Home Video Round-Up 1/15/2022

Tick, Tick… Boom! (1/8/2022)

The movie Tick, Tick… Boom! had a lot working against it for me.  Firstly it’s based on a play by Johnathan Larson, who is most famous for writing the musical “Rent” before passing away from an undiagnosed heart condition.  I’ve never seen a full production of “Rent” but everything about it and the entitled twenty somethings it’s about strikes me as deeply annoying.  Then there was the fact that it was directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which probably would have seemed like a positive for me a year ago but the dude has really over extended himself across something like a half dozen projects this year and I’m getting kind of sick of him.  But most of all I was kind of dreading watching this because it has at its center Andrew Garfield.  I’ve really tried to give this guy a chance but man, I can’t stand him.  He’s almost certainly my least favorite major actor working today and having him star as a Johnathan Larson surrogate seemed like a recipe for wretchedness.  So, I guess it’s a testament to this movie that with all this stacked against it I not only didn’t hate but actually kind of liked the final product despite having a big pile of biases working against it.

As stated before this is based on a Jonathan Larson play, which in its first form was a kind of autobiographical musical one-man-show he put on prior to getting rent off the ground but after failing to get an earlier musical called “Superbia” and it was sort of an account of what writing and workshopping that first musical was like.  My understanding is that this was expanded into a three person show by others after Larson’s death and that is the version that the world came to know as “Tick, Tick… Boom!” but I believe further adaptations have been made here.  My understanding is that the play, while obviously about Larson, is presented about being about a fictional character but the film comes right out and says this is about historical playwright John Larson and place him in historical context, essentially making the autobiographical biographical.  That’s a neat idea and this production is pretty well removed from other bigger budgeted musicals this year like In the Heights or West Side Story.  Some of the music is performed by the Larson character on screen but a lot of it is done by cutting to an on-stage performance that I assume is not unlike the “Tick, Tick… Boom!” stage show.  I mentioned before that I had some pretty negative views of “Rent” but that is mainly on a story and attitude level, on a musical level it’s pretty hard to deny that the dude can write a tune and while I wouldn’t say the music here is top of the line it does work more than it doesn’t.

I would also say, to his credit, that I did not completely hate Andrew Garfield here.  Looking at old pictures of Larson I get why he was cast.  That dopey look that Garfield usually has pasted to his face blends in better with this role than it does in some of the other movies that Garfield has made and while he’s not the greatest singer in the world I doubt Larson was either given that he was ultimately more of a behind the scenes performer so it mostly fits.  I would also say that unlike “Rent,” which very much seems to admire these pissant kids who think their entitled to free housing, there is at least some perspective here about why someone like Larson and his “bohemian” tendencies would be a bit of a pain in the ass to be around, though at the end of the day Miranda clearly admires this guy and can only go so far in criticizing him.  Like the stage version this is basically an experimental musical and some of the things it tries work better than others.  There’s a side character who suddenly becomes pretty important late in the film who probably could have been fleshed out a little more earlier and the film is only sporadically interested in the fact that it’s set in the 90s and is sometimes more and sometimes less successful at capturing that time period.  Those are basically quibbles but I think the bigger problem is just that, though he likely has more experiences on his resume than many, Lin-Manuel Miranda is still a debut film director and he hasn’t quite pinned down a style yet and you can tell he doesn’t quite have that full vision but he hardly embarrasses himself either.  This is a cool little movie, one that would probably stand out to me more in a year that didn’t have so many other musicals to compete with.

***1/2 out of Five

Procession (1/9/2022)

There have been a lot of movies, both fictionalized and documentary, reacting to the Catholic priest abuse scandal but none quite like Procession.  The film is a documentary looking at a handful of men who were abused by priests as children and who are not in a sort of support group for abuse survivors in the Kansas City area.  These men are firmly middle aged now and have very blue collar demeanors, mostly expressing their feelings about their experience and the church itself through anger, especially in the case of one victim who tends to really turns the air blue whenever discussing the topic.  The film looks at this group right as they start working with a “drama therapist” and a film crew with the goal of making a series of short films where they express their feelings about the situation.  That setup of course brings to mind two other recent documentaries, The Act of Killing and Dick Johnson is Dead, which both also engage in filmmaking as something of a therapeutic exercise, though I must say I don’t like the latter movie as much as many people do and the “film within a film” elements are probably my least favorite parts of The Act of Killing so I may be a bit less enthralled by this concept as many people are.  Here I sort of get what they’re going for as well but like those other two movies I may have preferred something a bit more straight-forward as the filmmaking elements are not quite the structurally sound device that the film seems to think it is.  Still, there’s plenty to be interested by here and it’s worth a look.

