Home Video Round-Up 10/11/2022 (Halloween Edition)

Hatching (10/2/2022)

I was certainly intrigued by the trailers for the film Hatching, a Finnish import being distributed by IFC Midnight, but never made my way to the theaters during its rather brief release window.  The film is set in the suburbs and follows a preteen girl who’s training to be a gymnast while being raised by a rather forceful mother who runs a mommy blog and is basically doing everything in her power to foster the image of having the perfect family.  One night the kid finds a mysterious egg and brings it home only to see it grow in size and hatch out a very gross looking bird monster that oddly seems to be taking on features of the child.  It’s not too hard to glean what the film’s message is: it’s a metaphor for the pressure this kid is under and the way her mother is trying to turn her into something she isn’t and it also invokes eating disorders in various ways.  On paper that’s all an interesting premise, and the film also sports some very cool looking practical and makeup effects, but I’m not entirely sure that director Hanna Bergholm quite displays a mastery of the language of horror.  She shoots the whole film under very soft light, almost like that of a sitcom, which I think is meant to play into the fact that the mother is trying to make her family seem picture perfect but it’s kind of a choice that sacrifices atmosphere in favor of theme and it may have been to the movie’s detriment.  I also feel like this could have benefited from slow-playing some of its ideas a bit more.  I certainly expected it to marinate this idea of a mysterious egg growing larger for longer than it did but the thing went and hatched in the film’s first third, which maybe didn’t allow things to build as much as they could have.  An interesting genre exercise to be sure, but definitely not one for the ages.
*** out of Five

Mad God (10/4/2022)

If you watched the Disney+ documentary “Light and Magic” that came out earlier this year you likely learned about a guy named Phil Tippett, an OG practical effects guy who’s done the VFX on the original Star Wars trilogy, Robocop, and Jurassic Park for which he had the hilarious credited role of “Dinosaur supervisor.”  He still does effects work today but I get the impression from the documentary that technology kind of passed him by when CGI became the main medium for visual effects and while he’s still respected as an elder statesman in effects he’s not at the forefront of the craft anymore.  He has apparently been keeping himself busy though as he’s just made his feature length theatrical directorial debut with the gory, largely dialogue free, and aggressively surreal stop motion animated film Mad God, which he’s apparently been working on for decades.  The film is set in some sort of fantasy hellscape populated by fantastical monsters and general nightmarishness and follows an unnamed protagonist into this hell with an not entirely clear mission.  Really talking about this in terms of “story” misses the point as it plays out less like a character driven story than like “Dante’s Inferno” meets Eraserhead and some of the trippier Tool music videos.  It’s not exactly a horror movie because it isn’t really going for “scares” at all, but it’s certainly set in this dark and hellish world that will appeal to genre fans and the imagery can certainly be called “horrific.”  I don’t know that there’s really much of a meaning to be found at the heart of all this, it’s really more just a bunch dark imagery for the sake of dark imagery, but it’s a ride worth taking if you’re into that sort of thing.
***1/2 out of Five

Studio 666 (10/6/2022)

When I first heard about Studio 666, a horror movie starring the rock band The Foo Fighters, I was confused.  A movie starring any rock band in this day in age is an oddity in and of itself, but I guess it’s trying to harken back to movies like A Hard Days Night, Rock n’ Roll High School, or (perhaps most pertinently) Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park.  I suppose there’s some fun to be had with a horror movie starring a band if handled just right but, why the Foo Fighters?  Dave Grohl has dabbled with the devil music in the occasional side project but for the most part I think of Foo Fighters as a pretty down to earth alt rock band who write traditional rock songs about monkey wrenches and learning to fly, they’ve never really struck me as been horror movie fans.  But here they are starring in this at times very gory horror movie in which the band, playing versions of themselves, find themselves trying to cut an album at a haunted recording studio where murderous things start happening.  Again, why The Foo Fighters?  My initial thesis was that this was written for some sort of actual metal band to star in but they either said no or were determined not to have enough marquee value to sell a movie and were replaced.  But Grohl has a “story by” credit so that theory doesn’t really pan out.  Another problem that arises when casting the Foo Fighters in a horror movie is that no one gives the slightest fuck about any members of the Foo Fighters who aren’t named Dave Grohl, Taylor Hawkins, or maybe Pat Smear if they know their punk rock history.  I question if even the head of their fanclub knows their keyboard player by name and frankly their performances here do not really make much of an argument that they should be better known.  Having said all that this thing does kind of come close to working.  It certainly has at least a slightly comedic tone, which is good because any attempts to make this movie legitimately scary would not have worked, but in a lot of ways I feel like this should have gone for an even campier tone than it does and while I’m certainly no prude about violence in horror movies I think some of the bloodshed here (even if it kind of comical) still feels out of place.  I don’t know, it’s a movie that feels like it could have been something pretty fun if just a couple better decisions were made but as it stands it feels like a tonal mismatch with a rock band at the center which doesn’t fit.
**1/2 out of Five

Watcher (10/9/2022)

Watcher is a movie that’s quietly gotten decent marks among 2022 horror movies, though seeing it I think it’s really more of a thriller than a horror movie and as thrillers go it’s not even really all that thrilling.  The film is set in Romania and concerns an American woman who has moved there along with her boyfriend, who’s gotten a job there and speaks the language, but is also an expat.  Alone in her apartment for much of the days this woman starts to notice a man in the apartment complex across the street who seems to be staring down at her a lot and she begins to worry he may be a dangerous stalker.  So, we’ve got a film about voyeurism, which isn’t exactly a new or unique theme.  Looked at charitably these could be viewed as something of a subversion of Rear Window in which it’s the dangerous one who’s doing the peeping tom routine, but that would require this movie to be a lot more interesting than it is.  For the most part the first 80 minutes or so is just warmed over Rosemary’s Baby justified paranoia followed by about fifteen minutes of things actually happening, and the things actually happening aren’t really interesting enough to justify the whole endeavor.  Add to that the film’s rather drab cinematography and bland characters and you’re left with a not very impressive movie.
** out of Five

