Home Video Round-Up: 7/11/2018

The Cloverfield Paradox (2/28/2017)

I’ve been a big supporter of the whole “Cloverfield” brand going back to the original film ten years ago, which is part of why I was so disappointed when it was announced during the Super Bowl that the latest Cloverfield would be coming straight to Netflix, a move that signaled pretty clearly to me that the studio had no faith in it whatsoever.  I still held out some hope for the thing despite the toxic reviews but the movie they came out with is pretty hopeless.  Basically the idea here seemed to be to make the movie Sunshine but to do every single element of it a whole lot worse and to even make the same misguided ending and do it worse as well.  The characters who populate the space station in this thing are complete idiots who clearly shouldn’t be manning urgent space missions and the basic science fiction ideas here are muddled and uninteresting.  The Cloverfield elements also make absolutely no sense.  We’re apparently supposed to believe that the happenings on this space station caused the monster from the first film to come into existence, which doesn’t exactly track given that that first movie was very specifically set in 2008 and showed no signs of the energy crisis that’s said to force the creation of that space station.  This thing is a total whiff and I question why they were willing to tarnish the Cloverfield brand with it.

*1/2 out of Five

Andre the Giant (4/13/2017)

I’ve never had anything but the most snobbish of disdain for professional wrestling but I have always kind of been curious about Andre the Giant.  There seems to have been this mystique around him that pervades all of pop culture.  Shepard Fairey would make stickers about him, House M.D. would accept him as his higher power in rehab, his performance in The Princess Bride is widely discussed, it seems like to a certain generation he was a mystical god among men.  The Kayfabe of wrestling made him into this legendary figure and much of his life was mired in myth.  I was kind of hoping that this documentary would be able to set some of the mythmaking aside and get to the man, and while it certainly tries to do that but it’s a bit hampered by the available materials.  There seems to be little in the way of archival footage of interviews where Andre really opens up and most of the talking head interviews from people who knew him seem to fall back into old habits of describing him at his most superhuman.  Oddly enough the material I found the most compelling are the things about the history of the WWF and how Andre the Giant acted as a transitionary figure between the era of regional promotions and nationally televised ones.  All in all the documentary is an interesting enough watch but I’m not sure it quite lived up the hype that’s been surrounding it because at the end of the day I don’t think it does a whole lot that a 30 for 30 couldn’t have done.

**1/2 out of Five

Red Sparrow (6/7/2017)

Jennifer Lawrence is one of the few actors in Hollywood that can really be called an A-lister at this point and can basically write her own ticket, so one wonders what it is about the movie Red Sparrow that appealed to her.  The movie is certainly not respectable enough to have ever been considered awards fare, it’s also a bit too out there to have ever been any kind of sure thing at the box office, and given that it’s about a Russian you can’t exactly say it’s a part that uniquely plays into her skillset.  It may have been she took the part out of loyalty to Francis Lawrence (no relation), who directed the last three of the Hunger Games movies, but Lawrence is nowhere near as talented as Lawrence’s other directorial BFFs like David O. Russell and Darren Aronofsky and yet this project is not quite the right fit for him either.  The film is set in the world of modern Russian espionage and suggests that basically nothing has changed in that world since the Cold War and that the KGB is still hatching elaborate schemes right out of “The Americans” to this day and finds blindly loyal agents to assist.  Specifically this it’s about a woman who’s recruited to be a “honeypot” agent who fucks sources into giving information and goes to a sort of whoring academy to learn how to do this.  That is a wild premise straight out of the exploitation movie playbook and yet this movie plays the idea completely straight to minimal effect.  They should have gotten someone with a much more unique sensibility to direct this thing, Paul Verhoeven maybe, to really give this thing the wildness it seems to call for.  As a straightforward spy thriller it’s hardly unwatchable but it certainly isn’t memorable and it probably wasn’t worth paying a huge star $20 million plus to make.

** out of Five

The Tale (6/14/2017)

