Home Video Round-Up 12/17/2019

For Sama (12/3/2019)

Every year when I start to catch up with the year’s acclaimed documentaries I inevitably end up having to watch a bunch of depressing as hell movies from the world’s war zones and it usually ultimately ends up being rewarding but it can take a toll sometimes.  This year’s entry in the “dispatches from hell” genre comes from the Syrian Civil War and is called For Sama, a film that is dedicated to the director’s daughter, who spent the first five years of her life in the midst of bombings and chaos but the kid isn’t really a huge part of the movie.  The film presents something of a ground zero view of the conflict from the point of people being terrorized by Bashar al-Assad’s bombings and doesn’t spend a whole lot of time trying to explain the political context for the conflict.  The film has some fairly graphic war imagery and is definitely not for the squeamish.  Aside from that there really isn’t a whole lot to say about the movie, if you want to know what it’s like to live in Aleppo in the last few years this is quite effective at illustrating it or it’s at least one of the better options to go with.

***1/2 out of Five

Atlantics(12/7/2019)

Atlantics premiered at the last Cannes Film Festival having already made history as the first film from a black female director selected to play in competition at that festival and it eventually won the Gran Prix award before eventually getting picked up by Netflix as their potential entrant in the Best Foreign Film race.  Pretty impressive.  Seeing the film I can totally get why it’s made people so excited.  The film was made by a French woman of Senegalese heritage named Mati Diop but it’s set entirely in Senegal and is primarily in the Wolof language.  At first it seems to tell a very basic story about a love triangle between a woman, the wealthy man she’s been betrothed to, and the man she actually loves but then things move off in a very different direction and a supernatural element is even added to the mix.  Diop shoots the city of Dakar in an interesting and slightly mysterious way and seems to be making some fairly strong statements about working conditions in the third world and about the way women are often treated like children by society and are pushed into lives they don’t want.  So that’s all interesting but the movie did start to lose me a bit as it went on.  It feels like a movie that had a lot of interesting ideas but wasn’t quite sure where it was going with them and by the end I had kind of checked out.  Too interesting to dismiss though.

***1/2 out of Five

Pavarotti (12/10/2019)

I’ve made it known over the years that I’m getting a bit sick of biographical profile movies, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily have a one size fits all distaste for all of them.  The ones that get on my nerves are usually the ones that are made when the person in question is a senior citizen and they cut between new footage of them and more typical biographical elements and generally exist to act as hagiographies to the subject, who they’ve probably been flattering for the better part of two years.  Movies about subjects who are already long dead, like this documentary about Luciano Pavarotti, tend to fare better.  I’m not terribly knowledgeable about Pavarotti or opera singing in general, which I suspect actually helped my enjoyment of the film.  I do suspect that I was more of an opera buff who knew more about the guy I probably would have been less impressed by how surface level and basic this information was and at the end of the day I’m not sure it was quite willing to get into certain “warts and all” details in full but it doesn’t feel like an advertisement for the guy either exactly.  More importantly director Ron Howard (who has an interesting side gig going as the maker of music documentaries) manages to make this feel like a theatrical doc rather than a TV type of thing and that helps a lot.

*** out of Five

The Souvenir (12/11/2019)

Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir is a movie that has kind of snuck up on me this award season.  I didn’t remember hearing about it much when it out in May, in fact I think when I’ve heard the title I’ve been confusing it with another movie called Photograph for some reason, but then it suddenly started showing up on a lot of top ten lists and even somehow managed to grab the top spot on Sight And Sound’s aggregate of the year’s best movies.  I’ve seen the movie now and, well, I don’t really see the appeal.  The film appears to be set in the 1980s and is based on the director’s own experiences in film school where she starts a relationship with a slightly older guy who has a really bad drug problem which makes things difficult for her. So that’s a serious story that could make for a strong movie but the whole thing is underplayed to the point of being downright boring.  I never really invested to much in either of these characters and certainly didn’t invest in the romance; the boyfriend is a total drip, I don’t know what she sees in him or why she would put up with his bullshit.  They are also apparently making a sequel to this, which is bizarre because it certainly seems to end with a clear degree of finality.  I might try and give this another chance before that sequel comes out because an awful lot of people seem to love this thing.

**1/2 out of Five

The Apollo (12/17/2019)

Most cities have one music venue or another that a weighted as being “important” but few venues have been as heavily mythologized as The Apollo theater in Harlem and that is the subject of this new documentary which looks at the history of the theater and some of its day to day goings on.  The thing is there’s really only so much you can say about a theater.  You can talk about a couple of changes in ownership and some business practices but at the end of the day that only adds up to so much, the building is ultimately less interesting than the people who performed there.  So this documentary is kind of padded out with general discussions about the history of black entertainment and spends a lot of time showing rehearsal footage from a dramatized version of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” which doesn’t really have that much to do with the subject at hand aside from the fact that it will eventually be performed at The Apollo.  Beyond that the whole film just generally feels televisual rather than filmic and probably could have been edited down to be an episode of PBS’ American Experience or something.

