a jack o’ lantern for a head… it wasn’t the most crowd pleasing approach.  But I must say, as someone watching it for the first time as an adult and with the awareness that this was a cult movie with a reputation I found a lot to enjoy about this.  Murch makes some very creative use of stop motion effects throughout and the film has some very interesting set design to bring his post-apocalyptic Oz to life.  The weird horror elements are present almost from the beginning with one of the first things Dorothy encounters being this deranged gang of people with wheels attached to their hands and feet (very Mad Max) and there is a disturbing potency to some of the characters they pick up along the way.

This isn’t a situation where things seemed to scare kids unintentionally; Murch must have known what he was doing in making things this dark and I’m really not sure how his Disney superiors let this happen.  It’s a real case of someone doing some odd maverick shit on the company dime.  So I was consistently intrigued by this movie’s imagery but I was not so intrigued by its story.  The Dorothy here is really not a terribly compelling lead and the girl they got to play her was no Judy Garland.  I would also say that the cast of supporting characters she picked up intrigued me more visually than they did as personalities (they’re quite bland really).  Also while a lot of the practical effects hold up I’m not sure that it’s kind of drab cinematography does.  So as neat as I find the gonzo vision of all this there are limits to how much I can really call this a “good” movie, it’s just too messy.  Still this is certainly something I’m glad I gave a look and am just kind of fascinated by the fact that it exists at all.
*** out of Five

Flight of the Navigator (1986)

When I was a kid I remember going to see this mostly forgotten movie called Star Kid when it came out in 1997.  Even as a nine year old I remember not thinking it was that great but I at least have some good memories of the outing if not the movie.  Anyway, turns out that in addition to that movie’s general forgettableness it was also kind of a ripoff of the 1986 Disney sci-fi film Flight of the Navigator which was itself not exactly a home run of a movie.  Flight of the Navigator is a movie that’s been pretty well off my radar for a while, in fact I think I was getting it mixed up with The Flight of the Phoenix for a while.  As it turns out the film is only sort of a Disney movie at all, it seems to have been produced somewhat independently as some kind of co-production with Norway though funded by a pre-existing distribution deal with Disney and did not have the Disney branding in several international markets, and I must say the fact that this isn’t a for real Disney production kind of shows as it sure seems like a behind the times copycat moreso than something from an industry leader.

The films looks at a kid who had a close encounter with an alien ship in 1978, blacked out, and then woke up eight years later in 1986 without having seemingly aged a day.  This leads to a lot of in retrospect odd scenes in which this 70s kid is not hip to the new “modern” developments of  the mid-eighties like Twisted Sister and New Coke… things that obviously feel just as antiquated to modern viewers as anything in 1978.  That part of the movie feels a bit inspired by the time traveling antics of Back to the Future but the movie this really wants to be is almost certainly E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial except that the kid befriends a space ship instead of an alien.  There are also shades of The Last Starfighter.  The film used quite a bit of early CGI though I feel like the bulk of the effects here are simpler model work; they look dated, but not horrible.  The whole thing was a pretty passable adventure movie as these things go, but then somewhere in the second half the spaceship’s A.I. (voiced by Paul Reubens) does a brainscan of the kid to adopt to his ways and suddenly starts talking in this weird 80s kid patter with a wacky “attitude” (including that horrid laugh that Reubens does) and the movie got increasingly annoying from there.  I think this movie could have used a more conventional antagonist for the “navigator” to have to deal with, maybe an enemy alien or something?  That might have been a more conventional choice to go with but… this was never exactly going to be The Day the Earth Stood Still so they might have benefited from aiming a touch lower.
** out of Five

The Rocketeer (1991)

So, what ever happened to Joe Johnson?  He made Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, which you would have thought would be his ticket to the A-List in the coming decade but in the years since all he’s made is a direct to VOD movie called Not Safe For Work and extensive reshoots on The Nutcracker and the Four Realms after they fired its original director.  That’s a pretty lame output for a guy who seems to have been a legitimate but rather unheralded hitmaker between Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, that phase one MCU movie.  He goes pretty far back with Disney as well; his directorial debut was the 1989 film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which is certainly considered something of an 80s blockbuster classic even if it’s not quite on the level of something like Back to the Future.  I’ve seen that one before as a youth but did consider re-watching it for this series but ultimately decided to instead focus on the Joe Johnson/Disney collaboration I hadn’t seen, the 1991 film The Rocketeer.

