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

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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

Home Video Round-Up: 11/28/2018 (New on Netflix Edition)

22 July (10/19/2018)

 

When I heard that Paul Greengrass was making a movie out of the 22 July Norwegian terrorist attacks I was excited but nervous.  Greengrass has managed to make some really powerful movies out of real life tragedy in the past like United 93 and Bloody Sunday but there were still any number of ways this could have been politically off or just in bad taste.  What I didn’t expect was for the film to be so mundane just as a piece of filmmaking.  Greengrass’ previous movies about national tragedies were constructed to more or less be feature length re-enactments of the events in question, that’s sort of what the first third of this movie is like as it follows the shooter carrying out his plan, but it lacks the same visceral feel of his other films.  Captain Phillips worked in large part because of the two personalities at its center and because there was a certain thrill in all the procedure of dealing with the situation.  United 93 lacked the personalities but still worked as a thriller in large part because you had a long time to sit with the passengers as they went through their ordeal and also because there would be incredible excitement once they started to fight back.  22 July has neither of these advantages; none of the victims have the gravitas of a Tom Hanks and the killer is cold and not even a little bit relatable like Barkhad Abdi was, and unlike United 93 there’s really not a lot of tension in the shooting spree as the victims are basically defenseless.  The film would then seem to be more like Bloody Sunday, but that movie gained a lot of power because it was about a very controversial moment in history and by recreating it the film was trying to get to the bottom of what happened and why.  There isn’t a similar mystery around the 22 July attack, it’s quite clear who did what and he was abundantly clear about why.

Greengrass seems to have known his usual approach wasn’t going to work this time so he adjusted into what is in many ways a more conventional movie that focused as much on the aftermath as on the event.  That section focuses on the trial of the shooter and is told from the perspective of the shooter’s highly conflicted lawyer and from a survivor of the shooting who is doing his best to overcome his injuries.  These scenes really do not play to Paul Greengrass’ strengths as a filmmaker and they’re also hampered a bit by the fact that everyone is being played by unknown Norwegian actors speaking English.  The sections with the lawyer are generally lacking in procedural detail, the film doesn’t really explain the points of Norwegian law that are at play (and some of them are indeed quite confusing), we only get the most cursory glance of the far-right world that inspired the killer and the lawyer isn’t really developed enough to get much of a deep dive into his conflict about taking this role in the trial.  The material with the surviving kid is frankly kind of cheesy.  I generally hate movies that are trying to be “inspirational” and a lot of this stuff feel more like the makings of a “movie of the week” than a hard hitting Paul Greengrass docudrama.  There are some interesting moments here and there.  The story is certainly topical and moments of the shooting sequence work better than others, but while watching it I couldn’t help but think “a documentary about this would be a lot better” and that’s never what you want to think when you’re watching a movie based on true events.

**1/2 out of Five

Shirkers (11/16/2018)

This personal documentary focuses in on a woman named Sandi Tan and discusses her youth in Singapore leading up to an attempt she made to make a French New Wave inspired movie with some friends and colleagues which was never finished because one of her friends named Georges Cardona stole all the footage and ran off without explanation.   From there the movie becomes something of a mystery/investigation type thing with Tan trying to figure out what happened to Cardona and why he took the footage.  Tan certainly seems like an interesting person who seems to have done some creative stuff in her youth and what we do end up seeing of the movie she was making does look kind of interesting.  I also like the tone she chose for this documentary, in part because she seems to keep things in perspective and tell her story in a fun and lighthearted way rather than trying to make it out to be some super serious injustice.

***1/2 out of Five

Hold the Dark (11/15/2018)

Jeremy Saulnier has emerged as one of the more promising young directors in recent years with Blue Ruin and Green Room (the “Color + four letter word that starts with R” films), two movies that I didn’t like as much as others but which were certainly made with a lot of skill.  With his third movie though I think the guy might have kind of struck out.  Hold the Dark, a film set in Alaska and following Jeffery Wright as a wolf expert who finds himself in the middle of some rather odd and rather violent hijinx seemingly caused by some kind of Native American wolf demon, certainly has some of the strong visual appeal that his previous films had but it’s story does not have the same simplicity.  Honestly I’m not exactly sure what is going on in this movie for a lot of its runtime.  There are certainly individual scenes in it that work and it has an interesting cast and it looks like a good movie, but the script is an utter mess that feels like it never really came together they way its makers intended.

