Home Video Round-Up: 5/22/2019

Glass (4/17/2019)

Review Contains Spoilers

I take M. Night Shyamalan’s failures, and he’s had many, personally because in the early days I saw a lot of potential in the guy and stood up for him longer than most.  Seeing him make nothing but ill-conceived crap for something like fifteen years has been pretty painful and I include his supposed comeback film Split in that.  I’m not sure why that movie managed to become a critically tolerated box office success but I thought it was mediocre when it was at its best and pretty lame when it was at its worst but I was excited by its final shot which revealed that it was actually part of the same “cinematic universe” as Shyamalan’s second film UnbreakableUnbreakable was one of the triumphs of the director’s all too brief run of clear success and I’d long wanted to see a sequel to it, but I wasn’t too excited about the Split guy being in the middle of it and at the end of the day the M. Night Shyamalan of 2019 is not the M. Night Shyamalan of 2000.  I was rooting for Glass however and I do think there are ways he could have pulled it off but I don’t think he really did.  For much of the movie I found myself thinking “this is stupid, it should be pretty easy for Bruce Willis to prove he’s bulletproof, why doesn’t he just do that and shut this psychologist up?”  So for most of the movie’s actual runtime I was kind of rolling my eyes, then the movie revealed its big twist which actually does reasonably respond to my earlier objections but also opens up new issues which probably make even less sense: namely that if this secret society is tracking down and killing powerful people and they’ve known about Mr. Glass this whole time why in the hell would they let Bruce Willis run wild for nearly twenty years, he shouldn’t have been that hard to track down.  Honestly I think this whole thing would have worked better if they hadn’t tried to tie it into that earlier film and had just created original characters that the audience wouldn’t know from the jump really are super powered and who wouldn’t have caused the previously outlined plot hole.  Also couldn’t that “game changing” security footage have just been dismissed as a CGI/trick photography hoax?  On the positive side, I do think this is one of the better crafted movies Shyamalan has made in a while.  It’s rarely boring to watch and has more of interest to it than Split does and the climactic battle was at least a moderately interesting set piece.

**1/2 out of Five 

Homecoming (4/19/2019)

I’ll say upfront: I’m not the world’s biggest Beyonce fan.  In fact I’d say that more often than not I’ve found her to be pretty massively over-rated (though with the way some people talk about her it would be impossible for her not to be over-rated).  But then she put out the Lemonade album, which was in many ways the first thing she did that really truly lived up to the hype, or at least came close to it.  The good will from that project appears to have led to the rapturous response to Beyonce’s headlining set at Coachella in 2018, which is documented in this concert film.  Judging from the movie that concert seems to have indeed been quite the spectacle.  A whole lot of techniques were employed on stage to keep things interesting and Beyonce certainly sounded pretty good.  The whole concert employed HBCU and black fraternity imagery as a theme, which is something that some people seem to view as being a slightly more profound idea than I do, but for the most part no complaints about the actual concert.  Of course the concert films that really rise above the level of being merely a direct to DVD document of a show are the ones that either really document the cultural context of the show (like Woodstock or Gimmie Shelter) or the ones that find some unique way of filming the performance at hand (like Stop Making Sense or The Last Waltz).  I’m not sure that this really does the former as the occasional “making of” interstitials prove to be fairly perfunctory and I’m not sure that it achieves the latter as the film struggles to really film the backing band and its occasional visual touches like randomly using retro filters mostly comes off as a distraction.  So yeah, these “best concert movie ever!” hosannas are mostly hype, but if you heard all the buzz about that Coachella set and want to see what it was like this is a perfectly acceptable documentation.

***1/2 out of Five

Escape Room (4/24/2019)

I didn’t have very high expectations for Escape Room (did anyone?) but I did think it had potential to be a fun thriller.  It is, after all basically a redo of the movie Cube but with more elaborate set design and that kind of high concept thing can work if done well.  Unfortunately this is not done well.  The characters in it are mostly dumb and unlikeable and aren’t being brought to life very well by the film’s mostly unremarkable cast.  I also don’t think the various rooms/puzzles are even very well-conceived, or at least I had a problem with most of them.  Like, the first person to die in this is killed completely arbitrarily rather than for any real failing in the game and I’m still not exactly sure ow that defibrillator challenge was supposed to work.  Say what you will about Jigsaw but at least when he built deathtraps for people he did it with internal logic and fairness.  So even in this film’s modest B-movie ambitions it didn’t really deliver.

