Crash Course: Caveman Movies

After doing a number of these “Crash Course” articles about important filmmakers and relevant themes I thought it was high time to take a look at a handful of movies that were a bit lighter.  So, for no reason in particular, the time seems right to explore a handful of movies about people living their lives in pre-history: the time of the cave people.  I’m going to take a look at six movies from different eras and in vastly different styles and tones that deal in one way or another with our distant forefathers. Should make for some fun summer viewing at the very least.

One Million Years B.C. (1967)

While I’m calling these “caveMAN movies” a lot of them focus just as much on the cave ladies, cave ladies in varying degrees of undress.   This late sixties movie in particular seems to have largely been made for two reasons: 1. to show Raquel Welch in a deerskin fur bikini and 2. to give the audience some cool Ray Harryhausen stop-motion effects, but with a strong emphasis on the former.  In fact the movie may very well be more famous for a publicity still of Ms. Welch that became the basis for a very popular pinup poster which would eventually find its way to Andy Dufresne’s prison cell wall in The Shawshank Redemption.  I had kind of expected the movie to be the Flintstone’s to Barbarella’s Jetsons, but the actual movie isn’t really all that salacious outside of Welch’s costuming and is actually more of a family adventure film in a lot of ways.

The movie opens with an authoritative voice-over of the kind you’d expect from a Disney nature documentary, which is odd because as you can probably tell from the title, scientific accuracy is not much of a concern here.  Homo Sapiens as we know them didn’t exist much further back than 100,000 BCE and any human ancestors alive in 1,000,000 BCE would have been hairy and somewhat apelike.  One other thing you most certainly wouldn’t have seen in that year were freakin’ dinosaurs, but they’re all over this movie.  While most of these were created by stop-motion effects there were a couple created by taking real animals, specifically a tarantula and an iguana, and making them look giant through rear projection techniques and those look pretty bad both because there were never any giant spiders or iguanas and also because the effects are transparent.  The rest of the dinosaurs do look a lot better though, at least in that slightly cheesy way that Harryhausen’s effects were always charming.

The film’s highlight is a section where the film’s protagonist, a dude apparently named Tumak, fights off an attack by an Allosaurus with a spear.  I’m pretty sure I’ve seen clips of this scene before in a film documentary or something because it was definitely familiar.  There’s also a pretty cool scene of a Pteranodon that’s worth watching.  Interestingly, despite the film’s complete disinterest in evolutionary realism it does take the step of keeping its characters from speaking English.  Like in a lot of these movies it opts to go with visual storytelling over dialogue driven narrative, a decision that I’m not entirely sure the movie was equipped to back up but it does get by fairly well.  There isn’t really a whole lot to the story or the movie really. It’s a fairly average B-movie that’s been elevated slightly by some fun special effects and a hot chick, but at least it’s remembered for something.

*** out of Five

 

Quest For Fire (1981)

Cave people have been something of a archetypical character for ages, but you can probably count the number of films that deal with them seriously as historical figures rather than as camp figures on one hand.  One of those movies, and perhaps the most famous of them, is Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1981 French-American co-production Quest for Fire.  The film’s trailer opens with a narration that proclaims “Fourteen years ago, 2001: A Space Odyssey was the astounding epic that aroused a generation, telling them where they might be headed. Now, 20th Century Fox presents a science fantasy adventure that will arouse this generation, telling them where we might have begun.”  That gives you something of an idea of how seriously this movie took itself, it wanted to be the definitive caveman adventure and in some ways it was.  Rather than have the cast speak broken English they hired Anthony Burgess to invent a primitive language involving a variety of grunts for the characters to speak while a more advanced group they meet later uses the Cree language, all of this presented without subtitles, forcing the viewer to experience the movie as an exercise in visual storytelling.

The film’s basic story is fairly simple.  The central tribe does not fully understand how fire works and thinks they need to keep the flame going in order to keep using it.  When their flame is extinguished in an opening battle they need to go on a quest to find more fire and bring it back.  The film features Ron Perlman in his first role and along the way they meet a cave lady from another tribe played Rae Dawn Chong, who is essentially nude through the whole movie, which comes across as more tasteful than that sounds.  That said, caveman sex is one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the film because through much of the film the cavemen more or less feel entitled to rape the cave women in an animalistic fashion.  This behavior is not eroticized and it’s seen as a sign of progress when the sex becomes a bit more consensual later on, but it’s still kind of an uncomfortable metaphor and a romance of sorts that comes into the film late never really works.

The film also isn’t as authentic as it claims to be.  It reminded me a bit of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto in that it kind of conflates different eras of an area into a single adventure narrative.  The kind of apelike humans seen in the opening scene would been long gone before the kind of village dwelling tribe seen late in the film would have established itself and the odds of all three groups being in such close proximity with such vastly different levels of development is ulikely.  And simply as a piece of filmmaking this is a bit of a mixed bag.  The film incorporates a lot of good scenery but some of the special effect don’t look quite right.  Sabre tooth tigers are created by simply putting fake teeth in the mouths of real lions (would hate to have to be the guy who has to install those), which is a level of practical effects work that I should appreciate but which also means that humans don’t really interact with them during the action scenes.  Ultimately I just don’t think Annaud quite the chops to pull off the rather challenging trick he was trying to do with this movie and that 2001 comparison from the trailer is just really off-base, but I appreciate that the movie was trying to compete with that movie during an era when everyone was trying to make the next Star Wars.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)

