Home Video Round-Up: 10/31/2017

Gerald’s Game (10/16/2017)

Though I read a lot of Stephen King books in high school, Gerald’s Game is one title’s I never read, in part because I never wanted to be seen reading it and have to explain what it was I was reading.  To my young mind the novel’s premise, which involved bondage sex, seemed wildly dirty and I couldn’t imagine anyone ever making a movie out of it.  Fast forward a decade and “Fifty Shades of Gray” is a mainstream property and “Gerald’s Game” seems a lot more acceptable by contrast, especially given that its bondage sex scene is not consummated.  The story involves a middle aged woman who’s gone to a remote cabin with her husband and after he’s handcuffed both of her hands to a bed he suddenly has a heart attack and she’s left chained to the bed with the key out of reach and starts having hallucinations of her husband talking to her and of a strange looking bald man who may or may not be the grim reaper.  This is certainly a high concept movie what with its single room setup and lack of real supporting characters.  One could perhaps imagine a version of it being performed as a stage play give or take a couple of moments… including one incredibly gory moment that is decidedly not for the squeamish.  Mike Flanagan directs the film well and has an eye for some signature visuals, but some of the writing is not great (the hallucinations are basically an excuse for inner-monologue, and King is not always the best writer of inner monologue) and while Carla Gugino is good in the lead role her performance is not necessarily the tour-de-force required of someone who needs to 100% carry a film.

**1/2 out of Five

Strong Island (10/21/2017)

The usual line on documentaries is that they should be made by people who maintain some objective distance, but there are other approaches, like the one used for the film Strong Island.  The documentary is directed by Yance Ford and tells the story about how his brother (an African American) was killed in 1992 by a white person during an argument and how the police and district attorney did nothing to bring him to justice.  The central case of the film is not necessarily the most elaborate and isn’t filled with twists and turns.  The appeal to the movie is less the case itself and more the effect it had on the family.  Yance Ford makes for an interesting subject given the quiet dignity he shows while a lot of the painful facts of the case are dredged up and it’s compelling to hear about this family’s private In the Bedroom.  Obviously this movie is increasingly relevant in a post Trayvon Martin world, I don’t know that it’s a story that’s going to change many people’s minds about the value of black lives but seeing the long lasting torment of the family of one of these victims can add a piece to the puzzle.

***1/2 out of Five

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (10/22/2017)

This Noah Baumbach film ended up going straight to Netflix despite having a number of stars and a major director, which may say a bit more about just how rich Netflix has gotten moreso than the film’s quality.  In fact this is probably the best feature film to debut on that platform, though that’s relative.  The film stars Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel as the sons and daughter of an aging artist played by Dustin Hoffman who are dealing with their various feelings about their father and about their current situation.  The film’s set-up, with upper-middle class New Yorkers coming to grips with a large than life patriarch, is reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums but the style here is obviously quite different and perhaps has more in common with what you’d expect from other films about worried New Yorkers like The Savages, Please Give, and Little Men.  Adam Sandler has been getting a lot of attention for appearing in a respectable movie and doing a decent job in it, but I do think he’s perhaps been the beneficiary of low expectations.  Ben Stiller is just as good here but is getting half the credit simply because he’s done similarly good work in Noah Baumbach movies before.  Baumbach’s films, and really most movies of this New York indie scene, tend to be a bit iffy for me.  His movie are never “bad” but my interest in them almost seems to vary by the mood I’m in when I watch them.  This one only did so much for me, the story just felt a bit too familiar and while I liked a lot of the cast and characters the scenario just didn’t generate enough interest to push it past other similar movies for me.