**1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 11/29/2019

Dolemite is My Name (10/27/2019)

Dolemite is My Name tells the story of Rudy Ray Moore, a stand-up comedian who created the character of Dolemite for his routine and this culminated in him starring in an odd Blaxploitation film same name and this film more or less chronicles how that got made.  The original 1975 Dolemite is something of a cinematic deep cut; African Americans of a certain generation probably know about it and people who are pretty deep into old exploitation movies know about it, but it’s hardly a household name.  I’ve seen it, and it’s pretty weird.  It’s very badly made but you do kind of sense that it’s in on the joke so you’re never quite sure whether you’re laughing at it or laughing with it.  But if nothing else it is a movie that makes you wonder “how the hell did this come to be” so it is an understandable that it was selected for this kind of “making of” treatment.  In the role of Rudy Ray Moore is Eddie Murphy, who does seem to be having a lot of fun with the role even if it’s not really a perfect imitation.  He gets Moore’s look and mannerisms right but doesn’t seem to even try getting the voice perfect (no small thing given that he’s playing a very verbal comedian) and more or less keeps his usual speaking voice.  That’s not a huge problem though.  The film is pretty clearly modeled after Ed Wood (which was written by the same pair of screenwriters) and The Disaster Artist and we’ve also seen this treatment given to a Blaxsploitation film vis-a-vie Mario Van Peebles’ Baadasssss!, so I’m not sure the world was begging for yet another movie using this formula and I don’t know that this brings a whole lot new to the table in the grand scheme of things.  Still, there were a lot of fun stories from that set and they’re presented in a fun way here and that makes this a nice breezy little watch.  There are certain movies that deserve better than what Netflix can give them, but this is one for which that treatment is about right, could have made for a pretty good HBO film too.

*** out of Five

Echo in the Canyon (10/30/2019)

If there’s one thing I’ve always found rather odd it’s the assumption that one needs to be from a specific era in order to enjoy that eras popular culture.  I, for example, am a millennial but I like classic rock just fine.  So when I see movies about rock and roll from the 60s being accused of simply existing to exploit baby boomer nostalgia I cringe a little… but this documentary is guilty as charged.  The film looks back on the mid-60s Laurel Canyon music scene which was host to several important bands like The Beach Boys, The Byrds, and The Mamas and the Papas.  There are probably some interesting questions to answer about what these acts have in common and how this neighborhood would influence them, but the film doesn’t really do much to explore much of any of this.  Instead it largely rests on these softball interviews that seem to elicit no real introspection from anyone beyond platitudes about what an “amazing” time the 60s were and how wonderful it all was.  The film also doesn’t really have much in the way of archival footage of the music at issue and the film instead keeps cutting back to footage from a tribute concert that was done by a bunch of younger artists doing covers versions.  This was presumably done to re-assure the old people watching that this music is still important to “the kids” even though most of the “young” artists doing the covers are a bunch of Gen Xers who are themselves well past the point of relevancy in the music world.  This thing is just half-assed and lame.  It took intense willpower to even bother writing more about it than “OK boomer.”

*1/2 out of Five

Dragged Across Concrete (11/26/2019)

When you title your movie “Dragged Across Concrete” you’re pretty effectively messaging that you’re making a movie that isn’t for everyone.  Given director S. Craig Zahler’s previous two films Bone Tomahawk (which shows a guy getting split in half down the middle) and Brawl in Cell Block 99 (which has multiple scenes of people getting their heads stomped in) I went in to this prepared for it to make good on its title, but in some slight (and I do mean slight) ways this was a less graphic Zahler vision.  I mean, it’s still all kinds of violent and wouldn’t be overly palatable to mainstream audiences, but at the very least it doesn’t literally show someone being dragged across concrete.  Instead this movie is more interested in reveling in its rather unconventional structure and in testing how willing its audience will be to follow some really unpleasant characters.  In total the movie is told from four perspectives: that of some extremely violent criminals, that of some less violent criminals, that of some very dirty cops (one of which is being played by known unpleasant person Mel Gibson), and an innocent bystander who somehow still manages to be kind of unlikable in her own way despite objectively being the most sympathetic person in all of this.  It’s a nasty little movie, I’m not sure it quite lives up to its ambitions and the Mel Gibson stunt casting might not have been such a good idea but it flows differently than most movies and it’s an interesting little project.