Historically I’ve avoided reviewing HBO original movies on this site as I have generally felt like TV movies are kind of their own separate thing.  I probably will still go by that when it comes to movies that HBO produces from the jump but Jennifer Fox’s The Tale was more of a festival acquisition than an original production and given that I’ve been letting Netflix’s roster of movies into Home Video Round-Up I don’t see much of a valid reason to treat HBO’s films differently.  That said, medium does seem to matter with this movie as I couldn’t help but detect something of a televisual aesthetic to The Tale and I can’t help but wonder if that would be less noticeable if I had seen it for the first time in the theater.  Fox has a background in documentary rather than scripted features and her camerawork seems to have something of a matter-of-fact quality to it that is perhaps carried over from that work despite the film’s meta aspects.  This was perhaps intentional given that the film is more or less a true story, her own true story, but the way this carries over to the performances is also a problem.  I could of course be doing the film something of a disservice by focusing so much on its construction when the focus here is meant to be on the story it’s telling about Fox’s experience with sexual abuse as a child and her realization late in life of how inappropriate that was and about the ways she had sort of blocked out the trauma.  Still if her intention were simply to get her story out she maybe would have benefited from leaning into her documentary background even more and creating a sort of hybrid documentary/drama.  As movies about the trauma of creepy age inappropriate abusive relationships go I probably preferred the movie The Diary of a Teenage Girl from a couple of years ago, which tells much the same story with a bit more flair.

*** out of Five

Game Night (7/11/2017)

In its trailers Game Night certainly had the look of something that would be rather forgettable but after its release I did end up hearing a surprising number of positive things about it.  Though it doesn’t entirely signal it, Game Night is meant to be something of a parody of the style and work of David Fincher (particularly early pre-Zodiac David Fincher) and twisty thrillers in general.  Its plot has a great deal in common with Fincher’s 1997 film The Game, it’s got some Panic Room style long shots, and one character probably not coincidentally brings up the idea of fight clubs a lot.  As such this has a lot more in the way of production value than most comedies and at times actually functions as a reasonably competent action movie despite actually being a spoof.  I wouldn’t say that the movie is wildly hilarious, it has some good gags that stand out but for the most part this feels more like a fun ride than a laugh riot and the sum of its parts is maybe better than the whole.  Still this is a surprisingly enjoyable film as these things go and it definitely worth a look if it shows up on Netflix or HBO or something.

***1/2 out of Five

Advertisements

Summer, 1993(6/24/2018)

The always sarcastic marquee at my local arthouse showing the new Spanish film Summer, 1993 had a special comment on one side which reads “Not about ‘Exile in Guyville’” in reference to the 1993 Liz Phair album of that name and on the other side it reads “I was listening to ‘Siamese Dream’ a lot that that summer” in reference to the Smashing Punpkins album of that name.  That joke marquee isn’t really referencing anything in the movie itself (which is entirely disinterested in popular music) but more about that strange way that references to the summers of various years almost always conjures up certain nostalgic images whether or not your own experiences had much of anything in common with the popular perception.  Case in point Bryan Adams managed to sing very plausibly about his magical coming of age experiences in the “Summer of ‘69” despite the fact that simple google searches reveal that he was actually only ten years old that year so he probably didn’t actually buy his first real six-string at the five and dime and play it until his fingers bled that year.  The year 1993 is of course no exception, when I saw the title of the movie I was also instantly thinking about grunge music and Michael Jordan even though I was six years old that years old that year and was probably spending a lot more time listening to the “Little Mermaid” soundtrack than I was listening to “Vs.”  Of course that would theoretically prove to be a bit of a boon when it comes to looking at Summer, 1993 the movie as it eschews the notion that the “summer of” construct is owned by teenagers as it is also a movie about people who were six or so in 1993.

Summer, 1993 begins with a woman named Marga (Bruna Cusí) and her husband Esteve (David Verdaguer) adopting their niece Frida (Laia Artigas) and moving her from Barcelona to their home somewhere in rural Catalonia after Frida’s mother dies and hope to raise her alongside their own slightly younger daughter Anna (Paula Robles).  That is pretty much the entirety of the plot summery for this movie as it is very much a movie about observing people rather than really relaying a plotline.  There is a subtext to be discovered in that it becomes clear that it was three letters that took Frida’s mother to her final resting place, which is probably the main reason this is set in 1993, but this only really comes up in something like four or five scenes and the movie doesn’t really come out and explain it explicitly until a very well rendered conversation in its final moments.  Instead the movie remains largely in the little girl’s point of view and continues to follow her through her many mundane days across that summer mostly oblivious to the social and political situation that her mother’s death represents instead observes her as she’s going through typical kid stuff as she slowly adjusts to her new life.