** out of Five

Knock Down the House (5/11/2019)

Knock Down the House was intended as a documentary that would follow four strongly progressive female candidates as they sought to challenge four moderate U.S. Congressman in primary elections.  I suspect the initial plan was to follow all four more or less equally, but to the film’s luck one of the women it followed was a young Bronx bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, meaning that the filmmakers managed to be there on the scene during the rise of one of this moments most influential political figures.  Obviously this was a coup for the filmmakers but it does mean they have to rather awkwardly reduce the screen time for the other three primary challengers (who, spoilers, all end up losing pretty badly).  So those three are short-changed, but, it’s kind of hard to complain too much about this as they are pretty clearly part of a less compelling story than Ocasio-Cortez’ campaign.  I almost wish they had just jettisoned them off into a separate film where they wouldn’t have been competing for attention.  On the other hand, I’m not sure that the Ocasio-Cortez part of the film would have been made better by adding additional footage, and if it had I maybe would have rather gotten more from Joe Crawley’s side of the campaign if that had been possible.

So as a rather straightforward on the ground documentary the film works pretty well.  As a broader political statement I take some issue with it, which likely has a lot to do with my own biases.  The film is essentially an attempt to cheerlead a group called the “Justice Democrats,” which is an organization focused on challenging the Democratic “establishment” rather than Republicans, which to my eyes seems to be a rather counterproductive move that distracts from the real enemy.  The film basically takes it as a given that the four candidates at the center are a genuine improvement over the people they’re challenging and largely overlooks the case to be made that the people they’re challenging are in place because they’re the ones best positioned to win in their respective districts.  They ultimately haven’t been that successful and this documentary somewhat unintentionally shows why: Ocasio-Cortez’s narrow victory required a big confluence of circumstances including a safer than safe district, a uniquely out of touch incumbent, and an incredibly media savy and charismatic candidate.  Without those things going right a lot of these people don’t have a chance and are likely to cause more damage than good.  Even with that being the case there wouldn’t be that much harm in these quixotic runs except that the media has hypnotized themselves into thinking that the Ocasio-Cortezes of the world are the rule rather than the exception and in doing so they put an inaccurate and to many voters less palatable face on the party.  Is any of that the fault of this movie?  No, and in some ways I don’t think I’m being entirely fair to it, but it would have been that much better and more useful if it had done a little more to draw attention to all of this than it does.

*** out of Five

Serenity (5/22/2019)

Well that was weird.  If ever there was a movie that seemed to be for nobody it was Serenity.  The first half of the movie feels like one of those “mid-budget adult targeted dramas” that everyone bitches about Hollywood not making anymore while also serving as a much needed reminder that a lot of the “mid-budget adult targeted dramas” that they were making back in the 80s and 90s kind of sucked.  The whole setup plays out like some sort of especially hokey erotic thriller about a Florida fisherman being hired by his ex-wife to kill her asshole rich second husband.  Everything about that first half makes this look like a total waste of time, but then there’s this crazy twist in the second half which has a Glass-like effect of making some of the stupid stuff from before seem a little less stupid while simultaneously introducing problems that are even more inexplicably stupid.  So you’ve got a movie that won’t even let you pick your poison.  Do you want something that’s uninspired and dull or something that’s sophomorically over-ambitious?  Well, you’re stuck with both kinds of awful here and each half will kind of cannibalize whatever meager audience the other half may have interested.

* out of Five

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Home Video Round-Up: 3/22/2019

Fyre/Fire Fraud (1/20/2019)

I can’t say I had more than a passing interest in the Fyre Festival debacle when it was going on but my interest perked up when I learned that there were two documentaries were being released around the same time, one from Netflix and one from Hulu, providing an apples to apples comparison that’s like catnip to film critics.  Netflix’s documentary, Fyre, is the more straightforward of the two.  If you only watch one of them watch that one and if you plan to watch both watch that one first.  It’s the one that’s more interested in telling the story from beginning to end and sort of letting you see the train wreck happen in slow motion as various people duped into working on the thing recount the chaos that was going on behind the scenes.  It’s also the only one where someone recounts having been asked to perform fellacio on a customs agent in order to get a shipment of bottled water into the country.  The Hulu documentary, Fyre Fraud, is a bit more experimental and ironic.  The film incorporates a more discussions about how that whole thing fit within the zeitgeist of the time and is more interested in sort of viewing it as a symptom of a decadent society.  That said, it ultimately views the whole disaster as being a much more deliberate act of fraud while Fyre seems more interested in painting the whole thing as a sort of extreme example of millennial start-up arrogance that sort of snowballed into a debacle of epic proportions.  The two documentaries don’t really overlap as much as you might think and aren’t the exercise in redundancy they could have been.  The side by side viewing experience of the two is interesting, but I’m not sure I’d call either individual film a must see.

