It: Chapter 2(9/5/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Light Spoilers

I try not to get too wrapped up with box office numbers, but sometimes when the right movie becomes a hit it can feel really good.  The success of the movie It in 2017 was one of those cases.  While not exactly what you’d call high art it was in many the kind of product that you hope for from large studio filmmaking: a solidly made adaptation of a respectable property which didn’t compromise more than it had to.  Seeing that R-rated horror adaptation make $123 million dollars in its opening weekend and later end up among the top ten highest grossing of that year right between two MCU movies was really satisfying.  This success had a lot to do with timing; Stephen King has always been relevant but the popularity of “Stranger Things” had really primed the audience for his brand of horror storytelling and the fact that this was focusing on the suburban childhood aspects of the book and that its milieu was moved from the 50s to the 80s really strengthened that connection.  That’s not to say the movie entirely has the TV show to thank for the money it made but both properties were certainly tapping in to the same nostalgia vein that people really wanted tapped in 2017.  Now, as happy as I was by the film’s success I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was one of my favorite films that year.  In fact in my original review of the film I felt a little hesitant to pass judgement at all simply because I knew this second half was coming and wanted to see if some of the elements I thought were lumpy would pay off and to know for sure if it was going to stick the landing.

Set twenty seven years after the events of the first movie, It: Chapter 2 opens with an attack by Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) which Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) gets word of and realizes that this evil entity has returned on schedule.  As Mike is the only member of “The Loser’s Club” who has remained in Derry all these years he takes it upon himself to call his old friends and reunite them in order to kill the monster once and for all.  The “club” members lives have gone in different directions: Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a horror novelist, Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is in an abusive marriage, Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is a standup comedian, Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) has lost a lot of weight and is a wealthy architect, and Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) has a desk job.  They all reunite out of a sort of obligation but when they arrive many of them have forgotten about their fight with Pennywise as a function of how that entity’s magic works.  Once they arrive and their memory is jogged many of them are reluctant to stay, especially after some scary encounters, but when they learn about the suicide of Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) who the one member who didn’t show up, they become resolved to finish the fight.

The big conversation leading up to the release of this film largely had to do with its running time.  The movie is about 2 hours and 50 minutes long, which is not something I inherently have any problems with because to me that isn’t very unusual; it’s about ten minutes longer than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which I loved, and ten minutes shorter than Avengers: Endgame, which the masses flocked to.  Given that the movie was half of an adaptation of a thousand page book it seemed largely reasonable and I was looking forward to seeing the film and telling all the haters that they were being silly for freaking out about that.  Then I saw the movie and… yeah, it’s too long.  Well, it’s not so much that it’s literally too long, I wouldn’t exactly say I lost interest in it over time or anything, but it has a bizarre structure and becomes repetitive in ways that eventually undermine it.

Take the opening scene, which is a disturbing depiction of a hate crime perpetuated against a gay couple which ends with one of them being thrown off a bridge and then murdered by Pennywise.  It’s a strongly rendered scene, but what is it doing in this movie?  We never see the attack’s survivor again or the human attackers and while it does serve to announce Pennywise’s return that could have been achieved just as easily by moving a later attack against a kid at a baseball game (which is shorter, fits Pennywise’s MO better, and has less baggage) to the beginning.  Then there’s the character of Henry Bowers; in my review of the first film I said “there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel,” and while he does indeed come back his presence in the sequel ends up being as much of a time waste as he was in the first.  His three or so scenes are well made, I can see why a director would be attached to them and want to leave them in, but he ultimately has no effect at all on the plot beyond being one more obstacle and has only the slightest effect on theme, so his presence here only lengthens the movie and does very little to justify is presence in the last movie either.

Superfluous as those scenes were, they can be set aside as merely misjudged extravagances on the part of director Andy Muschietti, who seems to be going into this sequel with a lot more confidence and money than he did before after the massive success of the first film.  The bigger structural problem with the film is that it’s basically a movie with six protagonists and feels obligated to give each of them equal screen time. For instance the film has to begin by Mike making six different phone calls to each of his former friends one after another, forcing the movie to stop and give us six different vignettes about where these people are in their lives.  That might be a necessary expository tool (aside from the weird domestic violence vignette in Beverly’s introduction which is kind of left dangling), but what’s less forgivable is how the film then spends a lot of its first half sending each of the six characters out to find “artifacts from their past.”  In practice that means six episodic segments in a row of a character going somewhere in the town, having a flashback to some moment of their past too inconsequential to have been in the first movie, and then having Pennywise fuck with them in some ineffective way.

Pennywise’s habit of appearing before our main characters to creep them out rather than actually kill them was actually a problem I had with the first movie.  In my review of that movie I said “every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them” but I sort of let it go because you could sort of explain it away as Pennywise underestimating The Losers Club, but it’s harder to forgive here as we see six episodes in a row of him jumping out and going “boo” at our heroes and them getting away from it unscathed.  And beyond simply making the first chunk of this movie kind of tedious it also kind of hurts the rest of the film because it makes Pennywise a bit of a paper tiger who can’t actually hurt anyone, which is kind of a suspense killer.  At its heart I think the problem here is that in the original novel this half of the story with the characters as adults were meant to act as something of a framing story to the scenes with the kids rather than a standalone narrative unto itself.  That makes the film kind of awkward because instead of flashing back to the actual important parts of their childhood (which were all in the first movie) they just flash back to some random crap that belongs on the cutting room floor.