Summer 1993 is a tricky one because I get what it’s trying to do and when I step back far enough I can admire that, but the process of actually watching it was a bit rough.  I hate to use the B-word about an art movie but if I’m being honest there was only so much of watching these kids do a whole lot of nothing particularly special without finding it all a bit dull.  This has been something of a quirk in my taste, a lot of filmmakers seem very interested in letting their cameras observe kids being kids but it’s something that doesn’t really work for me except for a couple of very specific situations where it works very well.  Last year’s The Florida Project for instance, worked like gangbusters for me but that looked at a childhood that was very unique and really examined how that kid’s messy family life affected her in a way that this movie intentionally avoids and other movies like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood tends to move more quickly from year to year rather than focusing in on one rather mundane summer.  This one actually reminded me more of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but not the interesting parts of it like the dawn of life sequence or the magnificent camera work or ethereal nature that made it interesting, more like an extended version of the somewhat dull sequences of kids playing that sort of made that movie not entirely work for me.  And if watching kids play aimlessly is going to make a Terrence Malick movie dull you can probably guess this one didn’t really stand a chance.  Still, I don’t want to be too dismissive of it as it does in theory at least do a pretty good job of showing with subtlety a major adjustment in this family’s life, shame it also had to be so boring.

** out of Five

Crash Course: Ghibli Beyond Miyazaki – Takahata and Kondō

Ever since Turner Classic Movies ran a Hayoa Miyazaki retrospective back in 2006 I’ve been a pretty big fan of his work.  His hand drawn animations for the Ghibli studio have been among the most acclaimed animated films of all time around the world and have brought anime to a level of mainstream recognition and salability that most wouldn’t have anticipated.  I don’t love all of his movies but the movies of his I like I like quite a bit.  However, it has become increasingly clear to me that I’ve been kind of overlooking the work of his other compatriots at Studio Ghibli and in 2018 I’m hoping to rectify that.  As such I’m going to do two little retrospectives, the first looking at the work of Ghibli’s second most famous auteur Isao Takahata (aside from his classic Grave of the Fireflies, which I’ve already seen) and the one film their other early master Yoshifumi Kondō made before his tragic and untimely death.  I would also like to note upfront that these are not going to be the kind of “skeptical” reviews I did for Disney and Pixar and the like as I already have a great deal of respect for what Ghibli did with Miyazaki.

Only Yesterday (1991)

Though Grave of the Fireflies was actually not Isao Takahata’s debut film, it was the first film he made for Studio Ghibli and as such that’s usually where people start when discussing him.  That it was also basically his magnum opus meant that he had to spend the rest of his career trying to top it, which was basically impossible given how much of an emotionally charged story it was.  One can see the trouble this comparison has been in the differing fates of that film and his (sort of) sophomore effort Only Yesterday in the United States.  While Grave of the Fireflies never had a theatrical release in America (Anime was far from mainstream in the American marketplace in the late 80s) it did get a video release in the early 90s and became quite the cult hit as anime became more of a force.  Only Yesterday, by contrast, never even got an official American release until its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2016.  As such it’s sort of been the lost Ghibli film to audiences on the East side of the Pacific despite having been quite popular in Japan.

The film is in its own way a logical follow-up to Grave of the Fireflies as it is also a look at the life of children but children of the next generation growing up in what was a significantly better time to be a kid in Japan.  The film essentially looks at the life of a ten year old girl in 1960s Tokyo which is contextualized by a framing story about her as an adult visiting the countryside.  Like a lot of coming of age films like The 400 Blows or Boyhood the film is largely about finding profundity in remembering the little things in childhood in a sort of wistful fashion.  There’s basically nothing about the film that would, on the surface anyway, seem to require animation.  Today that’s not very unusual and there are entire genres of anime like that but it’s my understanding that even in the more open minded world of anime that was a pretty unusual idea back in 1991.  This is probably a big part of why the film took so long to cross the Pacific as the core anime audience in America, especially in the early days, were dudes looking for science fiction ultra-violence and this thing had a hard time finding a place in that marketplace.  The film certainly feels like it’s a work of deep nostalgia, but the film’s protagonist obviously isn’t a stand-in for Takahata (who obviously isn’t a female and who would have been in his early thirties during the time the film is set).  Ultimately I think what holds the movie back for me is simply that it feels like a bit more like a collection of moments than a coherent whole.  The connections between the scenes in the 60s and the scenes of the protagonist as an adult never seemed to fully connect and the film never really crescendos in a satisfying way.  Still, it’s a beautifully observed movie for the most part.

***1/2 out of five

Pom Poko (1994)

With Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday Isao Takahata had made two straight films that used animation to tell period stories that didn’t necessarily need to be made with animation.  One could have imagined Takahata making that his modus operendai but instead he made a sharp left turn with his next film, Pom Poko, in which a group of talking raccoons band together to fight humans.  Actually it’s a bit inaccurate to call the creatures in this film “raccoons” (even though the English translations go ahead and do that) when they are in-fact Japanese raccoon dogs or “tanuki” as they’re usually called.  Tanuki are in fact real animals, they’re canines that have raccoon-like patterns on the faces and tails but are not actually related to real raccoons (who are indigenous to North America) at all.  These tanuki play a large part in Japanese folklore, where they’re considered to be shapeshifting tricksters, which is in fact the same tradition that Super Mario is tapping into when he grows “raccoon” ears and tails after picking up a leaf.  Pom Poko is an attempt to merge these old tanuki stories with the modern world in the form of an environmentalist fable.