*** out of Five

One Child Nation (11/23/2019)

This documentary takes a look back at China’s “One Child Policy,” which is one of those things you would hear about from time to time without really taking the time to stop and think about how massive and impactful such a thing would be.  There’s definitely room in the world for a probing and insightful documentary about that strange attempt at societal engineering but I’m not so sure this is it.  Directors Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang were both born under the one child policy before emigrating to the United States and seem to take the concept very personally and much of the film is set within the realm of the personal.  Wang narrates and frames the movie as a sort of personal journey into the concept but doesn’t seem to have access to many major players in the formation of the policy and instead seems to spend a lot of the movie interviewing family friends who had some role in experiencing or carrying out the policy.  The film is plainly geared towards non-Chinese audiences who wouldn’t be familiar with the policy at all and as a simple primer on the concept I’m not sure it’s as clear or efficient as a recent Last Week Tonight segment that John Oliver did on the topic.  Beyond that I’m not sure this really has a whole lot to say beyond a number of personal accounts of this policy negatively effecting people, which of course isn’t without value, but I maybe would have liked a bit more context or perhaps a slightly more provocative point behind it all.

*** out of Five

The Report (11/29/2019)

Scott Z. Burns’ The Report sounded really promising when people were talking about it out of Sundance and it seemed like it would be a major release this year, but then Amazon dialed back their theatrical release plans, other Adam Driver movies lapped it in relevance, and by the time it was actually available it seemed like an afterthought.  Truth be told though, I’m not entirely sure it deserved better.  The film focuses on the lengthy after-the-fact investigation into torture techniques that were used on alleged terrorists during the Bush era which according to the movie were both inhumane and also completely ineffective.  It’s worthy subject matter and as a delivery method to sort of “set the record straight” on the topic the film is at least worthwhile and it was also interesting to see it take a shot at Zero Dark Thirty by name.  However, the film this has been most readily compared to has been Spotlight and that comparison really does this film no favors.  That movie was a triumph of understatement, it depicted a years long investigation and managed to make the reporters at the center of it seem heroic while still ultimately depicting them as calm professionals doing their jobs.  Here they don’t really have it in them to do that and instead they make Adam Driver’s character into this crusading hero who tirelessly seeks the truth and indignantly shouts when the CIA tries to bullshit their way out of accountability.  So, in that sense this kind of takes the conventional way out and in many ways it feels kind of like the overly self-righteous Bush era “issue movies” that seemed important at the time but kind of feel embarrassing in retrospect.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 10/27/2019 Halloween Edition

 

 

Ma (10/1/2019)

I think I watched the trailer for this Ma movie a dozen times in front of various movies and while I was intrigued by the idea of Octavia Spencer in a horror flick I ultimately wasn’t interested enough to see it.  As it turns out having an over-qualified actress like that is pretty much the only thing the movie has going for it because it is otherwise quite boring.  The film is about a group of teenagers who start hanging out with a middle aged woman who allows them to party in their basement judgement free but then becomes obsessed and starts stalking them.  The trailer implies that there might be something supernatural about Ma or that she might be a practitioner of voodoo, but no, she really is just a crazy lady and the teens in the movie are rather slow to realize that they should probably be avoiding her.  No one actually gets killed in this movie until the last half hour and aside from some vague creepiness around the title character there really isn’t much in the way of suspense or scares at all in the first half and while things actually do start to happen in the last third they aren’t terribly interesting or nearly as outlandish as they need to be after all that buildup.  It’s a movie that’s too dull for the mainstream, too tame for the hardcore, not good enough for the critics, but there is a baseline competence to it which keeps it from being some kind of “so bad it’s good” kind of thing.  Ultimately it’s just kind of a bland horror flick, if you must watch a 2019 movie about a wacky stalker lady then Greta probably has more going for it.

** out of Five

Knife + Heart (10/5/2019)

I’m generally interested in horror movies that come from unique ambitions and I think it’s safe to say this would qualify under that umbrella.  The film is set in 1979 and is about a lesbian French woman who directs gay male porn for a living.  She has just broken up with her girlfriend, who does the editing on these movies, and seems to be going through a depressed grief when someone starts murdering the actors from her movies in highly sexualized ways.  It feels a bit cheap and lazy to automatically assume that a horror movie about gay people is meant to be an AIDS allegory but… it’s kind of hard not to go there when you’re dealing with a film where a woman sees all her gay friends dying one by one while the authorities rather coldly fail to intercede.  That’s something with potential but I’m not sure the film is ever quite able to find the right tone.  It looks really good and seems fairly serious, but the killer wears a really stupid looking mask and, well he kills people with a dildo that has a switchblade knife that comes out the tip (leading to a rather grizzly scene where someone tries to give this dildo a blowjob).  On top of that the movie just generally loses steam in the second half and gets kind of muddled at a certain point.  It’s a movie I want to support for what’s unique about it, but the simple fact is I ended up losing interest in it.

