May 2022 Round-Up


It certainly seemed like there were enough Stephen King books out there that the world would never run out of them, and yet we still find ourselves in this place where Hollywood is actually going back and taking second stabs at King’s work in the form of remakes like the recent re-dos of Carrie and Pet Semetary.  That’s certainly the vain they were trying to tap with this second adaptation of his 1980 novel “Firestarter,” which was a good choice insomuch as the previous 1984 adaptation wasn’t very well remembered but also probably a bad choice in that the original novel was hardly King’s best in the first place.  Another strike against it is that this “father of child with powers on the run from bad guys” concept, which wasn’t even entirely original when King took it up, has been ripped off endlessly in various forms in the years since and doesn’t feel very fresh at this point.  So making this work again was going to take some pretty strong execution and that isn’t really what this movie provides.  The film is hardly incompetent; its director Keith Thomas clearly knows the basics of filmmaking and I’m sure he’ll serve capably as a director for hire going forward but I don’t see any evidence here that he has any particular vision driving him.  The film has some decent bits of fire-related gore and there are some interesting supporting actors here including John Beasley and Kurtwood Smith and Michael Greyeyes has a good presence as one of the villains.  Zac Efron, however, is an odd choice to try to carry the film and while I don’t want to rag on an eleven year old actress let’s just say that the kid here is no Drew Barrymore.  Ultimately this is a movie whose problem is less that it’s “bad” so much that it isn’t “good” or at least not good enough to be worth most people’s time.  As someone who just casually watched it on Peacock, I can’t be too mad at it.
** out of Five


The French film Happening debuted last fall at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the prestigious Golden Lion, beating out some heavy hitters like The Power of the Dog, The Hand of God, and The Lost Daughter.  As it wasn’t submitted by France to compete in that year’s Best International Film Oscar race the movie was held back by American distributor IFC, a move that would be fortuitous as they are now releasing it when it couldn’t possibly be more relevant as it’s a film about abortion rights.  The film is set at a prestigious boarding school in provincial France in the late 50s/early 60s before abortions had been legalized (which would happen in 1975).  The film follows a teenage girl at this school who becomes pregnant and realizes she’s going to need to find a way to procure an illegal abortion or else she will need to abandon her studies and the future she wants for herself.  That setup is of course not terribly removed from the similarly procedurally minded art house hit 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, though this film is set over several weeks of trying to find an abortionist while Cristian Mungiu’s film is set over a single night.  Additionally, while Mungiu’s film is also pro-choice for roughly the same reasons, it is perhaps more interested in looking at illegal abortion as one of many manifestations of the Ceaușescu regime’s control over everyone in that society while this film is a bit more directly focused on the way the patriarchy controls women.  At the end of the day I do still think this sits a bit in the shadow of that Romanian New Wave classic, but that movie is nearly fifteen years old at this point and we are probably due for a new take on the concept.  Shot in a confining Academy ratio, the film is a pretty stark illustration of how laws like this are oppressive to all parties involved and basically make it impossible for women to live as freely within society.  It’s a stark indictment of the era it depicts, and sadly the likely future of many places closer to home.
**** out of Five

We’re All Going to the World’s Fair(5/21/2022)

Is the internet going to screw up the next generation?  For that matter did it screw up the last one?  These are questions raised by the fairly experimental new film We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, whose title refers to an online “challenge” that the seeming protagonist of the film, a young teenager named Casey has seemingly become obsessed with.  The ensuing film is not a found footage movie per se, nor is it one of those “computer screen” movies like Unfreinded but it does take that format during certain scenes.  My short take on this movie is that I think there’s an interesting idea at its core and respect a twist of sorts that happens in its third act, and in that sense I responded to it intellectually, but I don’t know that it was engaging enough as a viewing experience beyond that.  Star Anna Cobb brings a lot to the film, in no small part because the actress is an actual teenager who looks like one and does bring a definite naturalism to her performance.  Writer/director Jane Schoenbrun seems to have some real understanding about internet culture and the way certain people seem to become dangerously obsessed by “creepypasta” which looks pathetically fake to people not immersed in it.  She seems to be subtly trying to format the film to replicate the experience of the internet by kind of limiting your exposure to characters’ lives to certain curated glimpses removed from context that seems to kind of obstruct the greater picture.  Again I respect the experiment of that and it’s done for a purpose but it was also a frustrating viewing experience and the same can be said for the film’s intentional anticlimax.  At the end of the day I think there’s definitely enough here to be worth a look but I can’t enthusiastically say I “loved” watching it.
*** out of Five


One Second(5/14/2022)

One Second is the latest film from Zhang Yimou, one of the greatest filmmakers working out of China.  Most critics would call him a “master” and yet most of them also do a rather terrible job of supporting him when he actually needs them to because most of his movies barely garner a peep from most of these same critics when they actually get released, which is certainly the case with his latest film One Second.  This is going to be one of the stranger reviews I write because it’s for a movie that was shot around 2019 in China and was released in that country in late 2020, possibly as a way to dump it during the height of the pandemic because the countries censors were not very favorable to it.  It then premiered to Western audiences at the Toronto Film Festival in 2021 where it was sort of well received but wasn’t talked about very loudly.  Prior to its screening though it was acquired by Neon who have handled it with the usual “hold off on showing people things until long after the buzz has faded” incompetence they’ve shown to most of their foreign acquisitions that aren’t Parasite.  It’s now 2022 and as far as I can tell Neon has not set any kind of release date for this, theatrical or otherwise, and at this pace I have my doubts they ever will.  Maybe it will randomly show up on Hulu without fanfare someday but I don’t have a lot of hope for it.  It did, however, manage to show up at a regional Film Festival in my area and that is how I managed to see it and write this review that my audience will likely have little real use for.