That was a whole lot of background required to simply set this thing up for a western viewer and I haven’t even gotten into the fact that all the male tanuki have visible ball-sacks present on their bodies throughout the film.  The English dub (that Ghibli somehow got Disney to produce) tries to call these appendages pouches but the subtitled version just straight up calls them testicles.  Tanuki nuts apparently are very much a part of the folklore behind these creatures, but to western audiences that seems pretty weird.  Generally speaking most of the complaints I might have about this movie are things like that which are less the movie’s fault and more the result of something getting a bit lost in translation.  If you’re willing to do the research though and go along with some of this stuff this actually is a pretty solid Ghibli movie.  The movie manages to explain the ecological situation facing these tanukis in some fairly interesting ways and also comes to provide some fairly interesting visuals along the way like the “parade” scene midway through the film or some of the sight gags along the way.  The movie could stand to have been cut down a bit for pacing and it’s not a movie for the closed minded, but certainly a worthwhile watch for people with a slightly deeper interest in anime and Japanese culture.

***1/2 out of Five

Whisper of the Heart (1995)

Though this installment is largely looking at the work of Isao Takahata I’m also going to be looking at this movie, which was the first Ghibli film to be directed by someone other than Takahata or Miyazaki.  Instead this was directed by a man named Yoshifumi Kondō, who was a little younger than Takahata and Miyazaki but still basically of the same generation and who had worked as an animator on a number of Ghibli’s other movies.  Miyazaki had intended for Kondō to be a become one of the studio’s top talents and a successor of sorts for its founders, but Kondō wouldn’t live long enough to take that role.  In early 1998 while working behind the scenes on Princess Mononoke Kondō suffered an aneurysm believed to have been caused by overwork and died at the age of 47.  His death by all accounts affected Miyazaki deeply and was a big part of why he has continually been announcing his retirement ever since.  We’ll never know what Kondō would have one day become, but we do have his directorial debut to look back on.

Given that this movie represents the legacy of a filmmaker who died prematurely I’d love to be able to say that this is a hidden gem but as Studio Ghibli movies go I actually think it’s a bit weak.  That’s not to say that it’s a bad movie, it isn’t, but it lacks a certain something.  The film mostly takes the Takahata approach of making a movie that is basically set in the real world and focuses on a kid but the animation is a bit more Miyazaki-like. The weakness here is that the film’s protagonist feels like she would be an adequately developed character in an adventure movie but who seems to be just a little too thin to hold her own in a character drama like this.  The film tries to capture the confusion of youth but doesn’t quite nail it and as a result the protagonist just kind of feels like a bit of a spaz at times.  I’m also not crazy about her boyfriend of sorts Seiji, who kind of seems like a gender flipped manic pixie dream boy.  That’s not so say there isn’t some charming stuff here, it’s just kind of minor as these things go.

*** out of Five

My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)

I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about actual animation style while discussing Takahata but it is clear that a big thing that differentiates him from Miyazaki is that he experimented a lot more with the basic look of his films than his more famous colleague did.  I don’t want to diminish Miyazaki’s artistry in any way but the basic look of his films didn’t really differ much from the traditional anime style outside of the fact that they had a lot more money and they found more creative things to animate.  That was also more or less true about Takahata’s first three movies, which were a bit more grounded and had slightly different color palates than Miyazaki’s, but with his fourth film My Neighbors the Yamadas he really started to go wild and break from what most people would expect a Studio Ghibli films.  The film was not based on a typical manga but on a comic strip of the Sunday paper variety and the film takes on that “cartoon” style in a way that will be readily apparent at the very first glance.  The characters here are drawn in an intentionally sloppy manner, almost like doodles, and the backgrounds in the film are minimal to the point of being plain white at times, but that isn’t to say it’s a super low budget production and it does do larger set pieces at times.

