Home Video Round-Up 7/18/2022

Ambulance (6/28/2022)

Well, here’s a hot take: I think Michael Bay is a filmmaker who is lacking in artistry and good taste.  Shocking opinion, I know.  Of course I say he’s back but I guess he never technically left so much as he spent the better part of fifteen years making crap I did not feel obligated to see like Transformers sequels and movies about Benghazi.  But now he’s come out with a movie called Ambulance which does seem to be trying harken back to when action movies could simply exist by having a high concept instead of being part of some elaborate franchise.  On that level alone this feels like a bit of a breath of fresh air, but make no mistake, this is still a Michael Bay movie with most of the drawbacks that entails.  Honestly I’d kind of forgotten just how pushy and over the top his visual style is and it’s in full effect here.  There are also some issues with the premise.  Starting this I had thought Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II were playing EMTs who had their ambulance hijacked but it turns out they were actually the hijackers who steal the ambulance after engaging in a violent bank robbery filled with gunfire and are holding an injured guard and an EMT hostage while engaging in an extended chase with police.  These are… not easy protagonists to sympathize with and it’s a little odd that they feel so particularly frightened by the idea of the hostage dying in the ambulance when they’re already guilty of several counts of felony murder and kidnapping at that point and are engaging in a chase that certainly risks causing several manslaughters.  The film certainly doesn’t completely ignore that its protagonists are unlikable anti-heroes but it also tries to give at least one of them a redemption arc when it’s already a bit too late for that.  On the bright side, the film is certainly less obnoxious than some of Bay’s worst movies and less CGI driven than his Transformers movies and it uses Los Angeles geography fairly well, but at a certain point I feel like that’s kind of lowering the bar just because expectations are so low for Bay.
**1/2 out of Five

Operation Mincemeat (7/8/2022)

I recently reviewed a movie on Netflix called Munich – The Edge of War, a not terribly original but mostly effective little spy movie about the days leading up to World War II.  That movie made me wonder just how much movies can kind of coast on my inherent interest in that period of history to keep me more interested than the filmmaking probably deserves.  The new direct to Netflix movie Operation Mincemeat probably reveals to me exactly where that limit is because this movie just wasn’t good enough.  The film looks at a real life MI5 op carried out in the lead-up to Operation Husky to provide false intelligence to the Germans suggesting the invasion would happen in Greece rather than Sicily, and they did this by dressing up a corpse in a military uniform with forged intelligence documents showing that as the plan.  It’s an interesting little footnote in history but it’s not an epic story that screamed for dramatization and it kind of feels like the film had to pad a bit to even get it up to feature length.  I think the movie it’s modeled after is The Imitation Game, or at least the codebreaking elements of that movie, which is not really something that should be emulated.  The film sports a fairly impressive cast including Colin Firth and Matthew Macfadyen but none of them are playing terribly complex or interesting characters and the whole story is basically only interesting for its “truth is stranger than fiction” value.  It’s not terrible movie or anything, but it’s just not good enough to really stand out or really be worth your time unless you’re really interested in this story.
** out of Five

The Janes (7/13/2022)

The latest documentary from HBO is nothing if not timely… sadly, tragically, irritatingly timely and relevant.  The film is about abortions in a pre-Roe America, specifically in Chicago during the late 60s where a group of young activists took it upon themselves to secretly help desperate women obtain illegal abortions while using the codename “Jane” to make their arrangements.  The film’s style is straightforward, but in a good way that avoids gimmickry and flash.  Most of the narrative is built around interviews with the former “Janes,” most of whom are of retirement age now and seem to have settled into middle class life away from “revolutionary” politics in much the way other boomers have.  But unlike a lot of people of that generation, these women have a lot to be proud of; they were plainly interested in helping people rather than just espousing rhetoric to seem cool and unlike other groups like the Weather Underground who “lived their politics” during that era they didn’t hurt anyone.  The film gives a pretty clear overview of how they started, how they managed their clandestine operation, what complications they ran into along the way, and how everything came to a conclusion.  There’s not really a whole lot else to point out, it’s just an efficient and dignified piece of non-fiction storytelling that tells a highly relevant story deftly.   Kind of wish it had come out before 2016, but otherwise it does pretty much everything right for what it is.
**** out of Five

Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (7/17/2022)

I’d heard some pretty positive things about this movie, which I had heard was a clever and postmodern romp produced by The Lonely Island but at the end of the day it was still an adaptation of “Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers,” a kids show from the 90s that I was in the age demographic for but I don’t think I watched it much and remember nothing about aside from the theme song.  As it turns out this is not a direct adaptation of the cartoon, rather it’s set in a Roger Rabbit-esque Hollywood in which cartoon characters are real and have jobs acting in television programs.  The 90s cartoon series “Chip ‘n Dale” exists in this world but has been cancelled for decades and the duo who starred in it have gone their separate ways but are re-united over the course of the film as they track down their kidnapped co-star.  Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit this is something of a cavalcade of animated cameos, putting it in line with other recent “IP explosion” movies like Ready Player One and Space Jam: A New Legacy, but this project feels a bit more overtly comedic than the former and feels like a specific studio’s advertisement than the latter.  Instead this almost reminded me more of something like The Lego Movie, which could be said to be an originator of sorts for this recent iteration of the trend both in its tone and in how it seeks to exceed audience expectations about the kind of weird IP at its center.  The film is certainly packed with neat easter eggs and jokes but I will say that there are some issues holding the movie back a little for me.  For one, the story at the heart of the movie is extremely simple to the point of being formulaic.  Additionally I found some of the acting here to be kind of annoying; I don’t think John Mulaney was quite the right voice for Chip and I also feel like KiKi Layne is a bit awkward as the film’s most prominent human character and probably could have been directed differently.  Still, I can’t deny that this was a pretty damn fun experience and probably deserved a real theatrical release that it was never given.
***1/2 out of Five

The Bad Guys (7/18/2022)

This Dreamworks Animation product came out in the spring and seemed to do decent at the box office and decent among critics but otherwise didn’t seem to leave much of an impact.  Seeing it now I’m rather conflicted because the things it does well it does really well and the things it does poorly it does very poorly.  Starting with the good, in matters of style I think this has a lot going for it.  It’s got a cool cel-shaded animation style, sports some nice voice acting from a hip cast, has some inventive set-pieces, and sports a slick score from Daniel Pemberton.  But in matters of substance this thing is a mess.  Its basic premise of certain types of anthropomorphized animals being villainized for being predators was already done in Disney’s Zootopia and I suspect this was something that was more heavily emphasized in earlier versions of the screenplay that needed to be delayed and re-written lest this be perceived as the Shark Tale to that movie’s Finding Nemo, but it’s still at the heart of this and doesn’t make a lot of sense given that most of the rest of the world in the film consists of humans rather than docile animals and the versions seen here are so heavily anthropomorphized that its odd they’re perceived as animals at all.  Beyond that the criminal justice system in this world seems to be entirely based on whims of public opinion in ways that do not make sense and the whole thing is predicated on an incredibly predictable twist villain turn.  It’s lazy crap.  Also it’s weird that this is a kids movie that seems super interested in parodying Tarantino movies and Ocean’s Eleven.  So yeah, despite attempts to conceal it this still is pretty much the Shark Tale to Zootopia’s Finding Nemo, but it is certainly a more stylish and entertaining movie that that Will Smith vehicle and does come away with a little more dignity than that, so it probably will have a better reputation ultimately.
**1/2 out of Five

