Home Video Round-Up 12/30/2022

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

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

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

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

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

Hold Your Fire (12/28/2022)

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

The Woman King (12/29/2022)

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

What We Leave Behind (12/30/2022)

What We Leave Behind is a personal-level documentary from filmmaker Iliana Sosa looking at the past life and current condition of her grandfather Julián Moreno.  Moreno is, in the grand scheme of things a fairly ordinary man who lived a pretty average working class existence; he lives in Northern Mexico and did some migrant work in the United States in his younger years and then later made trips North of the border pretty regularly in order to visit his children and grandchildren after their emigration.  There are some similarities to be found with the 2020 documentary Dick Johnson is Dead here as both films are about women coming to terms with an elderly relative’s impending mortality, though this lacks that film’s meta concept and playfulness.  Honestly the film kind of lacks a hook more generally.  Moreno is kind of an interesting guy to observe for a little while but I kept waiting on the movie to reveal either some surprising biographical detail about him or use his story to make a broader point about U.S. border policy or something and it never really does, or if it does it’s very subtle.  The film’s title suggests that it’s very much meant to come from the perspective of an emigrant looking at the disconnection that results from living away from one’s roots, which is kind of an interesting take but the film very rarely gazes inwardly or directly tackle the feelings of the people who did the “leaving behind.”  The film is rather short, clocking in at about 71 minutes and yet I think it might have had more impact as a short-form documentary coming in at 40 minutes or so.
**1/2 out of Five
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Home Video Round-Up 12/21/2022

Cow (12/16/2022)

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

Disenchanted (12/17/2022)

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

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

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

The Invitation (12/20/2022)

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

McEnroe (12/21/2022)

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

Home Video Round-Up 12/6/2022

The Gray Man (12/1/2022)

Confession, for the longest time I thought this movie starred Ryan Reynolds and have been partly avoiding it for that reason.  But it doesn’t, it stars Ryan Gostling, which is theoretically better as Ryan Gostling isn’t someone I constantly want to punch but it’s also kind of worse because it means an actor I actually like is stuck in the middle of this bullshit Netflix movie that feels like it was written by an algorithm.  It’s not quite as egregious in this regard as Netflix’s actual Ryan Reynolds vehicle The Adam Project but… actually, maybe it is. This is also something of an indictment of just how talentless the Russo Brothers are when they don’t have the Marvel Cinematic Universe to work with.  Many have tried to launch spy themed action movies to compete with Mission: Impossible and James Bond, likely because they can be big action spectacles with franchise potential but which don’t require expensive IP, but many of them have failed in large part because there really isn’t as much room for these things as people think there is and also because these things frankly aren’t as easy to make as they look.  This one makes a lot of the usual mistakes.  For one, it has a rather bland hero who’s trying to be a generic cipher like Ethan Hunt but without Tom Cruise level star power.  Secondly, these movies are usually too cowardly to root their stories in anything resembling real world conflicts so it ends up feeling like the characters are all just spying for the sake of spying and the stakes end up feeling nebulous and/or artificial.  And also most of these movies just don’t really have the level of spectacle to compete with the biggest action movies out there while also not really having the stories to make up for it.  The results are generic and forgettable, and that’s even more true here than usual and I really checked out of it pretty quickly.  The Russos have spent much of 2022 talking like tech bros spouting buzzwords like they’re more interested in impressing their bosses’ stockholders than they are in anything resembling art and this movie is pretty emblematic of where their heads are at these days.
*1/2 out of Five

Dreaming Wall: Inside the Chelsea Hotel (12/2/2022)