Despite these structural problems there is a lot here to like.  For one thing the casting here is really strong.  These certainly won’t go down as the best performances of James McAvoy or Jessica Chastain, not even close, but they are definitely believable as older versions of those characters from the first film and the same can be said of most of the less famous actors in the film.  Then there’s Bill Hader, who like his fellow cast mates makes perfect sense as an older version of that character and he’s been widely considered to be a standout element of the film because of the comic relief he provides.  This praise is largely deserved, he is quite funny in the film and commands the screen when he’s in it, but his role in the film is a bit of a double edged sword.  There is definitely a place for levity even in the most hardcore of horror cinema but here Hader is doing so much comedy that it does sort of hurt the tension a little, or at least it contributes to the other problems the film has with Pennywise’s general ineffectiveness.  Really the whole movie has a much different tone from the first movie in no small part because of this.  In fact it almost feels more like a summer blockbuster than a true horror film, especially considering that a lot of the film’s scares involve CGI imagery, some of which is more effective than others.

What I’d really like, is to see a supercut of the first and second film put together into an epic five hour movie that cuts between the two timelines.  Maybe in that context the characters artifact hunts would seem less like repetitive time wasting and maybe that long runtime would make Bill Hader’s comedy seem less omnipresent and more like a true relief from the rest of the horror.  As an individual movie though It: Chapter 2 is kind of a weird movie that’s hard to really call “good” or “bad.”  I can rattle off a whole checklist of ways that it’s misshapen and indulgent but it would be hard to really say I disliked it or that I didn’t appreciate having seen it.  The things that do work in it work quite well and frankly I’d rather a movie fail through over-reach than through mundanity.  So if you liked the first movie, by all means see the second but go in with the expectation that it’s meant to give a fairly different experience than you got from the first one and that it’s going to be a bit of a bumpy ride at times.

*** out of Five

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Home Video Round-Up 8/24/2019

The Rolling Thunder Review (8/11/2019)

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Martin Scorsese has long had something of an association with The Rolling Stones but he’s now made two documentaries about Bob Dylan: the first being the straightforward and factual PBS documentary No Direction Home about his early 60s rise and golden period, and now the new Netflix documentary Rolling Thunder Revue about his comeback of sorts during the mid-seventies and his Rolling Thunder Revue tour specifically.  This tour was a trek through smaller markets than a rock star of his status would usually visit and featured a number of other like-minded musicians like Joni Mitchell.  The film of course features a lot of professionally shot archival footage of performances from the tour including several songs in their entirety along with some backstage footage from the tour that were meant to be used in a film at the time which never exactly materialized.  There are also a lot of modern interviews with Dylan himself and other people in various people involved with the tour in different roles, but this is where Scorsese starts to become something of a trickster because some of these interviews are fake, a fact that the average viewer would not be able to discern if they aren’t keenly familiar with the works of Robert Altman.  I’m not sure if there’s much in the way of a profound statement to this outside of a sort statement about the process of myth-making in a documentary about a self-mythologizer.  If you’re a Dylan fan this documentary is a no-brainer, the performance footage alone is worth a watch, if you aren’t then it’s a bit of a tougher call.

***1/2 out of Five

High Life (8/14/2019)

Claire Denis is a filmmaker that I want to like more than I actually do and fittingly her latest film High Life is in many ways a movie that I wish I liked more.  The film is her (to my knowledge) first foray into science fiction and focuses on an odd science experiment in which convicts are launched into space on a strange mission to a black hole.  I’m not exactly sure I buy that setup, real space missions are so meticulously set up and manned by elite crews that it seems a bit odd to expect one to be trusted to literal criminals even if they’re essentially being sent on a suicide mission and much of what happens on the ship seems rather unrelated to the actual aims of the mission.  Still there is something compelling about the film’s oddness and some of the performances, but I’m not exactly sure what the point of all of this is supposed to be.  I still think my disconnection from Denis’ work is more of a “me problem” than it is on her, but if this English language Hollywood production doesn’t really click with me I’m not sure what will.

*** out of Five

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Ask Dr. Ruth (8/17/2019)

8-17-2019AskDrRuth I really don’t know why I even review these profile documentaries.  There are just so damn many of them and they’re all pretty much the same.  This documentary about the famed sex columnist Dr. Ruth Westheimer follows this formula pretty much to the T.  It follows the subject around in her old age while she basks in her legendary status and keeps fighting the good fight and intercuts this with footage from the old days in order to tell her life story.  It’s a format we’ve seen a million times and this doesn’t re-invent the wheel.  That said the film does function passably in much the way these movies usually do.  Westheimer herself is pretty charming and there are interesting aspects to her life story, but there are limits to how much drama is to be found here.  The film was picked up at Sundance in hopes that it would draw much the same crowd that turned out for RBG (which was itself a pretty standard profile documentary but one about a more prominent figure) and that audience is probably better served by the movie Maiden.  I’m willing to give this thing a soft passing grade but it won’t be long before I get to the point where I’m not willing to do that.

*** out of Five

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (8/23/2019)

Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a film that will almost certainly always live in the shadow of its troubled production history, especially an aborted attempt to make it in the 2000s which was documented in the film Lost in La Mancha.  Of course if the movie, in its final form had been a towering success that might make the film’s previous history more of a footnote but… it’s not a towering success.  I will say that it did give me some idea of what Gilliam’s original vison was supposed to be and how it fit into his usual style.  Don Quixote as a character was a sort of eccentric visionary who created his own reality and in this movie we see a filmmaker sort of having his Quixote related vision become a reality in front of him.  The problem is that Gilliam is not as good of a filmmaker in 2019 as he was in 2001, in fact he arguable hasn’t made a good movie since the turn of the millennium.  This film in particular takes a while to get going and is also weighed down with a pretty unlikable main character (who may have been a bit more charming if he’d been played by Johnny Depp circa 2001).  I only really started to jive with the movie by the last half hour and by then it was a little too late.  I can only hope that now that Gilliam has this monkey off his back that he can reset his career because as it is I think he should consider hanging it up.