*** out of Five

I’m Your Man (1/11/2022)

Science fiction is often a rather impersonal genre about people heading off to space alone or scientists toiling in isolated labs, but there is also something of a subset of the genre like Her and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that looks at the intersection of technology and personal relationships with the new German film I’m Your Man also revolving around that theme.  The film is set in a near future in which robotics have advanced to the point where a company can manufacture fairly lifelike humans that could potentially be obtained to be ideal companions for people.  The film revolves around a woman who has been selected to be among a test group of academics to essentially test out living with one of these things and provide feedback about the philosophical implications of allowing this and is assigned a male android named Tom to assess.  She’s pretty uncomfortable with the whole assignment, which she largely took out of obligation, which leaves the android Tom rather confused as he’s clearly been programed with a more willing companion in mind.  Tom is played by the British actor Dan Stevens (who apparently speaks German) and in terms of humanity the character sits somewhere between Gigolo Joe from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation.  He looks just like a human and fake human mannerisms when driven to do so but he is very clearly not supposed to be 100% of the way there yet and be in something of an uncanny valley.  One could expect this set-up to play into something of a romantic comedy formula and have these two slowly come to appreciate one another and improbably fall in love but to the movie’s credit it doesn’t necessarily go there and instead is more willing to live in the weirdness and unworkability of the situation and never quite comes to a conclusive answer by the end.  That’s all admirable in theory, but the filmmaking often doesn’t match the ambition of the concept, it may not be a romantic comedy but it does look like one and I’m not sure it ever quite found that extra bit of inspiration it needed.

*** out of Five

My Name is Pauli Murray (1/12/2022)

Pauli Murray was a fairly obscure figure until fairly recently, I certainly hadn’t heard of them until I saw some promotional interviews leading up to the release of the film, but the movie makes a decent if perhaps exaggerated claim that they should be a part of history curricula.  Murray was primarily a civil rights lawyer and legal scholar from roughly the 1940s through the 70s and early 80s and who was well ahead of their time in all sorts of ways.  For one thing they appear to have been what would now be considered a transman though the vocabulary for such an identity was not formed at the time; they went by she/her pronouns in their life but are now generally referred to in they/them terms by scholars given the extent of the dysmorphia expressed in their writings.  The other theme of their life seems to be that they were ahead of their time to the point that the country was not exactly ready for a lot of their better ideas while they were in their prime so a lot of their accomplishments were more in setting down some intellectual foundations in the fields of racial and gender equality that future figures like Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsberg would run with.  Was Murray unfairly written out of history?  Eh, they’re certainly an interesting figure but there’s a difference between being merely interesting and being important and its not like legal scholars are routinely central to K-12 history curriculum, but they can certainly be good subjects for documentaries.  As a piece of filmmaking there’s nothing terribly noteworthy about My Name is Pauli Murray, it’s a very routine talking heads and stock footage affair that really doesn’t attempt to form much of a style or identity for itself and kind of feels like the kind of thing PBS would air on “American Experience,” but the subject matter makes up for it.

*** out of Five

Bergman Island (1/15/2022)

Though I’ve seen and to some extent have liked three different films from the French director Mia Hansen-Løve I’m not sure I’ve ever entirely gotten a handle on what exactly her style is, or at the very least I’m not sure I could exactly put it into words.  Given this it is odd that with her latest film she has taken on subject matter that directly invokes the work of a towering auteur whose style is unmistakable: Ingmar Bergman.  Her film, which does not attempt to imitate that director’s visual style, looks at a couple (a film director and a writer) who visit Bergman’s home turf of Fårö Island, which is no longer the reclusive getaway it was for Bergman and has seemingly become a slightly tacky tourist spot.  I had expected the movie to play out like something of a Scenes from a Marriage like deep look at this relationship as the couple comes to a head on this trip, but it then goes off in some slightly different directions and becomes more a film about the female protagonist’s creative process.  Fårö is a pretty interesting location to set something like this and bringing up one of the 20th Century masters of world cinema is certainly a bold move in general.  Honestly though I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed with the final film given all the hype that was built up for the film before I finally got a chance to see it.  To my eyes Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth do not have a whole lot of chemistry, or anti-chemistry for that matter.  Honestly I’ve increasingly come to think Tim Roth is an actor who only really works for me under fairly specific circumstances and these weren’t really one of them and the new direction the film takes midway through really didn’t interest me as much as I feel like it should.  There’s some good stuff here and it’s worth a peak but I was ultimately unmoved by it.

*** out of Five


Drive My Car(1/22/2022)

I think I should start by saying that this movie, or rather its American distributor, has kind of been driving me insane for the last couple of months.  Like a lot of people I first heard about the movie when it got glowing reviews out of Cannes.  It was ultimately a bit overshadowed by other movies at that festival (namely another much different film involving automobiles) but as the year started to wind down critics started to rally around it… which left me in an awkward position as its distributor (Janus) opened the film in New York and L.A. way back in late November and announced a very leisurely expansion plan that did not seem to include my city at all.  Then the critics really started falling in line on it.  It won the top prize at the New York Film Critics’ Circle, the L.A. Film Critics’ Circle, and with the National Society of Film Critics; a truly rare trifecta and it was looking like I was going to miss out on it.  On two different occasions I considered crossing state lines just to watch the damn thing.  I considered flying out to L.A. over it in December, something I might have gone through with were it not for Covid and later I thought about driving to about four hours to see it elsewhere… even going so far as to make (refundable) hotel reservations over that plan, but then I finally got word that it would just be opening in my own city in late January and made plans to see it that way.  To be fair, there have been movies with worse expansion plans this year (looking at you The Worst Person in the World and Petite Maman) but none have consumed my mind like this and I have worried (perhaps with good reason) that all this buildup was setting me up for a disappointment, but as I walked into that theater at long last I was just relieved to no longer have to worry about missing the damn thing.