Closure: Ridley Scott

Today marks the introduction in a new kind of special retrospective article I’m going to try out which I’m calling “Closure.”  Unlike the “Crash Course” posts I’ve been doing that are intended to act as introductions and kick starts to certain cinematic topics, these are meant to close out various lifelong pursuits once and for all.  More than likely this will focus on certain auteur’s filmographies, situations where I’ve already seen the lion’s share of a director’s work but just need that extra nudge in order to finish things off and watch the last handful of films I haven’t seen from them.  Of course most of these are going to be filmmakers who are alive and working, so there’s some possibility I’ll just fall behind later as the continue making films, but at least I’ll be caught up in the first place.  For my first “closure” article I’ll be looking at the work of a filmmaker who has been something of a white whale for me for a while: Ridley Scott.  I still like Scott a lot but when I was a teenager he may well have been in my all-time top five directors and I sought out a ton of his work including some lesser works like Black Rain and White Squall but there were certain films like 1492: Conquest of Paradise (which I did finally see two years ago when it showed up on CBS All Access, not good) that were going to be unavailable to me so gaps remained and then later in his career he made some stuff that seemed skippable and my interest waned.  But looking at what remains, there are only five Ridley Scott movies I haven’t seen: one from the 80s, one from the 2000s, and three from the 2010s, and it seems like a good time to just finish this out.

Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)

In 1982, Ridley Scott cashed in his clout from making Alien in order to make his masterpiece Blade Runner, a film that’s now considered a classic but underperformed with audiences.  Scott still impressed people enough with that movie to get 1985’s Legend greenlit, and that didn’t really succeed either critically or financially so it’s pretty clear that by 1987 he needed to maybe scale down his ambition and make a “normal” movie and the result was a film starring Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers called Someone to Watch Over Me.  You don’t really hear much about the movie these days, and for good reason, because it’s quite forgettable.  The film is about a police officer tasked with acting as a bodyguard for a socialite who has witnessed a crime and starts to fall for her.  This, of course, is basically the same plot as 1985’s Witness except without the Amish angle and without most of everything else that made that movie good and interesting.  The one difference here is that the cop is married and his bodyguarding antics bring him to the edge of infidelity, which maybe could have been the germ of something interesting but it never really goes anywhere and there isn’t that much chemistry between Tom Berenger (who does not aquit himself as a leading man here) and Mimi Rogers.  Directorially, Ridley Scott is a bit out of his element here, he sets some scenes at New York landmarks like the Guggenheim Museum but otherwise isn’t able to turn this into a spectacle like his previous films and isn’t able to transcend the film’s uninteresting script.  These days we lament that every movie coming out of Hollywood is seemingly trying to be an epic tentpole, and yeah that’s not ideal, but it’s worth remembering that the previous system used to involve pumping out a lot of uninspired movies like this that were just hoping that some star chemistry would bring them to life and when they didn’t the results were total nothingburgers like this.

** out of Five

A Good Year (2006)

A Good Year feels like a strange aberration in Ridley Scott’s career in that its mostly devoid of the big production values that tended to define his career, especially in this post-Gladiator period.  A romantic comedy about an investor deciding what to do with a vineyard he inherited from a dececed uncle certainly isn’t a project that screams “Scott Free Productions.”  On the other hand there was a certain logic to it: Scott had scored a solid critical success with the small scale conman film Matchstick Men three years earlier and it was starting to look like he’d make a habit of making similarly small movies in between his epics and he had an obvious report with Russell Crowe that he wanted to revisit with this breezy little project.  Unfortunately this is no Matchstick Men.  So, there’s this formula that exists in Hollywood movies where people with busy urban lives wind up through circumstances traveling to small towns (often their hometowns) and dislike it at first but slowly come to see the charms in the slower rural life and decides to settle down there with some local they find themselves romancing.  It’s the formula of Hallmark movies and I hate it.  Firstly because it’s trite and predictable but also because it’s implicitly insulting to the wide swaths of people who choose to live in cities.  Also the movies have a strong whiff of hypocrisy; the people making them plainly don’t actually believe in leaving behind fast moving urban careers (as evidenced by the fact that they’re making a Hollywood movie) but are just adopting this bullshit to pander to middle America.  However, at the very least most of those movies have the common sense to be set in actual middle America, this movie on the other hand has the gall to apply that formula to a character who has the luxury of inheriting a vineyard estate in the South of France.

Yeah, I’m not normally much of a class warrior but this thing kind of did have me wanting to find a guillotine.  It’s probably for the best that this got made in 2006 because you probably couldn’t make a movie that’s this blasé about lives of luxury two years later after the 2008 economic crisis. Indeed, later in his career Scott would in fact become a lot more critical about what wealth does to people but here he’s just pushing this very out of touch story about someone trying to decide whether to trade one life of luxury for another one with minimal real consequences involved in making one choice or another.  Beyond that this is a pretty good example of why they normally don’t hire people like Ridley Scott to make lightweight romcoms.  The extra skill he brings behind the camera kind of subconiously make you expect something better to be on the screen than the formulaic nothing you’re getting.  The actors certainly try their best to make the material work.  Crowe does a decent job of making his character an arrogant asshole without making him completely unlikable and both Marion Cotillard and Abbie Cornish are charming and attractive in their roles but they can’t overcome the script’s shortcomings.  After this thing came and went Scott maybe overlearned the lessons of this and probably leaned too much in the other direction towards making nothing but dour large scale movies and wouldn’t try to make something that’s even a little bit light and comedic again until The Martian almost a decade later.

** out of Five

The Counselor (2013)

Of the five Ridley Scott movies I’m looking at to clear up his filmography this is definitely the one that had me the most intrigued.  In addition to being directed by Scott the sported an all star cast including Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Cameron Diaz, and perhaps most intriguingly the film had an original screenplay written by the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, whose No Country for Old Men and The Road had been brought to the screen around the same time with great success.  Rarely has a film looked so promising on paper to just die an ignoble death upon release.  The film was defended by some critics but was by and large dismissed, earning just a 34% on Rotten Tomatoes and mostly bombed at the domestic box office (though it did do a little better internationally, saving it from being a complete boondoggle).  I came close to seeing it back in 2013 out of sheer curiosity but I was busy at the time and on a budget and ultimately opted not to and never really caught up to it until now.