** out of Five

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Apollo 11 (8/24/2019)

8-24-2019Apollo11 Currently 2019’s most commercially successful documentary (by far) is the film Apollo 11, which brings to the table newly unearthed footage from the moon landing upon that event’s 50th anniversary.  The film draws upon 65mm footage that NASA shot during the 60s and hadn’t really been shown widely in the time since as well as some of the more well-known footage from the time to show a condensed accounting of that one mission as it occurred.  The film incorporates no talking heads, and not voiceover aside from the sound in the original footage like mission control chatter and the like.  So it’s basically a no bullshit account of one of the most famous events in human history and there’s certainly a use for such a thing and a lot of people have really enjoyed the spectacle of it all.  Personally, you know, I think I’m kind of over the space program.  I think I came to that realization while watching First Man last year and it kind of stuck with me through this.  There’s not much new to learn here; we’ve gotten a whole lot of dramatic films like the aforementioned First Man and The Right Stuff, we’ve gotten a whole lot of documentaries like For All Mankind and In the Shadow of the Moon, did we need one more that badly? Especially one that almost goes out of its way not to provide any new facts or perspective?  I’m not sure I needed it, but it’s well made for what it’s trying to do and I was able to gleam some interest out of it.

*** out of Five

 

August 2019 Round-Up

Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark(8/11/2019)

“Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark” was a trilogy of books from the 80s and early 90s that had pretty long legs within the world of Children’s/YA publishing.  The books were essentially a compilation of old campfire stories and urban legends that were assembled and re-written by a guy named Alvin Schwartz and then made more chilling by these freaky ink and charcoal illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  They were fairly controversial at the time because they didn’t really pull their punches too much just because they were written for kids and a lot of busybody parents groups were not fans.  They were certainly still in circulation when I was a kid in the 90s and as a youngster with an interest in the macabre I definitely read them and have good memories of them but they weren’t, like, a cornerstone of my childhood or anything and it’s a little hard to hold them in too high of a regard given that they were more of an assemblage of old ghost stories than a literary accomplishment unto themselves.  So it seemed a bit odd to me that the books were being earmarked for cinematic treatment and by Guillermo del Toro no less, albeit as a producer rather than director, and given that del Toro has a bit of a spotty track record when it comes to putting his name on horror movies he doesn’t direct I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

Rather than adapt any one of the stories or going the anthology film route the film has opted to film a single narrative that incorporates several of the more famous Scary Stories via a magic book written by a ghost and a few story elements that are derivative of The Ring.  Set in 1968, the film follows a group of young teenagers in a small town who visit a house that is (correctly) believed to be haunted, steal a book from a shelf and look on in horror as they start to see the book filling itself in with new stories which prove to sync up with actual scary deaths that are happening to various people involved in the original intrusion.  The characters created for the film aren’t terrible compelling and largely conform to ten stereotypes but the young cast they assembled mostly makes them work better than then they probably do on page.  The film generally seems more interested in recreating the Gammell drawings than it is in the details of the original stories, but that’s probably understandable and the film’s overall look is quite nice but it uses some questionable CGI to bring its monsters to life.  Like the books this is trying to be a product that’s genuinely scary while not being too nasty to be viewed by tweens, and I’m not sure they really pull it off.  I don’t think the film is overly scary outside of a few isolated parts.  It’s not a terrible effort by any means, though I have no idea what people who aren’t familiar with the books would make of it and I don’t know that there’s enough there for it to stand out as something special unto itself in a vacuum.
**1/2 out of Five

 

Good Boys(8/16/2019)

More than a couple of times in the first half of the year I witnessed the strange phenomenon sitting in a theater and watching back to back red band trailers for Booksmart and Good Boys, two unrelated movies that nonetheless have some pretty striking similarities.  Both appear to be set over a short time and follow young innocents as they try to get into a party with conduct they aren’t sure they’re ready, both feature Will Forte as a slightly clueless father to one of the leads, hell both trailers even featured the same “Run the Jewels” song in the background.  Both are basically a riff on the formula and comedy made famous by Superbad but the difference of course is that Booksmart is about a pair of girls in their late teens while Good Boys is rather perversely about a trio of tweens just entering the sixth grade.  The film largely operates by having the kids at its center run into the kind of shenanigans that happen in Seth Rogen movies but react to them very differently than an adult or teen comedy protagonist would.  It’s not a million miles removed from the central joke of “South Park,” which also spends a lot of time having kids react to dirty things with cute obliviousness, but that show generally sought to suggest that kids are actually selfish bastards beneath the surface whereas this film has a bit more of an optimistic outlook.  The film works because its title is not ironic, these kids might curse and do “rebellious” things like taking small sips out of beer bottles but they’re fundamentally innocent and don’t seem interested in or capable of doing anything truly terrible and when they do run into something that could be genuinely scarring they are oblivious to it.  It’s a pretty tough balance to strike when you think about it and the fact that they dodge most of the potential dangers of this concept is pretty impressive.  On the other hand, a lot of what the film does to make the audience feel like the kids are going to be alright through all of this also has the effect of lowering the stakes of everything, which makes it easier not to get as involved in their issues as it might.  There is also the specter of this thing coming out the same year as the critical darling Booksmart, which is not the easiest act to follow.  Overall I might say that Good Boys is funnier than Booksmart in terms of pure laughs, but Booksmart is definitely the better made movie and it characters are better drawn and easier to get invested in.  But I think they’re both strong comedies overall and Good Boys holds its own surprisingly well.
***1/2 out of Five

