[Warning: Review Contains Spoilers]

In the days leading up to the release of Nope there was a (possibly staged) kerfuffle on Twitter where a guy named Adam Ellis (@adamtotscomix) posted the Rotten Tomatoes scores for Jordan Peele’s first three films and posed the question “at what point do we declare Jordan Peele the best horror director of all time?” and Peele responded by saying “Sir, please put the phone down I beg you.”  If this moment was dreamt up by publicists it would have been well calculated, it made Peele look nicely modest while calling attention to just how enthusiastic critics have been toward Peele’s work, which is somewhat unprecedented in the horror genre.  Peele brought up John Carpenter as the true master worthy of that title, but if Rotten Tomatoes were around when he was first starting it’s very unlikely he’d have gotten scores anywhere near this high coming out of the gate.  Even as someone who wasn’t as enthusiastic about Get Out as a lot of people I’m about as excited about his work as anyone, especially after Us, which I thought really stood out as an amazing horror film and his best work to date.  I wasn’t sure how excited to be about Nope though as its secretive campaign didn’t give me a great idea where it was going and it’s jokey title seemed like a red flag.  Having actually seen the film now I’m honestly still not quite sure what to make of it.

Nope is set in an area called Agua Dulce, which is in the rural outskirts of Los Angeles County and focuses on a family business called the Haywood Hollywood Horse Ranch.  This ranch specializes in training horses to be used in film production and the Haywoods themselves claim to be descendants of the jockey seen in the Eadweard Muybridge horse galloping Zoopraxiscope, giving the family a stake to having had “skin in the game” since the dawn of the movies.  This ranch has, however, fallen onto hard times.  The family patriarch Otis Haywood Sr (Keith David) has just been killed in a bizarre accident, leaving the ranch to his two adult children: Otis “OJ” Haywood Jr (Daniel Kaluuya), who is more dedicated to the work but is withdrawn and lacking in promotional skills, and the more gregarious but flakier Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer).  OJ has been having to downsize the ranch and has been selling several of his horses to a nearby tourist attraction owned by former child star Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) but he sees an opportunity to change the family’s prospects when he starts spotting strange things in the sky above the ranch.

Nope is a tricky movie to review as it’s a movie that has a handful of ideas in it that I think are really good, and yet I’m not really sure they all gel together as well as Peele had hoped.  Take for example a subplot about how, while he was working as a child actor, the Steven Yuen character was witness to an infamous episode in which a chimpanzee working on a sitcom went berserk and started murdering the cast of a family sitcom.  In and of itself this idea is a horrifying vignette idea, but at the end of the day it’s mere backstory for a side character who ultimately doesn’t have a lot of screen time in the movie.  So, is it meant to have some sort of thematic resonance?  I guess it’s ultimately a story about the hubris of controlling animals on set, which kind of ties into the Haywood Ranch’s family business, but the film doesn’t seem like some kind of PETA screed against animal actors and the Haywood’s don’t seem to be depicted as doing anything overly cruel.  Perhaps instead its meant to instead loop into mistakes made when dealing with the flying saucers later on, but that element is always a bit unclear and sort of comes out of nowhere.

The idea of connecting the Haywood Farm to Muybridge’s chronophotography was also a potentially interesting idea but again I’m not sure it goes much of anywhere.  To be frank I’m not sure I really share Peele’s outrage over the real jockey in this photo series having been lost to history.  Perhaps it’s my auteurist bias at play but the fact that the photographer behind this photography experiment was the name that was widely cited seems natural to me.  I am similarly not losing sleep over the fact that we don’t have detailed biographical information about the men exiting from the Lumière factory in Lyon or who engineered the train which arrived at La Ciotat Station.  Still, it’s an interesting thing to bring up, and both photography and the act of documentary filmmaking is certainly something of a running theme in the movie but what message is it ultimately shooting for with all of this?  Perhaps it’s suggesting that animal wranglers in general are an underappreciated aspect of filmmaking in much the way that horse jockey was under-appreciated?  Then is the Gordy disaster intended to represent how much things can go wrong when wranglers don’t do their job?  I guess.  The movie could in some ways seem to be oddly anti-director given how much calamity comes from someone trying to get a shot at magic hour beyond all reason, but again, that seems kind of removed from a lot of the other shenanigans going on here.

So what is the actual UFO supposed to represent?  Well, I’m not sure it’s meant to represent any one single thing necessarily.  Viewing the film as a comment on man’s attempt to control nature one could view it as something of a large scale equivalent of Gordy the chimp in that he’s sort of goaded into violence, but the movie is very unclear about exactly what the nature of that provocation is and this is generally one of the sloppiest elements of the film.  If you view the film as being more about the modern culture of surveillance and online documentation then I guess it’s a stand-in for the ultimate privacy advocate that is ultimately powerless in trying to avoid surveillance and lashing out.  If you view the film as being more about Hollywood filmmaking then maybe it’s more of a stand-in for studio heads chasing bigger and bigger spectacles even if this involves overworking people and making it harder to really achieve artistically.  Here’s a wild take: maybe the movie is an elaborate metaphor for police violence, the way it tends to affect specific geographic areas, and how you need photographic evidence before anyone believes it even exists?

