The Fabelmans(11/26/2022)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

The number of film directors that “normies” know by name is pretty low.  I could suggest Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick, but I’m not sure how many film illiterate zoomers will know who they are.  Alternately I could suggest Christopher Nolan or David Fincher but I’m not sure how well known those guys are by the over-70 crowd.  I suppose Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and M. Night Shyamalan have been successful enough at promoting themselves that they qualify as household names, but they’re divisive figures who many people love but many other people love to hate.  Then of course there’s Martin Scorsese, but ultimately his audience is a bit limited as well.  The one name that so obviously stands out as the truly universally beloved filmmaker is almost certainly Steven Spielberg, a man who accomplished more in the first ten years of his career than most filmmakers manage their entire lives.  That having been said, it’s not entirely clear that Spielberg’s grip on the public imagination is what it once used to be, in part because he’s come to focus on making movies for adults during a rather juvenile time box office history.  His West Side Story remake last year basically bombed at the box office despite being some of his best work in a while.  One can blame the pandemic for that, but still, it’s hard to get around.  His smaller dramas like The Post and Bridge of Spies have generally done pretty well for what they are and the one time this decade that he threw up his arms and made an effects vehicle with Ready Player One it was lucrative, but outside of that he hasn’t really had a blockbuster since Lincoln and I’m not sure he’s made something that can truly be called an earth quaking popular game changer since Saving Private Ryan.  That having been said, I’m honestly kind of glad that (Ready Player One notwithstanding) Spielberg has followed his muse into mellower places rather than chasing trends and trying to be hip with the youths.  And he’s certainly followed that muse into personal territory with his latest film, an autobiographical coming of age film called The Fabelmans.

The Fabelmans is a very lightly fictionalized retelling of Steven Spielberg’s childhood and adolescence.  His alter ego is Sam Fabelman (played as a child by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) and the film starts with him being taken to a movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which leaves him enamored with the idea of trains colliding with things.  His father, an engineer named Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), eventually buys him a toy train set but gets angry when he learns that the boy is crashing these devices so his mother Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman (Michelle Williams) suggests that he instead film a single crash on the family 8mm film camera and watch that.  This sparks a lifelong fascination with filmmaking in the boy which blooms after the family moves him and his sisters to Arizona and as a teenager (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) he starts making increasingly elaborate amateur films with his boy scout troop.  A family friend and co-worker of Burt’s named Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogan) also comes to Phoenix and is ingrained in the family to the point where he’s viewed as an uncle to the kids, and together they all make for a pretty happy family.  Things will not remain happy forever though and after Sam’s maternal grandmother dies it leads to a bout of extreme grief in his mother that will result in a series of events that will leave this family wounded in such a way that it could affect Sam and his art for the rest of his life.

While Sam’s movie obsession is seen in several different places there are two specific movies that are highlighted as having influenced Sam early in life.  The first is the aforementioned The Greatest Show on Earth, which is certainly a believable film to highlight as an early influence because who would make that up?  That movie is lousy, it’s a bloated commercial for the circus that is today considered to be one of the weakest movies to ever con its way into winning a Best Picture Oscar.  But watching the clips in the movie you do sort of get how it could have impact as a six year old’s first exposure to cinema, particularly its finale which involved a car derailing a train.  That, one could say, appears to be the genesis of Spielberg’s interest in spectacle and action and sparked the early films that made him a household name.  The other film highlighted, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is more emblematic of the more conflicted films about American history that Spielberg would make later in his career like Munich, Lincoln, and The Post.  Obviously that movie is highlighted because it’s a western that came out in 1962 and which could inspire him to make a western film as one of his projects, but I think it’s here for a bigger reason as well, namely because of its famous last line: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

In many ways The Fabelmans feels like a project that exists to print the legend of Spielberg’s life.  Anyone with even a casual knowledge of Spielberg’s work and life story has heard the stories of him growing up as a movie obsessed tyke who used his family’s home video camera to make mini-movies.  It’s a concept of his life that’s so widely repeated that it once inspired J.J. Abrams to make a big budget science fiction film called Super 8 about similarly inspired young people making a their own movies with similar technology.  The recreation of these no-budget film shoots are, interestingly, the most Spielbergian moments in The Fabelmans and there’s a great deal of fun to be found in the ingenuity of these junior filmmakers and the extent to which Sam seems like a natural at this clear to be seen.  One could accuse Spielberg of a certain vanity to all of this and the scale and talent of these movies within the movie would seem to be a bit hard to swallow.  However, I’ve seen clips from Spielberg’s actual juvenilia and they’re actually not that far removed from what you see here, it’s legitimately amazing that the teenaged Spielberg in the early 60s was still able to make things that look more like “real” movies than what many people today are able to make despite having every technological advantage.

Of course the other part of the Spielberg legend comes from the fact that he’s said to come from something of a broken family that had been torn apart by divorce and that this gave him“daddy issues” that would be very detectable in his films, which tend to be filled to the brim with absent fathers and a desire for familial reunification.  This is where The Fabelmans throws a bit of a wrench into the gears of printing the legend and makes a major change from the narrative we all know.  In the film a teenage Sam discovers through some of the home video footage he shot that his mother has been having an affair with his “uncle” Bennie Loewy and builds resentment for her.  This affair is factual, but in the 2017 HBO documentary simply titled Spielberg the filmmaker said that he never knew anything about it until well into adulthood leaving him to resent his father because he didn’t understand what led him to leave, so unless he was lying in that documentary this plot development in The Fabelmans would seem to be a divergence both from the facts and the legend.  In a way this would seem to be setting up an alternate universe version of Steven Spielberg where events have set him up to have “mommy issues” instead of “daddy issues.”  That’s pretty interesting, but it’s also something that the movie doesn’t have much time to actually do anything with.  It ends before Spielberg has started his professional film career, and we’re kind of left to imagine what effect this parental figure reversal would have on films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

One does not, however, need to be a Spielberg nut in order to enjoy The Fabelmans as it is simply a very well-constructed coming of age movie.  Spielberg did not grow up in a dramatic warzone like Kenneth Branagh or John Boorman and wasn’t a borderline juvenile delinquent like François Truffaut, so he is examining a more privileged adolescence and he isn’t really interrogating that privilege the way Alfonso Cuarón and James Gray did with their recent efforts in autobiography.  Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner make up for this by just filling his movie with a lot of wit and relatability.  Spielberg has long been something of a master of getting good performances out of child actors and hasn’t lost his touch here and he’s also able to make the rest of the family here seem believable even if the adults here are largely played by movie stars.  He’s also able to make some of the angstier moments of the teenage version of himself feel understandable rather than annoying and the film also does a good job of handling some of the antisemitism he experienced while living among the goyim in California and some amusing anecdotes like an early romance Sam has with a girl who keeps trying to convert him to Christianity.  And of course it also leads up to a very amusing final scene on the Paramount backlot which I will not spoil here.  So, by and large this is a very enjoyable and satisfying movie but I’m going to have to stop short of calling it top tier Spielberg.  Partly that’s just because he’s set the bar inanely high for himself but even last year’s West Side Story displayed him in a more adventurous place as a visual stylist and other dramas he’s made like Lincoln and Munich deal with weightier topics.  But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth, Spielberg is bearing his soul to the film going populace and that’s not something you get every day.
**** out of Five