Clan of the Cave Bear was made about five years after Quest for Fire and the two movies are generally linked in the public’s collective memory and it’s not too hard to view the newer film as a Hollywood repackaging of the earlier film.  However, Clan of the Cave Bear is actually an adaptation of a novel by Jean M. Auel which was the first in the popular “Earth’s Children” series.  By all accounts the film isn’t a very faithful adaptation, in fact most of the reviews of the film on IMDB seem to be written by fans of the book who are pissed about the movie, but that’s not really much of a concern for my purposes.  It was directed by Michael Chapman, who spent most of his career as a fairly accomplished cinematographer and worked with Martin Scorsese on some of his most famous works including Taxi Driver and Raging Bull before trying to launch a directorial career.  His first film was the early Tom Cruise vehicle All the Right Moves and this was his follow-up and it seems to have kind of ruined his career because he went right back to being a DP afterward.  The movie was in fact pretty widely disliked upon its release and more or less flopped at the box office, but there are certainly people who remember it with some fondness and watching it now it definitely seems flawed but it hardly seems like some sort of all time turkey.

The film is set about 20,000 before the Common Era and has a particular interest in the interactions between Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals.  In fact the film is about a Cro-magnon woman who becomes separated from her tribe as a little girl and is picked up and raised by a band of Neanderthals.  While in that pack she feels at home but not at home.  The Neanderthals think she’s something of an ugly duckling and that she’ll never find a mate (even though, to modern eyes, she’s the only hottie on screen) and she occasionally proves to be more adept at using tools and the like.  Like Quest for Fire the film has its characters talking in a grunty invented language but unlike Quest for Fire subtitles are included and there’s also an omniscient narrator who explains perhaps a bit more of the plot than she should.  Honestly I’m kind of impressed they didn’t just have the characters speaking broken English given that this was trying to be more of a mainstream Hollywood product, but this is part of why the film never quite connected with audiences; not being in English was too weird for the mainstream but not going all the way with the experimentation wasn’t impressive to the cineaste types and that same inability to please both audiences kind of runs through the movie.

Based on the film’s poster of Daryl Hannah in meticulously applied ritualistic makeup I think I was expecting something a bit more outlandish than the actual movie, which is surprisingly respectable.  In fact the film seems to be applying something of a feminist message to this pre-historic setting given that the third act addresses a taboo within the tribe about women so much as touching hunting weapons, which our main character breaks and then becomes the tribes first female hunter as a result.  Where the movie starts to go wrong is in the presentation.  The film’s narration is something of a problem as it really over-explains things and I’m not sure Daryl Hannah works that well in the lead as she just looks like a very modern blonde movie star and never really uglies herself up enough to really feel like a cave person.  Beyond that I just kind of wish there was either a little more story here or a lot less.  It’s not minimalist enough to feel like an experimental peak into the past but also doesn’t quite have the kind of strong narrative that can work as more conventional cinema.  I think the movie’s biggest problem really is simply that it isn’t Quest for Fire.  That movie is plainly better on a number of levels and you can’t help but compare the two given that one was only made a few years after the other.

**1/2 out of Five

 

10,000 BC (2008)

After the box office failure of Clan of the Cave Bear Hollywood opted not to make any caveman related movies during the 90s or early 2000s aside from Encino Man and The Flintsones.  So it wouldn’t be until 2008 that we’d get another prehistoric epic and it would come from, of all people, Roland Emmerich.  Emmerich, the German born master of disaster who made a fortune during the 90s making bland spectacles like Independence Day, Godzilla (1998), and The Day After Tomorrow, seemed like an odd choice to helm a movie that seemingly couldn’t feature the destructions of major landmarks but at the point he did need to try to do something that was at least a little bit different.  The film he came up with is essentially a ripoff of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto or at least feels that way.  I’d be reasonably willing to believe that this was in production before that 2006 film came out but given that this is about a hero from a distant culture who’s in pursuit of an evil tribe that kidnaps people from the surrounding areas to bring captives back to a nearby city filled with pyramids and decadence it’s a little hard not to directly compare the two and that is not a comparison that 10,000 BC can live up to.  That movie was the harcore version of this story with bloody R-rated violence, real looking animals, and dialogue in the Maya language where this is more like an attempt to make that movie in more of a mainstream PG-13 way.

The first problem with the movie is that, well, the people in it don’t seem much like cavemen.  Granted this is set several thousand years later than Quest for Fire and Clan of the Cave Bear and is about people who are firmly homo-sapiens but there’s a certain Hollywood cleanliness to how all the actors look and act.  Emmerich did have the foresight to mostly cast the film with unknowns, which was probably a smart move, but these people seem like they’re unknown for a reason and it doesn’t surprise me that none of them have become famous in the wake of the film.  The film also doesn’t bother to try to construct an ancient cave-man language and have everyone (well, all the good guys) speak modern English, which seemed understandable at the time but seeing that all these other movies took that extra step it seems a bit lazy and pandering.  I will say that having modern special effects for the prehistoric animals helped a bit.  The mammoth hunt at the beginning is pretty good and the sabre toothed tiger in the film is also pretty good and as much as I tend to prefer practical effects to CGI I will say the digital creations here are a lot more useful then the fur coated elephants and dentally augmented mountain lions used in some of these other caveman movies.