**1/2 out of Five

Inhuman Kiss (10/8/2019)

Inhuman Kiss is a Thai film which to the best of my knowledge has never received any theatrical distribution or marketing in the United States or anywhere else in the West.  It’s on Netflix, presumably to accommodate their customers in its home country more so than viewers in the English speaking world (to the point where they didn’t bother to include English subtitles seperate from the English Closed Captions).  The one and only reason I’ve even heard of it is that it has somehow been submitted by Thailand as the country’s selection to compete in the Best International Feature category at the Oscars this year and the novelty of a strange sounding horror movie like this being submitted has caught the attention of some awards observers.  The film deals with a figure from Southeast Asian folklore called a Krasue, which is a sort wereworlf-like legend where women become cursed and at night their heads become detached from their bodies and fly around (complete with internal organs dangling below) and kill people.  These things have been featured in movies horror before, perhaps most famously in the Indonesian film Mystics in Bali, but this one takes more of a “they’re misunderstood” approach to them and has you following the afflicted woman and posits as the villain someone who is going from village to village promising to hunt and kill Krasue.  The film also downplays the whole “guts dangling from the head” thing and makes them look more like tentacles than organs.  The film is better made than you might think; it’s got some pretty decent cinematography and the CGI visual effects are generally acceptable.  The film obviously won’t be for everyone.  I watched the movie out of a sort of academic curiosity about what a commercial horror movie from a very different cultural tradition would look like and that curiosity was satisfied and I also wasn’t unimpressed with the movie itself.  Not sure how many people are looking for that.

*** out of Five

Child’s Play (10/13/2019)

There have been remakes of just about every other slasher franchise of the 80s so it was probably a matter of time before someone decided that Child’s Play needed to be rebooted.  These reboots generally face a bit of a damned if you do damned if you don’t situation where they feel lame if they simply rehash the movies they’re remaking beat for beat (ala Nightmare on Elm Street 2010) but they also alienate people if they change things too radically (ala Halloween 2009).  Ultimately the filmmakers seem to have opted for a fairly radical re-invention, and I want to give them some credit for that because going too far in the other direction can really be an infuriating exercise in cynical recycling… but if you’re going to do something new it does need to be something that people want and I’m not sure that what they’ve given us is that.  The remake completely eliminates the idea of a serial killer’s soul possessing a doll and instead the idea here is that the doll was this robotic smart device which goes haywire and starts over-interpreting the distaste his owner has for various people and murders them.  On its face that’s not the worst idea, but if they were going to make that movie they might have been better off ditching the Child’s Play IP altogether and making an original movie called “iDoll” or something.  The Chucky doll they go with looks kind of bad; making an evil toy both look scary and still be believable as something that would actually get sold is kind of hard and I don’t think they thread the needle very well here, especially given the nature of what this thing is supposed to do in the remake.  There are some good elements though, some of the kills are effectively gory and the human cast is mostly pretty solid, but ultimately it’s a pretty forgettable attempt.

**1/2 out of Five

One Cut of the Dead (10/14/2019)

One Cut of the Dead is a film that had something of a Blair Witch/Paranormal Activity like reception in its native Japan in that it managed to get a lot of publicity from being a film made on a miniscule budget (reportedly $25,000) but being impressive despite this and becoming a big financial success.  These “little movie that could” success stories are usually a little more complicated than the publicity departments make them out to be, and I suspect that the true budget for this movie was a little higher than that given the size of the cast, but it is a clearly low budget production either way.  The film begins in a sort of found footage scenario where a film crew is in a remote building making a zombie movie but soon come to realize that an actual zombie apocalypse is going on around them, much to the delight of their overbearing director.  This all seems reasonably well made if a bit odd but then the movie takes a dramatic change in direction which re-contextualizes the first part and changes the film’s genre completely.  Even saying that much borders on spoiler territory but I do think it’s important to point out given that this twist could potentially annoy people who simply want to see a zombie movie.  I also don’t want to over-sell the twist either because it’s not as meta and brainy as such a thing might sound.  The second two thirds are less of a radical genre deconstruction and more of just a charming little movie about characters you come to like the company of.  I don’t really want to say too much more.  I found it to be a pretty pleasant trifle but it’s not going to change the world either.

*** out of Five

Happy Death Day 2U (10/20/2019)

This was a movie I watched rather casually when it came on HBO and did not even consider at the time that it was a 2019 release and would consequently be a film I’d have to talk at some length in a canonical capsule review.   The original Happy Death Day made decent money in 2017 but it wasn’t really anyone’s favorite movie and I have a hunch that it only rather narrowly managed to get this sequel greenlit, and maybe they shouldn’t have bothered.  The first film was largely characterized by the fact that it was only barely a horror film, which was in some ways a strength because trying to make a real slasher movie at a PG-13 level probably would have sucked, but for the sequel they go even further away from being a thriller and venture into being a full-on comedy, but one that isn’t very funny.  The movie also generally over-estimates how much anyone really cares about the characters here or about the stakes involved in the first film.  If the first film wanted to be Groundhog Day this movie wants to be Back to the Future 2, but that movie worked because it was building off of a really solid foundation and you knew that first movie really well and wanted to see it get kind of deconstructed, not so much here.  The film also introduces a science fiction explanation for the repeating days thing and it makes absolutely no sense.  So, yeah, even if you found some marginal pleasure from the first movie you can skip this one.