That theory is probably a stretch and a half, but that’s kind of part in parcel with how all over the place this movie is.  Peele’s last movie Us arguably also had a strange plot that required you to do a lot of the work putting things together but at least with that movie the central theme of class warfare was loud and clear at least in the broad strokes.  On the other hand, maybe that’s a good thing, or at least a refreshing thing.  We’re currently in the middle of a particularly braindead summer movie season where jingoistic silliness like Top Gun: Maverick has somehow landed as the critical favorite, so maybe there’s something to be said for something like this which really challenges its audience to parse its themes and come up with unique interpretations.  On the other other hand, even if you set aside all matters of interpretation I think this movie as some basic storytelling flaws.  Plot points are introduced kind of haphazardly and by the end I still don’t know that I was quite as aware of the “rules” for engaging with this UFO as I was supposed to be, which made it a bit hard to follow the film’s climactic sequence.  I also don’t think that Daniel Kaluuya’s character is very engaging protagonist and his inarticulate habit made his motivations hard to tap into.  I would also say that this only barely qualifies as a horror movie; purely as a thriller it’s nowhere near as effective as Us or even Get Out and while there clearly are ideas below its surface its sense of satire is not as cutting as either of those films.  So, I have reservations about this but I certainly wasn’t bored with it and it clearly generated a lot of food for thought so I’d definitely recommend the film.
*** out of Five


Home Video Round-Up 5/26/2022

Ahed’s Knee (5/10/2022)

Ahed’s Knee, co-winner of the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, comes from the Israeli filmmaker Nadav Lapid, who has emerged as a fairly harsh social critic within his country.  This film’s title refers to a real life teenage Palestinian activist named Ahed Tamimi who is sort of the Greta Thunberg of the West Bank, and the “knee” refers to a somewhat infamous tweet made by a prominent politician suggesting that she deserved to be shot in the knee for her activist work.  The film is not, however, really about Tamimi.  Instead this seems to take a bit of a page from the Romanian film I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians in that it takes an infamous quote as its jumping off point and then following a filmmaker style as he struggles through a politically stifling culture to try to bring the truth to the screen.  Specifically the film follows an unnamed filmmaker played Avshalom Pollak, who is almost certainly meant to be a stand-in for Lapid himself, as he heads out to a library in a remote area of Israel to present a film and while there he’s put into something of a moral dilemma as the library (at the insistence of the Ministry of Culture) is demanding he give prior notice of what he intends to speak about for purposes of political censorship.  So the film really has less to do with the specifics of the conflict with Palestine than with a more domestic slide into right-wing hell in the country, though I suppose the two are fairly intertwined.  Lapid is a filmmaker that embraces a very slick shooting style and one can imagine that in another life he might have been a music video director or maybe a sort of Israeli David Fincher.  There are some really adventurous shots to be found here and they do sort of add to the absurdities of the attitudes this fictional filmmaker runs into over the course of the film.  However I must say I watched this from a bit of a distance, there are things here that I suspect domestic Israeli audiences are going to pick up on that I’m not and the fictional film director is frequently an unlikable jerk that can make him a little hard to get behind outside of this political context.  I was intrigued by this film, but I can’t say I connected.
***1/2 out of Five

The Tinder Swindler (5/12/2022)

This Netflix documentary looks at the case of Simon Leviev, a conman who met upper-middle-class women on Tinder and fooled them into thinking he was a millionaire, then tricked them into “loaning” him hundreds of thousands of dollars when he “suddenly had his accounts frozen.”  Despite the buzzy title, the titular dating app doesn’t really have a lot to do with it, the scam would probably work the same if he’d met these women in nightclubs or something.  Much of the film consists of his victims recounting their stories alongside some phone recordings and footage from the places they were traveling.  It’s certainly infuriating hearing about these women being defrauded, but some unsavory part of my psyche sort of couldn’t help but admire just how much of a player this guy was.  As for the film itself, it’s fine, maybe a bit too long.  I felt like I got the gist of the story pretty early and maybe didn’t need every last detail it gives about what went down in the con, but at a certain point it does transition into more of an investigation into where this dude came from and what’s been stopping him from seeing justice and that was also interesting.  This might have made more sense as an episode of Dateline or 20/20 or something, but it’s alright as a Netflix doc as well.
*** out of Five

Death on the Nile (5/19/2022)

In retrospect, I think people (myself included) were a bit kinder than they should have been to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express.  It was good to see Hollywood trying to make a franchise happen that didn’t involve dudes with capes or gigantic explosions, but the movie itself wasn’t really what we hoped it would be and didn’t really hold a candle to the prior 1974 adaptation.  Such mercy was not granted to that film’s sequel, Death on the Nile, which was received as a downright silly follow-up that also had the misfortune of prominently featuring an actor (Armie Hammer) who had been disgraced in the time between its filming and its pandemic delayed release early this year.  I still wanted to keep hope alive that this “franchise for adults” had merit but this just isn’t it.  There are a lot of issues with the film’s approach but I think it’s biggest mistake was just taking forever to finally start the titular “deaths.”  It’s over an hour into the film before a muder happens sparking off the actual mystery to solve and by then the movie had already kind of lost me because most of these characters it expects us to spend time with in this first hour just aren’t that interesting outside of their status as future murder suspects.  The film is also rather delusional about how much people are going to care about Hercule Poirot as a person outside of his status as a detective, giving the film a miscalculated flashback opening that has been something of a source of mockery whenever the film is discussed.  I do think things pick up in the second half when there’s actually a mystery to solve.  The resolution itself isn’t wildly satisfying but at least things are happening and conflict occurs, but still, it doesn’t save the movie.
** out of Five

Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres (5/20/2022)

Ben Fong-Torres was one of the editors at Rolling Stone magazine during its early days when it was a cultural powerhouse in the 60s and early 70s.  If you’ve seen the movie Almost Famous you will have seen him played by Terry Chen in that movie as the guy a young Cameron Crowe surrogate needs to report to.  Early in this documentary Fong-Torres intonates that he doesn’t think that movie really reflects him at all outside of the outlandish shirts he was wearing at that time, a point I really wish he would have elaborated on later in the documentary when he’s seen interacting with Crowe and discussing the film.  Another thing Fong-Torres says early on is that most people keep bringing up his Rolling Stone years despite him feeling that that was way in the past and he’s moved on since then but I’m not sure the ensuing documentary really makes a compelling case that that wasn’t in fact the most interesting period of his life.  In fact despite a few ups and downs in his personal life there really isn’t a ton here to suggest that this guy is all that interesting outside of his career accomplishments, though that’s not to say there isn’t interest there.  Some of his anecdotes about that magazine’s early days are fun to hear, to the point where I kind of wished this had been a full-fledged doc about early Rolling Stone where Fong-Torres was more part of the ensemble rather than a focus, but the documentary I got was watchable enough as a light Netflix viewing, not sure I would have traveled to a theater to see it though.
*** out of Five

