I didn’t expect much out of Mad Max: Fury Road, at least before the trailer dropped. That’s partly because I had come not to expect much out of director George Miller, who had spent the previous twenty years making nothing but four children’s movies, one of which he didn’t even direct. But Mad Max: Fury Road obliterated any expectations and became one of the most universally acclaimed films of the 2010s and at the age of seventy George Miller was being declared a visionary in a way he widely hadn’t been when he was making the previous Mad Max films and certainly not when he was making Hollywood oddities like The Witches of Eastwick. Next thing you know Miller is getting Oscar nominations and heading up major festival juries Cannes and all eyes are on what he’s going to do next. The path of least resistance for Miller probably would have been to rush Max Max 5 into production but before doing that he seems to have decided the time was right to do a “one of me” via his latest film, a magical realist fantasy film called Three Thousand Years of Longing.
Miller’s new film begins with its protagonist, Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton), on a plane from the United Kingdom to Turkey where she intends to take part in a lecture on the power of mythology through the ages which is interrupted when she sees these strange ghostly visions. Later that day she buys a little glass bottle at a flea market as a souvenir and the next morning she tries opening it only for it to shatter and swirling magical sands seep out of it and materialize into a humanoid form of a Djinn (Idris Elba) a mythological creature also known as a genie. In typical genie fashion, the Djinn tells her she’s entitled to three wishes with many of the classic rules like “no wishing for other wishes” and the like. Alithea, who is largely content with her life and weary of the old stories of genie’s granting wishes that turn into monkey’s paw curses, is hesitant to request anything. Instead the two strike up a conversation and the Djinn begins recounting his own personal history of interacting with humans starting with his interactions with the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum) up to the 1800s, albeit with some centuries lost stuck in his bottle.
Three Thousand Years of Longing is based on a short story by A. S. Byatt called “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye” and it will probably not be too surprising to viewers that this comes from literary origins because there are ideas and structural elements to it that are a lot more trendy in novels than they are in movies. The film’s flashback structure, older characters, and general magical realist trappings are the kind of ideas that tend to come to authors rather than filmmakers but George Miller does a pretty damn admirable job of trying to translate them. The film’s highlights are obviously the flashbacks to the Djinn’s life, which tend to look at aspects of mythology and historical settings that have not been very widely used by Hollywood in the recent past (not a lot of Ottoman Empire movies). These flashbacks are a bit more mythic than they are truly historical, it’s not 300 levels of stylization but they might not be out of place in a Tarsem movie or something. I don’t want to give too much away but each story kind of works as its own thing while also painting the picture of the Djinn’s larger arc and they also sort of tell traditional stories about the dangers of not wishing carefully while also not making the Djinn feel malevolent.
Where the movie falls off a bit is in the film’s third act, which I don’t want to give away too much about even though it doesn’t exactly have some wildly unexpected twist or anything like that. In short, once we finally finish all of the Djinn’s flashbacks and get up to date the film has to make a tricky pivot into “the present” and I’m not sure it finds as compelling a direction to take things at this point as what came before either visually or narratively. But’s that’s not to say the movie totally falls on its face either and there are aspects of where it goes during that back third that I do respect quite a bit. Beyond that your mileage with this movie will probably depend on your expectations. There are bits here that live up to the “visionary” branding that has been attached to George Miller as of late, but it’s no Mad Max: Fury Road (nor should it be) and I wouldn’t say it’s some king of visual game changer or anything. Context may matter a lot with how you react to the film. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to respectful but not entirely enthused reviews and maybe opening amidst the best of world cinema didn’t necessarily do the film any favors. The August of 2022, in the middle of one of the longer dry spells of new films of any cultural interest we’ve had in a while, this is going to feel much more welcomed by critics but even in that context I don’t know that this is going to set the world on fire. Despite that I can easily see this becoming quite the cult film at some point in the future and you’re going to hear a lot of people mentioning it as a bit of a gem.
**** out of Five
Bodies Bodies Bodies(8/15/2022)
The trailer for the new thriller Bodies Bodies Bodies promises something that could very easily be pretty annoying. The film is a sort of Gen Z take on “And Then There Were None” in which a group of young people gather at a mansion to have a wild party while waiting for a hurricane to pass where they suddenly find there’s a killer in their midst killing them one by one. The trailer suggests that this will be a rather satirical take on this material and this generation and includes clips of them saying a lot of online lingo with terms like “gaslighting,” “triggering,” and “toxicity” being thrown around before ending on a clip of a character played by Pete Davidson saying “I look like I fuck, and that’s the vibe I like to put out there.” That sounds like it could pretty easily be insufferable, but I will say that the actual movie is at least a little less dominated by these internet buzzwords as that trailer would suggest… though maybe it should have been? I will say, this is going to be marketed as a horror movie because it’s about people being violently killed in a dark house but the movie largely seems to be disinterested in actually scaring its audience much at all. Instead kind of lives or dies by its satire and just generally how interested you are in the whodunit elements, and I’d say I was moderately interested in both. I think the movie mostly fills the house with a reasonably interested set of characters, who are certainly archetypes but not necessarily archetypes who we’re sick of just yet and the cast does a pretty good job of bringing them alive believably. As for the generational satire… well, they walk quite the tightrope with it and I think I admire just how far they got along it. There probably could have been a rather reactionary version of this which is essentially making this whole situation some kind of blunt statement about “cancel culture” but this doesn’t really feel like that. The film’s thirty two year old screenwriter, Sarah DeLappe, is a little older than the characters in this film but it feels like she actually does understand this culture and is engaging in self-critique rather than punching down on people she hates from afar. Honestly I think I could have used a little more of that tone because the film doesn’t really start letting that generational satire fly until the second half, at which point it doesn’t entirely feel like it’s been set up. Ultimately I enjoyed my 90 minutes with the movie and its take on “the youths” is certainly more interesting than a more straightforward take on the setup, but I can also see why this will annoy the shit out of some people.