In some ways Ridley Scott made sense as a person to direct this somewhat opaque and literary take on the drug trade.  He’d long been rumored as a potential helmer of an adaptation of McCarthy’s most acclaimed novel “Blood Meridian” and in general he’s considered a top talent and he’s one of only a few auteurs on his level that generally don’t write their own screenplays.  However, in a lot of ways he was actually an odd choice for this project.  Scott is, if nothing else a very straightforward filmmaker whose films tend to be a bit surface level.  Occasionally he’ll make something like Blade Runner that is a little more interested in subtext but normally what you see is what you get from him, so he isn’t necessarily the most obvious choice to be parsing something that’s sparse and literary in the way that McCarthy’s prose often is.  Scott certainly lives up to his end on a technical level; the film is beautifully shot by Dariusz Wolski and has some moments of violence that are pretty striking and memorable.  There are also some fairly opulent sets here, and you can kind of see the roots of some of his more recent movies about the dangers of opulence like House of Gucci here.  However, this screenplay is quite the headscratcher.

On a surface level this story feels like some fairly insubstantial crime hokum, which would of course also arguable be the case with No Country for Old Men, but the Coen Brothers were much more of a position to make that story work cinematically and bring its themes to the surface.  Here we don’t really have an intermediate writer to make McCarthy’s style work more cinematically, nor do we have a director who’s inclined to really challenge the writing or recontexualize it, so this is very much McCarthy’s world and it’s kind of up to you to find meaning in it… and I can’t say I was able to do that.  I can’t exactly dismiss the film, it looks good and it’s just generally interesting that it exists, but I don’t know that there’s much of anything in the way of a profound message at its center beyond some fairly obvious points about greed and human nature, and it’s in this kind of odd place where it’s too weird to be conventionally entertaining but not weird enough to feel like some kind of gonzo romp.  Just kind of a missed opportunity all around.  Had McCarthy stuck to what he was good at (writing novels) and just left it to someone like Paul Thomas Anderson to adapt said novel we would have been on to something, instead we have… this.

*** out of Five

Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

Ridley Scott has at times been called the Cecil B. DeMille of his times, perhaps rather superficially, because he’s basically the only director left standing who could be said to specialize in making period epics with “a cast of thousands” (even if that cast of thousands are conjured by computers these days).  Slightly less superficially he may have earned this comparison because he’s a commercial Hollywood filmmaker whose style is very much defined by his sense of production, particularly large and elaborate sets, which are present even when he’s making non-period epics like Alien, Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, or The Martian and is even present when making things like House of Gucci that are filled with mansions and scenery.  This comparison can, however, be taken far too literally.  This was the blunder that Scott himself seemed to make when he agreed to make Exodus: Gods and Kings, a take on the biblical Exodus story, which was famously brought to the screen by DeMille both in the silent era and again at the tail end of his career with the 1956 blockbuster The Ten Commandments and it’s pretty much impossible not to compare this version to that one and the comparison kind of puts into relief how different Scott actually is from DeMille and how different the idea of an “epic” is today.

It’s no secret that Hollywood is obsessed with franchises and remakes, much to the chagrin of film buffs like me who thinks certain Hollywood classics are sacred and shouldn’t be touched.  Thing is, if I’m being honest I realize that the public does not share my reverence for movies like Clash of the Titans, The Day the Earth Stood Still, or The Poseidon Adventure and will happily take in a new version with “better” special effects but I’m not sure the same can be said for The Ten Commandments, one of the most widely seen “old” movies thanks to the annual broadcasts it still gets to this day on network television around Easter/Passover season.  So this had a lot to live up to, especially given just how long this story has cinematically been synonymous with the very idea of “special effects spectacle” and truth be told I don’t think there was any possible way for anyone to ever turn this story into an eye-popping spectacle in the way that other movie was to audiences in 1956.  This is kind of where the DeMille comparison becomes a problem for Scott as, however epic his movies are, he hasn’t truly shown audiences anything they haven’t seen before since 1982… in reality the moniker probably fits someone like James Cameron, who’s always been on the cutting edge of effects and setting box office records, a little bit better.  Beyond that though, Ridley Scott’s movies tend to be a bit darker more down to earth and more R-rated (or hard PG-13 rated) than DeMille’s movies ever were.  In the case of something like Gladiator or The Last Duel that’s a big plus, it makes the genre more relevant to modern audiences but I think I can safely say it’s probably not the right approach to bible stories.

Exodus: Gods and Kings was originally envisioned as… well I’m not exactly sure what the vision was.  On some level Scott seemed to view this as a more down to Earth and historical version of the bible story but… well, it’s kind of impossible to do a historical version of the Exodus story because there’s basically no historical record to back up the Moses story at all.  There’s literally more secular evidence of Noah’s flood than there is of Jewish slaves in Egypt.  Scott at one point discussed looking for “natural causes for the miracles, including drainage from a tsunami for the parting of the Red Sea” and star Christian Bale was at one point thinking that Moses was “likely schizophrenic” to explain his visions.  So I guess they were planning to make a borderline atheistic Moses story… which on some level is something that I should appreciate as a secular person who isn’t in the market for bible movies, but I’m pretty obviously not the target audience for one.  The final movie is much less ambiguous about the divine intervention in the story and the “Tsunami drainage” idea doesn’t make the final film, but that mindset is still present and the whole movie feels like something of a cynical compromise between religion and secular tone that will basically please no one.

But really, the movie’s ultimate downfall isn’t its tone or approach to religion; it’s its uninspired screenplay and frankly lifeless direction.  The film does very little to make the political dynamics of Egypt’s supposed slave economy interesting and the film’s characters feel like uninteresting archetypes.  Bale isn’t doing one of his signature transformations and the supporting cast isn’t doing much either.  The film was criticized at the time for casting white actors in middle eastern roles, which seemed a little weird to me at the time given the long history of Hollywood stars playing bible characters, but seeing a shaved head Joel Edgerton in an Egyptian pharaoh getup I was kind of swayed to think that casting was misguided.  The film does kind of come alive during the plague scenes and during the red sea parting at the end, making it rather obvious what interested Scott in the production and what didn’t, but if all you’re going to bring to a project is well rendered disaster scenes then you might as well hand off the project to Roland Emmerich.  And this also brings up the fact that, in 2010s these effects scenes are just never going to be as impressive to audiences as they were in the 50s so unless you have a very novel take on it this material just isn’t going to be the same kind of spectacle as it once was and it’s probably a mistake to invite the comparison.