When it comes to documentaries I often feel like a rather fickle Goldilocks.  When they’re too conventional and straightforward I doc them points for being a bit dull, but on several occasions when presented with one that does try to experiment with the form I get weirded out and reject that too.  Frankly this often this comes down to how much I already know about the subject at hand: if I already know a lot about a subject: if I already know a lot about it I want the filmmaker to bring something new out of the experience but if I’m less familiar I want more exposition to give me grounding.  This documentary probably represent something closer to the “trying to do something experimental with a subjected I needed more grounding in” department.  The film is about the Hotel Chelsea in New York, which used to double as long term housing for various bohemian artists and writers over the years and gained a certain notoriety during the Andy Warhol era.  They no longer accept long term residents and function more like a regular hotel now, but certain residents are still grandfathered in but must live around a bunch of heavy construction and remodeling that it’s currently undergoing.  So the movie is basically following some of the current residents, who are now quite old, and also has a lot of borderline impressionistic elements that suggest (poetically, not literally) that the ghosts of past generations of creatives sort of live within the walls of the place.  I think the documentary assumed (maybe not unreasonably) that the people choosing to watch this would come into it with a certain knowledge and reverence for this hotel which I don’t really have and maybe would have liked more of a crash course in why I was supposed to care about all of this before they really got into it.  However, I can also see why the movie’s core audience would have found that lame and pandering so I can’t be too mad about it.
**1/2 out of Five

Pinocchio (12/3/2022)

Last year I did a series of special reviews of all the modern Disney live action remakes of their animated classics.  It seemed like a good idea at the time; Disney showed every indication of this being a huge part of their business model going forward and it seemed like a good idea to be caught up with them so I could compare them knowledgeably.  There is a major downside however in that this kind of obligates (at least in some OCD part of my psyche) to now see every new Disney remake that comes along in order to maintain my perfect record and good lord did this latest train wreck make me question that.  Disney itself seemingly knows this is an embarrassment because they rather unceremoniously dumped this $150 million movie directly to their streaming service.  A lot of these live action remakes have seemed pointless but this one brings pointlessness to a new level because really it hardly changes a single thing.  It’s not quite in the realm of shot-for-shot recreation that The Lion King (2019) hit but an unchanged Pinocchio is a lot less appealing since, well, the original The Lion King has a story that makes a lot more sense in a modern context.  The original is a classic but it’s not a classic because of its story, which is kind of nonsensical and annoyingly moralistic, it’s almost entirely because of its classic hand drawn animation straight from the company’s golden age.  With this remake you basically keep everything that was flawed and dated about Pinocchio while discarding the one element that makes it timeless and important.  It’s truly one of the dumbest endeavors Hollywood has ever embarked on.  On top of that a lot of this simply doesn’t translate well to live action at all.  The film retains the basic character design of the title character even though it was specifically designed to match golden age Disney animation and makes little sense in this new context and randomly having anthropomorphized animals walking the streets clashes with the realism of a live action film.  Tom Hanks also kind of embarrasses himself as Geppetto.  It just keeps trying to put square pegs into round holes and to what ends?  I think that guy has grown bored with his usual screen persona and has increasingly been trying to wear a lot of makeup and adopt strange accents in order to shake things up, usually not for the better.  It’s a big waste of resources that have been dumped into an ill-conceived project without anyone really thinking about what they were doing and it’s kind of infuriating.  The only saving grace is that Disney had the sense not to try to turn this into a big deal that would be pushed into everyone’s faces every time they turn on a TV.
* out of Five

My Old School (12/5/2022)

As the title suggests, My Old School is a documentary about something that happened at the high school that the film’s director went to.  This “something” got a certain amount of press in the UK at the time (the early 90s) but the film conceals the exact nature of this “something” so I’ll try to avoid spoilers here even though it’s not too hard to guess where it’s going at a certain point and the eventual reveal isn’t too dark so don’t brace yourself for something outrageously shocking and important.  Ultimately it’s a human interest story more than anything but is off-putting enough that the main subject of the film refused to have his image caught on camera, so the director did an audio only interview and film works around this by having the actor Alan Cumming lip synch to audio recordings from his interviews.  Beyond that the film gets a strong roster of other students from the school to tell their sides of the story, usually in a relatively lighthearted matter and the movie uses a sort of crude caricatured animation in order to recreate some of the events being discussed.  That the filmmaker (Jono McLeod) was himself a former student at the time is pretty important to the doc as it as he sort of makes the whole thing into a wacky memory that everyone reminisces about together rather than trying to make the whole thing into something more serious and salacious than it really was and the fact that the talking heads are basically normal people rather than “experts” give it kind of a unique vibe.  Ultimately it’s a nice breezy little doc, one that has some interesting idea at its core but doesn’t overplay them and doesn’t feel formulaic even if it’s not entirely breaking the mold.
***1/2 out of Five