*** out of Five

Velvet Buzzsaw (2/27/2019)

Velvet Buzzsaw was a movie that debuted at Sundance and then showed up on Netflix less than a week later.  Sundance would seem to be a rather odd place for such a movie to show up as it doesn’t seem particularly independent and it also doesn’t seem particularly artful.  The film is the work of Nightcrawler director Dan Gilroy, who’s starting to have a rather Shyamalan-esque career trajectory, and its rather blunt satire of the art world combined with a rather Final Destination like horror film is a swing and a miss.  The film’s horror side does provide a couple of semi-interesting kills but for the most part it plays out like an extremely lame episode of The X-Files and its satirical elements ultimately feel rather toothless and played out.  Jake Gyllenhaal’s character and performance are completely ridiculous and the rest of the characters aren’t much better.  As a modern art world satire Ruben Östlund’s The Square puts this to shame and just about any more conventional horror film will appease that audience better than this will.

*1/2 out of Five

High Flying Bird (3/20/2019)

Steven Soderbergh was once rather famously fired from the film adaptation of Moneyball for “creative differences” and it would appear to be that his latest film about the behind the scenes machinations of the NBA, High Flying Bird, is his chance to finally get the chance to get a front office sports film out of his system.  That said this also fits pretty well into a sort of series of super low budget movies he’s been making about the unglamorous realities about certain occupations like prostitution (The Girlfriend Experience), stripping (Magic Mike), and even action heroism (Haywire).  He used to rather pointedly make these movies on digital cameras but now that that format is pretty much the standard he’s making movies like this on iPhones now just to keep that experimental vibe.  High Flying Bird is a bit more verbose than some of those other movies, in part because it’s about a sports agent and those dudes are nothing if not talkative and also because this is generally a bit more story based and really revels in shoptalk.  I did however get a little lost in all the dealings, particularly towards the end where the movie is trying to make it look like its protagonist is really pulling off some sort of grand power play that frankly doesn’t seem all that grand.  There are other strange touches like these interviews interspersed in the film which don’t seem to connect that much to the plot and how the ending makes it seem like the whole film is really just leading up to a plug for a book, but it’s generally an interesting watch even if it’s not a slam dunk (sorry).

*** out of Five

The Inventor: Out For Blood in the Silicon Valley (3/21/2019)

Alex Gibney is probably the most boring recognizable name in the world of documentary film.  When you see his name on a movie you’re almost always pretty sure what you’re going to get: a professionally made if slightly soulless exploration of a topic at hand which will ultimately kind of end up making ambiguous points about society.  When he’s working with a topic that I’m unfamiliar with this is usually “good enough” but when he tackles an issue that I already know a decent amount about his lack of probing depth becomes a little more apparent.  Such was the case with this film about Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scandal, which provides a decent overview of the events and can act as a jumping off point for discussions about it, but which really doesn’t have an overly original take on the issue and isn’t doing anything very formally inventive.  Is that a terrible thing?  No.  In fact I think I’ll probably be giving this one a pass as well simply because there’s nothing overly wrong about it but the guy’s general blandness is pretty apparent at this point and the dude isn’t going to be able to get by on Cs and Bs forever.

*** out of Five

The Dirt (3/22/2019)

The not so secret strategy that Netflix employs in their quest to become the ur-media company is to try to get their own version of what everyone else is doing.  “Bojack Horseman” is their Comedy Central show, “13 Reasons Why” is their MTV show, “The Crown” is their BBC show, etc. This has been a bit harder to do with movies simply because, despite the massive pile of money they’re sitting on, they really aren’t in a position to spend the kind of money that would compete with the biggest studio tentpoles and competing with the smaller movies usually requires them to fund the more esoteric ideas of auteur filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers.  Still you do see them doing stuff like that around the margins, particularly with their recent fairly high profile release: the Motley Crue biopic The Dirt, which I’m sure was in production before the release of the wildly popular Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody but which is almost certainly Netflix’s attempt to get in on the post-Straight Outta Compton musical biopic wave.

As this is based on the bestselling tell-all biography of the same name, the film firmly focuses in on salacious details of band’s backstage debauchery.  In some ways this is a strength as the film does have enough self-awareness to know that Motley Crue wasn’t exactly the greatest band in the world (I would personally consider them a guilty pleasure at their very best, and pretty awful more often than not) and because of this the film lacks some of the reverence and self-seriousness that often weighs down these things.  In place of any real interest in music the film more or less revels in Wolf of Wall Street-like behavior including some rather rampant misogyny.  This approach could have could have worked if this had been made by someone with a great deal of skill and finesse but instead it was directed by “Jackass” co-creator Jeff Tremaine, a guy who has made a career finding there to be something admirable in idiotic and dangerous behavior and he really leans into grossest aspects of this band’s career without any real sense of satire or reflection.  In the film’s second half it starts to feel more like a conventional biopic and at this point it does start to delve into some of the consequences of this behavior like heroin addiction and vehicular homicide but unlike most biopics where you like the characters before they were corrupted by drugs and fame, these guys seem like total dicks from the very start and as such you really have no reason to root for them once “the bad times” come around.