The film is set in Western China sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s.  Zhang Yi plays a man who finds himself in this remote desertous corner of the country and finds himself having arrived late for a showing of a film and is informed that the film reels will be moving on to the next town that night.  The reels had been put in a bag and left on an unguarded motorcycle when a young girl (Liu Haocun) walks up and snatches one of the reels.  No one else sees this, so the man chases after her and takes the reel back but when he returns to town he finds that the motorcycle has left, presumably not knowing that the reel was missing.  This will force him to find a way to get this reel to the next town and the provincial projectionist “Mr. Movie” (Fan Wei) but he’ll need to jocky with the young thief to do it and even if and when they make it to the next town they’ll have additional challenges to deal with.

One Second is in many ways a film of two halves.  The first half is a sort of lightly comical chase movie with the protagonist and the young thief one upping each other across the desert.  Then in the second half the film transitions into a nostalgic bordering on sappy look at the effect of cinema on a small town along the lines of something like Cinema Paradiso.  The first part has its charms, but I wouldn’t necessarily want the whole movie to play out like it.  Once they get to the town the film becomes this really interesting peak into a film culture that’s much different than what most of the film’s viewers will relate to.  This remote town is said to only have a movie show up where they are once every few months, which then plays there one time only before moving on, and this day event is treated almost like a holiday festival by the towns folk.  These films are not being presented for commercial reasons and are instead being toured by Mao era communist authorities for propagandistic purposes.  The feature film is some kind of jingoistic war film called Heroic Sons and Daughters, which is said to be one of a couple of movies that they’ve rotated through this town multiple times, and the authorizes are very insistent that the Maoist newsreel plays in front of this and goes to great lengths to make sure this part plays.

Despite what in my mind is a deeply unappealing viewing condition for all of this you can tell that the people in this town are still thrilled to have this moment of escapism enter their lives.  That’s probably the most valuable part of the film but the story at the center of these three characters and their diverging interests in the fate of this film screening.  That said, the movie is perhaps a little too upbeat in the face of what seems like some pretty authoritarian conditions.  The film was rather infamously pulled from the 2019 Berlin film festival, presumably by Chinese censors who seem to have made some changes to the film.  It doesn’t feel like a work of propaganda and still has some clear criticisms of the Maoist era, but I do suspect it’s been forced to soft pedal to some extent.  Additionally there are some character moments that feel a bit contrived and some bits just reach a bit too much for sentimentality.  It’s not what you’d call a “hard hitting” piece of world cinema, but I think there’s a place for that.  In the past I’ve made fun of the 90s trend of “friendly” foreign films, including the aforementioned Cinema Paradiso, but I think there’s a place for that and I kind of miss them now that we basically aren’t getting any subtitled films that don’t exist to compete for Oscars.  That seems to be the problem this movie is having with Neon playing games with its release because they don’t know how to sell a movie like this and doing nothing with it until they can find some sort of angle.  That’s unfortunate because this is an interesting watch from a great filmmaker and it deserves a little more respect.

***1/2 out of Five

The Best Animated Feature Gauntlet – Part 1

In 2001 The Academy Awards introduced a new category to their lineup, the first lasting one since 1981 when they finally started honoring achievements in makeup.  It was a category dedicated to the best feature length animated film of a given year and would join Best Documentary and Best International Feature among categories that looked at films in their entirety within a specific specialized form.  One could argue that categories like this are a problem, that they ghettoize certain kinds of movies and make it harder for them to compete in major categories like Best Picture but I’m not really here to weigh in on that.  Really my interest in this category is simply that it’s relatively new and because of that one could realistically watch all eighty nine films that have been nominated for the award, making it one of the only categories I’m likely to be able to do that for.  Between the all the various series I’ve done around animated films over the years as well as my usual yearly watching I’ve actually gotten really close already.

I’ve checked and there are actually only fifteen movies that have been nominated in that category that I haven’t seen and in this series I’m going to try to watch all fifteen of them and complete the set.  This is not, however, going to be like my Disney or Pixar series where I write outlandishly long reviews for everything.  This is going to be an exercise in speed and getting through this in a timely manner, so unless something really stands out as needing further elaboration I’m sticking to one or two paragraph long capsule reviews for everything.  I’m also bucking my usual pattern or watching things in chronological order.  If I did that a lot of the movies I’m kind of dreading having to watch will be front loaded at the beginning and that seems discouraging.  So instead I’ve used a random number generator to decided what order I watch these things in.  I’ll switch a few things around to ensure I don’t see certain sequels prior to their predecessors and I also reserve the rights to switch things around to accommodate when I’m subscribed to some streaming services, but otherwise I intend to stick to the wacky random order I’ve been dealt.