** out of Five

All the Money in the World (2017)

I think it’s a near certainly that the ultimate thing the 2017 film All the Money in the World will be remembered for is the rush reshoots it had to make at the last minute to replace Kevin Spacey with a (more age appropriate) Christopher Plumber after abuse allegations came out about Spacey.  That’s certainly a fascinating bit of trivia, and while watching the film you can’t help but try and spot which of Plumber’s scenes were shot on a green screen, but there is a movie beyond that story and I do want to try to see if it works on its own merits.  The short answer is that it kind of does but there’s probably a reason people talk more about its behind the scenes drama than the actual movie.  The film is about the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, a teenage heir to the Getty Oil fortune, while traveling in Italy.  Family patriarch J. Paul Getty famously initially refused to pay the ransom, reasoning that doing so would put a target on the rest of his family.  The film is primarily told from the perspective of the kidnapped boy’s mother (played by Michelle Williams) and a former CIA agent on J. Paul Getty sr.’s payroll (played by Mark Wahlberg) who is trying to track down the kidnappers and negotiate the release.  The film does not really play particularly well as a thriller, as this dilemma takes place over such a long time and Scott doesn’t really go too far out of his way to put Getty III in a lot of real danger.  So, this is more of a procedural about the negotiation and tracking process, which is hampered a bit by Whalberg, who is not great a playing characters who are supposed to seem… intelligent.  And then of course the film is meant to be something of a study of the senior J. Paul Getty’s lifestyle and greed, which is probably the film’s most interesting element but it doesn’t take up a ton of the film’s actual runtime.  Ultimately the movie’s just kind of average; not a terribly deep exploration of wealth and class, but a decent rundown of the true story at its center.

*** out of Five

In Conclusion

And with that, I can now say that I’ve seen every one of Ridley Scott’s movies… for now anyway.  Scott is of course still alive and working so keeping up with his work will be a continuing process for the forseeable future, in fact he as a Napoleon movie in the pipe right now with Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby which will probably be coming next year or maybe 2024 and with how prolific Scott is I imagine he’s got something else lined up after that.  The five movies I watched for this were… not great, that’s kind of in the nature of the assignment as the last movies I haven’t seen from a filmmaker have usually been put off for a reason, but I think I got some insights into Scott just the same.

Home Video Round-Up 6/27/2022

The Lost City (6/16/2022)

As the credits roll on the film The Lost City a song called “Big Energy” by Latto starts playing over the soundtrack.  Lyrically that song is a misunderstanding of the phrase/meme “big dick energy” and musically it’s almost entirely dependent on the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love,” which was already famously sampled on Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy.”  This to me is emblematic of the film that proceeded these credits: it’s a shameless copy of a copy that tries to be “modern” enough to justify its existence in some of the corniest ways possible.  The film is plainly trying to be a modern riff on Romancing the Stone in that it’s a film set in the present but trying to invoke classic serial adventure, and with a focus on an “opposites attract” romance between the leads.  The leads here are a writer of romance novels (Sandra Bullock) and her cover model (Channing Tatum), who appears to be a parody of Fabio… a person who has not been relevant to popular culture in decades.  All of that would be fine if the adventure here was any good or if the romance here was interesting but that’s really not the case with either.  There aren’t really any major action set-pieces here and the ones that are here are so deflated of any stakes as to be meaningless and the romance is between two people who are such opposites that you don’t really come to root for their eventual pairing and just kind of don’t think they belong together.  Beyond that it’s just so devoid of original ideas that it has no real identity of its own and I don’t anticipate it being very widely remembered.
** out of Five

Tony Hawk: Until the Wheels Fall Off (6/19/2022)

Though he’s been a celebrity on the periphery of pop culture for years I really didn’t know much about Tony Hawk except that there was a series of video games named after him.  You’d see him in coverage of said video games on G4 occasionally and occasionally be exposed to some of his (mostly charming) twitter antics but otherwise he’s been a pretty easy person to avoid if you aren’t into the X Games, and I’m not.  In broad strokes this is a very straightforward biographical documentary that was made with the full cooperation of Hawk himself.  The film is probably at its most interesting when it looks at Hawks early career when he was competing professionally at fourteen and had a lot of people rooting against him because his father was involved in the skateboarding league and he was perceived as benefiting from nepotism.  Later on the movie starts to become more about Hawk as an older semi-retired skater who’s still trying to do dangerous tricks and the toll that wiping out hundreds of times is taking on his body.  The fellow skaters that are interviewed for the film give some pretty candid insights and the film is pretty slickly produced with a cool but dignified visual style.  I don’t think this documentary ever really transcends its subject matter but I have few complaints about how it’s put together.
*** out of Five

Three Months (6/20/2022)

It’s kind of hard to tell what MTV even is anymore but they do still have some roots in trying to tell stories of “the youth” and they produced this movie earlier this year and haven’t done much to promote it but it is available on Paramount Plus.  The film is about an openly gay teenager living in the Miami suburbs who, at the beginning of the film learns that he’s been exposed to HIV and is at the doctor’s office.  There he learns that it will take up to three months to get definitive results as to whether or not he’s positive, and the film covers the summer he spends waiting for those results.  So this is a movie that is both familiar and unique at the same time.  Its familiar in that these sort of autobiographical indie hangout movies have been a tend for a while, but even in this day and age making such a movie about an LGBT youth which isn’t some kind of weepy coming out story is still kind of novel.  That said the movie lacks a bit of a driving momentum.  The character’s forces temporary celibacy is not really the source of tension that you might think it would be and while there’s something of a love interest here the story doesn’t really play out like a romcom.  The bigger problem is probably the filmmaking, which is perhaps restrained to a fault and could have stood to try a few more things to make this feel more memorable cinematic.  Going too far with that likely would have made the film unpalatably twee, but it did need a little more flavor to stand out.
*** out of Five

White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch (6/24/2022)

“Abercrombie & Fitch” is not a brand name that brings back many memories for me.  I certainly never set foot in one of their stores (or the doors of many other mall clothing retailers for that matter) and wasn’t really sure if they even sold men’s clothing given their reliance on homoerotic photos of shirtless men in their advertising.  Beyond that I just had a general impression that it was a store for assholes.  Most of those suspicions are confirmed by this documentary about the brief period in the store’s over one hundred year history when they became something of an icon for turn of the millennium excess.   I will say the documentary did not make a very good first impression on me as its first twenty minutes, which focuses on the excitement the brand brought to certain consumers early on, plays out more like a montage than a doc with nonstop music in the background and annoying animated graphics.  I came close to giving up on the movie but fortunately the documentary settles down eventually and starts looking more seriously at the company’s history and then it starts to dig into the company’s several scandals and lawsuits.  The retailer was known for only hiring sales people who had a certain “look” that they felt matched their brand image, which is kind of gross on its face but becomes grosser when it becomes clear that this “look” was predominantly white.  Meanwhile the company’s (now former) CEO seemed like quite the piece of work and one of his key photographers turns out to have been a sexual abuser.  The documentary did not manage to land an interview with that guy, but it does talk with at least some people who made it on the board (most notably their court ordered diversity director) and some of the activists that fought back against them.  The whole documentary is in some ways a case study in how quickly the culture can shift as it really wasn’t that long ago that a store targeted directly at “the youth” did not feel any need whatsoever to pretend to be “woke” and empathetic and in fact benefited from being the opposite of that.
*** out of Five

Jerry and Marge go Large (6/27/2022)