Really though, what pushes this movie into the realms of the terrible has less to do with morality and more to do with just general incompetence.  Like most critics I thought Bohemian Rhapsody was pretty lame, but watching this thing I’m almost tempted to give that thing an apology because if nothing else this movie does highlight what that movie did right… which was mainly that it was made on a very large budget and it had a lot of good music in it.  Bryan Singer may be a monster in his personal life and he’s hardly a great auteur but he is a fairly skilled Hollywood craftsman and sequences like the Live Aid performance did deliver.  By contrast The Dirt feels cheap and borderline incompetent.  The visual style is bland and it does basically nothing to bring the band’s music to life.  The cast is also pretty lousy but I hesitate to really blame the actors given that the writing in this thing is just brutal.  The dialogue is completely unnatural and much of the storytelling is done through snarky voice-over.  It tries to incorporate a bunch of 24 Hour Party People style fourth-wall breaks.  In general the whole thing just reeks of being a second rate imitation of a cinema genre that is kind of disreputable to begin with.

* out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 2/23/2019

Apostle(2/5/2019)

 

I had meant to watch this around Halloween but having just gone through 31 days of horror movies and I needed a break from that genre.  I have caught up with it now and it’s certainly a film that has its moments.  The film was directed by Gareth Evans, the British director who achieved great success making the The Raid films in Indonesia but is now working in the English language for the first time with his horror film Apostle.  The film is in some ways a riff on The Wicker Man as it focuses in on a pagan cult in the British Isles but the cult here is a lot more serious and less hippie-like.  When the movie gets going there are definitely some scenes that stand out and it has a good eye for creepy and memorable imagery.  However, I don’t know that I ever really connected with the main character who’s going through all this craziness and while the cult is intimidating at times I wouldn’t say it ever quite left the impression it was meant to.

***1/2 out of Five

The Old Man and the Gun(2/9/2019)

The Old Man and the Gun is a movie that is often talked about less on its own terms and more for the fact that it’s the final film (assuming the retirement announcement holds) for the legendary actor Robert Redford.  Normally I’d say that was unfair, but in many ways the film almost seems to be kind of resigned to the fact that it’s going to exist as a sort of footnote to a career, kind of like how The Shootist exists to be a swan song for John Wayne or On Golden Pond was built to say farewell to Henry Fonda.  In fact the movie is something of a meta-commentary on aging professionals sticking to their field of choice for sheer love of it, in this case bank robbing instead of acting.  Though the film is a swan song, the goal here seem less to challenge Redford into really flexing his acting ability and more to have him end his career in the way he spent most of it, by being a sort of likable movie star presence.  The film was directed by David Lowery, who has made more interesting movies before and will hopefully make more interesting films in the future, but here he’s content to simply make a no-frills little drama that tells its story without a lot of flash and gets the job done.  This is a decent movie to catch on Netflix or HBO sometime or another but I don’t think it’s anything to go out of your way for

*** out of Five

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (2/14/2019)

Hale County This Morning, This Evening has been something of a critical darling all year and has been held up as one of the most artistic documentaries of the year and even earned a Oscar nomination despite not really being the kind of non-fiction they usually go for.  Having finally seen it I’ve got to say… I kind of don’t get it.  The film is sort of meant to be an examination of the black community within the titular Hale County in Alabama and eventually focuses on a couple of families, but it discards any kind of narration and goes for a sort of goes for this ethereal and vaguely Malick-esque format which did not really connect with me at all.  I’m generally not one to dismiss movies as “pretentious” but I’m a little tempted with this one.  I’m willing to admit that I might not have watched it as closely as I needed to in my rush to cross it off the list leading up to Oscar night and I might have missed something.

** out of Five

Of Fathers and Sons (2/17/2019)

Of Fathers and Sons is another documentary I watched in a last minute run through the Oscar nominated documentaries and I’m glad I did catch it because it is indeed a pretty interesting piece of work.  The film was made by a guy who immigrated to Germany from Syria as a child and in the film he is traveling back to Syria to infiltrate an Al-Qaeda affiliated family.  Much of the rest of the film consists of observations of this family, the way the father of the family thinks (the mother is nowhere to be seen), and how he’s raising his sons (including one named after Osama Bin Laden) to essentially become full on terrorists.  Watching them is kind of reminiscent of seeing the white supremacist family from this year’s nominated short film “Skin” in that they generally seem like humans but they seem to have more or less disgarded their humanity and let hate consume them.  At the back of your mind the whole time is the question “if a drone dropped a bomb on this family, would the world be better off?”  In the wrong hands this movie could be an effective means of generating more hate rather than more understanding, but this is reality and there is a benefit in getting the truth out there.