 

Luce(8/18/2019)

The new drama Luce is in some ways a movie that feels out of place in time.  On one hand it’s a movie that deals with very modern concerns about race and identity but it in many ways takes the form that I generally associate with theater and film from the 80s and 90s.  Specifically it reminds me of early David Mamet, not the fun David Mamet mind you, the provocative one who made Oleanna and Homicide and there’s also a touch of Neil LaBute in there as well, but this time the provocation is coming from a Nigerian-American director rather than… those two guys.  The film’s title refers to the name of its central character Luce Edgar, who was born in Africa and may have been forced to be a child soldier in a civil war before he was extracted from the situation and adopted by a wealthy white couple in America.  He’s now a teenager and a model student who is almost a walking advertisement for the triumph of human possibility, or so he seems. The film picks up when one of Luce’s teachers, an African American woman, calls his mother in concerned that one of Luce’s papers seems to be advocating for political violence and that she found fireworks in his locker.  From there the film becomes this sort of four person battle of wills with the audience never quite sure who to trust: is this teacher out to get Luce or is Luce out to get the teacher.  The film’s ultimate solution to all this seems a bit logistically improbable and not quite thematically satisfying but it’s a pretty good ride up to then.
***1/2 out of Five  

 

Ready or Not(8/21/2019)

When I first saw the trailer for Ready or Not one thought entered my head: “man, this looks like a total ripoff of You’re Next.”  That 2011 film is a bit of an odd movie to try to replicate given that it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire and isn’t that widely remembered, but both movies were about killers stalking a woman in a mansion and getting the tides turned against them by her.  Seeing the actual movie there are a bit more in the way of differences than I had initially granted but it’s still a bit odd.  The film is a bit of a horror satire about class struggle with a woman marrying into a family of one percenters only to learn that they have literally made a pact with the devil which forces them to force everyone who maries into the family to pick a card at random and if it’s the wrong card they are then hunted down in the house and killed by the rest of the family.  Surprise surprise she picks the wrong card and finds herself fighting for her life the rest of the night.  The movie had a bit of an uphill battle when it came to impressing me as I generally like my horror to be pretty serious.  I’m not completely opposed to moments of levity in the genre but when you mix horror and comedy too much I generally find it kind of kills that sense of dread and evil you look for from these movies and if they’re going to do that I’d almost rather they go all the way and make a full on comedy out of it which is what this movie comes close to doing.  It certainly isn’t scary, in part because it views its villains as incompetent spoiled assholes rather than real threats, but it also doesn’t really go for full on laughs as much as I’d maybe like.  The movie does entertain in the moment however and certain scenes are well staged and given that it ends well there’s enough there to recommend but I don’t see it as being anything terribly memorable for long.
*** out of Five

 

Blinded by the Light(8/25/2019)

Sometimes giving a movie a negative review just seems mean.  That’s certainly the case with Blinded by the Light, which is certainly a spirited and well intentioned movie that’s designed to be a crowd pleaser, but intellectual rigor is not always polite.  Blinded By the Light is a coming of age movie about a second generation British Pakistani teenager growing up in a blue collar town in late 80s England who finds new direction in his life after discovering and improbably connecting with the music of Bruce Springsteen.  Now, I don’t dislike Bruce Springsteen I’m not a huge fan either; he’s a pretty good songwriter but I’m not sure that the E Street Band’s maximalist style has aged wonderfully and, well, a lot of his music kind of exists to glorify exactly the kind of “working class whites” who as of late are behaving more like NF thugs than immigrant dreamers.  Regardless, I’m not sure I could have quite related to this kid and his fandom even if he was into a band that jived with me a bit more. Truth be told I’m not sure there is a single band or artist I like as much as this dude likes Bruce.  There was a ton of music I discovered when I was that age but I can’t say that lightening literally or metaphorically struck the first time I listened to any of them and the way this guy becomes singularly obsessed with Springsteen and brings him up at every opportunity kind of just made me want to say “dude, maybe diversify your music tastes a little, you’re missing out on a lot of good stuff.”

Another hurdle to my enjoyment here is that I’m generally skeptical about coming of age movies, which are often nostalgia drenched and can be oddly clichéd despite ostensibly being very personal and the immigrant coming of age movie has also become something of a filmmaking formula over the years going all the way back at least as far as The Jazz Singer.  Like, get this, did you know that immigrant fathers can often put a lot of pressure on their kids to succeed academically?  And that they become weary of how westernized their kids have become and to try to quash their hobbies?  I know, shocking.  Could this family in conflict possibly find itself running into conflict and then resolution as the father finally comes to understand their child’s hobby?  Who knows?  Beyond the clichés though I just don’t really think this main protagonist is all that well drawn, a lot of the dialogue is really on the nose and Viveik Kalra’s performance always seemed a bit off to me.  On the more positive side, the movie does render it’s time and place in a way that was convincing and interesting and I liked some of the supporting cast.  I can see this movie working better for people who like their movies to be really uplifting and don’t mind a cliché or two, but from my jaded perspective the movie never really worked.
**1/2 out of Five

The Nightingale(8/17/2019)

In 2014 the most buzzed about horror movie, for that matter one of the most buzzed about movies period, was Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook.  That movie didn’t really have much of a presence at the box office (the title probably didn’t help) but it’s become a pretty substantial cult hit and remains one of the decades more critically acclaimed horror films.  Personally, I wasn’t quite as bullish about the movie as some people, but I think I’ve come around on it a little.  When it came out we were kind of drowning in movies about people being haunted by nebulous ghosts and the movie resembled that formula a little too much for me to fully embrace it at the time.  Looking back though I think I was maybe being a bit too picky; the movie managed to do a whole lot with a little and its psychological subtext was probably difficult to pull off and the film’s ability to communicate it well was impressive.  Removed from the hype I see that it’s quite the accomplishment.  But even when I was a Babadook skeptic I was excited to see what Jennifer Kent would do next and now that her second film, The Nightingale, has been released I was excited to go even though I’d heard it was a pretty different kind of movie.