Black Panther: Wakanda Forever(11/10/2022)

On August 28th 2022 we all learned the shocking news about the untimely passing of actor Chadwick Boseman, who had apparently managed to hide a cancer diagnosis from the public eye while finishing a handful of movies before taking a turn for the worse.  This was of course first and foremost a human tragedy and the cause of mourning, but of course for better or worse one of the first questions to cross many people’s minds was “what are they going to do about the sequel to Black Panther?”  Do they recast the role or do they make a Black Panther film without the Black Panther?  And even without this massive challenge to overcome there were probably other reasons to be a little worried about following up 2018’s Oscar nominated sensation, which was just generally going to be a hard act to follow.  It was a similar challenge faced by the film Wonder Woman 1984, which sort of displayed how a franchise that once seemed like a cultural touchstone “first” could suddenly just feel like another flawed superhero sequel once it was no longer a “first.”  But then the trailer dropped.  That advertisement, which I’ve seen in front of basically every movie I’ve seen since July, was a real master class in generating excitement and really pointed to how this thing could well thread the needle in terms of mourning Chadwick Boseman and his iconic character while also moving ahead with an interesting Wakandan story… of course trailers are by definition advertisements and you can’t always rely on them.  So I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I showed up on opening day to see Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever appears to be set several years after the last film and as it opens we learn that like the actor who plays him, T’Challa has died of an illness that is never specified and this cause of death does not come back as a plot point later on, it’s just a blunt fact at the opening to move us along.  Because Killmonger destroyed the last of the herb needed to create a new Black Panther in the previous movie there isn’t really a way to replace the fallen king.  Meanwhile, somewhere in the open ocean, a U.S. navy ship that’s attempting to find a vibranium deposit on the ocean floor suddenly finds itself under attack by a race of strange blue-skinned water breathing people who are able to sonically hypnotize people in to drowning themselves.  The rest of the world suspects Wakanda to be the culprit of this attack but the Wakandans first learn about it when the leader of these aquatic people, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), slips past the Wakandan defenses to meet with Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) and queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett).  He says he thinks the Wakandans are responsible for the “surface dwellers” having almost found their underwater city because the Wakandans told them about vibranium, leading said surface dwellers to invent a vibranium detector that led the ship from the opening scene to them.  He tells them that for peace to exist between his people and the Wakandans they would need to go to the United States and kidnap the scientist responsible for the creation of the vibranium detector, a task that sure seems like it won’t be the end of all of this.

There’s no real getting around it, killing off a major character like T’Challa off screen like they had to here, is pretty awkward.  It may well have been the best choice out of several bad options given the circumstances, but I’m not going to say they 100% pulled it off.  If you lived under a rock and somehow went to this Black Panther sequel having not heard about Boseman’s real life passing you would almost certainly find that to be a very peculiar storytelling decision and you may similarly find the film’s highly reverent, almost wake-like tone going forward a little odd as well (some future Marvel fan watching this for the first time in 2070 may well find the exercise rather tedious).  But MCU movies, even more so than normal movies, do not exist in a vacuum and audiences probably did need this.  And I’ll also say, and this is a bit morbid, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in some ways benefits from this turn of events because in many ways it kind of makes this a Marvel movie that isn’t actually a superhero movie for much of its runtime (because the actual superhero isn’t at the center of it).

That said, there’s a lot about this screenplay that’s kind of messy.  For one it’s kind of premised on this notion that the people of the world somehow view Wakanda as particularly vulnerable at that time because they don’t have a Black Panther, which is… odd.  Presumably Wakanda derives its strength from the fact that vibranium has made them technologically, economically, and militarily advanced… not because they had one superhero.  But the country that really seems to be making all the worst assessments here are the Talokans, who just seem to botch everything about this whole situation from the jump.  Ostensibly Namor wants an alliance with the Wakandans, which certainly seems like a natural partnership, but he gets off on the wrong foot pretty much from the beginning by immediately engaging in threats and ultimatums and demands rather than anything resembling good diplomacy.  They claim their ultimate goal is to conceal their existence from the wider world and specifically the United States but do so through violent actions that would almost certainly make them more of a target rather than less of one, at least if the CIA was halfway competent (which they plainly aren’t, there’s a whole subplot with Martin Freeman’s character that goes nowhere and feels like a remnant of an earlier draft of the screenplay) while also getting the Wakandans to kidnap an American national despite seemingly being able to do so themselves.

Of course the Talokans here aren’t just fish people, they’re origins and iconography plainly make them an analog for the indigenous people of Mesoamerica if spared from the legacy of colonialism in the same way that Wakanda is an analog for the African culture when removed from the its legacy of colonial rule and I think the ultimate goal is to make this an extended metaphor about the way different sets of marginalized communities interact with one another and how all too often they find themselves pitted against one another instead of working together for a common goal.  Unfortunately I’m not sure the execution of this quite works.  One way to do this would have been to make the CIA, or barring that some sort of supervillain, the true villain in all of this who’s manipulating the two nations into their conflict.  In some ways that would be the easy way out, but the movie doesn’t really go there, the western powers end up being almost implausibly ignorant about the whole conflict for much of the runtime.  The other way is to make the conflict a result of bad actions on one or both sides that lead to this conflict, as tends to happen when major powers have conflicting interest, but I’m not sure Ryan Coogler quite had it in him to make Wakanda even somewhat responsible for this whole mess through their own malfeasance so he ends up making Namor quite the hothead and puts most of the responsibility for all this and the Talokans even though the movie does seem to want us to sympathize with them more than they really do.

Namor’s casus belli against the United States is that they had the gall to search for natural resources on what they had assumed to be uninhabited international waters leading to a rather disproportional retaliation that leaves a whole lot of innocent workers dead.  He then more or less blames the Wakandans for this for making the wider world aware that said resource exists, something they would have had no reason to think would affect anyone aside from themselves given that they don’t even know Talokan exists and then later for engaging in a rescue operation that’s pretty plainly justified.  So, really Wakanda is basically blameless in all this and I’m not sure they even really have that legitimate a beef with the rest of the surface world and that just makes this whole conflict seem like the act of a super villain, which I guess it is, but the movie doesn’t really act like that.  Midway through the movie we get something of an origin story for the Talokans which I think the movie expects to go a lot further in justifying their temperament, additionally once it’s shown I think the movie expects us to be a lot more wowed by their underwater society than we actually are in part because our look at it is really brief and cursory and in part just because it doesn’t really pull off the vision.  DC’s Atlantis did the whole concept more vividly and frankly James Cameron probably doesn’t need to worry too much about this movie eating his lunch once he takes us to Pandora’s oceans next month.