I think this movie expects its audience to have some foreknowledge of the comic strip it was based on because it really throws you right in the middle of this family’s antics without giving you much of an introduction to the characters.  There isn’t a traditional story here so much as a series of light vignettes about family life.  Given the film’s episodic nature it is perhaps a bit curious that they believed a feature film would be the best format for the content.  With its sitcom nature one could imagine it being made into a 30 minute TV show that could almost be like a Japanese version of “The Simpsons” or given its funky animation style one could almost imagine it as a (very high budget) Youtube series if this were being made in a different era.  As it is, the film did not really keep me overly engaged on a narrative or character level and I certainly didn’t find it overly laugh out loud funny, so there really just wasn’t a whole lot for me in this thing.  Granted, cultural differences likely played some role in my disconnection from the film and I was interested in it enough from an animation perspective  in relation to the studio’s other films (it was, oddly enough, Ghibli’s first digitally animated movie) that I was at least interested by it but it is an oddity that is probably best left for completists.

** out of Five

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2014)

After My Neighbors the Yamadas Isao Takahata took a long break from directing feature animation.  During the over ten year span between his last two movies he focused his efforts on producing Studio Ghibli’s other films as they achieved greater and greater mainstream success and had a couple of other side projects.  Eventually it was announced that he would direct one final movie for the studio around the same time that his colleague Hayao Miyazaki was also planning to retire after making The Wind Rises.  Takahata’s retirement plans were met with less press than Miyazaki’s, in no small part because of the long break he took, but when his swan song finally came out it was met with a great deal of critical respect and a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars.  That film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, was an adaptation of an ancient Japanese folk tale about a bamboo cutter who finds a child in the woods and raises her as his own to eventually learn that she was sent by the moon people and that she would eventually have to return to them.  It’s a story with odd parallels to, of all things, the Superman origin story and has actually been viewed as something of a proto-science fiction story even if it doesn’t really feel like one.

To bring this 10th century folk tale to life Takahata decided to once again eschew the typical anime style and employ a unique form of animation, this one based on more traditional Japanese art.  The film is meant to look like a charcoal drawing brought to life with pastel watercolor added on top to make it look like an old Japanese scroll come to life.  It’s a much more successful aesthetic experiment than My Neighbors the Yamadas and really makes the film look unique and interesting and the film’s status as a Studio Ghibli production gives it more money to work with than an experimental idea like this would normally get.  The story seems to be very true to the original legend but with a bit more of an emphasis on what could be viewed as a sort of proto-feminism at the story’s heart as the titular princess rejects some of the more rigid gender roles required by the royal court and rebels against the life she eventually finds people trying to force her into.  If the movie has a weakness it’s that it is perhaps a bit long for how much of a simple fable the story is meant to be.  Takahata’s films generally tend to be a little bit longer than they need to be and have a touch of bagginess to them, but every time this one feels like it’s getting it bit dull it tends to bounce back with some kind of little twist of visual idea to liven things up a bit.

**** out of Five

And that is where this installment of my exploration into the wider world of Ghibli will have to come to an end.  There are still some Ghibli movies I’d like to check out and at a later date I do hope to do another installment of this where I check out the works of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Gorō Miyazaki, and Hiroyuki Morita, who are basically the second generation of Ghibli talents who made a number of films in the last decade or two while the older masters were going into and out of retirement.  Of course a bit of a shadow hangs over the current retrospective in that, between the time I started it and now Isao Takahata passed away, leaving The Tale of Princess Kaguya definitively his final film.  Having seen all of his films now I can pretty clearly say he leaves behind a pretty strong legacy.  No, I don’t know that any of the movies I looked at here was quite a grand slam but all of them were interesting on some level and there’s a maturity and a fearlessness to his overall filmography that is very much appreciated.  Add to that the fact that Grave of the Fireflies is an undisputed classic and his status as a master of animation is certainly earned.

Hereditary(6/9/2018)

When did audiences and critics suddenly become so divided in their taste for horror movies?  It probably isn’t exactly a new phenomenon but it seems like there’s been a certain role reversal.  It used to be that critics looked down on horror movies in general and wrote snobby reviews of the likes of The Thing and it would be left up to audiences to recognize the skill on display and build its legacy.  Obviously there would be certain movies like The Exorcist or The Silence of the Lambs that would be so good they would win over critics as well as audiences, but for the most part mainstream movie critics were far less forgiving of the genre than the public.  That’s still the case to some extent given that there are plenty of horror movies of the Ouija variety that the public laps up despite critical apathy, but there’s been an odd trend recently of “arty” horror movies that critics have loved but which audiences have angrily rejected.  The most prominent example of this was probably Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, which was only kind of a horror movie but audiences were certainly expecting it to be one and they were not too happy with what they got.  Something similar played out with last year’s It Comes at Night and with less widely seen films like The Witch and The Babadook.  It’s a pretty disturbing trend, in part because it suggest that audience have really closed their minds to what a horror movie can and should be, but it is good to see smart movies like this getting recognition and the latest movie that seems to have fit this trend is the new film Hereditary, which received incredibly strong reviews on the festival circuit but seems to be confounding mainstream audiences.