The Nightingale is not really a horror movie and is instead more of a historical revenge movie.  The film is set in Australia, and specifically on the island of Tasmania in 1825 when the country was still very much a prison colony and in the midst of what is still known today as the “Black War” between British colonist and the Aboriginal population.  The focus is on an Irish woman named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) who was sent to Australia for petty crimes and is married to another convict named Aidan (Michael Sheasby) but still very much a prisoner under the control of a British officer named Lt. Hawkins (Sam Claflin) who uses her as a “nightingale” who sings to the troops to build morale.  Unfortunately Hawkins’ possessiveness over Clare extends far past any reason and this obsession results in a night of extreme violence which leaves Clare’s husband and child dead and her both physically and sexually assaulted and left for dead.  When she wakes up she learns that Hawkins left the next day to go on a trek across the Tasmanian wilderness in order to fight for a promotion he fears he’ll lose for semi-unrelated reasons.  As such Clare decides the only thing to do is to hire (under false pretenses) an aboriginal guide named Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) to find him and his cronies in order to exact revenge.

The Nightingale is a very different movie from The Babadook and fans of one are not necessarily going to be fans of the other.  The Nightingale is not really a horror movie so much as it’s a really dark historical revenge movie.  I’m not one to give out “trigger warnings” but I’m pretty sure that one would be appropriate for this one given that it contains multiple rape scenes, depictions of genocide, and some graphic violence.  The rape-revenge movie is of course something of a dubious genre often rooted in exploitation but this film tends to shy away from genre tropes and leans more on being a character study rooted in its setting.  It’s certainly not the first movie to depict 19th Century Australia as a sort of Oceanic old west untamed frontier (John Hillcoat’s The Proposition comes to mind, but I can only assume that there are other examples) and it certainly isn’t the first movie to explore the violent oppression of the aboriginals but it certainly does make that conflict a vivid and apocalyptic background for what is an oddly exciting adventure through the wilderness.

Kent shoots the film in the academy ratio and recreates the period effectively throughout.  This isn’t really an “action” movie per se but she does shoot the scenes of violence with panache.  Aisling Franciosi does a good job of rendering Clare’s anguish and she and newcomer Baykali Ganambarr have very strong chemistry as the film’s central protagonists as representatives of the underclass being victimized by British imperialism.  Sam Claflin is also strong as the film’s villain though I must say that if the film has a weakness it’s that Hawkins as a character is evil to the point of ridiculousness.  I’m certainly not naïve to the depths of awfulness that the British colonists were capable of and get that he and his cronies are sort of meant to be a stand-ins for all of that but this guy really seems to go out of his way to be evil above and beyond his own self-interest and by the time they had him casually gunning down a small child for petty reasons I was almost laughing at how thickly they were laying it on.  I’m also not entirely sure how I feel about the ending, which seemed like it was going in one of two ways but ended up sort of going in both of them at once in a way that didn’t entirely work.  Overall though this is a pretty strong piece of filmmaking and a worthy if unexpected follow-up to The Babadook.  I’m not sure what Jennifer Kent is planning to do next with her career but she has my attention all the more after this.

**** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 8/10/2019

Greta (6/10/2019)

On my review of Serenity I mentioned that parts of that movie made it seem like the kind of mid-budget movies that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore and that it was also kind of a reminder that the mid-budget movies that Hollywood used to make often kind of sucked.  Well, here’s another example.  Greta is a thriller about a young waitress who befriends an older woman after returning a purse she finds on a subway.  Quickly she learns that this woman, Greta, is a stalker with many a screw loose.  It starts out a bit like Play Misty For Me, then diverges into Misery with touches of Audition.  In other words its pretty derivative, but the bigger problem is that it’s not particularly well written and it kind of goes nowhere.  Isabelle Huppert gives a reasonably good performance but she’s totally slumming it and Chloë Grace Moretz never really builds a terribly memorable character.  It’s not a terrible movie and certain sequences do work, but I’m honestly not sure who the movie Greta is for.  It certainly isn’t a movie that’s made for “the kids” but the older audience it’s presumably targeting is going to know how cliché ridden this movie is and it’s definitely not made for any kind of arthouse crowd.  This is a movie that probably should have gone straight to VOD or maybe even Netflix because it certainly isn’t something you want anyone paying for a ticket to see.

** out of Five

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (6/16/2019)

Given that the world seemingly got Lego Movie Fever back in 2014 I was a little surprised when, earlier this year, the world seemed to greet that movie’s sequel with absolute indifference.  It didn’t even seem to be a function of the film’s quality given that it mostly seemed to get positive reviews from those who saw it, but when it came out audiences seemed to just say “thank you, next.”  This might be an illustration of how much that first movie benefited from being a sort of sneak attack that vastly exceeded audience expectations and the reception of this sequel perhaps says something about how quickly novelty can become passé.  Truth be told, I think there is a pretty clear decline in quality between the two.  Watching this was actually something of a reminder that it had actually been a while since that first movie came out because I hadn’t seen it in five years and the sequel definitely plays out under the assumption that you remember and care about this characters, which I kind of didn’t on both counts.  I’m not the biggest fan of cheap meta-humor and these movies use a lot of it.  The first Lego Movie was just barely walking on that line between clever and obnoxious and the sequel definitely jumps over into obnoxious in a lot of ways.  It gets a little better later on when the film more clearly establishes itself as a manifestation of a conflict between a brother and his sister, but I kind of take issue with how that plays out as well.  It seems to frame the brother as being kind of a jerk for not playing along with the sister, but to my eyes it seems like the brother and sister’s interest are rather incompatible and that there’s nothing unreasonable about him wanting to do his own thing without her stealing his shit.  The ending where they come to terms with one another felt like a bit of an unearned deus ex machina, which is something of a function of the fact that they’ve created a world where their main character ultimately have very little agency over their fate.