** out of Five

Filmworker (11/24/2018)

As someone who has a habit of looking up all things related to Stanley Kubrick the name Leon Vitali is not entirely new to me.  Vitali was Kubrick’s assistant and right-hand man during the latter part of his career, he acted in Barry Lyndon and continued on in behind the scenes worth throughout the shooting of The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut and after Kubrick’s death Vitali sort of became his spokesman and the go to expert whenever Kubrick’s movies were being restored or re-released.  That’s kind of the part of his career I was most familiar with given that he was often interviewed whenever Kubrick’s movies came out on DVD or Blu-ray etc.  I must say I was a bit surprised that anyone else cared enough about the guy to make a somewhat high profile documentary about him.  Of course the big attraction here is to learn about Stanley Kubrick and his work habits through Vitali’s anecdotes and to get some anecdotes about the fights to maintain the integrity of his films on home video.  There are some interesting stories to be sure, but I think I got a better portrait of Kubrick’s work habits from the documentary Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (which Vitali was interviewed for).  All told this thing would be great as a DVD/Blu-ray extra but as a stand alone film that got a theatrical release it doesn’t seem so essential.

*** out of Five

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs(11/28/2018)

Quentin Tarantino has said that a director needs to make three westerns to officially be considered a “western director,” which means that the Coen Brothers have surprisingly beaten him to the punch in that regard at least if you’re willing to count their 2007 triumph No Country for Old Men as a sort of modern western.  That movie represented the genre at its absolute bleakest and while their adaptation of True Grit is a lot lighter than that it’s still a pretty reverent take on the genre.  With their new western anthology film for Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, they seem to be letting loose a bit and having a little fun with the genre and bring more of their parodic sensibilities to the table.  This is most evident right out of the gate with the film’s first segment, which is a sort of hyper-violent riff on westerns of the Roy Rogers variety and the second segment feels like of like a Spaghetti western but with a particularly morbid little joke of an ending.  In fact almost all of these stories end with a bit of ironic gallows humor and some of them are quite dark.  Individually I’d say I enjoyed all of them but I’m not sure that they collectively add up to anything particularly profound.  There are very few authors who can make their short stories collections feel as important and vital as their novels and the same is probably true of filmmakers and anthology films like this.  I view this thing as being a side project rather than a core entrant in their filmography, but as side projects go it’s really fun and well made.

**** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 10/27/2018 (Halloween Edition)

Unsane (10/1/2018)

In the mid-2000s Steven Soderbergh came up with a scheme to make small films, usually about people with unusual occupations, and shoot them on early digital video inbetween his bigger films with celebrities.  Among the films shot this way were Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience and this experiment probably eventually led to his surprise hit Magic Mike.  It would seem that Soderbergh has now found a shooting medium even more “indie” than the “red” camera he was using back then: iPhones, and the first film he has opted to make using those for cameras is his psychological thriller Unsane about a woman who is involuntarily committed to a psychological hospital after visiting a psychologist in order to talk about the lingering trauma she’s experienced after having escaped from a stalker.  There’s a lot going on in Unsane: there’s the “is she insane or isn’t she” paranoia, there’s the lingering fear of her former stalker, and there’s the question of how these mental institutions are run and whether they should have so much power over people.  Of the three strains I think the expose of mental institutions is probably the weakest.  I’m not sure how seriously Soderbergh wants the movie to be taken as some sort of political statement and given all the strange goings on I don’t know that I’m inclined to view it as much of one, but the other elements do yield some returns.  I don’t want to give away too much about the reveals in the film’s third act but they do mostly work and while I wouldn’t call it the most thrilling movie in the world it does justify its existence fairly well.  I’m not sure that it’s “filmed on iPhone” nature was necessary, and it is trying to look a lot more like a digital film than something like Tangerine was, but it mostly makes sense in this movie.

*** out of Five

Insidious: The Last Key (10/6/2018)

In this era of lame horror movies that string together jump scares I have always felt that the Insidious films were a bit of a cut above the other lame jump scare haunting movies in part because they had a somewhat interesting mythology behind them.  There was kind of a long (by cheap horror movie standards) three year break between the third film and this fourth installment and that was probably a mistake because in the wait between the two I feel like I’ve sort of lost the plot a bit.  I know the ghosts come from an alternate dimension called “the further” but some of the details about the horror logic have slipped away a bit.  Despite the word “last” in the title this is hardly meant to be the end of the line for this franchise, in fact it’s the second installment to technically be a prequel.  It’s set between Insidious: Chapter 3 and the original Insidious but also has flashbacks to the youth of Lin Shaye’s Elise Ranier (who has become the breakout character from the series).  The film ends by finally lining up these prequel installments with the original two movies, but by now the memory of those original films have become a bit hazy.  I’m sure that if these were movies I cared more about those callbacks and Easter eggs would have more impact, but I don’t, they were movies I moderately enjoyed seven years ago and moved on from.  But I’m not going to entirely blame myself for this film’s lack of impact because the filmmakers have quite intentionally slowed the pace of the series down a lot in order to do two prequels that feel like insubstantial and somewhat redundant side-stories.  Lin Shaye does remain a pleasant screen presence and the character elements with her do elevate this a little, but as a horror movie this feels as cheap and jump-scare dependent as anything.