Day Shift(10/11/2022)

This week in “expensive looking movies that Netflix didn’t bother to promote” we look at Day Shift, a vampire hunting themed action comedy starring Hollywood A-lister Jamie Foxx.  In the film Foxx plays a working class vampire hunter living in a world where the public seemingly doesn’t know that vampires walk among them but there’s a pretty widespread underground career in hunting the bloodsuckers, but the “industry” is dominated by a Vampire Hunter’s Union and the Foxx character has been kicked out of that union because of reckless behavior and he’s now down on his luck because they pay the highest price for bounties.  His ex-wife is on the verge of moving away with his daughter if he can’t scrounge up enough money for her next year of tuition, so he needs to make a big score, but little does he know he’s invoked the wrath of a very powerful vampire who will shortly be seeking him out for revenge.  This movie is set in Los Angeles, a fact it will remind you of numerous times over the course of its runtime.  It opens to 2pac’s “California Love,” dozens of L.A. neighborhoods are namechecked, and Snoop Dogg has a part in it and in one scene looks at the camera and says “I love L.A.”  Did I mention that this takes place in L.A.?  I also suspect that this business with Foxx having to deal with the bureaucrats at the Vampire Hunter’s Union is some sort of elaborate metaphor for dealing with some of the Hollywood unions like the WGA, DGA, or SAG because it seems to be geared towards freelancers and just doesn’t function the way unions in normal industries do.  So, the film seems to be a touch self-indulgent on the parts of its makers and isn’t losing sleep over being able to “play in Peoria” in terms of references, but that certainly isn’t to say it’s a particularly sophisticated piece of work.

The film does a pretty good job of inventing a world of vampires and vampire exterminators, but it’s also kind of inconsistent about its own rules and doesn’t really fully explore several rules it sets and is never quite sure exactly how silly it wants to be.  It’s biggest problem is probably that the Jamie Foxx character is fairly bland and the film does not make him as sympathetic as it thinks it is.  Way too many movies these days think they can make their protagonists instantly likeable just by giving them kids who they ostensibly love regardless of how much they seem to be putting said kids in danger.  I also did not leave the film thinking the Vampire Hunter’s Union was incorrect for kicking him out as he does indeed seem like a pretty reckless dick during his hunts even after being given “one last chance” which he mostly seems to squander exhibiting all the same frowned upon behaviors.  The film also introduces a union representative played by Dave Franco, who’s a pretty over the top wimp in the film, and there’s supposed to be a bit of a buddy cop dynamic there but I’m not sure the movie ever quite dedicates itself to making that work.  On the bright side, some of the action scenes here are impressive.  They certainly aren’t the best of the best, but they do some clever stuff with the concept and are pretty solid for the budget level.  That obviously goes a long way in an action comedy and between them and some of the more clever aspects of the concept this was enough fun to be worth my time, especially as a Netflix movie.
*** out of Five



Warning: Review contains some spoilers

When directors come back from hiatus it’s always kind of a trip.  We’re probably never going to see something as wild as Terrence Malick making a dramatic comeback after thirty years off, but from time to time we get people coming back after a decade or so and that’s the case this year with the triumphant return of the director Todd Field.  Field was never exactly being held up as the world’s greatest filmmaker but he seemed like a really promising voice in the early 2000s.  His 2001 film In The Bedroom was a pretty bold debut; a nuanced depiction of grief and aging that was a pretty challenging piece of work for someone to be making when he was only thirty seven.  He followed that up five years later with a social satire called Little Children, which was well liked but didn’t quite end up being a top-tier Oscar contender and also didn’t prove to be particularly popular.  And after that he seemed to disappear.  By all accounts this fifteen year stretch of seeming inactivity was not exactly by choice.  Field was actively in development for all sorts of different projects that, for one reason or another, he wasn’t able to get funding for.  I’m sure that if he was willing to sell out and take a more commercial project and gets more credits onto his IMDB but he seems to have held out until he had a project he really cared about.  And it seems that project finally came around this year with his new film with Cate Blanchett: Tár.

The film is set in the world of classical music and follows a woman named Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who is introduced in the beginning as being a deeply accomplished composer and orchestra conductor who’s highly respected in her field and the founder of a non-profit for the advancement of women in classical music called Accordion.  As the film begins she is about to start rehearsing a major concert with the Berlin Orchestra of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.  She’s seemingly on top of the world, but something feels off.  Her assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant) is clearly disgruntled, her marriage to fellow musician Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) seems oddly transactional, and there’s a looming conflict with her assistant conductor Sebastian (Allan Corduner).  But the crisis that especially seems looming is the fallout from the suicide of a former acolyte named Krista Taylor (Sylvia Flote).  Tár’s reaction to learning about this seems odd and one of the first thing she tries to do in response is purge her emails about Taylor and recommend that Francesca does the same.  She’s clearly hiding something and it seems like it won’t be long until there’s quite a bit of fallout from this.

An obvious drawback of a filmmaker disappearing for fifteen years is that you kind of forget what made them so great in the first place while also not really knowing how they’ve evolved as artists or as people in the time that’s passed.  I think that’s especially true for Field given that, while both of the films he made previously were good they were not necessarily ones that begged to be watched over and over again.  I remember liking both movies but, especially in the case of Little Children, my memories of them are a little hazy so I’m perhaps not in the best place to really judge Tár in relation to Field as an auteur though from what I remember it has In the Bedroom’s interest in questions of justice and also Little Children’s interest in commenting on modern social mores but visually this feels a lot more ambitious than either of those movies, albeit in subtle ways.  Tár doesn’t really have some immediately apparent trick or gimmick to how it looks but as the film begins the camerawork is notably very controlled and often quite still, perhaps reflecting the character’s stable and managed career and lifestyle and as things move along and unravel this becomes less the case.  The movie never starts to be messy and handheld or anything but the camera and filmmaking subtly start working against Tár and the film’s sound scape starts reflecting a conflicted and perhaps slightly paranoid mind.