For all the liberties the movie take early on it’s not until the film’s third act where things really go crazy.  In that section our band of adventurers discover that the people who kidnaped their kinfolk are in fact agents of a strange city-dwelling tribe who are developed to the point where they can forge metal, build sail ships, and are using mammoths to construct large pyramids.  I don’t think these people are supposed to be actual Egyptians mind you, but some other civilization lost to time and the movie is very unclear about what strange geographic location all of this is happening in.  This is a ridiculous anachronism of course, ridiculous to the point where a throwaway line where someone mentions that these people “maybe came from the sky” suggests that all of this is meant to be some sort of stealth prequel to Roland Emmerich’s Hollywood debut: Stargate.  Or if not that then some other sort of riff on the popular conspiracy theory that the Egyptian pyramids were built by aliens.  Either way it’s stupid.  Still despite all that, I will say that the 8% rating that this currently holds on Rotten Tomatoes does seem just a little bit harsh… then again maybe it’s doesn’t.  Put it this way, dumb as the movie is, it’s dumb in a slightly more earnest way than some of Emmerich’s other movies and there is a bit more creativity to it than in some other bad movies that Hollywood puts out.  Had this project just been given to a filmmaker with a bit more vision and a bit more willingness to either hold back or lean into its nuttiness you might have had something.

** out of Five

 

Alpha (2018)

When the movie Alpha was out last year I remember seeing some of the advertisements for it and not really knowing what to make of it.  It was plainly obvious that no one involved knew how to market it and it ended up basically coming and going from theaters without leaving much of a mark on the culture at all.  However, what little I did hear about it did have me at least a little curious.  The film is set about 20,000 years ago and focuses on a tribal family that lives somewhere in Europe and specifically on an adolescent named Keda played by Kodi Smit-McPhee who has just become old enough to go with his father and another group to participate in a hunt for some species of bison.  But the hunt goes wrong and Keda ends up going over a cliff and is left for dead, but he actually survived the fall and when he regains coniousness he’s alone and has to find his way home.  Along the way however, he ends up injuring a wolf and over the coursing of the journey this wolf ends up following him and essentially becomes the first domesticated dog over the course of the movie.

So essentially this is a PG-13 prehistoric version of The Revenant but with a canine instead of a revenge story.  That’s not exactly the biggest built in audience and the marketers tried to compensate for that by making the dog the sales hook.  Essentially they were trying to use the fact that there’s a wolf/dog here to sell the film to the kinds of people who would enjoy Marley and Me or A Dog’s Purpose but what they failed to factor in is that those movies are sappy as hell and that the people who would like them are generally idiots and that the movie that they were selling has a less mainstream sensibility.  Case in point, Alpha isn’t in English.  Like Quest for Fire before it it’s in an invented language, albeit one that is fully subtitled.  It also doesn’t soften too many of the hardships of surviving in this world, including a family dynamic which is not traditionally “loving.”  So trying to sell that to the Hallmark crowd was probably a mistake, but there are also reasons why it wouldn’t be fully accepted by the arthouse or action movie crowd either.  For one thing its conceit that this wolf can become domesticated over the course of this one journey and its implication that this idea spread across the world from this one tribe is extremely simplistic.  These things happened over the course of eons, not months.  And while the movie isn’t exactly laser focused on the family audience it is still essentially meant to be a young adult adventure rather than a serious work.

The film was directed by Albert Hughes who, along with his brother Allen Hughes, made up the Hughes Brothers.  The Hughes Brothers came out really strong with their 1993 debut Menace II Society was a classic of its era but they were never really able to follow it up with anything truly great.  They certainly had the chops for Hollywood productions but all their subsequent projects, while generally interesting, only felt like they were 75% of the way to living up to their potential.  They’re working solo now but I’d say Albert still has the same strengths and weaknesses that he had while working with his brother.  He brings to the film a pretty strong visual style and does some pretty strong work with what I suspect was a mid-sized budget and he manages to avoid some of the compromises that a lot of other productions might have fallen into. On the downside I don’t think he necessarily makes his main character into an overly likable or interesting protagonist and on some level.  He also tones down the strong violence that is present in most of his and his brothers’ films but he also doesn’t soften things quite as much as the producers trying to make this into a family film might have liked.  The critics did respond to the film and gave it a pretty high Rotten Tomatoes score but they certainly didn’t champion it, and in some ways I wish they had.  While this one wasn’t perfectly tailored to the taste of critics, it is exactly the kind of bolder mid-budget movies with commercial aims that they supposedly want more of and if it had been marketed a bit more wisely I think it could have become a very good alternative for families tired of Disney extravaganzas.

***1/2 out of Five

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Midsommar(7/2/2019)

I don’t know that I necessarily saw this coming but the “A24 horror film” has somehow become something of a filmgoing institution.  These are horror movies that are noticeably artier and more intelligent than what cinema-goers are normally used to and critics love them.  However, as a byproduct of these being horror enough to play in normal theaters they also bring in a lot of audiences who expect their genre fare to offer simpler pleasures and as a result they end up getting really low “Cinemascores” (which are like these exit-poll things that are done by a research company and are considered important by Hollywood insiders) and end up getting these hilariously clueless user reviews in places like IMDB and RottenTomatoes.  Honestly I think this critic/audience disconnect is a bit overblown, it’s basically just the result of a cadre of people who were never really in these films’ audience in the first place also tagging along and not knowing how to process what they’re being given.  The main movies in this trend have been Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Trey Edward Schults’ It Comes At Night, and Ari Aster’s Hereditary, and while Hereditary was the last of these films to come out its director was the first of the three to have a follow-up come out.  That new film, Midsommar, is opening this week on 2707 screens and should lead to some rather interesting audience responses.