*** out of Five
Beast, the new film in which Idris Elba goes toe to toe with an angry lion, is not exactly a film I was expecting high art out of. I was mainly hoping that it would live up to the “high standards” of the 2019 film Crawl, a creature feature of similar ambition about alligators invading a house during a hurricane which was similarly released without a ton of fanfare during the dog days of summer a couple years back. I have oddly warm feelings about that movie despite it decidedly not being anything special and was maybe hoping for a similar kind dumb fun time. Was it as good? Well, no. Its setting isn’t as interesting as a house that’s slowly filling with water over the course of day of heavy rain and I think I just generally find alligators more scary than lions. However, Crawl didn’t have a star in it as compelling as Idris Elba, so it’s a bit of a wash. The film involves a family that gets caught in a stuck car that’s under siege by an angry large predatory cat… so basically Cujo, but with a lion. If that sounds like a good time to you then you can do a lot worse than this. The film’s ending doesn’t quite work but other than that it’s a decent creature feature.
*** out of Five
Emily the Criminal(8/21/2022)
Emily the Criminal is a movie that sort of just seemed to appear out of nowhere in theaters without a lot of advanced buzz. The film is being released by Roadside Pictures and was plainly made on a modest budget so it has a bit more of that Independent CinemaTM feeling that we haven’t been getting this year, which has been oddly short on counter-programing. It concerns a youngish woman played by Aubrey Plaza who is weighed down by debts and has trouble getting professional jobs because of an assault conviction on her record. Eventually she dips her toe into acting as a “dummy buyer” in a credit card scam, fully knowing it was illegal, and then begins getting deeper and deeper into a criminal underworld. She’s been around a little while but I still mostly associate Aubrey Plaza with her work on the sitcom “Parks and Rec,” where she plays this rather detached intern who was meant to be something of a statement on a certain kind of millennial type and this would seem to be something of an evolution of that. Something of a statement about what that attitude leads to when it’s owned by someone who’s in a more precarious and less sheltered position. The film presents a believable and down to earth depiction of how these kinds of crime rings probably operate and while its ultimately only able to get so deep into its analysis of this character it is an interesting enough portrait just the same. This isn’t really the kind of thing that’s likely to really take the world by storm, I’d say best case scenario its greatest accomplishment will be an Independent Spirit Award nomination or two, but there aren’t a lot of options in theaters lately and this is worth a look.
*** our of Five
Back in the 90s environmentalism tended to revolve around three core missions: fix the hole in the ozone, save the whales, and save the rainforest. Fortunately, because of some smart policy decisions as a result of those campaigns the ozone is on its way to repair and the whale population is also in recovery. Both are great examples of how this kind of activism can work and should give us reason for environmental hope. Unfortunately the rainforest is more endangered than ever and is in fact a good example of how easy it is for us to back pedal on certain issues. This brings us to the film The Territory, a documentary from National Geographic about the Uru-eu-wau-wau people, an Amazonian tribe who used to live so deep inside of the rainforest that they weren’t contacted by outsiders until the 1980s but whose territory is now surrounded on all sides by farms because of deforestation. The tribe’s land is theoretically legally protected from encroachment but there are a number of settlers who, emboldened by Jair Bolsonaro’s rhetoric, feel entitled to illegally encroach on this territory and clear away some of the forest so they can eventually settle it and then essentially ask for forgiveness in place of permission. It’s a situation that will not be unfamiliar to some of the darker moments in United States history when sharecroppers would feel entitled to just snatch up Native American land because they had “dreams” of starting their own farms. There’s something rather surreal about seeing that same dynamic just playing out in the modern world. The film itself does a pretty good job of finding the right people to follow in bringing this story to light and the various perspectives involved. As a work of filmmaking, it doesn’t exactly break the mold but it illustrates the issue in a way that’s very human and interesting.