*** out of Five

Icarus (10/26/2017)

Sometimes the best stories just fall into the laps of the most unlikely people.  Take the (rather poorly titled) documentary Icarus, which was directed by a guy named Bryan Fogel.  Fogel is an amateur cyclist who competed in a major bike race in France but suspected that some of his competition was doping, and experience that inspired him to make a Super Size Me style documentary where he would start taking steroids and show on film the steps he would take to beat his drug tests and thus expose the system.  Not a terrible idea for a documentary, but that’s not what the project ended up being because in the process of making that silly high concept movie one of the experts he was consulting with turned out to be a key figure in aiding the Russian Olympic team in beating steroid tests and much of the film ended up following him as he became an enemy of the state in Russia and ended up defecting to America and blowing the whistle on Putin’s entire operation.  I’m not necessarily sure that Fogel was the best person to be telling this story but he does do an adequate job of bringing this crazy story to the screen and it’s definitely worth watching.  The movie sold for a record breaking sum to Netflix at Sundance, but its profile hasn’t quite been as high as it could be.  Part of that might be the crappy title, but part of it might also be that it’s been somewhat surpassed by real events.  When we’re worried about Putin invading his neighbors and stealing elections and sowing mass discord within the country, worrying about him cheating in the Olympics just seems kind of quaint.

***1/2 out of Five

1922 (10/31/2017)

This year Netflix decided to step up their original film production arm and to do it they decided to purchase a pair of heretofore un-adapted Stephen King works and adapt them themselves and release both in October.  1922 is the second of these and unlike Gerald’s Game I actually have read the novella that this one was based on and quite liked it.  The story and film examines a Nebraska farmer who comes into bitter conflict with his wife when she proposes selling their farm and moving to the city with their son.  Not liking this option the farmer proceeds to kill her.  The rest of the story deals with the fallout of this both emotionally and otherwise and the various horrific manifestations of the farmer’s guilt.  Given a choice between this and Netflix’s other King adaptation I think I like Gerald’s Game slightly more.  That movie is a bit more unique and has more in the way of memorable imagry and is just generally a little better made.  However, I think 1922 has source material to work with that fits a bit more naturally to the format of film even if it has to use a voice-over in a slightly clunky way.  The film needs to stretch things a little to hit feature length, which may have been a bit of a mistake as the final film actually feels like it could benefit from a trim or two.  Ultimately I think the bigger problem is the film’s star, Thomas Jane, who I don’t really fits this rural character too well and adopts a rather silly voice throughout.  Had this movie gotten a theatrical release I feel like its shortcomings would have been even more clear, but I wouldn’t dismiss it as glorified straight-to-video trash either as it has scope and doesn’t necessarily feel cheap.  It’s ultimately just a pretty decent above average horror movie.

**1/2 out of Five

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Home Video Round-Up: 10/11/2017 (Halloween Edition)

A Cure for Wellness (9/25/2017)

A Cure for Wellness was Gore Verbinski’s “one for me” after making four a whole lot of commercial Johnny Depp movies and was his long awaited return to horror after making his great remake of The Ring back in 2002.  It seemed like this really bold and original idea… so what went wrong?  Well before we get to that let’s consider what went right.  The film is in many ways feels like a slick attempt at making a modern Dario Argento film with its visual focus and a dreamy atmosphere but instead of focusing on gore it focuses on trying to find some fairly original horror imagery.  The basic production values here are really strong: Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography looks really sharp and the art department does a great job of making the Swiss spa that the film is set in look really cool.  The basic ideas that the film was built around were strong, unfortunately it had to be saddled with a rather meandering screenplay that never really kicks into gear.  The villains’ evil scheme really doesn’t make very much sense if you hold it up to even a little bit of scrutiny (Why are they keeping Dane DeHaan around? Why are they choosing as their victims rich and powerful people who will be missed?) and the protagonist doesn’t prove to be as interesting as the movie thinks he is.  I kept hoping for a twist that would make all of this seem worth it, but one never really came.  There is also the little fact that the movie bears a fairly strong resemblance to Scorsese’s recent film Shutter Island.  The two movies have their differences and Scorsese’s movie has its problems too, but the similarities that are there are just a little too big to ignore.  Having said all that I do still kind of like this thing, or at least I can’t dismiss it.  The atmosphere and visuals go a long way and even when it starts getting downright silly towards the end I was still largely entertained, especially when compared to other horror movies that don’t try nearly as hard.

