It’s probably not a coincidence that so many directors seem to have chosen 2022 to be the year they make their epic ruminations on value and importance of movies and movie making.  I mean, there isn’t exactly a shortage of those in any given year, but the fact they’re showing up in large numbers this year is likely a response to all the “death of movies” articles we’re constantly reading combined with how hard it is to make anything this year.  Truthfully the timing was a bit unfortunate, the same audiences that are letting movie theaters flounder are apparently also the same audiences who aren’t filled with reverence for cinema as an artform so maybe this was a bit of a tactical error from a box office perspective but maybe it was something the filmmakers needed to do regardless.  And truth be told a lot of these movies are actually coming at the topic of “the movies” from very different directions.  The Fabelmans is very specifically about movie-making more than the movies themselves, conversely Empire of Light is pretty specifically about movie watching and theaters.  Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths is mostly about the mind of a creator while Blonde is more about the cultural impact of a life in the spotlight.  So far the only ones to really hit a poplar homerun with movies about movies this year were the ones hiding their message deep in the subtext like Jordan Peele’s Nope and I’ve even seen readings of Top Gun: Maverick as being an allegory for blockbuster filmmaking.  But aside from those it’s been brutal out here for rhapsody’s to cinema, so I’m pretty worried about the box office prospects of Damien Chazelle’s epic opus of Hollywood and its debauched past: Babylon.

The film begins in 1926 at an outlandishly wild party at a Hollywood mansion where we meet most of our principal characters.  One of the most prominent invitees is a movie star named Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), who manages to annoy his fourth wife into leaving him behind as he walks into the hedonistic proceedings.  A less prominent attendees is an unknown starlet named Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie), who crashes the party both for networking and just to get buck wild with the rest of the attendees.  Meanwhile behind the scenes is Manuel Torres (Diego Calva), a fixer who was hired to help coordinate the party but who has dreams of breaking into work at one of the studios.  We also meet one of the performers in the house band, a jazz trumpet player named Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) who seems separated from some of this craziness but still needs a place to play his music, and the cabaret singer Lady Fay (Li Jun Li) who does a bawdy routine at the party and seems to be able to move through these circles more effortlessly than most.  After the party we follow these people into their workdays shortly after and from there we follow them through about five years in Hollywood history as the introduction of “the talkies” and the enforcement of the Production Code will dramatically change everything for all of them.

The title of Babylon was almost certainly inspired by Kenneth Anger’s book “Hollywood Babylon,” which was written in 1959 and republished to greater success in 1974, which (with varying degrees of accuracy) dished out the dirt on all the debauched goings on in Hollywood during its golden age.  Though the book wasn’t necessarily revealing anything that hadn’t been public knowledge for those looking for it, there was still something rather subversive in the way the book still provided a collected and easy to digest account of how the silver screen stars of this much sentimentalized era were in fact just as wild as Dennis Hopper and Janis Joplin ever were.  The film is not a direct adaptation of that non-fiction book by any means and all the characters here are in fact fictional characters but if you’re in the know it’s not too hard to guess which real figures inspired the people we see here.  Margot Robbie’s character is basically Clara Bow, Brad Pitt’s character has a lot of Douglas Fairbanks to him, and Li Jun Li’s character has Anna May Wong written all over her, but you probably shouldn’t look at these people as one to one equivalents so much as composites of various film stars of the era and you don’t need to go in with that much prior knowledge in order to decode the movie.

So, like that Kenneth Anger book this movie is very much interested in pointing out to audiences that during the roaring twenties the stars of silent cinema used to get lit and fuck like bunnies and this is established pretty much right away as we witness these crowded bacchanalias that feel like something out of The Wolf of Wall Street or Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby but even more X-rated and energetic in some ways.  The staging of these scenes is really exciting with Justin Hurwitz’ music being played at full volume by live on screen bands, large crowds of extras going wild on screen, and various floor entertainers just kind of shocking audience sensibilities.  Occasionally I think this does go a little too far into downright gross scatological territory, particularly in the film’s much discussed opening scene in which workers delivering an elephant to one of these parties gets shat upon by said quadruped, soaking them and even the camera filming them and by implication the audience.  It’s a moment that seems to be trying to tell the audience upfront that “this won’t be your daddy’s Hollywood movie” but like a lot of the movie there is another layer there for people who know their Hollywood lore, particularly the old joke about the guy who gives enemas to elephants, whose punchline is “what, and quit show business?”  I get the joke, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I wanted to see this grossness or similar grossness elsewhere, and I think Damien Chazelle got a little carried away in trying to shock people in a few places like that.

And the thing is, while there’s plenty of crassness to go around here it’s not necessarily a nonstop party scene, in fact there are really only two scenes set at parties, the rest is more about these characters’ personal and professional lives, though there’s certainly plenty of wildness to be found there as well.  There are two particularly well done scenes in the first half looking at the chaotic filming of a silent film and later a sound film respectively which together show just how much of a painful transition that was for filmmaking.  Then late in the film there is an absolutely insane scene in which a deranged gangster played by Toby Maguire takes us into some sort of bizarre underground geek show that’s rife with tension.  The story itself is rather sprawling with three separate main protagonists as well as a network of small and mid-sized characters and this almost makes it feel like a sort of Robert Altman ensemble kind of thing, but ultimately the stories do mostly converge around its three leads though this can be a bit structurally messy at times.  The characters played by Jovan Adepo and Li Jun Li are both interesting, but their screen time is definitely less than those of Pitt, Robbie, and Calva and that makes things feel a little unbalanced.  I’m also not quite sure that the Pitt story ever quite connects perfectly with the Robbie/Calva story and I think if Chazelle had made them intersect just a little more that might have made the balance a little clearer.

So, what’s the point of all this?  Well, in Chazelle’s viewing the Hollywood of 1927 was an industry facing technological revolutions that were going to leave a lot of people in the dust while also struggling with how they’re going to incorporate diverse performers into their work all while having their own off screen conduct increasingly scrutinized and judged by outside observers… he sees some parallels to today is what I’m saying.  These aren’t exactly original observations in the case of the whole “introduction of the talkies” thing; the movie references Singing in the Rain overtly on multiple occasions and The Artist also covered similar territory as a metaphor for modern Hollywood some ten years ago.  There’s also definitely a healthy dose of the various versions of A Star is Born to be found in the various careers chronicled here.  As for the potential comparison the movie is making between #MeToo and the wave of house cleaning that Hollywood needed to do in response to the bad press that the Fatty Arbuckle scandal gave the industry.  That particular scandal is kind of echoed in a moment early in the film but otherwise isn’t really discussed and I almost wonder if material along those lines was left on the cutting room floor because it does feel like a bit of context that would be missing for the non-film historians in the audience.  The comparison is a bit fraught because in introduction of the production code is generally viewed as the doing of a bunch of puritanical prigs who ruined everyone’s fun, but this movie suggests that maybe there was a bit of a rot in Hollywood at the time and while it might not have been corrupting the youth it was surely leading to a lot of self-destruction and maybe a bit of a cleaning house was in order.