** out of Five

Her Smell (7/6/2019)

Despite my usual attempts to keep up with these things for whatever reason I have not encountered the work of Alex Ross Perry until now despite a lot of it getting pretty high marks from critics.  My understanding is that his movies are generally character studies which focus on flawed people who can be hard to like but who do have some good qualities at their core and that certainly describes the movie at hand.  The focus here is on a female alternative rock star who goes by the name Becky Something and is played by Elisabeth Moss.  We don’t see a lot of Becky Something’s “good years” in the movie as it opens up at a point where she’s already a trainwreck going through all the usual Behind the Music drug addiction combined with pampered egomania.  The film is structured in such a way that you basically pop into Becky’s life at five different moments and watch one elongated scene in each of them.  Some of these scenes are meant to really go on uncomfortably long and really make you soak in how dysfunctional this woman is.  Elisabeth Moss is quite strong in this but it can definitely be hard to watch at times but all the unpleasantness is leading somewhere.  This isn’t really a movie that’s going to rock my world and I don’t know that I’m ever going to revisit it but it is a pretty strong piece of work for what it’s trying to do.

***1/2 out of Five

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (7/19/2019)

If there’s one thing I’m starting to learn by giving family movies a chance it’s that the people making them are working on a sequel they tend to operate under the assumption that their target audience has been watching the predecessors on repeat every day leading up to the new movie because they don’t feel much of an obligation to slowly re-introduce audiences to their worlds.  It’s particularly jarring for this series, which has taken the entirety of a decade to complete itself.  A kid who was nine when they went to see the original would be eighteen by now.  Pixar can get away with that kind of thing but I’m not sure Dreamworks can and I must say having seen this five years after rather casually watching the rather disappointing second installment of this trilogy I can’t say I was really feeling the desire for closure that the people making this seem to have assumed I’d have going in.  I’ll give them this: they do manage to give this thing a fairly definitive ending rather than baiting yet another sequel and in some ways it almost feels like they only revisited the whole series out of a sort of obligation to finish it even if they didn’t necessarily have a great idea for the rest of the movie.  The middle section, which is a sort of battle with a moustache twirling villain who nonetheless doesn’t seem like that much of a threat, is largely forgettable and the side characters felt downright obnoxious this time around.  Honestly I think it was probably a mistake to make this a franchise in the first place, neither sequel has come close to recapturing what worked about that first movie.

** out of Five

Under the Silver Lake (8/10/2019)

The world kind of seemed like David Robert Mitchell’s oyster after the release of his very well received horror thriller It Follows, which was something of a precursor to the recent trend of sophisticated indie horror movies.  However, pretty much from the moment of its Cannes premier his follow-up film Under the Silver Lake took on the aura of the sophomore slump (even if it was his third movie), and having finally seen the movie I can’t say that I disagree with that assessment.  Rather than make another horror movie Mitchell has opted to make a languid druggy Los Angeles neo-noir.  The only problem is that he’s far from the first person to have the idea of making a languid druggy Los Angeles neo-noir; the movie lives in the shadow of other similar movies like The Long Goodbye, Inherent Vice, and even The Big Lebowski.  I might even go as far as to compare it to Richard Kelly’s disastrous sophomore effort Southland Tales (seriously, young filmmakers, stop making movies named after L.A. neighborhoods) in the way it wants to be challenging but ends up just feeling confusing and empty despite some kind of interesting scenes here and there.  It doesn’t help that the film’s protagonist is ill-formed and unlikable and that the film’s gender politics is… debatable. It’s not a complete waste as the parts that work are certainly interesting, but ultimately the whole thing just comes off as an act of hubris from a filmmaker who bit off more than he could chew.

** out of Five

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood(7/26/2019)

Review Contains Spoilers

For about as long as I’ve been watching Quentin Tarantino’s career there’s been the specter of its eventual end.  Tarantino announced a while back that he was planning to quit filmmaking after he’d completed ten films, thus locking in a filmography for fear that he’d lose skill with age and have that taint his legacy.  He’s likened it to a boxer knowing he only has so many fights in him.  On some level this seems unnecessarily defeatist, after all Tarantino’s idol Martin Scorsese seems to be more than capable of making exciting and relevant films well into his 70s, but I do kind of see where that instinct comes from.  There have definitely been filmmakers like John Carpenter who seem great but then suddenly become incapable of making good movies once they hit a certain age.  More commonly though directors find themselves in a position where they make their last great movie, then they make four or five mediocrities, and then they end their career without fanfare.  I can see why Tarantino would want to avoid that, but there’s always been a degree of skepticism about this whole scheme.  Tarantino is plainly deeply in love with filmmaking to the point where it’s hard to see him willingly giving it up, so everyone just kind of assumed that plan would go the way of the Vega Brothers spinoff.  But now with the release of his ninth movie (his marketers have been making sure you’re counting) he’s really close to that end goal and if that ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is any indication Tarantino appears to be dead serious about his retirement plans and has been thinking about aging out of relevance someday very carefully.