***1/2 out of Five

Quincy(2/23/2019)

After finishing up on the last couple of capsule reviews it became apparent to me that I was one film short of a final Home Video Round-Up for the year, so I turned on Netflix and did a search for one last 2018 documentary and turned on this documentary directed by Rashida Jones about her father, the legendary music figure Quincy Jones.  You pretty much know already what format this will take: it’s the standard bio-doc which follows an old person around with cameras for a few weeks and then intercuts that with biographical details about their glory days.  If you watch a lot of feature length docs you will have seen this format over and over again and it’s getting pretty tired, and yet it’s hard to get too mad at any one movie for employing it given that it is nothing if not efficient.  Jones is a pretty impressive person, so if you need an overview of his life and career, this will get the job done.  I might have liked a closer examination of his music, but whatever works.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 1/25/2019

Venom (1/10/2019)

If ever there was a movie that seemed like it would be a complete disaster from a mile away it was Venom.  Making an entire film about a Spider-Man villain without involving Spider-Man at all just seemed like a crazy idea and the whole thing just reeked of being another desperate attempt by Sony Pictures to make use of the Spider-Man license before Disney tries to violently overthrow them.  The film also had a questionable director and a trailer full of suspect CGI, so it wasn’t a shock when critics hated the movie but it was a shock when audiences turned it into the eleventh highest grossing movie of the year.  Mind you I didn’t really hear many members of the general public saying they loved the movie either, its success mostly just suggests to me that it’s basically impossible for a superhero movie to flop at the moment, but with numbers like it got someone must have liked it.  It is perhaps odd that it was the film’s visual effects that got the brunt of the mockery leading up to the release as the various transformation effects and the general look of Venom are the most appealing aspects of the movie.  Outside of that this thing ranges from the generic to the kind of bad.  Tom Hardy seems completely uninterested in the role, and given how little he has to work with I don’t blame him.  The villain just seems to be hilariously evil, but not necessarily in a good way.  Some of the action scenes are serviceable and there are some striking images here or there and the movie generally isn’t painful to watch, but with all the great superhero options out there these days this really isn’t good enough and the fact that audiences were willing to settle for it is kind of sad.

** out of Five

Support the Girl (1/13/2019)

These days the term “indie” tends to be used pretty broadly and often includes movies that have huge stars in them and largish production values.  As such it’s always nice when something that really harkens back to the kind of movies that characterized the indie boom of the early 90s.  Support the Girls is a perfect example of this.  It’s setup of being about the day in the life of a manager at a sports bar not unlike Hooters clearly recalls Kevin Smith’s debut film Clerks but this movie lacks that film’s crude humor and while its characters are poor they aren’t “slackers” so much as people without any other options. There is a certain interest simply in seeing Regina Hall’s procedures in running this place, which the film seems to understand in pretty minute detail.  The movie also manages to assemble a pretty strong ensemble of women to populate itself with, who come off as pretty authentic depictions of the kind of people who’d end up working at a place like that.  I’m not sure that there’s a vastly profound message behind it all and I don’t really see myself revisiting the movie, but as the sort of modest project it is Support the Girls works.

*** out of Five

Bad Times at the El Royale (1/13/2019)

I really meant to see Bad Times At the El Royale in theaters but it came out during a very busy October and it was barely in theaters for three weeks before it was gone.  My reasons for wanting to see it mostly just had to do with the fact that it looked like it was a movie that was doing something a bit different and generally uncompromising even though I didn’t really know what it was about and everyone was telling me to know as little as possible going in.  The movie I got was kind of a throwback to the late-90s early-2000s era when everyone was taking cues from Quentin Tarantino and making these elaborate high concept crime movies that play around with time just for the sake of having fun and have a lot of violence and cursing and shit.  The tone here is a little more somber and it’s not exactly as derivative as, say, a Guy Richie movie but it does at times feel more like an exercise in flashy screenwriting than a real story.  Still I was generally entertained by this movie even if I don’t think it has much of anything to say, or if it does that its messages are scattershot and muddled.  The film’s cast is plainly impressive and I like the film’s general setting and atmosphere, but its story relies too much on sheer coincidence and I kept waiting for some sort of wild twist like in director Drew Godard’s last film and it never really came.

*** out of Five

They Shall Not Grow Old (1/21/2019)

They Shall Not Grow Old is a documentary directed by Peter Jackson about the First World War and consisting almost entirely of original footage shot during that conflict which has been restored, frame rate adjusted, colorized, augmented with sound effects, and even converted into 3D.  To say the least, I was rather suspicious of the whole endeavor when I heard about it.  I think I’m on record as saying that the colorization of black and white film is an abomination and 3D conversion would seem to be an even further step into ethical questionability.  However, there probably is a difference between colorizing a fictional film that was meticulously filmed for a particular aesthetic and documentary footage that was simply trying to capture reality.  The goal here seems to simply to paint the most clear and vivid possible portrait of what life was like in the trenches for the average British infantryman.  Thus the film takes the form of an oral history with various archival audio interviews with veterans telling their stories used to structure the film and play over the various images.  No historians are interviewed on screen and no attempts are made to contextualize what caused the war or to go into the experiences of people on other sides of the war or in other branches of the military.