If The Flight of the Navigator was part of a wave of films Hollywood made to get on the E.T. bandwagon, the 1991 film The Rocketeer was part of a wave of pulp tributes they made as a response to the Indiana Jones trilogy and to some extent the 1989 Batman.  It was the same wave that brought us movies like Dick Tracy (also technically a Disney movie), The Shadow, and The Phantom which feel like of like the works of aging studio heads who didn’t get that those characters weren’t really comparable to Batman and Superman, but the resulting movies weren’t necessarily complete whiffs either.  As a youngster I actually quite liked that 1994 version of The Shadow though I have my doubts that it would hold up if I watched it today.  Unlike a lot of those movies The Rocketeer is not based on an actual comic book or pulp product of the early 20th Century, instead it’s based on an indie comic book from the early 1980s that was always a pastiche of those older cultural artifacts.  I don’t think those comic books were ever particularly popular but nonetheless the film rights to them sold pretty quickly and the adaptation was in some level of development for the better part of ten years until it was fast tracked after the success of Batman and Disney specifically got behind it because it “had toyetic potential and appeal for merchandising.”  The original plan was to make it a PG-13 film released by Touchstone but eventually it was a bit more kiddie-fied and released by straight up Disney, which might have been a mistake given that actual children did not give a damn about 1940s pastiche and I know that the Disney label was a big part of the reason I never saw it despite seeing similar movies from other studios.

That being said, I was probably missing out, because while this isn’t some lost gem it is certainly a solid movie that accomplishes most of what it set out to do.  The film’s alternate history 1940s is fun and the Rocketeer himself is a neat looking hero.  The film’s special effects certainly seem a bit basic by modern standards but they are mostly within their means and they don’t distract or stand out as bad.  It was also cool to see Timothy Dalton here as a villain, always nice to see former James Bonds getting work, and the film manages to incorporate Indiana Jones Nazis and Dick Tracy gangsters into its world as the villains pretty seamlessly.  If there’s a problem here it’s probably the protagonist, at least in the scenes where he’s not in costume.  As a character Cliff Secord strikes me as a pretty bland secret identity and he’s not done many favors by the actor playing him, a guy named Billy Campbell (no relation to Bruce Campbell).  Campbell has quietly established himself as a reasonably successful actor, mainly in television, in the years since this movie came out but this was clearly a test to see if he had the “it” factor to become a star and I don’t think he pulled it off.  He’s fine, but he doesn’t leave a big impression.  Other than that there’s not a ton to complain about here; it’s a solid comic book action movie for its time period and it inhabits a fun retro world with real life figures.  You can totally see why they went to Joe Johnson when the time came to bring Captain America to the screen… shame he hasn’t been a voice in the years since.
***1/2 out of Five 

Newsies (1992)

I had at least heard of most of the Disney movies of this era even if I hadn’t seen a lot of them.  I heard about movies like Return to Oz and Flight of the Navigator from the nostalgic Gen Xer  who geek out about them while also talking about movies like The Goonies and I heard a decent amount about The Rocketeer for its status of kind of being an early superhero movie and I remember a lot of these other early 90s Disney flicks from the way they were marketed in my youth, but Newsies was a movie I learned about in adulthood.  In fact I didn’t hear about it until a handful of years ago when I started interacting with a very different kind of geek: former theater kids.  Back in ’92 Newsies was a huge bomb, one of the least successful movies the studio ever released having failed to even gross three million dollars on a fifteen million dollar budget, which probably explains why so few people ever talked about it.  However, it seems that the tiny fraction of youngsters who did show up to see it grew up to join drama club and enjoy singing showtunes and shit.  In that sense this movie has a lot to answer for, but I must say the future theater kids of America circa 1992 might have been on to something because while this movie is far from perfect it’s way better than its real life fate seems to suggest.

This movie was more than likely greenlit almost as an experiment; The Little Mermaid was a big hit, it was a musical, maybe the time was right to try to revive the live action musical as well.  It was not.  We wouldn’t really see the neo-musical hit with any real success until Moulin Rouge almost ten years later and even then it would be a while before they were being made with any regularity and the world clearly wasn’t interested in 1992.  I’m guessing the mandate behind this from the studio was just “see if you can make a musical, any musical, with Alan Menken” because I’m not sure how commercial the subject matter of Newsies would be otherwise.  The film is about the 1899 Newsboys’ Strike, which was a real life bit of makeshift union organizing by a bunch of kids and teens in response to an increase in the price newspapers were being sold to distributors (I.E. the kids going “Extra! Extra! Read all about it” on the street) in New York by Pulitzer and Hearst.  So… it’s a movie about the importance of unions and organized labor… certainly something that infamous strike buster Walt Disney would love having his name on.