Tár has sometimes been talked about as a movie about “cancel culture” but it could perhaps be more accurately described as a movie about #MeToo, or perhaps it’s about both and is maybe trying to make a distinction between the two.  Early in the film there’s a lengthy scene in which Tár is teaching at Juilliard and has a slightly heated conversation with a student who for some reason has it in his head that Johann Sebastian Bach is a “dead white man” who’s too problematic to study.  She puts up a pretty smart defense of the baroque composer’s relevance, which the student doesn’t really appreciate and perhaps predictably her statements in this defense are eventually taken out of context and weaponized against her.  That is perhaps an example of the kind of silly zoomer “cancel culture” that so many columns get written about, but both the film and the characters within it view this whole exchange as relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things.  The things that really get her in trouble are much more serious breaches of trust and ethics, so in a way the film seems to be saying “don’t sweat the small stuff, “cancellation” should be reserved for the real predators.

And yet, I’m not sure the message is really that simple.  Tár is what you’d call a “glass ceiling” breaker in terms of gender and sexual identity.  She’s celebrated for this but downplays it in an interview early in the film, suggesting that with all her success she has nothing to complain about and that all the real barriers were already broken previously.  Later she even suggests re-configuring her non-profit so as to not be specifically be about helping women, ostensibly because she doesn’t think women need special help anymore, an idea she only backs down from when she’s told it could cost them donations.  This all speaks to a certain level of privilege, maybe not one entirely created by innate characteristics she was born with but perhaps a sort of survivorship bias: Lydia Tár is an elite enough talent to get past whatever gender biases exist in the world, so why shouldn’t the rest of the ladies?  That’s not an uncommon attitude amongst the nouveau riche, who maybe are maybe a bit blinded to how exceptional their own stories are and what less obvious privileges benefited them.  Of course she never comes out and expresses these sentiments so bluntly, she knows where the bread is buttered in “the modern discourse,” but her actions are not unlike the actions of powerful people who come in more traditional packages.  And I don’t think it can be dismissed that this attitude is at play in that Juilliard classroom when she excitedly defended the traditional canon and by extension the existing order.  That’s not to say that the film sides with the student who’s trying to cancel Bach, is arguments are juvenile and misguided, but given Tár’s other actions she becomes a less than ideal champion for the classics.

As to the “cancelling” of Tár herself, it is interesting in that the movie waits an awfully long time to show its hand in that regard.  The film is very much what you’d call a “character study” and it spends a lot of time bringing you into Tár’s world before it really introduces the film’s eventual conflict in earnest.  In a way this suggests that Tár’s façade is so meticulously built that it’s hidden even from us, the viewers who are ostensibly watching every moment of her life and believe she has everything so together that we don’t think twice even when she’s making hubristic mistakes like alienating an assistant who likely has a lot of dirt on her.  The film reminded me of another #MeToo themed work, Kitty Green’s The Assistant, in that it shows the revelation of malfeasance as being something of a cold and undramatic for those in vicinity of the abuser who are enabling them in very subtle ways without really thinking about what they’re doing.  And you as a viewer kind of find yourself feeling that way as you start to recontextualize some of Tár’s actions.  The aforementioned defense of Bach starts to look different, her willingness to threaten a bully who was harassing her daughter starts to feel indicative of a brutal willingness to crush her perceived enemies, and you also start to wonder what her motivations for mentoring a young cellist that she takes under her wing and starts to mentor.

The movie certainly shows the audience enough evidence to make it pretty clear that she’s guilty on some level, but much as Tár herself doesn’t really witness the consequences of her actions on her victims the film doesn’t really show this either, which is perhaps a choice that will be controversial.  By the film’s end Tár never really reckons with her own actions and it’s not clear really if she’s sorry or if she’s just sorry she got caught.  We see late in the film that she’s disgusted by more overt versions of sex trafficking, so clearly there are some limits to her depravity, and that she likely simply doesn’t see her own actions as comparable, and perhaps not without reason.  We don’t know the full extent of what she did or what shades of gray there were in these relationships that led to their downfall: did they seem like grooming to her?  Was there some truth to the actions she took against Krista Taylor that seemingly sabotaged her career or was it just pure retaliation?  The film leave enough ambiguous that you can think and wonder about these things and in the film’s final act as everything that Tár built up starts to crumble you can’t entirely help but want to salvage some of what’s being lost in her downfall.  Striver that she is, she doesn’t go down completely without a fight in much the way we still see people like Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. try to keep their careers going in unusual ways to much controversy.  Such indignities are perhaps a weak punishment given the stakes of what they are accused of but there is a tragedy to be found in genius talent being stifled and the movie has empathy for that… but it’s also clear as day that this wasn’t caused by some mistake in the culture, it was caused by Tár’s own selfishness and the only person she has to blame is herself.

****1/2 out of Five

Closure: John Carpenter

John Carpenter is pretty widely acknowledged as one of the living masters of horror.  There are people out there who like John Carpenter and then there are people out there who worship John Carpenter… I’m in the former category.  The guy has a very cool style and has made some really good movies but he’s hardly infallible.  Still, I’m more than enough of a fan to have seen twelve of the eighteen theatrical films he’s directed.  There are however six movies I still need to see before I can call myself a true Carpenter completist (and a couple of TV movies and some movies he only did the writing on, but we’ll be ignoring those for the time being).  With this being October I thought now was a good time to finally watch those final films in this horror specialist’s career even if a couple of them are kinda sorta not actually horror movies.