However, whatever shortcomings this script has, I will give it credit for at the very least not being a total slave to the MCU formula.  I don’t want to oversell this and make it seem like it’s some kind of revolutionary bit of storytelling that totally breaks the Marvel mold because it most certainly isn’t and there are other MCU movies like Eternals that have gone even further in subverting the tropes, but Coogler has clearly been given some latitude that other MCU projects haven’t and when it does get involved in crossover stuff it does it in ways that mostly feel natural and it’s not an MCU film that feels like it needs to insert one-liners into every page (which isn’t to say its humorless).  The action scenes here are a bit of a mixed bag with some of the sequences here maybe working a bit better in conception than in execution.  The visual effects work is generally stronger than they are in the first film (which seems to have been the victim of some of Marvel’s famous effects rush crunches) but they aren’t “next level shit” if you will and I’m not sure that these large scale CGI heavy battle scenes are quite Ryan Coogler’s forte, but the costumes and art direction remain very strong and there are some standout sequences that do work quite well.

What really saves this movie ultimately are the characters.  The original Black Panther is almost certainly the only MCU hero origin movie that had a strong enough supporting cast to have allowed them to carry sequel without the central hero.  Had, say, Benedict Cumberbatch been hit by a bus sometime after making the first Doctor Strange it is highly unlikely that anyone would have even considered making a sequel focused around the half formed side characters played by Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor but here we actually do have a pretty impressive cast and world to fall back on.  Interestingly this also means that this follow-up to Black Panther is a rather female dominated film with Letitia Wright’s Shuri ultimately becoming the film’s protagonist by the end but with Angela Bassett’s Ramonda and Danai Gurira’s Okoye essentially feeling like co-leads for much of the film and Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia eventually also playing a big role and Winston Duke’s M’Baku also having an expanded role.  Dominique Thorne also comes into the movie in winning form and while I have some misgivings about his character’s arc Tenoch Huerta Mejía is quite the casting “find” in the role of Namor and he kind of elevates that character beyond what’s there on the page.  Really the only true weak link is Martin Freeman, who does the best he can with what feels like a really forced sub-plot that doesn’t really work.

So, when coming up with a final judgement on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever I’m a bit conflicted.  I definitely think it’s a step down from the first movie and that it won’t have the same crossover appeal to people who aren’t normally interested in superhero movies.  It manages to feel distinct from some Marvel movies simply by being something of an ensemble piece but that can also be a double edged swords.  There are certainly highlights to the film that really work and it carries over a lot of the first film’s craft triumphs, but its screenplay is perhaps not as complex as it could have been or wants to be and I just kind of feel like it could have been a lot more if certain things had been handled a bit better on the script level.  Frankly I suspect that the rush to re-shape the movie after Boseman’s death while maintaining a release date took a toll on the movie.  All that having been said, I do think the movie has more than enough going for it to make it enjoyable despite the flaws.  The film’s rather lengthy 161 minute runtime actually flies by pretty quickly and the scenes where the film stops to mourn Boseman and his character are in fact pretty affecting, and even if I don’t think they pull it off there is intrigue to be found in this conflict with Namor.  So I’m going to ultimately say I like this more than a lot of my complaining in this review would suggest, but those reservations are deep.
***1/2 out of Five

Crash Course: China’s Modern Blockbusters Part 1

“We must on no account reject the legacies of the ancients and the foreigners or refuse to learn from them, even though they are the works of the feudal or bourgeois classes. But taking over legacies and using them as examples must never replace our own creative work; nothing can do that. Uncritical transplantation or copying from the ancients and the foreigners is the most sterile and harmful dogmatism in literature and art.” — Mao Zedong, talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, May 2nd 1942

For much of the 2010s it was no secret that The People’s Republic of China was becoming an intensely important market for cinema.  If you look in the trades you’ll see article after article about movies making hundreds of millions of dollars there and of studio executives bending over to pander to that market.  I’ve been reading about it in Erich Schwartzel’s book “Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy,” and meeting the demands of the CCP has been pretty all encompassing for that whole industry for a decade.  We have not, however, heard many stories of the trade routes going in the other direction.  Depending on your view of Taiwanese sovereignty the highest grossing movie from mainland China in America is 2003’s Hero, which kind of predates the current boom, and even that (and many of the other wuxia films from that wave) were Hong Kong co-productions.  As far as I can tell the highest grossing purely Mainland Chinese film in the United States is 2006’s Curse of the Golden Flower, which made all of $6,566,773, slightly less than such “commercial” products as Amour and Fanny and Alexander.  But that doesn’t mean Chinese movies aren’t hugely profitable, in fact they’ve managed to set worldwide records largely using only their own domestic market.  These are some of the biggest global blockbusters in the world and yet I’m largely unfamiliar with them.  I’ve seen plenty of Hong Kong movies and some of China’s artier offerings like some of the “Fifth Generation” films or the works of people like Jia Zhangke, but like most westerners I’ve ignored the movies they’ve made for the masses and I feel like having some familiarity with what’s popular in this increasingly important market would be useful at some point.  Honestly I’m not sure how much I’ll like these or even if I’ll like them at all.  These are not movies made for outsiders and a lot of them look extremely nationalistic to the point of essentially being propaganda, but I’m going to try to watch with an open mind and see what I can learn.

Wolf Warrior (2015)

Wolf Warrior is the lowest grossing movie I’ll be looking at in this series; the film’s sequel is a record setting phenomenon that I’ll be covering at a later date but this original was actually a much more modest success at the Chinese box office.  It and its sequel are infamous for their patriotic chest beating, to the point where term “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” has come to be widely used to describe Chinese diplomats publicly using confrontational tactics to appeal to home audiences who want to see their country talking tough on the world stage.  It would, however, not quite be correct to call this a government commissioned work of propaganda of the over “Battleship Potemkin” variety.  China does make those kinds of films, they tend to be dry re-enactments of historical events that the party wants to commemorate often on key anniversaries and primarily enjoyed by old people, and this wasn’t one of them.  It’s certainly a film that is interested in working in harmony with the CCP’s propaganda goals to gain their favor, and it’s also trying to exploit the nationalistic impulses of its audience the way that something like the Rambo series has been known to, but it was by all accounts not a film that the government had a lot of interest or faith in while it was being made and its origins are actually downright capitalistic.