Not Okay (12/6/2022)

The movie Not Okay, which debuted on Hulu in the summer, opens with a content warning alerting the audience that among other things the film contained an “unlikable female protagonist” and that’s a pretty good hint as to what the film’s tone is going to be for better or worse: hyper modern satire plugged into “the discourse.”  The film opens with a woman getting super publicly “cancelled” and we then flash back to see how she got to that point.  Her offense: she faked having been the witness to a terrorist attack in Paris when she was actually asleep in her hotel room when it happened, and then used the public sympathy to boost her journalism career and social media profile.  This was most likely inspired by that one comedian who claimed to have been at 9/11 and also on that one lady who earned the public’s ire when she made that one joke before a flight to Africa.  The film doesn’t try to excuse this person’s behavior but does try to build a certain amount of empathy for what drove her, namely a desperate desire to be more interesting than she really is.  People think that it’s easy to boost one’s self with social media these days but really social media popularity is pretty well correlated to actual popularity and it can often feel like if you can’t manage to get followers you don’t matter and that almost certainly burns all the more if you aspire to be a writer at some hip Brooklyn news magazine like this person does, and not all of us can live unique, glamorous, and dramatic lives.  In that context it’s not too hard to see why someone might get it in their head “to fake it until they make it” but this lady plainly took it too far.  Still, this is a tricky tone to set and writer/director Quinn Shephard does a pretty good job of it as these things go.  Ultimately the film is pretty on-the-nose about most of its themes and its actual humor is rarely as sharp as its satirical intent, but I think it has a point to make and makes it in a reasonably entertaining fashion.
***1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 11/30/2022

Where the Crawdads Sing (11/22/2022)

When the movie adaptation of the bestselling Delia Owens novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” opened this summer I was kind of rooting for it.  Not because it looked like a movie that would appeal to me (it demonstrably did not) but just because it seemed like one of the few opportunities we’d get this year for a movie made for adults could make some real money at the box office, which would theoretically be good for the film industry, but then the movie got panned by critics and at the box office it did okay but didn’t really send the message it needed to.  Having finally given the movie a shot I can say, yeah, this thing is no good.  I can’t say that this really gave me that much insight into why this story managed to sell so many books but I can say that it sure seemed to drop the ball in some very adaptation specific elements.  The film is essentially a courtroom drama in which a woman is accused of killing a man and it’s pretty well established that the evidence against her is extremely flimsy.  We’re told that the only thing that can really send her to death row is that the town is hideously prejudiced against her, not for any racial, ethnic, or religious reason but just because she’s poor and basically homeless and… that strains credulity.  In order to sell that story the film would need to go a long way towards making this girl seem like a really disheveled outsider that one would think ill of but they don’t seem to put even the slightest effort into this.  Rather they cast the conventionally attractive Daisy Edgar-Jones in the part, give her pretty normal looking clothing, and don’t give the slightest indication that she hasn’t grown up without all the best modern hair conditioning products available.  It might seem shallow to dismiss a movie because its star it too attractive and well groomed, but this movie’s entire reason to exist rests on the idea of an overwhelming prejudice against this character existing and it fails miserably at establishing this and selling it.  Beyond that’s it’s just some melodramatic Southern Gothic slop intended to flatter the sensitive modern readers and make them similarly confident that free thinking naturalist white girls were the main victims of injustice in the 1960s South.  Not recommended.
*1/2 out of Five

Louis Armstrong’s Black and Blues (11/24/2022)

