Home Video Round-Up 4/3/2023

M3gan (3/4/2023)

M3gan was something of a surprise hit when it opened in the first week of January and went on to make almost a hundred million dollars (domestic) on a rather modest budget and it got pretty decent reviews too, albeit hedged reviews that mostly seemed to just be surprised this January release had anything going for it at all (that it was a bit of a silly little break from covering this endless award season also likely helped a bit).  Personally I got to it late and with slightly higher expectations as a result… the movie is, fine.  The film’s story is fairly predictable if you’ve seen the trailer and the basic story is almost identical to the recent 2019 remake of Child’s Play (smart toy decides to protect the child they’re assigned to by killing perceived threats) but there’s maybe a bit more of an edge of slight satire here.  The film kind of functions as a timely rebuke of A.I. in the age of ChatGPT, though that was likely unintentional given the timing.  Instead this is probably meant to be more of a statement about the way technology affects children who are exposed to it at a very young age, like kids being “raised” by iPads handed to them to keep them distracted by their busy parents.  There’s something to that but this isn’t necessarily the most elegant or subversive version of that idea.  It’s also not particularly effective as a horror movie.  I actually watched the “unrated” version of the movie that’s currently streaming on Peacock but it still seemed pretty damn tame and didn’t really engage very seriously in suspense filmmaking.  There’s enough here to make M3gan a passable enough viewing experience, but I can’t say it’s left me too interested in the inevitable sequels or future work from this filmmaker.
*** out of Five

The Hatchet Wielding Hitchhiker (3/18/2023)

This documentary showed up on Netflix as one of the first movies to be released this year.  It looks at the life of Caleb Lawrence “Kai” McGillvary, a drifter who attained viral fame after he intervened in an attack, coming out as something of a hero in the incident and conducted a rather colorful interview with a local news affiliate at the scene of the crime.  This propelled him to some talk show appearances and there were attempts made to make him the star of a reality show, but it soon became apparent that this guy actually had some pretty serious mental illnesses and was likely homeless for a reason and there’s a not insignificant chance that all this attention was not in his best interest.  Eventually he became embroiled in another case and is currently in prison.  This documentary is likely correct in viewing “Kai” as a figure whose story says something about media and culture in the 21st Century and it is interesting that time has progressed enough that this particular era of online virility has become “history” to be looked back at.  However, I feel like the documentary kind of holds back its punches when it comes to comes to really indicting its interview subjects when it comes to their role in exploiting “Kai” and when it comes to the two crimes at hand (the one where Kai came off as a hero and the one where he came off as a villain) the film doesn’t really pull back enough layers to really come to conclusions as to what went down.  It’s ultimately just a documentary that feels a bit too weak and surface-level to get to the bottom of things and kind of has the whiff of Netflix conveyer belt production to it.  Hopefully when the time comes to make the Antoine “Bed Intruder Song” Dodson documentary they take their work a little more seriously.
**1/2 out of Five

You People (3/21/2023)

We all remember Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the seminal 1967s comedy in which a white woman reveals to her parents that her finance is a black man, but what if the roles were reversed and they wanted to do a story in which a black woman reveals to her parents that her fiancé is a white man?  Well good news, there’s a movie about that as well, it was called Guess Who and it came out in 2005 starring Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher, and Zoë Saldaña and it’s not very well remembered.  But okay, a lot has happened since then, what if we wanted to make a movie about interracial relationships that has more modern sensibilities and is maybe a bit harder on the cringey condescending white liberal parents?  Well, that exists to and it’s called Get Out.  But okay, what if you wanted to combine the modern take on cringey boomer liberal parents while also doing the racial role reversal idea of making it about a white man with a black woman and also want to do it as a straightforward comedy without horror elements… well, I guess the new film You People is for you then.  It stars Jonah Hill as a thirty something dude who runs a podcast about “the culture” who meets a woman played by Lauren London and eventually asks her to marry him, but the meeting of the parents on both sides becomes kind of a nightmare.  The black woman’s father, played by Eddie Murphy, is in the Nation of Islam and has very little patience for this schlubby underachieving caucasian who wants to join the family.  Meanwhile the white guy’s mother, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is this deeply cringey rich lady who gets diarrhea of the mouth whenever in the presence of African Americans.

This was funded by Netflix, but it doesn’t have the look and feel of a Netflix release necessarily.  It’s no one’s idea of a visual marvel but it does for better or worse look like what you would have expected from a theatrical comedy from roughly 2005-2013, you know, back when comedies were still allowed to have theatrical releases.  I will also say that the film is pretty effective at capturing the very specific brand of cringey social awkwardness that arises when clueless white people interact with fed up black people in the 2020s… in fact it might be a little too effective at it.  Some of these interactions are so intensely intentionally cringe inducing that it’s almost hard to laugh at them because you’re being hit by too much second hand embracement for all these characters.  On the not-so-positive end of things, I think Eddie Murphy was kind of miscast here.  Murphy is known for being smooth and mischievous, not grumpy, and this character is supposed to be grumpy as hell.  I think maybe at some point they re-worked the character to be less of an “angry black man” stereotype but I’m not sure they ever landed on what the replacement for that was supposed to be because the character we’re left with doesn’t quite work comedically.  In fact I got “re-worked in post” vibes form a lot of the movie as there are a handful of characters here that seem to be introduced only to not really be used elsewhere or they sort of show up out of nowhere later without having gotten a proper introduction.