The film is very much the passion project of its writer, director, and star Wu Jing.  Wu was a martial arts actor who had been toiling in Hong Kong and Mainland China since the mid-90s with middling-at-best success, sometimes using the westernized name “Jacky Wu.”  Wolf Warrior was the project Wu believed in and thought could be a breakout and invested a lot of his own money into.  The official story was that Wu watched the Chinese military doing a rescue operation after an earthquake and was so moved by their heroism that he wanted to make a movie to honor them… which is certainly a story with a ring of Public Relations to it.  I have a hunch that his real motives for making a movie of chest beating patriotism was a bit more cynical, but maybe he’s more of a true believer than that.  The film looks at a guy named Leng Feng, a military man who’s a bit of a rebel within the ranks (a somewhat unexpected character trait given the conformism you would expect to be prized in communist propaganda) who gets in trouble during an operation for going against orders to shoot a criminal who’s holding a hostage.  That slain criminal’s brother, a drug lord, then orders a hit on Leng Feng that is going to be carried out by a group of western mercenaries in a surprise attack on a training operation he’s taking part in.

So, the film’s story is pretty loopy.  We don’t really get to know Leng Feng very well beyond the fact that his patriotic zeal occasionally leads him to be insubordinate, and I must say I can see why Wu never really broke out as an actor prior to this, I wouldn’t say he has a ton of screen presence and often kind of blends in with the rest of the soldiers around him.  The film also isn’t great at keeping things simple and occasionally goes down strange roads like introducing a pack of actual (poorly CGIed) wolves for a scene or oddly offhandedly throwing in a sub-plot suggesting that the bad guys (who are supposedly employed by a common gangster) are trying to steal DNA to make bioweapons that would target China.  Interestingly, the lead bad guy mercenary is played by Scott Adkins, a British martial artist who is something of a king in the world of direct-to-video action movies.  I’m not too familiar with his work but this kind of highlights to me why he’s never really been able to break into the big times himself; he seems more like a stuntman who tries to act than an actor who does his own stunts, though I should perhaps reserve my judgement as I doubt he brought his verbal A-game to a movie intended for audiences who don’t speak English.

Adkins’ presence does kind of signal something about the movie, however, as the production values and ambitions here are not dissimilar from what I might expect from one of his direct-to-video movies, which is to say that it’s not a completely shoestring operation by any means and has some action chops under the hood but it’s also inelegant and not particularly tasteful or rigorous.  There are some action scene here that show some glimmers of potential to be sure, they’re competent but not very creative or artful and there’s nothing here you haven’t seen executed better elsewhere.  The cinematography is also drab and the sets are simultaneously way too high tech to be believable while also being cheap looking in a way that gives away the film’s relatively small budget. This is very much a film that clearly put all its effort into making its action scenes look decent and show off a bunch of military gear for certain kinds of audiences to gush over.  So, yeah, very much in line with the standards of those direct-to-video actioneers.  Lower your standards like that and this is a passable movie, but not one that has anything to really offer anyone not interested in the Chinese film industry or the film’s blockbuster sequel, which is what I’m guessing is what you have to see to really judge what this franchise is about.  I’m not going to jump into that one right away, but it’s on the to-do list.
** out of Five

Detective Chinatown (2015)

Comedy, straightforward unpretentious comedy, is probably the genre that’s the hardest to export.  Even if they tell stories that are relatively universal they rely a little too closely on linguistic idioms cultural norms that don’t quite translate and they have a timing to them that subtitles can be a bit too clumsy to match.  Some comedies are so intrinsically smart and well-made that they transcend all language barriers, but when it comes to the low brow populist stuff there really doesn’t tend to be too much of a need to explore the world’s offerings.  As such “low” comedy tends to be something of a boon for local filmmaking markets.  If you look at the box office receipts of any country normally associated with “art” cinema and you might be surprised to see that the movies you know from that country are actually vastly outgrossed by dumbass comedies you haven’t heard of.  For instance the year’s highest grossing non-Hollywood film in France is something called Serial (Bad) Weddings 3, the third installment of what appears to be some kind of Meet the Parents type thing.  Similarly in Spain the highest grossing local film isn’t one of the festival favorites like Alcarràs or Lullaby, it’s something called Father There Is Only One 3, the third installment of some kind of Cheaper by the Dozen type thing.  And of course it stands to reason that China would want its own Hollywood style mainstream comedy series, and the one that swooped in to take that slot was a little franchise called “Detective Chinatown.”

Like with Wolf Warrior the Detective Chinatown is a franchise started in 2015 which made money with the first film but didn’t start setting box office records until the sequel.  The series largely rests on the shoulders of a guy named Wang Baoqiang, a comedy star who feels kind of like a cross between the affable seediness of a Vince Vaughn with the wiry temperamentalness and commercial instincts of an Adam Sandler.  Wang scored a pretty sizable hit with the 2012 film Lost in Thailand, a sort of road movie comedy set in Bangkok.  This movie brings Wang back to Thailand, this time as an immigrant living and working as a police detective in that city’s famous Chinatown.  He is not, however, the film’s protagonist.  Rather he’s a drunken scoundrel more interested in vice than in real policing, a sort of much less depressing and more redeemable version of the character from Bad Lieutenant.  The film’s actual protagonist is played by Liu Haoran and is that character’s nephew, a young man of about eighteen who was passed over for entrance in the police academy and is planning to travel to Bangkok to shadow his police officer relative, unware that his uncle is actually going to turn out to be a very lousy role model.

The two actors have a pretty recognizable dynamic: Liu Haoran is the straight man while Wang Baoqiang is the boorish fool and the two dislike each other but must work together to solve a mystery while on the run after their falsely accused.  I could easily see a Hollywood comedy using the same basic concept, in fact I’m pretty sure a Hollywood comedy has used this concept even though I can’t quite come up with an example off the top of my head; it clearly follows existing formulas.  The most obvious counterpart is The Hangover, though it has a smaller ensemble and it’s generally a tamer and less raunchy movie.  Make no mistake the comedy here is pretty juvenile.  The movie has several jokes about people getting kicked in the balls, which probably gives you a good idea of how high the brow is here.  I didn’t find it very funny to be sure, but again, this is a movie made for a fairly localized audience.  I’m not familiar enough with the Mainland Chinese comedies that came before this to really say but I’m guessing that aspects of this were at least a little less familiar to the audience it was intended for, at least in terms of movies made by and for China.  Or maybe not and the people with taste there have about as much resentment for this as we do for crappy cookie-cutter Sandler movies.
** out of Five

Operation Red Sea (2018)

I’m jumping forward a bit in my examination of China’s modern blockbusters to a year after the 2017 release of Wolf Warrier 2 (a film I’ll come back to in part 2), which was something of a game changer at the Chinese box office.  In the following years there would be an acceleration in ambition in mainland Chinese cinema both in terms of the size of the films and how they were marketed.  China wanted its own films to be as big of a deal, at least with their own audiences, as Hollywood’s megaproductions and if they could make inroads at the box office outside their borders then all the better.  One of the first beneficiaries of that newfound ambition was the 2018 film Operation Red Sea, which was also building off the relative success of the director’s previous film Operation Mekong, to which this is something of a spiritual sequel.  Both “Operation” films were directed by a guy named Dante Lam, who we’ll encounter again with at least one movie film in this retrospective and who can probably be fairly described as one of contemporary China’s top commercial filmmakers.  Lam was born in Hong Kong and began his career in that system, though notably his first film came out in 1997, the year of that city-state’s handover from the British to the Chinese.  He continued to make Cantonese language films in Hong Kong for many years, most of them not exported very widely into the west, and over time these films came to be made for mainland audiences and with Operation Mekong (a film about Chinese authorities tangling with cartels on the border with Southeast Asia) he seems to have fully crossed over to Beijing’s system.