Dark Star (1974)

John Carpenter’s debut film, Dark Star, began its life on the campus of the USC film school and is notable for being a collaboration between Carpenter and a guy named Dan O’Bannon.  In fact this is often more heavily discussed in relation to O’Bannon than Carpenter because it more closely resembles one of O’Bannon’s future works, namely Alien for which O’Bannon served as a screenwriter.  O’Bannon once described the film as (and I’m paraphrasing) “a student film that got overly ambitious and out of control and actually got released in theaters and in doing so went from being the most impressive student film ever to being the least impressive ‘real’ movie ever.”  Frankly, I think that about sums it up.  Like Alien this was set on a big slow moving spaceship and follows the ship mates as they need to deal with an alien that has found its way on board, but this is actually supposed to be a comedy (or at least that’s what the rather defensive disclaimer in front of the movie on the DVD I watched says), but I can’t say I found it remotely funny.  The alien in question looks like a beach ball for some reason and the people on the ship look like early 70s college students who don’t have much of a future in acting.  The characters mumble their way through much of the film and, likely because additional material was added to pad out the length, the story meanders for extended periods of time.  This movie has its fans, in fact Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avery waxed rhapsodic about the movie on the debut episode of their new podcast but man, I’m not seeing it, at least not outside of being impressed at how much these twenty five year olds managed to pull off on a shoestring budget back when special effects could not just be conjured up on a laptop.  Outside of that and it’s weird place in the careers of two respected genre filmmakers I can’t really recommend.

*1/2 out of Five

Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)

The 1980s were really good for John Carpenter.  Between 1978 and 1988 he made nine straight movies that are, pretty much without exception, considered to be at the very least cult successes today.  I don’t personally like all of them and some of them were box office disappointments but generally speaking genre film fans would call it an unbroken win streak in terms of reputation.  I think it’s fair to say that the movie that broke this streak was 1992’s Memoirs of an Invisible Man, which isn’t a terrible movie and which I’m sure has it’s defenders but which definitely isn’t considered “classic Carpenter” by very many people.  In many ways it was probably a film that was destined to befuddle audiences as it’s a movie that’s almost impossible to market without raising the wrong expectations.  That it was made by John Carpenter and its title invokes James Whale’s 1933 The Invisible Man makes people expect it to be a horror movies, but it isn’t really.  And the fact that it stars Chevy Chase makes you think it’s going to maybe be a parody but it isn’t really.  Instead it’s almost more like a “wrong man” adventure story of sorts, a lighthearted one but not one that’s looking to make you laugh.  So, I guess you could say that the movie is disliked as much for what it isn’t than for what it is, but audience expectation kind of is part of the job of a director so I think it is still on Carpenter to some extent and even when taken for exactly what it is I think this movie is “kinda alright” at best.  Invisible man movies kind of exist in order to show off camera tricks and effects and do clever things with the invisibility, and there are some neat tricks here but few of them blew me away.  What’s more, it’s pretty obvious that the studio wasn’t willing to pay Chevy Chase to not be visible through most of the movie so they frequently just have him be visible to the audience even though he’s supposed to be invisible on screen and this is mostly to the movie’s detriment.  All in all the movie passes the time I guess, and Carpenter has certainly made worse movies, but there’s a reason why this is considered a turning point in his career and not in a positive way.

**1/2 out of Five

Escape from L.A. (1996)

It’s been a while since I’ve seen it but the truth of the matter is I’ve never really been the world’s biggest fan of John Carpenter’s 1981 film Escape from New York.  I’ve always thought Kurt Russell was cool in it but it never felt like it really lived up to its premise; it feels like it has the setup for the ultimate action movie but then it doesn’t really have the actual action scenes to back it up.  Given that this belated sequel has a worse reputation and has kind of become infamous for its bad early CGI effects I was never too excited to check it out.  Honestly I’m kind of surprised this even got made when it got made.  The original film was a success but it wasn’t a blockbuster and is perhaps something more akin to a cult film and I don’t generally think of the late 90s as a time when Hollywood studios were in the habit of giving big budgets to belated rebootish sequels to cult movies.  However, I think it’s probably good that they made this when they did because at forty five Kurt Russell was pretty much at just the right age to make this character work the best, perhaps even better than when he was making the first movie at thirty, cause he still looks very cool and the fact that he’s older give the characters some extra seasoning and mystique.  I also think the movie’s satirical dystopia also kind of works better in a post-Reagan world than it did in 1981 (when they were only starting to learn about the decade to come) and there’s a certain camp to the movie that is not going to be for everyone but which I do think is intentional.  And that subtle camp value is also what make the film’s truly atrocious CGI at least a little more forgivable than it might have been otherwise, that and the fact that it’s really only a problem in a couple of scenes.  There are a couple other bits that don’t really work here (the less said about the trans woman character the better) but I think Carpenter hits an interesting tone here that you’re not likely to see at the budget level and in this era very often and that made the whole film a pretty pleasant surprise.

*** out of Five

Vampires (1998)

Out of the six movies I’m looking at in this little John Carpenter marathon his 1998 film Vampires is probably the one I’d heard the least about one way or the other.  The film is set in a world in which it’s known, at least by the Catholic Church, that there are vampires walking the earth and they employ these teams of mercenaries to hunt them down and take them out.  The film takes something of deglamorized approach to vampirism, with the vampires kind of looking like methheads and the vampire hunters coming off like blue collar trucker types.  That world-building is almost certainly the film’s strongest element and there’s fun to be had just in seeing the various methods Carpenter finds to make these vampire hunters go about their business.  Less successful is the acting.  Despite all the rather heinous things he’s been known to say on Twitter I do like James Woods as an actor, and I see why he was cast here in some ways, but I’m not sure he quite works as what is essentially an action movie lead.  The part feels like it was written for Kurt Russell and I kind of wish they had gotten him.  The rest of the cast also kind of feels like it’s populated by the cheaper alternatives to the people they should have cast.  Daniel Baldwain sucks, dude looks like he showed up to set drunk, and the guy they get to play the main vampire villain also looks kind of wack.  Carpenter’s basic filmmaking here is still decent though and his score here is pretty good.  All in all I had fun with this, but it’s definitely flawed and I’d still probably rank it relatively low within Carpenter’s body of work.