The film is set in Hollywood during the year 1969.  Our focus is on a pair of fictional characters: a down on his luck star of B-movies and TV westerns named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Booth is a veteran stuntman but there’s been something of a pall over his career because it’s believed (perhaps rightly) that he murdered his wife and got away with it.  In many ways he’s been working as an assistant and driver for Dalton, but Dalton’s career isn’t terribly healthy either.  Dalton became famous as the star of a TV show called “Bounty Law” and he’s made a few grindhouse movies but at this point he’s mostly doing guest appearances as villains on other people’s shows and an agent named Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) is trying to convince him to go to Italy to make a spaghetti western called Nebraska Jim with Sergio Corbucci.  All the while Dalton is kind of unknowingly in the line of historical fire as he resides in a house on Cielo Drive right across the street from the home of Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), which everyone knows would become the sight of the Manson Family’s most infamous murders in the August of that year.

When auteurs on Tarantino’s level make movies you don’t generally go into them like you would a general release.  Like, when I turn on a movie I haven’t seen by Fellini or Ozu or someone like that the last thing that’s on my mind is whether it’s “good” or “bad” in the traditional sense so much as I’m looking to see how they address their usual themes or advancing their aesthetic.  Eventually you have to determine if it’s a major or minor work but unless they’ve really dropped the ball the question of whether the film is even worth seeing is king of beside the point.  So let’s get the mundane consumer advice out of the way upfront.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a good movie, duh.  It’s got a pair of fine performances at its center, some very funny moments along the way, it’s interest in 20th Century pop culture and iconography is impressive, and it leaves you with a lot to think about.  That said, while I am the last person to complain about the runtime of Quentin Tarantino movies even I would have to admit that those criticisms might have a tiny bit of validity this time and that certain parts of the movie worked better than others.  Within Tarantino’s recent oeuvre it lacks the energy and entertainment value of Django Unchained and the visual mastery of The Hateful Eight and certainly isn’t the radical reinvention that Inglourious Basterds was.  Were I to rank his films it would probably be nearer to the bottom than the top, but whatever, the dude’s hardly ever made a movie that was even a little bit bad and being low ranked among his films is like being towards the bottom of a ranking of moon landings.  So, thumbs up, four and a half stars, if you’re trying to decide between seeing this and seeing The Lion King, Stuber, Hobbs and Shaw, or whatever other market-tested product Hollywood is putting out by the time you’re reading this, see this.

Again, Spoilers going forward, last warning.

With that out of the way, let’s look a little deeper into what this movie might be saying and how it fits into Tarantino’s career and into the filmmaking landscape.  This is technically the first movie that Tarantino has made that was released by a major studio, or at least made by a major studio without going through a specialty division.  He made the movie for Columbia/Sony after there were… issues… with the people he’s worked with most of his career.  When it became known that he was shopping this project elsewhere there was actually something of a bidding war to see who he’d begin working with which kind of surprised me given that, well, he doesn’t make movies about superheroes.  He makes R-rated independently spirited original movies that are driven by dialogue and esoteric references rather than CGI effects.  He does have a good sized fan base and he’s certainly proven to have some commercial instincts to reach audiences beyond that, but at the end of the day he still doesn’t exactly embody what Hollywood normally values that strongly these days.  Hell, even back in the 90s he was something of a renegade voice who needed to come through the indie backdoor in order to find a place in “the industry.”  And that’s the thing about Tarantino’s whole retirement plan: had he announced it recently rather than over a decade ago one could easily imagine that it was a reaction to a belief that he and his style of filmmaking were being pushed out by Hollywood, and that anxiety almost certainly fuels Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

In the past Tarantino has rather snarkily said his whole retirement plan was in place because he didn’t want to find himself making “old man” movies, which is ironic because Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is absolutely an “old man movie.”  It’s loaded to the brim with references to obscure nostalgic ephemera that no one under fifty is going to recognize (it makes “Mad Men” look downright lazy in its period detail), it completely ignores the filmmaking trends of its time, and most importantly it’s quite literally about old (well, Hollywood “old”) men not knowing how to react to “the kids” these days.  The selection of 1969 as a year for Tarantino to set a movie about overtly about movies in is certainly not a coincidence.  Anyone who knows film history knows that the late 60s was a tumultuous time for Hollywood where a new generation was rejecting the style of filmmaking that had been working since the Golden Age and new mediums like color television were increasingly acting as competition for the cinema and clearly Rick Dalton sees himself as a potential casualty of this transition.  It also definitely isn’t a coincidence that Dalton’s genre of choice is the western because that is also genre which even at its height was all about generational change and hardened pioneers being replaced by the “civilized” world they helped to usher in (the movie rather pointedly has a character saying he wants to connect 1969 with 1869).

That said, one shouldn’t view Dalton as a complete stand-in for Tarantino himself and the film should not be mistaken as a work that’s entirely on his side.  For one thing, Dalton does not appear to have ever been as accomplished as an actor as Tarantino is as a filmmaker.  He appears to have been something of a second rate talent and we’re given ever reason to believe his self destructive tendencies have as much to do with his professional shortcomings as changing tastes.  A very uncharitable reading of him is that he’s exactly the kind of mediocre white man that is going to be the first one to be threatened by more tolerant hiring practices.  More successful actors like the real Steve McQueen (who Dalton is established as a second rate non-union replacement for) are shown to fit in fairly well with the new generation and other members of the younger generation like Sharon Tate and the eight year old girl that Dalton has a breakdown in front of seem to be worthy replacements for the likes of Dalton.  So in many ways it feels like the work of someone coming to terms with his own irrelevance in a changing world in which two flawed heroes from a dying world are set up to, like in the westerns of yore, go on one last great hurrah before leaving the world to the next generation… and then the Manson family shows up and everything goes crazy.