Midsommar begins with something of a prologue set somewhere in the United States during the middle of winter.  Here we’re introduced to Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), a psychology student who’s struggling with a troubled sister and a fairly shaky relationship with her boyfriend Christian Hughes (Jack Reynor).  Christian and his friends are planning a trip to Sweden in the summer to visit the home village of his friend Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) which lives a traditional lifestyle and still engages in centuries old rituals during festival times, which is of great interest to Christian and his fellow anthropology student Josh (William Jackson Harper) and of course European decadence is also very much of interest to his other friend Mark (Will Poulter).  After a tragedy occurs Christian decides to invite Dani along to get away from it all, but it could soon become clear that they aren’t exactly sure what they’re in for.

Despite what Cinemascore might suggest I do think Hereditary ended up pleasing standard horror audiences more than some of the other A24 horror films.  It grossed more at the box office than the other two films and I’ve generally heard fewer anecdotes about dumb people being “bored” by it.  I think that’s because, in its last third, the film does start to deliver on some of the more conventional scares that people are looking for.  That in many ways seems to be what may set Ari Aster apart from someone like Robert Eggers; even when he’s making a horror film in his own idiosyncratic ways he does know how to throw the horror audience a bone.  In this film that bone is probably the set of characters he’s assembled, who do roughly fall within the usual trope characters even if they feel richer than usual.  Dani might not be a virgin but she still has plenty of “final girl”-isms, Christian certainly seems like the jock boyfriend who ultimately won’t be able to protect her, Josh is the “smart one” who knows a lot about the sub-theme, and Mark is the boorish party dude who acts as comedy relief.  The film manages to challenge some of these tropes without self-consciously subverting them but it isn’t afraid to exploit them just the same and is surprisingly funny at times in the way it depicts the interplay between some of these guys.

The other big connective tissue between Midsommar and Hereditary is that both films are in many ways movies about mourning and feature characters who are just recovering after experiencing a loss that makes them rather emotionally vulnerable right from the jump.  Also, in much the way Hereditary basically shows the dissolution of a family as a result of both grief and supernatural shenanigans, Midsommar explores the toll of both a loss and horror scenarios on a relationship.  Dani and Christian are two characters who are established as being pretty close to the end of the road already as the movie opens, with Christian’s friends establishing that he’s been planning to break up with her for reasons that seem cruel but understandable.  Dani is shown to have been someone who’s gone through a lot even before her family tragedy and that she’s been a handful and a half and that Christian has been at wits end and that he’s on some level been staying in the relationship out of a sort of uncertain pity.  Christian knows this, the audience knows this, but Dani does not necessarily know this and that kind of establishes for the audience that they’re about to be metaphorically watching a car crash in slow motion and the rest of the movie can almost be viewed as a sort of operatic manifestation of how this kind of breakup can go wrong in the most extreme of ways.

Of course this is a horror movie, or at least it poses as one.  The obvious reference-point for all of this is obviously Robin Hardy’s 1973 film The Wicker Man, which is about a similarly paganistic commune which may or may not be sinister in its adherence to “the old ways.”  Like that movie it doesn’t necessarily try to be “scary” at all times and instead gains power by exerting a sort of quiet threat at all times.  In fact a lot of what makes the movie so appealing in its paranoia is the way the characters are constantly having their survival instincts over-ridden by the hospitality of these cultists, who have this uniquely Swedish way of seeming completely reasonable and inviting no matter what they’re saying.  Where the film may lose some people is that, outside of a couple of gory moments thrown in, the horror in the film is generally left at an intentional simmer rather than brought to a boil.  Though it goes into some fairly transgressive places towards the end it isn’t necessarily leading to anything as viscerally exciting as the finale of Hereditary.  Rather, the film’s finale is almost more like a really, really, really dark joke rather than a thrilling chase in the dark and that could be a bit polarizing.

At the end of the day, Midsommar is built to be a niche genre movie… the Swedish title probably should have been your first clue there.  It’s a film that’s uncompromising, it’s got a long running time, it takes its time, it will gross out people who come in expecting it to be The Conjuring, and it just generally behaves different from mainstream horror movies (even more so than Hereditary).  That it’s opening wide will maybe lead to the same pattern of critical acclaim and fan backlash that we’ve seen before… but maybe it won’t.  Maybe if A24 keeps putting out interesting product like this the right audience will continue to catch on and the people who aren’t equipped to enjoy them will increasingly stop showing up expecting the wrong thing.  As for this one, well, even as someone very interested in what it was doing I will admit that this is pushing the limits of how long a horror movie can go without really trying to be conventionally scary and as such I probably preferred Hereditary on a whole.  But maybe that’s a sacrifice worth making in order to see what Ari Aster can do when he’s really allowed to just go nuts.

**** out of Five 

Yesterday(6/27/2019)

When the trailer for the new Danny Boyle film Yesterday was first released I had questions.  This trailer was a pretty straightforward bit of advertising that largely existed to explain the film’s high concept: that the film was about a British street musician named Jack Malick (Himesh Patel) who bumps his head and when he wakes up he finds that through some sort of magic The Beatles have been wiped from this history books, appear to have never existed, and are not remembered by anyone except Jack, prompting him to recreate their songs and start a major music career as the ostensible author of all these incredibly catchy pop tunes that no one has heard before.  Not a terrible idea for a movie in theory, but the more I thought about that high concept the more it started to bug me.  As I mulled it over some questions occurred to me, questions like:

  • If The Beatles never existed how can you envision a pop culture landscape where likes of Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, and Pulp still be around?
  • How would someone, even a trained musician, be able to fully recreate an artist’s catalog from scratch? Even a superfan isn’t necessarily going to know every word of “The Long and Winding Road” after all.
  • Would these song still be marketable and impressive if they’re divorced from their historical context and what made them innovative and new when they were released?