There is something nicely subversive about the fact that the people behind this movie managed to get one of the biggest capitalist enterprises on Earth to fund a musical ode to the power of organized labor and the movie is not terribly interested in “both sidesing” this conflict either.  The film also sports some decent production values bringing to life an era of history we don’t see on film all that often, and most of the music is… decent.  Alan Menken was in the middle of a big winning streak when he composed the music here and I wouldn’t say this broke that streak exactly but this is no Beauty and the Beast.  Part of the problem may simply be that this was his first project without his longtime lyricist Howard Ashman, who died of AIDS before he could work on this project, but I think the bigger problem here might just be the performers.  The film stars a very young Christian Bale about five years after Empire of the Sun and I must say I’m not sure he was entirely there as an actor yet and he certainly showed his future probably wouldn’t be in singing.  He’s not terrible but he’s not great either and I can’t say I was super impressed by any of the singing or dancing here.  The more basic acting is also a little questionable.  The filmmakers decided to go all-in on giving these kids thick New York accents and I’m not sure that was the greatest idea.  But that aside I still think this is a pretty fun movie and I have no idea why the critics were so hostile to it at the time and get why it has a cult following.
*** out of Five

Hocus Pocus (1993)

You wouldn’t know it today, but like Newsies, Hocus Pocus was not terribly successful upon its original release.  It didn’t flop as hard as Newsies (which was an absolute disaster) but it only made about $30 million and likely didn’t recoup its marketing costs.  By comparison, Disney made much more from Cool Runnings and The Three Musketeers that year and even The Nightmare Before Christmas (which is also known to be more of a cult film than an instant success) outgrossed it.  Part of the problem may have come down to a bad choice of release date: the movie came out on July 16, 1993 when all logic in the world suggests that the one and only month it should have come out in is October.  In fact the main reason the film is well known today is because it’s become something of a go-to film to bring out whenever a they need a “horror” movie to bring out for Halloween when in a kid friendly environment which will fit with the season but won’t actually freak out the kids.  That box office fate mostly conforms to my own memories from back in 1993, which was pretty much the first year I remember really having film marketing reach me.  It certainly wasn’t as big of a deal as Aladdin but I certainly remember hearing about the movie and seeing its VHS all over the place in Hollywood Video.  I didn’t see the movie, because it looked like it was for girls, but I knew of its existence, then it disappeared for about a decade or two before I started to learn that people in my age bracket actually remembered and cared about it.

The film is set in Salem Massachusetts and is part of an exceptionally long line of movies about witches to imply that there actually were real witches in Salem worth being afraid of, which kind of misunderstands that the thing that’s interesting about the Salem Witch Trials is that witches aren’t real.  I’d long assumed from the marketing and whatnot that the three witches on the film’s poster were the film’s protagonists, but they’re not, they’re villains chasing around these two very bland white teenagers who accidently bring them back to life around town for a while.  Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy are certainly interesting actors to put at the center of a movie for kids like this but I must say, they look kind of ridiculous.  They don’t have even the slightest bit of menace or threat to them and they’re not terribly credible villains even though they are theoretically trying to do some legitimately evil stuff.  To some extent I think that’s part of the goal; they seem to be working really hard to make sure this won’t actually scare kids too much and make their parents not want to take them to it… though they were oddly willing to let sexual innuendo fly in it.  Ultimately I think it’s the general generic-ness of the non-witch characters here that really makes the film feel unexceptional more than anything.  It’s really not a movie that’s meant to be “fun for the whole family,” this is a movie for kids and I don’t think there’s much there to look back on.
**1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

So, that ends my look at Disney’s live action output in the 80s and 90s and by extension this whole series.  This was kind of a bad time for Disney all around; Spielberg and his imitators were clearly eating their lunch when it comes to appealing to young people in the 80s and they clearly seemed to be rushing to catch up.  As for the early 90s, they were making some moves but it’s obvious the bulk of their attention was on their animation division.  Ultimately it was probably the least rewarding of these installments just because it exposed me to fewer things that felt unique to me and felt like less of a glance into history.  And this is where I’m going to leave my “live action greatest hits” series, it doesn’t really seem to make sense to me to look much more deeply into the movies that came out during my own lifetime, which aren’t going to give me the same kind of perspective into film history.  And this will also be the end of my whole “Disneyology 201” grab bags of topics.  I’ve looked at a lot of the major blindspots I had about this studio and if I were to ever do a Disneyology 301 I’d really have to dig into some deep cuts to do it.

Red Rocket(12/25/2021)

Is Sean Baker the most important American filmmaker to emerge in the last ten years?  A credible argument could certainly be made.  There are of course other candidates like Barry Jenkins or Robert Eggers but Baker is in many ways doing something much more unique and excelling at it to levels that are both unlikely and incredibly impressive.  Of course “emerged in the last ten years” is perhaps a matter of perspective.  Baker has been making films as far back as the year 2000 and also did some television work but for the average film enthusiast he really emerged in 2015 with his film Tangerine, which looked at about twenty four hours in the lives of two transgender sex workers in West Hollywood with a great deal of energy and wit.  That however proved to mainly be an appetizer for what came next: 2017’s The Florida Project.  That film sported a larger budget and featured a supporting performance by Willem Dafoe, but remained true to his style of embedding himself into a marginal American community and building a strongly humanistic but at times wickedly funny story about what it means to get by on the fringes of society.  That was my favorite movie of 2017 and to my endless frustration it never really managed to become an award season staple that year and only managed one Academy Award nomination for Dafoe, but the fact that such an unconventionally made film even got as close as it did was impressive.  To follow that up he’s delivered another film that gives voice to the voiceless, albeit one that’s more prickly and complicated than his last two films.