There are of course limits to what even someone with Peter Jackson’s resources are going to be able to accomplish with this kind of material.  While I was able to get past the ethical issues with colorization, there are still technical limitations to the technology.  This footage does not necessarily look like the kind of color footage we’d be able to film today and instead looks more like color footage from around 1937, and in some ways I feel like the 3D is what actually adds more to the film.  There are also limits to what was ever captured on film during this period.  Camera operators certainly weren’t running out and hand cranking their gigantic cameras in the midst of battle so the film focuses more on what life was like in the trenches when the men were not being shot at.  It was also difficult to achieve any kind of fly-on-the-wall intimacy given the technology of the time and you definitely notice a lot of the soldiers in the footage staring at the camera.  Jackson does come up with some creative solutions for some of these problems like incorporating some artists’ renderings of the battlefields of the time when appropriate.  I would also say that some of the interviews should be taken with at least a little bit of a grain of salt, there are the voices of the survivors after all and they’re the survivors who are willing to reminisce about their time on the battlefield for a recording and I think their biases along with what footage is available does bias the film in certain ways.  Still, even if I think this does have limits as a historical source, it is well worth watching just to see some interesting footage that’s being presented interestingly.

***1/2 out of Five

Zama(1/25/2019)

Zama is the latest film from Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who has become something of a critical darling with her 2001 film La Ciénaga now in the Criterion collection.  I tried watching that movie and while there was a certain something to what it was doing I kind of found it to be a tough sit.  Seeing this latest film hasn’t really warmed me to her style.  The film is clearly making a statement about the legacy of Spanish imperialism in South America and it’s doing this by following a Spanish bureaucrat as he sort of deteriorates over the course of a few days.  I can’t say I ever really connected with the protagonist, not as a good person, not as a bad person, and not really even as a pathetic person and I found the course of journey a bit hard to follow.  I don’t want to come out too hard against the movie however because frankly I don’t think this is a movie that lends itself well to home viewing.  It never really got its hooks into me and I watched it in something of a distracted state.  Maybe I need to try to see the next Martel movie in a theater.

**1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 1/8/2019

Searching (12/30/2018)

Searching was a movie that kind of snuck up on me when it was released to theaters.  I don’t think I ever saw a trailer for it and when it was discussed in “the discourse” I always got it mixed up with the other movies using the “told on a computer screen” films like Unfreinded: Dark Web and Profile, but it ended up getting pretty good reviews and made pretty good money for a film that was made for about a million dollars.  Searching is essentially a thriller, but not a supernatural one like Unfreinded and it’s a bit looser with its gimmick than that film was.  If I remember right Unfreinded was a static shot of the entire computer screen the whole way through, but here the film zooms in on whatever the most important aspect of the screen is at any point and it occasionally switches to other found-footage type sources like camera phones and the like when needed.  The mystery at the center of the whole film is pretty interesting to follow, although I did find the ultimate solution to it to be something of an anti-climax given all the interesting possibilities that are teased.  I will also say that whole John Cho is good in the film as the lead, some of the supporting actors are weaker and have trouble hitting that sweet spot between “acting” and natural communication necessary for found footage films.  Ultimately I don’t know that this movie really transcended its slightly silly gimmick, but it’s a pretty good try.

*** out of Five

The King (1/5/2019)

Elvis Presley is one of those artists from the past that I can intellectually understand the importance of while only having the most passing of interest in his actual music.  As such this documentary about Elvis’ importance rather than his music would seem to be right up my alley and in some ways it is.  Eugene Jarecki’s film is formatted by chronicling his own travels to various places that were important to Elvis’ life (Tupelo, Memphis, Las Vegas, etc.) in Elvis’ vintage Rolls Royce, which he’s somehow obtained.  At each location he explores what was going on with Elvis in each one of these places through various interviews (some in the car, some in more traditional talking head format) with celebrities and thinkers who have strong opinions about the guy.  The movie is hardly a hagiography and is very willing to talk with some of Elvis’ critics like Chuck D (for whom Elvis never meant shit) and Van Jones, who considers Elvis to a plain and simple cultural appropriator.  However, Elvis isn’t really the only subject here, Jarecki is also very interested in looking at what each of these places are like today and using that material to paint a sort of portrait of modern America in all its post-Regan economic inequality and suggest that like Elvis in Vegas America is an empire in decline.  In case you couldn’t already tell this is a movie that’s prone to making grand pronouncements about the “America” in relation to pop culture and it walks a bit of a fine line between smart and ridiculous, but it’s certainly more worth seeing than any normal Elvis documentary.