But I think the bigger problem here is just that the central romance between the Jonah Hill and Lauren London characters really just doesn’t work.  Hill has that “schlubby guy feels mismatched to attractive co-star problem that a lot of movies get criticized for and even if you look past that these actors just don’t have chemistry and I didn’t buy this relationship, which is kind of a problem because its critical to propelling this movie.  So that’s a big problem, but I wouldn’t say the whole movie is a waste as there are parts of it that really do work.  Julia Louis-Dreyfus does a great job of capturing everything that’s annoying and clueless about over-privileged white womanhood and some of the side cast members like Sam Jay and Deon Cole do some good work here.  There are funny moments along the way, but the movie ultimately feels ramshackle and not always in a charming way, but we don’t get a lot of comedies like this so I don’t want to be too hard on it even if there are enough drawbacks here that I don’t know that I can really get behind the project as a whole.
*** out of Five

Pamela, A Love Story (3/29/2023)

Pamela Anderson is, frankly not someone I find all that inherently compelling.  The peak of her career was a little before my time and I was always a little mystified as to why this person, who’s main claim to fame was being a pinup model, always seemed to garner so much press.  I can’t say I’d normally feel compelled to watch a documentary about her but it’s early in the year and there aren’t many new documentaries out yet so I’m going to take what I can get.  This is one of a couple of projects recently that tries to fit Anderson in with the trend of re-evaluate the scandalous women of the 90s, suggesting that they were mistreated by the sexist culture of the time, and yeah I think there is an argument to be made there.  That is not, however, what the documentary is entirely focused on.  The film was authorized by Anderson and made with her full participation so it sort of takes the familiar profile doc structure of “follow a person around with a camera for a couple months and intersperse this footage with the story of their past life.”   That story is almost entirely told through interviews with Anderson herself and occasionally her now grown sons along with archival footage and they don’t appear to have sought out interviews with any of the other principals involved, namely Tommy Lee.  The film is probably at its best during the “modern” sections where we peak in on what Anderson is like now as she looks and sounds pretty different from how she did during the peak of her fame and has a pretty folksy and unguarded interview demeanor.  I wouldn’t say we get the most objective take on her career from her (she seems to rather over-estimate how much unrealized potential she had as an actress) but she is pretty blunt and believable in her accounts of what her various marriages were like and her somewhat odd willingness to enter into and out of them.  Where the film falters a bit more is in its structure; it reaches what feels like a natural stopping point at a certain point but then suddenly keeps going, possibly because they finished the film only to then start filming again as some developments happened in Anderson’s life (namely the release of the “Pam and Tommy” series on Hulu, which competing streaming service Netflix feels rather excited to trash) and her casting as Roxie in a run on Broadways’s “Chicago.”  All told this is a pretty run of the mill doc of the kind streaming services are filled with, but it gets the job done and if this subject interests you, you could do worse.
*** out of Five

Boston Strangler (4/3/2023)

For much of last year 20th Century Studios almost completely abandoned theatrical distribution and basically became a content generator for Hulu while patiently waiting for that legacy contract with HBO to finally expire.  In October they finally started putting some movies into theaters but if the film Boston Strangler is any indication they aren’t above sending stuff straight to streaming if they don’t seem like they’ll be big profit generators and that seems to be exactly the determination that was made in the case of this true crime account looking at the titular serial killer from the perspective of a journalist who viewed themselves as having held the Boston P.D.’s feet to the fire.  The movie this plainly wants to be is Zodiac but director Matt Ruskin is no David Fincher and this movie is no Zodiac.  Ruskin doesn’t really do much to establish the film’s time period separate from the police and journalistic milieus, that or they just didn’t have the budget to fill the screen with such details, and the whole movie is just generally kind of lifeless.  Keira Knightley isn’t exactly “bad” in the lead but her character doesn’t really have much personality beyond being “determined” and if you compare the journalistic process details here with what we see in something like She Said it really feels lacking.  Eventually the film gets into something of a true crime conspiracy theory in the ending, which is at least interesting on paper, but by the time we get there I’d pretty well checked out of this one.  Not recommended.
** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 2/8/2023

Riotsville, USA (1/28/2023)

Riotsville, USA is a documentary that can probably be best classified as a video essay as it overtly makes its own point rather than bringing in talking heads to make them.  It consists almost entirely of archive footage and focuses in on the societal reaction to the rioting and uprests that occurred during the 1960s like the Watts Riots, the 1967 Detroit Riots, and the unrest at the 1968 Chicago DNC as well as a less known uprest that happened at the 1968 RNC in Miami.  It’s not too hard to guess why there would be a particular interest in this subject matter today and the film’s basic thesis is that the establishment basically reacted to these unrests the wrong way by focusing more on riot control policing than on addressing the underlying concerns of the rioters and this is perhaps most dramatically symbolized by footage of a military training facility that was built to look like regular city streets in which the army and police would practice riot control techniques.  That’s perhaps the most striking element of the documentary but it’s not the entire focus as the title would imply and is more about the broader discourse of the era.  In fact we see in a title card at the beginning that almost all the footage used in the film was either shot by the government or by the news media, which establishes that these were all conversations that happened very much in public and that this isn’t obscure stuff being dug up and the film further emphasizes how normalized all this discourse was from time to time by including commercial breaks and other bits of broadcast ephemera in the movie.  Those are some interesting techniques but the film is never quite sure whether it wants its message driven home by title cards or by voice-over and at times it does feel like some talking head type stuff might have made it a touch more watchable.
***1/2 out of Five

Causeway (1/30/2023)