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (2002)

Though it was chosen randomly to be first, we’re going to be starting with one of the earlier films to be nominated for the Best Animated Feature category, nominated in the second year of that category’s existence, which was notable for being one of the only slates with five nominees during the category’s first decade and also for the eventual winner: Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.  The film in question is Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, one of a handful of traditionally animated movies that DreamWorks Animation made early in their history when they were trying to compete directly with Renaissance era Disney like The Prince of Egypt and The Road to El Dorado.  Though it had been in production since the late 90s, the film would not come out until the year after Shrek had been a big hit and it was clear that Dreamworks’ future would be CGI and sarcastic rather than hand drawn and Diseny-esque.  The film was a minor hit, but as with Dreamworks’ other forays into this style it proved hard to market a Disney movie without the Disney name and the movie is now mostly remembered as a movie for weird millennial horse girls.  That’s unfortunate because there are actually some pretty impressive things about the film.

The film is set during the mid to late 19th century in the American West and focuses in on a wild stallion named Spirit who gets captured by the American cavalry as they march on a campaign against the Native populations.  They try to tame him, but he eventually escapes with the assistance of a Lakota man who had been taken prisoner in the same camp.  It’s a pretty simple story as these things go but the film does some interesting things stylistically.  For one, the horses don’t talk in the film.  Spirit is sort of voiced by Matt Damon, but we only hear that through voice-over narration, otherwise the film’s equine cast sticks to making horse sounds. Unfortunately the film still feels obligated to include songs in its soundtrack and they do this by taking a page out of the playbook of Disney’s Tarzan by having omniscient songs by an adult contemporary singer play over the film but instead of hiring the already lame Phil Collins they hired the even lamer Bryan Adams which is… unfortunate.  Otherwise though this is pretty good at what it’s trying to do.  The animation is pretty high quality and the film manages to add some action scenes that are pretty high quality and the film generally carries itself with dignity… something I would not associate with the DreamWorks Animation that would soon emerge post-Shrek.
***1/2 out of Five

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

The Academy’s favorite studio, by far, is Pixar.  Second favorite is original recipe Disney, and Dreamworks racked up a ton of nominations through their general ubiquity during the era.  Beyond those you start getting to their smaller scale favorites like Studio Ghibli and Cartoon Saloon, and then finally you get to the humble British stop motion studio Aardman Animation.  Aardman came to prominence through their “Wallace and Gromit” shorts (two of which won Oscars in the Animated Short category) and moved into feature films in the year 2000 with Chicken Run (which came out the year before the Animated Feature category started).  They then brought Wallace and Gromit to the screen with The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which won them their only Oscar in the feature category but they have been nominated several times in the years since then.  At some point they also began making a series for British television called “Shaun the Sheep” which has aired off and on since 2007 and has upwards of 170 episodes, but these “episodes” are very short 7 minute episodes with no dialogue about the exploits on a farm in Northern England with a focus on a titular sheep that lives there.  So apparently the show was a hit in the UK and elsewhere but I’m not sure if it ever took off in the United States and I likely never would have heard about it had it not been for this 2015 feature film which found its way to the Best Animated feature category in a particularly non-commercial year for the category outside of the eventual winner, Inside Out, as the other nominees included Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa, Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There, and the minimalist Brazilian film Boy and the World.

So, essentially this is a TV cartoon being brought to the big screen, which is not generally the most reputable of genres but Aardman is not an ordinary cartoon maker.  The TV shorts were of course exceptionally short and none of them featured dialogue so there were some special challenges in bringing this to the big screen and their goal in upping the stakes were to push these farm animals into having an adventure in a city rather than their usual farm trappings and… chaos ensues.  The reason these farm animals find themselves in the city is some cartoony contrivance involving their human farmer accidentally rolling there in his trailer and bumping his head and getting amnesia, which you just sort of need to go with… in fact there’s a lot here you just need to go with like the sheep being able to infiltrate the city by standing on each other’s shoulders while wearing trench coats and other bits of cartoon logic.  Honestly it’s not a movie that lends itself to a whole lot of analysis beyond “its’ pretty cute and charming in that humble Aardman way.”  The Claymation style the studio has been at the forefront of works well with the material at hand and they do a pretty good job of telling the story through visuals without using real spoken dialogue.  I think it maybe loses its way a bit towards the end as it tries to ramp up to a bit of an action finale, but that wasn’t really a huge problem in the grand scheme of things.
*** out of Five

Ice Age (2002)

One of the hardest transitions in film history was the switch from silent movies to sound.  The language of silent cinema had really been perfected by the late twenties and much of that progress had to be undone in order to accommodate sets that could record sound and as such a lot of early thirties cinema feels clunky and uninspired compared to what the masters of the previous decade accomplished.  I bring this up because one can see a similar rough transition when the animation industry had to transition from traditional 2D animation to CGI and watching Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron in close proximity to Ice Age, two movies that came out within three months of each other, certainly highlights how rough that transition was both technologically and artistically.  Put simply, this movie is hideous.  I can’t imagine even at the time anyone thinking this looked “good” on any level but the film’s barely functional animation has aged like milk in the twenty years since this was released.  The environment textures look like something from a Playstation 1 game and the character designs, especially the designs on the one or two human characters here look absolutely terrible.