Sundown (5/26/2022)

Early this year I saw that this movie I hadn’t heard anything about was playing at the local arthouse.  I hadn’t heard much about it otherwise and wasn’t interested enough to go see it but I took note of the title and did catch it when it came to streaming.  The film was made by a Mexican filmmaker named Michel Franco, who hasn’t really had much of a breakout hit on the world cinema scene but has worked pretty consistently for the last decade or so with some success.  This film is set in Acapulco and focuses on a wealthy British family, who get a call that the wife’s mother is on her death bed prompting them to fly home.  However, on what seems like a whim the husband pretends to have forgotten his passport when he gets to the airport and tells his wife he’ll catch the next plane and meet them back home, but instead of doing that he checks into a much cheaper hotel than they were staying in.  He calls his wife and says his passport was stolen and he’ll be stuck in Acapulco for the weekend and spends that time hanging out in the poorer sections of the city drinking and flirting with the local women.  He does not, however, seem to be doing this in the name of hedonism.  Rather the guy seems to just be completely burned out on his privileged life and feels an overwhelming urge to throw caution to the wind and “slum it” for a while and much of the film is about trying to get to the bottom of what is making this guy tick and at the end of the say we get some insights but it’s ultimately left somewhat mysterious.  There’s a change in pace going into the third act which moves things along without fundamentally changing the themes, which I’m not sure everyone is going to go along with, but I think it still holds up.  It’s hardly an extraordinary film but it’s a decent little small statement.
*** out of Five

Thor: Love and Thunder(7/7/2022)

As sequel-crazed as Marvel has been, one thing you have to hand to them is that until now they’ve been pretty steadfast about limiting any one superhero to having no more than three solo movies.  Iron Man was super-popular but his trilogy ended way back in 2013 and while Robert Downey Jr. still showed up in all sorts of other MCU movies that was indeed the last dedicated Iron Man film.  But their stance about that clearly seems to have changed because Thor has, surprisingly, become the first of these characters to land a fourth installment, which is likely the result of a lot of factors.  For one, Thor is sort of the last of the original Avengers left standing.  I suppose The Incredible Hulk and Hawkeye are still around, but both were determined to be side characters unworthy of their own movies a long time ago.  Secondly, Chris Hemsworth has only had sporadic success outside of the world of Marvel and may be more willing to keep the checks coming than some of his former co-stars.  But I think the biggest factor is that director Taika Waititi kind of reinvented the Thor series with the character’s third film, the well-received Thor: Ragnarok, and Marvel likely felt that cutting off this new creative golden goose after one movie for arbitrary reasons would be foolish.  So Thor has returned for a Waititi helmed fourth installment: Thor: Love and Thunder.

The film picks up some weeks or months after the events of Avengers: Endgame and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has been traveling the universe going on adventures with The Guardians of the Galaxy (who, despite their heavy presence in the film’s advertising, are only in it for all of five minutes).  For mostly arbitrary reasons it’s decided by his companions that it’s time for them to part ways and Thor goes following a distress beacon sent by his friend Sif (Jaimie Alexander), who warns him that a malevolent being called Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale) has been murdering “Gods” with a magic sword called the Necrosword and may be coming for Asgard next.  As such, Thor teleports back to New Asgard where he finds that his former flame Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) has somehow picked up his newly repaired Hammer and has herself become a thunder god.  Unbeknownst to him, this is because she has been afflicted with cancer and hoped the hammer would heal this and it’s not entirely clear if it is.  This reunion is less than peaceful, however, as he bumps into her in the middle of an attack by Gorr in which he kidnaps several Asgardian children and teleports him to a distant realm.  To deal with this Thor, Foster, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), and Korg (Taika Waititi) must devise a plan to save them.

I should say upfront that I was not expecting greatness from Thor: Love and Thunder.  Unlike the last couple of MCU movies (Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness), which seemed to promise some new revelation or development in the whole MCU experiment to be revealed, this one really just advertised itself as providing something of a romp in the style of Thor: Ragnarok.  That, to me, is not a good thing.  I generally found Thor: Ragnarok’s comedic tone obnoxious, a little bit of Taika Waititi goes a long way.  Ultimately that movie was able to strike a decent enough balance between that and more conventional MCU drama and ended up just on the right side of annoying and I liked the movie overall, but it wasn’t an approach I wanted much more of out of the MCU.  Sure enough this sequel takes that style and turns the irreverence up even more, which is not what I want but even if it was I don’t think I would be satisfied by what the movie is doing because the movie is shockingly unfunny.  Don’t get me wrong there is some stuff here I’d legitimately consider clever and witty in that Taika Waititi way but it didn’t make me laugh much and surprisingly I wasn’t alone in that.  The nearly sold out opening day Marvel audience I saw the movie with, who would normally be happy to lap this stuff up, was not really audibly laughing much in the screening even at pretty obvious attempts at humor.

Oddly enough the film’s strongest element is the thing in it that’s not very comedic at all: its villain Gorr the God Butcher.  Christian Bale plays Gorr as this lanky gray man covered in strange scars and sharp teeth like a sort of cross between “God of War’s” Kratos and Gollum from Lord of the Rings.  Bale feels pretty dedicated to the role but the character also kind of feels like something out of a different movie and the movie rather botches the stakes of his evil plan.  We’re told that he’s on a quest to kill off the various Marvel versions of the mythological gods but outside of the Asgardians the MCU has not really set up what role these “gods” play in the universe.  My understanding had previously been that the Asgardians were not true gods and were in fact just advanced aliens who early humans mistook for gods, but this movie really seems to think every culture’s deities are like that and what makes them distinct from regular powerful aliens and how they continue to interact with “their people.”  Beyond that the movie’s just too busy horsing around to really explore the extent to which Gorr’s vengeance quest may be justified, and if the film really had balls it might have tried to tie that in with the Jane Foster character’s situation and whether or not “the” god was failing her in her time of need.