The Best Actress nomination for Andrea Riseborough for the movie To Leslie was a gigantic shocker when the Academy Awards nominations were announced, to the point where it rather overshadowed the similarly surprising Best Supporting Actor nomination for Brian Tyree Henry in the movie Causeway.  This was less of a surprise in part because the movie had the promotional might of Apple behind it but Causeway is a not entirely dissimilar movie from To Leslie: both are these Sundancey indies about working class women struggling to overcome adversity (in the case of To Leslie that’s alcoholism and here it’s the physical and psychological toll of having nearly been injured in Afghanistan) by taking a menial job where they meet a friend that helps them (Tyree Henry here, Marc Maron in To Leslie).  Causeway is a better film however, mostly for small reasons that are a little hard to summarize.  Jennifer Lawrence is giving a more understated performance than Riseborough for one thing, and I also sense that this movie handles its New Orleans setting more authentically than To Leslie handles it’s Texas milieu.  That said I don’t think Causeway is a terribly notable movie in the long run either.  There have been a lot of movies about veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan which are trying to exist in that lineage with The Best Years of Our Lives and Coming Home, but none of them have really come close and I’m not sure many of them ever will at this point.  I think it’s because the kind of people who go to those wars live outside the experience of the type of people who write movies to a much greater extent than used to be the case and any attempt to tell their stories involves bridging a bigger divide than in generations past and I think that’s the case here as well.  As for Brian Tyree Henry’s performance… it’s good, but I wouldn’t say it’s too far off from his usual range nor is it a career best.  I feel like the nomination is more out of respect for Tyree Henry’s recent run of solid work as an actor’s actor than for this movie, but that’s okay.
*** out of Five

“Sr.” (1/31/2023)

About a year and a half ago the cult underground film director Robert Downey passed away, and I distinctly remember going into the trend on Twitter and seeing person after person expressing the relief they felt when they realized the person who died was Robert Downey Sr. rather than is significantly more famous son.  More than likely a lot of these people didn’t even know that the elder Downey was a person of note.  Hell, I’m a dedicated film buff and even I’ve only seen two of the guy’s movies, and it would appear this documentary was made in order to educate the public about this guy and also clarify what his relationship to Downey Jr. was.  The film makes some kind of unconventional choices along the way; for one, all the new footage in the film was shot in black and white (with movie clips and archival footage in color where applicable) for reasons that are not entirely clear to me.  The film has a decent amount of fly-on-the-wall footage of the whole Downey family interacting which does continue into the period in which the elder Downey’s health started to rapidly deteriorate.  There’s a conceit the film uses in which the elder Downey is cutting together his own version of the documentary separately, though not much ultimately becomes of this.  The film ultimately focuses more on this new material and with stories of the family’s personal dynamics than it does on really analyzing Downey Sr.’s actual movies, which sometimes take a bit of a back seat.  I feel like an interview with a film historian or critic may have helped a little here as some outside perspectives may well have gone a long way in making it clear to audiences that these movies actually did matter and weren’t just weird vanity projects by an eccentric guy.  I suppose the philosophy behind this is that a documentary about an iconoclastic filmmaker shouldn’t be too conventional and should have some experimental elements itself, but I’m not sure that Downey Jr. and director Chris Smith were really the right people to try an experimental format like that because it mostly comes across as kind of messy rather than truly experimental.
*** out of Five

Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris (2/2/2023)

So, every year I do the best that I can to watch all the films nominated for the Academy Award in every category.  This year it looks like I’ll be able to see everything except the latest beneficiary of a Diane Warren song Tell it Like a Woman (which is not on streaming or anywhere else, and I’m not 100% convinced exists) and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish because even I have some standards.  However, this Best Costume Design nominee Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris thing was readily available on Peacock so, I figured “what the hell?”  Ugh.  To be fair I think the nomination in that category basically makes sense.  It’s a movie largely set in the Christian Dior fashion house in the 50s and obviously has a whole bunch of meticulously designed outfits that needed to be meticulously recreated, but man everything else about this movie was just pandering nonsense made for very undiscerning AARP members.  The titular Mrs. Harris is like a senior citizen Mary Sue who marches through the film just sort of magically getting her way through force of personality while managing to match-make the respectful young people and putting the snobby people who don’t believe her in their place.  Beyond that it’s just a boring bit of wish-fulfillment hooey that will more than likely be forgotten even by its fans less than a week after seeing it.
*1/2 out of Five

All That Breathes (2/8/2023)

All that Breathes is one of the most awarded documentaries of the year and also the one I’ve waited the longest to finally get to see since HBO has seemingly been holding onto it in anticipation of an Oscar nomination.  It’s funny really to experience that much fomo and anticipation for what turns out to be this really quiet and contemplative little documentary about a pair of brothers in India who take care of birds and nurse them back to health.  Specifically they have a little operation taking in kites (a species of birds of prey not unlike hawks) who have broken wings and the like.  The film is essentially a work of cinéma vérité shot “fly on the wall” style without the use of any interviews to the camera or the like, but it’s done with more carefully composed shots than you usually associate with that style.  In fact it’s kind of impressive how much the film is able to maintain a certain visual style and aesthetic despite being unscripted content and if you watch a lot of docs it is noticeable, but not in any kind of show off way.  As it goes on the film touches on the fact that the rise in Hindu Nationalism in Modi’s India is starting to seem threatening to these two brothers as they go about their bird nursing duties, but more as a kind of background anxiety.  Ultimately the movie’s arc never quite comes full circle for me but I can see why this has become something of a festival darling.
***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 1/27/2023

Till (1/21/2023)