Narratively the film is a little different than I expected.  I’m used to seeing trailers for future installments of this series where there’s this sprawling cast of animals but in this first movie it’s mostly about a Mammoth voiced by Ray Romano, a sloth voiced by John Leguizamo, and a saber toothed tiger voiced by Denis Leary who find themselves in possession of a human infant that they need to bring back to his people.  So… basically it’s Three Godfathers but set in the Late Cenozoic era and with talking extinct mammals.  The film isn’t as bogged down by pop culture references as I expected, clearly the malign influence of Shrek hadn’t quite reached other animated movies quite yet, but the comedy that is here is pretty dumb just the same.  Otherwise there really isn’t a whole lot to say about this one, it’s dumb and forgettable and looks terrible and one would think it would belong in the dustbin of history and yet… the movie was somehow a huge hit.  It basically put its production company, the 20th Century Fox subsidiary Blue Skies Animation, on the map and it proceeded to spawn four theatrical sequels over fourteen years, a fifth one that debuted on Disney+ just this year.  It’s become the The Land Before Time of the 21st Century.  Man, kids are stupid.
*1/2 out of Five

The Croods (2013)

As an animation studio Dreamworks Animation probably peaked in ubiquity somewhere around 2010.  That’s not to say they declined artistically after then, in fact an argument could be made that at least some of their films from the 2010s are an improvement over what came before, but as a brand they feel less like an arch-rival to Pixar and more like just one of many different second tier animation studios fighting it out with each other.  Their 2013 film The Croods is a pretty good example of the kind of odd place they were in by their second decade: professionally made but formulaic, lacking in identity, and generally not terribly inspired.  You get the film’s gimmick pretty quick: we’re introduced to a nuclear family of cave people with an over-protective father, a long suffering mother, a sassy grandmother, a feckless brother, and our protagonist: a rebellious teenage girl who longs for adventure in the great wide somewhere.  So the gag is basically “cave men, they were just like us, except everything was made out of rock” which was kind of the joke of The Flintstones fifty some years earlier except that this family is isolated rather than living in a bustling caveman suburb and they’re living in some kind of fictional world with mythological flora and fauna.

Within about five minutes you can pretty easily predict exactly where this is going, the setup all but assures that this will be an arc where the over-protective father will get angry at the adventurous daughter for taking risks he doesn’t approve of, this will cause a rift between the two of them, but eventually he’ll come to learn to lighten up a little and she’ll realize she does love her family despite its dysfunctions.  Also there’s a love interest for the teenage girl, a boy from outside the family who isn’t as buff as the people in her family but is sensitive and smart enough to know how to build traps and control fire and he also plays into this conflict in predictable ways.  It’s all just so simple in its adherence to the modern family movie playbook as to be kind of uninteresting.  The animation and visual and voice cast are supposed to fill in the film’s value, and they do go some of the way to doing this.  The world of the film is certainly colorful and the technology rendering it is mostly up to snuff.  There’s also an all-star voice cast here including Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds, Nicholas Cage, and Catherine Keener, and they’re mostly fine in their various roles.  Overall though I don’t think this world is nearly interesting enough to make up for the film’s offensively pedestrian script, and general lack of inspiration or novelty.
** out of Five

Ferdinand (2017)

A couple movies back I looked at Ice Age, the movie that more or less “made” Blue Sky Studios in their early days and Ferdinand kind of saw them out.  It was the second to last movie the studio made (the last being Spies in Disguise) and the last one to receive an Oscar nomination.  The studio was never a heavy hitter in animation; they were basically a poor man’s Dreamworks who were in turn a poor man’s Disney, but they had managed to remain somewhat relevant and had some hits under their belt and probably could have continued were it not for some behind the scenes business machinations, namely the acquisition of their parent studio (20th Century Fox) by Disney.  It doesn’t take a genius to guess why that was going to be a death blow: Disney already specializes in animation and has two major animation studios under their belt and they didn’t need a third, especially not a third rate one like Blue Skies.  Disney does still have all of Blue Sky’s IP and intends to make Ice Age stuff for Disney+ and may also be making a Rio 3 but the studio itself has been shut down and most of their people let go, pretty much by no fault of their own.  Kind of an ignominious end to their story and it’s a little ironic that the studio seems to have been earning some respectability with their last few projects including Ferdinand.