*** out of Five

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

So far much of my late-period John Carpenter viewing has been something of a pleasant surprise.  Escape from L.A. and Vampires certainly weren’t among John Carpenter’s best works, but they were fun flicks that I enjoyed watching.  But now we come to Ghosts of Mars, the movie that seemingly derailed Carpenter’s career for the better part of a decade, I wanted to like this one too but unfortunately it really is kind of a train wreck.  The film follows Natasha Henstridge and a very young Jason Statham on a terraformed Mars colony as they hunt down an escaped criminal played by Ice Cube but end up encountering a bunch of armed miners who dug too deep and unleashed a bunch of Martian spirits who possessed them are planning to revolt against the human invaders.  This movie was made for $28 million dollars which isn’t exactly a “low” budget but it is not enough money to make an action movie with this level of science fiction world building and the movie just looks cheap and not very exciting and the bad guys in it look stupid.  Also, no disrespect to Ice Cube but he’s wildly miscast here.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with his acting but for a decade or so Hollywood vastly overestimated his potential as an action star as he doesn’t exactly look like the world’s most physically fit guy and his persona can be a bit one note.  The whole movie was just a disaster, it never really builds its world out like it needs to, the action is bad, and it’s certainly not atmospherically suspenseful.  It’s the movie that made John Carpenter swear off Hollywood and I don’t blame him.

*1/2 out of Five

The Ward (2010)

After the critical and commercial failure of Ghosts of Mars seemed to go into an unofficial retirements.  In interviews he said that during this period he had “fallen out of love with cinematic storytelling,” but he didn’t completely go away.  In the mid-2000s he directed two episodes of the short-lived Showtime anthology series “Masters of Horror” and apparently had a pretty good experience with that.  Then he came across a screenplay written by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen called The Ward, which he thought could be a comeback vehicle.  And… frankly I’m not really sure what it was in this screenplay that he saw because this doesn’t feel very Carpenter-esque or novel.  Set at a mental institution, the film follows a woman who’s been placed there after she was involved in some kind of arson situation.  While there it starts to seem that something suspicious is going on at this hospital, either on the part of its seemingly corrupt wardens or by what appears to be a ghost haunting the place.  The insane asylum has long been a bit of a horror staple, some could say a cliché, and this movie just doesn’t do a whole lot new with it.  In fact it specifically kind of lives in the shadow of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, which is also set at an asylum and a much more atmospheric one and does some similar things narratively, but there are several other movies I could name that did most of what this did earlier.  The film, while competent, doesn’t really have that visual slickness we’ve come to expect from Carpenter either and Carpenter does not even do the score to the film either.  Had you told me someone else had made it I would have believed you and without the Carpenter name on it I doubt I would have ever heard of it.  The movie had a very perfunctory theatrical release where it literally only made $7,760 domestically before essentially going direct to video.

** out of Five

In Conclusion

That was going pretty good until it stopped going good.  I didn’t have very high of expectations for most of these but there were some pleasant surprises in there.  But yeah, things kind of went off a cliff in those last two movies.  Objectively I think The Ward is a better movie than Ghosts of Mars but Ghosts of Mars at least feels more identifiably Carpenter-esque so I’m not really sure which is a less fitting conclusion to this filmmaker’s otherwise illustrious career.  Hopefully that’s just academic though.  In the twelve years since making The Ward Carpenter seemed to go back into retirement from filmmaking and instead put a lot of his attention into his musical endeavors as well as becoming something of an internet presence.  But in recent years there have been rumblings of his coming back out of retirement again.  Hopefully that happens and he can put out a film that caps things off a bit better than those last two movies.


On December 3rd 2013 it was announced that the New York Film Critic’s Circle has selected as their best movie of that year the new David O. Russell film American Hustle.  That film had skipped the festival circuit and its review embargo had not lifted at the time of the Circle’s vote, so that award win was something of an announcement of what was going to be a major award contender that year.  It then proceeded to get a great deal of praise, earned over $150 million at the box office, and garnered ten Academy Award nominations.  But then something seemed to just “snap” in the culture.  Something of a backlash seemed to emerge around the movie, not over any particular element or controversy, but some people just really didn’t like it or at least didn’t like it as much as they expected from a ten time Oscar nominee that some people were holding up as the year’s best in a fairly stacked year.  It ended up losing every single one of those Oscars and, seemingly embarrassed for having over praised American Hustle, critics seems almost unreasonably hard on his flawed follow-up Joy as almost a make-up call.  And now, seven years later, that distaste of Russell seems to have curdled if anything as they have been similarly ruthless toward his belated next film Amsterdam, which is appearing to be on track to be a fairly substantial box office failure as well.  Does it deserve such infamy, I don’t think so, but it does have definite issues which need to be parsed.

The film is set in New York in 1933 and follows three rather unique people: a doctor named Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) who works at a clinic for the poor, a lawyer named Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) who does a lot of work with Berendsen to similar ends, and a wealthy artist named Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie) who because of some ailment lives with her brother Tom Voze (Rami Malek) and his rather hostile wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy).  These three people met during the First World War, after the three remained in Europe and lived a Design for Living-esque life in Amsterdam for a couple of years before eventually parting ways.  Berendsen and Woodsman are working together again in New York and are hired by a woman named Elizabeth Meekins (Taylor Swift) to investigate the mysterious death of her father Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.), a general that the two had known and respected during their military service.  They do find evidence of foul play but Elizabeth is then murdered by what appears to be a hired thug (Timothy Olyphant) and the two become suspects in said murder.  To clear their names they have to follow down the mystery, which will lead them to reunite with Voze and uncover a conspiracy that targeted Meekins and may also come to target another general and veterans rights activist named Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro).

