Home Video Round-Up 8/13/2022

RRR (7/20/2022)

I had some serious reservations about even watching RRR, despite it’s unlikely status as a critical darling, in no small part because the only realistic way to stream the copy that’s on Netflix… which is dubbed from the film’s original Telugu language into Hindi and appears to be in the wrong aspect ratio to boot, two things that made this presentation anathema to a purist like myself.  On top of that, I’m just generally uncomfortable reviewing Bollywood (or in this case Tollywood) movies; I’ve seen a handful of them but I’m not well versed in their tropes and generally feel like I lack the expertise to really contextualize them intelligently.  Eventually I was informed that Netflix’s aspect ratio was open matte rather than pan and scan, which made that issue slightly more tolerable, and I was eventually willing to hold my nose and put up with the dubbing (which, if I’m being honest I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t told about it) but my nervousness about trying to review this thing did not go away and as I watched and kind of disliked it I found myself increasingly worried about having to explain this stance and be the buzzkill in the room… and yet I feel oddly confident about my take.

RRR (which stands for Raudraṁ Raṇaṁ Rudhiraṁ, which translates to “Rage, War, Blood” and has alternately been translated to “Rise Roar Revolt”), is set in 1920 during the British Raj and is kind of a fanfic about a pair of heavily fictionalized historical figures named Komaram Bheem and Alluri Sitarama Raju who never actually met or interacted but who do in this movie… and who are also basically superheroes here.  Unlike the Indian films westerners are most familiar with, this isn’t really a musical (though there are a couple of musical sequences anyway and some non-diegetic songs as well) but is instead this really maximalist action movie in which two outlandishly powerful paragons of virtue seemingly singlehandedly take down British rule with their combat skills.  India is generally said to have been freed through peaceful non-resistance over twenty years after this is set but this movie doesn’t see it that way, here violence is very much the answer.  It would be like if an African American filmmaker made a film set in the mid-twenties where Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois violently overthrew the governor of New York with martial arts skills that verge on being superpowers with a tone of nutty sincerity that would make latter day Fast and Furious movies looks restrained and down to earth and did this more or less unironically.  Like, there’s a scene here where one of these guys picks up and throws a leopard at British soldier and this does not seem out of place at all in the tone of this film.

Is this stupid?  Well, on certain levels it’s kind of hard for me to judge.  Broadly speaking it’s hard to argue with the film’s anti-colonial messaging but I know the language of propaganda and dehumanization when I see it and this borders into it.  The extent to which this movie exaggerates its bad guys into outright sadists and revels in killing them sits somewhere between Rambo and D.W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World in the “good taste” scale and I’m not entirely comfortable with it.  Look, I don’t want to call “reverse racism” here, that’s stupid, really my issue here is less that it makes the British into heinous villains (the real ones probably were) so much that as a matter of taste I find these kind of black and white simplistic depictions of history to be inherently less interesting and less appealing than films that take a more nuanced approach.  I think Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist history revenge films Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained would also be fair comparison points which, in addition to several aesthetic differences I prefer, are much less hagiographic about their heroes and tend to find at least a little more human complexity in their villains even if they do ultimately make the villainousness of those regimes very clear.  Also, in the case of Django Unchained we’re dealing with a white American director criticizing the history of white Americans, which is something that’s going to have a different tone to it than a work of blatant borderline jingoistic nationalism like RRR.

But as suggested earlier my issues with this movie are much more aesthetic than moral or substance based.  I just find the action scenes and style kind of obnoxious.  The movie looks extremely digital and most of its sets look kind of fake in a manufactured way, they lack the wear that’s key to making period films look authentic.  The action scenes involve a lot of outlandish fight choreography and heroes that are inexplicably powerful despite ostensibly just being normal people and there’s a ton of Zack Snyder style speed ramping that looks kind of choppy and intelligent.  I think the biggest part of my disconnect is just how incongruous a lot of these action heroics feel against the film’s historical setting.  I’m not a hundred percent sure I have a good explanation for why this type of stuff scans better to me when they happen in dynastic China or ancient Greece than in 20th Century history, but it kind of does.  I think it’s because martial arts epics are legitimately “mythic” and it’s hard for me to accept something that supposedly happened less than 70 years before my birth as being the stuff of legend… or maybe I’m just more versed in Hong Kong action movies than I am with Indian Historical epics and that if I was used to movies like this I’d much more easily relax and go with this absurdity.

And that brings me back to the anxiety I had when I first started watching this: am I in any real position to judge this movie?  I don’t know, but as an individual I did have an experience with this movie and it wasn’t to my tastes.  Other critics are less bothered by the film’s outlandish idiosyncrasies, in fact they seem to be why a lot of people find the film refreshing.  But I must say I also wonder if these same critics are maybe giving the movie a pass for its kind of reactionary outlook; its jingoism, its shallowness, and its general blockheadedness.  It wouldn’t be the only kind of dumb jingoistic action movie these critics have given a pass to, Top Gun: Maverick was similarly given a free pass despite having many of the same problems.  I don’t know, maybe there’s something in the air during these times which has made otherwise discerning critics want to stop being so picky and just roll with whatever movie offers a good time or maybe people are so tired of Marvel-esque blockbusters that they go overboard when given any kind of large scale action movie that’s even marginally unique from that formula, but whatever trend is leading to this is not one that seems to be affecting me and I think a lot of the people who are over-rating these movies are going to look back at their reviews and be a bit puzzled by their responses.