** out of Five

Tigers Are Not Afraid (10/27/2019)

Man, I was really rooting for this thing.  This Mexican thriller spent an entire year playing festivals before it finally got a United States release and came with quotes in its marketing from Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Guillermo del Toro.  The film tells a story about children who are fleeing from vicious cartel while simultaneously having dark fantasy visions and envisioning the whole thing as a fairy tale… and you wonder why Guillermo del Toro likes this thing.  Del Toro’s shadow looms so heavily over this thing that it really can’t sustain itself, it just feels like a second rate knockoff.  The film does do an impressive job of conveying its setting, its cast is mostly solid, and the basic filmmaking is mostly solid but despite being only 82 minutes the whole thing proves to be a bit thin and repetitive.  The handful of ideas that the film does have for injecting the film with horror elements, like a CGI snake thing, don’t entirely work and the film never really establishes a logic to how the real and the unreal mix in this world.  I had assumed this was the work of a newbie filmmaker and that it maybe showed some promise for what they would give us in the ensuing years, but it turns out that this Issa López person has been making movies in Mexico for something like twenty years and if this is the best she’s got I’m not sure she’s going to become a major voice.  Still, I do get why it’s had a pretty good festival run, it probably does stand out a bit better in that environment but it was probably not fit for prime time.

** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 9/22/2019

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (9/8/2019)

I was hesitant about reviewing this as an official 2019 release as it was a movie which played in TIFF in 2018 to some good reviews but didn’t get picked up by a major distributor and to the best of my knowledge never played in any theaters before getting a fairly unceremonious VOD release.  Honestly I mainly watched it because I was about to cancel my Hulu membership and decided to quick watch some of the 2019 movies on there before I did.  The film is basically a single location Reservoir Dogs like thing but it’s set at a compound where militia types are held up and are panicking because there was a shooting at a police funeral and they believe they will be blamed for this.  On the positive side I think the movie looks really good and manages to do cinematography in low light darkness a whole lot better than any number of movies with much bigger budgets.  The movie also has an ending which is kind of interesting.  However, if you’re going to make a movie about straight-up domestic terrorists you’re going to have a bit of an uphill climb in trying to get any kind of sympathy or even investment in them from the audience.  The aforementioned Reservoir Dogs was also certainly about unsavory people, but those people had personality, these people just aren’t that memorable.  All in all, despite there being some talent behind this I can’t exactly say it was a grave injustice that this didn’t get picked up, it feels small but not in a charming way and there isn’t much of an audience for it.

**1/2 out of Five

The Great Hack (9/9/2019)

And in the “we need to immediately make a feature film out of every news story” department we get this film about the Cambridge Analytica scandal.  There isn’t really a whole lot to say about it aside from the fact that it’s a slick but not overly revelatory overview of the scandal.  We are given some behind the scenes access as the director follows a subject of the investigation named Brittany Kaiser as the scandal starts to become a big media story but her testimony in the film never quite amounts to a fully argued case and I’m not entirely sure how on the level she is.  Ultimately there’s not a lot here you couldn’t have gotten from simply following the media coverage at the time, which isn’t an automatic deal breaker, but I’m not sure it presents everything in an ideally clear way either.  It’s a movie that’s too muddled for people who don’t know much about this story to use as a starting point but not substantial enough to give people who were paying attention anything new.

**1/2 out of Five

Dogman (9/10/2019)

When Matteo Garrone made the 2008 film Gomorrah he was greeted as one of the premier directors of world cinema and while he’s made a number of well liked films in the years since then he’s never really had a breakout hit and I’m not sure that he’s quite lived up to his reputation.  Honestly I was never really sold on him in the first place.  Gomorrah, to me, was an interesting twist on the mafia crime film but it didn’t really work for me as a cinematic experience and I had similar problems with the execution on his follow-up film Reality.  His newest film, Dogman, has kind of the opposite problem in that it’s an easier watch than those two films were but its ambitions are lower and it generally feels less important an accomplishment as a result.  The film revolves around a meek dog groomer and his odd one-sided friendship with a local bully.  This bully is a gigantic person who’s big enough to basically get anything he wants by brute force and has basically no qualms or morality as a result.  He’s a truly awful person with no redeeming qualities whatsoever and yet this dog groomer seems to be willing to defend him.  That central friendship kept me interested but I ultimately felt a bit let down by the film’s ending which, rather than shed new light on why he would be friends with this guy, instead sort of just bluntly put an end to things.  I’m not really sure what the point of all this was supposed to be in the end and I don’t think the movie itself will prove all that memorable to me.