***1/2 out of Five

The Belko Experiment (9/30/2017)

The Belko Experiment is less of a true horror movie and more of an exercise in violence mixed with what are at least attempts at a satire of office culture.  The movie it most closely resembles (to the point of basically being a ripoff) is the Japanese film Battle Royale in which a group of school children are dumped onto an island and forced to fight to the death for what are basically unknown reasons, and the usual tensions of grade school life are played out in rather extreme form in their fights.  Here we are instead focusing on office workers who are trapped in their building and told over an intercom that if they don’t begin killing each other they’ll all be killed by small bombs that have been implanted in their heads.  What follows is a movie where people who essentially like each other are forced to murder each other in fairly brutal fashion.  The derivativeness and general sadism of this idea probably made it unlikely to succeed no matter what anyone did, but there were additional mistakes it also makes along the way.  I feel like I would have liked the movie better if it had stuck to its guns and populated this office who were more or less average joes, but instead the movie take a pretty deliberate step to add a clique of “bad guys” and since everyone’s essentially being forced to be bad in this contrived situation the film needs to make them really just cartoonishly awful people, which kind of robs the movie of any nuance potential it might have had.  That and some routine bad performances and just a general lack of suspense make this a pretty nasty piece of work without a lot to redeem it outside of its decent pacing and occasional witty moments.

*1/2 out of Five

Colossal (10/5/2017)

Colossal is a unique little movie about a woman who is something of a functioning alcoholic and who is close to hitting rock bottom after she loses a job and gets kicked out of her apartment by her boyfriend and returns to her home town after years away.  Things start to get weird, however, when a giant Godzilla-like monster suddenly begins attacking Seoul, South Korea during her blackouts and she begins to have legitimate reason to believe there’s some connection between her behavior and the monster attacks.  I certainly give the film points for originality, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to come up with a way to combine a Sundancey indie movie with a damn Kaiju movie, but somehow it happened and the combo works better than you’d think for the most part and some of the monster effects are actually pretty impressive for a lot budget movie like this.  The problem is that, while the movie works as a metaphor, it kind of gets a bit ridiculous if you are just watching it as a regular narrative.  The film is meant to show a rather extreme example of how self-destructive behavior can actually be pretty destructive to other people as well and to show the danger in enabling such behavior.  That fits for the most part, but it also sets up the consequences for this kind stuff to be so extreme that it becomes hard to believe that anyone would continue to be as much of an unrelenting jerk as Jason Sudeikis becomes at the end of the film.  In some ways I kind of wish they’d made this thing as a short film or as an episode of an anthology TV series or something because I’m not sure there was enough material in the idea as a feature film warrants, but when the film is working it works quite well.

**1/2 out of Five

Raw (10/10/2017)

The influence of Roman Polanski on the horror genre is becoming more and more clear to me as I see more and more psychological freak-out movies in which the viewer follows a character as he or she slowly goes insane.  The new franco-Belgian film Raw is also one of these movies, but it also has elements from Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon and Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day.  The film concerns a freshman student who is starting out at a truly out of control veterinary school that puts her through some absolutely wild hazing rituals, one of which involved eating a raw rabbit kidney, which really sets something off in the mind of this former vegetarian and sends her off in some rather murderous directions.  The film is plainly a metaphor which takes the anxieties that students feel when suddenly on their own and surrounded with various pressures to conform to the sometimes wild things that the people around them are doing and tells it from the perspective of someone who maybe can’t handle those things as well as the others.  Not the most insightful metaphor but one that certainly leads to some memorable moments like a very awkward scene about half way through the film involving Brazilian waxes, a pair of scissors, and cannibalism.  I’m not sure that it ultimately adds up to something profound and I also wasn’t a fan of the film’s ending, which offered something of a pat explanation for what came before, but there’s no doubt that it’s an interesting little horror film for the adventurous viewer.