Attempts made by streaming services to win over urbane people between the ages of 25 and 40 tend to be pretty well covered but their outreach to other demographics tends to be downplayed.  Take for example this movie Jerry and Marge go Large, a film that’s clearly meant to bring in the “gray dollar” and is not something I would normally see were it not for the fact that I am rather obsessively trying to squeeze every big of value I can out of ParamountPlus while I’m subscribed to it for a month to watch Star Trek shows.  Anyway, the film looks at a pair of retirees (Bryan Cranston and Annette Bening) in Michigan who find a quirk in a local lottery game that actually skews the odds more in the favor of the player but only if they buy just a ridiculous number of tickets.  So they buy a ridiculous number of tickets over and over again for months on end and cut various people in the town in on the scheme, which turns out to be very successful.  This is all based on a true story and that story feels like it could make a pretty interesting segment on “60 Minutes” or something but I’m not sure there’s really a lot of meat on the bone for a feature length dramatization.  Ultimately the film needs to manufacture some drama with a rival lottery crew working out of Harvard which as far as I can gather did exist to some extent but was never as personal as the film makes it out to be.  Beyond that this is all just meant to be really charming (in a Hallmark kind of way) and rather flattering to the small town elderly people at the film’s center which is, I’m sure, appealing to somebody but it didn’t really do much for me.
**1/2 out of Five

Crash Course: François Ozon

It’s kind of crazy that I, despite generally trying to keep up with world cinema, have never seen a film from the French Auteur François Ozon.  For pretty much the entirety of the 21st Century this guy has been a fixture of the European festivals and usually also gets American distribution for his many, many, well received films.  The guy has almost two dozen movies, most of them well liked, under his belt and yet I’ve never gotten on board.  Why is that?  Well, as omnipresent as Ozon has been over the last twenty five years he’s perhaps better known for his body of work than he is for any individual film.  There’s a bit of an “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” quality to how his movies tend to be received: he’s constantly a fixture at festivals and usually gets good marks but at least stateside he never seems to be the center of attention either among critics or at the arthouse box office.  So, I’ve never felt a ton of pressure to finally show up to one of his films and without that pressure skipping his movies has always kind of been the path of least resistance because with how long he’s been making movies it’s always felt odd to show up to whatever his latest has been without catching up ahead of time and knowing the context of what I’m getting into.  Well, I’m finally doing that catch up.  Now, this is going to be a slightly awkward survey because I do think I need to make sure to see what is probably the closest to being his signature film, 2003’s Swimming Pool, but then I’m going to jump forward about ten years and spend the rest of the Crash Course focusing on the more recent work he’s done in the 2010s, which is easier for me to obtain and would also be more relevant to preparing me to tackle any new work from him as it comes along.

Swimming Pool (2003)

Swimming Pool came out in 2003, when I would have been about 15: film literate but not yet regularly attending new foreign cinema.  So it’s a movie that’s timed about right to be known by people of my generation and sure enough it’s the Ozon movie I’ve heard about the most over the years.  That it would be more famous amongst people I know is probably because of three aspects of it: 1. it’s something of a bilingual movie that’s about 50% in English, 2. it features a great deal of female nudity, and 3. it has a twist ending in an era where movies with twist endings were very popular, especially among so-called “film bros.”  I’m not really sure why it took nearly twenty years for me to catch up with it, I guess there were always just other priorities.  The film stars Charlotte Rampling as a mystery writer who’s in a bit of a rut, so her publisher (played by Charles Dance) invites her to stay at his French vacation home while it’s empty.  She takes him up on the offer but shortly after arriving there the publisher’s college aged daughter shows up, not knowing the place is already occupied and the two need to share the place.  This becomes kind of tense because the daughter turns out to be a straight up nympho that seems to compulsively get topless and brings home a new man every night.

So what we’ve got here is a small movie with a pretty small cast that’s primarily set at one location.  It’s sort of a thriller, but not really.  It’s not really built on suspense sequences and aside from one scene of violence danger doesn’t really pervade the film.  Instead it’s kind of an unusual battle of wills between these two women that takes a pretty radical turn at a certain point and becomes something else… or does it.  The film is also partly about the artistic process as the protagonist tries to overcome her writer’s block and starts to view this new house guest as a possible subject for her writing and the knotty ethics involved in that.  In fact the film’s final twist rather firmly seems to place that as the film’s central theme but that isn’t entirely apparent on a first viewing.  Overall this was a movie that I found… interesting.  In a lot of ways it feels kind of like a throwback to domestic semi-thrillers of a previous era, especially the almost identically titled La Piscine, which this comes close to being a remake of in some ways.  I’m don’t necessarily think this movie would have blown me away when it first came out, but it’s a strong movie worth knowing about.
***1/2 out of Five

In the House (2012)

François Ozon’s 2012 film In the House was considered a bit of a comeback for the director which won quite a few festival awards despite not quite becoming a breakout at the domestic art houses.  That’s unfortunate because it was produced slickly enough that I think it could have become a bigger deal than it was if it was promoted correctly.  The film is set in contemporary France and focuses on a high school teacher literature teacher at what appears to be some sort of private school where a star pupil named Claude has caught his eye.  This student, has turned in a writing assignment in which he describes his time tutoring at the house of a wealthier classmate.  The story describes this house with a great deal of disrespect towards the classmate but a certain obsession with his house and the life of his family, and especially his mother.  The writing ends with a literal “to be continued” at the end, which leaves the teacher in something of a dilemma.  He likes the prose in the story and wants to encourage the student to continue both for the students development as a writer but also because the teacher is interested to hear more, but encouraging the student to continue to embed himself in the family life of his classmate for voyeuristic reasons is not exactly healthy.  As further installments are turned in it seems that this game is becoming more and more dangerous (or is it?) but also the teacher has become more obsessed in seeing it through.

Though it doesn’t always feel that way, the film is steadfastly told from the perspective of the teacher character.  We see many of Claude’s shenanigans at the house on screen, but these are all framed as dramatizations of the writing he turns in to the teacher.  The teacher believes these writings to be fictionalized to a great degree, so we’re never sure whether that’s the case or if they’re total fabrications or if they’re in fact disturbingly factual and this kid really is kind of a stalking creep to this other family.  So that’s a suspense element throughout the film, and it doesn’t take a great follower of cinema to view this combination of suspense and voyeurism as something of an unexpected riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (a film that is openly referenced with the movie’s final shot).  Indeed these re-enactments of the kid’s writing are on one level the kid’s own voyeurism on the family, but also the teacher’s voyeuristic interest in the story the kid is weaving, and also the audience’s voyeuristic interest in the whole story as cinemagoers.  So that’s all very clever and exhistential, but the movie never does really turn into a conventional thriller despite threatening to a couple of times, and it’s focus on the writing process in the context of an anti-thriller invokes Ozon’s own Swimming Pool.  All in all it’s a really cleverly crafted and interesting drama that I enjoyed quite a bit.
**** out of Five

Young & Beautiful (2013)