Set in present day Japan, the film follows a theater director/actor named Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who we meet in an extended prologue as being in a rather unconventional marriage with a wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) who is herself a storyteller working in experimental television.  This all abruptly ends when he comes home to find her dead on the floor from a cerebral hemorrhage.   We then flash forward a few years and Kafuku is no longer acting but continues to direct plays in his idiosyncratic multi-lingual style and has been hired to mount a production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” featuring a global cast for a theater festival in Hiroshima.  Once there he’s informed that for some elaborate liability reason the festival be hiring a driver to transport him around the city in his 1990 Saab.  He’s frustrated by this decision because part of his theater process is to practice his lines against a tape recordings his wife made of his lines but the driver, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura) impresses him and he comes to accept the restriction.  Something that would come to disturb him more is that one of the people who shows up to audition for the play is a younger actor named Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), who had worked with the director’s wife previously and who he had strong reason to believe may have been having an affair with her.

It is perhaps odd in retrospect that I anticipated seeing this movie as heavily as I really didn’t have that clear of a picture as to what it was or what to expect from it.  The film was directed by a guy named Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who has gotten some good marks in festivals before but who has never really had a hit stateside even by arthouse foreign film standards.  His previous film Asako I & II made all of $25,000 at the domestic box office having never played in more than two theaters.  So I was basically blind to his work and had pretty aggressively avoided reading reviews of the film beyond knowing that a lot of people really really liked it.  So I was actually kind of surprised when, once the film was finally playing in front of me, that it actually had a really straightforward visual style consisting of pretty basic digital photography in a realistic contemporary location.  I certainly wouldn’t call the film ugly by any means, Hamaguchi blocks everything very professionally and has an eye for locations, but he’s definitely not showing off and is instead trying to keep audience focused on the characters and acting.  If it reminded me of any recent arthouse film it might have actually been Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep in that both are lengthy movies but ones that primarily consist putting you into the lives of characters and giving them lengthy conversations, but that movie had a lot more scenery and despite this film’s setting it never really feels like a stage play.

The film is based on a Haruki Murakami short story of the same name, but if the summery of that story I read is accurate it’s safe to say that Hamaguchi expanded on it quite a bit and changed things around a lot.  Specifically he seems to have made the Kafuku character a bit more likable (his driving restrictions in the original story were DUI related) and made his beef with one of his wife’s ex-lovers a bit less central.  The film also generally feels a bit more interested in Kafuku’s theater career and his unique process which involves actors from several different Asian countries speaking their native language on stage to each other with supertitles.  I’m not precisely sure how this particular form of theater ties into the film’s larger themes of grief and guilt, but the fact that he’s an actor certainly seems to have been chosen based on the idea that everyone puts on a sort of façade to the outside world when they grieve.  Also the film plays with the idea that actors may actually reveal more of themselves when on the stage than when they’re “acting” in real life.  Then there are the rather interesting dynamics at play in the glimpses of Kafuku’s relationship with his wife that we get.  His wife is not an actor, she’s a storyteller, so she was less skilled at hiding thing than he was but she also managed to intrigue him more and her storytelling is quite literally a part of their marriage dynamic.  That said there still a lot of thematic material here I wasn’t quite able to parse on a first viewing: Misaki Watari character is a mystery for large stretches of the movie and there’s a focus on a Korean couple in the movie whose significance to the story is not entirely clear to me.  Also the very last epilogue of the film is a real curveball, I have no idea what it means and in some ways it seems to have just been added as one last riddle for the audience.

I must say, I think the hype might have hurt this movie a little bit for me.  Every award this movie won upped my expectations into some kind of unrealistic places.  I ended up having to drive across a city to see the movie, if I had had to drive across half of a state to see it as I had been anticipating I might have to do it probably would not have been worth it.  In a lot of ways this feels less like the kind of movie that would normally build this kind of consensus, it feels more like the kind of movie you’d want to discover and then champion from behind.  It’s a lot more idiosyncratic than what we usually get from “breakout art house” movies, it’s not as visual in its focus and not as topical in its outlook and is more focused on intimate character interactions than you might expect from something with an epic length like this.  I guess I was expecting something different… but maybe I only have myself to blame for that given that I didn’t actually read a lot of those rave reviews so much as I skimmed the headlines.  Normally I do that in order to later make up my own mind about movies but in this case I maybe still formed expectations regardless.  But even if this wasn’t quite the transcendent experience I was hoping for it is nonetheless one of the year’s better movies.  Despite running three hours it never feels slow and instead keeps you consistently intrigued in where it’s going and how it’s going to go there.

**** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 1/7/2022

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (1/3/2022)

Before watching this movie I had no idea who Louis Wain was or why his life was “electrical” but it had a cool cast so I thought I’d give it a watch.  Turns out Louis Wain was a turn of the century figure who was known for drawing a bunch of weird paintings of cats but who also had a “scandalous” marriage to a woman who was below his station, and more importantly suffered from some pretty severe mental illness especially later in life.  From the title I had assumed that this would be based on some popular non-fiction book but the credits suggest it was drawn from original research.  Honestly I think they might have been better off writing a book.  Wain’s life is interesting in a rather sprawling way with a lot of different phases and iterations and I’m not sure a two hour film is quite the format for it, or perhaps any dramatic medium.  Director Will Sharpe certainly gives it the old college try though and certainly gives the film a distinct style; it’s in the academy ratio but otherwise isn’t really trying to invoke classic cinema and instead has a pretty bright color palette that eventually tries to match some of his mental illnesses in the visuals while also kind of invoking some of his colorful paintings in certain subtle ways.  It looks pretty cool, but also kind of feels a bit “tryhard.”  Benedict Cumberbatch is also doing some cool things in the lead role but in many ways it sort of feels like it’s for naught because the movie never quite grasps the character or makes him as interesting as he is on paper.  It’s an interesting attempt but I don’t think it ever quite comes together and works.

**1/2 out of Five

Simple as Water (1/4/2022)

The HBO produced documentary Simple as Water is one of many films looking at the fallout of the Syrian Civil War, this one in particular focusing on refugees and migrants fleeing from that conflict across several countries.  Honestly I’m not really sure how much there is to say about this movie: either that premise intrigues you or it doesn’t.  We meet one woman with four children stuck in a Greek refugee camp looking to be reunited with her husband in Germany, a woman who left her children with an orphanage, a man looking after his injured brother in Pennsylvania, and another woman looking for her son who may have been killed by the regime.  Some of these stories are more interesting than others; I’m tempted to say that the guy in Pennsylvania and the family in Greece could have made for feature length documentaries unto themselves, but on the other hand maybe they couldn’t have.  Obviously the goal of chronicling this mess of human suffering is to generate empathy for these refugees and encourage the world to take in more people fleeing from this civil war, but at this point I’m guessing that opinions about that are pretty entrenched and that films like this are largely preaching to the choir by now.  It’s a pretty decent piece of vérité documenting for the most part but rarely comes across tidbits that are truly transcendent.

*** out of Five

Passing (1/5/2022)

In my junior year of college while taking an American literature course as part of my English minor I was assigned to read Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel “Passing” and, well, one thing led to another and I needed to prioritize other assignments and I ended up using Sparks Notes to fake having read it instead of actually reading it.  I always felt guilty about that, especially now that there’s a well-regarded film adaptation of the novel out, and having seen the film I think that novel was almost certainly a fascinating read I missed out on.  The story concerns a light skinned black woman living in 1920s Harlem having a chance encounter with a childhood friend, who she learns has been “passing” for white and is married to a racist white man who doesn’t know about her actual ethnicity.  The original novel is considered a major work of the Harlem Renaissance and even setting aside the film’s titular theme the most is more than worth seeing for a glimpse into upper middle class African American life during this time period, which is not something we see dramatized all that often.  Director Rebecca Hall (who is apparently a quarter black and has herself sort of been unintentionally “passing”) shoots the film in black and white in order to invoke the time period and this also allows her to light Ruth Negga in such a way as to make her “passing” more plausible though the possibility that Tessa Thompson could do the same is perhaps a bit more questionable.  The film is generally pretty low key, mostly in a way that I like but at times feels like it could use a touch more flavor, and I also think Nella Larsen’s forces an ending on the film that’s kind of tough to dramatize and I’m not sure the film entirely pulls it off.  Still, the film has some really fascinating moments in it and is definitely worth checking out.

**** out of Five

Val (1/6/2022)

Val is a documentary portrait of the current life and past career of the Hollywood star Val Kilmer which was written and produced by the actor himself.  At the film’s start the actor reveals that this film is largely being made in response to a major personal setback: Kilmer had just gone through a bout of cancer and while he was able to beat the disease itself the treatment wrecked him and left him with a tube running down his throat that will leave him unable to speak, most likely killing his acting career.  This malady is the main reason that Kilmer is able to support a documentary profile of this kind as, frankly, I’ve never considered Kilmer to be a terribly indispensable talent and have never gotten the impression prior to that health situation that he had an overly interesting behind the scenes story.  Indeed, his rise to fame seems like a pretty standard issue Hollywood career as these things go.  There are a couple of candid stories he tells like the bit about how much of a nightmare the costume in Batman Forever was to work in and why he dropped out of the role in the next film and there are a couple of other tidbits here and there.  The film more or less concedes that Kilmer’s career was not terribly exciting in the last twenty years as it skips through most of it with montages to get to what he spent the last couple of years pre-health deterioration: doing a corny Mark Twain one man show (Hal Holbrook calls, he wants his gig back).  The film seems to think that show was worthwhile though and there is something oddly affecting about just how much he seems to believe in this goofy endeavor and how much it kind of seemed to be working for him before everything fell apart.  I wouldn’t say this is a particularly special bit of filmmaking and it’s subject is only moderately engaging, but the dude is certainly putting his heart and soul out there and it’s hard to get too angry about it.