Ferdinand is an adaptation of the picture book of the same name by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson.  That book, published in 1936, is an all-time classic of its genre.  Its depiction of a bull who preferred to relax and smell flowers rather than engage in violent bullfights was viewed by some as a pacifist parable in the wake of the Spanish Civil War and is more likely to be viewed today as a critique of toxic masculinity and a celebration of self acceptance, though Leaf denied any political undertones and claimed to have written it quickly largely as a means of giving Lawson a platform to show off his illustration skill.  Regardless it’s something a lot of people hold dear, especially the type of sensitive male children who preferred to relax and engage in “softer” interests in the face of a society that really wants them to roughhouse and play sports.  I can’t say that it was a favorite of mine when I was a kid but I do remember it having been read to me at some point or another.

This Blue Sky adaptation in many ways falls into the same place that a lot of the recent Dr. Seuss adaptations; an expanded and kind of dumbed down re-tellings made for a generation that needs a lot more stimulation in order to get their attention.  Beyond that the movie has to contend with the fact that it’s trying to be a feature length adaptation of a book that’s all of fifteen to twenty illustrated pages long.  When Disney did its own straightforward adaptation of it 1938 it ran all of seven minutes long, so obviously a whole lot of padding would be required to make this happen.  The book gives a very abridged account of Ferdinand’s childhood before sending him to the matador ring where he refuses to fight before giving him a happy ending where this film needs to add a whole bunch of other bull characters, give Ferdinand a second life where he’s raised by a little girl, add a goat character who acts as Ferdinand’s coach, bring in some silly rivalry with the farm’s horses (including a very stupid dance off sequence), and finally a big elaborate escape scene.

Does all this really add to the story? Not really, it does mostly seem like a lot of water treading and bad comedy as it leads to the inevitable conclusion.  However, I do think the film does a pretty good job of not diluting the central message of self-acceptance and pacifism in the grand scheme of things and that is a message that’s every bit as relevant in the 21st Century as it was in the 20th especially in the face of all the right wing revanchist bullshit we’re dealing with today, so on some level I can’t be too mad at all of it.  Also, while a lot of this cartoony comedy is very much not for me I do think it’s a little better handled here than it is in a lot of its competition and the animation and voice acting is by and large pretty decent.  Probably not a movie that quite needed it’s Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination but it’s not an embarrassment of a nominee either and it does make me think Blue Sky was on its way to maybe being a little more respectable than some studios out there, particularly the one that rhymes with “indoctrination.”

*** out of Five

This series will continue with to further installments in the future

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness(5/5/2022)

Last year the MCU was as present as it’s ever been.  Thanks to pandemic holdovers they ended up putting out more movies in a single calendar year than they ever have before, four of them, but they also put out no fewer than five TV series on Disney+.  You’d think with all that they’d have to have one great product in the mix out of sheer probability but I’m not sure that really happened.  The TV shows ranged from “pretty middling” to “fairly satisfying” which is about what I expected but I was more disappointed with the movies.  Black Widow was barely passable, Shang-Chi had some highlights but fell apart pretty quickly, I liked Eternals better than some people but it was clearly flawed, and then there was Spider-Man: No Way Home which certainly made a whole lot of money but artistically I thought it was kind of pandering and ultimately a bit mid.  Then again my viewing of that last movie was a bit compromised.  It seemed wildly irresponsible to see that movie in the packed theaters it was playing in right in the middle of the omicron surges so I ended up waiting multiple weeks to see it and by that time a lot of its twists had basically been spoiled for me, and the screening I went to was still semi-crowded anyway.  So this time I said “screw it.”  There’s no awful variant going around, so I went ahead and saw it opening day.  And I’m glad I did because this is almost certainly my favorite Marvel movie since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.

This is the first MCU film where one of the Disney+ series is a pretty serious prerequisite: you really need to watch the show “Wandavision” before going into this one.  The story picks up some time after the end of that TV series and kicks in when Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is at the wedding of his ex-flame from the first movie Christine (Rachel McAdams), which has him a little depressed.  Fortunately he’s drawn away by a one eyed Lovecraftian squid monster from another dimension which he comes to learn was sent through the dimensions by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) in pursuit of a teenage girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who also comes from another dimension and has a unique power that allows her to travel between different worlds in the multiverse.  Maximoff apparently intends to kill Chavez and steal her powers in order to find alternate universe versions of the children she (sort of) had and lost over the course of the events of “Wandavision,” an event that Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) believe will cause dangerous rifts in the universes.  To counter the attack they take Chavez to their fortress/temple in Kamar-Taj but there’s no guaranty that those fortifications will be enough to hold off the raging Scarlett Witch.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first.  I think people are going to have some problems with the way Wanda Maximoff is depicted here.  The film basically starts with her as fully evil as the film begins and willing to kill dozens of people in her frankly selfish pursuit of satisfied motherhood.  On some big picture thematic level I kind of like this as I like it when movies call out characters for using their families as an excuse to engage in violent and destructive behavior against everyone else’s families (a staple theme of gangster movies) but this isn’t really where the character was at the end of “Wandavision,” or at least it’s not where it feels like we left her.  At the end of that show she had seemed to have taken some of the first steps toward healing enough to quit imposing her will on others but it seems this is trying to suggest that her tapping into the evil Darkhold spell book in that show’s post-credits made her backslide in the biggest way and become even more violent as a result and by the time the film has started she’s almost like a terminator in her dogged pursuit.  There were clearly some psychological developments we weren’t privy to and that’s a bit jarring.  Still, I kind of view this more as a failing of “Wandavision” than as a failing of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.  That show had one job: show how Wanda got to this point and it failed at this by soft-peddling her character arc at the end.