Operation Red Sea claims to be based on a true story, but that’s highly dubious.  The event it’s based on was the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Yemen in 2015 as that country’s war escalated.  In reality this wasn’t terribly dramatic; a Chinese navy ship pulled up to the harbor, the Chinese citizens got on board, then the boat left.  But the film envisions this as this highly explosive Black Hawk Down like situation filled with shooting and explosions in which the Chinese military covered itself in glory while protecting its citizens.  Of course the film doesn’t claim to be a direct depiction of history, in fact it’s set in the fictional country of Yewaire and in general the film is not supposed to be taken as a work of serious geopolitics, it’s an action movie.  So what we’ve basically been given is an unashamed Bruckheimer style action flick in which the Chinese military shoots the living shit out of terrorists in the Middle East.  This is something that Hollywood has mostly shied away from during the last twenty years what with the United States actively being in a war in this region.  The politics of movies like American Sniper and Lone Survivor are dubious to say the least but they’re nothing if not revenant and maudlin takes on the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.  It would kind of take an outside country pretending to be more militarily engaged with the world than it really is in order to make something like this… even if the morality of doing so is still probably dubious.

Islamophobia is as much of a real issue in China as it is anywhere and one need not look much further than the repression of the Uyghurs to see the serious consequences of it.  So I would say it’s more than a little uneasy watching a fairly irreverent movie where the Chinese military goes toe-to-toe with fanatical terrorists wearing keffiyeh, largely removed from any real world scenario.  Having said that, if you can put all of that aside, the action in Operation Red Sea kind of slaps.  The film revels in pretty much every kind of military action you can imagine: firefights, tank battles, sniper duels, hostage rescues, etc. and while there’s some wonky CGI here and there it mostly remains grounded and practical in its methods.  The film sets off some very impressive seemingly practical explosions and it’s also not afraid to get pretty bloody at times.  That legacy of Hong Kong action is still there beneath the surface and Lam has been given a pretty large budget to work with.  What really holds the movie back is that it kind of lacks interesting characters to get behind, at least from where I sit.  The film is very much an ensemble without a central protagonist, which isn’t an entirely bad thing, but if you’re going to do this you need to give your characters some pretty strong distinguishing features so that the audience pegs who these people are really quickly and remember them when they recur.  One way to do this is to get an all star cast so that the audience reacts to each person instantaneously through association.  Maybe the people here have a high profile in China and thus accomplish that, but I certainly didn’t recognize them, so a lot of the characters here didn’t really stand out to me outside of perhaps their role in combat, otherwise they were kind of boring.  I don’t know that I can entirely get behind this thing, but as a production it has impressive elements.
*** out of Five

The Wandering Earth (2019)

Almost none of the movies I’m talking about in this series of looks at Chinese Blockbusters made even the slightest bit of money at the box office outside of China.  Most of the movie do get nominal releases in the United States which I think are mostly targeted towards Chinese immigrant and expat communities, but the tactic doesn’t seem to be even close to being as successful as the releases targeting the Indian diaspora here have been.  Generally speaking even the biggest of them have plateaued in the three million range for U.S. box office, even for movies that get decent buzz like Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid (a film that would be in this series if I hadn’t already seen it).  I don’t think distributors are putting their full effort into a lot of these releases by any means, but I doubt they would increase their results by all that much if they did so I can’t say I blame them.  The only movie in the series that did even slightly better at the U.S. box office was the 2019 science fiction epic The Wandering Earth, a movie that made $690 million in China and an additional $10 million internationally, of which almost $6 million came from the U.S. box office.  That’s still chump change, but it’s more than double what Wolf Warrior 2, Operation Red Sea, or Detective Chinatown 2 were able to do.  And there’s an even bigger asterisk on that because the movie was actually picked up by Netflix, who had nothing to do with the film’s production but do license it for streaming to this day and one can imagine that its theatrical release (which was done by a separate company) might have been a touch higher.

None of this is to say The Wandering Earth is actually good, because it very much isn’t.  To its credit the stupid propaganda content is at a minimum beyond the fact that it depicts Chinese heroes saving the world in the way the United States usually saves the world in Hollywood disaster movies, and that seems fair enough.  However the reasons the world was in peril in the first place are bonkers.  The film is set in the “distant future” of… 2061.  Apparently in that forty years it’s discovered that the sun is expanding to the point where it’s going to consume Earth fairly soon, so the world’s solution to this was to build a series of high powered rockets across the planet’s surface which are to be used to propel the earth out of its orbit and actively move it across the solar system until it connects with the nearest other star (Alpha Centari) and join its orbit… yeah, I’m not expert but I’m pretty sure that whole idea breaks every law of physics on the books.  It picks up about seventeen years into this multi-generational mission where humans are now living underground (because the “wandering” does a number on the conditions on the surface) and there’s also a space ship following the mobile planet to help navigate.  Something then goes wrong and the Earth stands the risk of being pulled into Jupiter’s gravitational field and killing everyone, but this may be averted through some effort.

So this is sort of a disaster movie of the Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin school but one of the Geostrom and Moonfall variety that takes on a premise so ridiculous that it’s kind of a non-starter.  There’s also some Armageddon thrown in there in the way a whole family is swallowed up in this whole disaster scenario (including a family patriarch/astronaut played by the Wolf Warrior himself Wu Jing) and from a technological level it’s also drawing from Gravity in that there are some action scenes set in the vacuum of space and an interest in long and sort of show-offy shots.  The film was made for $50 million, but does look more expensive than that (I’m guessing money goes further in China than in Hollywood) and I would say its production values are indeed impressive though certainly not top of the line.  Director Frant Gwo does display a few solid flourishes and there are some action scenes here that are certainly serviceable, but they aren’t worth seeing the movie in and of themselves and they’re in service of this moronic concept.  Add on a lame comic relief character and you’ve got something pretty lackluster.  That said there are a couple interesting ideas to be found here (I might have wanted to know more about the social order on the Earth surface for one) and it looks like there will be further explorations of this world: The Wandering Earth 2 is due out in January 2023.
** out of Five

Ne Zha (2019)

The history of animation in China is almost certainly a deep subject that I have no real qualifications to talk about with any authority.  As best as I can tell Chinese animation was historically more TV focused, but books could probably be written on the subject and there’s probably a lot I’m overlooking.  However I don’t think I’m talking too far out of turn when I say that for whatever the country’s animated output is it doesn’t have much of a long legacy of exporting their animation to the west, certainly not when compared to the cornucopia of animation coming from their Eastern neighbor Japan.  But as China becomes a bigger film market and tries to expand their domestic film production into more genres that was typically covered by Hollywood that’s becoming less and less true.  There was a “Journey to the West” spinoff called Monkey King: Hero Is Back in 2015, there was a movie called White Snake that they tried to sell to western audiences a couple years ago, and there have also been some odd co-production attempts like Over the Moon.  But the most commercially successful animated movie to come out of the Chinese film industry, by far, is a 2019 film called Ne Zha. This movie grossed $726 million dollars worldwide, which puts it right between Pixar’s Up and F9: The Fast Saga on the all-time charts.