I’m going to be honest, at this point I tend to view studio made films about well-known black history events with a certain suspicion.  I’ve seen a lot of them and they often tend to be rather safe and sanitized version of events made more to inspire children than to really probe the events in question.  There are exceptions of course, but for every Selma there are two Marshalls or 42s.  Till a film about the death of Emmett Till and the events that followed it, sits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum because on some level it is still definitely a straightforward movie made with mainstream sensibilities in mind on some level, there was definitely some more thought put into it.  The film was directed by Chinonye Chukwu, the director behind the indie film Clemency, who seems to have a knack for making films about women in psychologically taxing situations and for directing internally wounded performances.  She’s cast Danielle Deadwyler in the central role of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett, and it proved to be a pretty smart choice.  Deadwyler is not a particularly famous name and that may well have limited the film’s box office somewhat but she was clearly the right person for the role and managed to really nail the interior anguish required and the film also does a good job of showing Emmet Till while he was alive as well.  The film isn’t quite able to find the perfect structure for its third act, starting out as a kind of courtroom drama that maybe lacks suspence because the audience knows where it’s going and never quite manages to make her activist arc compelling either, but when it needs to work it works quite well.
***1/2 out of Five

Retrograde (1/22/2023)

Retrograde is a documentary about the last years of American occupation in Afghanistan before the pullout and mostly follows one squad of American soldiers there as well as one Afghan general on the ground.  They say that journalism is the first draft of history and this feels like a bit of a “first draft of history” kind of documentary as it’s sort of close to the ground and tends to shy away from making overt statements about the overall pullout.  The characters it follows certainly seem to be against it, but they don’t exactly seem to be impartial observers and the film isn’t exactly laying out any kind of detailed argument for why we should have stayed longer or how the pullout could have been done more effectively.  That said, anyone doing reporting on the ground in a warzone has got to have some guts and there is definitely something to be said for getting an on the ground eye on initial reactions to this situation and there is interest there.  I don’t know, if you just want some raw footage of this whole situation this documentary does offer that but I feel like something as controversial as this needs a bit more of a statement to be made if you’re going to turn it into a movie and I’m not entirely sure this movie knows what it wants to say.
*** out of Five

To Leslie (1/24/2023)

One of the biggest shockers at the Oscar nominations announcement this year was Andrea Riseborough’s “shocking” nomination for the largely unseen film To Leslie, but if you’d been following Oscar prognostication circles in the weeks leading up to nominations you knew it was at least a possibility as she’d earned some pretty high profile supporters in Hollywood who were advocating for her heavily on social media.  I will say, there’s a reason this movie hasn’t been more widely seen, it’s quite boring.  It’s not incompetently made or offensive or anything but it does feel like a Sundance also-ran from 2004 or something.  The movie follows an alcoholic woman whose driven away her grown son and most of the rest of the family with her addict antics and gets sort of a last chance at getting her shit together by getting a job at a motel.  Marc Maronco-stars as her boss at the motel and it otherwise doesn’t do a whole lot that we haven’t seen in other better addiction dramas.  I don’t know that I’d go to bat for Riseborough’s performance either though I do see why it would have its fans.  This is engaging in the ever-popular Oscar bait tactic of taking an attractive movie star and having her “bravely” pretend to be an ugly lower class crone, and she doesn’t exactly do that poorly here but I can definitely think of other female lead performances this year that deserved that spot more including Danielle Deadwyler in Till, which seems like the one that was most likely pushed out.  Anyway, this isn’t some lost gem and I don’t recommend it.
** out of Five

A House Made of Splinters (1/25/2023)

Hot tip, this newly Oscar-nominated documentary is up for free on the BBC iPlayer, so if you have a VPN and are willing to tell some lies about having paid a “license fee” you can watch this there and get ahead on your Oscar viewing.  This is one of two documentaries nominated this year that touch on conflict between Russia and the Ukraine but only obliquely.  It was shot at a short term group home in Eastern Ukraine for children who need to be separated from their parents.  Some of the advertising suggests that they’re separated because of the conflict but that’s not really the case, most of them seem to have been separated for more mundane CPS reasons (abuse, neglect, drug/alcohol abuse, etc) and I’m not sure conditions at the home would be that wildly different if this were filmed at a comparable home anywhere else.  I suppose what makes this one different is that the filmmakers really seem to have been given a lot of access to these kids, in a way that occasionally borders on seeming a touch invasive, but it mostly stays on the right side of that.  The film ends up focusing on a kid named Kolya who’s really been acting out a lot and seems to be heading toward juvenile delinquency and even allows the filmmakers to follow him on some hellraising outside the home.  Ultimately the movie does come together pretty well and paints a picture of this home and it’s most dedicated worker pretty well, though I can’t say it’s doing anything too radical in its style.
***1/2 out of Five

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On (1/27/2023)