Really the movie has tonal inconsistencies throughout.  It feels like it was written to be a much more straightforward MCU movie and then Waititi came in after the fact feeling obligated to wedge his comedy into it whether that was appropriate for the story of not and there are pretty big swings between irreverence and themes that are actually quite dark.  When handled with care this sort of “laughing so that you don’t cry” sort of thing can work but I don’t think that’s really done correctly here at all.  Even beyond that the movie has plenty of problems unto itself.  The Guardians of the Galaxy are totally wasted in their brief appearance at the beginning of the film for example.  I also don’t think that the film’s trip to the land of the gods, complete with an extended bit with Russell Crowe playing a Marvel version of Zeus with a ludicrous Greek accent, kind of went nowhere.  There are some striking moments that stand out like an extended fight scene in black and white but whatever stakes would have been in place for that scene have been so undercut by the film’s general goofiness by that point that it feels like a waste.  The whole movie kind of feels like a waste really.  If it had managed to capture that balance that Thor: Ragnarok managed it could have been pretty fun but I think Waititi got a little high on his own supply and got it into his head that he could just wisecrack his way into everyone’s good graces but maybe he should have put more thought into it.  There is enough here to keep it from being a disaster and there have certainly been worse Marvel films but this isn’t the revitalization they needed.
**1/2 out of Five

The Best Animated Feature Gauntlet – Part 3

This is part of an ongoing series looking at the recipients of nominations for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.  A more detailed explanation can be found at the beginning of part 1 and part 2.

The Boss Baby (2017)

On February 3rd 2008 the online brokerage firm E-Trade debuted an advertisement during Super Bowl XLII in which someone dubbed over an infant with a bunch of stock trading jargon in order to convey that their web tools are so easy a child could do it.  I always hated those ads, and I would have thought any other rational person would have as well, but life is full of surprises and apparently they worked because the company kept making them.  Then for some ungodly reason Dreamworks Animation decided they wanted to rip off this campaign in the form of a 2017 animated movie called The Boss Baby in which Alec Baldwin voiced an infant who wears a suit and promotes synergy and shit.  When I first heard about that I said “What the fuck is this this shit?” and once again assumed that was the reaction anyone else in their right minds would have, but once again I was surprised to find that this unholy thing was a blockbuster that earned over half of a billion dollars worldwide.  Why?  Even for a kid’s movie this thing looks dumb as hell.  Why would any parent want to expose themselves to this stupidity while Moana, The Lego Batman Movie, and Hidden Figures were all still in theaters.  Hell, even something as distasteful as the Beauty and the Beast remake would at least not be humiliating to have to buy a ticket to in the way that this thing is.  But having now reluctantly watched the film I can say: this thing is even weirder than it looks.

When I glanced at the movie’s advertising back in 2017 my assumption had been that it was about some adult CEO being turned into a baby for some reason and learning some kind of Freaky Friday-esque lesson from the experience but that’s not it at all.  Instead of something simple like that, this posits a fantasy world in which babies are manufactured on a conveyor belt in what is presumed to be but is never labeled heaven and then sent down to earth… presumably to be magically inserted into women’s wombs at full size (still not clear on the logistics of that, what happened to the fetus stage?), except that a small percentage of these conveyor belt babies who aren’t ticklish are set aside to remain in maybe-heaven to be their bureaucratic overseers and in order to do this are fed magical formula that instantly gives them the mentality of an adult CEO while physically remaining babies for some reason.  This particular boss baby is then sent down to earth on a mission to discover why people are suddenly loving puppies more than babies and then infiltrates this family while wearing a full suit and carrying a briefcase.  It’s is established that the mother was pregnant before his arrival so I’m not clear if he emerged from this woman’s pussy wearing the suit or what.  Anyway, having to type out this absolutely insane and overly elaborate concept straight out of Children of the Damned is even weirder than having to watch it, and it only gets stranger from there as it gets into the backstory of the villain, a former boss baby who is trying to use magic from maybe-heaven in order to create an army of permanently young puppies that will end reproduction on earth, or something.

So, do I need to explain why all of this is absolutely deranged?  I don’t think I do but I must note that when I call this “crazy” I don’t mean it’s crazy in some amusing or entertaining of “so bad it’s good” kind of way. It’s more like writer Michael McCullers and/or source material author Marla Frazee starting with this bad “what if a baby was a boss” joke and finding the stupidest way to reverse engineer their way into bringing it to life.  Some cynics would speculate that this was some sort of capitalist propaganda created to make the titans of industry seem cute but… nah, I think this was just a bad joke that got out of hand that they tried to turn into a real movie by turning it into a really inelegant metaphor (is it even a methaphor?) for early sibling rivalry.  And the thing is, there was talent involved in the making of the film.  They put $125 million dollars into this and made some slick animation choices and there is a degree of energy on the screen, but it’s all in service of this all-time terrible concept and a bunch of weird awful jokes about infant butts.  Oh, and don’t get me started on the film’s truly blasphemous use of The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” half a star off just for that.
* out of Five

Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon (2020)

This is probably going to end up being a pretty short review, not because there’s anything particularly wrong with this second film in the Shaun the Sheep franchise but just because I don’t really have a whole lot to say about it that I didn’t already say about the first film.  The film was made by Aardman a good five years after the apparent success of the original film and four years after what was at the time the last TV episode in the franchise, so it was probably made for an audience that probably had a bit more hunger for more of this sheep’s antics than I did having just seen the first movie a couple weeks ago.  This one ups the stakes a bit by having aliens land near the film’s central farm and what is essentially an alien sheep pops out of it and starts hanging out with Shaun, it’s basically a child alien sheep though and the government eventually comes looking for it so… the movie is basically E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial but with farm animals and Claymation.  It does still have most of the usual charm you’ve come to expect from Aardman and the Claymation is certainly interesting to watch even if this is hardly their most ambitious project in that regard, but I guess I just didn’t feel that pressing need for more Shaun the Sheep.
*** out of Five

Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

Kung Fu Panda sure seemed like a big deal in 2008 and today it kind of feels like the animated franchise that time forgot.  Had it not been for the universally beloved Wall-E that first movie almost certainly would have won the Best Animated Feature Oscar.  In fact it actually did win Best Animated Feature at the Annie awards, the animation specialty awards show that is known to have a bit of a contrarian streak at times. It wasn’t exactly taken super seriously by critics but it was definitely viewed as the best work Dreamworks had done and signaled a bit of a turnaround for that studio.  Hell, even I liked it when I caught up with it a handful of years later for one of my various animated movie retrospectives.  But by the time the sequel came out three years later it felt like a lot of people had moved on from it, and by the time the third movie came out in 2016 people had really stopped caring… to the point where I wasn’t entirely sure there even was a third film until I looked it up today.  And these days people really don’t seem to care about these movies, they seem to have been memory holed like a lot of Dreamworks’ lesser movies and I think that’s because they live in a sort of middle ground where they aren’t really good enough to stand the test of time like some of Pixar’s better movies but also aren’t stupid enough to feel like relics of the past worth laughing at like Bee Movie or something.

But watching Kung Fu Panda 2 I think the sequels might have also hurt the legacy because this thing, while hardly embarrassing, is kind of weak and lacking in inspiration.  It’s pretty obvious that this is the kind of sequel that’s made less because anyone really had good ideas for where to take the story and more because the last movie made enough money so it would be foolish not to keep the IP going.  The titular panda voiced had already pretty much completed his natural character arc in the first movie so this sequel mostly just needs to give him and his friends a new adventure to go on while also seeing if they can have him try to uncover some shit about his past that no one was really asking for.  The character’s Jack Blackian antics feel more out of place because the panda is no longer supposed to be an underdog and is instead supposed to be this kung fu fighting chosen one and the movie kind of never really finds the balance between making him an action protagonist and making him a buffoon.  That said, a decent amount of what made the first film good is still here.  The animation still holds up and they do still have a knack for making martial arts set-pieces using these weird animal characters and the film does give you more weird animal characters if that’s what you’re looking for.  I can’t hate on this thing too much, but I also would have been fine to have skipped it and I don’t plan on checking out that third movie.
**1/2 out of Five

Shark Tale (2004)

Well, I found a Dreamworks movie that’s worse than the Shrek movies.  It’s probably not the only one (Bee Movie sure looks bad) and I’m not on the outside looking in on this opinion.  I distinctly remember most people calling bullshit on this movie at the time too and it’s nomination was mostly a function of 2004 being an exceptionally weak year for animation.  There were only three nominees that year; this, runaway winner The Incredibles, and Shrek 2 and unless they wanted to dip into the anime well their only other obvious possible nominees were other embarrassing failures like Home on the Range and The Polar Express.  Maybe I’m overstating how much this was rejected, this was number one at the box office for three weeks after all, but this is kind of where the critics firmly decided they were team Pixar rather than team Dreamworks and however popular it was at the box office the public did not express any popular love or respect for it like they did for the Shrek movies.  And the reason this was rejected is very obvious: Finding Nemo did it first and did it better.  There’s been a lot of speculation that Dreamworks’ first big release Antz was made because Jeffrey Katzenberg knew Pixar was working on A Bug’s Life through insider information and ripped off the idea of a CGI bug movie.  That’s never been adjudicated in court or anything so I’d normally not accept those mere rumors, but this one sort of confirms a pattern, it’s too much of a coincidence to believe they just happened to have two ripoff Pixar movies in this short of a time.  But even if this is a coincidence there was a big difference between this and Antz, namely that Pixar beat them to theaters this time by over a year and unlike the Antz/A Bug’s Life duel of 1998 which was seen as something of a toss-up the quality difference this time was readily apparent.

Thing is, even if this also beat Pixar to theaters I think its inferiority to Finding Nemo would still be apparent, and I say that as someone who’s not even the world’s biggest Finding Nemo fan.  Ignore its questionable content and sense of humor the basic visual design here is plainly inferior.  Someone at Dreamworks seems to have gotten it in their heads that when the fish in this aren’t actively swimming forward they should sort of “stand” upright like humans and awkwardly tilt their heads forward.  Why?  It looks soooooo stupid.  The story involves a family of sharks who are made to resemble the Italian mafia having to deal with a sibling of theirs who wants to be a vegetarian rather than an aquatic predator.  That’s in and of itself stupid of course, sharks are carnivorous and no amount of willpower would allow them to survive on vegetation but it’s hardly the only cartoon to struggle with this issue, The Lion King just kind of waves off the frightening idea of a aristocratic class that literally eats its subjects and I have no idea what the predatory animals in Zootopia are eating but I digress.  This vegetarian shark is tasked with eating a weird looking fish voiced lackadaisically by Will Smith who got in trouble with gambling debts and in the process of this botched hit the vegetarian shark’s brother is killed by a coincidental anchor drop, which the Will Smith fish takes credit for to the acclaim of the public while also making him a marked man by the shark mafia.