You can probably tell from that summery that this movie has a lot of characters, almost all of them played by pretty major celebrities.  I didn’t even get around to bringing up the characters played by Chris Rock, Mike Myers, Michael Shannon, Zoe Saldaña, Andrea Riseborough, or Matthias Schoenaerts.  The film needs to take time to introduce all these people and give them their “thing” and in general some of them are more distracting than others.  Very late in the movie it suggests that all these characters are important because they represent some sort of tapestry of life but functionally it kind of just makes the whole movie feel very, very, busy.  Structurally American Hustle is the movie Russell seems to be trying to recapture as both films take these not very well known footnotes in history and try to turn them into shaggy dog stories that border on screwball comedy.  Both movies start with non-committal tag “Some of this actually happened” but I feel like even more liberties were taken with this one.

The real even at play here is the so called “Business Plot” of 1933, an alleged coup plot against Roosevelt plotted by wealthy industrialists that was exposed by Marines General Smedley Butler (the inspiration for Robert De Niro’s character) at a congressional hearing.  Congress took this seriously, but the media largely viewed it as a hoax and it was much too tangled to lead to criminal charges for anyone.  Today historians are not quite sure what to make of the whole thing, some think it was a very serious threat, others suspect it was just some cocktail chatter that got way out of hand.  Of course all of this seems to be of much more serious relevance given the January 6th coup attempt that we all witnessed less than two years ago, and while that relevance could have been a boon for this movie I think it may have actually been more of a liability as it may have reduced people’s appetites to see all of this play out as a background element to three wholly fictional weirdos bumbling around and slipping on banana peels for two hours.

The movie’s appeal or lack thereof is a little hard to sum up.  It’s certainly not a completely unenjoyable movie; I was basically never bored watching it.  The thing is the movie is just a very odd stew with far too many ingredients.  They seem to have financed this thing by getting as many celebrities on board as possible, each working for only a week or two, meaning they need to invent a character for each of them and also give each of them a big weird personality.  Some of these characters are enjoyable to be around.  I certainly liked most scenes featuring Robert De Niro and Margot Robbie is pretty strong throughout.  But then there are other people here like Rami Malek who are capital-A annoying, and the movie kind of goes off the rails whenever they show up.  Christian Bale is also going way too big and overall the movie is pretty much never as funny as it seems to think it is or as it should be.  Right up until the end I was still kind of on the movie’s side but then at a certain point I needed this thing to get to the point and it pretty much never gets there.  Russell clearly thinks the true story that inspired this is interesting, but he buries it in so many fictional characters that it’s hard to really learn much about it from the movie with any certainty and the film’s interest in the racism of the time is not terribly insightful and at times seems downright flippant.  Maybe this is how American Hustle felt to that movie’s detractors.  Despite all that, and acknowledging that the movie doesn’t entirely work I do still find myself defending it on some level.  There are much worse movies than this which get much easier passes than this one has gotten.  That said, David O. Russell is way overdue for a re-invention and I hope he comes with fresher ideas for the next one.
**1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 9/26/2022

Cha Cha Real Smooth (9/10/2022)

The most buzzed about movie coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was most likely Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth, a quarter-life crisis movie about a college grad who finds himself working as a “party starter” at New Jersey area bar mitzvahs.  The film was picked up by AppleTV+ for $15 million, not a record breaking number but certainly an attention-getting sum and one that naturally had a lot of people asking “is this the next CODA?”  Well, no, it isn’t.  In fact I kind of suspect that if this had been released to theaters like a normal movie it would not have made that $15 million back and that this would have one of those movies that people went nuts for at Sundance only to not connect when released to “the wild.”  That does not, however, mean it’s bad.  It’s not, it’s fine.  I think if this were made something like ten years ago it would have been made as a “mumblecore” movie though I’m not 100% sure I can prove that it isn’t already that outside of the fact that it has a slightly larger budget than those movies tended to and no one is literally mumbling in it.  The “Bar Mitzvah party starter” premise is mostly just a hook for this to rest on, it’s mostly about a love triangle in which the Cooper Raiff character comes close to starting a relationship with a woman in her thirties with an autistic daughter and a fiancé.  That plays out well enough, but there are some problems here.  For one, I’m not sure Cooper Raiff was quite the right actor for this even though he’s essentially playing himself in certain ways.  The film is very specifically about a twenty two year old and Raiff reads older than that even though looking it up he’s actually only twenty five and was likely even younger when this filmed so this might be an irrational complaint but it did stand out to me.  I also think the film just generally could have used a bit more comedy in general because it all feels a touch grim for a film about a situation which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t that high stakes.  Beyond that my response might just be a touch persona, this is a movie about a guy who’s an extreme extrovert, and that’s just not going to be the easiest thing for me to relate to and I think relatability matters with this kind of movie.
*** out of Five

We Met in Virtual Reality (9/17/2022)

Well, here’s one for the “is this a documentary” format: a movie that’s entirely computer animated but still counts as a doc.  This film was “shot” entirely through captures from the VRChat platform, which is kind of a hub where people with VR headsets can hang out together in avatar form.  So you’re basically looking at a bunch of footage from what to my eyes looks like a very janky and bug-laden videogame, though it’s not really a videogame because there’s no real “game” to it, it’s more just a series of elaborate meeting places.  Adding to the surreality of all this, most of the people in VRChat seem to go around these virtual worlds decked in these rather pervy anime avatars and the extent to which this whole thing is kind of porny is addressed in a segment set in a VR strip club in which said pervy anime avatars make subtext text by getting decked in lingerie and give virtual lap dances to other VR avatars.  The movie, however, takes a more positive view of the whole thing and is focused on the positive friendships and even romantic relationships that spark out of this bizarre creation.  The movie also very deliberately never breaks out of the game to provide any images whatsoever of what any of these people look like in their corporeal form, which can be a bit frustrating but I guess it kind of mirrors the experience of existing on this platform and having to kind of take it on faith that the people around you are “on the level.”  Once you get past the format the film’s narrative is actually very conventional, which I think is by design in order to ground things.  I left the movie not too surprised that people can find love in VR, though I’m not exactly sure why doing so would be fundamentally different from finding it in a chatroom or a dating site or in “World of Warcraft” or any number of other online spaces we’ve been hearing about people getting married in over the years.  Not a terribly probing doc but the novelty of the format makes it worth a look.
*** out of Five