Baker’s latest film is called Red Rocket and it finds him in a town called Texas City, Texas, which is a sort of coastal suburb on the periphery of Houston and frankly doesn’t look like a very pleasant place to live, or at least not the parts of it that are in this movie.  It’s in the shadow of a bunch of oil refineries and petrochemical plants and most of the people are living in these tiny houses that appear to be maybe a rung or two above trailer homes.  Our subject Mikey (Simon Rex) grew up in this town and has a history there but left and became a pornstar under the alias Mikey Saber.  He seems to have had a falling out with the industry though and at the beginning of the movie he gets off of a bus covered in bruises and with about twenty dollars to his name.  His first stop is the home of his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), who lives with her mother Lil (Brenda Deiss), and both appear to be drug users.  Desperate he agrees to pay them two hundred dollars rent a month to board with them and, lacking non-pornographic references, begins selling weed to make cash.  While doing this he finds himself in a donut shop where he spots a seventeen year old girl (Suzanna Son) working there and susses out that she has some rebellious tendencies and starts plotting to recruit her into the pornography to get back in the good graces of that industry.

Unlike Baker’s previous films, which starred non-actors in their lead roles this one does a have a professional at its center… sort of.  I hadn’t heard of Simon Rex before this movie came to light but he has been something of a figure in the entertainment industry before this.  He was apparently an MTV VJ in the 90s and during the 2000s he was in a string of fourth-rate parody films like Scary Movie 4 and Superhero Movie as well as a bunch of direct-to-DVD crap.  I have no idea where Baker got the idea of casting this guy in one of his movies but it seems to have been a stroke of brilliance because Rex is electric here.  “Mikey Saber” has this fascinating used car salesman energy where he exerts this incredible confidence in all situations and seemingly talk his way out of any jam despite basically having nothing to show for it.  That is an important skill for him because if he didn’t look the way he did and didn’t have this charismatic personality someone probably would have slit his throat by now… or maybe he would have become a better person if he didn’t have these skills to fall back on, but either way there version of him we see here is pretty much a monster… albeit a very entertaining monster to watch.

Red Rocket can legitimately be called a comedy, albeit a very dark comedy.  Mikey’s patter and general shamelessness is really funny, as are the reactions to him by the people who see through his bullshit.  In this sense the film feels a bit like a throwback to what Baker was doing in Tangerine and will perhaps make it a little harder to recommend than The Florida Project, which had a bit more melodrama and neither of Baker’s previous films focused on a character that is as repellent as Mikey proves to be over time.  Make no mistake, this guy is scum; he has seemingly no qualms whatsoever about starting a sexual relationship with a seventeen year old (when he learns she’s that age, the age of consent in Texas, he happily proclaims she’s “legal as an eagle!” with seemingly no self-awareness about how this sounds) and it’s also clear that he views this “relationship” entirely as a manipulation; he holds no delusions that this is a genuine romance but continues with it anyway.  Despite that, you as an audience member still kind of find yourself on this guy’s side to some extent; not rooting for him per se but on some level you admire the hustle and you want to see how this all plays out and that all kind of comes back to Simon Rex and his performance and how perfectly he defines this guy.

Baker shot this film on 16mm rather than the 35mm of The Florida Project or the shot-on-iPhone cinematography of Tangerine and that choice kind of emphasizes the dustiness of this Texas location and kind of evokes the look that Andrea Arnold explored with American Honey.  The film is perhaps less interested in finding sympathetic side characters here than he was in his previous films as pretty much everyone in Mikey’s orbit has some degree of criminality with the possible exception of Strawberry herself, who nonetheless has some negative sides to her as well, but the film finds endearing quirks to a lot of these characters and does build out elements to all of them so that you understand their lives.  The decision to set the film in 2016 right as the election was going on in the background felt like a bit of a misstep; it kind of suggested the film was meant to be some sort of commentary on how that election looked on the ground in a red state but it doesn’t go too far with that.  Looking back though I think I get the decision a little better as I think it’s trying to make a comparison between Trump and the Simon Rex character as both are opportunistic bullshiters who don’t have a good long term plan but even looked at in that dubious light I don’t think Mikey Saber can be described as being nearly as successful at bullshit as Trump and I don’t think it’s really a perfect metaphor.  Still, on its own terms this is one of the more successful attempts I’ve ever seen at trying to build a movie around a total shithead who you really can’t get behind and one more bold look at a marginalized America from Sean Baker.