The film opens with the text of an obituary of an old woman named Ellen and transitions to her funeral where her daughter Annie Graham (Toni Collette) is conflicted about how to feel.  Her mother had been mentally ill throughout her life and the two fought often and went through periods of estrangement.  Annie’s kids aren’t quite sure what to think about the death of their grandmother either.  The older son Peter (Alex Wolff) had not spent much time with Ellen as Annie was estranged from her when he was young but her younger daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) did spend time with her but generally has a rather cold demeanor and doesn’t reveal much in the way of her emotions.  In the days after Ellen’s death Annie finds herself seeing some odd things that her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) dismisses as her mind playing tricks on her but Annie still finds herself secretly going to support groups for grief where she meets a woman named Joan (Anne Dowd) who tries to support her and begins introducing her to alternative coping mechanisms.  However, as Charlie begins acting increasingly strangely and other odd things keep happening and it becomes clear that something far more sinister than mere grief is going on here.

Hereditary could be said to be a rather extreme example of the many ways not to handle grief and family strife.  Much of what makes the film special is the way that the family at its center starts to break down and turn against one another as things grow increasingly painful for everyone involved and we see different coping mechanisms out of each of the main family members.  The mother desperately searches for answers and becomes prone to anger, the son more or less cocoons himself away and falls into a sort of depressive stupor, and the father tries to just move on and ends up having to act as a sort of mediator between all parties involved.  I wouldn’t exactly say that this rings “true” exactly given all the horror trappings that adds a new dimension to everything, but it does sort of feel like an extreme version of dynamics that would exist in a similar if less fantastical scenario.  As such this requires more out of its actors than the typical horror movie and much of the cast delivers.  Gabriel Byrne does a good job of conveying the desperation of a guy who suddenly finds himself in the middle of a truly messed up dynamic and Alex Wolff does a pretty good job of making his character’s utter confusion palpable.  But the true standout here is almost certainly Toni Collette who brings to life a character who is in an almost constant state of mental breakdown because of an accumulation of years of confusion and repressed memories and also the desperation of her current situation.  Were this a more standard family drama in the Ordinary People vein she would be a shoe in for an academy award for this performance.

This focus on mental breakdown in a familial situation draws some comparison to another recent “arty” horror movie, The Babadook.  I would say that in general Hereditary is a scarier and more hard hitting horror movie than The Babadook but it lacks the ambiguity of that movie and other clear inspirations like Rosemary’s Baby.  I think the movie wants you to sort of be unclear, at least for a little while, as to whether or not there’s truly something supernatural going on or whether Toni Collette’s character is letting her paranoia and insecurities get the best of her, or at least that’s a card I wish it had wanted to play but it shows you things early on that are plainly supernatural and in doing so it sort of discards that possibility early on.  In general if I have a problem with the movie it’s that it is perhaps trying to be a few too many different kind of horror movies at once.  At times it feels a bit like a ghost story of the Paranormal Activity variety and it isn’t above going for a jump scare here and there, at times it feels like an occult/witchcraft movie along the lines of The Exorcist or The Witch, and at times it wants to be more of a psychological thriller along the lines of The Babadook and the weight of trying to be so many things at once sort of prevents it from being everything it could potentially be.  I think dropping some of the elements that fake towards it being a haunting movie and letting it be more of a slow burn at the beginning would have been to its benefit and I also don’t exactly know that it lays out the rules of its horror universe as clearly as I would have like (I was never exactly clear how the rules of possession are supposed to work in it), though of course there is probably a decent argument to be made that a more mysterious approach would was the right one.  Whatever it’s imperfections that may or may not preclude it from the pantheon of horror masterpieces, this is plainly a cut above most of the horror movies that are likely to be in theaters at a given moment and is well worth seeing if you’ve got the stomach for a lot onscreen trauma.

**** out of Five

First Reformed(6/3/2018)

Review Contains Spoilers

Paul Schrader is a bit of an anomaly among veteran film directors in that, when looked at from afar, he actually has a pretty impressive filmography but it doesn’t always feel like that.  Part of that might simply be that his accomplishments as a screenwriter have long overshadowed his work as a director.  That’s perhaps understandable, handing off a script like Taxi Driver off to a different director tends to have that effect, but he does have some really solid directorial credits as well like Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and American Gigolo so that can’t be the only problem.  The real problem is simple inconsistency.  For a guy who tends to speak very seriously about cinema and who once wrote a book called “Transcendental Style in Film” about Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer Schrader sure seems to get involved in some questionable projects.  This has always been a problem for Schrader, who even in his prime years found himself making sensationalist projects like Hardcore and bad ideas like his Cat People remake.  But the last fifteen years have been particularly dismissible with him making Exorcist prequels, trashy Nicholas Cage movies, and tabloid baiting Lindsay Lohan movies with hardly a single real triumph since 2002’s Auto Focus.  Admittedly I haven’t actually seen most of the movies he’s made in that stretch and it’s possible that there are actually some hidden gems in there, but from the outside it’s been pretty easy to write the guy off as a has been chasing former glories.  But lo and behold, out of nowhere Schrader has suddenly made a movie called First Reformed that has actually gained a great deal of critical respect.  Could it be a true comeback?