Ne Zha is an irreverent adaptation of the 16th Century Chinese classic “Investiture of the Gods,” a work that isn’t as famous as “Journey to the West” but is nonetheless considered an extremely major work in Chinese literature.  The story here concerns a pair of orbs created by “primordial being,” one of them a demon orb and the other a spirit orb.  And these two orbs fall to earth followed by some other celestial beings that are supposed to keep them in check.  The spirt orb falls into the hands of an (I think evil?) dragon, who fuses it with his son (who appears to be half human?), while the demon orb accidentally fused with the newborn son of two nobles.  This demon child, Ne Zha, then proceeds to get into all sorts of mischief with his powers.  I don’t know anything about this centuries old 650 page work beyond what’s in its brief Wikipedia summery, but it sure doesn’t sound that much like the movie I just watched, so I’m guessing this is either an adaptation of a small sub-plot in the book or it’s even looser an adaptation than it looks like.  I’m guessing that my unfamiliarity with this mythology did affect my watching of this as I’m guessing a lot of the film’s charms come from the way it re-invents familiar myths for its intended audience.  It would be the equivalent of someone watching Disney’s Hercules without any sort of background in Greek mythology.  This is, however, a movie made for children and families so it’s not completely inaccessible.

The film itself is a work of CGI animation that is clearly trying to go head-to-head with the Disney/Pixar/Dreamworks/Etc style.  On a technical level the animation is certainly a few years behind but not dramatically so.  Certain shots are impressive and do some inventive things with action and physical comedy, but other shots look kind of rough.  What translates the worst about it is almost certainly its comedy, which leans towards the scatological at times.  The Ne Zha character can also be a bit abrasive both just in what he is (which is a bit ghastly) and his mannerisms.  I would be lying if I said I was entirely able to keep up with all the mythological shenanigans and related plot developments that happened, some of the rules of this world remained a bit unclear to me.  And some of that piss and fart humor is just a total nonstarter for me.  There are some good bits periodically though so you take the good with the bad.  Ultimately its tonal dissonance wasn’t for me but I can see why through another cultural lens this would be pretty impressive and why it made bank in its home country.
**1/2 out of Five

This will continue in a second part which should come out sometime next month

The Banshees of Inisherin(11/5/2022)

It seems like every year “Film Twitter” sees a movie that they suspect could win the Academy Award that year despite being unworthy and proceed to lash out at it out of all proportion in an attempt to prevent that.  Don’t get me wrong, sometimes they have it coming (everything that was said about Green Book is true) but all too often it means a lot of silly hyperbole gets thrown at perfectly decent movies like La La Land, Belfast, or The Trial of the Chicago Seven.  But the movie that I think received some of the most savagely unfair criticism that will seem bizarre in retrospect might be Martin McDonagh’s last film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  I don’t want to re-litigate the whole thing here but the extent to which that movie seemed to get distorted in “the discourse” bordered on the ridiculous and what was a really sly tragicomedy just turned into an argument about whether it’s broken idiot side character was sufficiently punished at the end as if this were subject to some sort of Production Code restriction where everyone has to be a “good guy” or a “bad guy” with the bad guys are killed off or put in prison before the credits roll.  One of the strangest turns this discourse took was to throw around the notion that as a foreigner McDonagh somehow “botched” his take on the United States, as if this absurdist dark comedy was supposed to be a super literal documentary of what life in the Show-Me state was like.  But perhaps he took this criticism to heart as his new movie, The Banshees of Inisherin, is (as the title might suggest) one of the more aggressively Irish films to come along in a while.

The Inisherin of the film’s title is a fictional island somewhere off the coast of Ireland which seems to be a very modest agricultural community.  It’s 1923 and the Irish Civil War is going on nearby, but does not seem to have spread to Inisherin itself, so most of the population is pretty disconnected from it.  Our main point of view character is Pádraic Súilleabháin (Colin Farrell), a not very bright but mostly well-meaning farmer who lives with his sister Siobhán (Kerry Condon), a bookish lady who seems to mostly hang around to help her brother out.  It would seem that his main means of passing time for a while has been to hang around with his friend Colm Doherty (Brendan Gleeson), a solitary man who plays the violin and seems to be in something of a depressive phase.  One day Pádraic tries to sit down with Colm at a pub to have a drink when Colm rather abruptly tells him he no longer wants to hang out with him or be his friend.  He says he’s come to realize he was wasting his life away listening to Pádraic’s inane stories and the he just simply does not like him anymore.  Distraught, Pádraic keeps trying to interact with Colm until Colm finally snaps and issues an ultimatum: if Pádraic tries to talk to him one more time he’ll use a pair of sheers and cut off one of his own fingers and will keep mutilating himself this way until he’s left with no fingers left to play his violin with.

The whole situation at the center of the film is kind of an interesting bit of a moral quandary as you contemplate how much you sympathize with what Colm is doing here.  On one hand, Colm has a right to hang out with whoever he wants to and Pádraic is not somehow entitled to continued friendship with Colm or with anyone else.  On the other hand, Colm is being awfully cold about all of this and while a friendship isn’t exactly a marriage there is a point where if you willingly build an identity around hanging out with someone it sure seems hurtful to just leave them hanging like this, especially when you live on some desolate island in a time before mass communication where there aren’t many other people to hang out with and not much else to do.  That Pádraic is also “dull,” possibly to the point of having some sort of undiagnosed mental disability, and generally doesn’t seem to have much going on in his life also makes you increasingly feel like he has some increased duty to be his brother’s keeper here.  As a priest tells Colm in the movie at one point, what he’s doing is “not a sin, but it’s not very nice either.”

At the end of the day, what Colm is doing is plainly not reasonable.  He may well have logical reasons to not indulge Pádraic at all times but there’s a lot of middle ground between listening to this guy talk about literal horse ship for two solid hours and cutting him off completely under threat of self-mutilation.  A reasonable person would have simply set off some boundaries with which he would remain somewhat amiable with Pádraic without hanging out for hours with him for hours on end, or at least more slowly ween Pádraic off of this friendship.  And of course the self-mutilation threats are just deranged.  This is, at the end of the day a movie about unreasonable people, and I think this is where the Irish Civil War that’s happening on the film’s periphery comes into it, which I think this whole thing is meant to be something of a metaphor for.  I’m not an expert about that conflict and I don’t think the specifics necessarily matter, you could probably replace it for any other intractable conflict of that sort where former comrades have a falling out over something that doesn’t seem terribly important to outsiders and things start to get bloody and painful quickly.