If that’s what Chazelle is saying here, at least on some level, it’s a little ironic because, well… this is a movie with at least four different scenes that wouldn’t have been completely out of place in a Jackass movie.  It’s… very much a movie that could not exist if the Production Code were still in place and while it might concede that Hollywood’s decadence in this era went too far it isn’t really judgmental about the characters themselves.  If anything the movie could almost be seen as something of a western: a movie about a bunch of pioneers in an untamed land who eventually had to be discarded as civilization came in.  As for Babylon itself, well, it’s not going to be for everyone.  It’s kind of a movie meant for people who watch a lot of Turner Classic Movies but who also aren’t going to be offended by a scenes that occasionally feel like something out of Motley Crue’s “The Dirt.”  Frankly I think that’s a Venn Diagram that doesn’t have a whole ton of overlap and I’m not sure even I fit in it entirely, but the filmmaking craft on display here really sells the movie in a way that’s too invigorating to deny.  I don’t know how Damien Chazelle conned a major studio into funding this thing, but I’m sure glad he did.
**** out of Five


Home Video Round-Up 11/30/2022

Where the Crawdads Sing (11/22/2022)

When the movie adaptation of the bestselling Delia Owens novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” opened this summer I was kind of rooting for it.  Not because it looked like a movie that would appeal to me (it demonstrably did not) but just because it seemed like one of the few opportunities we’d get this year for a movie made for adults could make some real money at the box office, which would theoretically be good for the film industry, but then the movie got panned by critics and at the box office it did okay but didn’t really send the message it needed to.  Having finally given the movie a shot I can say, yeah, this thing is no good.  I can’t say that this really gave me that much insight into why this story managed to sell so many books but I can say that it sure seemed to drop the ball in some very adaptation specific elements.  The film is essentially a courtroom drama in which a woman is accused of killing a man and it’s pretty well established that the evidence against her is extremely flimsy.  We’re told that the only thing that can really send her to death row is that the town is hideously prejudiced against her, not for any racial, ethnic, or religious reason but just because she’s poor and basically homeless and… that strains credulity.  In order to sell that story the film would need to go a long way towards making this girl seem like a really disheveled outsider that one would think ill of but they don’t seem to put even the slightest effort into this.  Rather they cast the conventionally attractive Daisy Edgar-Jones in the part, give her pretty normal looking clothing, and don’t give the slightest indication that she hasn’t grown up without all the best modern hair conditioning products available.  It might seem shallow to dismiss a movie because its star it too attractive and well groomed, but this movie’s entire reason to exist rests on the idea of an overwhelming prejudice against this character existing and it fails miserably at establishing this and selling it.  Beyond that’s it’s just some melodramatic Southern Gothic slop intended to flatter the sensitive modern readers and make them similarly confident that free thinking naturalist white girls were the main victims of injustice in the 1960s South.  Not recommended.
*1/2 out of Five

Louis Armstrong’s Black and Blues (11/24/2022)

AppleTV+ has seemingly made some kind of market play in the realm of biographical films about legendary black entertainers.  Earlier this year we got their Sidney Poitier biodoc Sidney and now a few months later we get this new take on the life of jazz great Louis Armstrong, which is in many ways a much more challenging project as its being made decades rather than months after its subject’s death.  Director Sacha Jenkins has however gotten access to Armstrong’s extensive archives including some recordings of conversations he had behind closed doors where his persona was pricklier and more profane than the affable and apolitical public persona that would lead some future generations to accuse him of “uncle tomming” for white audiences.  The film does have regular biographical material as its bones, but discussions of what it meant to be a black celebrity in the first half of the twentieth century and the various compromises this required are the true meat of the film.  I don’t believe there are any onscreen talking head interviews in the film but there are quite a few archival interviews with Armstrong himself, his family, and also the future generations of jazz musicians that often admired Armstrong’s music but could often be judgmental about the compromises Armstrong made.  The film includes a particularly affecting interview late in its runtime that Ossie Davis appears to have recorded sometime in the 70s or 80s where he described seeing Armstrong go into and out of his stage persona almost on a dime the second he realized he wasn’t alone.  In the grand scheme of things I’m not sure that there’s much here that will come as too much of a surprise to jazz aficionados and its filmmaking isn’t exactly innovative, but it is skillfully constructed and comes to this subject from a pretty modern point of view and is very strong as a feature length primer on a giant of American music.
***1/2 out of Five

Pleasure (11/27/2022)

The title of the new film Pleasure is invoked early in the film when its protagonist arrives in Los Angeles from Sweden and is asked by a customs official if she’s there for “business or pleasure” and she answers “pleasure.”  This is a lie though; she’s actually come to L.A. in order to start a career in pornography.  The exact reasons that led her to this career shift is not entirely clear but it’s something she seems to want to do and there are several people more than happy to usher her into that world.  What follows is something of a journey through and in some ways an exposé of the world of modern porn and the various challenges and indignities of that occupation told in clinical detail, a bit like Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfreind Experience crossed with a pinch of Sean Baker’s films taking a peak into sub-cultures.  It’s kind of structured like a film trying to de-glamourize this form of sex work, but, I’m not sure that it was ever all that glamorized in the first place.  The fact that the porn world is kind of sleazy and unproductive of its “talent” is unlikely to come as much of a surprise to much of anyone (aside from its main character apparently), in fact the depiction of it here makes it seems like slightly less of a horror show than I might have expected, which I’m not sure was really the intention of the film.  In some ways the film maybe works better as a metaphor for someone just generally coming to “the big city” because they think they’re tough enough to hack it only to then find that they maybe actually don’t have the particular kind of strength needed or worse they themselves become corrupted by the world they’ve entered into.  I’m not sure the film ever quite works as well as it needs to: its protagonist remains too much of a cipher and its arc is a touch sensationalist despite its attempts to remain super clinical.  Still it’s pretty bold in its imagery and does paint a picture of its world well, so I’d be interested to see what director Ninja Thyberg does next.
*** out of Five

Good Night Oppy(11/29/2022)

Good Night Oppy is a documentary about NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Program, particularly the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which were sent to the red planet in 2004 on the second such mission since the initial Sojourner rover which went there in 1997 and lasted 90 days on the surface.  This second set were supposed to be a similarly short term prospect but they ended up remaining active for years, with Opportunity (the “Oppy” of the title) lasting all the way to 2018.  The film basically follows that mission through its various stages with footage filmed in mission control over the years and also uses a great deal of detailed CGI in order to recreate what the rover (which can otherwise only really film first person) would look like on the Martian surface during the various incidents.  The film is in many ways focused on how attached the various scientists and engineers became to this rover and this I think was a bit of a missed opportunity on the part of the film.  The extent to which these people anthropomorphize this thing is kind of nuts, they refer to it as “she” and constantly talk about its various parts in human terms and almost seems sad about it when it “dies.”  I feel like if someone like Werner Herzog could have really interrogated this and gotten to the heart of it but the people making this doc seems to think its adorable and really play along with it in ways that feel kind of dumb to me.  I also might have liked a bit more concept of what’s actually being accomplished scientifically with this mission, which seems to get a little glossed over in the zeal for exploration, which is kind of a mistake a lot of NASA docs fall into.  I don’t know, this is a professionally made an interesting doc but I feel like it’s a bit philosophically lazy in ways that make you think it could have been more.
**1/2 out of Five

The Sea Beast (11/30/2022)

The Sea Beast is not Netflix’s first animated film by any means but it is their first animated feature that wasn’t a co-production of any kind with another established animation company (though it had some for-hire assist from Sony Pictures Imageworks, which is more of an effects company than an animation studio) and it’s gotten solid critical marks but a lot of its buzz has been kind of under the radar.  The film is a very mainstream work of CGI animation for better or worse and is clearly trying to compete with the likes of Disney and Dreamworks and does a serviceable job of keeping up with the joneses.  The film is kind of a fantasy story, but one set on the high seas in some approximation of the 17th or 18th century but in a world where sea monsters are real and legion and there are ships that are dedicated to hunting them.  That sea beast action is pretty well rendered and feels like a sort of marine take on what the How to Train Your Dragon movies did with flying reptiles, though you can see some tradeoffs in that they did need to skimp a bit on the animation budget for some other things.  Namely I think some of the faces are a bit off and they’re a bit inconsistent about whether they want to do realistic or caricatured faces and character models.  The film’s story does not really break the mold at all, it’s sort of your typical child wish fulfilment story about a kid who goes on an adventure and is right about everything and it has an ending with a rather… naively optimistic… outlook on how much societal change can be accomplished through airing facts in a public forum.  I don’t know, Netflix going into making one of these movies right now kind of reminds me Dreamworks trying to establish themselves as an animation powerhouse early on by making Disney Renaissance-esque stuff like The Road to El Dorado and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas right as the public was already kind of getting sick of that stuff from Disney.  But a lot of those movies look better removed from that context and people looking for an animated adventure movie could do a lot worse than this.
*** out of Five