*** out of Five

The Mummy (10/11/2017)

In response to negative criticism director Alex Kurtzman famously said “we didn’t make this movie for critics, we made it for the fans.”  The “fans” of what, exactly?  This is a movie that actually has less in common with the 1932 Boris Karloff movie than the 1999 remake with Brendan Frasier did and given that Universal’s “Dark World” doesn’t have any fans yet on account of this being its first entry and no one seems to have liked it.  The movie actually has more in common with the Hammer version of The Mummy than anything, but its relation to past movies isn’t really the problem here so much as its own failure to know what it wants to be.  It feels like there are about three different movies in this thing competing with each other: there’s the dark semi-horror movie that wants to mix Egyptian adventure with gothic imagery, there’s the jokey action movie starring Tom Cruise, and there’s the 21st century franchise/superhero movie.  That middle one is probably the biggest problem: Tom Cruise makes zero sense as the star of this thing and it feels like they adjusted the movie a lot in order to fit in with what people expect from Tom Cruise action movies and add in some really strange attempts at humor (including an element which is a blatant ripoff of An American Werewolf in London) that feel like they were added in at the last minute in response to a studio note.  The franchise stuff setting up a shared universe is also a problem of course, I can maybe envision a version of this where that stuff works better but it still seems like a mistake to have even tried to do that.  Hollywood, take a closer look at Marvel before you try to rip them off, you’ll note that they focused on just making good movies and kept that shit contained in the post credits sequences until they knew people were hooked and on board.  The Mummy does have its moments here and there, I don’t think it’s quite the disaster that its 16% Rotten Tomatoes score suggests, but it is a mess and a missed opportunity.

** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 9/22/2017

Song to Song (8/13/2017)

Terry, buddy, you really need to check yourself before you wreck yourself.  I’m about as big a fan of Terrence Malick’s early films as you get and I even defended him through To the Wonder but his last movie Knight of Cups lost me in a big way and while I like this follow up a little bit more I still think the path he’s been going down is proving to be a stylistic dead end.  I think part of the problem with these last two films may simply be that making movies about the idle rich brings out the worst in him.  Seeing these people float through the life of luxury has the effect of making his usual style look less like poetry and more like a perfume commercial.  The film is a bit more structurally understandable and coherent than Knight of Cups, which does make it a bit more enjoyable to watch, and it does also have all the usual beautiful photography and imagery you’d expect from a Terrence Malick film.  Eventually film historians are going to have to reckon with this era of Malick’s filmography and I suspect that these movies are going to have their defenders.  I’m not completely closed off to the idea that there isn’t something to these last two films I’m missing, but one first viewing they really just seem like these aimless if pretty montages that were cobbled together in editing rooms.

**1/2 out of Five

Free Fire (8/19/2017)

Free Fire has been described as a movie long shootout, which is both true and kind of misleading.  The film is about a group of criminals in the 70s who meet up at a rundown warehouse for a weapons deal but things go south and people start shooting.  The rest of the movie does involve a lot of shooting but it doesn’t necessarily play out like a frantic action scene.  Characters quickly take cover at various points of the building and start taking shots at each other a few at a time and occasionally yell at each other.  It’s sort of like if Reservoir Dogs dispensed with the flashbacks and most of the talking and went straight to the Mexican standoff and had the shooting go on for a hell of a lot longer.  It’s not a terrible idea but I can’t say that the various characters really grabbed me and some of them (looking at you chronic over-actor Sharlto Copley) are downright annoying and when bodies start hitting the floor it never quite had the impact it was supposed to.  Also, the sheer amount of endurance a lot of these guys have seems a bit ridiculous and at times it was hard to even tell which of these mutton chopped 70s guys was on which side.  I still think Ben Wheatley is an interesting filmmaker but each movie he’s put out since Kill List has kind of been a letdown in some way or another and I hope he can turn things around soon.