****1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 12/4/2021

Respect (11/20/2021)

I’m really not sure what to do with musical biopics like Respect at this point.  I don’t want to call it “bad” because it’s not, it a movie made with plenty of competence and it has a solid performance at its center that many people would enjoy watching.  However, it’s also a musical biopic which follows that “Walk Hard” formula pretty much to a T and like a lot of people I am really at a point where that’s not enough.  I think this all probably feels a lot less tired to normal audiences who, like, don’t find themselves watching every last one of these biopics that get made and instead just see the one or two of them that happen to align with their musical tastes.  Jennifer Hudson certainly does a strong imitation of Aretha Franklin here, but again, we see two or three of these “great impression” performances a year and I’m kind of over it; these performances clearly aren’t as hard to do as they look given that it’s a trick that gets replicated as much as it is.  I’ll give her this, she does her own singing here, which is more than I can say about Raimi Malick in Bohemian Rhapsody but I’m not sure if I would have noticed if she didn’t.  The film also provides some neat tidbits about the recording process of some of her more famous songs, but beyond that it’s pretty typical biopic stuff and its treatment of domestic abuse, alcoholism, and Franklin’s politics are skimmed over in fairly surface level ways.  If you’re an Aretha Franklin superfan and aren’t sick to death of studio music biopics this may well work for you but it just takes a lot more creativity than this to get me interested these days.

**1/2 out of Five

In the Same Breath (11/25/2021)

The COVID documentary In the Same Breath dropped on HBO late this summer from director Nanfu Wang, who was in Wuhan when that became ground zero and then returned to the United States (where her husband lives) right in time to see the pandemic spread through that country as well.  The film is about contrasting the overall response to the pandemic by the two countries looking at how China’s repressive nature led to a cover-up that helped the spread of the virus while America’s looseness led to the anti-vax nonsense that has kept the pandemic going to this day.  I think it’s safe to say that the most compelling parts of the movie focus on the Chinese response, in large part because I didn’t have to live through that myself and it was good to get a peak into that society beyond the very zoomed in focus we got from the documentary 76 Hours last year.  Like the “Chernobyl” mini-series I gleamed from this that in some ways it took a regressive communist system to create this disaster but also took one to fix it, meanwhile it ostensibly wants to celebrate the United States’ ability to avoid the worst repressions while still making most of the same mistakes otherwise.  I think this format of comparing the two countries kind of misses something, namely that it ignores the multitude of other countries that arguably handled things better than both the United States and China.  South Korea, for example, managed to remain a free society without indulging the stupidest voices spreading misinformation.  Israel is a bit of a success story, Sweden is kind of an interesting case study, and on more of the communist side of things Vietnam could have been an interesting contrast.

*** out of Five

Free Guy (11/26/2021)

It seems that since his success with Deadpool Ryan Reynolds has turned away from becoming what you’d call a “well rounded actor” and has instead opted to follow the lead of someone like Dwayne Johnson in leaning into a particular kind of audience pleasing star persona that’s based in a very particular kind of smarminess.  I can’t exactly blame him for doing this given that he was really flailing in the years leading up to this strategy but I’m just not the biggest fan.  His recent blockbuster Free Guy is a pretty good example of this as it casts him as this affable guy in a film world that’s kind of cynical and referential.  That world is the world of a video game that’s almost certainly meant to be a riff on Grand Theft Auto Online in which he is an NPC who comes to gain self-awareness in a way his fellow NPCs do no.  One could imagine a story like that becoming a sort of 21st Century version of The Truman Show if handled well but instead this movie opts to go in a direction that’s less thoughtful and more pandering.  There are certainly people in this movie that are having fun: Taika Waititi brings a certain maniacal energy as the film’s villain and Lil Rel Howery gives a fun turn as a fellow NPC.  Reyolds himself is also certainly putting forward some good effort but the film’s story is mostly a rather predictable take on all of this and is often based on some questionable special effects.  I wouldn’t say the movie is unwatchable by any means but it is kind of an embodiment of some very obnoxious trends in Hollywood filmmaking and the film’s finale is truly asinine; the second it made a pair of Disney owned franchise in-references in a row the thing was instantly docked a half a star.  Ultimately the whole thing kind of feels like a waste of time and resources.

** out of Five

Count Me In (11/29/2021)

Count Me In is a documentary that plainly lives in the shadow of the 2008 documentary It Might Get Loud, which was built out of interviews with and jam sessions featuring some of rock’s most famous living guitarists.  As far as I can tell Count Me In does not have any of the same producers or production elements of that film, but it’s plainly aiming to be the same thing but with drummers instead of axe men.  So, that’s not a terribly ambitious goal, we’re basically just hearing a lot of drummers shooting the breeze about their own experiences and their favorite drummers of times past.  The lineup of interviewees they’ve gotten is decent but there some key gaps.  Travis Barker seems like someone who should be here given his ubiquity within the industry these days and Questlove seems like he would have been a natural inclusion if they could have gotten him and the film seems to give a lot of screen time to some fairly obscure figures when a lot of people are going to be tuning in to hear classic rock veterans.  The interviews themselves generally don’t get terribly technical about their experiences and I’d ultimately say a lot of what gets talked about in the film feels pretty superficial.  I would also say that a lot of the production values don’t really have enough style to really make up for some of the shortcomings.  Again, my expectations for this thing were pretty low and it didn’t exceed them but the film would probably be functional enough as a time waste if you’re a rock fan with a particular interest in the skins, but at the end of the day that’s not really enough and if this thing had been distributed in theaters I can imagine that I’d feel a bit ripped off if I had bought a ticket to it.