Women Talking(10/28/2022)

Sarah Polly is one of those directors who seems to have a giant reputation despite having kind of a small body of work.  Prior to 2022 she had only directed three movies, one of them a documentary, and there was a long ten year gap in there as well leading into her new project.  Her first movie, Away From Her, was likely her strongest work up to this point, albeit not necessarily a movie that lingers in my memory.  I don’t know, it’s a movie I watched on a Netflix DVD in my sophomore dorm room, which is maybe not the best environment to empathize with an elderly woman’s battles with Alzheimer’s but I remember it having solid performances among other strong qualities.  I missed her follow-up Take this Waltz, whose reputation is of a movie that’s good but inessential.  Then there’s Stories We Tell, her documentary about her own parents and an affair one of them had.  People talk about that documentary in absolutely rapturous terms and I’ve got to say I really don’t get it.  The situation at its center does not strike me as being overly exceptional or interesting beyond the fact that a moderately famous actress/director is involved in it and its attempt to turn it all into some Rashomon-esque delve into the nature of subjectivity over the most minor of discrepancies in peoples stories did not connect with me at all.  So, I guess I’m a bit of a Polly skeptic, but that’s not to say I’d given up on her.  Away From Her alone was a well-crafted enough film that I felt like she had the potential to give us something special, and finally I think she just might have with her new film Women Talking.

The film is set in more or less modern day, but in a remote Mennonite community (seemingly) somewhere in North America, and given the Mennonite’s traditions this essentially makes the film look like a 19th Century period piece for much of its runtime.  The film begins when it’s revealed that a large number of the women in the community had been drugged and sexually assaulted by various men in the community and had been for several years with the women’s concerns being dismissed as the actions of ghosts or devils or “feeble-mindedness.”  This time though, the perpetrators were caught red handed and were arrested by the outside police force.  The most of the community’s men, however, seem to be standing by the perpetrators and have gone to town in order to bail them out under some religious conviction that anyone cast out of the community will be damned to hell.  With them gone, the town’s women convene to try to figure out what they’ll do: will they stay as if nothing happened, stay and “fight,” or will they leave and try to found some new colony elsewhere.  Much of the film then, aside from some flashbacks, consists of the deliberations certain representative women have when making this decision and leads to some pretty tense debates.

Sarah Polly has long been something of an “actor’s director” and that certainly carries over to the impressive ensemble here but with this movie she also takes a noticeable step up as a visual stylist.  She and cinematographer Luc Montpellier shoot the film in an ultrawide 2.76:1 aspect ratio, the same ratio that Quentin Tarantino used for The Hateful Eight and like that movie it’s a choice that is intriguing given that this is a movie that ostensibly takes place primarily in one large room.  In fact one could easily mistake this for having been an adaptation of a play, but it’s not, it’s based on a novel by Miriam Toews.  Toews is a woman who was herself raised in a Mennonite community but left the community when she was eighteen.  The novel, though fictionalized, is inspired by real events that transpired at a Mennonite community in Bolivia.  That community (which, like most Mennonite communities, is largely populated by European emigres who speak a form of German rather than the local tongue) experienced a very similar set of attacks which led to a similar reckoning.  However, it does not take a genius to realize very soon into Women Talking that Sarah Polly does not view it as truly a movie about Mennonites and instead views the conversations they’re having as being extremely relevant to women around the world, especially in the wake of #MeToo.  And as the title implies, it kind of exists as a medium by which its authors can write very direct conversations around the kind of conversations survivors could have when facing systemic abuse and trying to find solutions.

The decision at the film’s center is whether to stay and maintain the status-quo (the anti-feminist solution), stay and “fight” (the feminist solution), or leave the compound entirely (the radical solution, at least within the logic of this society).  The basic practicalities of these solutions, while not entirely ignored, are not necessarily the emphasis.  The film is a touch vague about what “stay and fight” means.  It isn’t clear if that just means trying to change the society through some sort of peaceful resistance or if they intend to literally take up arms.  If it’s the former then they don’t really get into the exact methods and if it’s the latter they aren’t exactly stockpiling weapons or anything.  The film also doesn’t necessarily go into every logistical challenge of leaving; these women are depicted as illiterate and are said to have not even seen a map of the (unspecified) area they’re in and needless to say they don’t appear to have money saved up for some sort of real estate purchase that would allow them to set up a new compound.  But this is not emphasized in large part because these aren’t really conversations about logistics; they’re conversations about philosophy and about feelings around this situation, especially given that many of the people talking are traumatized victims of violence and abuse.  That trauma is central, some of the women here are very angry and vengeful, some are just mournful about the whole situation and some kind of go back and forth between different attitudes in a sort of complex stew of emotions.

On the periphery is Ben Wishaw’s character, the one man in the film with a speaking role and someone that the women in question basically seem to view as being apart from the other men that they’re essentially in opposition to.  He’s the town’s school teacher and apparently does have some university education and he’s been invited to take minutes for this deliberation as the one literate character present.  As such he’s kind of a point of view character and observer but occasionally speaks up in the deliberations, in ways that are sometimes welcome and sometimes not by the various women.  You can tell he’s rather conflicted about his place there, as are the women and to some extent so is the movie.  That is likely appropriate given that society in general is kind of not sure what role male allies are supposed to have in the wake of #MeToo.  This probably isn’t the only thing the film is willingly conflicted about as it’s kind of a movie that’s asking a lot of questions that society hasn’t really answered and is about characters who are left with a similarly uncertain future.

This is in many ways a film that feels like it could be in dialogue with another of the year’s high profile releases, Todd Field’s Tár, which also sort of comments on #MeToo if not by name though from the perspective of a perpetrator rather than from victims.  The women here are in many ways more conflicted and thoughtful that the title character of that film, in part because they care about people besides themselves.  Though Tár is perhaps a bit more directly about #MeToo as it existed between 2017 and 2022, I think that movie is going to be a little more universally recognizable as long as powerful abusers continue to exist.  Women Talking, by contrast, feels to me much more directly reflective of this very moment of widespread reckoning and all the messy feelings and conflicting arguments that it conjures up.  But as it does this it never loses track of the fact that this is a movie about specific people in a specific circumstance whose situation is not always going to be one hundred percent applicable to the wider conversation.  It tells a very human story above all else and it does it in a milieu that’s pretty unique and while I would exactly call the movie a one-of-a-kind revolution or anything it is a movie that doesn’t follow an overly familiar template and makes for a lean and intense drama that’s staged in a strong and appealing fashion.  In short it’s the major work that I’ve been waiting for Sarah Polley to make and really live up to all the praise she’s been lavished with.
****1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 11/21/2022

Emergency (11/14/2022)