First Reformed follows a modern day Calvinist pastor named Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) who is currently in charge of a historic church in the Albany, New York area called the First Reformed, which is about to go through its 250th anniversary.  Toller was once a military chaplain and he encouraged his son to follow the family tradition and join the military but this went bad when that son was killed in action during the war in Iraq.  Toller is now divorced and alcoholic but still takes some solace in preaching to his small flock.  One day a woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to him and asks him to talk with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who has become increasingly depressed about the state of the world.  Michael is worried about his wife’s pregnancy and feels that it’s immoral to bring a child into a world that will inevitably be decimated by climate change within the child’s lifetime.  Toller tries to console the man but is himself disturbed by what he’s saying, which sparks a crisis of faith in the pastor about everyone’s culpability in destroying the world.

First Reformed uses as a framing device the fact that the depressed pastor at its center is writing a diary to get out his inner spiritual turmoil.  This of course harkens back to Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest… I think.  Confession: I’ve never actually seen The Diary of a Country Priest.  Bresson and his theological explorations have never been my cup of tea and while I’ve seen a couple of his movies that one is a blind spot.  I have, on the other hand, seen the other movie that this one clearly draws influence from: Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light.  The connection between the two is pretty clear with the film’s look at environmental despair being essentially an update of the nuclear paranoia that’s going on in Bergman’s film.  There are various other bits and pieces lifted from European classics and Schrader more or less announces that he’s working within this tradition by filming the movie in the old Academy Ratio, but the movie is not necessarily as slow and meditative as some of the movies that Schrader describes as “transcendental.”  This is not exactly a summer popcorn movie or anything but it isn’t the kind of art film that’s filled with pauses and lingering shots of the kind you might see in a Tsai Ming-liang movie or something.

This also shouldn’t be mistaken for a movie so indebted to the films of the past that it isn’t bringing anything of its own to the table.  There are elements of the film that hue closer to what Schrader’s own interests in almost hysterical obsession to the point where the film almost shares the structure of Schrader’s breakthrough screenplay Taxi Driver.  These Taxi Driver like elements are probably where I start to take issue with the movie, in part because the act of violence that the movie leads up to never quite seemed plausible to me.  For one thing, the basic notion of an “eco-terrorist” owning a suicide vest strained credibility from the beginning.  “Eco-terrorists” are a thing, but they are pretty different from “terrorist terroists,” they’ve been known to cause property damage and pull stunts like breaking into labs and freeing test animals but they’ve never killed anyone and it’s doubtful they would have much use for a C4 vest.  Even ignoring that, I have trouble seeing the logic in Toller’s eventual plan, which seems to involve killing several innocent people to take out one easily replaceable industrialist.  Deranged as he may have been, Travis Bickle at least had enough common sense to hatch a plan that actually would conceivably succeed at freeing the Jodie Foster character from her pimp.  Toller is older, better educated, and seemingly less far gone than Bickle and yet his plan seems even more disconnected from reality than that crazy taxi driver’s violent outburst and it’s tough to believe that even someone in extreme spiritual tumult would hatch such a scheme.

Ignoring whether or not the development at the end quite makes sense, what are we to make of it?  I think a big part of the message might be in the music that Schrader chooses to set his climax to.  As Toller begins to mutilate himself with barbed wire and contemplate drinking drano Esther is singing an old American Hymn called “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song that will be familiar cinephilles from its use in Night of the Hunter and its incorporation in Carter Burwell’s score for the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit.  It’s filled with lyrics like “what a blessedness, what a peace is mine,” “safe and secure from all alarms,” and “O how sweet to walk, In this pilgrim way.”  In short it’s a song about finding bliss and comfort in religion, which is about the opposite of what Toller is experiencing.  On the contrary, Toller finds that truly thinking through the implications of his faith and the toll of being moral in a fallen world to be anything but comforting.  I don’t think the movie is suggesting that this is an experience that’s unique to religion given that the character of Michael also ended up being consumed after truly thinking through the implications of what we’re doing to the world.  I don’t think the movie is trying to suggest that people should be living in blissful ignorance either but it is suggesting that people maybe shouldn’t try to bear the weight of the world on their own and in the final shot of the film Toller manages to unburden himself, even if only in his dying imagination, by throwing out the burdens of the cloth and following the carnal instincts that he’s been suppressing this whole time.  Some of the chains that bind him still remain, but in this final vision there is perhaps at least some hope that remains.