*** out of Five

Coming 2 America (1/7/2022)

During the pandemic it was seen as something of a coup when Amazon picked up the rights to debut this long awaited Eddie Murphy sequel on their Prime service… then it came out and while reactions weren’t uniformly negative it was certainly quickly forgotten.  The thing is I’ve never really understood the reverence a lot of people seem to have for the original Coming to America, which is a movie that has some highlight moments but which otherwise strikes me a completely average Eddie Murphy vehicle… but then again I kind of feel that way about a lot of Murphy’s 80s movies so maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste.  This sequel is… certainly a movie?  I don’t know it’s a little hard to pinpoint where the problem is.  The film brings the cast back and finds a reasonably plausible reason for this follow-up to exist as far as these things go and assembles some good added talent like Tracy Morgan and Leslie Jones to add to things but for whatever reason the laughs just don’t really materialize.  It would be easy to blame the film’s tamer PG-13 rating for all this but I’m not sure a lack of nastiness is really the problem here, I think the problem is that Eddie Murphy stopped being funny sometime in the late 90s.  The focus here is more on the extravagant excesses of the fictional Zamunda rather than any antics in America, which certainly made sense on paper as those were among the best parts of the original film and in 2021 kind of serves as a backdoor parody of Black Panther, but perhaps that joke was better kept brief as it wears out its welcome pretty fast here.  Beyond that a lot of this just plays as fan service for people who’ve seen the original film dozens of times and want callbacks to everything that happened in it and as someone who only saw it once a couple years ago those weren’t overly meaningful to me.  Still, as unfunny comedies go this is more watchable than it could have been and I wasn’t too bored watching it but that’s about all I can say for it.

**1/2 out of Five

Parallel Mothers(1/17/2022)

It’s so easy to take Pedro Almodóvar for granted.  It’s kind of ridiculous that we do given that the man is like a modern day Fellini who walks among us, but despite the man’s overall reputation there’s a certain lack of due excitement whenever he actually puts out a movie… possibly just because the guy is so damn consistent.  Film commenters kind of like their filmmakers to come with a certain amount of strife with career ups and career downs, they love a comeback or the love filmmakers who keep us waiting only to surprise with a new major statement.  Someone like Almodóvar, who reliably puts out a good movie every two to three years, is maybe a bit harder to hype up, especially when he’s working in a place of relaxed confidence in his style like he has with his last handful of films.  It also probably doesn’t help that Sony Pictures Classics keeps putting his movies out in the dead of winter in a quixotic attempt to capitalize on Academy Awards traction that may well not come when his movies tend to exist in the warmth of Spanish summers.  His latest film, Parallel Mothers is a good example of just the kind of Almodóvar to be underestimated.  It isn’t trying to show off some radical departure in style and it isn’t going to compete in the Best International Film category at the Oscars thanks to the fickle people responsible for submitting Spain’s contenders, but it’s classic Almodóvar nonetheless.

Parallel Mothers focuses on a successful photographer in her late thirties named Janis (Penélope Cruz) who meets a forensic archeologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde) who she hopes will help with the excavation of a mass grave outside her hometown where she believes her grandfather was buried by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War.  Arturo submits her case to the organization and the two start an affair which leaves Janis pregnant and with Arturo not ready to leave his ailing wife Janis decides to forget about him and have and raise the child on her own.  While in the maternity ward Janis is roomates with a teenager named Ana (Milena Smit), who has recently returned from Granada to live with her Spanish mother by her judgmental father.  After the two give birth to their daughters they exchange phone numbers and agree to act as contacts for each other before going their separate ways.  Janis then resumes her life aided by a nanny and Ana continues to raise her child despite her own mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) flaking out on her to indulge her own acting career.  But soon these two mothers will have their paths cross again for reasons that will affect both of them.

Historically Pedro Almodóvar’s films have been a balancing act between comical farce, sexual provocation, and unashamed melodrama.  In broad strokes his earlier films skew closer to farce and provocation while his later films tend to be a bit more reserved explorations into melodrama but there are exceptions on both ends and his most celebrated movies tend to be the ones that can combine all three of these elements into a delicious stew.  His previous two films (the Alice Munro adaptation Julieta and the autobiographical Pain and Glory) did generally fit into the trend of more reserved late period Almodóvar and for the most part Parallel Mothers does as well.  The film lacks some of the more outlandish elements of some of Almodóvar’s more comical efforts; outside of it’s melodramatic central conceit the film more or less takes place in a recognizable if slightly stylized version of reality.  Note also that when talking about Almodóvar’s films “melodramatic” is decidedly not a pejorative, it’s just kind of something lined into the fabric of his style and sort of slightly heightened worlds he creates tend to make melodrama fit in and not really feel like melodrama.