Out of the two separate films about the black experience in college that premiered at Sundance and were then picked up and released through Amazon Prime Video, Emergency is the better one.  Unlike Master, which was sort of trying to be a horror movie, this film is straightforwardly a dark comedy focusing on a pair of African American students who have big party plans that get derailed when they come home and find a passed out white girl they’ve never seen before lying on their floor.  Afraid to call 911 out of fear for how the police react they decide to take this semi-conscious teenager to the hospital themselves, but events conspire to lead them through a very hectic night.  So, in many ways this is trying to be something like Superbad but in college and with a tacit assumption that the police are less hilarious than they were in that movie.  I’m maybe in a privileged position to judge but I will say I didn’t entirely buy into these characters’ decision not to call 911 from the beginning given that this was a medical situation rather than a crime they would have been reporting, and not exactly one that’s unheard of on college campuses.  I would also say that this teenager being in a pretty dire and vulnerable state through the whole thing does dampen the comedy a bit.  I wouldn’t say this is a comedy that really had me laughing a whole lot but I did enjoy being around the characters for the most part and there is a wit to the whole thing.  I don’t think this would have rejuvenated the comedy genre if it had been allowed a more traditional release but on some level it does feel like it deserved a bit more than to be dumped to streaming like it was.
*** out of Five

Navalny (11/15/2022)

I must say, the true depths of just how messed up Russia has become sort of snuck up on me over the years and I think that’s true of a lot of people.  During the whole “war on terror” era they just seemed kind of irrelevant, but that whole time Putin was forming quite the dictatorship and we’ve recently seen the dire consequences of that via the war in Ukraine, but even without that military aggression the domestic terror in Russia is also frightening.  That is put on full display in the recent documentary Navalny, which looks at the Russian dissident politician Alexei Navalny, who survived an assassination attempt by poisoning and then returned to Russia only to be arrested at the airport on obviously trumped up charges.  This film was made with Navalny’s cooperation during his time recovering from the poisoning in Germany before that defiant return and features interviews with him (he’s fluent in English) and also behind the scenes footage of him as he remotely tracks down the truth about the assassination attempt.  In fact the most compelling part of the film is a jaw dropping moment when he essentially does a prank phone call with one of his would-be assassins and gets him to basically confess to the crime under the mistaken impression he’s talking to a superior.  That said I think it’s safe to say that this is not exactly an unbiased look at Navalny, and while I don’t doubt that his opposition work in Russia is important and positive, he is at the end of the day a politician and as such his answers are guarded.  I maybe would have appreciated a slightly deeper look into why Putin has such a grip on the public opinion and why Navalny faces such an uphill battle when trying to win people over (besides the obvious media blackouts, arrests, and murder attempts).  This is clearly a documentary intending to give the basic Western public a peak into the opposition against Putin rather than give them a deep dive and it serves that purpose well, but it only does so much.
*** out of Five

Thirteen Lives (11/16/2022)

I try to go into things with an open mind, but sometimes you can’t help but be skeptical and “movies about the Thai Cave Rescue directed by Ron Howard” is definitely something to be skeptical about.  I had the thought of just watching that and submitting “Just watch the documentary” as my review, but I ended up thinking the movie had more going for it than that.  For one thing I think I maybe missed some of the more positive things that “Thai Cave Rescue movie directed by Ron Howard” promises.  Whatever you think of Ron Howard he is a pretty competent professional and reenacting true stories of human heroism is kind of a specialty of his, so he does manage to do the diving scenes here some justice and he also manages some of the “media circus” elements of the whole story as well.  I was pretty impressed with the aforementioned documentary version of this story, The Rescue, so I was already pretty familiar with this story and in many ways this was always going to feel redundant.  That movie I think gave me a better rounded understanding of the main diver, Richard Stanton (played here by Viggo Mortenson), and what makes him and his fellow cave divers tick, but this version also has some strengths the documentary didn’t.  Namely, I think it is a bit better at getting the Thai side of this story, though it too is ultimately telling the story of the western rescue workers.  On the less positive side I would say that the movie is absolutely too long at 147 minutes and drags out its climactic rescue much longer than it needs to.  Still I must say that Ron Howard showed at least some restraint in not making the whole ordeal needlessly sappy and he also captures a lot of nice scenery and the like.  I can’t say this movie is anything groundbreaking or meaningful (at the end of the day it’s a straightforward reenactment of a well-documented news event) and its impact is kind of dulled by being beaten to the punch by a big budget National Geographic documentary, but I would lean toward calling it a “good” movie if this is what you’re in the mood for.
*** out of Five

Beba (11/18/2022)

Beba is the work of Rebeca Huntt and is named after a childhood nickname she once used and is a sort of autobiographical video essay about her thoughts about her life and identity.  I think I’ve seen Huntt described as a poet or perhaps just as an “artist” but it’s not terribly clear to me that this thirty two year old has really accomplished before this, so it’s not necessarily a recounting of various accomplishments and what led to them, but more just her accounts of her feelings about herself.  That, could come off as a bit naval gazing in the wrong hands and… I’m not so sure these are the right hands.  To be blunt, if the “BIPOC pangender” student who got into an argument with the title character of Tár about whether or not Bach needs to be canceled was asked to make a movie it would probably be a lot like Beba.  Huntt describes the film as an exploration of her afro-latina background and the “generational trauma” involved in that but… you know, she doesn’t seem to be doing all that badly to me.  She didn’t grow up rich, but she had two present parents working to give her the best life possible and eventually went to college and became a successful artist.  Sounds like the American dream, and her horror stories of the racism she experienced mostly seems to amount to a few kind of cringe conversations, but she certainly thinks these are great struggles.  Her Venezuelan mother seems similarly baffled at her attitude as well in a particularly tense and revealing interview where she accuses her clearly war weary mother of having a “microagressive attitude” for what certainly sounded like straightforward answers to me.  So, I can’t say I was terribly impressed by Huntt’s insights here, but there is some talent onscreen.  Huntt does mix home video footage and other imagery into this pretty effectively and also knows not to overstay her welcome too much.  I think if she finds some subject matter she has a bit more distance from she could do some good work but this thing really just isn’t it.
** out of Five

Catherine Called Birdy (11/21/2022)

Lena Dunham is a pretty polarizing figure, one I’ve personally not had much to say about since I’m a movie guy and most of her output since Tiny Furniture has either been television or social media antics.  But this year she came out with not one but two new movies and the consensus is that Catherine Called Birdy is “the good one” and while it certainly isn’t going to be for everyone, it’s certainly not without its charms.  The film is about a fourteen year old girl living in 13th Century England who’s part of a family of some social standing but who have some precarious financials and are looking to marry off Catherine for bride price.  Pretty familiar story, but the catch to all this is that the movie is told very much in Catherine’s voice and is steeped in very recognizably modern and precocious teenage girl emotions.  Catherine’s voiceover in the film in many ways sounds like it’s coming straight out of a suburban girl’s diary and the film uses fairly anachronistic language, maybe not to the point of actively using modern slang, but Catherine certainly thinks and talks more like a modern person or perhaps like someone from at least a little bit later in history than when this is set.  The thing is that setting and some jokes around that are probably the main thing differentiating this from a lot of other movies, the whole “teen girl rebels against women’s lot in life during their era” thing has been done a lot.  It’s all pretty light hearted as these things go, not really a laugh out loud comedy or anything but I was mostly entertained by it though I’m not sure it will stick with me.
*** out of Five

Avatar: The Way of Water(12/15/2022)

            You know, it seems quaint today, but even back in 2009 it seemed like Avatar becoming a box office success would be of essential importance in fighting back against franchise tyranny and allowing for original IPs to have a shot in Hollywood.  Then it did succeed beyond anyone’s wildest hopes and yet thirteen years later here we are, franchises dominate the box office beyond even the most dire fears back then and a sequel to a prior success can’t even claim to be a threat to that trend.  And yet the box office success of this sequel seems far more important to cinema (and far more uncertain) than that first movie ever was.  At stake isn’t even a kind of blockbuster so much as the notion of the theatrical blockbuster itself.  We’ve just lived through what sure seems like a disastrous year of box office performance where even the MCU seemed to be slipping and outside of the weird fluke of Top Gun Maverick basically nothing seemed to capture the imaginations of audiences in any kind of lasting way.  That’s… a lot of pressure for any one movie, but especially for a movie in this weird of a position.  Avatar was of course a phenomenon but it was also kind of divisive; its visual and technological prowess was undeniable but its new agey sincerity wasn’t going to be for everyone and there were legitimate criticisms to be made about the film’s adherence to archetypes and formulas as well as its sometimes questionable dialogue.  Personally, I really liked Avatar, in fact I was positively giddy leaving the theater when I saw it but there were limits to how much I could defend it and I’d be lying if the years of “dances with smurfs” mockery hasn’t gotten to me a little.  It may or may not be a great movie but it certainly doesn’t seem like a cool movie to me in 2022, so even I wasn’t quite sure what I’d make of the long awaited sequel Avatar: The Way of Water but it’s finally here and I was there day one for sure.