AppleTV+ has seemingly made some kind of market play in the realm of biographical films about legendary black entertainers.  Earlier this year we got their Sidney Poitier biodoc Sidney and now a few months later we get this new take on the life of jazz great Louis Armstrong, which is in many ways a much more challenging project as its being made decades rather than months after its subject’s death.  Director Sacha Jenkins has however gotten access to Armstrong’s extensive archives including some recordings of conversations he had behind closed doors where his persona was pricklier and more profane than the affable and apolitical public persona that would lead some future generations to accuse him of “uncle tomming” for white audiences.  The film does have regular biographical material as its bones, but discussions of what it meant to be a black celebrity in the first half of the twentieth century and the various compromises this required are the true meat of the film.  I don’t believe there are any onscreen talking head interviews in the film but there are quite a few archival interviews with Armstrong himself, his family, and also the future generations of jazz musicians that often admired Armstrong’s music but could often be judgmental about the compromises Armstrong made.  The film includes a particularly affecting interview late in its runtime that Ossie Davis appears to have recorded sometime in the 70s or 80s where he described seeing Armstrong go into and out of his stage persona almost on a dime the second he realized he wasn’t alone.  In the grand scheme of things I’m not sure that there’s much here that will come as too much of a surprise to jazz aficionados and its filmmaking isn’t exactly innovative, but it is skillfully constructed and comes to this subject from a pretty modern point of view and is very strong as a feature length primer on a giant of American music.
***1/2 out of Five

Pleasure (11/27/2022)

The title of the new film Pleasure is invoked early in the film when its protagonist arrives in Los Angeles from Sweden and is asked by a customs official if she’s there for “business or pleasure” and she answers “pleasure.”  This is a lie though; she’s actually come to L.A. in order to start a career in pornography.  The exact reasons that led her to this career shift is not entirely clear but it’s something she seems to want to do and there are several people more than happy to usher her into that world.  What follows is something of a journey through and in some ways an exposé of the world of modern porn and the various challenges and indignities of that occupation told in clinical detail, a bit like Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfreind Experience crossed with a pinch of Sean Baker’s films taking a peak into sub-cultures.  It’s kind of structured like a film trying to de-glamourize this form of sex work, but, I’m not sure that it was ever all that glamorized in the first place.  The fact that the porn world is kind of sleazy and unproductive of its “talent” is unlikely to come as much of a surprise to much of anyone (aside from its main character apparently), in fact the depiction of it here makes it seems like slightly less of a horror show than I might have expected, which I’m not sure was really the intention of the film.  In some ways the film maybe works better as a metaphor for someone just generally coming to “the big city” because they think they’re tough enough to hack it only to then find that they maybe actually don’t have the particular kind of strength needed or worse they themselves become corrupted by the world they’ve entered into.  I’m not sure the film ever quite works as well as it needs to: its protagonist remains too much of a cipher and its arc is a touch sensationalist despite its attempts to remain super clinical.  Still it’s pretty bold in its imagery and does paint a picture of its world well, so I’d be interested to see what director Ninja Thyberg does next.
*** out of Five

Good Night Oppy(11/29/2022)

Good Night Oppy is a documentary about NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Program, particularly the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, which were sent to the red planet in 2004 on the second such mission since the initial Sojourner rover which went there in 1997 and lasted 90 days on the surface.  This second set were supposed to be a similarly short term prospect but they ended up remaining active for years, with Opportunity (the “Oppy” of the title) lasting all the way to 2018.  The film basically follows that mission through its various stages with footage filmed in mission control over the years and also uses a great deal of detailed CGI in order to recreate what the rover (which can otherwise only really film first person) would look like on the Martian surface during the various incidents.  The film is in many ways focused on how attached the various scientists and engineers became to this rover and this I think was a bit of a missed opportunity on the part of the film.  The extent to which these people anthropomorphize this thing is kind of nuts, they refer to it as “she” and constantly talk about its various parts in human terms and almost seems sad about it when it “dies.”  I feel like if someone like Werner Herzog could have really interrogated this and gotten to the heart of it but the people making this doc seems to think its adorable and really play along with it in ways that feel kind of dumb to me.  I also might have liked a bit more concept of what’s actually being accomplished scientifically with this mission, which seems to get a little glossed over in the zeal for exploration, which is kind of a mistake a lot of NASA docs fall into.  I don’t know, this is a professionally made an interesting doc but I feel like it’s a bit philosophically lazy in ways that make you think it could have been more.
**1/2 out of Five