In short the movie had a lot to cover but that’s okay, it’s being made by smart people and I looked forward to seeing how they were going to wrestle with these things.  Unfortunately I must say that I found a lot of their answers kind of inadequate, that is when they bothered to give answers at all.  On the issue of how he was able to recreate the songs from memory for example, they do give lip service to the idea, but ultimately don’t wrestle with it.  He’s basically able to come up with the lyrics off screen for the most part and is able to come up with the rest of them after a quick trip to Liverpool in order to reconnect with Eleanor Rigby and Penny Lane.  But whatever, that’s mostly just a nitpick.  The much bigger question is how the movie expects us to believe that, given how important and revolutionary it seems to think The Beatles were, that a pop culture landscape where they never existed would basically be unchanged from what we’re experiencing now.  There’s a throwaway joke about Oasis also not existing given how derivative they were, but you’d think the most popular rock band of all time would have more of a butterfly effect than that, and outside of that one little joke the movie basically never questions how popular music managed to just keep on chugging without the influence of the fab four.  The movie also basically just takes it as a given that because the songs are so good they would automatically be just as popular today as they were in the 60s, that the kids who’ve already experienced The Backstreet Boys would still lose their shit for “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” that someone whose listened to Radiohead’s “OK Computer” would still pop their monocle when they heard “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  That’s not to say the possibility of these songs to resonate would not exist in the modern day but you’d think “Back in the USSR” would maybe mean something a little different in 2019 than it did in 1968.

So, with the movie more or less refusing to engage with these ideas I actually found myself asking even more questions while watching it, questions like:

  • Would these songs sound different if made using modern production techniques and without the input of George Martin? Could Ringo be replaced by an 808?
  • Would a 28 year old singing “she was just seventeen/You know what I mean” get you canceled in a song written in 2019?
  • Would “Happiness is a Warm Gun” fly in an era where there are regular mass shootings?
  • What does it mean for a guy with roots in the Indian subcontinent to take song from a band that rather famously appropriated a whole lot of ideas and music from that region? Is turnabout fair play?
  • Would the psychedelic imagery throughout The Beatles music connect with to a generation of kids who are going up with Molly and Adderall instead of LSD?
  • Shouldn’t he be releasing all this material gradually over time instead of dumping every damn Beatles song ever all at one time.
  • Further if you’re releasing The Beatles catalog from scratch, would it make more sense to introduce audiences to the simpler earlier stuff first or would it make more sense to jump into the more striking and experimental late sixties stuff even if that stuff perhaps has more signposts of its era?
  • Is Mark David Chapman loose in this world? Would our hero have to worry about him showing up almost karmicly?
  • For that matter did the Manson killings happen in this world given that there was no Helter Skelter to misinterpret? If not, would the fact that that wasn’t weighing on the national psyche when it did allow for flower power to go on for longer… or would flower power have even existed in the first place without The Beatles?

Those all seem like fairly interesting directions that the film could have gone down, and the film manages to address basically none of them.  Of all the major musical quandaries that the movie’s premise brings up, the only one it seems to be even a little interested in tackling with any kind of depth is the ethics of essentially plagiarizing other people’s works and becoming famous off of them.  To me that’s probably the most inconsequential of all the questions they could have gotten into, firstly because it’s basically irrelevant to the fact that he needs to reintroduce an old band to the modern era.  Malick have faced basically the same dilemma if he had woken up to find that it was Drake or Imagine Dragons that had been stricken from the record by this magic.  Secondly, it’s kind of the wrong question to be asking simply because, well, stealing from people who seem to no longer exist is kind of a victimless crime.

Ultimately, I think the issue at the center of all of this is that I seem to have put a lot more thought into this concept than the people making the actual movie are.  On some level I maybe should have expected that.  The film was written by a guy named Richard Curtis, who’s famous for writing Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually .  He’s a writer of romantic comedies, not alternate history fanfics, and Yesterday actually is more of a romcom than the trailers make it out to be.  Jack Malick as it turns out has a manager named Ellie (Lily James) with whom he goes back years and their relationship is totally platonic… can’t imagine if that’s going to change over the course of the movie.  The two leads actually have quite a bit of chemistry even though their arc is very predictable and Curtis still seems to have a penchant for slightly creepy grand gestures.  I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who will be happy that this is more of a light rom-com than it is a detailed alternate history fanfic with astute observations about pop culture history.  Obviously I’m not one of those people and while this movie passes the time and isn’t unpleasant to watch it still seems like quite the missed opportunity to me.

**1/2 out of Five

June 2019 Round-Up – Part 2

The Last Black Man in San Francisco(6/15/2019)

Indie comedies of the Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach variety are often described as being “unbearably white,” an insult that seems to have less to do with the number of Caucasians in the cast (they aren’t any less diverse than any number of movies) and more to do with how their quirky sensibilities display a sort of privileged point of view that is generally associated with whiteness.  Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco in some ways feels like an attempt to apply a similar sort of indie quirkiness to a movie that is decidedly “black” and about people who are rather specifically not privileged.  It tells the story of Jimmie Fails, which is the name of both the character and the actor that potrays him, who is obsessed with this large San Francisco house that his father once owned and which is now in the possession of two old white people.  From the film’s provocative title (which is not literal) I had expected it to be something of a Spike Lee style polemic about gentrification but the actual movie is a bit more relaxed than that. The movie take great pains not to blame those new white owners (who seem like perfectly nice and reasonable people) or really any other individuals for the sense of loss that Fails is feeling.  That’s a nicely mature and nuanced take on the subject, which I certainly like in theory but there is a fine line between making a nuanced argument and just sort of not bothering to make an argument at all.  In some ways I think the film’s avoidance of standard exposition (another trait I should like in theory) undermines it a little.  It took a while to fully get what Fails’ story really comes down to and I think some flashbacks to “the good times” might have given a better idea of why he’s so angry about the present because as someone who’s never been to San Francisco and who’s generally indifferent to it I’m not very connected to what he’s mourning.  This is ultimately a movie I respect more than I like.  I can kind of see what it’s going for and can admire aspects of its execution, but I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it.