            This sequel picks up about fifteen years or so after the events of the first movie and we get something of an exposition dump at the beginning.  We learn that Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now permenantly a Na’vi has married Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) and the two have had three children: The responsible older son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), the more impulsive younger son Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), and much younger daughter Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss).  Additionally, we learn that the deceased avatar of Grace Augustine mysteriously gave birth to a daughter named Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) who Sully and Neytiri adopted as their own who is now a young teenager, and they have also essentially taken in a human child named Spider (Jack Champion) who was left behind after the humans left and has taken on the Na’vi culture for the most part.  We learn early on that Spider’s biological father is Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the villain from the first movie, and we apparently haven’t seen the last of him either.  Though he was killed in the first movie, we learn that the humans had a backup plan in which they had a copy of many of the consciousness and memories of Quaritch and other soldiers on the Pandoran front on file and implanted them into avatar bodies as part of their plans to reconquer Pandora, plans we see them begin to implement early on in the movie as they violently land back on the planet and build up another beachhead.  From there we flash forward a year to when the Na’vi are once again taking part in a guerrilla war against these colonizers.

            This first half-hour to forty five minutes of the movie does feel very expository and kind of exists to bridge the first Avatar and its sequel as quickly as possible and is probably when the film is at its weakest.  It sort of yadda-yadda-yadda’s the existence of Sigourney Weaver as a teenage Na’vi in this movie a bit too quickly and other odd little connections like making Spider the literal son of the last movie’s villain also seems a touch convenient, as does the return of that villain as a Na’vi in the first place given that I’m not sure that was a character the masses were really demanding more of.  All of this is leading to a moment that will finally drive the Sully family to run away from their war against the “sky people” and go into hiding amongst a different group of Na’vi that dwell in the ocean/reef area of the planet, a motivation I never quite bought given Sully’s warrior chief ways, nor do I exactly understand why the humans are so hell bent on targeting him even after he has ceased to be an active leader of the resistance.  It’s all a bit too convenient, all there basically to bring the characters do a different milieu where the movie wants to take place.  However, once the movie does get to where it wants to go it really starts to sing.

            James Cameron is rather famously fond of oceans and ocean life and oceanic preservation is a cause close to his heart so it probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that he went in the direction of looking at Pandora’s ocean life and unsurprisingly he’s really good at it.  This new seaside village that the family embeds themselves in is an interesting new side of Na’vi culture that we haven’t seen before and the flora and fauna around them is about as imaginative and colorful in its own way as anything we saw in the first film and this is where much of that big screen 3D awe factor we remember from that first movie comes into place.  The movie also finds interesting ways to depict the sci-fi boats and hunting strategies that the human villains come up with in order to exploit these sections and the eventual conflict between the two sides are very well rendered.  I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by this but… the action scenes in this totally rule.  The film’s trailers I think kind of oddly undersell that aspect of it, especially in the beginning and the end, when this does function as a war movie that is very interested in showing open warfare between the Na’vi and the humans.  The climactic battle scene in particular goes on for nearly an hour but also manages to be something more interesting than simply being two CGI armies smashing into each other and is choreographed pretty beautifully.

            Beyond all of that the movie has its ups and downs to be sure.  Like the first movie this is definitely a work that brokers in archetypes and its dialogue is at best straightforward and workmanlike.  Jake Sully probably remains the most boring part in his own movie, sort of a bland male hero, but he feels less like a central figure here so much as a figure within the greater ensemble with his immediate family taking over more as a collective protagonist.  The Sully kids are, like their parents, essentially archetypes.  Cameron probably would have done well to differentiate the family’s older brothers both physically and personality-wise because to be honest I couldn’t really tell them apart a lot of the times (yeah, I’ll admit it, all blue people kind of look the same to me), and the youngest sister is mostly there to be an adorable moppet.  I also kind of went back and forth on the character of Spider, who had a lot of potential but who I’m not sure entirely worked in execution and the “daddy issues” aspect of this character doesn’t work and frankly overestimates how much of an impression that Stephen Lang character left on audiences.  I was pretty interested by the teenage Sigourney Weaver character despite the relative oddness of the character’s creation and the casting of a seventy three year old woman in as this adolescent character.  She seems to be taking over for Sully as the series’ central “chosen one,” which is probably a smart move and I think that’s the character that Cameron was most able to tap into an authentic vain of moody teenager-ness to.

            Of course the film’s general focus on “family” feels a bit like a concession to popular tastes and despite James Cameron’s recent surly interviews, he’s absolutely trying to tailor these movies to be one-size-fits-all blockbusters that will appeal to a very wide range of audiences around the world.  An uncharitable way of saying that would be to say that he’s dumbing things down for the lowest common denominator, but that does not mean that he’s chasing all the trends that Hollywood obsesses over.  Rather, this Avatar sequel like its predecessor is defiantly sincere in its outlook in a way that most Hollywood blockbusters are not.  It’s certainly not devoid of humor but it isn’t a movie that’s interested in being self-reverential and hip and it sort of wears its tree hugging heart on its sleeve.  It remains to be determined how that will be received in 2022.  The original Avatar turned out to be pretty well timed coming out in the first year of the Obama administration when people were looking for escape from the Great Recession but still had a lot of hope and optimism for the future.  I’m not sure we’re really in the same place in 2022 and political division may make certain audiences less tolerant of even a visual effect spectacular with some badass action scenes if it’s also something of an environmental screed that wants to save the whales (even though the whales have already kind of been saved in the real world).  This isn’t like Top Gun: Maverick, which had its glorification of the military to rope those audiences in despite its own apolitical apathy and absence of cynicism.

On some level it feels kind of gross to turn a review into a work of box office prognostication like I kind of have at this point, but on some level a movie like this sort of invites that, it’s a movie that exists to entertain the masses and it wears that on its sleeve.  There are things about this that I think will help it quite a bit in that regard.  The new child and teenage characters in this one will probably appeal to younger audiences pretty well, so expect there to be more fanfiction about this one than there was about the first.  I also think if people looking for an action movie give this a chance they will likely be impressed by what they get, because some of these battle scenes are indeed quite cool.  But it’s also possible that people won’t be willing to give this a chance and that people will continue their agoraphobic refusal to leave their homes for entertainment and that kids today just won’t be impressed by the giant screens and 3D effects without some elaborate continuity driving them.  I had a blast with it though, and thought it found canny ways to leave things open for future sequels without feeling unnatural about it.  I suspect that the reason this took so long to make is that, unlike the recent Star Wars sequel trilogy, Cameron really wanted to hammer out his franchise sequel plans without writing himself into more corners with the first sequel and I hope that doesn’t backfire because I do think he has more very cool things to show us in the future if we keep this train going.
**** out of Five

Crash Course: China’s Modern Blockbusters Part 2

[This is part two of a two-part series looking at modern box office blockbusters in China, Part 1 can be found here]

Wolf Warrior II (2017)
It’s been about two months since I saw the first Wolf Warrior, which was in many ways a movie I rather stubbornly watched just so that I could then watch this sequel, which is the one that really matters from a cultural and perhaps more importantly from a business perspective.  The first movie was a modest hit, but this sequel was a phenomenon, one that made almost ten times as much money as its predecessor.  Having raked in $870 million dollars at the international box office this was at the time the highest grossing Chinese movie and by extension the highest grossing non-English language movie ever made.  It’s since been surpassed by at least one movie (we’ll be getting to that one) but as of today it still sits at number 78 on the ranking of highest grossing films worldwide right between Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Star Wars Episode III- Revenge of the Sith.  More importantly than how much it made was when it made it.  Prior to 2017 there were some signs of how big Chinese productions could get, like Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid which broke the $500 million mark, but this one really blew the doors down and after that it was really off to the races with China producing a string of movies that would approach similarly lofty numbers.  That’s all pretty impressive but it is also quite odd.  This was certainly a movie of larger ambitions and a larger budget than its predecessor, but it was at its heart still basically an unpretentious action movie made for just $30 million, which is not exactly a shoestring budget but by Hollywood standards it’s not much.