The Sea Beast (11/30/2022)

The Sea Beast is not Netflix’s first animated film by any means but it is their first animated feature that wasn’t a co-production of any kind with another established animation company (though it had some for-hire assist from Sony Pictures Imageworks, which is more of an effects company than an animation studio) and it’s gotten solid critical marks but a lot of its buzz has been kind of under the radar.  The film is a very mainstream work of CGI animation for better or worse and is clearly trying to compete with the likes of Disney and Dreamworks and does a serviceable job of keeping up with the joneses.  The film is kind of a fantasy story, but one set on the high seas in some approximation of the 17th or 18th century but in a world where sea monsters are real and legion and there are ships that are dedicated to hunting them.  That sea beast action is pretty well rendered and feels like a sort of marine take on what the How to Train Your Dragon movies did with flying reptiles, though you can see some tradeoffs in that they did need to skimp a bit on the animation budget for some other things.  Namely I think some of the faces are a bit off and they’re a bit inconsistent about whether they want to do realistic or caricatured faces and character models.  The film’s story does not really break the mold at all, it’s sort of your typical child wish fulfilment story about a kid who goes on an adventure and is right about everything and it has an ending with a rather… naively optimistic… outlook on how much societal change can be accomplished through airing facts in a public forum.  I don’t know, Netflix going into making one of these movies right now kind of reminds me Dreamworks trying to establish themselves as an animation powerhouse early on by making Disney Renaissance-esque stuff like The Road to El Dorado and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas right as the public was already kind of getting sick of that stuff from Disney.  But a lot of those movies look better removed from that context and people looking for an animated adventure movie could do a lot worse than this.
*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 11/21/2022

Emergency (11/14/2022)

Out of the two separate films about the black experience in college that premiered at Sundance and were then picked up and released through Amazon Prime Video, Emergency is the better one.  Unlike Master, which was sort of trying to be a horror movie, this film is straightforwardly a dark comedy focusing on a pair of African American students who have big party plans that get derailed when they come home and find a passed out white girl they’ve never seen before lying on their floor.  Afraid to call 911 out of fear for how the police react they decide to take this semi-conscious teenager to the hospital themselves, but events conspire to lead them through a very hectic night.  So, in many ways this is trying to be something like Superbad but in college and with a tacit assumption that the police are less hilarious than they were in that movie.  I’m maybe in a privileged position to judge but I will say I didn’t entirely buy into these characters’ decision not to call 911 from the beginning given that this was a medical situation rather than a crime they would have been reporting, and not exactly one that’s unheard of on college campuses.  I would also say that this teenager being in a pretty dire and vulnerable state through the whole thing does dampen the comedy a bit.  I wouldn’t say this is a comedy that really had me laughing a whole lot but I did enjoy being around the characters for the most part and there is a wit to the whole thing.  I don’t think this would have rejuvenated the comedy genre if it had been allowed a more traditional release but on some level it does feel like it deserved a bit more than to be dumped to streaming like it was.
*** out of Five

Navalny (11/15/2022)

I must say, the true depths of just how messed up Russia has become sort of snuck up on me over the years and I think that’s true of a lot of people.  During the whole “war on terror” era they just seemed kind of irrelevant, but that whole time Putin was forming quite the dictatorship and we’ve recently seen the dire consequences of that via the war in Ukraine, but even without that military aggression the domestic terror in Russia is also frightening.  That is put on full display in the recent documentary Navalny, which looks at the Russian dissident politician Alexei Navalny, who survived an assassination attempt by poisoning and then returned to Russia only to be arrested at the airport on obviously trumped up charges.  This film was made with Navalny’s cooperation during his time recovering from the poisoning in Germany before that defiant return and features interviews with him (he’s fluent in English) and also behind the scenes footage of him as he remotely tracks down the truth about the assassination attempt.  In fact the most compelling part of the film is a jaw dropping moment when he essentially does a prank phone call with one of his would-be assassins and gets him to basically confess to the crime under the mistaken impression he’s talking to a superior.  That said I think it’s safe to say that this is not exactly an unbiased look at Navalny, and while I don’t doubt that his opposition work in Russia is important and positive, he is at the end of the day a politician and as such his answers are guarded.  I maybe would have appreciated a slightly deeper look into why Putin has such a grip on the public opinion and why Navalny faces such an uphill battle when trying to win people over (besides the obvious media blackouts, arrests, and murder attempts).  This is clearly a documentary intending to give the basic Western public a peak into the opposition against Putin rather than give them a deep dive and it serves that purpose well, but it only does so much.
*** out of Five