**1/2 out of Five

Ghost in the Shell (8/27/2017)

It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen the original anime version of Ghost in the Shell and I actually remember not being a big fan of it (Akira is my sci-fi anime of choice, thank you).  To my eyes, this live action version in many ways plays to both the original film’s strengths and weaknesses.  Most notably, the film does a pretty good job of translating the anime’s visuals to live action in some interesting ways and the action scenes mostly work.  Oh the other hand this remains a fairly cold and humorless narrative with themes that somehow seem both on the nose and rather muddled.  The anime remains the superior product both because it did it first and because it’s a bit tighter and just comes off a bit more naturally in that format, but this isn’t necessarily the hatchet job that some people will make it out to be.  Ultimately I kind of wish they’d just used all the effort they put into creating this elaborate science fiction world and put it towards creating a different, better, and more original story.

**1/2 out of Five

The Fate of the Furious (9/17/2017)

There was a certain sense of finality in the way that the last Fast and Furious movie, Furious 7, ended.  Brian was leaving the crew, and events that occurred while the movie was filming made that seem particularly true, but it looks like the show is going to go on and they are continuing to make films into the post-Paul Walker era.  Truth be told I don’t know that I missed Paul Walker too much here as this is enough of an ensemble franchise at this point but I do think that soldiering on so quick was a mistake just the same if only because this is a franchise that could use a break.  This is the third straight movie they’ve made which has more or less put Dom’s crew in the position of being super spies working for the government for various reasons, and while I do think there’s an opening for such a franchise given what’s been happening to James Bond lately, I do think the pressure of making each of these movies bigger and crazier than the last is starting to get to them.  This one in particular is really pushing that line between “fun stupid” and just “stupid stupid.”  There is enough silly energy here to keep it from being a true failure though and there was enough in the way of standout action sequences that I certainly wasn’t bored by watching it.  Still if I’m comparing it to the Bond franchise this is more of a Tomorrow Never Dies than a Goldeneye and they’re going to need to do better if they’re going to give this thing some real longevity.

**1/2 out of Five

All Eyez on Me (9/22/2017)

Since his death in the September of 1996 Tupac Shakur has basically joined the ranks of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain among the martyred young American musical icons and even without that mystique he’s widely been considered one of if not the greatest rappers ever.  I think a big part of his appeal is that he has something to offer to pretty much any kind of Hip Hop fan.  If you go to a rapper looking for biting social commentary he had something for you, if you want gritty street stories he had those, and if you just wanted some party songs he had some of those too.  He was the son of Black Panthers and a student at an art academy but also someone who sported a “thug life” tattoo and got involved in various violent confrontations including the one that ultimately ended his life.  The man was multi-faceted and filled with contradictions, and the biopic All Eyez on Me isn’t unaware of this but it also doesn’t illuminate it in a particularly interesting way either.  Critics seem to have picked up on this and the movie currently sits at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes because of it, and that seems a bit harsh to me.

The film certainly has a number of strong elements, not the least of which is Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s really strong performance as Tupac which is really uncanny in its imitation at times.  The movie also does a pretty decent job of fitting the many events of Tupac’s life into a reasonable running time and it’s generally pretty competently made.  That said, this kind of straightforward “birth to death” musical biopic seems a bit redundant at this point.  Unlike Straight Outta Compton, which was set over a shorter period of time and could feel more like a story and less like a character study, this film feels a bit too surfacey and a bit lacking in real creativity.  The movie also seems oddly disinterested in Tupac’s actual music and doesn’t really spend a whole lot of time actually showing him performing or recording much of it.  Still, I do think the movie fares better than the Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious from a handful of years ago, in part because it seems less interested in smoothing over the rougher aspects of its subject’s life and does as good a job as one could expect of keeping it from descending into hagiography.  Over the years there have a litany of Tupac products released so I suspect that this won’t be the last movie that gets made about him and I hope the next one finds an approach that’s more worthy of his legend, until then this one will do well enough.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 7/15/2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (6/25/2017)