Outside of that though I think this movie is quite the romp and probably Marvel’s most successful movie since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.  That’s in large part due to the decision to bring veteran filmmaker Sam Raimi in to direct; it’s his first movie in almost a decade and of course is also something of a triumphant return to the superhero genre after he more or less invented the modern superhero movie in 2002 with Spider-Man.  This is of course an MCU movie first and a Sam Raimi second… but it’s a closer second than I expected it to be.  There were rumors going in that this would be Marvel’s first horror movie and I don’t agree with that at all, but there are horror elements here that at least have a certain energy that’s reminiscent of some of Raimi’s thrillers like the Evil Dead movies and Drag Me to Hell.  Horror in Raimi’s work always has sort of weird comedic energy and a sort of grisly slapstick to it, and he does push the PG-13 rating about as far as it can go to make that happen here in certain spots, especially in the third act.  I might go so far as to say it’s more identifiably Raimi-esque than any of his Spider-Man movies but that’s mostly a factor of Dr. Strange as a character lending himself to such a treatment in a way the web-slinger does not.

Beyond that though the film is pretty visually impressive ride through multiple dimensions of the multiverse.  Multiverse stories always run the risk of feeling like convoluted headaches and some of Marvel’s projects of this kind (“Loki,” I’m looking at you) have run the risk of becoming like this, but I found this movie’s multi-dimensional aspects to mostly be a breeze.  I suspect the film will draw some, in my mind, rather unfair comparisons to Everything, Everywhere, All at Once but this is really doing something pretty different and is using alternate dimensions more as a backdrop for an action movie than it is trying to take an overly deep dive into different possibilities for Strange, though there is a little of that to be found.  As an action movie the film doesn’t break too dramatically from the Marvel mold but Raimi does vary things up enough scene to scene and Doctor Strange as a character lends himself to cool trippy visuals and alternate dimensions.  The first Doctor Strange was the only Marvel film I felt compelled to watch in 3D and did the same for this sequel, which was a choice made largely out of convenience rather than desire but I’m glad I did because the film did make really good use of the format (and of course that’s also the best way to watch the attached teaser of the next Avatar film).  Ultimately this movie is not any kind of game changer either for Marvel or for superhero movies more generally, but I do think it gets things a bit back on track for the MCU and I do think it’s important to celebrate these movies when they get things right.

**** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 4/24/2022

Scream (3/14/2022)

The people behind the Scream franchise have really found quite the racket for themselves: they can make the same damn movie five times and call their similarities “commentary” instead of laziness.  Of course they’re not alone among slasher films in being repetitious but at least in other franchises they try to inject novelty here or there or perhaps go back and forth with their casting and these franchise evolutions are interesting even if they’re not great.  By contrast the Scream franchise has traded in those ups and downs in favor of a somewhat consistent if repetitive quality in which the original film’s cast keeps coming back to once again fight copycat killers trying to recreate the events of the first film albeit with fresh commentary about whatever new kinds of horror movies are out there (even if they ultimately just keep being slasher movies where people get stabbed with hunting knives).  This one in particular is kind of lazy when it comes to the fundamentals of being a slasher movie, by which I mean the kills aren’t very inventive, these movies have really been milking the “tense chase where the killer is knocked back a few times, but then catches up and after a struggle murders the victim with a knife” formula for a while now.  There’s a sort of clever explanation this time around for why these killers keep doing the same thing over and over which might satisfy some people but which feels a bit like an excuse to me.  Had Scream 2, Scream 3, or Scream 4 done more to switch things up previously this kind of back to basics approach might have resonated a bit more metatexutally and textually but they all played it pretty safe themselves and this really seems like one too many repeats of the same to me.
**1/2 out of Five

The Adam Project (3/21/2022)

I think the worst kind of mediocrity is intentional mediocracy, which is something I find to be genuinely less appealing than sincere badness, and the new Netflix film The Adam Project is intentional mediocracy at its worst.  To the film’s credit I do suspect that at some point when the project was just a spec script written by T.S. Nowlin (before three other credited writers ended up working on this thing) that someone actually had the hopes of this being a real movie, unfortunately this was clearly put through the wringer and handed off to director Shawn Levy, an absolute hack who went from making dreck like the Cheaper by the Dozen remake and the Night at the Museum movies to becoming Ryan Reynolds’ BFF and making expensive dreck like Free Guy and he is now apparently tapped to direct the next Deadpool.  Speaking of Ryan Reynolds… I think I’ve come to hate this guy?  I don’t think I’ve particularly liked him in much of anything ever and the particular pandering persona he’s adopted since his Deadpool comeback just grates on me.  Dude has a punchable face.  This particular movie is yet another movie trying to ripoff the tone and aesthetics of Amblin movies from the 80s but this isn’t even trying to ripoff the good movies from that movement and instead resembles second rate entrants like Flight of the Navigator.  It involves a time travel plotline that doesn’t do anything interesting with its concepts and also relies on an implausible amount of technological innovation happening in the next thirty years.  The film isn’t exactly as incompetent as the tone of this review probably makes it sound, but it’s definitely second rate, the product of far too much money being thrown at something devoid of inspiration and driven more by Netflix algorithms than by any actual human crafting and creativity.  It’s a movie whose existence and relative success depresses me.
** out of Five