Thirteen Lives (11/16/2022)

I try to go into things with an open mind, but sometimes you can’t help but be skeptical and “movies about the Thai Cave Rescue directed by Ron Howard” is definitely something to be skeptical about.  I had the thought of just watching that and submitting “Just watch the documentary” as my review, but I ended up thinking the movie had more going for it than that.  For one thing I think I maybe missed some of the more positive things that “Thai Cave Rescue movie directed by Ron Howard” promises.  Whatever you think of Ron Howard he is a pretty competent professional and reenacting true stories of human heroism is kind of a specialty of his, so he does manage to do the diving scenes here some justice and he also manages some of the “media circus” elements of the whole story as well.  I was pretty impressed with the aforementioned documentary version of this story, The Rescue, so I was already pretty familiar with this story and in many ways this was always going to feel redundant.  That movie I think gave me a better rounded understanding of the main diver, Richard Stanton (played here by Viggo Mortenson), and what makes him and his fellow cave divers tick, but this version also has some strengths the documentary didn’t.  Namely, I think it is a bit better at getting the Thai side of this story, though it too is ultimately telling the story of the western rescue workers.  On the less positive side I would say that the movie is absolutely too long at 147 minutes and drags out its climactic rescue much longer than it needs to.  Still I must say that Ron Howard showed at least some restraint in not making the whole ordeal needlessly sappy and he also captures a lot of nice scenery and the like.  I can’t say this movie is anything groundbreaking or meaningful (at the end of the day it’s a straightforward reenactment of a well-documented news event) and its impact is kind of dulled by being beaten to the punch by a big budget National Geographic documentary, but I would lean toward calling it a “good” movie if this is what you’re in the mood for.
*** out of Five

Beba (11/18/2022)

Beba is the work of Rebeca Huntt and is named after a childhood nickname she once used and is a sort of autobiographical video essay about her thoughts about her life and identity.  I think I’ve seen Huntt described as a poet or perhaps just as an “artist” but it’s not terribly clear to me that this thirty two year old has really accomplished before this, so it’s not necessarily a recounting of various accomplishments and what led to them, but more just her accounts of her feelings about herself.  That, could come off as a bit naval gazing in the wrong hands and… I’m not so sure these are the right hands.  To be blunt, if the “BIPOC pangender” student who got into an argument with the title character of Tár about whether or not Bach needs to be canceled was asked to make a movie it would probably be a lot like Beba.  Huntt describes the film as an exploration of her afro-latina background and the “generational trauma” involved in that but… you know, she doesn’t seem to be doing all that badly to me.  She didn’t grow up rich, but she had two present parents working to give her the best life possible and eventually went to college and became a successful artist.  Sounds like the American dream, and her horror stories of the racism she experienced mostly seems to amount to a few kind of cringe conversations, but she certainly thinks these are great struggles.  Her Venezuelan mother seems similarly baffled at her attitude as well in a particularly tense and revealing interview where she accuses her clearly war weary mother of having a “microagressive attitude” for what certainly sounded like straightforward answers to me.  So, I can’t say I was terribly impressed by Huntt’s insights here, but there is some talent onscreen.  Huntt does mix home video footage and other imagery into this pretty effectively and also knows not to overstay her welcome too much.  I think if she finds some subject matter she has a bit more distance from she could do some good work but this thing really just isn’t it.
** out of Five

Catherine Called Birdy (11/21/2022)