When A24 released this movie in the early summer I considered going to it largely out of loyalty to that studio but man, that trailer just made it look really twee and annoying.  So I skipped it and patiently waited for it to show up on some sort of streaming service, and waited, and waited, and at some point it became clear that my cheapskatedness would backfire this time and if I wanted to see it I’d have to give in and pay the $5.99 to stream the damn thing.  Well played A24, I guess, and the thing that finally made me break down is that the movie got its anticipated nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the 95th Annual Academy Awards.  I must say I find that nomination curious, firstly because of the film’s quality but even moreso because, well, by my estimation this is not an animated movie at all so much as it’s a live action movie with an animated central character.  I might even go so far as to suggest that Avatar: The Way of Water is closer to being an animated film than this is.  But regardless, is the movie any good?  Well, let’s just say that this is intensely not for me and pretty much everything that I found unappealing about the trailer I also don’t really care for in the movie.  There are some clever moments here and there in the movie and I found some of the moments where its protagonist, a sentient walking and talking seashell, comes up with clever ways to live inside of the movie’s semi-empty house but the movie never quite seems to know how smart this character is supposed to be.  He’s supposed to be clueless enough about things like the internet to need them explained and yet he’s also supposed to be smart enough to make sense of a news magazine show like “60 Minutes” so I don’t really get what this is going for.  My understanding is that this is all based on a series of Youtube shorts and I think that feels like a better medium for this because there are individual sections of this that are clever but sitting with it for ninety minutes was kind of tiring.
** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 1/6/2023

Clerks III (1/1/2023)

To date my favorite Kevin Smith films, by far, are Clerks and Clerks 2 and I may actually like the sequel better.  So I mostly greeted the idea of a Clerks 3 made in 2022 with dread because Kevin Smith is not half the director he used to be and this had all the makings of just tarnishing the franchises legacy.  I’ll give the movie this: it more than likely is the best thing that Kevin Smith has made in over a decade.  Granted I never actually saw a lot what he’s watched in the last ten years so that’s probably an uninformed opinion but he does at least seem to be trying to take his work seriously here rather than making some self-indulgent stoner movie like he’s been making lately.  He has seemed to put at least some thought into where these characters would be at this stage in their lives and shows some reflection about the legacy of those earlier films and has incorporated, albeit awkwardly, some of his own thoughts of mortality in the wake of the director’s real life heart attack.  However I would say that this is kind of making an ending for this franchise that I just didn’t really want.  Clerks II already basically gave us a happy ending of sorts that this movie needed to undo at the beginning in ways that annoyed me and it really wasn’t in service of a movie that was good enough to be worth doing that.  It’s plotline, about Randall making a low budget movie about working at the Quick Stop (essentially the first movie), does not make a lick of sense given that these characters are basically making a young man’s movie in their 50s.  But the bigger problem with the movie is just that it isn’t very funny, or at least not as funny as I was hoping for.  There are a couple of decent scenes sprinkled through the movie here and there and I want to give Smith some credit for trying but the movie ultimately just doesn’t justify itself.
**1/2 out of Five

Three Minutes: A Lengthening (1/2/2023)

The experimental documentary Three Minutes: A Lengthening begins by showing three minutes of home video footage that was shot in the small Polish town of Nasielsk in 1938, not too long after the Jewish population captured on the film would be rounded up and killed by the Nazis after the invasion of the country.  The three minutes themselves are fairly uneventful; they were shot by Polish Americans who were visiting “the old country” and the footage basically consists of a crowd of people gathering around and waving at the camera, which would have been an unusual device to see in this setting.  And from there we don’t see any other footage, the whole rest of the film consists of images from this home movie (which was found in a box in someone’s closet) as it’s restored, slowed down, zoomed in on, and just generally gone over like the Zapruder film for clues as to when this was taken and what this lost community was like.  So that’s where the title comes from, they lengthen the three minutes of footage to something like an hour and ten minutes through analysis.  We get voiceover over all of this through “witnesses” like the guy who found the footage among his grandfather’s things and some of the historians involved in analyzing it and we also get a more omniscient narration read by Helena Bonham Carter to fill in some narrative holes.  Ultimately there isn’t exactly that much factual information that can really be learned from the footage itself but the film makes a decent argument that studying it still mattered as it acted as something of a final memorial of these people who would soon be murdered even if we don’t have their names and are just left with these tantalizing faces.
***1/2 out of Five

Athena (1/3/2023)

Athena is a French film that showed up on Netflix without a lot of fanfare in the lead-up but which certainly got a lot of attention upon its release for its visual ambition if nothing else.  The film was directed by Romain Gavras, son of the great Costa-Gavras, who has made a couple of features in the past but who is probably better known for making some pretty striking music videos for people like M.I.A., Jay-Z, and Kanye West.  This feels like a pretty clear extension of the visual style he established previously, though as a matter of substance I can’t help but mostly view it in terms of the career of the film’s co-writer Ladj Ly, the director of the Cannes sensation and Oscar nominated police thriller Les Misérables.  Ly seems like a promising voice, but there’s also something kind of nagging me at the back of my head that he might kind of just be the French David Ayer: a guy who makes violent and genre infused movies about “the streets” while trying to pass them off as authentic.  This movie envisions a scenario in which a (presumably?) innocent Algerian immigrant has been shot by a Parisian police officer and this leads not to peaceful protests or even rioting, but something closer to organized and deadly domestic terrorism on the part of a gang of sorts who open the film by raiding a police station and then barricade themselves in a banlieue called Athena.  I can say that if I were a serious criminal justice reform activist I would not want this movie to represent me, and to be fair I don’t think Gavras or Ly would argue that this is meant to be more of a grim hypothetical of an extreme situation than it is a reflection of exactly where society is currently, but that also maybe feels like an excuse to justify some rather loopy script machinations.  Despite that, I don’t want to overlook the fact that visually the film has a lot going for it and I think it’s worth a look for that alone if nothing else and whatever misgivings I have about the script there is some interesting audacity there.
***1/2 out of Five

In Her Hands (1/4/2023)