For a self-identified gay man (who as far as I can tell has never claimed to be bisexual), François Ozon sure seems interested in the sex lives of promiscuous young women.  Between this and Swimming Pool two of the three movies of his I’ve looked at are kind of fixated on the sex drive of an unusually active young woman and how the world around her responds to this.  The central character here is a seventeen year old in a bourgeois home who loses her virginity on a summer vacation fling and then, upon returning to Paris, finds herself becoming a call girl to various usually middle-aged to elderly clients.  If Swimming Pool (a film this establishes a clear kinship to in its closing moments) is like a response to La Piscine, and In the House is like a response to Rear Window, this would seem like a sort of Ozonian take on Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (My Life to Live) in that it’s trying to take a somewhat non-judgmental and procedural look at someone’s choice to engage in prostitution, but the protagonist’s age and financial situation adds a layer of mystery to the proceedings.  The film is trying to explore what drives this character to enter this line of work.  She doesn’t need, or seem to even spend, the money she earns while doing this.  She acts alone and doesn’t seem to be pressured by anyone.  She also doesn’t seem to express much in the way of physical satisfaction from these sexual encounters, and simple teen rebellion doesn’t seem to really explain it either.  Eventually her “side-job” is discovered and the film looks at the way the people respond to this and the, usually not great, ways they try to “cope” with the fact that this family member was acting as a “whore.”

It reminded me of other movies from around that time like An Education and The Diary of a Teenage Girl about teenage girls finding themselves essentially groomed by older men but also finding their way out these abusive situations and finding some degree of normalcy later on.  Those were, however, films made by female directors adapting other women’s autobiographical works and were also based around situations where the central protagonists have a bit less agency over their situations than this one does.  I do wonder if this is another place where Ozon’s homosexuality comes into play because in a lot of ways this story might seem a bit more plausible if, instead of a straight teenage girl at its center there was a gay male teenage hustler exploring his sexuality by turning tricks because he’s stuck in a situation where there’s no other healthier way to do it.  That would certainly add a bit of a different dimension to the film’s third act as it would give the family a much different thing to need to respond to after learning about the protagonist’s behavior.  I’m not sure if that would be a better movie though as it would in many ways make this more of an “issue film” than a character study and the film might get more out of the unusualness of the situation at its center.  It’s a tough film to talk about and a tricky one to recommend, but it’s certainly well-made and I ultimately quite liked the way it handled its subject.
***1/2 out of Five

The New Girlfriend (2014)

Though François Ozon is a gay man, this is not always central to his filmmaking.  He’s made plenty of films where “queer” themes are front and center but he has also avoided being defined entirely by his sexuality.  The three movies of his I’ve watched recently had some elements of queerness on their peripheries but they were by and large movies about decidedly straight people.  His 2014 film The New Girlfriend, is however much more clearly a work of LGBT cinema, though it’s about the T and to some extent L and B parts of the acronym rather than the G which Ozon has personal experience with.  The film is about a seemingly straight and seemingly male person who was in a heterosexual marriage to a woman but shortly after she gave birth to his daughter this wife dies of some unnamed disease leaving him alone with this daughter.  All of this is told from the perspective of this wife’s lifelong best friend Claire, a seemingly straight woman in a heterosexual marriage, who visits this widower unannounced and is surprised to find him in the house wearing a dress and behaving like a woman.  Now I’ve been dancing around pronouns with this character, who alternately goes by David and Virginia, never declares himself a true transwoman over the course of the film, does not seem to be dedicated to living as a woman 24/7, and may instead be some sort of crossdresser or genderqueer person, the film is not big on labels.

As this scenario might suggest this is not really an “issue” movie that’s trying to give a particularly sensitive or representative depiction of trans issues.  Instead it gives us a very Gen X version of gender fluidity that is broadly tolerant of this person’s choices but is also perhaps trying to shock and challenge its bourgeois audience with the outrageousness of the situation.  The whole scenario wouldn’t be totally out of place in a Pedro Almodóvar film, perhaps because of their shared affection for melodrama (both filmmakers are big fans of Fassbinder).  I don’t know that this movie will be winning any GLAAD awards for its depiction but maybe not every movie about trans issues should be watched in stifling “representation matters” terms.  In fact I think if this movie suffers from anything it’s that it’s not wild and reckless enough.  There’s a sort of weird emotional affair at the center of the film between Claire and “Virginia” though rather specifically not “David” which certainly operates on very melodramatic terms and never quite gets as sordid as I think Ozon wanted it to be.  This is perhaps a movie that came out a bit too late, it sort of feels more like it should be a product of a slightly earlier time (maybe even just four or five years earlier) when trans issues were a bit more taboo and there was more of a reason to use outlandish projects like this to explore them.
*** out of Five

Frantz (2016)

François Ozon has continued to seem kind of hard to pin down for me as every time I think he’s going to zig he instead kind of zags.  When I start seeing him as something of an impish provocateur he’ll make a movie like Frantz which is a pretty sincere bit of classical filmmaking.  This film is ostensibly a remake of a 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film called Broken Lullaby which I haven’t seen and which was itself based on a mostly forgotten 1920s French play by Maurice Rostand.  Its set right after World War I and concerns a French veteran of that war traveling into Germany to lay flowers at the grave of a dead German soldier named Frantz for mysterious reasons.  He encounters the Frantz’ fiancé and when asked says that he knew him before the war when Frantz was living Paris.  This seems genuine, so the fiancé comes to know this French soldier and while her family resents this man and every other Frenchman for what happened during the war, they eventually come to accept him as well, but it turns out he’s harboring a bit of a secret that could change things.

[Spoilers] I will say that I was a little surprised by the nature of that “dark secret,” but because it was shocking but more because it wasn’t particularly.  Given some of the sexual provocations that Ozon has been inclined towards in the past I was pretty sure that it would be revealed that Franz and this Frenchman had been homosexual lovers, but no, the secret was closer to what you might have expected from a version of this story from a previous era: the Frenchman had killed Frantz on the battlefield, felt immense guilt about it, and was aware of the fiancé his time in Paris from a letter he retrieved on the man’s body.  So the film isn’t really trying to subvert the melodrama of this situation with modern sensibilities, rather it’s kind of trying to make a straightforward old fashioned melodrama using modern tools.  The film is partly in black and white and partly in color, with the color sequences which seem to come into the film during moments where the characters are able to put their grief aside during moments of love or moments when they’re experiencing beautiful things like music.  The film is also interestingly bilingual with both principal characters being fluent in both French and German and speak both when appropriate and the whole film is very much about the two country’s perceptions of each other during this tense moment in history.  I particularly enjoyed a scene late in the film where this German woman finds herself in a Parisian bar when the patrons burst into a rather martial rendition of “”La Marseillaise” which feels like something of a retort to the famous scene in Casablanca where this same song is sung heroically.  All in all this is an interesting little period piece but I’m not sure it ever quite finds that “x factor” to make it truly memorable.
***1/2 out of Five

By the Grace of God (2019)

On January 6th 2002, The Boston Globe published the article “Spotlight: Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years,” as a result of the investigation that would later be chronicled in the movie Spotlight.  So it’s been over twenty years and we’re still witnessing the fallout of what ended up being a worldwide pattern of conduct by this institution.  By The Grace of God is a film that dramatizes one of these stories, one that’s not dramatically different than the others (unfortunately) but which is perhaps representative of the situation at large.  The film looks at the investigation into a priest named Bernard Preynat who appears to have molested dozens if not hundreds of children on church sponsored camping trips over the course of decades and the church responded to this through their usual sleazy tactics of moving him around to different parishes and by the 2010s they somehow still had him working with children despite numerous complaints and the guy did not even seem to be denying his guilt.  That last part is what’s truly baffling about this case, this wasn’t something that emerged early in the church’s abuse scandal: they had been dealing with it for over a decade and yet they were still standing by this guy beyond any and all reason and saying shockingly tone deaf things about the case like one moment where (for reasons that defy explanation) a church official said at a press conference that “by the grace of god” the statute of limitations on this priest had already expired.  In fact by the time this was released in France the priest still hadn’t been defrocked (though he would months later).