The film clearly exists within the same continuity as Wolf Warrior but references to that earlier film are mostly kept to a minimum.  Here Leng Feng is no longer a member of the military but is working as a mercenary and his adventures bring him to an unnamed African nation where he happens to be right when rebels start staging a coup that he finds himself in the middle of.  The exact politics and motivations of the rebel army is pretty hazy, as are their various evil plans, which seem to involve kidnapping a Chinese scientist who has developed a vaccine for a plague that’s going around in the country.  The film also once again has much of the trouble coming from a team of villainous international mercenaries led by an American, this time played by Frank Grillo (who was reportedly recommended to Wu Jing by the Russo Brothers, who he consulted with).  Where the first Wolf Warrior had some silliness to it, it did still basically try to keep one foot in the world of realism and the trappings of its military milieu and wanted to make the Chinese army specifically look cool and badass and it generally took itself a little more seriously in that regard.  This one is a lot bigger and more outlandish.  It’s not quite to the level of something like The Fast and the Furious franchise, but it’s getting there.  

The focus this time is less on the army, which our hero is no longer technically part of though they definitely assist at key points, than on Leng Feng specifically as something of an avatar for Chinese heroism writ large.  Additionally the film’s African setting was likely responding to something of a call for films that would promote China’s Belt and Road initiative, a wide ranging soft power play that the CCP was and is undertaking in which they invest in infrastructure in the developing world.  Not everyone in China is thrilled about seeing their tax money going to such an effort so there’s an effort being made by the government to sell it to the populous.  The film’s depiction of Africa and its people is certainly not very authentic and borders on the condescending in a lot of ways, but there is a reason it’s going out of its way to make the plight of the Africans one and the same with the plight of the Chinese.  The Frank Grillo character, by contrast is an avatar for Western racism, power hunger, and arrogance.  The film ends with him telling Feng that he (and by extension the Chinese) will always be inferior, only to have the tables turn on him and have Feng respond to this attitude with “that’s fucking history” right before delivering the killing blow in traditional action hero form.  Then the movie ends with title cards literally reading “To the citizens of the People’s Republic of China: When you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, never give up hope.  China’s strength will always support you.” Subtle.

This brand of pandering patriotism is almost certainly a big part of why the film proved so successful.  As an action movie unto itself Wolf Warrior 2 is at best merely okay but it managed to find a way to deliver party approved patriotism but do it in a very Hollywood style of flag waving action heroism rather than the stayed historical re-enactments the industry usually used for this kind of content.  In fact that may have been something of a double edged sword for Wu Jing as it would seem that the powers that be in China had somewhat mixed feelings about the film’s success.  Despite the film having a post-credits stinger there has not yet been a Wolf Warrior 3 and I’ve heard it is because the cultural ministry has in fact rejected a screenplay for the sequel that was submitted.  I think this is because for all his patriotism, the character of Leng Feng still has some of that “rogue action hero who plays by his own rules” to him and this movie rather notably seems more interested in boosting him as an individual hero than making him part of a team.  By contrast Operation Red Sea, which came out the next year and is probably a superior action movie generally, is more about a team effort in a conflict and I suspect that’s closer to the message the party wants to send.
**1/2 out of Five

Detective Chinatown 2 (2018)
Like with Wolf Warrior 2, Detective Chinatown 2 was a sequel that leveraged the rapidly increased power of the Chinese box office in order to make the follow-up to a moderate hit into an unprecedented blockbuster.  This movie made $544 million worldwide.  To put that in perspective that’s more than twice as much as Borat made worldwide and it did it more or less in just one market.  The film hues pretty close to the first Detective Chinatown to the point of almost following a formula and in a lot of ways I probably could have stuck with that first movie and gotten the gist of what the whole series had to offer but there were two key differences here.  Firstly, the film has a noticeably much larger budget which allows them to film in various landmarks that I would have thought difficult to book and lets them play a Taylor Swift song over several scenes.  More importantly, and what made me particularly interested in seeing this one; unlike the Thailand set first film this one was set in New York City, giving me insight into what a major American city looks like when viewed through a (heightened) foreign lens.  The film picks up a few months after the first leaves off.  Qin Feng has been going to college but during some time off has come to New York, where a bunch of similar amateur detectives have been assembled by an eccentric Chinatown millionaire who has put up a reward for the person who finds the person who killed his grandson, who may have been murdered by a serial killer who is harvesting people’s organs.  But his crazy “uncle” is waiting for him when he gets to the airport and sort of tags along with him the whole time for unclear reasons.

Now, before we get too judgmental, I will say that Hollywood has a long history of making movies in foreign countries that look at said countries with an inauthentic tourist’s eye the emphasize dumb stereotypes in ways non-local audience are perhaps a bit blind to.  This can go both ways however and the New York here is pretty bizarre.  Some of this is likely intentional; the people making this would likely be the first people to say this was not supposed to be a realistic travelogue and instead bartered in comedic exaggeration but, man… In this movie New York is filled with homosexual biker gangs (homophobia seems to be a problem in this whole series), there’s an absurd number of guns, and the police chief is played by a Donald Trump impersonator. I can laugh off a lot of this (which is a privilege that many of the countries Hollywood shoots in don’t necessarily have), but the one thing that was pretty consistently jarring was how little the film knew how to deal with African American characters and a strange scene where a character is teaching what appears to be a gun toting inner city gang was… not cool.  I’d call all of this a flaw but the truth is that it probably made the movie more interesting for me, albeit unintentionally, than it would have otherwise.  Beyond all that, eh, the comedy doesn’t really translate.  I think I chuckled twice and the story can’t really stand on its own otherwise.
** out of Five

The Eight Hundred (2020)
With their film The Eight Hundred China seemingly did the impossible.  For the first time ever the number one film at the worldwide box office was not an English language film made with Hollywood money and was instead a film from The People’s Republic of China.  Of course that achievement comes with the mother of all asterisks: it happened in 2020, the year most of the world’s theaters were closed for business.  In fact the second highest grossing film of that year was also an Asian production, the Japanese anime blockbuster Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train (though different sources seem to favor that later film, not sure what’s going on there), and even with all the advantages both of these movies had their $461 million and $447 million takes was still wasn’t that much more than the $426 million that Hollywood’s one pre-pandemic hit Bad Boys for Life managed to bring in.  Still, a number one is a number one and this accomplishment will still be in the history books forever as one point for Team China over Team Hollywood in the epic battle for the future of worldwide movie-going.  Interestingly the movie that did this was arguably a bit of a step back in terms of the content that was gaining popularity in that country.  Previously the big narrative about the Chinese box office was that they had been taking notes from Hollywood and were starting to move away from the tired patriotic historical war movies and toward fresh patriotic contemporary and fantasy movies.  The Eight Hundred, though made with very modern production values, is very much a World War II movie interested in highlighting a patriotic war achievement and sounds a lot like the kind of thing people were sick of being fed by the CCP for years.  So I was prepared for a pretty dumb propaganda movie, and while that element is there I was actually surprised to find this thing to actually be pretty good.