Lena Dunham is a pretty polarizing figure, one I’ve personally not had much to say about since I’m a movie guy and most of her output since Tiny Furniture has either been television or social media antics.  But this year she came out with not one but two new movies and the consensus is that Catherine Called Birdy is “the good one” and while it certainly isn’t going to be for everyone, it’s certainly not without its charms.  The film is about a fourteen year old girl living in 13th Century England who’s part of a family of some social standing but who have some precarious financials and are looking to marry off Catherine for bride price.  Pretty familiar story, but the catch to all this is that the movie is told very much in Catherine’s voice and is steeped in very recognizably modern and precocious teenage girl emotions.  Catherine’s voiceover in the film in many ways sounds like it’s coming straight out of a suburban girl’s diary and the film uses fairly anachronistic language, maybe not to the point of actively using modern slang, but Catherine certainly thinks and talks more like a modern person or perhaps like someone from at least a little bit later in history than when this is set.  The thing is that setting and some jokes around that are probably the main thing differentiating this from a lot of other movies, the whole “teen girl rebels against women’s lot in life during their era” thing has been done a lot.  It’s all pretty light hearted as these things go, not really a laugh out loud comedy or anything but I was mostly entertained by it though I’m not sure it will stick with me.
*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 11/11/2022

Master (11/1/2022)

Success pretty much always breeds imitators and the movie Get Out was a big success and it does not take a lot of imagination to envision that movie coming up a lot when the film Master was being pitched.  The film is essentially Get Out but on a college campus.  It’s essentially a film with two protagonists: a young African American freshman at a fictional Ivy League school and a tenured African American professor who has just become the first black woman to get a position of “master” (essentially a dean) at this university.  Both women start to experience strange visions however and there are stories that the dorm room the student is assigned once belonged to another black student who killed herself and may be haunted.  This is ostensibly a horror movie but I must say, I have my suspicions as to whether horror is really where writer/director Mariama Diallo’s interests lie.  Watching Master it feels to me like Diallo mostly had a number of feelings and observations about the alienating effects of being in a minority on a campus but knew that the best way to make this an actual commercially viable film was to add just enough hint of supernatural to sell it as a full horror movie.  The actual haunting elements of this are not very scary and the connection between the microaggressions on the campus and the macroaggressions of the ghost is not always integrated very well.  Of course I had similar issues with Get Out itself and was clearly in the minority there, but I think I’m closer to the consensus on this one.  If you’re interested in the campus politics elements of this the Netflix series “The Chair” probably did that better and if you’re just looking for some horror there are numerous better options.  That having been said, this is a movie with a perspective and it does make a few good points pretty well so I don’t want to be too dismissive of it.  I think Diallo could be an interesting voice if she finds the right material.
**1/2 out of Five

The Automat (11/2/2022)

The Automat is a film about a restaurant chain called Horn & Hardart, otherwise known as “The Automat,” which operated in New York and a few other Eastern Seaboard cities from the turn of the century up to the 1960s when they were essentially replaced by the fast food places we know today.  They had an unusual setup where they would place their meals in these vending machine-like boxes that would open up for the customer when they put nickels into the machines.  It doesn’t sound like a great idea in concept to me, but the film is full of really old celebrities like Mel Brooks, Colin Powell, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg (plainly this has been in production for a while) who all swear the food was actually really good and that the place was a melting pot of customers of every class and background.  Clearly the place was a huge success and you do see it occasionally in old movies, but was it a place that yearned to be chronicled in a feature length movie?  I’m not sure it was.  I kept kind of expecting the film to get to a point where there’s some major revelation that would really push this into being a next-level amazing human story and it never really did, rather it seems like a pretty run-of-the mill business rise and fall that just so happens to be a point of nostalgia for people who are so old you can’t even call them “boomers” and happened to live in one of a few cities.  That said the movie is at least thorough in its exploration of the place and clearly did its research and found some big names to talk to, but it feels more like something that should be on PBS’s American Experience or something than viewed as a doc by theatrical standard.
**1/2 out of Five

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (11/6/2022)