This is not, however, a situation where the Church’s issues were uncovered through investigations by journalists or the police, both of whom seemed to have involved themselves in the situation rather belatedly.  Instead this mostly seems to have been uncovered through organizing by the victims themselves.  In particular the film focuses on three of the men involved in this organizing including the man who filed the initial police report and the person who did much of the grassroots organizing.  The three represent varying degrees of “brokenness” by what happened to them and different relations to the church in the wake of what they experienced.  The film essentially shifts perspectives between the three of them as it goes, starting with the successful family man and continued church goer who first reported it to the eccentric but stable atheist who did the organizing to the third victim who has been left traumatized and dysfunctional by what happened to him.  Along the way we get a pretty detailed account of everything they went through, each time thinking they’d caught this guy red handed only to see nothing happen as a result.  François Ozon remains pretty restrained and matter-of-factual in his accounting of all this.  He’s sort of an odd choice to direct this as this isn’t really material that’s suited to his usual playfully provocative style, but he clearly saw this as material worth adjusting himself to.
**** out of Five

In Conclusion
And that’s a wrap for my François Ozon crash course.  I was by and large impressed by what I saw but don’t think any of these movies were new classics and I do sort of get why there’s been a bit of a plateau on how enthusiastically Ozon tends to be received.  On the other hand, given how prolific this guy is I don’t think I’ve really gotten the full picture by watching these six movies and kind of suspect that I didn’t really curate an entirely representative sample for myself.  I definitely plan to check out more eventually, for now I’ll just say he’s pretty good.

Home Video Round-Up 6/12/2022

Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore (5/30/2022)

There were a lot of complaints people had about the Star Wars prequels, but one that I never really understood was the complaint that there was too much of a focus on intergalactic politics in the movies.  To me the Star Wars universe was so deeply interesting that a deeper dive into its inner workings was entirely welcome and it didn’t compute to me that the rather mild focus on trade federation blockades and galactic senate hearings would be alienating.  Well, after two straight movies centered around the political structure of the “wizarding world” I think I understand how those movies felt to people who were just mildly interested in Star Wars because holy shit do I not care about the electoral process of the Harry Potter universe.  Truth be told I’ve never been terribly comfortable talking about these “Fantastic Beasts” movies because I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever given them a fair shake: I’ve mostly watched them casually at home and by about midway through the second one I’d completely lost the plot.  On the other hand, the fact that these movies didn’t carry my interest enough to make me care about them is still kind of on them.  I don’t have a ton of insights into this particular installment beyond saying that it’s slightly better than the last one, mainly because Mads Mikkelsen and Dumbledore (a character people actually care about) has a bigger role here but it’s also a tedious and dully constructed movie whose plot seems to revolve around a Wizard election whose outcome apparently hinges on what candidate a magical deer endorses.  Its nonsense.

If Warner Brothers wants a chance of getting people back into this franchise here are some suggestions.  Get rid of Newt Scamander and most of the rest of the cast of this prequel franchise.  They’re bad characters that no one connected to and they basically get a decent enough resolution to their own character arcs here that no one will miss them when they’re gone.  For that matter don’t name any future installments “Fantastic Beasts” as that whole brand is not an indicator of quality.  Instead make Dumbledore the protagonist going after Grindelwald and his Henchmen with Hogwarts as his base of operations.  Yes this is kind of an uncreative “back to the well” approach, but trying new things clearly hasn’t worked and it’s probably time to go back to basics.  Also, for the love of god fire this David Yates guy.  He’s completely failed to bring momentum of identity to these screenplays up to this point and the series desperately needs new eyes if it wants a chance at revival.
** out of Five

Look at Me: XXXTentacion (6/1/2022)

No artist has made me feel old quite like Jahseh “XXXTentacion” Onfroy.  When he was on the rise I followed his career quite closely despite finding his music to be chaotic unlistenable noise and also despite finding everything I’d hear about his personal life to be highly disturbing.  Despite all that it was immediately apparent to me just by looking at him that, for better or (more likely) worse, this guy was a born star and I definitely understood why he could be called a “voice of a generation.”  This must have been the feeling boomers got while watching Kurt Cobain emerge on the scene and recognizing his appeal while still having no idea how to process the noisy excesses of “It Smells Like Teen Spirit” with the (justified) controversies around him and his fame in the wake of #MeToo in some ways only elevating his legend and making him more of a flashpoint.  But Onfroy died in the June of 2018, shot in an apparent robbery attempt.  They say that a lot of artists who die young end up becoming martyrs and icons after they die the way that people like Tupac and the aforementioned Cobain did, but I’m not entirely sure that was the case for Onfroy.  Maybe without the immediacy of his social media interacting some of the luster died off and some of the shortcomings of his actual music came more to the forefront, or maybe he just got overshadowed by other Soundcloud rappers living and dead who came after like Juice Wrld, 6ix9ine, and Travis Scott.

In many ways this new documentary, which was made with the full cooperation of Onfroy’s estate, is in some ways an attempt to rekindle interest in the artist and ostensibly set down the definitive version of his story.  The authorized nature of the film means it has interviews with most of the necessary subjects including his mother, his second long term girlfriend, his posse including Ski Mask the Slump God, various producers and record label types, and most critically Onfroy’s ex-girlfriend/victim, who is allowed to tell her story.  With authorized biographical documentaries like this you’re always worried that what you’ll be given is a toned down and hagiographical rather than giving you the warts and all story, but this one certainly goes a long way toward seeming not to have that problem.  The film does not attempt to deny that Onfroy was a deeply disturbed individual and that he engaged in domestic violence to some extent.  However, the film does still downplay all of this in certain subtle ways.  It cops to him having been violent with a woman but does not get into all the grizzly details (and the details are extremely grizzly) and it also omits entirely the fact that he beat a gay man half to death in prison and then more or less bragged about it on a podcast.  The film also really wants to lean into a redemption arc for its subject in its second half, interpreting Onfroy’s “Sad!” video as him fighting and defeating his old self, and yet no mention is made of the fact that lyrically “Sad!” is a song about gaslighting a woman into staying with him upon the threat of suicide, which is certainly something his “old self” would do.