*** out of Five

Mandy (1/5/2018)

The logline I kept hearing about the new Panos Cosmatos film is that it’s “totally metal!,” which I can sort of see insomuch as there’s some imagery in it (especially towards the end) which would be at home on a heavy metal album cover.  However, where that description kind of falls short is that heavy metal is generally fast and raucous while Mandy is very intentionally slow and trippy.  I’ve don’t know much of anything about Panos Cosmatos’ personal life but from watching this movie I can say with a decent amount of confidence that he has taken a lot of drugs in his day because this thing is exactly what I imagine a bad acid trip looks like.  As cool looking as the movie is, however, buried under the layers of style all you’re really left with is an extremely straightforward revenge movie.  On some level this just harkens back to my long-time complaint with the movie Drive, which was another movie that basically tried to pass off a simplistic action movie by looking cool and having the hero look all moody and shit.  Still, there kind of is something to this I can’t dismiss.  It’s mostly interesting to watched and while I haven’t seen Cosmatos’ first film Beyond the Black Rainbow but I understand it has a similarly “out there” style and I would like to see him develop it from here.

*** out of Five

Into the Okavango (1/6/2019)

Usually during award season when lists and nominations of the year’s best documentaries are compiled there ends up being a more traditional nature type doc in the mix like Jane or Virunga and this year the film in that slot is Into the Okavango, a film about a famous delta region in Botswana which is a major wildlife location but has been threatened by thinning waters in a river that also runs through Angola and Namibia.  Specifically the film follows a zoologist named Steve Boyes and a team has assembled as they travel down the Okavango River from its starting place in Angola down until they reach the delta.  The exact scientific purpose of this river excursion is not explained particularly well and the movie really plays it up as more of an adventure than it probably really was and also tries to play up how unique this trip is, which I didn’t find terribly convincing.  Regardless, the journey they take is indeed interesting and also quite scenic.  The team that he’s assembled, including an Angolan woman and a native guide, is quite interesting and some of the efforts they go through indeed look daunting and I quite enjoyed a scene towards the end where they’re attacked by a hippo.  The film ultimately suffers from the fact that it was made in large part for broadcast on the National Geographic channel and parts of it do feel a little dumbed down, but there was enough of interest on this trip to make the movie worthwhile.

*** out of Five  

Bird Box (1/8/2019)

2018 was a year full of surprises but I must say that I still wasn’t prepared for the masses to suddenly become enamored by a damn Susanne Bier movie.  Brier is like the great underachiever of European cinema.  She comes out of the same Danish cinema scene as Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg and shares certain sensibilities with them and makes movies that have promise but often kind of fumbles the ball at the ten yard line, often by including some overwrought metaphor or trying to make some profound statement about the human condition that just falls flat.  Here she’s applying some of the same strengths and weaknesses to what is essentially a much more commercial disaster/horror movie.  The film’s premise of an invasion by entities which if seen cause people to instantly kill themselves, instantly brings to mind M Night Shyamalan’s disastrously awful 2008 film The Happening and in some ways this could be seen as an attempt to salvage that movie’s wasted potential.  The scenes of Bullock trying to guide her children down a river also certainly bring to mind The Road, but then so do a lot of movies at this point.  The elements of the film about surviving this apocalypse are interesting, but in some ways also pale in comparison to the recent A Quiet Place.  Beyond that there’s just this sense that the whole suicide epidemic is one big metaphor for nothing.  At times it hints toward meaning only to immediately contradict it shortly thereafter and I don’t think this is some intentional attempt at ambiguity either, at least not a successful one.  Aspects of the movie do look and sound good, I would say I mostly enjoyed watching it, but if you’re looking for simple entertainment Hollywood does have better options and I have no idea why this thing has become popular enough to spark a “challenge.”

**1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 12/8/2018

Crazy Rich Asians (11/29/2018)

 

Crazy Rich Asians was an absolute sensation when it came out this summer.  Critics loved it, many a think piece was written, and it became a $170 million smash at the box office.  Given that big wave of hype I must say that now that I catch up with it on Blu-ray all I can really do is think: “is that it?”  Don’t get me wrong, I sort of get the appeal.  The cast is great with nearly every notable name in Asian American comedy showing up and there’s fun to be had with all the decadence and wealth on the screen. Director Jon Chu also manages to give the film a pretty ambitious look as far as romantic comedies go.  So what’s the problem?  I think the film is trying so hard to bring the comedy that it never really makes the romance work.  Henry Golding is the weak link here, or at least his character is, he makes something of a bland screen presence and since we don’t really see the beginning of his and Constance Wu’s relationship I don’t know that I really understood or believed their connection.  What’s more his behavior in the movie is rather suspect.  The way he just kind of springs his family wealth on his girlfriend and tosses her into the deep end without preparation is kind of a dick move and it feels like it should be more of a source of conflict in the movie than it is.  Beyond that, I don’t know, there felt like a few too many characters to keep track of and it also has a slightly strange ending where a character makes a logical decision and then just kind of throws it out ten minutes later out of sheer convention.  Admittedly this generally isn’t my kind of movie so it was going to be an uphill battle to get me on board, and this didn’t really manage it, which is disappointing because all the buzz really had me thinking this would be something a bit… more.