If the pricklier aspects of Dalton and Booth are meant to represent why this change may be necessary, the Mansons are meant to represent everything that’s shitty about the next generation.  The real Manson Family was of course a perverse funhouse mirror reflection of the hippie flower power movement; they were people who discarded all the values of a the previous generation and rather than replacing them with new and better values they replaced them with Charles Manson’s insane bullshit and became monsters without honor or humanity.  Given their propensity to spout hollow slogans of radical consciousness they barely seem to understand one could maybe see them as a stand-in for the kind of woke twitter trolls who may be inclined to “cancel” Quentin Tarantino, especially given a speech delivered by Susan Atkins right before the murders where she accuses screen violence for the Vietnam war.  However, I think the bigger statement Tarantino is trying to make about Manson has less to do with modern political discourse and more to do with the effect that the Manson murders are said to have had on the American psyche.

The cultural narrative has long been that the Manson murders shocked the nation in such a way that it kind of killed off the very notion of flower power and ushered in the end of the sixties.  That way of viewing things is, of course, kind of ridiculous.  Cultural evolution does not happen that cleanly, but when the legend becomes fact print the legend.  So when Dalton and Booth inadvertently re-route history so that Manson’s minions are the ones massacred that day rather than Tate and her friends they are, for all intents and purposes, fighting the future and keeping the groovy sixties going on past the expiration date in our history books.  On a more personal level this ending can also be viewed as a moment where the old dogs like Tarantino rage against the dying of the light, use their old world toughness to protect the innocent, and not only fight back against the people who would replace them but incinerate the motherfuckers with a damn flamethrower.  So in many ways this ending would seem to be in contradiction with the resignation with the future and obsolescence we saw earlier in the film and which Tarantino seems to be advocating in the real world… but does it?

This is of course not the first time that Tarantino has dared to re-write history with one of his films.  In Inglourious Basterds he killed Hitler and burned the Nazi regime to the ground and in Django Unchained he had a black man fight back against the slave holding south and blow up a plantation and metaphorically the debased society that built it.  In both cases these are meant to be richly deserved cathartic retributions against debased philosophies which would usher in more enlightened ages more rapidly than in the real world.  Here we’re certainly supposed to be happy that Sharron Tate has been saved but otherwise the revisionist history at play this time around seems to be something of a different beast.  For one thing, Charles Manson is no Adolf Hitler and his idiot goons are no Hans Landa.  We actually don’t see a lot of Manson himself in the movie and while we can intuit that the events of the film’s finale would eventually lead police to Spahn Ranch and result in his arrest Tarantino does not seem to view him as an adversary worthy adversary whose philosophy needs to be cathartically dismantled.  Rather, a lot of what happens in that ending kind of feels like overkill.

The trait that initially changes the trajectory of the killers is not enlightened heroism but rather an old drunk asshole basically profiling what could have easily been a group of innocent young people under different circumstances and all but telling them to “get off his lawn.”  And the way the Family acolytes are dispatched, while likely justifiable homicides is about as ugly and brutal as the actual killings from history despite being directed at people who ostensibly “have it coming” and the consciously absurd bit with the flamethrower borders on the psychotic.  That the two then react to killing these “damn hippies” with such casualness also stands out, as does Dalton’s general disinterest in the well-being of his new wife.  Are we supposed to feel happy about all this?  I’m not so sure that we are.  Just consider the music cue that’s playing when he walks away from the bloodbath to meet with the recently saved Sharron Tate.  Rather than some triumphant pop song it’s a sparse cue from the movie The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean which almost sounds like something out of Rosemary’s Baby.  And rather than taking a Victory Lap like Django or asserting something to be a masterpiece like Aldo Raine, he just walks out of frame while the camera lingers on the empty driveway.

There’s something ominous about it all and I think that’s Tarantino signaling his own ambivalence about what he’s just done as a re-writer of history.  Viewed as a confrontation between actors and Manson family members this is all a relatively straightforward battle between good and evil but viewed as a confrontation between generations it’s uneasy.  These two jackasses might be in able to claim the moral high ground in relation to the Manson Family but they maybe aren’t in a position to claim superiority over the future they don’t even know they’ve wiped out just because Tarantino loves to live in the past and that’s the big difference here: Django Unchained and Ingourious Basterds were movies where historical revision ushered in a new world but here revisionism is meant to maintain the status quo and Tarantino seems to realize that there’s something kind of problematic about this.  He knows he’s being small “c” conservative and I don’t think he likes that feeling and I think the film is in many ways an expression of that.

Am I reading too much into this?  I don’t know, maybe.  This is actually the second straight Tarantino movie I’ve come out of with a fairly elaborate theory I’ve had to try to back up and while I do stand by my belief that The Hateful Eight is a complex allegory about political division I’m not sure that every granular piece of evidence for this which I found in my first viewing exactly holds.  I’m also not sure I get how every piece here fits together either.  Like, I totally see how Rick Dalton fits in with my little theory but I’m not entirely sure how Cliff Booth does or what Sharon Tate’s exact role is in it all and there are other parts of the movie that I don’t have the same sort of bold reading of.  It’s in many ways a movie of ideas and iconography moreso than a work of storytelling and that makes it feel kind of weird and misshapen and I’m not sure how a lot of people are going to react to that.  However, I think this is going to be looked back at as one of the important keystones of Tarantino’s career and I think his true fans are going to be able to pick up what he’s putting down, and if he does go forward with his plans to retire after his next movie I’ll certainly miss his work but after seeing this I think I finally understand.

****1/2 out of Five