The Sky is Everywhere (9/19/2022)

The Sky is Everywhere was kind of dumped unceremoniously onto AppleTV+ in February of this year and hasn’t been talked about too widely, in large part because it looks like (and is) a pretty standard “coming of age movie based on a YA novel” type thing, but I was at least a little interested in it since it was helmed by Josephine Decker (of Madeline’s Madeline and Shirley fame).  Sure enough, I do think Josephine Decker brings some interesting visual ideas to the table with this; the film’s Northern California setting is a nice change of pace from the suburbia these things are usually set in and Decker has some neat tricks up her sleeve to depict the protagonist’s state of mind.  That said this is definitely a YA adaptation and is pretty in line with some of that genre’s more tired tropes.  The story concerns a teenage girl who is living with the grief of having recently lost an older sister who had a heart condition and follows her in her grief as she starts a romance with a boy from her school.  The film is pretty willing to make its protagonist a particularly unwound bundle of nerves and hormones.  Even before her family tragedy she was the kind of girl to have allegedly read “Wuthering Heights” twenty three times and is seemingly made even more “extra” because of her grief, so in short she can be a kind of annoying person to outside observers but I do think the film is at least aware of this and that it’s by design.  That’s not an easy thing to pull off and while she gives it an admirable try I’m not sure that star Grace Kaufman is quite able to pull this off and I also don’t think Decker ever quite elevates this from what it is as much as it needs to be.  But as far as movies for the young and confused go, you can do worse than this, but I can also see why it didn’t catch on, it isn’t really “arty” enough to break out of its YA origins but maybe is a little too unconventional to fully connect with mainstream teens as well.
*** out of Five

Sidney (9/23/2022)

“Authorized biographies” usually shouldn’t be viewed as the last word on a subject, but they serve an important purpose.  Letting a subject get out the official “company line” on themselves is often useful and telling and more often than not will get you most of the way there even if they can be guarded and curated accounts.  The new Oprah produced Sidney Poitier documentary, simply titled Sidney, can fairly be fairly described as the documentary equivalent of an “authorized biography” and like with the book equivalent of that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The filmmakers were able to get an interview with Poitier himself at some point before he passed away which is kind of an important thing to begin with as Poitier was not someone who gave out interviews easily late in life.  That interview is the backbone of the film to some extent but they’ve also wrangled a very impressive roster of side commentators including his family members, print biographer, as well as a lot of fellow actors of the next generation like Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Morgan Freeman, Spike Lee, and many others.  I don’t know that there’s much here that will be too surprising to anyone who’s followed Poitier’s life previously but it’s all laid out and presented here in a very clear and professional way.  It’s not the most creative or enlightening doc you’re ever going to encounter but it also pretty well delivers on what it promises on and it’s hard to complain about it too much.
***1/2 out of Five

Luck (9/26/2022)

It’s become increasingly clear to me how easy it is to take Pixar for granted.  They’ve been doing what they do with a certain standard of quality that it seems like people don’t give their best movies the credit they deserve anymore and hold their lesser movies to something of an unfair standard.  And nothing puts into relief how easy Pixar makes what they do look than when you watch another studio try to imitate Pixar and then fall flat on their face in the process.  That’s certainly what happens with the new direct-to-AppleTV+ animated film Luck, from the newly formed Skydance Animation Studio that was formed in part with the co-operation of former Pixar chief John Lasseter.  The film’s very concept feels like something Lasseter found in his former studio’s “reject” bin while he was on his way out.  Specifically the film feels like a particularly lame version of Inside Out except instead of being about feelings working inside someone’s minds it imagines a world where all the good and bad luck in the world is manufactured in a magical factory and through some contrived silliness our protagonist finds herself following a talking cat into this alternate dimension and getting into fairly predictable hijinks.  The animation here isn’t quite incompetent per se but it’s plainly second rate, something closer to what you might expect from an ambitious TV cartoon than from a feature film with noticeably less detailed characters who are much more dully designed.  By most accounts the Pixar process involves years of tinkering and revision to perfect their projects and I suspect this movie didn’t have that luxury and that extends to its notably witless and half-assed script with noticeably half-baked world building, inelegant dialogue, and banal messages.  And don’t get me started on the way this movie shoehorns Madonna’s “Lucky Star” into itself in the dumbest ways possible.  Maybe Skydance Animation can get on its feet and make something of itself after this disaster, but if they are they’re going to have to find an original voice because they clearly aren’t going to do it by being a dime store Pixar.
* out of Five


Trying to make thematic connections between a set or even a pair of films released in a given year is probably a fool’s errand that’s mostly a game of coincidence spotting.  Zeitgeists exist, but years are arbitrary and especially these days production schedules and release calendars are fickle.  That said, it sure is crazy that in 2022 we’ve managed to get outlandish and fairly large scale biopics of the two wildly entertainers that represented sex in popular culture for men and women respectively in the otherwise rather repressed 1950s.  Of course the first of these was Baz Luhrmann’s glitzy if wildly uneven Elvis Presley biopic simply titled Elvis and now Andrew Dominik’s harrowing and provocative Marylyn Monroe biopic Blonde.  This is interesting to me because I think both of these subjects are notable for being undeniable cultural icons but also for being people whose full appeal can sort of be lost if you don’t have a certain amount of context.  One has to understand what culture was like before Elvis to understand why his simple rockabilly tunes and pelvic gyrations would cause such a sensation.  Similarly, while it doesn’t take a genius to understand that Marylyn Monroe was a great screen presence with some legitimate performance chops to boot, in a vacuum it would be hard to tell just how much her particular brand of sexuality was missing from screens before and why it was so enticing to people encountering such a type for the first time.  So there’s a comparison to be made between these movies, but Blonde is a much more prickly item than Elvis and one that is likely to divide people.