The House (4/10/2022)

The House is an animated anthology film that debuted on Netflix early this year and tells three stories using stop-motion animation all linked by the fact that they’re set in the same house… sort of.  There isn’t a continuity between the three stories and the history of the house, in fact the three stories are clearly set in different universes what with one of them involving talking mice, one involving talking cats, and one involving humans, and the décor of the house in all three is completely different to the point where I would not have made the connection that it was the same place in all three were it not for the title and ostensible high concept.  I would also say the animation quality varied quite a bit between the three: I didn’t think the felty style really worked much for the human story but that the animators did do some good work with the fur on the one with the cats and the rodent one sat somewhere in the middle for me.  From a story perspective though I probably preferred the one with the mice, which was a funny little short about a Kafkaesque real estate transaction.  Overall though I didn’t really find that much of a through line through these segments and in some ways wonder if they would have been better served as separate shorts than as ostensible parts that don’t really fit together as a whole.  Overall I can’t say I was wildly impressed by the project as a whole, but there are some cute bits to be found in it.
**1/2 out of Five

Munich – The Edge of War (4/23/2022)

If there’s one alleged lesson in history that the world may have over-learned it’s Neville Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler to hand over the Sudetenland in exchange for a promise not to engage in future aggressions, which was obviously a promise that Hitler did not stick to.  The perceived lesson is that “appeasement” never works and that you need to fight aggression with aggression.  It’s a historical parallel that I heard war hawks cite endlessly when trying to cheerlead America into the disastrous Iraq invasion, suggesting to me that this “lesson” is always dubious.  The notion that the allies would have benefited from starting the war earlier is dubious in the first place and viewing this as the ur-precedent in global relations ignores all the times that negotiation and diplomacy actually have worked.  Anyway, that key bit of history is at the center of the historical thriller Munich-The Edge of War, which is set during the Munich conference where those fateful decisions were made but primarily from the perspective of a young advisor to Chamberlain and an old German friend of his who now works in Hitler’s government but is part of a “deep state” of sorts hoping to bring him down.

It’s a decent set-up and Jeremy Irons is pretty good as Chamberlain, but I’m not sure the younger characters quite connect as well as the filmmakers intended.  I don’t know, I like them individually but I’m not sure I ever quite bought this old friendship of theirs, I suspect a handful of additional flashbacks to their student days were cut from the film.  Beyond that I’d say the filmmaking here is mostly just okay; it mostly manages to stay grounded, which is nice, but the handful of times it tries to dip into Hitchcockian suspense never really take off.  I suspect that the film was made in order to strike parallels between the rise of Hitler and the recent rise of Trump and other right-wing nationalists around the world today, which is interesting, but watching it now I actually saw more unintended parallels to the recent invasion of Ukraine.  Through the film Chamberlain discusses a deep psychological need on the part of his citizens to see their leaders doing everything possible to maintain the peace, and I think he was right about that.  There was, in retrospect, a major benefit to making of clear to the world that Germany was solely the aggressor in the war in much the same way it was a very canny move to never give Putin any sort of legitimate casus belli for his invasion.  But again, that’s me making connections that certainly weren’t intended when this was being filmed.  As a movie unto itself this is only okay.  It debuted on Netflix, which is probably for the best as this only sort of feels like a theatrical film and kind of reminded me of the made-for-TV movies that HBO would produce in the 2000s and which only ever seemed to be watched by Emmy voters.
*** out of Five

The Fallout (4/24/2022)

Before seeing it the new HBO Max exclusive film The Fallout mostly seemed notable for being the first instance I can recall of a movie’s trailer having a trigger warning, which was weird because said trailer was not very nasty, it mostly seemed to just be there because of the film’s basic theme of being about teenagers being traumatized by a shooting that happened at their school.  So, this would be the latest entrant in the “zoomer high schoolers being depressed about stuff” genre that usually tends to be more of a TV thing.  This sort of being an HBO production one can’t help but be reminded of “Euphoria,” in fact I think it’s fair to say that this is what “Euphoria” would be like if it wasn’t being made by a deranged edgelord, which is to say it’s less ridiculous but also a bit less entertaining.  Also the teenagers have an actual reason to be depressed messes, and that helps.  Jenna Ortega stars as the central teenager and is quite good in the film; she’s having something of a breakout year and I think we’re going to be seeing quite a bit of her in the future.  Megan Park’s direction is evenhanded and mostly sensitive but maybe lacking in reach and ambition.  I think the film was made with its inevitable streaming destiny in mind as this definitely doesn’t feel like a theatrical film but also doesn’t necessarily have the hallmarks of being a “TV movie” either.  Maybe it started as a TV pilot but wasn’t picked up when “Eurphoria” came into the picture and this was made as a conciliation prize.  Eh, maybe that’s overthinking it.  Clearly HBO is just interested in becoming the streaming service of choice for depressed zoomers and this is part of the initiative and as these things go it’s alright.
*** out of Five