Central to Parallel Mothers is of course the relationship between Janis and Ana, two women united by the common experience of having children on the same day while otherwise being people who are of much different ages and having children under much different circumstances.  Almodóvar has of course worked with Penélope Cruz several times in the past and is a major muse for the filmmaker throughout the second half of his career and she’s up to her usual high standards here despite being almost a decade older than her character is theoretically supposed to be.  Milena Smit is, however, a newcomer to Almodóvar’s roster and aquits herself quite well playing a rather tricky character who changes a lot over the course of the film and has some fairly emotionally charged scenes.  I’ve rather carefully talked around some of the surprises the film has up its sleeve as any good melodrama does, but I will say that the film’s central theme is that of secrecy and the extent to which keeping things buried (literally and metaphorically) can cause damage to everyone involved.  The film is a touch awkward in the way that it uses the sub-plot about Janis trying to uncover her family’s Spanish Civil War experiences as a parallel to this thing as it’s something the film only brings up intermittedly and really starts to dominate it in its final hours in a way that doesn’t feel entirely earned.  Still this is another winner from one of the most important figures in contemporary world cinema.

**** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 1/2/2022

Swan Song (12/29/2021)

For whatever reason the year 2021 has graced us with two completely different movies both with the title “Swan Song.”  One is a science fiction film starring Mahershala Ali and produced by Apple and the other is an LGBT themed indie starring the German actor Udo Kier, and that film is the topic at hand today.  Swan Song is a very low budget endeavor looking at an old gay man named Pat Pitsenbarger who was apparently memorably flamboyant in his younger days and was known to be the Liberace of Sandusky Ohio, where he worked as a hairdresser for the otherwise conservative female socialites of the small town.  As the film begins Pitsenbarger is retired and living in a nursing home but learns that an old client has died and has it in her will that she wants him to style the hair on her corpse for the open casket funeral.  He’s reluctant to take this job because he had a falling out with this woman back in the day but decides to do it for the money and old time sake.  He then goes for a long walk through the city which takes up much of the film’s running time and encounters various elements of his past (some of them imagined) which paint the picture of what this guy’s life is and how he feels presently.  This is what you’d call “regional filmmaking” and you can tell that a lot of the cast aside from Kier and a few others are not very experienced actors and the film doesn’t have a terribly sophisticated visual style.  Still the portrait it paints of this guy and his long dark day and a half of the soul is compelling and you can tell the admiration that writer/director Todd Stephens has for this generation of gay men.  It’s a little rough around the edges and has its contrivances but is ultimately a pretty compelling watch.
***1/2 out of Five

Attica (12/30/2021)

Given extent to which it’s a racialized example of the failures of the criminal justice system, it is perhaps surprising that we haven’t gotten a new documentary about the Attica Prison Riot even more recently than the new one that we recently got from Showtime.   I’m certainly of the generation that has maybe saw a blurb about Attica in a history book and knew it was something the Al Pacino character in Dog Day Afternoon was pissed off about, but watching it play out in the documentary definitely drives home exactly how unfortunate the whole situation was.  This was a fairly well covered media event, so there’s a decent amount of archive footage from the incident but it obviously leaves out a lot; you don’t get candid footage from inside the prison or at the negotiation table or in the governor’s office so there are limits to what you can get.  To supplement that the film does a lot of new interviews with surviving inmates from the prison, though few of them seem to have been major leaders in the riot, and there are some interviews with families of the hostages and a few people from the governor’s office but it’s been fifty years and a lot of the big players are dead.  Still, despite these limitations the filmmakers manage to put together a pretty compelling narrative.  There’s definitely some bias to the whole thing: the film downplays the violence of the initial taking of the prison to the point of being misleadingly evasive and the film also doesn’t engage much in the rather mixed legacy the riot had in the coming years.  Still, it’s a strong historical account of a pretty relevant moment that’s worth a watch if you have it in you to learn about one more infuriating moment of systemic failure.
***1/2 out of Five

The Harder They Fall (12/31/2021)

The new Netflix film The Harder They Fall, a western with a largely black cast, opens with a disclaimer reading “While the events in this story are fictional, These. People. Existed.”  The title card seems to exist to forcefully cut off accusations that the film is being anachronistic by putting black actors into this setting, which is certainly correct, there were in fact quite a few African Americans in the old west.  It’s also true that most of the characters in the movie are based on real people… real people who did not actually interact with each other much and were generally pretty different from how they’re depicted here.  Honestly emphasizing historical accuracy at all in with this thing seems like kind of an odd move as it’s very clearly trying to be a fairly over the top and silly action movie set in the old west which frankly kind of trivializes the lives of the real people in it and it probably would have been better off just making them all fictional characters.  That’s not to say there isn’t fun to be had with this thing… I’ve never seen Young Guns or its sequel but the impression I get of them (westerns as modern action movies with all-star casts and anachronistic soundtrack) is not unlike what I got from this movie.  As someone who tends to like my westerns to be pretty traditional in terms of style (not necessarily content, but style) that’s not exactly what I’m looking for, but there are certainly some cool shootouts and moments to be found here.
**1/2 out of Five

Listening to Kenny G (1/1/2022)