*** out of Five

The Edge of Democracy (9/21/2019)

Around the world and at home we’ve seen a disturbing rise in far right wing parties and politicians and last year we learned that even multi-racial societies like Brazil were not immune from this when they elected the horrendous Jair Bolsonaro to be their president.  I had expected this documentary to be about that guy’s rise but it’s actually more about the political scandal that sort of set the table for Bolsonaro’s rise, a scandal involving the left wing party that was in power for many years and was seemingly successful but who seem to have occasionally dipped into some of the country’s more corrupt practices in trying to get things done.  The documentary seems to suggest that the investigation into that corruption experienced some serious mission creep and really turned into a total witch hunt.  The film’s director, who also narrates the film, is open about her biases in all of this, which is admirable but also makes it a little hard to quite grasp how much to trust all of this.  The scandal at the center of the film is incredibly complex and the movie struggles to really present all of it while also giving needed context (the film was plainly made with a non-Brazilian audience in mind), and while I sense that what she’s saying is true the film also doesn’t feel like its showing all the facts, though to be fair I’m not sure a two hour film ever could provide all the facts.  In many ways I kind of wish the film had spent less time explaining the details of the scandal and more time explaining who the Brazilian voters are and how and why they responded to this so strongly.  It did definitely provide some strong food for thought though and I’m ultimately glad I watched it.

*** out of Five 

Missing Link (9/22/2019)

Laika has long been a studio more beloved by critics than by general audiences, and that’s only gotten more true as time goes on.  If the place weren’t being run by an heir to the Nike fortune it likely would have gone bust by now, but I’m certainly glad they persist.  That said, not all of their problems are simply the fault of a small-minded public and their latest film was probably their biggest boondoggle both critically and commercially.  Made for $100 million dollars (about $40 million more than their other films) and yet it barely made more than $15 million at the box office.  I’d like to say this failure was unearned, and to some extent it was because the movie’s certainly better than that, but it is certainly a movie that didn’t play into the studio’s strengths.  People like Laika because they make these quirky gothy stop-motion movies that are different from what the conventional animation studios do but with Missing Link they seem to be selling out a bit and taking on a more conventional family movie sense of humor and adventure and frankly I liked them better when they were being goths.  The film follows an arrogant 19th Century cryptobiologist who seeks out a Bigfoot in Washington and upon realizing that Bigfoot is a nice guy agrees to take him to the Himalayas to seek out the Yetis who are rumored to be there but are chased by some bad guys who have too much time on their hands.  It’s not without some charm and the stop motion effects are good, but that darkness you hope for from this studio isn’t really there and the story and characters just seem kind of stock.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 9/7/2019

The Amazing Jonathan Documentary (8/24/2019)

The Amazing Jonathan was a magician/comedian who emerged around the same time as Penn and Teller and sort of deconstructed traditional magic acts in an irreverent way and made him a success.  He also apparently lived a hard life which involved severe drug addiction and all of it was brought to an end when he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition and only had a year to live.  Ten years later he’s still alive but knows he’s on borrowed time.  Enter Benjamin Berman, a documentary filmmaker who has decided to step in and film The Amazing Jonathan while he goes on a farewell tour and make a portrait of what his life is like now.  Seems to have all the makings of a compelling but ordinary profile documentary but things take a bit of a twist when Jonathan announces that an award winning documentary producer also wants to make a movie about him and that he’s going to let that competing crew film him as well.  What follows is a movie that’s about as much about Berman and his reaction to the situation as a filmmaker as it is about The Amazing Johnathan and that may frustrate people who are looking more for a straightforward account of the magician and his predicament.  Personally, as someone who’s sick to death of “profile docs” about famous people I found the whole thing to be something of a refreshing deconstruction of that genre and about how there seems to be a rush to send documentary crews to every event that’s in the news.  There is also the question of how “real” any of this is and while I have my suspicions they lead me more in the direction of viewing this as a work of meta trickery like Exit Through the Gift Shop than a genuine attempt to deceive.

**** out of Five

Alita: Battle Angel (8/29/2019)

Asking for original blockbusters is easy, actually liking them when we get them is hard.  Take Alita: Battle Angel for example, which isn’t technically a new IP given that it is an adaptation of a manga but is clearly not trying to be sold to an existing fanbase and is an original blockbuster as far as most audiences were concerned.  Everything about the film made it look like the next Valerian or the next Mortal Engines, so it was a bit of a surprise when its box office performance was merely lackluster rather than disastrous at the domestic box office and was actually a hit in international territories.  I’m not entirely sure why this one took off while other visual overload blockbusters have not (good timing perhaps) but it was a success and a surprise comeback for director Robert Rodriguez, who has never really been trusted with budgets like this before.  I will say that the film is pretty impressive on a technical level.  The protagonist’s face has some uncanny valley issues but it’s otherwise able to bring this world together pretty well and there are a couple decent-ish action scenes.  That said, this is not an easy world and IP to warm up to, it all just looks kind of silly and the film does not introduce it gradually.  Imagine if the original Star Wars trilogy did not exist and audiences were asked to just get on board with that universe from The Phantom Menace.  The film’s story is also pretty standard hero’s journey stuff and the film’s look only takes it so far. Not for me.