When John Wick came out in 2014 it certainly didn’t look like much, but the response to it was quite strong and it’s become something of a cult classic of the action genre.  When I finally caught up with it I could sort of see why.  It had some really strong fight/shootout choreography and it had a rather unapologetic brutality that I approved of.  It was basically bringing the kind of action seen in Asian films like The Raid into the Hollywood mainstream and doing it pretty well.  Unfortunately it was also dumb as a sack of rocks.  It was a very silly little revenge story set against some rather strange world building about a ritualized world of assassins.  The film’s sequel is even weirder and expands on this assassin’s guild ideas in ways that suggest that they hadn’t fully thought out a number of the rituals in the first movie because this world makes less and less sense the more it gets explored and simply doesn’t hold up if you think about it too much. Of course the plot isn’t necessarily the most important aspect of these movies, the action is, and for the most part John Wick: Chapter 2 does deliver on that front.  It doesn’t necessarily bring the gun-fu style of the first movie up to eleven like I might have hoped; in general it’s just kind of more of what we got before.  There’s definitely fun to be had here by action fans but I don’t know how much more steam this franchise has and if given the choice I’d probably lean towards the first movie rather than the second simply because that one had simplicity of purpose that propelled it.

**1/2 out of Five

T2: Trainspotting (7/4/2017)

The original Trainspotting is something of a classic, I won’t deny it that, but it isn’t necessarily a movie that’s precious to me.  I probably watched it when I was sixteen or something and was bingeing through all sorts of great movies at a rapid pace and Trainspotting was just kind of another one of them.  That is maybe where I’m at a disconnect when it comes to this 20+ year later sequel, whose appeal seems to mostly be drawn from the prospect of seeing these characters that you’ve built a lot of nostalgia for after all these years.  Truth be told, I barely even remember some of the supporting cast here (Renton was always front and center to me) and seeing them in middle age didn’t really fascinate me too much.  Some of the film’s attempts to tap into the modern zeitgeist were sort of interesting, some not so much.  Danny Boyle is able to inject the film with energy as he usually can, but I’m not sure this was as appropriate for this movie given where these characters are in life at this point.  It’s like the point of the movie is that these guys are no longer youthful and yet it also sort of lacks the conviction to actually make them act their age for fear that this would be boring.  Frankly I feel like Danny Boyle, now an Academy Award winning director, should be above going back to the well like this and so should a lot of the cast.  Trainspotting has often been called Britain’s Pulp Fiction, and god help us if Quentin Tarantino ever decides we need a sequel to that.  Also, what the hell were they thinking with that title?

** out of Five

Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (7/4/2017)

Nobody Speak is a documentary that looks at a pair of recent incidents which seem to be red flags suggesting that the moneyed class are trying to use their influence to silence the free press: the Hulk Hogan v. Gawker lawsuit and the purchase of the Las Vegas Review Journal by the Adelson family.  These are both stories worth considering but they’re not exactly obscure, both were covered pretty extensively in the press while they were happening and Brian Knappenberger’s documentary does not really bring a whole lot of new information or perspective to either of them.  Knappenberger also tries to link these cases to the general hostility towards the press that Donald Trump has been fermenting, but in many ways that feels like something of a separate issue to me as that hostility long predated Trump and probably can’t be blamed on the actions of any one rich asshole.  It also doesn’t help that I find the documentary’s take on Hogan/Gawker affair to be a bit preachy in its analysis.  It is very possible to both support the free press and also think that posting a covertly filmed sex tape is a violation of privacy worth suing over and the fact that the dude funding said lawsuit is a vindictive asshole doesn’t really change that.  Had the film actually gotten access to Peter Theil or Hulk Hogan and tried to understand their side of the story we might have gotten something kind of unique and interesting instead we’re just given a news summery which I’m not sure will be all that useful to anyone who would be interested in it in the first place.