** out of Five

Flag Day (12/4/2021)

After having been a pretty big deal during the early 2000s Sean Penn has had a pretty rough decade both personally and professionally.  Between 2011 and today damn near everything he’s appeared in has either flopped or been immensely forgettable and his directorial career also seemed pretty well on the ropes when his 2016 film The Last Face was booed at Cannes and I think never even got a theatrical release.  Beyond that the dude just kind of seemed unhinged in various interviews and kept having strange life moments like that whole thing where he interviewed El Chapo.  So it’s in light of those many failures that the new film he starred in and directed, Flag Day, seems like a relative success simply by not being embarrassing.  The film is based on a memoir written by a journalist named Jennifer Vogel about her dysfunctional childhood and coming of age being the daughter of a petty criminal/con man.  I’m not sure if it’s really a story that deserved to have its own movie but it’s not necessarily uninteresting either.  The film actually stars Penn’s real life daughter Dylan Penn as the co-star, and frankly I kind of suspect the whole movie was made less out of a desire to tell this particular story than it was to just find a vehicle by which the two could work together.  I don’t really have many complaints about the movie, it mostly achieves what it sets out to do, but I also can’t really recommend it either because it just generally lacks inspiration and is generally not something I expect to find overly memorable at all.

*** out of Five

Spider-Man: No Way Home(12/27/2021)

I’ve had my ups and my downs with the Marvel Cinematic Universe but without exception I’ve seen every one of their movies in the theaters and while I haven’t seen all of them opening night I almost always went to see them within the first couple of days of release.  There have been a couple of exceptions, but generally speaking I’m pretty stoked to see them, especially in the last couple of years.  That has been somewhat tested this year, though not really by my choosing.  It took me six days of waiting in order to see Shang-Chi and Eternals, which probably doesn’t seem very long to normal people but for someone trying to remain in “the discourse” that’s quite the pain.  And the reason for these delays is, of course, COVID.  With the virus floating around it just seemed irresponsible to go to these movies while the crowds are too big to maintain reasonable social distancing.  Fortunately the crowds for those movies did thin out enough to slip into weekday afternoon screenings shortly after release and not have to deal with crowds that were too out of control.  That was not the case with Spider-Man: No Way Home.  The movie released right at the onset of the Omicron Varient, when you’d think people were at their most afraid to go to the movies than ever, but instead the audiences who shunned cinema-going all year suddenly decided that this was the time to absolutely pack in the theaters and every damn screening of the thing was basically sold out for the better part of ten days.  I finally got into a screening that was only about half full after its second weekend, which still doesn’t seem like the most responsible thing I’ve ever done, but it did allow me to finally stop running in fear from spoilers on the internet so I guess that’s a relief.

The film picks up right where Spider-Man: Far From Home left off: with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) having his identity as Spider-Man revealed to the world by J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons).  Parker is able to dodge legal liability from the deceased Mysterio’s attempts to frame him but public opinion is divided about him and this scrutiny extends to his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon).  When this notoriety affects all three of their ability to get into MIT as they had planned Parker decides to take something of a desperate action.  He visits Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and asks if there is some sort of sorcery that can be used to somehow solve his problem and Strange agrees but in the process of casting the spell something goes wrong and Strange needs to contain it rather than let it go through and asks Parker to leave.  On his way out he gets a hot tip that an MIT representative is on the highway heading to the airport and he swings out to the highway overpass in order to try to convince her to let MJ and Ned in but then something bizarre happens: the highway is attacked by Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina)… the one we all saw in the 2004 film Spider-Man 2.  Soon it becomes apparent that Dr. Strange’s spell did have some odd side effects because it soon becomes apparent that the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) and other villains from alternate Spider-Man universes have shown up in this continuity and Spider-Man will need to hustle to stop them all and send them back where they belong.