**1/2 out of Five

American Factory (9/6/2019)

American Factory has received a lot of press because it was distributed (via Netflix) by the Higher Ground production company, which is owned and operated by Barrack and Michelle Obama.  The film itself was actually an independent production which was picked up at Sundance and was directed by the veteran documentarians Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, a pair I’m not familiar with but from watching this I can tell they are way into the “direct cinema” movement pioneered by Robert Drew, Barbara Kopple, and D. A. Pennebaker.  The film is told primarily through fly-on-the-wall footage taken on the floor of the Fuyao auto-glass plant which opened in Ohio in 2016 with the aim of bringing the Chinese company’s work ethic to the United States, the result was a bit of a culture clash which culminated in an attempt to form a union in 2017.  If that premise sounds interesting you should definitely give this a shot because it’s a very mature and even handed documentary that goes to great pains to paint this factories troubles as a sort of honest misunderstanding between business cultures without vilifying the Chinese executives and managers or discounting the concerns of the American workers.  If I have any problems with the film it might simply be that it isn’t always great at explaining how much time has passed as the film progresses and isn’t always great at conveying the scale of things at the factory.

**** out of Five

The Beach Bum (9/7/2019)

Harmony Korine is one weird dude and I’m not really sure what to think about him.  He’s a filmmaker who isn’t terribly popular and isn’t exactly a critic’s darling but he does have a cult following and his movies are generally a bit to “out there” to completely ignore.  After the relative box office success of his slick but still intrinsically weird 2013 film Spring Breakers he finally had some clout to get a reasonably large budget for his latest film and he’s apparently used it to make a stoner comedy of sorts starring Matthew McConaughey and Snoop Dogg among others about a poet named Moondog who lives in a hedonistic stupor in the Florida Keys most of the time while living off his wife’s money.  If I were to look for meaning in it I might suggest that there’s something a bit autobiographical about all this given that Korine is himself an artist of apparent talent who some would say squanders his potential making movies about depraved weirdos.  If that what he’s doing I can sort of vibe with that, but as an upstanding citizen who’s proud to have a nine to five job there’s only so much sympathy I can really conjure for this Moondog guy and as someone who only gets high on life I wasn’t as amused by all the weed stuff as I think I was supposed to be, though there were a couple of legitimately funny bits here and there.

**1/2 out of Five

Hail Satan? (9/7/2019)

When promoting the book and film “The Exorcist” William Peter Blatty was known to say things like “If you believe in god then you also believe in the devil.” Presumably that would also mean that if you don’t believe in god than you also don’t believe in the devil, and that has been more or less my animating principal as a somewhat militant atheist.  In fact I’ve always found the basic idea of devil worship, authentic devil not the fun unserious heavy metal kind, to be about the stupidest thing imaginable.  Like, if you’re going to believe in a pretend being you might as well believe in the one who’s into good deeds rather than the one who was specifically invented to be the worst villain in the universe.  So it was with some interest that, while watching this documentary about the rise of the Satanic Temple, I learned that most of the people involved in that little movement are not really believers in a literal Satan so much as they’re activists against Christian supremacy in America and around the world.   It’s a position which I’m kind of conflicted about: on one hand I think they’re doing a great good by turning the tables on the religious right and using their rules against them (like when they stopped a state government from erecting a ten commandments monument by proposing the construction of a demon statue next to it) but I also think they’re kind of undermining their position by giving away that they don’t really believe in this shit and they could also inflame passions so much that they generate a backlash.  As for the movie, it’s a pretty good overview of the movement and its history, worth a watch if any of this sounds interesting.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 8/24/2019

The Rolling Thunder Review (8/11/2019)

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Martin Scorsese has long had something of an association with The Rolling Stones but he’s now made two documentaries about Bob Dylan: the first being the straightforward and factual PBS documentary No Direction Home about his early 60s rise and golden period, and now the new Netflix documentary Rolling Thunder Revue about his comeback of sorts during the mid-seventies and his Rolling Thunder Revue tour specifically.  This tour was a trek through smaller markets than a rock star of his status would usually visit and featured a number of other like-minded musicians like Joni Mitchell.  The film of course features a lot of professionally shot archival footage of performances from the tour including several songs in their entirety along with some backstage footage from the tour that were meant to be used in a film at the time which never exactly materialized.  There are also a lot of modern interviews with Dylan himself and other people in various people involved with the tour in different roles, but this is where Scorsese starts to become something of a trickster because some of these interviews are fake, a fact that the average viewer would not be able to discern if they aren’t keenly familiar with the works of Robert Altman.  I’m not sure if there’s much in the way of a profound statement to this outside of a sort statement about the process of myth-making in a documentary about a self-mythologizer.  If you’re a Dylan fan this documentary is a no-brainer, the performance footage alone is worth a watch, if you aren’t then it’s a bit of a tougher call.