The film is a dramatization of the defense of the Sihang Warehouse, an event that occurred late during Japan’s 1937 invasion of Shanghai during the second Sino-Japanese War.  By the time the film starts the Japanese had already basically won the battle and overwhelmed the city outside of a few foreign concession-zones occupied by foreign powers that the Japanese could not attack lest they provoke those countries into the war.  Late in the battle remaining Chinese forces held up in a warehouse that was right across the river from one of these concession-zones, meaning that the Japanese could not simply carpet bomb the location, and proceeded to engage in a last stand in the vein of The Alamo or Thermopylae.  The idea being that such a defense would boost the morale of the rest of the Chinese forces and also because this whole spectacle was playing out in full view of the foreigners across the river it would boost international sympathy for China’s plight.  There were actually only a little over four hundred soldiers in that warehouse, but the numbers got inflated to eight hundred as misinformation to the enemy and the name and legend stuck. 

So, it’s not too hard to see how this could be a story that would be turned into a pretty chest beating bit of flag waving, but perhaps deservedly.  I’ve done some cursory research into this battle and it does appear to be a legitimately impressive bit of military history that doesn’t require too much embellishment to work as a story about the “glories of the Chinese spirit” and while there are a couple of scenes here that seem to been added to impress the CCP the film is mostly just guilty of some standard issue Hollywood style creative license.  In fact it may well have been a little too patriotic for the Chinese censors.  As it turns out, China actually has somewhat mixed feelings about this historical event in large part because the soldiers doing this glorious defense are not necessarily “good communists” but are instead members of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Army.  The CCP line on this military is that it was basically crushed by the Japanese, not because of any failings of the Chinese people but because of “class oppression within the ranks… the misdeeds of its officers and its evil oppression of the people,” so glorifying one of the few “glorious” achievements of this army has not necessarily been in the party’s interest, which is probably why the only two previous films about this incident were 1938’s 800 Heroes (made as wartime propaganda just a year after the events) and 1977’s Eight Hundred Heroes, which was actually made in Taiwan, a country which for obvious reasons is much more proud of Chiang Kai-shek’s army.

These ideological concerns actually did get this, a movie that to outside observers looks like pure propaganda, into trouble.  An organization called the “Chinese Red Culture Research Association” heavily criticized the film for its depiction of the Chiang Kai-shek’s army and the Republic of China’s flag (which is heavily featured in a scene where the soldiers try to keep it flying while under fire from a Japanese airplane).  The film was actually withdrawn from the Shanghai Film Festival right before it was supposed to premiere in 2019 and thirteen minutes were cut from it (no clue what was taken out) and would only finally come out a year later (which turned out to be a year with clear box office disadvantages).  Despite all that the movie appears to have rebounded and become a major blockbuster and that’s because it’s a pretty solid war movie.  Director Guan Hu lays out the dynamics of the situation at hand well and stages the various skirmishes of this battle with conviction and the cinematography by Cao Yu is really impressive.  Now, I saw that as someone who’s a reasonably big fan of movies that recreate World War II battles, so preferences around these things may vary but I think it’s mostly a worthy entrant in the genre and some of the more nationalistic edges that Chinese blockbusters often barter in do fit better here than they might elsewhere.
***1/2 out of Five

Hi, Mom (2021)
Though they are basically commercial non-entities outside of their home country, almost all the Chinese blockbusters I’ve looked at up to this point have at least gotten nominal U.S. releases.  They make very little money and I assume they just played in a few theaters in areas with large ex-pat populations, but they did at least play and can also be found on American streaming services or on physical media.  The exception to this is Hi, Mom, a 2021 movie in which a woman seemingly travels back in time to the early eighties and meets her mother.  As far as I can tell this movie has never had any kind of release in the entire Western Hemisphere outside of a single festival appearance in Italy, meaning that in order to watch it for this I needed to track down a not-so-legal copy of it on the third rate streaming side Dailymotion. So, full disclosure, this may have affected my viewing.  This domestic-only release may have been because the film was not originally expected to have seen anything near the success it eventually did.  The film was a sleeper hit that grew to be a massive success because of word-of-mouth, out-grossing Detective Chinatown 3 when it opened last year to become the third highest grossing movie at the worldwide box office in 2021, the third highest grossing Chinese movie ever, and to this date it holds the record for being the highest grossing movie ever to be directed by a solo female filmmaker.  That filmmaker was the comedian Jia Ling, who also wrote and starred in the film after becoming something of a celebrity through various TV sketch comedy appearances. This was actually her directorial debut and it appears to have been rooted in some very personal experiences so you can tell this was the moment where she really wanted to cash in her public clout and it seems to have paid off spectacularly for her.

Though the film is a comedy of sorts, it’s rooted in a rather painful aspect of Jia Ling’s life.  She lost her mother at the age of eighteen in 2001 in an accident and felt like she hadn’t “made her proud” and in this movie she envisions a woman who also experiences a loss like this in 2001, but then she imagines this woman through some vague unexplained magic being able to travel back in time to 1981 (the year before she was born) and interacting with her mother when she was the same age.  To the western viewer that basic concept instantly reminds you of Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 classic Back to the Future, which also had its teenage protagonist going back to a sentimentalized time in its country’s history to interact with a younger version of their parents and gaining some new understanding of them as a result.  However, there are some pretty profound differences between the two movies.  For one, Back to the Future is much more interested in the mechanics of time travel and becomes something of a thriller in which Marty McFly is rushing all over the place to prevent dangerous time paradoxes.  China’s censors actually have something of a history of frowning on the very concept of time travel for… reasons (something about believing that if people can change the past they’ll start thinking too hard about changing the present), so this movie simply presents time travel as a magical realist conceit, a means to an ends that isn’t taken too seriously and (spoiler) is ultimately proven to just be a dream. 

But the more profound difference between the two movies are the character motivations.  Where Marty McFly spends much of the second half of Back to the Future desperately trying to make sure that his mother still ends up with his father in order to preserve his own status quo, the protagonist of Hi, Mom does the opposite.  She is so consumed with guilt and self-loathing that she tries to actively break up her father and mother in the past so that her mother would marry a richer man, making her more happy and (presumably) eventually giving birth to a child (and only one child, of course) who will make her more proud than the protagonist did.  That’s kind of a dark concept that the film dilutes a bit by not making the cause and effect of the protagonist’s actions as palpable as they were in Back to the Future (she does not, for instance, start to disappear as the timeline becomes corrupted).  Whole papers could probably be written about the differences in the Chinese and American outlook on life by comparing this aspect of these two movies, though Hi Mom does not ultimately endorse its protagonist’s outlook on herself and the movie does ultimately have a cathartic and self-esteem affirming ending that even Hallmark would probably approve of.