So, the story kind of resembles The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, but instead of using that setup to explore legend and mythmaking in the west it uses it to tell a lot of bad parodies of The Godfather that would make no sense to kids.  The film actually generated a degree of controversy when it came out with its use of Italian-American accents being viewed as demeaning by such organizations as The Columbus Citizens Foundation, The Order Sons of Italy in America, The Italic Institute of America, The Italian American One Voice Coalition of New Jersey, and probably several other such organizations that apparently exist.  I don’t particularly care about that (Italians are plainly just white people now) but these organizations are not wrong that the movie is kind of lazily rooted in shallow stereotypes and is just generally hack work.  And man, I’m sad to say that Martin Scorsese is in this thing as the voice of a pufferfish.  I was aware he was involved but had assumed it was a momentary cameo, but no, he actually has a decent sized supporting role here and it’s just sad to see this master filmmaker debase himself like that.  I can only hope he donated his payment to The Film Foundation or The World Cinema Project or something because while I expect this kind of shit from De Niro, Scorsese should be better than this.  Anyway, does this really need more explanation?  The movie’s shittiness was obvious from the second the trailer dropped and while I’m glad that good taste kicked in before this could be turned into a franchise but the fact that it got as far as it did is pretty fucking sad.
* out of Five

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

Despicable Me 2 is a film with the unique distinction of being the only sequel to ever be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar when its original had failed to be nominated (that’s excluding examples like Toy Story 3, where its predecessors predate the existence of the category).  That means that to prepare for this review I needed to watch the original Despicable Me on my own time, much to the confusion of my Letterboxd followers when I logged it in the September of 2020.  Anyway, I’d like to go into some detail about why that movie sucked but the truth of the matter is it wasn’t bad in a terribly interesting or memorable way.  In fact, I barely remember it.  On my original logging I called it “in one ear and out the other cinema” and boy oh boy was that true.  I would have preferred if the rest of the world had forgotten about it as well but instead it made a bunch of money and seems to have remained popular with kids.  The thing is, the kids didn’t seem to give a shit about the main character Gru or any of the shit about him adopting three orphans as part of some stupid scheme, all they seemed to care about were these side characters called the Minions.  I don’t think I need to explain what these round yellow fuckers are, if you’ve been alive in the last decade you’ve probably had plenty of them shoved down your throat in advertisements and whatnot.  I don’t really get the appeal of them and find them and pretty much everything else in this series kind of annoying.

That this sequel got nominated while its predecessor didn’t should not be viewed as an indicator of improvement.  There were only three nominees in 2010 when the first movie was eligible while there were five nominees in 2013 when this one was up.  Beyond that I can only assume that this got a rosier reception out of its association with the Pharrell Williams song “Happy,” though that song didn’t really take off until it was nominated either so that theory is questionable too.  Anyway, this would be yet another sequel that kind of has to grasp at straws to find a new conflict for its main character after having pretty adequately closed out their arc in the first movie.  This seems very interested in having their reformed former Bond villain pastiche main character find a wife for some reason and in typical Parent Trap fashion his adopted daughters seem oddly obsessed with this and interested in meddling in his love life.  I must say this is a trope I’ve never understood even a little.  I didn’t grow up with a single parent but I think I can say with a degree of certainty that if I did the last thing in the world I would have ever wanted to think about is hooking them up with someone.  Aside from that shitty nonsensical love story this just has an action plot where he goes up against some sort of weird Latino stereotype villain who’s evil with seemingly no motive.  The animation is decent and there are a couple of visual gags here and there that are at least somewhat visually inventive, but I doubt it will leave much more of an impression on me than the first one did.
*1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

Well, I finished it, so what have I learned? Probably nothing.  Well, I guess what I learned is that I mostly have good instincts about what to avoid because there were very few surprises here.  I thought I’d maybe discover a couple of diamonds in the rough, but aside from some movies like Surf’s Up and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron being a little better than I expected I would say most of these were movies I would have been find to have kept on skipping.  That’s not to say I regret the undertaking.  There’s always a degree of satisfaction in accomplishing something you set out to do in and of itself and there were quite a few movies here like The Boss Baby and Shark Tale that I’m happy to be able to trash with more credibility going forward.  And also there are some inherent bragging rights to be had for having seen every Best Animated Feature… I mean, the number of people who would actually be impressed by the brag is kind of small but I’m still going to see it as a moral victory.


Accounts of musicians often barter in rather exaggerated claims that whatever band or artist they’re covering “changed the world” with their music and usually that’s just hype but I think there could be an argument to be made that Elvis Presley really did shift the culture in a pretty big way and that his life really “means something” about his era and his country.  He’s also someone who’s become something of a lightning rod for controversy as the poster boy for the appropriation of black music by white musicians.  It’s been over thirty years since Chuck D said “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me” in his song “Fight the Power.”  Between that and memories of him as an overweight drug addict in his later years meant that in the eyes of my generation he was hardly “the king” of anything and in many ways he was kind of a joke.  But to the old people he seemed to still matter a whole lot.  Personally, I always thought a lot of the cultural appropriation accusations had some truth to them but were also kind of hating the player instead of the game.  On the other other hand, Elvis’ actual music never really did a whole lot for me.  He had some good tunes, but I certainly never went through an “Elvis phase” like I went through a “Beatles phase” and a “Dylan phase” I don’t think I’m alone in that.  By and large he mostly struck me as a historical curiosity.  But his power as an icon does still matter and that’s why you really can’t make a movie about him even today without taking on a lot of baggage, so Baz Luhrmann certainly had his work cut out for him when he embarked on doing just that with his new movie, simply titled Elvis.

This can fairly be described as a “birth to death” biopic of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler), but is told via voiceover by his infamously shady manager, who goes by the name Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).  The two meet when Parker, who is looking for a new musical draw for his traveling carnival, sees him at a radio performance in Louisiana.  Presley has already cut some records for Sun but is only known regionally.  Parker sees the effect he has on the young female concertgoers and instantly sees dollar signs and gets Presley to sign on.  From there we see his controversial early career, his odd psychodramas with his mother (Helen Thomson) and father (Richard Roxburgh), his military stint when he met Pricilla (Olivia DeJonge), his time making bad movies in the 60s, the making of his comeback special, and his final drug addled and paranoid years in Las Vegas residency.