**1/2 out of Five

Free Solo (10/28/2018)

Ernest Hemmingway was once quoted as saying “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”  Of course what he meant by that was that those were the only sports where the athletes risked their lives to participate.  I’m perhaps not man enough to see quite the same valor in these life risking pursuits as Hemingway did I did sort of see where he was coming from while watching the incredibly tense mountaineering documentary Free Solo, which follows climber Alex Honnold as he prepares to climb up the El Capitan cliff in Yosemite without ropes or other safety equipment, a feat which no one before has achieved or even attempted.  Going in I had kind of expected the majority of the film to consist of footage of his fateful climb but there’s less of that in terms of runtime than I expected and more of the film is about the run-up to that attempt including a portrait of Honnold’s personality and history along with the various preparatory climbs he did in training.  The film also doubles as a sort of making of for itself as it shows how the filmmakers were able to get their footage and also how they weighed the ethics of filming and in some ways encouraging Honnold’s risky venture.  While watching the film I was curious why so much of the runtime was spent on the preparation but when they finally get to the big moment you start to understand what they were doing because on his big climb Honnold kind of makes what he’s doing look easier than it is.  It’s only from seeing all those dry runs that you realize the full extent of how amazingly difficult what he’s doing is.  It’s plainly one of the greatest athletic achievements put to film and the film surrounding it really puts that into perspective.

**** out of Five 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (7/3/2018)

The original Jurassic World was totally lame so I will say I was going into its sequel Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom with pretty low expectations.  I will give it this: it’s a little more cinematicly creative than the first movie and generally forges more of an identity of its own for the series.  Still there’s a lot wrong here.  For one thing the premise is that a volcano is going to erupt and kill all the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar… and the characters in the movie seem to think this is a bad thing.  These are genetically created monsters that cause deadly disasters in every movie and our principal protagonists should know better than anyone that they should plainly be exterminated.  However Universal knows how much money these movies make so they need to have them try to save them from the island for some reason.  Then in the film’s third act it becomes a fight between the bad guys, who want to profit from saving the dinosaurs from the island and potentially unleashing them on the world, and the good guys who… also want to save the dinosaurs from the island and potentially unleash them on the world.  The final decision made by these “good guys” is positively psychotic, but there are some semi-interesting set pieces along the way and new director J. A. Bayona does at least have a little more of a vision than Colin Trevorrow for whatever that’s worth.

** out of Five

Dark Money (12/4/2019)

As I write this we have just gotten through a very long and at times rather frustrating mid-term election cycle.  The democrats ultimately did pretty well but they had to fight for every inch because the republicans were playing as dirty as ever in places like Georgia and Wisconsin.  In some ways the new documentary Dark Money almost seems quaint at this point.  Special interest groups illegally funneling money into campaigns and sending misleading mailers… yeah, that almost seems like small potatoes, but there is something to seeing the details of one of these things happening on the ground.  The film follows an investigation into shenanigans happening in republican primary campaigns in Montana in which moderate republicans were being pushed out in favor of more extremist republicans, seemingly because of illegal campaigning being done by a well-funded “right to work” group.  The film takes on an investigative “All the President’s Men” type approach by following a journalist named John S. Adams as he uncovers all this.  His achievements are laudable, but the overwhelming amount of nonsense going on in the world this small victory feels so minimal as to barely matter, but I guess I’m glad someone’s trying to keep an eye on things.

*** out of Five

Sicario: Day of the Soldado (12/8/2018)

When this Sicario sequel was announced I was not on board for a variety of reasons.  For one, I didn’t think that the original Sicario was all that great to begin with and the sequel if anything seemed to be leaning into all the stupidest elements of the original.  Also the title they went with after several changes sucked.  Anyway, I think my first instinct was right.  The things that made Sicario sort of work were Denis Villeneuve’s skillful direction and Emily Blunt making for an interesting protagonist.  With both of those things gone we’re really just left with an action movie that takes itself way too seriously and some really unlikable protagonists whose actions the movie is no longer really challenging very well.  The plot rests on the very politically touchy notion that terrorists are known to cross the Mexican border, which is stupid, and the film’s solution to this of sparking a drug war through some borderline fascistic tactics is kind of cringe inducing.  The movie does challenge a couple of the toxic ideas it brings up by the end, but not really strongly enough and the story is generally kind of dull and hard to follow.  I had very little use for this movie.

*1/2 out of Five