So, obviously the big novelty of this movie is that it’s using the concept of the “multi-verse” to make this a crossover with Sony’s pre-MCU Spider-Man movies, thus officially making them canon in a way.  As pure fan service that’s really cool but there are some downsides.  First and foremost three of the five movies they’re drawing characters from kind of suck.  Spider-Man 3 was plainly kind of a disaster and I didn’t like either of Andrew Gafield’s Spider-Man movies even a little.  Jamie Foxx’s Electro is a bad character, I barely even remembered what The Lizard’s deal was, and while The Sandman looked cool he does not have an arc I’m remotely attached to.  Truth be told I was never much of a fan of the Willem Dafoe Green Goblin either; I dug his performance but I always thought his costume kind of sucked, so really Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus is the only villain here that I’m unreservedly happy to have back.  The film does try to undo some of the mistakes of the past in realizing some of these characters (like getting rid of Electro’s stupid blue makeup) there’s only so much they can really do to try to make some of these characters work and that’s a problem and the way the film almost seems to pause for applause whenever some of these characters show up is kind of cringe.

I would also note that I find the magical conceits used to make these crossovers happen did not make a ton of sense to me.  Dr. Strange generally behaves in what strikes me as a fairly out of character way to be trying to do this memory erasure spell in the first place and the fact that the spell goes awry through a sort of silly comedy is a bit weak to rest a film on.  I also found Strange’s rather vague description that the spell is, and I paraphrase, “drawing people who know Peter Parker is Spider-Man into this universe” seems a bit odd given that this phenomenon is pretty selective about who it draws in: where is the Kirsten Dunst Mary Jane or the Emma Stone Gwen Stacy or the James Franco Harry Osborne or any number of other non-super villains who know Spider-Man’s identity?  There are various financial (or in the case of Franco moral) reasons these actors aren’t here and there likely wouldn’t have been a place in the movie for them anyway, but a clearer explanation for who is crossing into the universe and why would have been appreciated (and don’t get me started on how little sense the post-credits cameo makes).  Without getting too deep into spoilers I also don’t really get how the ultimate resolution to this predicament works either and how it doesn’t undo most of what Spider-Man was trying to accomplish through much of the rest of the movie.

Having said that, the Tom Holland Spider-Man universe has a pretty strong foundation to work from and it remains a pretty strong here.  The supporting cast we’ve come to enjoy (Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, etc.) has not really missed a beat and Jon Watts continues to impress behind the camera.  I have no idea if this guy can direct outside the MCU, and frankly I have a hunch that like the Russo Brothers his skills may well not translate to anything grittier, but he plainly understands the right tone for Spider-Man and knows his audience.  After a year of kind of weak MCU movies I think this did come closer to recapturing that magic audiences have come to expect from these movies and I appreciate that too, but after watching it I did feel I was a touch unsatisfied.  The film’s status as the movie that’s “saving theaters” by becoming a record-setting hit may have imbued it with an Avengers like air of importance for this franchise that it was maybe never meant to have and an event status it can’t quite live up to.  Slight resentment that I needed to compromise my health to see the damn thing may also have biased me against it just a bit.  That said I don’t think this is all a matter of context there are script issues that left me unsure about this thing and the fan service nature of its most prominent elements is ultimately kind of hollow.  I fear I’ve been more negative about this movie than I intended to be, though I also fear I’m giving it a bit of a pass on certain things out of fanboyism, it’s kind of a movie that feels a bit mood dependent in how much you’re inclined to forgive it for holes and circumstance did not have me in the most forgiving mood when I watched it.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 11/19/2021

The Sparks Brothers (11/13/2021)

I had not heard of the band Sparks prior to 2021 but between this high profile documentary and their work on Leos Carax’s musical Annette they have certainly become front and center, cinematically at least.  This documentary was directed by Edgar Wright, who I don’t think has made a documentary before but brings a lot of his flashy style to the project.  Both members of Sparks, brothers Ron Mael and Russell Mael, fully participate in the film as interviewees and Wright also managed to put together a murderer’s row of famous talking heads to praise the band.  The film basically goes album by album through the band’s history and includes quite a bit of commentary about the actual music in addition to the story behind the two brothers and their up and down career trajectory.  I had thought that at some point the film would play a song by the band that I recognized, but no, I really truly had been clueless about this band my whole life despite generally being fairly knowledgeable about music.  The film explains that, despite the Mael brothers being American they were much more successful in Europe but I would have thought something they made would have shown up in a movie I’d seen or something but no, I didn’t recognize any of it.  The movie kind of makes a case that I should look up more of their stuff but I’m not sure that I will be as it ultimately doesn’t seem like my cup of tea.  Still, the enthusiasm of the interviewees was pretty infectious and the movie left me wishing that a band I actually cared about could get a documentary made about them with this much depth and care.
***1/2 out of Five

Nine Days (11/14/2021)