Blonde was originally written as a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, which was published in the year 2000.  That book was explicitly marketed as a work of fiction rather than a biography even though the character at its center was explicitly Marilyn Monroe and the identities of various side characters like “the ex-athlete” and “the playwright” were not exactly hard to suss out.  Essentially it was a book interested in “printing the legend” of Monroe’s life and it tells her story under the assumption that every rumor and conspiracy theory about her life is true, including her dalliances with the Kennedys.  This film adaptation mostly follows in that tradition; it begins with a preteen Norma Jean (Lily Fisher) being raised by a mentally ill mother (Julianne Nicholson) before being separated from her after a particularly dangerous situation.  From there we transition to an adult Monroe (Ana de Armas) as she begins a career in Hollywood that is abusive on several levels and her personal life will lead her to several high profile names including but not limited to Charles “Cass” Chaplin Jr. (Xavier Samuel), Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), and Arthur Miller (Adrien Brody).

The real Marilyn Monroe is someone whose legacy has largely been built on a certain duality.  Onscreen she played lighthearted sexy roles in what were mostly comedies, but everyone now knows that she actually lived a very complicated and sad life and her early death gives her something of that “27 club dead rock star” martyr aura.  In fact she’s become something of a patron saint of female suffering and her life’s story has come to represent the pain that can lie beneath beauty.  And this is very much the Monroe iconography that Joyce Carol Oates was exploring in her novel and by extension what Andrew Dominik is trying to get at and the approach is to depict everything that was wrong and painful about Monroe’s experience in all their extremity.  So, this definitely isn’t what you’d call a “feel good” biopic or movie… at all.  Monroe’s experiences of child abuse and abandonment early in life are pretty harrowing right up front and kind of establish her as something of a psychological time bomb right from the beginning, and Hollywood (and the rest of society) very much fails to treat her with the kind of sensitivity required given that.  Instead her every relationship kind of represents different kinds of ways that men can hurt women from the manipulations of Cass Chaplin, to the outright domestic violence exhibited by Joe DiMaggio, to the condescension of Arthur Miller, to… the whole swath of issues with the Kennedy relationship.  It all adds up into something of an extended explanation for why Monroe finally took her own life in the end.

So, there’s definitely a lot to be said about what this movie is trying to do in the aggregate but there are some things about the film’s approach that maybe undermine the message a little.  For one, Andrew Dominik is a bold director but I’m not necessarily sure he’s the most sensitive soul in the world, there’s a touch of the edgelord to him.  This is after all the guy who ended his last movie with someone saying “America’s not a country, it’s just a business, now fucking pay me!” and then playing that “I need money, that’s what I want” song over the credits.  He can be a little blunt, is what I’m saying and I’m not sure that “bluntness” is exactly the perfect approach for a story about an abused and suicidal woman.  Much has been made of the fact that the film is rather sexually explicit, which I suppose is true by Hollywood standards though there is a bit less skin than I was perhaps expecting given some of the pre-release buzz.  That sort of thing doesn’t necessarily bother me though there is perhaps a certain tone deafness inherent in taking the life of someone defined by the male gaze and then being a bit, shall we say unshy about literally and figuratively exposing them.  Additionally there’s a bit of an unpleasant irony in how little the movie seems to care about Monroe’s actual acting process given that she was someone who in life was so often dismissed as untalented eye candy.  I also think I kind of hated the extent to which a desire for children seems to define Monroe here and Dominik is at his most blunt and crude in depicting this aspect of the film in ways that border on the offensive and slanderous.

For these reasons and others I’m not sure I can say that the movie fits easily within modern feminist storytelling ideals or typical sensibilities generally, but there is something to be said for great art needing to provoke rather than fitting easily with sensibilities generally and there are elements of this film which certainly feel like great art alongside other moments that maybe feel a bit misjudged.  The film shifts between black and white and color as well as between various aspect ratios throughout its running time and there didn’t seem to be any particular pattern or logic to this that I could discern.  It kind of just seemed like Dominik chose whatever format felt right for any given scene or shot and went with it, which is an approach that we’ve seen more and more of in recent years and I’m coming to kind of question the wisdom of it but there are definitely times when it works here.  There are individual scenes here which are kind of brilliant and other scenes that are kind of crazy but are certainly rendered brilliantly, but then occasionally the film will indulge an idea or two that just seems kind of daft.  Then there are scenes that kind of blend both of the film’s instincts, like a late sequence in the film depicting a Kennedy related conspiracy theory that’s incredibly well shot and creepily rendered… but is also basically outlandish slander.  I wonder if I might have found the film easier to defend if it had taken on an additional layer of overt fictionalization, even something as minor as changing the protagonist’s name and a couple of other identifying details.

So did I like this movie?  Well, that’s a hard question.  I was completely engaged while watching it, usually for the right reasons.  The movie kept me guessing as to where it was going to go stylistically and was quite impressed with some of its stronger sequences, but I also watched it never quite knowing if I could entirely get behind what it was doing with the bigger picture.  It’s a mix of concerns that leaves me feeling a little silly trying to reduce my feelings about the film down to a star rating or some pat little tagline.  One thing I do know is that I certainly preferred it to Elvis, the film I was comparing it to at the beginning.  That certainly wasn’t a movie with a “take” that required me to work out the ethics of and its stylistic risks weren’t nearly as successful, but there is a certain recklessness at the center of both films that I do think makes the comparison legitimate.  Blonde maybe could have stood to be as interested in Monroe’s actual acting as Elvis was in Presley’s actual musical talents, and Elvis could have stood to be a bit more hard hitting about its subject’s messy personal life and flaws like Blonde is but Blonde’s worst element (the fetus shit) is not as omnipresent as Elvis’ worst element (the Tom Hanks performance) so I think my preference is pretty clear.  I don’t think I’m done making up my mind about this one and will probably revisit it someday; such is the nature of material that’s challenging and provocative.  For now I do view this as something that is if nothing else more than worth fighting through some discomfort with in order to reckon with even if I do ultimately decide I’m not on board with its biographical ethics.
***1/2 out of Five