For that matter the movie is pretty generally disinterested in really focusing too much on Onfroy’s music in general.  It didn’t give me any sort of new appreciation for his actual music at all and continue to find it almost cringingly unlistenable.  So, I think this documentary isn’t quite as hard hitting as it tries to present itself as being, and yet it’s hard to deny that the story at the center isn’t still as compelling and hard to look away from as the story of the real XXXTentacion was to some degree when he was alive.  I don’t think this movie really did as much as I was hoping it would in terms of sorting out my complicated feelings about this guy who I hated on paper while still finding him deeply compelling as a pop culture figure if not as a musician or as a human.  I’m not really sure society at large is quite sure how they feel about him and with his career being tragically cut short I’m not sure whatever reckoning we were all going to have with him will ever come.  And my feelings about the documentary are not dissimilar from my feelings about the man: I see the flawed morality in how its presenting its subject and yet would also be lying if I wasn’t pretty wrapped in the story it was telling.
**1/2 out of Five

Uncharted (6/3/2022)

They’ve been trying to make a movie out of the “Uncharted” series of videogames pretty much since the games first started to come out and we’ve been hearing rumors about the development of this film for ages with various different casts and crews coming in and out of the development.  The games, which are kind of like modernized riffs on Indiana Jones style archeological adventures, on some levels it makes a lot of sense for cinematic adaptation given that the games already kind of play out like movies but for the same reason they also kind of don’t make sense as sources of adaptation.  This isn’t like Mortal Kombat or something where it takes actual creativity to form a linear narrative out of a games lore, it’s more like they just took the kind of thrills and banter the games were already known for and then cut them down to two hours and don’t let the player control things.  There are some advantages to this: the film format does allow them to tell one of these stories without having to shoehorn in a bunch of gun violence for gameplay purposes but for the most part this movie kind of feels not unlike what it’s probably like to watch a string of cut scenes from the games cut together, which would be more of an insult if the original games weren’t actually pretty watchable and cinematic.

However, there are problems here that don’t have a lot to do with the adaptation.  For one, Tom Holland and Mark Whalberg are both notably younger than their counterpart characters in the games, which can be a little jarring.  In theory that means that these are prequels to what we saw in the games but the writers don’t really craft a terribly compelling origin story beyond what we already saw in flashbacks from the games.  Also, while I think we all expect the history and archeology from Indiana Jones derived stories are not expected to be too authentic, this film’s story of chasing after a bunch of gold that Ferdinand Magellan supposedly hid somewhere is just insultingly stupid.  Any schoolchild knows that when set sail to circumnavigate the world Magellan was after the same thing Columbus was after: spices from the East Indies.  He would have had the means or economic motive to collect a bunch of gold from some unstated source when he stood to make a killing flooding the markets in Spain with cloves and cinnamon.

So that’s pretty dumb, but that aside I do think I’m a little more forgiving of this movie (which currently sits at 40% on Rotten Tomatoes) than some people are in large part because there are a couple of over the top action set pieces here that kind of won me over, at least in the casual “at home” viewing environment I watched it in.  There’s the sequence heavily featured in the film’s advertising which has Nathan Drake dangling from cargo that’s dangling from a plane mid-flight and then there’s also this climactic action sequence involving ships being lifted by helicopters that I thought was a lot of fun and ended the movie on a fairly positive note.  At the very least it’s plainly the best movie that director Ruben Fleischer has given us for whatever that’s worth and I do think that Holland could grow into this role and I’d probably be at least somewhat interested in seeing a sequel if they make one.
*** out of Five

GameStop: Rise of the Players (6/5/2022)

I’m usually pretty willing to watch these swiftly made documentaries about news stories and business trends and it’s been known for a while that we had several such films about the “Gamestonks” story.  I’m not sure if the rival projects about that weird stock market story are still in the works but I certainly can’t imagine them being much worse than this first film out the gate on the subject because it’s one of the most deeply annoying and unenlightening documentaries I’ve ever seen.  This is not a movie made for interested bystanders to this event, rather it seems to have been made by and for the people who were participating in or cheering on people going out of their way to short squeeze on this stock for this physical retail outlet.  That’s not to say there isn’t a place for depicting this event positively, this particular event ultimately did mostly work out for everybody who wasn’t a hedge fund shorting Gamestop, but I do there was a lot of room for additional introspection to all of this.  A lot of the tactics that were used by the GME boosters are also used to push risky investments like this that don’t end up working out as well as well as straight-up scams like cryptocurrency and NFTs.  This movie isn’t worried about that.  This is a triumphal victory run more than it is a reasoned retrospective and it doesn’t really even do a lot of work to explain the situation for the uninitiated.  In other contexts I might praise films for respecting its audience’s intelligence and taking some prior knowledge as a given but here this tendency mostly just feels like an oversight caused by a general disinterest in getting all sides of this events.  The film doesn’t interview a single Gamestop executive (a perspective that would have been genuinely unique and interested) and very few disinterested stock analysts or financial reporters, it’s mostly just told from the perspective of the online boosters… one of whom goes by the name “Roaring Kitty.”  But beyond the film’s blinkered perspective it’s just a headache and a half on a basic stylistic level.  It’s filled with animated graphics, plays music pretty much nonstop including beneath interview footage, and generally feels like a feature length montage rather than a conventional doc.  If I were being extremely generous I might suggest the movie was trying to use style of online noise that the boosters were using to make this short squeeze happen in order to make some sort of statement, but I doubt that, I think the people making this genuinely find this meme aesthetic charming on some level and… they’re wrong about that.
* out of Five

The Outfit (6/12/2022)

There was a time when Mark Rylance was an elusive white whale among actors.  He was primarily a stage actor who would only do movies a couple times a decade, usually in small roles.  Then in 2015 he showed up in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and won an Oscar and from there he’s been something of a fixture in Hollywood.  For a while it seemed like he’d stick to a Daniel Day-Lewis level of selectiveness and only work with prominent filmmakers like Spielberg and Nolan but I think The Outfit suggests that the quality control filters have been pretty much dropped.  That’s not to say that the film looked completely moribund from moment one but it’s a loopy little crime thriller from an unproven director.  The film is about a tailor who caters to the local mafia in Chicago who one night finds himself in a bit of a tense standoff with some of the local criminals he’s come to know.  That does not strike me as a terrible compelling high concept and honestly I’m not sure how this got the green light, it sure seems like the kind of mid-level adult drama that doesn’t get made anymore and frankly it’s the kind of mid-level adult drama that gives the rest of them a bad name.  The film doesn’t feel like a terribly authentic look at the 50s mafia; it’s in an odd place where it’s too heightened to feel real but not heightened enough to be interesting.  It gets a touch more compelling in its second half but not enough to save the film, it’s just a movie too mediocre to get a pass.
**1/2 out of Five