**1/2 out of Five

 

The Fall of the American Empire(6/16/2019)

Titling Denys Arcand’s latest film The Fall of the American Empire, thus implying that it is another sequel to The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions, was probably a savy commercial move as it got my attention and got me to go out to see one of Arcand’s movies for the first time since 2003.  However, this movie actually has no direct connection to those earlier movies and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing because what it actually is is kind of neat.  The film concerns an underemployed intellectual who finds himself witnessing a robbery through sheer coincidence and after the burglars all kill each other he realizes he can pick up the loot himself and run off with it.  From there he finds himself sitting on millions of dollars in cash with no idea how to launder it.  From there it becomes a story that somewhat represents “Breaking Bad” in that it’s about a nerdy intellectual taking part in the minutia of the criminal underworld, but it never gets as dark as that show.  The protagonist is in legitimate danger and there is some violenct in the movie, but the slightly contrived situation allows him to be engaging in a more or less victimless crime and he remains likable throughout.  Arcand is not much of a visual stylist, which is a bit more of a problem here given the genre elements.  There are also elements of the film that don’t ring particularly true like the love interest that emerges midway through the movie but the core of the movie, which is a deeply cynical look at the inner workings of capitalism, does come through and the film’s comedic elements make it a rather enjoyable watch throughout.

**** out of Five

 

Late Night(6/30/2019)

As streaming has emerged as a major force in cinema I’ve been very supportive of streaming services like Amazon that respect the theatrical window and let their films play on the big screen before coming to the internet.  I feel this way because I sternly believe the theater is the ideal place for most movies to be enjoyed regardless of budget and that at times even the smallest of movie are the ones that most benefit from a distraction free environment or from a larger format.  That having been said, Amazon probably could have sent Late Night straight to streaming and it would have been fine.  In fact Late Night seems like a pretty textbook example of a movie that seems impressive at Sundance but proves to be a lot less interesting to the general public.  The film, a story about a struggling late night comedy show fronted by a middle aged lady played by Emma Thompson which gets a needed boost after adding a lady played by Mindy Kaling to its all white and male writing staff.  I can definitely see why a group of people who spend a lot of time talking about representation in comedy on Twitter, but to general audiences the whole thing might be a bit inside baseball.   What it certainly isn’t is particularly funny.  This is a movie that’s literally set in a comedy show’s writers room, which should be an environment filled with ribald banter, but instead it feels like little more than the most mildly of amusing workplace comedies.  This is a problem considering that this is a movie that spends a lot of time chastising its own characters for settling for mediocrity rather than really stretching the boundaries of their form and that feels kind of hypocritical given that this is a movie that feels pretty comfortable being mediocre.

** out of Five

Toy Story 4(6/20/2019)

With only a few recent exceptions I generally only watch Pixar movies on home video but when I do find myself seeing one in theaters it’s a bit of a trip because it means I get exposed to a set of trailers I normally don’t see.  These trailers are usually a window into a world of absolute madness.  At my Toy Story 4 screening I bore witness to one trailer about a pigeon who becomes a secret agent, some bullshit about a fox that wants to be a sled dog, a sequel to an Angry Birds movie I had assumed was a flop, and another sequel about troll dolls which resembled a candy-colored hellscape of noise and terror.  What I’m trying to say is, before you watch one of these Pixar movies you’re immediately reminded of how much worse the rest of the cartoons out there and the way the audience laughs at jokes about butts reminds you that, if they wanted to Pixar could be a lot more pandering and stupid than they are.  Of course Pixar has always set themselves apart from their peers, which is something I wasn’t really taking into account when I was reviewing them all in a marathon session back in 2011 (long story).  That article series was an exercise in comparing Pixar movies to the best that cinema had to offer, but as the years go on and I get a better idea of what contemporary animation is like and start comparing them to that and they start looking a whole lot better.  Still, I have a bit of a quirky relationship to Pixar’s movies, especially their Toy Story franchise, and that made me rather unsure if I wanted a fourth.

Toy Story 4 actually starts with a flashback.  It dramatizes something that is alluded to in the third film: the night when Bo Peep (Annie Potts) leaves the rest of the toys because the family decides to give away the lamp that she’s part of.  We then flash forward to the status quo after the third film, in which the toys we’ve been following have been given away to a new kid named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw).  I always found it a little bit strange that this 2010 kid would be so interested in receiving a bunch of hand-me-down toys from the 90s which look like they’re actually from the 50s and as this new film establishes, I may have been right to be suspicious.  As it turns out Bonnie does not actually spend much time playing with Woody (Tom Hanks), and being the vain attention whore that he’s always been he doesn’t exactly react well.  When he learns that Bonnie is about to be going on her first day of kindergarten he sneaks into her backpack under the delusion she needs him and, seeing her distressed on her first day he tosses some scraps up to her table while she’s doing crafts and with them she makes a weird little statue out of a spork, a pipe cleaner, and some fake googly eyes and dubs him “Forky.”  Soon thereafter Forky (Tony Hale) becomes sentient, and sensing that he’s a monstrosity immediately tries to kill himself by jumping into the trashcan.  Woody determines that Bonnie has formed an attachment to Forky and does everything he can to keep Forky alive, which will be challenging because Bonnie’s parents are about to bring her on a road trip with all her toys.