***1/2 out of Five
Fire of Love(7/29/2022)
This summer has been disturbingly devoid of theatrically released documentaries. By this time last year we’d already gotten pretty wide releases for Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, Summer of Soul, The Sparks Brothers, and Rita Moreno : Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It, but this year the one and only partial breakout has been the film at hand: Fire of Love. Produced by National Geographic and almost entirely created through archive footage, the film tells the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, a pair of married French volcanologists who dedicated their lives to studying volcanos up close and spent their lives doing this until they were caught in an eruption and killed in the early 90s. The Krafft’s were briefly featured in Werner Herzog’s recent documentary Into the Inferno and Herzog is apparently working on his own documentary about them but this movie seems to have beaten him to the punch. The film takes a pretty straightforward format being built out of the footage the Kraffts took over the course of their careers, much of it quite beautiful despite having been taken with rather dated equipment. The Kraffts themselves are, however, somewhat elusive characters. There’s a lot of footage chronicling their various volcano expeditions, but not a whole lot in the way of “home movies” and as they had no children there isn’t a lot of info about what their domestic life was like. The film’s title emphasizes the love story aspect of their story, which is perhaps true in broad strokes but isn’t really the focus as much as their passion for their work is front and center. Honestly I might have liked a little more about the specifics of their work as it’s not entirely clear what scientific experiments they’re doing for much of the runtime, occasionally the film makes them seem more like daredevils than true volcanologists which I don’t think was really the case. But ultimately that’s a quibble and this is an interesting doc that I would recommend pretty easily.
***1/2 out of Five
It is rather annoying that Hollywood is so focused on tentpoles that it feels like a downright novelty when a movie like B. J. Novak’s Vengeance, which is largely a dialogue driven satire, opens in wide release without any award aspirations and without playing the indie platforming game it feels like a downright novelty. The film, Novak’s directorial effort and also starring that alumnus of The Office, is about a freelance writer from New York who stumbles upon a story of a lifetime when he learns that his “girlfriend” had died of an overdose in Texas. The catch is that this woman is not actually his girlfriend, she’s just someone he hooked up with a couple of times, but she apparently told her family they were more serious than they were and they called him as a next of kin. Upon arrival he learns that this woman’s brother believes she was actually murdered and enlists him to investigate, which he’s happy to do because he thinks it has the makings of a good true crime podcast along the lines of something like “Serial” or “Shittown” that would highlight certain aspects of the culture wars that interests him. The film does not necessarily play out like a broad comedy as it does take its story fairly seriously and plays it pretty straight, but it’s certainly interested in finding the humorous side of the protagonist’s fish-out-of-water status in rural Texas. I think the film has kind of a lousy title for what it is; “Vengeance” gives the impression this is some sort of Liam Neeson thriller, an actor and genre that’s at the center of one of the film’s more amusing gags, but clashes of culture are plainly more of a predominant theme here than revenge is. I think the movie could have stood to maybe be 15%-20% more funny and a bit less on-the-nose than it gets at time in its analysis of the cultural rivalries at play before it could really turn into something special, but it’s a watchable enough effort.
*** out of Five
It’s kind of crazy just how much trouble 20th Century Fox has seemed to have had trying to turn the 1987 film Predator into a franchise. Logic would dictate that the predator would be as conductive to sequalization as his studiomate and sometimes adversary the Alien xenomorph and yet they never seemed to find a foothold, possible because that original movie was ultimately an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle and for reasons that are not entirely clear Schwarzenegger has never felt the need to return to the franchise. 1990’s Predator 2 was okay, 2010’s Predators was okay, 2018’s The Predator was by all accounts less than okay (I didn’t bother with that one), but none of these attempts really lead to the sustained franchise that the studio was hoping for. Which brings us to Prey, the third straight reboot attempt over the course of twelve years, and I feel like this is on some level the franchise’s last chance to make this thing happen given that they’re kind of running out of reboot title conventions to try. This reboot, directed by Dan Trachtenberg, actually goes for the prequel approach as it’s actually set in 1719 on the great plains and follows a teenage Comanche girl who goes along on a hunting trip (despite being doubted by the otherwise all male hunting party) only to become the hunted as she encounters a Predator who is apparently scoping out Earth for its suitability for future hunts.
In certain ways this is an exercise “back to basics” for the franchise as it once again seemingly has a single group of people being hunted down by a single Predator, which is certainly a lot simpler than the “Most Dangerous Game” setup used by Predators. Its novelty of course is its period setting which means that the characters will not have an arsenal of modern weaponry to fight the monster with, which is perhaps less of a disadvantage when you remember to Schwarzenegger was only able to finally defeat his predator once he abandoned his armaments and embraced more primal means of warfare. Of course Prey’s star Amber Midthunder is not a 235 pound Austrian bodybuilder, so it’s still interesting watching her and her hunting party try to take on this creature using bows and tomahawks. Beyond that it’s a fairly straightforward adventure film that doesn’t fundamentally re-invent the wheel. Trachtenberg stages his action scenes quite effectively and embraces the series’ gorier tendencies. The protagonist’s journey ultimately boils down to something pretty shallow, which is also true of the original which has a bit more originality to its name, but it’s certainly worth watching for the set pieces.
***1/2 out of Five