This is certainly not the first movie to tell Elvis’ story and it’s not likely to be the last.  The novelty here is supposed to be that the film is told from the perspective of Colonel Tom Parker, and I must say that strikes me as kind of an odd and inconsistent choice for the film.  The film certainly isn’t shy about depicting events that Parker was not a witness to and one can imagine that if the voiceover were dropped and a couple of other bits were edited out this perspective wouldn’t be apparent at all.  So why was this chosen for the film?  Honestly I’m not exactly sure, I think they saw “Hamilton” and thought they would do something similar to what that musical did with Aaron Burr, but they don’t really do a lot of work to meaningfully explore Parker’s point of view in any interesting way.  They guy basically admits upfront to being a conman from the beginning and doesn’t seem to try to justify himself or view himself as a hero in his own story.  Maybe that could have worked if the film just leaned into Parker as a knowing bad guy whose voiceover is framed as some kind of confession like Salieri in Amadeus but the film doesn’t really do that either.

It also of course doesn’t help that Tom Hanks’ performance in this role is kind of ridiculous.  To play the role Hanks has donned a fatsuit and put on a lot of makeup and in both his voiceover and dialogue he speaks in near broken English through a thick and highly affected Dutch accent.  It is true that the real Parker (real name Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk) was a originally from Holland but he’d already been living in the United States for nearly thirty years when he met Elvis and had nearly erased all trace of his former accent.  There aren’t a lot of recordings of his voice, but if you look them up there are only small trace hints of his secret identity when he speaks that most would have assumed were from some obscure southern dialect.  In his performance Hanks ignores that completely and talks like Goldmember through the whole movie and it’s freaking weird.  And I don’t just bring this up because the accent is inaccurate or because it makes it seem very strange when the movie treats the reveal of his nationality like it’s a shocking twist in the third act.  Rather, it’s because it’s indicative of a lot of mistakes the film makes in its construction of this character.  This is a man that Elvis spent a lot of his career unquestionably trusting in pretty much all matters of business for years and years and watching this movie you haven’t the slightest clue why.  The man seems like a bizarre snake of a human being the second he comes on screen and Elvis’ trust in him doesn’t make a bit of sense.  The film should have given us a few more scenes of Parker actually establishing him as an actual canny promoter early on in Presley’s eyes, but more importantly the film should have depicted him as someone with some of that signature Tom Hanks charm early on rather than treating him like a bizarre over the top lothario.

Looked at a certain way hanks’ performance sort of fits in with director Baz Luhrmann’s usual maximalist approach.  This is, after all, the guy who has been defined by the MTV aesthetic for his entire career from the hyper-kinetic period musical Moulin Rouge to his hip-hop inflected adaptation of The Great Gatsby.  And he does bring the same kind of bombast to parts of this movie but sort of never really picks a single gimmick and sticks with it.  At one point it adopts the visual language of comic books to make the rather strange argument that Elvis was a kind of superhero whose power was music, which feels like either an odd play for Shazam! synergy on the part of Warner Brothers or like a misguided attempt by Lurmann to connect with “the youth” but either way it just kind of oddly enters the film and then leaves it without really completing the argument.  The film also tries incorporating some of the hip-hop songs it commissioned for a “music inspired by” soundtrack into the background, not unlike what Luhrmann tried to do with his The Great Gatsby adaptation, but again he doesn’t really commit to this and the two or three brief moments this is tried just kind of come out of nowhere and feel pretty out of place.  Luhrmann’s tricks certainly aren’t always unwelcome: he handles a montage of Elvis’ time in Hollywood quite well and he also uses a number of unconventional tricks to depict Elvis’ downward spiral towards the end, but when one of his ideas falls flat it really just kind of dies on the screen.

A big part of why all this Luhrmann-ian tomfoolery feels out of place is that there are pretty long stretches of the movie that do play out like a much more conventional Elvis biopic.  In particular, Austin Butler is playing things very straight in the title role and does an exceptional job for the most part.  By all accounts Butler only does some of his own singing in the movie but beyond that he does pretty much everything else that would be expected from an Elvis biopic performance and probably does eclipse Kurt Russell’s work in the 1979 TV film of the musician’s life.  He looks like the real guy and also captures his moves, accent, and mannerism.  It’s like a performance out of a completely different movie than the one Tom Hanks is in.  So, I’m in something of an awkward position in that I’m kind of asking for this to have been a more routine and straightforward biopic of the kind I’m usually opposed to.  Look, ideally I’d like this to do something different and have that something different succeed, like what Dexter Fletcher was able to do with the recent Elton John biopic Rocketman.  But if the “new ideas” you’re bringing in don’t flow naturally they become a problem and playing it safe starts to feel like the preferable option.  But I don’t necessarily want to make this film out to be a complete trainwreck because it really isn’t.  In fact it does a decent amount right.  Some of the film’s best sequences work really really well and they will make the experience worth it to some.  I’m certainly not rooting against the film and on balance would rather see Hollywood make more movies like it, but for me the things that are messy and unwieldy about the film just kind of bring it down and disappoint me.

**1/2 out of Five

June 2022 Round-Up

Crimes of the Future(6/4/2022)

I really love that David Cronenberg is still making movies… in theory.  I certainly like that he gets a king’s welcome at Cannes and that he can still continue working while a new generation of filmmakers (including his own offspring) are also flaunting his influence.  However, if I’m being honest the truth is that I didn’t really like either of Cronenberg’s last two films and haven’t really been all that jazzed by his work since he made Eastern Promises in 2007.  I had hoped that this would be a triumphant comeback given that it’s clearly a return to making “extreme” cinema but unfortunately I think it suffers from a lot of the pacing deficiencies that befell a lot of his other recent work for me.  The film is set in a future world where, for unclear reasons, human bodies have rapidly evolved to no longer feel pain and some people have begun growing redundant and unneeded organs and this has led to a boom in performance art involving live surgeries and the like.