Amidst all of this, Martin McDonagh’s dark wit is still very much on display here.  The film is perhaps a bit closer to his stage roots than some of the other films he’s made, in part because it’s ultimately a story about interactions between a small handful of characters and it’s in the kind of contained universe of Inisherin, but that isn’t to say that the movie feels “stagebound” and it was definitely written for the screen.  Perhaps more importantly it he’s displaying a playwrights skill for turning the interpersonal conflict of a few people into something representative of much larger and more universal themes.  And I haven’t even mentioned the fact that this is a bit of a reunion for McDonagh and stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson after the three made In Bruges together and clearly all of them have a strong rapport with each other. That said the movie is a bit less commercial than In Burges, and for that matter it’s also less experimental than Seven Psychopaths and also feels a bit smaller scale and less topical than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri so I’m not sure I’d say this is a real leap forward for McDonagh, but it will likely be less divisive than some of his previous work and stands on its own pretty well.
**** out of Five

Decision to Leave(11/3/2022)

I don’t think I can say I’m a Park Chan-wook “day one” fan, like most non-Koreans who doesn’t go to festivals I didn’t really learn about him until 2005’s Oldboy, but I am the only person I know who actually saw that movie in theaters during its first run so I feel like I do have some street cred when it comes to the guy.  In fact he came along at pretty much the exact perfect time to be pretty entrenched in my cinematic upbringing.  I would have been a Junior in high school when Oldboy dropped and would have been in my senior year and early college as I explored his other slightly lower profile early films like JSA, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance.  He was pretty much the great Asian cult movie director of my youth and his rise announced the rise of South Korean genre cinema as we know if today.  This isn’t to say I’ve loved all his work.  Those “Vengeance” movies are pricklier and less audience pleasing than Oldboy and he’s also made some movies that ended up being more minor genre exercises like I’m a Cyborg and That’s Okay and Thirst and I must say I didn’t really like his English language debut Stoker much at all.  His last movie The Handmaiden, however, was a real triumphant comeback as far as I was concerned so I’d say I went in about as excited as I’ve ever been for his long awaited follow-up Decision to Leave.

Decision to Leave is, at heart, a pretty classic noir detective story.  It begins with a Busan police investigator named Hae-jun (Park Hae-il) assigned to investigate the death of a man who fell off the edge of a local mountain.  He was a skilled climber and they know he made it to the top, so it seems unlikely to be an accident so maybe it was suicide or maybe it was murder.  Shortly into their investigation they meet his wife Seo-rae (Tang Wei), a Chinese immigrant to Korea who works at an elder care facility.  His partner Soo-wan (Go Kyung-pyo) quickly suspects Seo-rae had something to do with the murder and there is evidence that points to her, but she has an alibi and Hae-jun does defend her.  Eventually the death is ruled a suicide and professionally Hae-jun moves on, but he can’t stop thinking about Seo-rae, which is complicated because Hae-jun is married and doesn’t seem particularly unhappy with his wife Jung-an (Lee Jung-hyun).  Still, Seo-rae intrigues him and she even offers him a strategy for overcoming the insomnia he suffers from.  But things from that old case keep nagging at him and he starts to wonder if his take on the death of her husband was wrong.

If you associate Park Chan-wook with the concept of “Asia Extreme,” a marketing slogan from the early 2000s that was used to sell Asian genre films that were “out there,” this film might disappoint.  This movie isn’t, like, wholesome or anything but its use of sex and violence is more conventional and “tasteful” than in Park’s other films.  At heart the film is a film noir, though aspects of it almost point more in the direction of the “erotic thriller” except that we never actually get any sex scenes between Hae-jun and Seo-rae despite the formula suggesting there should be.  Like Stoker the film is also something of a subtle deconstruction of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, though I won’t name which one so as to avoid spoilers.  At the film’s center is a love triangle where out detective is torn between the woman who’s good for him and the woman he desires, a dichotomy symbolized by the fact that his stable wife is constantly nagging him to quit smoking while his maybe mistress to be doesn’t give a damn if he smokes himself to oblivion.

The thing about this movie is that it’s maybe so steeped in archetypes that on a basic narrative level it suffers to really break new ground.  The freshness that is there mostly comes from Park’s direction and visual style.  The movie is so handsomely shot and mounted that it’s impossible not to respect, but Park’s style can be a double edged sword at times.  His movies often do run a touch on the long side and this one is no exception, I think it could have stood to lose about twenty minutes; it has a few too many sub-plots that distract from the main story and at times actually make it kind of difficult to follow.  So I’m left in an odd place with what exactly to think about this one.  On one hand, Park himself has pretty much never been more confident in his filmmaking and while I don’t really have any major complaints per se with the film’s screenplay it lacks the novelty of some of Parks more outlandish genre experiments and did not keep me guessing like his last triumph The Handmaiden did.  One could almost accuse this of being watered down Park for people who don’t want to see octopi get eaten alive or extended lesbian sex scenes and the like, but I also don’t want to downplay the film’s many virtues either.  This is worth seeing, it’s worth seeing for Park’s command of the camera and for some strong performances and for a story that does have at least a few twists and turns that keep things interesting.  That having been said, I feel like I’ve seen a hundred different takes on “noir” by this point that it maybe takes a little more than that to really floor me and I thought Park would be the one to give me that “little more” and I don’t think he did.
***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 10/26/2022

Lux Æterna (10/19/2022)

At a certain point I fell behind on Gaspar Noé.  I don’t know, Love didn’t strike me as something I wanted to rush out to see and neither did Climax but now that he’s (accidentally) put out two movies in one year I think it’s clear that I need to try to make up some time a little.  His 51 minute experimental film Lux Æterna debuted at the Cannes Film Festival way back in 2019 and found some sort of release in France in the September of 2020 but between the pandemic and the challenges of distributing a film that’s shorter than most episodes of modern television it didn’t get its American debut until this year and I’m hesitantly counting it as a feature since it exceeds The Academy’s 40-minute cutoff.  The film is mostly set on the set of a fictional movie being directed by the actress Béatrice Dalle and starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, with both actresses playing fictionalized versions of themselves here.  The movie starts with an extended conversation about the life of a working actress between the two of them and then moves into a chaotic day of filming.  The goal here seems to be to convey just how many people are there on a day of filming and how chaotic it can be backstage with both actresses needing to juggle a million different thing and having to politely decline to stop and talk with a bunch of autograph seekers and people trying to hire them for future projects.  But it becomes clear that this is not a normal set and that things are really going off the rails and then they go even more off the rails in the last ten to fifteen minutes in ways that should not be viewed by people who have pacemakers or a history of epilepsy.  All the while Noé employs a variety of little filmmaking tricks, most notably split-screen shots (a technique I rarely enjoy) and other aspect ratio tricks.  I’m not exactly sure what the point of it all is, there are moments that Noé certainly creates a kind of chaotic mass of people akin to some of the most claustrophobic moments in Darren Aronofsky’s mother! but I’m not sure what the finale is supposed to signify and while I in some ways respect the decision to make a wacky experiment like this short, the abruptness with which this cuts off was mostly off-putting to me.
**1/2 out of Five