** out of Five

The Endless (10/8/2018)

Earlier this month I made a point of watching an earlier film from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead called Resolution because I heard some people were theorizing that their new film The Endless was something of a secret sequel to that movie and I can confirm that the rumors were true, the story connections are there and they’re overt, but they are tangential enough that you don’t need to have seen the earlier film to enjoy or understand the later one (which is good because Resolution isn’t exactly a popular and widely seen film).  That said, as sequels go this is a bit of an unusual one because it actually behaves and operates in much different ways than the original.  The film concerns a pair of brothers who once escaped from a UFO cult environment who find out that this cult is still in existence and they begin to wonder if their memories of it may not have been as negative as they seemed to think and go back to investigate.  This film feels less like a horror movie than Resolution did, though that movie also fit into the horror genre in somewhat unconventional ways, and it also seems a bit less interested in metatextual readings and more interested in exploring the sci-fi/fantasy implications of the world that Benson and Moorhead have created while still having a bit of the old menace beneath the surface.  It’s also pretty clear that these filmmakers have grown a lot in their skill behind the camera; they still make some peculiar decisions here but the film has noticeably higher production values than its predecessor and doesn’t have that feeling of being a precocious indie project.  It’s not going to rock the cinematic landscape but it is an interesting and refreshingly unpredictable little movie than ends up being a lot larger in its ambitions than what you expect.

***1/2 out of Five

The First Purge (10/18/2018)

I’m still not entirely sure what I think about these Purge movies.  I was kind of starting to be won over when I watched the last one, in part because the current political climate was making me a lot more receptive to a movie about the fear of a society going completely mad and doing something incredibly stupid and barbaric.  This prequel tries to lean even further into that political overtone and frames the Purge as largely being an elaborate fraud that was carried out in order to cull the lower classes of people in order to free up resources, which is a bit odd given that even today America hardly has a welfare state or even social safety net.  The big problem with this is the first film in the series, which is a big round hole that they keep trying to stick square pegs into.  That movie established in no uncertain terms that the purges do in fact work and that they made for a crime free world with a 1% unemployment rate, which is ridiculous but it is cannon. These later sequels have been doing everything they can to ignore why this society thinks they are a good idea.  Take this installment for example, throughout it the “New Founding Fathers” are watching it and hoping that there will be more and more violence in order to “prove” that the initiative is a success even though it would seem that monitoring the crime rates during the following year would do more to prove or disprove their crazy theory than how many people are killed the first night.  Overall the film’s pretentions of political relevance are kind of silly, these movies do have an eye for rather loaded imagery but they’re all in service of a very dumb metaphor and this one seems to take itself a little more seriously than the previous movies to its detriment (the Kendrick Lamar song in the credits is completely unearned).  There is however still some B-movie fun to be had here, the violence is pretty well rendered and the characters are generally a little more likeable this time around.

*** out of Five

Ghost Stories (10/27/2018)

Earlier this year I heard vague rumblings that this small UK horror movies was a knockout and its poster boasts that it is the “best British horror movie for years!”  Yeah, no.  The film follows a guy who makes a career out of debunking fraud psychics and mediums, a path he was inspired to go down by another academic from the 70s who did more or less the same.  Early on he finds and meets that academic, now in his old age, and the academic tells him that he no longer holds the same skeptic worldview and challenges him to investigate three purported hauntings that he had never been able to decipher, “creepy” reenactments of these paranormal cases ensue.  Not a terrible setup but there are inherent challenges to making horror movies into a series of flashbacks and the film never really overcomes this.  Even if it did I’m not overly impressed by any of the three vignettes presented, none of them felt overly creative and none of them felt overly scary and none of them tied in too well with the theme of skepticism.  From there the film presents a Black Mirrorish twist ending which is at least a little more interesting than what proceeded but doesn’t really make up for it.  The movie then ends with “The Monster Mash” of all things playing over the credits, a choice that would seem to suggest that the movie is a lot more fun and campy than it was.  I’m really not sure what the filmmakers were going for with this thing, it just seems like a big misfire and waste of some decent performances.

** out of Five