In Her Hands is one of a handful of documentaries this year looking at the last days of American involvement in Afghanistan.  This one looks at that conflict through a woman named Zarifa Ghafari, who is the mayor of an Afghan town called Maidan Shahr, which is unusual for that country both because she’s a woman and also because at 26 years old she’s a very young woman.  That’s an intriguing subject but I’m not sure the movie ever really explored it with a lot of depth.  We get basically nothing about the day to day life of Ghafari as a mayor and know next to nothing about her political philosophy or policy initiatives and while I think we’re supposed to take as a given that she’s good at her job the film just generally doesn’t seem to see much of a need to actually establish this.  Instead the focus is almost entirely on the danger she’s in from local extremists and also her eventual escape from the country as the Taliban took over again.  Those are certainly important aspects of her life but the extent to which this movie makes them dominant elements perhaps do the film’s subject a disservice and I must say the film’s structure, in which it basically counts down the months to the U.S. withdrawal, also does her arc a bit of a disservice as it pretty much signals to the audience early on that whatever efforts she’s taking are doomed and that she had might as well just get out of the country as soon as she can.  That sort of makes the documentary feel a bit futile and I kind of wish they had started filming Ghafari earlier on in her career when it still felt like there was some hope.
**1/2 out of Five

The Silent Twins (1/6/2023)

The Silent Twins was a movie that was kind of hard to market when it came out earlier this year; it’s sort of a Polish movie but it’s set in the UK and is in English and it’s hard to just describe the plot without kind of making it sound odd.  In short it tells the true story about a pair of black British identical twins named Jennifer and June Gibbons, who went to school during the 70s and 80s and seemed to have some sort of odd psychological issues that I’m not sure science ever figured out.  The two were both capable of speech and spoke to each other frequently when they were alone with each other but refused to speak to their parents or teachers and as they reached their teen years they began acting out in erratic ways which ultimately landed them in a mental institution for over a decade, being treated by doctors who basically had no idea how to deal with them.  Along the way they did a bunch of writing and art projects which have come to be viewed as interesting outsider art and this film Agnieszka Smoczyńska (director of the Polish mermaid horror musical The Lure) incorporates some of this art into the film but it’s otherwise more of a biographical account.  There were certainly a number of systemic errors that were made along the way in this story but the movie doesn’t necessarily seem to be out to point fingers at society, nor is it really trying to “explain” what went on with these two, whose behavior is about as baffling to the audience as it is to the people around them.  In some ways that’s an asset, as seeking easy answers would have been kind of cheap, but a bit more of a drive towards some sort of goal might have made the film work a bit better.  It’s an interesting watch but it lacks a certain something I couldn’t quite place my finger on.
***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 12/30/2022

Meet Me in the Bathroom (12/22/2022)

Meet Me in the Bathroom is a documentary adaptation of the book of the same name by Lizzy Goodman, which was an oral history of the 2000s New York rock scene typified by bands like The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, and LCD Soundsystem.  I was a bit too young and too uncool to really get into these bands at the time, but their careers were highly sentimentalized by the music critics I grew up reading so I’ve been familiar with their reputations even if they aren’t really my thing.  The documentary is not terribly interested in deflating the legend of any of this and it is kind of wild seeing a movie chronicling events within my lifetime looked at through the same language of cultural shifts and rises and falls that I tend to associate with documentaries about decades prior.  Given the oral history nature of the source material it will not be too surprising that this is largely told through interviews with the various bands and of course it also has a pretty sizable amount of archive footage to work with.  The film also tries to fit the emergence of these bands within the larger cultural context and historical events that occurred in New York at the time, with September 11th being the most obvious of them.  At the end of the day this is still definitely a documentary for the initiated and I’m not sure it has that much to offer people who aren’t already into these bands and as someone who is himself only kinda/sorta into them I’m not sure it was really for me.
*** out of Five

Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva (12/23/2022)

Here’s another installment of “The Movie Vampire tries to understand modern commercial Indian cinema.”  This particular movie was made by a studio that was a subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, meaning it’s now owned by Disney and as a result the film is streaming on Disney+, which is probably appropriate because this seems like Bollywood at its most Disney-fied.  As the “Part One” in the title suggests this is meant to be the first part in not only a series but a whole “cinematic universe” dubbed the Astraverse, which already has its own logo and everything.  It also has something of a color palate and effects style that feel inspired by the MCU and many of its characters could sort of be called superheroes, though the more direct inspiration may be various YA franchises as no one here is wearing capes and tights or the like.  It’s set in the modern day and follows a “chosen one” type who has powers he doesn’t understand and appears to be one of many people who possess powers given to them by “astras” that came down to earth as part of mythological shenanigans thousands of years ago.  On some level it seems to be trying to do with hindu mythology what something like Percy Jackson did with Greek mythology, though that’s a little more awkward given that Hinduism remains a prominent world religion in a way the Greek pantheon does not.

Despite all this Hollywood influence, this is still firmly a work of Bollywood.  It opens with this massive musical number and stars this slightly too old movie star at the center of it who’s this totally pure of heart hero who literally helps orphans with his free time and he and the movie’s love interest basically fall instantly in love within the first forty minutes without the slightest suspense that they won’t end up with each other.  From there it’s kind of action-movie-plot by numbers and ends on a moderately well done set piece.  The special effects and action choreography aren’t quite up to Hollywood standards but they’re not too far off and despite some quirks like the musical numbers this doesn’t come off as one of those wacky gonzo Indian productions you see weird clips of on Youtube.  In that sense this could be a decent gateway Bollywood movie if you want to get in on the shallow end of the pool, but like the MCU films it borrows from I’m going to guess serious fans of the form view this as kind of safe and soulless if well executed in its own way.  Personally, as someone for whom the Bollywood style has never really been that appealing, this sanding down of the edges did make this go down a bit easier for me, but on the other hand if I just want a simple little MCU type thing Disney is already providing me with plenty of that and if I’m going to go through the trouble of overcoming the language and cultural barriers of foreign cinema I kind of want to be rewarded with something more than this.
**1/2 out of Five