**1/2 out of Five

The Girl in the Picture (8/4/2022)

I mostly try to avoid the slightly half-assed true crime docs that Netflix seems to crank out on a near weekly basis.  At a certain point they seem to have just become the 21st Century version of ABC’s “20/20,” which is a formerly legitimate newsmagazine program which at a certain point transitioned into being a crime of the week series using the language of straightforward news broadcasting to give fairly sensationalistic accounts of various murders.  I did, however, hear enough about this one from enough people to give it a look.  The film tells the story of an Oklahoma woman who was found dead, and looking into her past unveiled some fairly lurid realities about her life ultimately pointing towards her adopted father who appears to be a kidnapper, murderer, and rapist.  Is there interest to be found in this story?  Well, it’s certainly a rather extreme example of the human experience, though I’m not sure how much there is to be learned from the wider world from it nor do I find it to be unique enough by the (admittedly very high) standard of true crime as to make it inherently novel unto itself.  So I think it would be fair to say this fall under the category of “exploitative true crime” but it is at least a little more aesthetically honed than your average “20/20” episode and the film does get a good array of interviews from people involved in the case.  I don’t think this one is going to stay with me for long but I guess its effective enough at what it’s trying to do even if I find what it’s trying to do to be rather dubious.
**1/2 out of Five

Hustle (8/10/2022)

I generally do everything I can to ignore Adam Sandler outside of the occasional exception when he finds himself working with a Paul Thomas Anderson or the Safdie Brothers and I didn’t think we were due for one of those again this decade but suddenly we had another seemingly dignified Sandler project in the form of Hustle and what’s more shocking is that Sandler himself seems to have had a lot more of a hand in this one getting made.  The film stars Sandler as a person working behind the scenes in the NBA, occasionally as a scout, sometimes as an assistant coach.  On a trip to Spain he encounters a diamond in the ruff (played by real life NBA player Juancho Hernangómez) playing pickup games on a local court and decides he needs to bring this guy to America and try to get him into the league.  The film appears to have been made with the cooperation and buy-in of the NBA, who have allowed them to use real teams and the film is filled to the brim with cameos by real life basketball figures to the point where I, a less than casual fan of the sport, probably only recognized 60%-70% of them.  I must say I was surprised to see that Sandler had tapped Jeremiah Zagar, director of the 2018 Malick-inspired coming of age film We the Animals, to helm this as I had assumed Zagar’s future prospects to be decidedly indie.  I wouldn’t say this in entirely in keeping with his debut and that there are limits to how much he can elevate this but Zagar does imbue the film with at least some visual flair and is legitimately impressive in the way he directs some of the basketball scenes.  He did not, however, write the film and its screenplay has its share of kind of run of the mill sports clichés like training montages and a “liar revealed” twist that you can see coming from a mile away. So, this is certainly no Uncut Gems but it’s a respectable little sports movie, one that will likely be especially loved by people who are really into basketball.
*** out of Five

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché (8/12/2022)

X-Ray Spex were one of the less conventional bands in the first wave of British punk rock in the 70s.  They were fronted by a mixed race woman who went by the name Poly Styrene (a statement on the manufactured nature of pop stardom) they never had quite the impact of The Clash or The Sex Pistols and ultimately only produced one album before Poly Styrene’s insecurities led her to have a bit of mental breakdown and break up the band.  This film is about Poly Styrene (real named Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) and is directed by her now thirty-something daughter Celeste Bell and is structured as this daughter’s traveling and trying to come to terms with her mother’s legacy and with some of the less pleasant aspects about being raised by her when she began to have her mental issues.  I can’t say I was a big fan of Poly Styrene’s music going in, I’d listened to the one X-Ray Spex album at one point when I was exploring the history of punk and thought it was fine, but the film does make a pretty good case for the band’s importance and how important it was to have a voice like her’s in that scene.  As a film unto itself the doc is alright; Bell maybe inserts herself into more than some people will like, but I think that extra bit of novelty does help what could otherwise feel like a fairly by the numbers biographical account.  I’m not sure that hardcore fans of Styrene will get much out of it but I found it a fairly interesting primer.
*** out of Five

Spiderhead (8/13/2022)

It’s really amazing how much I like Chris Hemsworth in the Thor movies compared to how much I dislike him in everything else.  The guy is too pretty to convincingly play tough and grizzled and too buff to really convincingly play an egghead, which is a big part of why he’s rather unsuited to his latest film Spiderhead.  In the film he plays a sort of mad scientist who’s been allowed to use a special prison to test out a mind control pharmaceutical on the prisoners.  That could easily be the basis for a lurid exploitation B-movie but this movie shoots more for the tone of science fiction cautionary tale along the lines of “Black Mirror,” which I’m not entirely sure really fits it.  The film has this ultramodern aesthetic but the science fiction themes it explores are not terribly cutting edge.  In fact if you had told me it was based on some Harlan Ellison short story from the 70s, when testing drugs on unsuspecting participants was a hot topic, I would have believed you.  In fact I do find it kind of amusing that so many Netflix projects seem to be inspired by MKUltra.  Anyway, the film was directed by Top Gun: Maverick “auteur” Joseph Kosinski and is a good reminder of how much of a mediocre talent he is when not somehow given access to a fleet of military aircraft.  There are some aspects of the film which aren’t too bad; it’s got a nice soundtrack and the base story is at least good enough to keep your attention, but it definitely feels like a movie that was made knowing it would end up being dumped on streaming and largely aspires to mediocrity.
**1/2 out of Five

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