This is a movie that a lot of people were really skeptical about in the run-up to its release because it was believed that Toy Story 3 had a perfect ending and that this would ruin it.  I am a bit of an outlier in that I thought the ending of Toy Story 3 was far from perfect.  Where other people were apparently bawling out their eyes at the sight of Andy giving his toys to Bonnie, I was thinking what the hell kind of seventeen year old gives this much of a damn about old toys he should have thrown out when he turned twelve?  To me the whole thing was an overly sentimental cop out.  Toy Story 3 was basically a retread of the themes established in Toy Story 2 about toys eventually being abandoned by their owners, its one reason to exist was to finally have this calamity to catch up with our characters and force them to face their fate… but the movie didn’t end up having the nerve to finally take the killshot and instead it basically gave its characters a new beginning which more or less set up a new series, so the fact that they’re continuing the franchise isn’t that much of a shock to me.

To me what has made some of the previous Toy Story movies interesting was the world building.  A lot of animated movies build fantastical worlds where with talking animals or objects but the Toy Story movies are at least a little interested in exploring how the worlds they create are actually kind of fucked up.  These movies make being a talking toy seem like a sort of existential hell of slavery and ingratitude… or at least that’s what I get out of them, the movies themselves would hint at all this while never quite having it in them to truly challenge the system they’ve established.  Toy Story 4 is in many ways the Toy Story movie I’ve been waiting for in that the toys in it seem to finally be catching up to my way of seeing things.  Case in point the newest addition to the cast, Forky, is the first toy we’ve really met who seems to view itself as a genuine monstrosity and spends much of the first half of the movie seeking death via trashcan.  That is certainly an interesting approach but what’s really important is that Forky’s attitude does seem to plant a seed of sorts in the mind of some key characters in that he’s one of the first toy characters we’ve seen that doesn’t seem to have an instinctual desire to be played with by children and is decidedly not happy to be asked to do so.  This seed is then watered and sprouted by the re-emergence of Bo Peep, who had been effectively killed off between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 and is now a “lost toy” and happy to be one because she’s free of having to spend all her time making some child happy.

Of course the Toy Story movies have long been meant as a sort of allegory for the relationship of a parent to a child and this fourth movie definitely carries that forward and leans into moments where the characters talk about “having a kid” as if they were parents instead of playthings.  That’s part of why I always found the ending of Toy Story 3 to be kind of inadequate given that the toys don’t move on to a new phase of life after metaphorically letting Andy go but rather end up essentially replacing him and starting all over again.  It’s as if they’re living out the life cycle of some rich dude who ends up impregnating a new trophy wife right as their kid from a previous marriage is going to college.  Toy Story 4, by contrast is more like a movie where the toys (well, Woody anyway) actually do manage to find a new purpose in life after becoming empty nesters.  It’s a notably different outlook from what we’ve seen earlier in the series which were usually populated by toys like Jessie and Lotso who, once removed from “their kids,” basically spend their whole lives feeling bitter and incomplete.  Bo Peep, by contrast, seems to be revitalized through independence and the film at least understands why Forky (who’s maybe a bit of a stand-in for young father who causes an unplanned pregnancy) would not be pumped to be in played with by this kid.

This all isn’t to say that the series has suddenly become entirely Antinatalist.  Plenty of the toys here are still very interested in coming into the possession of a child, like a pair of carnival prizes played by Key and Peele who sort of steal the show as comic relief characters who’ve been waiting three long years for someone to win them in the rigged midway game that’s trapped them.  Then there’s the film’s villain Gabby Gabby, who is a bit of a retread of the “villainous bitter toy” thing that they’ve done in the last two films, but who none the less proves to be a rather sympathetic depiction of what is essentially the pain of infertility given that she’s a toy who was deemed defective from out of the factor and has spent decades in an antique store removed from children.  Nonetheless, this is the Toy Story movie that finally suggests that there are other legitimate ways for these toys to live and in many ways provides some of the characters with an ending that manages to be happy while still making more allegorical sense.  As such I reject the notion I’ve seen floated around that this is some kind of unnecessary cash grab, in fact I’d say that scene for scene it might actually be the best of the series.  It manages to tell a larger and more meaningful story than the first movie, its comedy is a lot better than the second film’s, and it doesn’t wallow in the cheap sentimentality of the third.  Of course this is coming from someone who didn’t grow up with these characters and has a somewhat perverse take on the whole franchise so take that sentiment with a grain of salt.

**** out of Five

June 2019 Round-Up – Part 1

Non-Fiction(6/5/2019)

I’ve never quite been able to pin down Olivier Assayas’ style as a filmmaker.  He isn’t a commercial filmmaker and he takes his craft very seriously like an auteur, and yet he seems to move on very quickly between different ideas and any one of his films is likely to seem quite different from the last.  His last two movies were both fairly serious English language films starring Kristen Stewart so it had seemed like he had found a lane he was going to stick to, but instead he’s completely switched things up with his latest film which is a essentially a modern French take on a Woody Allen movie.  The movie concerns an author who is currently having an affair with his publisher’s wife while he’s having an affair with the lady who’s helping convert his publishing house to digital.  Very French.  But the affairs are more of a plot structure to hang the movie on than the real focus, which is a series of witty discussions about the digital future and its effect on publishing, which is more than likely meant to be a stand in on its effect on the world of cinema.  Lest you wonder where Assayas himself comes down on all of this, note that the film was shot on 16mm despite it being a very talky movie that isn’t going for much in the way of visual style.  It’s very much a movie of the moment, one that might seem a bit odd a few decades from now, or it might seem interestingly prescient.  As a comedy I don’t know that I found the movie overly funny but as a fun witty look at the discussions of the modern intellectual class it was fun to watch.  Did I mention that it feels a whole lot like a Woody Allen movie?