Hold Your Fire (12/28/2022)

On January 19th 1973 four African American men entered a Brooklyn sporting goods store with guns attempting to steal more guns, the police were alerted and arrived quickly, so the attempted robbers took hostages and a standoff began.  This was a year after the incident that inspired Dog Day Afternoon as well as the Munich Olympics disaster, so the NYPD had been putting a lot of thought into hostage negotiations so they utilized a “police psychologist” named Harvey Schlossberg for negotiations this time and that made at least some difference.  The film looks back on that “siege” from the sides of both the police and the hostage takers, whose stories diverge pretty sharply.  The police frankly say a lot of stupid stuff in these interviews; they have a perspective of crime that you might expect retired cops from the 70s to have and they sound pretty unreconstructed in the time since.  I’m not exactly sure the former hostage takers are exactly on the level either, they seem rather defensive and not everything they say totally adds up either, so I think both parties are spinning things but the Rashomon of all of this is not necessarily a bad thing for the movie.  This is not a particularly flashy or highly budgeted documentary.  You can tell they simply filmed the various interviews in the homes and offices of the subjects and didn’t put a lot of work into giving them any special lighting or framing and you can also tell it was edited on a laptop, but the film does get a variety of perspectives and gets to some interesting points about the era in question and the nature of law enforcement.
*** out of Five

The Woman King (12/29/2022)

African history is unfortunately a topic that is beyond woefully under-discussed in both cinema and in culture as a whole.  The reasons for this are legion, but the fact that modern Africa has quite the death of films made above a certain budget level mixed with Hollywood disinterest have made movies like The Woman King something of a rare novelty.  In some ways this works in The Woman King’s favor: this setting isn’t over exposed and it’s giving people a needed education.  But in many ways this also gives The Woman King a bit of a burden I’m not sure it overcomes; there aren’t a bunch of other more serious minded movies about this subject matter so if this turns out to be Hollywood pabulum that can make it feel like it’s really doing a disservice to the subject matter.  Unfortunately I would say this leans more towards “disservice to the subject matter.”  The film is set in the Dahomey kingdom in West Africa circa 1832 and deals with the interaction between colonizers and local slavers in the area, which is a pretty complex and interesting story potentially, but the movie isn’t very interested in diving into that complexity.  Rather, this seems to want to be the African version of Braveheart, which is not a good thing to aspire to because that movie is dumb and wildly over-rated to begin with.  The one thing that Braveheart does have going for it though are large scale bloody battle scenes and this movie kind of lacks the bloodlust for that.  Director Gina Prince-Bythewood is a talented filmmaker but it’s readily obvious that action scenes aren’t where her passions lie, in fact she seems to have regressed in that department since making The Old Guard, and what action that is here is rather bloodless and tame.  It’s a movie that wants to be able to inspire kids but it’s about a time period that doesn’t really lend itself to that kind of treatment, I don’t think the movie really works.
**1/2 out of Five

What We Leave Behind (12/30/2022)

What We Leave Behind is a personal-level documentary from filmmaker Iliana Sosa looking at the past life and current condition of her grandfather Julián Moreno.  Moreno is, in the grand scheme of things a fairly ordinary man who lived a pretty average working class existence; he lives in Northern Mexico and did some migrant work in the United States in his younger years and then later made trips North of the border pretty regularly in order to visit his children and grandchildren after their emigration.  There are some similarities to be found with the 2020 documentary Dick Johnson is Dead here as both films are about women coming to terms with an elderly relative’s impending mortality, though this lacks that film’s meta concept and playfulness.  Honestly the film kind of lacks a hook more generally.  Moreno is kind of an interesting guy to observe for a little while but I kept waiting on the movie to reveal either some surprising biographical detail about him or use his story to make a broader point about U.S. border policy or something and it never really does, or if it does it’s very subtle.  The film’s title suggests that it’s very much meant to come from the perspective of an emigrant looking at the disconnection that results from living away from one’s roots, which is kind of an interesting take but the film very rarely gazes inwardly or directly tackle the feelings of the people who did the “leaving behind.”  The film is rather short, clocking in at about 71 minutes and yet I think it might have had more impact as a short-form documentary coming in at 40 minutes or so.
**1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 12/21/2022

Cow (12/16/2022)

Andrea Arnold is a filmmaker who seems to have sort of disappeared since making her film American Honey and this year we finally learned way; her time was divided between making the second season of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” (which Jean-Marc Vallée apparently took back over at a certain point) and also making this documentary, which chronicled several years in the life of a dairy cow.  The film kind of plays like an on land version of the fishing vessel documentary Leviathan in that the camera is focusing in largely on non-human subjects with the human workers on the periphery.  Arnold has said she “wanted to show [audiences] her consciousness. I wanted to show the character and the aliveness of a nonhuman animal.”  I must say, if the goal was to make this animal look particularly intelligent and emotive then it didn’t really work on me, it kind of just seemed like a dumb animal being put through the motions to me.  She says that her intention was not to make a movie advocating for veganism but, I must say I don’t believe her about that because I’m not sure what else this is supposed to be or what anyone not coming at it from that angle are supposed to take away from it.  I suppose this is a well-made as something with these goals is ever supposed to be but it probably requires a different perspective and a different set of assumptions than I possess and it didn’t really work at all on me.
** out of Five