So why did this become such a smash success?  Well, a lot of reasons.  For one, the film is engaging in 80s nostalgia in a way that is very timely to a Chinese audience.  The Youtuber Accented Cinema argues that this era and milieu of Chinese history used to feel very quaint and old fashioned to Chinese millennials raised on foreign influences from the United States and Japan have recently begun to re-evaluate this older era of their parents for its Chinese purity.  But perhaps the even bigger reason for its success was the pandemic, which kept a lot of Chinese migrants separated from their families in rural regions for extended periods of time and there was a sort of overwhelming catharsis in seeing a movie like this which has a gooey and affirming message about the yearning for family reunification and it really had people weeping in the theaters.  Looking at the movie as an outsider I’m a little more on the outside when it comes to the movie’s nostalgia and humor, and there are other decisions here like Jia Ling’s decision to cast herself (a 38-year-old old woman) as an eighteen-year-old teenager that seems a bit strange.  It’s not a movie for me, either culturally or just in terms of what my taste tends toward, but I see the appeal.  In fact of all the movies I’ve looked at for my series on Chinese blockbusters this is the only one I can imagine Hollywood trying to do a remake of.
*** out of Five

The Battle at Lake Changjin (2021)
In my review of The Eight Hundred I noted that that movie marked the first and only time that the highest grossing film at the worldwide box office was made outside of Hollywood, but we came within an inch of that happening in 2021 too.  Up until December of that year China’s historical epic The Battle at Lake Changjin stood at the top of that year’s box office having raked in $902 million dollars almost entirely from the domestic box office of its home country.  That makes it the highest grossing Chinese movie ever and by extension the highest grossing non-English language movie of all time.  On top of that Hi, Mom was sitting in second place on that same list and Detective Chinatown 3 was also in the top five so China was really in a dominant position… then at the eleventh hour Spider-Man: No Way Home swung in and saved the day for Hollywood, ultimately earning more than a billion dollars more than China’s patriotic war film did.  That is a good reminder of the limits of China’s box office numbers: unless they’re able to make movies that people outside their own borders care about they probably won’t be topping charts like that again, at least not without another x-factor like pandemic theater shutdowns giving them a leg up (they don’t appear to have even gotten close this year).  But $902 million is nothing to scoff at, what is this movie that managed to score that much cash?

Well, as it turns out The Battle at Lake Changjin is a much different beast than a lot of the other movies I’ve looked at for this series.  Where movies like Wolf Warrior, while nationalistic as hell, did represent a different and more Hollywood influenced brand of mainstream Chinese cinema.  This one though, this is exactly the kind of government sponsored historical movie commemorating an anniversary that this national cinema was infamous for and which those other films were seen as something of an antidote to.  These kinds of movies (among others) are known as “main melody” movies as they express the prevailing themes of the party… in other words they’re straightforward and unashamed propaganda.  The exact definition of this “genre” is a bit nebulous so it could probably be used to describe several of the movies I’ve looked at, but it 100% describes this one.  The movie was one of several made as a the result of a mandate from the top to make movies about the Korean War, or “The War to Resist US Aggression” as they apparently call it in China as part of a wider interest under Xi Jinping to hold that conflict up as an example of how China is able to defeat those damn imperialist Americans and The Battle at Lake Changjin (known in the west as The Battle of Chosin Reservoir) was seen as their defining success.  Of course who won that battle is somewhat in the eye of the beholder: it did force the U.N. forces to retreat and was something of a turning point in the war, but the Chinese did suffer significantly more casualties despite outnumbering their opponents four to one.  One nation’s “victory” is another nation’s Thermopylae-esque stand or at least Dunkirk-esque escape, but the truth is that there wasn’t a lot of glory to be found on this battlefield at all, it was an extremely brutal battle fought in the freezing cold and was absolute hell for all involved. 

The film was helmed by not one, not two, but three different filmmakers each with a fairly impressive resume.  First there’s Dante Lam, whose work we looked at when discussing Operation Red Sea and seems like a more natural suspect to make a modern war film.  His two collaborators are perhaps more surprising to see on a project like this; there’s Tsui Hark, a Hong Kong filmmaker whose probably best known for the Once Upon a Time in China films and other innovative martial arts films, and then (somewhat disappointingly) there’s Chen Kaige.  Kaige was a contemporary of Zhang Yimou who is best known for his excellent Palme d’Or winning drama Farewell My Concubine.  Despite its international acclaim the Chinese government absolutely hated that movie, which I suspect has something to do why it’s never gotten a Blu-ray release.  It seems however that Kaige has gotten back into the good graces of his government, probably by lending his talents to movies like… this. 

Make no mistake, this is a very strange and distorted view of history.  The movie certainly tries to suggest a degree of authenticity by quoting all sorts of tedious details about what numbered regiments were involved in various aspects of the battle, but the movie distorts the numbers involved in each side and also willfully ignores a lot of obvious context like the fact that the North Koreans were the aggressors in this whole thing or that the U.N. troops eventually recovered and continued the war long after this battle.  While the film was largely ignored in the United States these and other distortions did lead to quite a bit of controversy in South Korea, and I would imagine this would be a very strange movie to watch as a Korean because it’s a movie about the Korean War that is basically devoid of onscreen Koreans.  The film does not bother to depict any North Korean troops fighting alongside the Chinese or South Korean troops fighting alongside the American troops and it’s also decidedly uninterested in muddying the waters with the fact that America was fighting as part of a U.N. coalition that also included troops from the U.K. and several other countries.  Instead the whole conflict is sold entirely as a fight between China and the United States; bringing up the actual Koreans whose country they’re fighting over runs the risk of reminding people that the ultimate legacy of this battle was the protection of the North Korean state, which is… not something to be that proud of.  Better to just make it all about “US Aggression” and ignore those pesky little details.

I could try to litigate the historical accuracy of this all day, but there is an actual movie here I’m supposed to be reviewing, what’s the actual appeal of this that sold so many tickets?  Well a lot of that is just the sheer size of the production.  The film’s final battle scene is legitimately huge, with a whole lot of extras running at each other and there is a scale to it that’s impressive, but hardly unprecedented.  There are a couple decent action details here and there, but I would not recommend this to most people just as a spectacle (granted, I had to watch it on a laptop monitor given that it isn’t streaming anywhere in this country).  I also certainly wouldn’t recommend it as a character piece as this is another one of those ensemble war movies, which is a genre I can get behind occasionally but the characters here seem particularly weak in part because they seem to have been given very little space to really express any kind of doubts about what they’re doing or even just any serious regrets about the horrors of war. As Chinese war movies go I think The Eight Hundred is superior to this on almost every level, and not just because it’s telling a story where the Chinese are in a more authentically heroic position, on most cinematic levels it’s just a better movie.  So there are ways for China to make flag waving war movies that work but this didn’t hit that mark and the fact that audiences still flocked to it I think suggests a little bit of a regression in large scale Chinese cinema. 
** out of Five

In Conclusion
And with that I’m going to end my journey through contemporary Chinese blockbusters.  I think the movies I watch tell something of a story about the rise of this industry but also a somewhat unsettling story about how this industry seemed like it would ease up through western influence only to quickly revert back into even harsher nationalism.  In some ways that kind of mirrors misplaced optimism the western world had about China as a whole, who does not seem to have allowed western influence lead them in more democratic directions as many had hoped, rather all the money and success seems to have basically vindicated and increased the popularity of the country’s often regressive regime.  And with their increased home grown success they’ve also come to see less and less need for Hollywood.  When I first came up with this series I was doing it to get an idea about a market that Hollywood was increasingly pandering to and wanted an idea of what the local tastes they were trying to emulate, but increasingly both Hollywood and America writ large have been going through a slow divorce with the middle kingdom.  China is letting fewer and fewer Hollywood movies into their country and are finding increasingly cryptic reason to disallow movies, which has certainly come at the expense of Marvel, who haven’t been allowed into the country since the pandemic.  A couple movies still get played over there; this year’s biggest winners seem to be Jurassic World Dominion and The Bad Guys, though only the former broke one hundred million in that market.  The thing is China’s homegrown movies have had a rough 2022 as well.  Across the board China’s box office is down 35% over last year as the pandemic problems the western world faced in 2020 and 2021 started to hit China harder.  So the future of this market is not very clear; maybe the boom is over or maybe it will bounce right back and become more and more dominant.