*** out of Five

 

X-Men: Dark Phoenix(6/6/2019)

I think I was the only person holding out hope for X-Men: Dark Phoenix.  That might partially be because I generally liked the last movie in the series, X-Men: Apocalypse, more than most.  It wasn’t great but it had some good X-Men fun in it and introduced a promising roster of young actors to play young versions of the second generation of X-Men at Xavier’s mutant academy.  I also feel like a lot of the critics went into the movie a bit too wrapped up in their inside baseball knowledge about Disney buying 20th Century Fox and planning to reboot the franchise.  It may well have been true that this franchise was doomed by business concerns, but the filmmakers probably didn’t know that when this went into production and were presumably trying to make a quality film that would get the franchise back on track.  On some level I was really hoping they would prove the doubters wrong by knocking this out of the park and forcing them to keep the X-Men series I grew up on going.  That wasn’t such a crazy thing to hope for, the franchise has bounced back from the brink in the past.  Unfortunately the movie they produced was decidedly not a home run that would prove anyone wrong, but I also don’t think it’s a movie that’s as much of a disaster as people are making it out to be.

If there’s anything to complain about with X-Men: Dark Phoenix it’s that it’s a movie which tries nothing new and does nothing unexpected.  It’s set about ten years after X-Men: Apolcalypse in 1992 but does pretty much nothing with that setting and it’s also still done basically nothing to make its chracters look like they’ve aged a decade (supposed Holocaust survivor Magneto still appears to be forty and isn’t starting to resemble Ian McKellen even a little).  Once again the franchise is taking on the Dark Phoenix Saga and this time has Jean Gray becoming “the phoenix” by coming in contact with a sort of force while on a rescue mission in space (despite the previous movie and the still-kinda-canon X2 both suggesting that it’s actually something latent in her powers).  So clearly there’s some sloppiness on display here but the movie generally isn’t, like, aggressively stupid and its tone is largely in line with what we’ve been seeing from the other movies in the “First Class” timeline of X-Men movies.  I did enjoy getting another look at what these characters are up to and there is something of an underdeveloped but interesting conflict between Xavier and various other mutants who sort of view him as a conformist “respectability politics” sellout to the cause.

Reports indicate that the film’s final sequence was re-shot because what they had done turned out to be too similar to the finale of Captain Marvel, which was probably money well spent because the closing action scenes are some of the best parts of the movie even if they don’t exactly blow what other superhero movies have been doing out of the water. What’s odd though is that the film’s villains are also a bit too similar to some of the bad guys from that film and its opening scene is pretty similar to the opening scene from Shazam, and in general it doesn’t introduce any characters or concepts that we didn’t see in other better X-Men movies.  In general this movie is kind of a victim of the general over-saturation of superhero flicks these days.  If this had been X-Men 3 back in 2006 instead of the offensively botched X-Men: The Last Stand it would have been able to hold its own pretty well, but in 2019 specifically the standards are a lot higher.  Still, my experience watching this movie was not a terrible one.  It mostly passed the time effectively and in general I think its 23% Rotten Tomatoes score and will probably provide some thrills to fans of the series.  Walking out of the movie I was about ready to give it a pass but then I remembered the critically reviled film from the last week which I also defended: Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  That movie was all kinds of stupid, but the lower lows came with higher highs and the kind of thrills it offered were in much shorter supply than what we get from this movie, and I ultimately think that was a movie I’d be more inclined to go to bat for.  This one? It’s not the hill I’m willing to die on.

**1/2 out of Five

 

The Dead Don’t Die(6/13/2019)

I generally like Jim Jarmusch movies but I don’t think I’ve ever really loved any of them.  The guy in many ways feels like a product of a very specific time in which independent movies were rather novel and simply embodying a certain bohemian coolness was enough to get by, but he did usually have at least some additional ideas behind what he was doing.  His latest movie has a staggering number of famous people in it and plays in genre, so it’s getting a somewhat wide release, but god help anyone who stumbles into this movie not knowing its indie lineage because they will definitely find it to be a strange and off-putting experience.  The film is meant as a highly post-modern take on the conventions of the zombie film via a zombie attack on a small town in Pennsylvania.  There are a whole lot of characters, probably too many, but the most important are probably the sheriff and his deputy, played by Bill Murray and Adam Driver, which would seem like a smart comic pairing but Jarmusch has all his characters here speak in the most intentionally stilted of dialogue.  The film takes the most broad of comic material but treats it with the dryest deadpan possible, which is maybe an interesting idea but I don’t think it really translates into compelling viewing.  Beyond that a lot of other things the movie tries to do just sort of flame out.  It teases at political relevance here and there, mainly through maga-hat wearing farmer played by Steve Buscemi, but that goes nowhere and there’s also a fourth wall breaking element that ultimately feels pretty empty.  In many ways it feels like Jarmusch was just throwing a whole lot of ideas at the wall to see what sticks and I wish he had instead focused in on a couple of them and actually made them work because the movie he delivered is downright dull at times.

** out of Five