She Will (10/23/2022)

2022 is probably the year where #MeToo really became a direct thing in horror movies.  There have of course always been feminist themes to be found in horror cinema and there have been recent movies like the 2020 version of The Invisible Man that comment on #MeToo adjacent social issues, but this year we’re getting horror movies like Barbarian that comment on “the reckoning” directly.  And She Will is probably the most direct exploration on the concept yet, though calling it a “horror” movie is perhaps misleading.  The movie is actually executive produced by Dario Argento, which is weird because it certainly doesn’t look or play out like any of that guy’s movies and is perhaps more of a psychological thriller/metaphor than it is anything truly spooky… possibly to its detriment.  The film is about an aging actress who has just undergone a double mastectomy and is going to what she thought would be a secluded cabin but is actually hosting a whole convention of new age types.  We also learn that while she’s there a director she once worked with back in the day, who probably sexually abused her, is on a book tour and is facing something of a reckoning for his past conduct.  Additionally we learn that this cabin is on ground where “witches” were once burned and she’s being taken care of by an androgynous nurse who is having her own man problems.  So there are feminist issues all over the place here, which all feels like a pretty good setup for a smart horror movie, but I’m not sure it ever really kicks into gear at that point.  It’s a little too psychological for its own good and frankly just never excited me too much.
*** out of Five

Descendant (10/24/2022)

The number of lingering scars left by the legacy of slavery are too innumerable to count, but one of the many is that most African Americans are left without much ability to trace their roots back to their homelands or even know where their homelands were with any specificity.  Every once in a while things become a little less murky.  For instance I saw this episode of the show “Finding Your Roots” where The Roots’ drummer Questlove learned that his family can be traced all the way back to a specific slave ship called The Clotilda, which was notorious for having illegally smuggled enslaved people into the United States around 1860 after the ban on the international slave trade was in place.  His story is not unique and the new documentary Descendant is about the whole community near Mobile Alabama called Africatown that was largely built off of descendants of slaves illegally imported by that ship and others like it.  It is not, however, really a history doc and is more about the legacy of those past events today.  The descendants of the people involved in the illegal slaving are rich, own large portions of the town and have largely used it in ways that involve high pollution rates in black communities where the descendants of the slaves live.  Such dynamics basically exist across the South (and rest of the country for that matter) but here they actually have the goods with the specifics of the transaction and who descended from whom out in the open.  The specific event at the center of all this is the discovery of the Clotilda itself, which had been sunk and hidden to cover up the crimes.  Reactions to this discovery, which will likely result in the construction of a museum, differ among the locals and the film is largely about meeting the people involved on the ground and chronicling the community. Events don’t always follow a completely structured narrative as its more of a peak into events than a full chronicle, but the film does a decent job of framing that peak and making a point with it.
***1/2 out of Five

Nitram (10/25/2022)

On April 28th, 1996 an Australian man named Martin Bryant opened fire on the population of his Tasmanian town at various locations killing thirty five people in what would come to be known as the Port Arthur Massacre.  This event would be the inspiration for the new film Nitram (Martin spelled backwards), which does not reenact the violence but is interested in looking at Bryant’s life leading up to this and chronicling the various failures of mental health, parenting, and gun sales regulations (or lack thereof) which led to this turn of events.  The film’s director, Justin Kurzel, has among other things been something of a chronicler of Australian true crime over the course of his career having previously made movies based on the Snowtown murders as well as the life of Ned Kelly but this one seems a bit more sociologically engaged than both of them.  It is not, however, pleasant viewing.  The character at the center of this is plainly, like, a barking lunatic and had been for years before he went on his killing spree.  That he was dangerous was readily apparent to anyone paying attention but they had no idea what to do about it.  His parents in many ways either enabled him or worried about all the wrong things regarding him and most therapy attempt proved rather toothless.  The biggest failure however is when this obviously deranged person was able to walk into a gun store and buy semi-automatic rifles pretty much no questions asked.  The Port Arthur Massacre is often held up as a counter-example to the United States’ fecklessness around guns in response to mass shootings as Australia did rally after this and passed strict gun control measures in response.  There’s something to learn from that, but the title cards at the end of the film suggest that this narrative is perhaps overly generous to Australia as there have been some backslides on this in the years since.  As for the movie itself, well, it’s a little hard to recommend as it’s a pretty depressing look at the life of a mentally ill man as he self-destructs.  Caleb Landry Jones is strong in the lead but Kurzel’s direction remains rather icy in a way I’ve come to be a bit repelled by.  There’s some value in this, but, I feel like it could have been executed to better effect in other hands.
*** out of Five

Neptune Frost (10/26/2022)

I… don’t think I “get” this one.  Neptune Frost is a film ostensibly set in Burundi but filmed in neighboring Rwanda and co-directed by Rwandan filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman and the American slam poet Saul Williams.  It’s been widely described as a work of Afrofuturism, though perhaps afro-cyber punk would be more descriptive.  It’s kind of set in the future but doesn’t really feel like science fiction as you would typically define it as it’s set in some not very clearly defined version of the country being run by some sort of dictatorship and focuses on Coltan miners who get involved in some sort of hacking to fight back against the oppressors, though you rarely if ever actually see them at a computer coding or anything.  Also the main character is intersex, so it’s also a movie dealing in queer themes, and to express this they’re played by both a male actor and a female actor at various points in the film, a choice that is more than a little confusing.  Oh, also the movie is a musical.  Not, like, a musical with show stopping Broadway style numbers but the characters do often sing at various points which just adds to the not terribly easy to parse nature of this.  In many ways this feels almost more like the kind of thing you’d normally see on a live stage; the kind of avant garde fringe festival kind of theater (perhaps built around dance) that’s more interested in expressing various political themes and aesthetics than in telling a story in any kind of conventional way.  One’s interest in that will likely vary.  There is clearly talent and creativity to the film’s making, with various weighty themes about colonialism, technology, and gender being invoked and it constructed some interesting sets and does some interesting things with the music.  Smarter people than me will likely figure out how to parse the odd film grammar at play and figure out how this story plays out, but I was a bit lost in it all.  Maybe that’s mostly a “me” problem, but my reaction is my reaction.
**1/2 out of Five