I’ve listened to very little Kenny G music but I do know I’m supposed to hate it; the dude is right up there with Michael Bolton and Limp Bizkit in terms of musical acts that are synonymous with critical revulsion.  If I’m being super honest I’ve tended to look at the guy’s career less with revulsion than confusion.  His years of peak commercial success happened before I was paying attention to music and I’m hardly a jazz experts, really it has always just been completely odd to me that a soprano sax player of any kind had managed to sell that many records making largely instrumental music that to me sounds like rather unremarkable elevator music.  This documentary looking to chronicle and re-asses this dude’s career is well aware of his bad reputation and invites a number of his critics in the jazz world to act as talking heads in the documentary and make their thoughts on the guy well known.  Wisely the critics they bring in are not raving “haters” and generally give well-reasoned arguments for why people don’t like the guy’s music.  That element of criticism and debate about the guy’s place in the culture is what interested me in the film, but the bulk of the film’s running time is taken up with interviews with Kenny G himself and a “Behind the Music” like profile of his history and these sections were also rather revealing, though perhaps not in the way the subject wants him to be.  The film depicts Kenny G as being a total mensch, a really nice guy who wants nothing more than to provide the world with “beautiful music” while giving the fans what they want and to also make himself as best he can be at any endeavor through hard work and determination.  I don’t doubt this depiction at all and it couldn’t possibly make me hate him more.  In fact these moments that are (maybe?) meant to be flattering honestly makes me better understand what people don’t like about this guy more than anything: he reminded me a lot of the character of Mr. Peanutbutter from “Bojack Horseman,” someone who doesn’t seem very smart but who is nonetheless extremely happy and, given that his music does indeed sound like watered down slop for people who don’t know any better, I can totally see why a lot of tortured artists would be pissed off by him.  I think the filmmakers know what they’re doing by showing this guy and his complete lack of shame about being a total sellout and, in its own way they’ve found a very smart way to profile this phenomenon.
***1/2 out of Five

Identifying Features (1/2/2022)

The Mexican film Identifying Features was one of the first films released in 2021 but is among the last of the years films I’m watching, not for any fault of its own but because I kept expecting it to show up on a streaming service but it kind of never did.  My local library did finally get some DVD copies though, so I’ve now gotten a chance to see it (albeit in questionable video quality) and it is indeed an interesting piece of work.  The film is about a Mexican who goes north to the border seeking a tip on a job opportunity but then disappears, with the body of his companion having been found, presumably killed by some sort of cartel violence.  The film follows his mother as she tries to find what happened to him.  In a more conventional space this set up would lead to a sort of Spotlight style investigation piece through the various bureaucracies involved, and there are some elements of that, but the movie itself is much more melancholic and doom-soaked, moving somewhat into a very dark form of magical realism by the end.  This isn’t exactly “easy viewing” and I do think it might have benefited from a bit more narrative clarity and general momentum but it’s also hard to fault it for its vision.  First time director Fernanda Valadez clearly has a distinct and ambitious visual style and some cool ideas but I’m not sure it’s all quite there yet for her, but in a couple of movies I think this could develop into a pretty important voice in cinema.
***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 12/27/2021

All Light, Everywhere (12/21/2021)

All Light, Everywhere is a documentary, or perhaps more accurately a video essay, on the topic of surveillance and particularly police surveillance.  The backbone of it is a tour of the headquarters of a company called Axon, which manufactures both police body cameras and also tasers, this is interspersed with footage of police officers being trained in how to wear and use body cameras as well as a community meeting in Baltimore where community members debate introducing drone surveillance to the city as a crime prevention tool as well as various vignettes about the history of photography.  The film is not explicitly trying to act as some sort of anti-surveillance propaganda, which on some level I appreciate, but I’m also not sure the movie is really saying much of anything at all beyond making some fairly inane and unhelpful observations.  Like, there’s a bit where the film makes a point of suggesting that cameras don’t show the “whole truth” because they don’t capture the information outside the frame… yeah, no shit.  And the movie seems oddly smug about the fact that Axon is a capitalist enterprise that generally speaks about itself in the most flattering terms possible… again, no shit.  The historical bits never really connect entirely either and then at the end it randomly throws in some bit about students practicing for a school play that a title card says was originally meant to be a bigger part of the movie which I think is supposed to be some kind of statement about it being too big to contain in a movie in much the way it seems to be arguing that no event can “truly” be filmed, which strikes me as being a rather useless attitude.  BTW, that title card like all the rest of the title cards in the movie are conveyed here using player generated subtitles instead of any kind of burned in visual design which strikes me as an aesthetically pathetic choice.  The whole movie just a pretentious mess that never earns the lofty discussions it seems to be trying to provoke.