**** out of Five

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 6 – Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)

I first encountered the Pee Wee Herman as a child when the show “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” was airing on Saturday mornings on CBS.  It was decidedly not my favorite show as a kid but I do remember having watched a couple of episodes.  I must have been a very small kid when this was happening because I would have only been about four in 1991 when it was pulled off the air following Paul Reubens’ arrest for jacking off in a porn theater.  I do remember hearing about that incident at the time and knowing that it was the reason the show was cancelled, though I had no concept of what masturbation was at the time and no one felt the need to explain to me what a porn theater was, I just heard he was caught “playing with his penis” in a movie theater which actually kind of makes it sound worse than it was but I digress.  As I said his show was never really for me even as a small child, possibly just because it always seemed to be a bit too “in your face” with its weirdness and also for its general lack of narrative.  Maybe it was actually meant for a slightly older audience of, like, seven and eight year olds but because I was so young when it got pulled I associated it with being for the smallest of small children.  Consequently I had also always assumed that Pee Wee’s big screen debut Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was less of a real movie and more just a spin-off of the show like Elmo in Grouchland or something.  Over the years though it became apparent that Pee Wee’s Big Adventure was something a little different from that as evidence by the fact that it was directed by Tim Burton of all people and that people actually talked about it respectfully rather than as the mercenary corporate project I had suspected.

As it turns out, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure actually predates “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” and that the Pee Wee character actually debuted as a sort of counter culture stage show for adults about this weird guy who had sort of constructed the Howdy Doody Show from hell.  A filmed version of this stage show was eventually broadcast on HBO and Reubens started showing up on talk shows in character and eventually the character became famous enough to support a feature film and this was the result.  As previously stated, this was directed by Tim Burton and was his first feature film after directing a couple of well-liked if controversial short films while working for Disney and the success of his Pee Wee film propelled him to bigger things like Beetlejuice and Batman.  I had always assumed this was something of a mercenary project for Burton, but Pee Wee Herman does sort of serve as an outsider figure along the lines of an Edward Scissorhands or an Ed Wood although he isn’t always treated that way.  One would have expected that the joke of this film would be seeing what would happen to this weird guy when he left his little bubble and showed up in the real world, and there’s a little bit of that in the movie but for the most part everyone in the film comes to accept Herman quickly, perhaps a little too quickly.

There are certainly bits and sketches in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure that are well staged and amusing.  Its most famous moment, Large Marge, is certainly a neat piece of filmmaking and the film’s climactic chase scene has a comic energy that’s reminiscent of silent era slapstick and on top of that Danny Elfman gives the films an excellent score.  Unfortunately, in my eyes almost all of the film’s merits are undone by its Achilles heel: it has one of the most annoying main protagonists in the history of cinema.  I had basically no nostalgia for Pee Wee Herman as a character and I had hoped that watching this I would see something in him that I had missed before, instead I just found in Pee Wee Herman this strange irritating man with a voice that falls on the ears like nails on a chalkboard.  His every annoying laugh and every dumb phrase just filled me with an incredible loathing and opened in me an incredible urge to reach into the TV screen and grab Pee Wee by the neck and squeeze until his shrill voice was silenced, his made up face turned purple, and he stopped moving.  I can’t speak for everybody but in general I think it’s hard for any movie to really overcome a weakness like making the audience want to murder its central character but there are other alienating elements here, many of the side characters are similarly hard to deal with and the “normal” characters who somehow find this human wrecking ball that they encounter charming rather than disturbing are strange in their own right.  I’m not oblivious to fact that there’s some talent here and I will concede that Pee Wee’s schtick might not be kryptonite to some people the way it is to me and that they might like the movie more than I do, but for me this damn thing was painful.

To the Scorecard:

In the last two rounds the 80s were starting to win me over.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit really lived up to the hype and Labyrinth managed to charm me a little, but man oh man did this one not work for me.  This is certainly a knockdown, no question.  Going strictly by my subjective opinion of that experience I might even go so far as to paint this as a round with multiple knockdowns but there are some solid elements of filmmaking here that can’t be entirely ignored.  For that reason I’m just going to score this a 10/8 round.