That’s a pretty outrageous concept and yet this is not really the walkout inducing shocker that the stories about its Cannes premiere would suggest and it’s actually rather coldly clinical in its “shocking imagery,” which is certainly in line with Cronenberg’s M.O. but which feels almost excessive here.  Cronenberg was at his best in the 80s and 90s, and the tools of cinema in that time served him well, particularly the 35mm film and practical effects.  Digital photography really serves him well and I’m also not sure that modern actors quite feel right in his work.  More importantly I think he’s a guy who, like Terry Gilliam, might be at his best when he’s fighting it out with studios and under some obligation to meet commercial demands.  When left to his own devices he makes these movies that really lack forward momentum and are almost annoyingly quiet and uncompromisingly weird, but not in ways that feel particularly innovative anymore.  That’s not to say there are interesting ideas to be found in Crimes of the Future, there are, but the film doesn’t really have the budget or scope to really explore the full extent of them and probably wouldn’t try even if it did.  Those ideas are probably enough for me to give the movie something of a “gentleman’s C-” but for a movie that features a dude with multiple ears all over his body and his mouth stitched shut the whole thing was just kind of oddly boring.
**1/2 out of Five


The opening title card of the new Pixar movie Lightyear reads “In 1995 Andy got a toy. That toy was based on a movie. This is that movie.”  That pretty concisely explains what this movie is and how it’s supposed to relate to the Toy Story franchise and the film’s marketers likely would have saved themselves some trouble if they’d put something like that in the trailer.  Really though you’re probably better off not thinking much about Toy Story at all when seeing this because that’s really not very important.  It think it’s pretty obvious that Pixar just wanted to make a space adventure movie and landed on this weird Buzz Lightyear connection as a way to both do that while also feeding the Mouse House’s insatiable need to exploit pre-existing franchises.  However, I think that franchise fervor may have backfired on them this time because it’s left cinemagoers rather confused about what this project is supposed to be but also because the Buzz Lightyear character seen in the Toy Story franchise was never really supposed to be a “cool” spaceman so much as a pastiche of the 50s/60s conception of what a spaceman would be, so he’s an occasionally awkward fit in this film which plays much more as straight science fiction adventure.

However, the straight science fiction adventure they’ve given us is pretty serviceable.  The film starts with a whole colony ship getting stuck on a hostile planet and then needing to find a way to get off with space ranger Buzz Lightyear being the test pilot for their new space fuel, requiring him to go on light speed test flights that essentially force him to travel forward in time through time dilation.  Eventually one of these flights move him forward to a point where his colony is being imprisoned by hostile robots and he needs to find a way to defeat them.  The film’s use of advancing time is more interesting than you’d expect from your ordinary family film and the movie’s humor mostly avoids the annoying pop culture based nonsense that kids movies often barter in, so Pixar’s reputation as the prestige animators of Hollywood is not really put in danger by this.  Still, I can’t help but feel like this movie is only “okay” rather than the kind of ambitious storytelling you expect from them.  Were this a live action science fiction film I’m not sure its concepts would seem all that special and while there are some decent set-pieces to be found here it’s not exactly a stunning action movie either.  I’d say its messages are also a bit confused.  Its duel morals appear to basically be: learn to give up when a goal starts to take too much of a toll on your personal life and also learn to put up with the mistakes of the incompetent even when they threaten to put everything you do in danger, and I found the handling of both of these themes kind of lacking.  This movie is generally watchable and crafted with some care, but it’s not going to be one that sticks with you and as an experiment franchise extension it’s rather confused.
*** out of Five

The Black Phone(6/27/2022)

There have been over sixty films made from the writings of Stephen King and while that well has hardly dried it is interesting to note that Hollywood now seems more than happy to open the adjacent well that is the oeuvre of King’s son, who writes under the nom de plume Joe Hill.  The most recent and perhaps most acclaimed adaptation of a Joe Hill story to come along is The Black Phone, from Sinister director Scott Derrickson, whose returning to horror after a diversion into the MCU to direct the first Doctor Strange movie.  The story and film are not very shy about their King family lineage as this is in many ways a callback to something like The Shining in which a horrific situation is made stranger since a kid in the middle of it has some sort of psychic powers they don’t understand but also with a bit of the “nostalgic child” narrative of something like “It” or “Dreamcatcher.”  The film is about a young teenager who is kidnapped by a serial killer called “The Grabber” and imprisoned in a room with scant resources and needs to find a way out, and in doing so is aided by a supposedly disconnected phone that’s in the room through which his latent psychic powers allow him to talk with the ghosts of The Grabber’s previous victims.

I didn’t dislike The Black Phone but I don’t think it ever fully worked for me either and it’s a little hard to put my finger on why.  A big part of it is that, while the situation it depicts is theoretically horrific, I don’t think the movie ever really plays like a true horror film.  Frankly I didn’t care much for “The Grabber” as a villain, possibly because I think his masks look kind of dumb.  The kabuki-like wood masks he wears give him an over-the-top look along the lines of slash movie killer, but this isn’t a slasher movie, almost every evil thing The Grabber does happens off screen.  He would have frankly been a lot more scary if he actually looked and acted like a real life serial killer of the kind you see in true crime documentaries than as a masked psycho.  Beyond that I think the movie just leaves the confines of the room the kid has been locked in too much.  There’s a whole sub-plot with his sister that isn’t uninteresting in and of itself, but it interrupts the tension being built in the basement and ultimately doesn’t affect the story as much as you think it will.  The film is titled appropriately, however, as many of the film’s best moments involve conversations on the titular phone.  These are probably the scenes where this most resembles a true horror film rather than a sort of particularly dark survival/prison escape story and occasionally invokes some rather creepy imagery.  Again, I didn’t dislike the movie: it has an eye for detail I appreciated and is generally well acted and staged, but I feel like it could have been a whole lot more effective with some key adjustments.
*** out of Five