Pixar did it first.  That is kind of the giant barrier really getting in the way of this thing pretty much from the start.  This is a film about a man in some sort of celestial pre-purgatory tasked with analyzing the merits of a group of souls, represented by adult actors, to determine which ones are worthy of being sent to Earth to be born.  That’s kind of an unusual premise and yet it’s also one that is awfully similar to last year’s Pixar epic Soul, which looks at this same idea but on a much larger canvas and in my opinion actually gets the idea much more right.  The basic concept of souls being literally sent to people at birth is a concept I think is rather silly but even more silly is this notion that souls are somehow vetted before arriving on Earth… which makes no sense when you consider that so many of the souls that seem to make it are the souls of, like, serial killers and warlords.  That’s a concept that just feels so wrongheaded to me that the movie was kind of a nonstarter.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have some qualities that worked for me.  The film’s low budget conception of his pre-life world has a workmanlike charm and the film’s cast is charming enough.  But at a certain point it just never grabbed me and never brought me back either.
**1/2 out of Five

The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 (11/16/2021)

As Deep Impact/Armageddon or Dante’s Peak/Volcano situations go I must say seeing two documentaries about whale songs coming out in close proximity is not something I had anticipated.  Not too long ago I took a look at the Apple TV Plus whale movie Fathom and didn’t care much for it at all and in many ways my experience with The Loneliest Whale: The Search for 52 is painted a bit by the comparison between the two films.  The Loneliest Whale is most certainly my preferred whale song documentary of 2021, but it’s not a perfect movie either.  The film is about an elusive whale call that has been picked up by instruments which appears to be at 52hrz, which is different from every other whale that’s been recorded, and this has made this whale something of a legend among those who know about it would make it a lonely whale that can’t communicate with the other whales.  The film centers on its director as he tags along on an expedition to try to find this whale, which has heretofore only been heard on wide ranging ocean monitoring and never found individually.  So, the film has an interesting mystery to center itself around even if the conclusions aren’t going to be 100% satisfying and it does a good job of establishing the context for why this is interesting.  I do think the movie sort of pads for time a bit in the middle and has a few more interviews about the philosophy of all this than it needs but I was interested, which is more than I can say about Fathom.
*** out of Five

Vivo (11/17/2021)

Vivo is an animated film that Lin-Manuel Miranda was developing at Dreamworks before his musical “Hamilton” made him a star.  It had been dropped at the time but Sony Pictures Animation swooped in and resurrected the project around 2016 in order to capitalize on Miranda’s newfound stardom and Miranda seemed game to take part in it and eventually it was sold to Netflix.  That might have been a mistake because this movie very much feels like a middling animated movie from the early 2010s both in terms of storytelling and to some extent animation quality.  I’m not exactly sure what the film’s budget was but, while it’s clearly expensive enough to be a Hollywood production it’s noticeably cheaper than what you’d expect from Disney or Pixar or even Illumination and it also makes some design choices that don’t improve things.  But the bigger problem is just that the story feels incredibly basic as far as these things go.  It’s about a monkey who was part of a Havana street performer’s act who has to travel to Florida to deliver a song to said performer’s old flame after he dies and he has to travel with a quirky (and by “quirky” I mean annoying) ten year old girl to do it, and from there it becomes a fairly typical animated road trip adventure movie type thing.  Miranda’s songs here are distinctly his for better or worse in that they do have strong melodies and are well produced but they’re kind of annoyingly perky and are also made worse by being tied into this lame story.  I’m not really the world’s biggest Lin-Manuel Miranda fan but even I think this movie is really clearly beneath him and that he probably should have just let this project go because he’s dangerously close to over-exposed and he really shouldn’t be wasting the good will of the public on throw away projects like this.
*1/2 out of Five

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (11/19/2021)

We’ve dealt with a lot of celebrity deaths recently and the news of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide was a particularly odd cycle.  That was partly because Bourdain had kind of an odd place in the culture.  You could call him a “celebrity chef” but he wasn’t actually famous for, like, actually being particularly good at cooking.  Technically speaking he was a reality TV star who could be said to be “famous for being famous” but the 61 year old was a “reality star” for a different demographic, a sort of upscale crowd of foodie and travel enthusiasts, which made him particularly appealing to the kinds of tastemakers who would write his obituaries and now he’s the subject of a probing documentary that looks to get to the heart of what made him tick.  Obviously Bourdain is someone who has an abundance of video material to use in a documentary like this and he had a lot of eccentric friends who make for interesting interview subjects and given Bourdain’s often prickly public attitude they don’t feel any particular need to sugar coat their stories about him.  The film garnered some controversy after its release firstly because it reconstructed some statements by Bourdain with archival audio which some people felt crossed certain lines of documentary ethics and also because it kind of implies that his suicide was driven by a nasty breakup with his girlfriend Asia Argento.  I don’t have particularly strong feelings on either of these controversies; I didn’t pinpoint the offending passage in the case of the former (which I guess is part of the problem) and felt there was enough pushback on the latter for it to not bother me.  Overall this is a pretty detailed account of the guy’s life and will probably please his fans, as someone who was only moderately interested in the guy my own interest was a bit weaker.
***1/2 out of Five