*1/2 out of Five

Stillwater (12/24/2021)

When this somewhat belated follow-up to Tom McCarthy’s Oscar winning Spotlight came out late last summer it was greeted with general apathy.  It’s box office was bad, but nothing too embarrassing as adult fare released post-pandemic goes and the reviews were kind of indifferent.  It’s pretty much just remembered in terms of a controversy that was generated by the distaste that possible inspiration Amanda Knox had for the way the film ripped her story from the headlines.  In terms of that I generally don’t side with Knox, I get why she’s angry and felt she had the right to make it known that the film didn’t represent her, but I also think she doth protest too much as the film was pretty effectively fictionalized beyond its core inspiration and was unlikely to be viewed as any kind of factual account of her story.  The advertising almost made this look like a Taken-esque thriller about a father tromping through Europe trying to solve the case of why his daughter was wrongfully imprisoned in Marseille, which the film sort of is in its first act.  Then the movie takes something of a twist and goes in a quieter and frankly more interesting direction in its middle act, which I liked a lot more… then in the third act some of the original inciting conflict comes back in a way I didn’t care for.  So there’s about one third of a really good movie here and two thirds of a not so great movie and if it had kept going in the direction suggested by that middle act I would have probably liked it a lot more.  There are of course other factors to be considered here beyond the screenplay; I didn’t much care for Matt Damon’s work here, who I think went way too far in trying to turn his character into something of a fish out of water redneck, but I quite liked most of the other performances here including Abigail Breslin as the imprisoned daughter.  Also Marseille is pretty much always a cool location for filming and this movie is no exception.  All in all this is a movie that mostly earned its muted-but-positive reception but I doubt it’s one I’ll be remembering to vividly in a few weeks.

*** out of Five

The First Wave (12/25/2021)

The First Wave is a documentary that was primarily filmed in the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York from March to July in 2020, meaning it’s a front row seat to the Coronavirus outbreak at its absolute worst and presents a vérité document of the medics working under immense pressure to deal with the patients as they roll in.  That’s something that’s worth looking at but… China did it first.  We got the whole chaotic hospital thing from the documentary 76 Days, which followed doctors and nurses in Wuhan doing many of the same things.  This is a bit glossier and more heavily produced movie than that one and it also covers a longer time and deals with other elements of this time period like the George Floyd protests but fundamentally that first have is still covering pretty similar material and after a year I kind of feel like been there, done that.  I do think it finds a slightly more unique voice in its second half, where it starts to focus in on the recovery of one particular survivor as he finally stops needing a ventilator and goes through physical therapy to finally be able to leave the hospital.  Beyond that a couple of the doctors here do emerge as interesting and the people filming the movie certainly manage to capture some interesting moments.  I don’t know, I guess I’m just so sick of having to think about this pandemic that if I’m going to watch a movie about it I’m going to want kind of a lot of insight for my trouble and this just kind of feels like it’s not giving me anything new and at this point I think I’m ready to see the documentaries about the second, third, and fourth waves.

*** out of Five

Dear Evan Hansen (12/26/2021)

To say that the critical response to Dear Evan Hansen was negative would be an understatement, it was downright hostile and the film became a source of major ridicule all across the internet.  It’s a movie I mostly watched so that I could then watch all the video essays out there about how terrible it was.  So my expectations for this thing were about as low as they could possibly be and it was in that context that I finally watched it and found myself saying to myself “yeah, this is bad, but is it really that bad?” and I must say I’m not sure that it is.  First and foremost, yes, Ben Platt is terrible in this lead role.  He doesn’t look even a little bit like a teenager and just generally doesn’t work at all.  However, I do think pretty much everyone else here is pretty good.  Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg, Julianne Moore, and Amy Adams are all quite good here.  Of course this is a bit of a double edged sword since it make Platt’s issues stand out even more, but credit where it’s due.  I can also see how the music from this Broadway show has had as good of a reputation as it has, it’s pretty catchy and stands out.  I also don’t think that the premise of this thing is as wildly “creepy” as some people are making it out to be: yes Hansen’s predicament is pretty bad but the movie lays out a pretty good explanation for how it started innocently and kind of spiraled out of control and it’s not like the movie is trying to argue that the web of deceit Hansen finds himself in is, like, a cool thing to have done.  Of course that Platt performance is pretty damn hard to ignore and he definitely sinks this thing, and even without that I’d concede that the whole thing is pretty contrived and probably not the world’s most sensitive depictions of mental illness.  So, yeah, bad movie… but I think critics were maybe a little too excited to have another Cats on their hands and oversold how much of a disaster this was.  There are way worse movies out there.

** out of Five

The Meaning of Hitler (12/27/2021)

So, there are a million documentaries about Hitler… to the point that there was a cable channel that was once nicknamed “The Hitler Channel” for how many documentaries about Hitler they put out, and beyond that the culture is filled to the brim with depictions of the guy to the point where filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein felt the need to create a video essay about how obsessed people are with Hitler and the implications of that.  The film uses a 1978 non-fiction book by Sebastian Haffner of the same title as its backbone but isn’t a direct adaptation of it and has interviews from various historians and philosophers having these very Hannah Arendt talks about the meaning of it all.  The movie doesn’t just bring up the most obvious examples of cultural depictions of the guy but doesn’t avoid them either and also goes into how all of this plays into heavy topics like Holocaust denial and worldwide right-wing nationalism and isn’t shy about similarities to Trump either.  The film is obviously rather ambiguous about its ultimate conclusions, noting how its impossible it is to avoid putting some thought into history’s greatest monster if you’re a serious thinker but also how all this meditating on the guy kind of keeps him alive in the popular memory in a way he probably doesn’t deserve. The film generally manages to be thoughtful about all of this rather than preachy and in general it feels like a pretty good piece of work.

***1/2 out of Five