Disenchanted (12/17/2022)

Well here’s another movie watched for the silly and stubborn reason of insisting on getting every minute I can out of the month of Disney+ I paid for and this one was really misguided.  This “sequel” to Enchanted seems to fit into what seems like a distressing trend at Disney: sequels that are made with streaming in mind and kind of feel like the cheapo direct-to-video sequels of old despite having been legitimized with most of the first movie’s original cast, and the fact that it was directed by uber-hack Adam Shankman kind of tells you their ambitions for this.  The movie is set at least ten years after the events of the first film (though it’s taken fifteen years to make) and begins by the family formed at the end of that film moving from New York (an essential and defining setting in the first movie) to the suburbs in what sure seems like a move intended to cut costs on this.  If not for the presence of Amy Adams and other legit stars I would almost suspect this was meant as a backdoor pilot for some sort of Disney Channel sitcom adaptation of the franchise, which might have been the better road to go down actually.  Now, I suspect that, but I also suspect that the real problem here is that they took a script that was meant to be for a sequel made a couple years after the original and held onto it even though it’s been a decade and a half and a lot of the developments here don’t really line up with that, namely the fact that the Amy Adams character still seems bizarrely oblivious to the norms of her new home despite having lived there for a decade.  Beyond that the Disney parody of the whole franchise just feels dated and played out.  There have probably been more film parodies of pre-Renaissance Disney Princess movies at this point then there were actual pre-Renaissance Disney Princess movies and the cut production values just make this one not feel like a real movie at all.  Complete waste of time for everyone involved, they should have left well enough alone.
* out of Five

If These Walls Could Sing (12/19/2022)

I’ve come not to expect much from documentaries that are made for Disney+, at least outside of their National Geographic stuff or certain one-offs like The Beatles: Get Back.  In fact that Peter Jackson Beatles documentary almost certainly had something to do with their greenlighting of this documentary about the recording studio which was made famous by that band.  However, this is not a Peter Jackson archival footage epic, it’s a puff piece that mostly exists to string together some interviews with famous rock stars like the two surviving Beatles, Elton John, Jimmy Page, John Williams, and members of Pink Floyd.  They even somehow manage, likely through extensive editing, to get profanity free interviews out of Liam and Noel Gallagher from Oasis.  These interviews try to stay on the topic of the recording studio but at the end of the day there’s kind of only so much to say about the place beyond the fact that it’s a place with some good microphones and nice acoustics.  For the most part these artists are telling highly abbreviated career stories, many of them not terribly related to Abbey Road, that anyone interested enough in classic rock to be watching something like this will have already heard before and in less truncated form elsewhere.  If you just want an easy watch that will give you a couple fun stories, I guess this will be inoffensive enough viewing, but to me this is really a wasted opportunity that does nothing to probe any deeper than the very top of the surface level and just isn’t good enough generally.
** out of Five

The Invitation (12/20/2022)

When Get Out showed up on Sight and Sounds Top 100 Movies list I rolled my eyes a bit at a recent horror movie like that being canonized so quickly, but I heard one person argue that this choice made sense because even now it’s the movie people reference back to when talking about politics infused horror.  I don’t think that argument entirely holds up to scrutiny because a hit movie spawning imitators is relatively common and this trend has not really been going on that long.  However, it is certainly true that there are people trying to copy that movie’s success and I don’t think we’ve quite gotten as clear a ripoff of that movie yet as The Invitation.  The film is essentially “Get Out but at an English estate.”  In this case the person of color is a woman rather than a man and she’s lured there because she’s a long lost cousin rather than because she’s dating someone from the family but otherwise it’s the same basic idea, but its social satire isn’t nearly as sharp and when it finally does flip into horror movie mode in the third act it does it in a much less creative way.  Outside of its unoriginality there’s not a ton to say about it.  Nathalie Emmanuel (AKA Missandei from “Game of Thrones”) is a pretty good screen presence and deserves better than this and the basic core filmmaking is largely competent but unexceptional and the movie isn’t remotely scary.  Not worth anyone’s time except to gauge where this “social horror” trend is going and how it can go wrong.
** out of Five

McEnroe (12/21/2022)

I’m not exactly sure why it was decided that 2022 was the year we needed a new movie about troubled tennis star John McEnroe, but we got it just the same.  Actually we’ve gotten a lot of McEnroe related projects lately like the experimental doc John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection and the scripted film Borg Vs. McEnroe.  It is perhaps interesting that he’s so well remembered given that he was only playing champion level tennis for about four years in the early 80s, but it isn’t really the tennis that he’s remembered for is it?  No, he’s remembered for cursing out umpires and showing up in tabloids.  Ostensibly this doc’s job is to try to get to the bottom of why McEnroe was so pissy, and I’m not sure it ever really does come up with an explanation, in no small part because McEnroe himself doesn’t seem to really know and this is very much an “authorized documentary” on his part.  The film doesn’t really seek out sports journalist to be its talking heads, instead mostly opting to stick to McEnroe himself, his friends and family members, as well as fellow athletes like Billie Jean King and his one-time rival Bjorn Borg.  We get some dishy talk about his disastrous marriage with Tatum O’Neal, though she (perhaps understandably) did not choose to participate herself, and the film never really gets into McEnroe’s second life as a commentator.  All in all I can’t say I’m terribly impressed by the doc, which is made professionally enough and provides a biographical overview well enough but otherwise really isn’t much to write home about.
**1/2 out of Five