A few years ago we got a movie called One Cut of the Dead, which has become quite the cult film around the world.  It was a micro-budget Japanese movie, but it had a neat gimmick and a lot of charm and it won people over and became a pretty big box office success in Japan.  Apparently that success has spawned an entire subgenre in Japan called the “nagamawashi (one shot)” film, which are basically similarly low budget comedy movies made to look like they were done in one shot and I think with Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes we may have gotten one of these movies that exceeds the movie that spawned the trend.  As was the case with One Cut of the Dead, most reviews of Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes are going to advise viewers to go in blind so proceed with caution.  Essentially the 71 minute film plays out in real time and looks at a group of friends at a café who find out that a computer monitor in the owner’s attached apartment is linked with a monitor down in the café and that through some unexplained time travel mechanics the monitor downstairs and that the monitor upstairs shows the images taken by the downstairs monitor’s camera but two minutes into the future.  Much running between the two follows and hijinks ensue as the film fully explores what can be done with this concept.  The film’s one-shot nature here is for once not a gimmick, it’s actually pretty important to the film’s mechanics as cutting back and forth between events would probably make a lot of this increasingly jarring.  The film succeeds because, despite its heady sci-fi concept, the film keeps everything pretty low stakes and lighthearted.  The characters are goofballs and they aren’t trying to save the world or anything and that fits with the film’s low budget.  Some of the basic filmmaking can be a touch crude (I certainly wish they had been able to afford nicer cameras) but the whole thing has a lot of charm in that “indie spirit” kind of way.
***1/2 out of Five

Lucy and Desi (11/8/2022)

“I Love Lucy” was a TV show that ended thirty years before I was even born and yet its reach was such that reruns of it still managed to be a staple of my childhood in the 90s.  It’s a show that basically everyone loves and yet on some level I still don’t think it’s quite as appreciated as it needs to be, it may well be the most important and influential show in television history and at the center of it all is the palpable chemistry between real life spouses Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, a couple who built a show business empire off of the success of their show but were then split up by the pressures of it all.  It’s great documentary material for what was clearly a labor of love on the part of director Amy Poehler, though I’m not sure I can necessarily say the resulting film is too much better than “basically fine.”  Of course I say that in part because I’m enough of a fan that I basically already knew most of the stories being told here which is kind of a “me problem,” but the movie and it’s by the book “talking heads and archival footage” approach doesn’t do much to make the material feel fresh for me.  But that might just be some pickiness on my part, people just tuning in to learn about this story will get what they’re looking for and the movie is pretty good at curating clips from the show in order to illustrate certain points.
*** out of Five

All the Old Knives (11/11/2022)

Proving that they aren’t to be outdone by Netflix, with All the Old Knives Amazon Prime Video proved that they could also spend a whole lot of money making a film with major stars like Chris Pine, Thandiwe Newton, Laurence Fishburne, and Jonathan Pryce only to then unceremoniously dump it on their service with little promotion or fanfare.  But truth be told I kind of get the logic in the case of this movie, not because it’s bad exactly but more because it’s kind of boringly mediocre.  This is an old school spy movie, one that I hesitate to call “realistic” but is closer to John le Carré than James Bond, and I will say that on this level it’s a little bit refreshing: it’s a movie made with commercial sensibilities that appears to have been made for adults, and we don’t get a lot of those.  However, it’s also a good example of why we tend not to get those.  Even if few people would really object to it, it’s not a movie that’s going to fill up a movie theater and it’s also not a movie that’s interesting enough that it’s going to convince anyone to sign up for a streaming service.  The film follows Chris Pine as a spy looking back on an operation that some of his superiors suspect was undermined by a mole who may have been his ex, played by Thandiwe Newton.  Pine and Newton have decent chemistry, but not exceptional, and the story plays out in ways that are serviceably but rarely too surprising.  I think the story might have been a bit better suited to previous conflicts like the Cold War than to the war on terror as major power conflicts seem to have more upside for double agents than dealing with literal Islamic terrorists. The resulting movie is the definition of “fine” but I feel like I’m going to forget about it within a week or two.
**1/2 out of Five