The Northman(4/21/2022)

Though he has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most creative minds in the history of world literature, most of William Shakespeare’s plays were derived from existing source stories that scholars have identified.  His most famous play, “Hamlet,” is no exception to this.  That play’s story is said to originate (possibly via some derivative works) in the legend of “Amleth” as chronicled in Saxo Grammaticus’ tome “Gesta Danorum” which was of course itself derived from existing apocryphal bits of Danish history and storytelling but is speculated to have ultimately derived from some sort of Icelandic source.  Like Shakespeare’s character, Amleth found himself having to deal with a father slain by an uncle who then married his mother and needing to find a way to get his revenge and ultimately does it by feigning madness.  Unlike Shakespeare’s character, Amleth is never really hesitant about wanting to kill the usurper uncle and there’s also some weird shit at the end about having to take multiple wives or something.  Really though the bigger differences are probably cultural.  Shakespeare’s Hamlet is nominally set in Denmark, but it might as well be set in Yorkshire for all Shakespeare knew about that place.  He turned what was likely a pagan Viking legend and turned it into a very courtly and Christianized story.  And this is likely what director Robert Eggers set out to correct with his new movie The Northman, which aims to “take back” the Amleth story by making it an even more savage story of revenge than even the original story.

This version of the Amleth story begins in the year 895 when Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is just an adolescent boy and his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) has just returned from war to greet him and Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).  Aurvandill is a bit weary from his raids and decides to put Amleth through a rite of passage ritual overseen by their shaman/jester Heimir (Willem Dafoe) that involves taking hallucinogens and embracing his inner animal totems and also then swearing to avenge his father if ever he were killed.  This ends up coming into play sooner rather than later as right after they emerge from their ritual the king is attacked and killed by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang).  Amleth escapes from the kingdom but right before he leaves he sees Fjölnir carrying away his mother.  The film then flashes forward about fourteen years to Amleth in his fighting prime having joined up with a group of berserkers who are raiding villages in Rus when he hears that his uncle had left the kingdom he’d taken over through assassination and was now taking up on the Viking frontier of Iceland.  Realizing that this was his chance to get revenge he infiltrates a slave ship heading to that farm intending to pose as a slave and plot his vengeance and along the way he meets a Rus slave woman named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who offers to help him in his scheme.

The Northman was directed by Robert Eggers, who may well be the most exciting American filmmaker to emerge in the last ten years.  His 2015 film The Witch was a major landmark of the “A24 Horror” trend and his 2019 film The Lighthouse was one of the most formally adventurous movies to ever open on 980 screens.  It kind of seemed like he was a particularly canny horror guys but the real commonality between his movies seems to be his interest in history and folklore combined with some boldly uncompromising instincts during what would seem to be a highly risk averse era in American filmmaking.  The Northman is in some ways less complicated than his previous works in that it is essentially an action movie with a revenge arc as its backbone, but in other ways this is his biggest risk yet in that he’s playing with a serious budget this time around.  Reports have suggested that Focus Features made this movie for something in the range of 70 to 90 million dollars, so this isn’t a movie that can just live or die by being a cool indie, it’s in many ways a film that will decide both if he can work on large canvases going forward and also frankly if Hollywood sub-studios can afford to fund trippy historical epics even if they seemingly have a lot of bankable violence and action in them.

Robert Eggers is clearly something of a history buff but he’s not someone who’s interested in events so much as he’s interested in getting under the skin of the past cultures he depicts and rather than expose their beliefs as quaint he kind of engages with things on their level.  Satan was very much at work in The Witch, nautical superstitions were to be taken very seriously in The Lighthouse, and here in The Northman Viking notions of fate and honor are vitally important though not completely unquestioned.  I would almost compare it to 300 in the way that it kind of goes along with the ancient mindset of its characters, but the film’s visual style is way more earthy and realistic even if it isn’t afraid to kick some ass occasionally.  Audiences willing to go along with some occasional tippyness can enjoy this movie as little more than a 21st Century Conan the Barbarian but its interest in deconstructing the Amleth story while still respecting it does I think elevate things: there’s a twist to the whole story at about the two thirds point which interestingly reminded me less of “Hamlet” than of an even older Greek Tragedy that I won’t name so as to avoid spoilers.  Still, the film walks a tricky line, one could view it as a dumbed down version of what Eggers has done elsewhere and maybe be a bit disappointed in it or you can view it as one of the smartest and most ambitious mainstream action movies Hollywood has made in ages, which is maybe to overrate it.  Ultimately of the three Robert Eggers movies it’s my third favorite, but man, if you’re going to sell out even a little this is definitely the right way to do it.

**** out of Five