***1/2 out of Five

High Life (8/14/2019)

Claire Denis is a filmmaker that I want to like more than I actually do and fittingly her latest film High Life is in many ways a movie that I wish I liked more.  The film is her (to my knowledge) first foray into science fiction and focuses on an odd science experiment in which convicts are launched into space on a strange mission to a black hole.  I’m not exactly sure I buy that setup, real space missions are so meticulously set up and manned by elite crews that it seems a bit odd to expect one to be trusted to literal criminals even if they’re essentially being sent on a suicide mission and much of what happens on the ship seems rather unrelated to the actual aims of the mission.  Still there is something compelling about the film’s oddness and some of the performances, but I’m not exactly sure what the point of all of this is supposed to be.  I still think my disconnection from Denis’ work is more of a “me problem” than it is on her, but if this English language Hollywood production doesn’t really click with me I’m not sure what will.

*** out of Five

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Ask Dr. Ruth (8/17/2019)

8-17-2019AskDrRuth I really don’t know why I even review these profile documentaries.  There are just so damn many of them and they’re all pretty much the same.  This documentary about the famed sex columnist Dr. Ruth Westheimer follows this formula pretty much to the T.  It follows the subject around in her old age while she basks in her legendary status and keeps fighting the good fight and intercuts this with footage from the old days in order to tell her life story.  It’s a format we’ve seen a million times and this doesn’t re-invent the wheel.  That said the film does function passably in much the way these movies usually do.  Westheimer herself is pretty charming and there are interesting aspects to her life story, but there are limits to how much drama is to be found here.  The film was picked up at Sundance in hopes that it would draw much the same crowd that turned out for RBG (which was itself a pretty standard profile documentary but one about a more prominent figure) and that audience is probably better served by the movie Maiden.  I’m willing to give this thing a soft passing grade but it won’t be long before I get to the point where I’m not willing to do that.

*** out of Five

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (8/23/2019)

Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a film that will almost certainly always live in the shadow of its troubled production history, especially an aborted attempt to make it in the 2000s which was documented in the film Lost in La Mancha.  Of course if the movie, in its final form had been a towering success that might make the film’s previous history more of a footnote but… it’s not a towering success.  I will say that it did give me some idea of what Gilliam’s original vison was supposed to be and how it fit into his usual style.  Don Quixote as a character was a sort of eccentric visionary who created his own reality and in this movie we see a filmmaker sort of having his Quixote related vision become a reality in front of him.  The problem is that Gilliam is not as good of a filmmaker in 2019 as he was in 2001, in fact he arguable hasn’t made a good movie since the turn of the millennium.  This film in particular takes a while to get going and is also weighed down with a pretty unlikable main character (who may have been a bit more charming if he’d been played by Johnny Depp circa 2001).  I only really started to jive with the movie by the last half hour and by then it was a little too late.  I can only hope that now that Gilliam has this monkey off his back that he can reset his career because as it is I think he should consider hanging it up.

** out of Five

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Apollo 11 (8/24/2019)

8-24-2019Apollo11 Currently 2019’s most commercially successful documentary (by far) is the film Apollo 11, which brings to the table newly unearthed footage from the moon landing upon that event’s 50th anniversary.  The film draws upon 65mm footage that NASA shot during the 60s and hadn’t really been shown widely in the time since as well as some of the more well-known footage from the time to show a condensed accounting of that one mission as it occurred.  The film incorporates no talking heads, and not voiceover aside from the sound in the original footage like mission control chatter and the like.  So it’s basically a no bullshit account of one of the most famous events in human history and there’s certainly a use for such a thing and a lot of people have really enjoyed the spectacle of it all.  Personally, you know, I think I’m kind of over the space program.  I think I came to that realization while watching First Man last year and it kind of stuck with me through this.  There’s not much new to learn here; we’ve gotten a whole lot of dramatic films like the aforementioned First Man and The Right Stuff, we’ve gotten a whole lot of documentaries like For All Mankind and In the Shadow of the Moon, did we need one more that badly? Especially one that almost goes out of its way not to provide any new facts or perspective?  I’m not sure I needed it, but it’s well made for what it’s trying to do and I was able to gleam some interest out of it.

*** out of Five