** out of five

The Defiant Ones (7/13/2017)

I’ve long hesitated about reviewing multipart TV docs within the context of movie reviews but I’m making an exception this time because… well, because this thing is awesome and I want to talk about it.  This four part HBO documentary mini-series is ostensibly about the lives and business partnership of Dr. Dre and music mogul Jimmy Iovine and in covering them the film also chronicles the rise of gangsta rap, the formation of Interscope Records, and the business maneuvers that would eventually result in a multi-billion dollar deal with Apple.  The story of Dr. Dre, N.W.A., and Death Row Records has of course been recounted several times before this so there is a degree of redundancy here but I’ve rarely seen the story contextualized as well as it is here and we get perspectives we normally don’t get.  For example, everyone knows the story of how Suge Knight signed Tupac by bailing him out of jail but few people know he did it with money that Iovine advanced him for that purpose as is revealed here.  The film also has incredible access to the people involved in all of this with a rather staggering number of talking heads interviewed giving a range of perspectives, including some people who aren’t necessarily coming off great in the other interviews.  The basic filmmaking on display here is also really strong with director Allen Hughes clearly having a lot of money and resources to work with.  Hughes has found a treasure trove of relevant footage and has a seemingly unlimited music clearance budget.  Politics does stymie the film in a couple of places (they avoid mentioning Jerry Heller at all costs and its depiction of Suge Knight is… restrained) but it’s also not afraid to delve into some darker moments that have been discussed before like the Dee Barnes incident.  This is in many ways a movie that feels like it was tailor made to appeal specifically to me and my pop culture interests and I’m not sure how broad its reach will be amongst those who aren’t endlessly fascinated by music from the 90s, but for those who do care about this stuff it’s an incredibly well made piece of work worth checking out.

****1/2 out of Five

Okja (7/15/2017)

When the movie Chappie came out a couple years ago I suggested that it was a movie whose strange mixture of Spielbergian whimsy and R-rated adult material would have probably been better received if it had been made in a foreign language by a Japanese or Korean director than by a South African working with a Hollywood budget and the recent critical acceptance of Bong Joon-Ho’s new movie Okja suggests I was right.  This oddity concerns a little Korean girl who finds herself in the middle of all sorts of intrigue when the genetically modified pig she’s been raising is called back by the corporations that placed it with her father and she needs to go on a mission to save it.  I’d say the film’s first problem, and it’s a doozy, is that it is dependent on making its audience sympathize with the bizarre CGI hippo/pig thing that Joon-Ho has put at the movie’s center and to care about whether or not it gets saved simply because some kid has formed an irrational bond with her father’s livestock.  I don’t know, I’m not really a pet person so maybe I’m just never going to be on the wave length of a movie like this but this one certainly didn’t hook me in.  On top of that the movie is filled with insanely broad performances from all the English/American actors involved (the movie is something like 75% English language) and its anti-corporate politics seemed rather juvenile.  Bong-Joon Ho’s last movie, Snowpiercer was over-rated in some circles but it at least had some fun genre elements to enjoy.  This thing on the other hand is just a big mess of weirdness and I genuinely like it less than the aforementioned Chappie.

** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 6/21/2017

Beware the Slenderman (1/23/2017)

1-23-2017BewaretheSlenderman

I’ve been fairly interested in the Slenderman character ever since he emerged on the internet and think he’s a pretty cool monster.  Consequently I’ve been pretty interested in the “Slenderman stabbing case” ever since it happened as well.  It seems like such a strange case, like something out of Heavenly Creatures and the internet aspect of the case certainly gives it an extra dimension of interest.  The new documentary on the subject of the case and the internet ghost stories that allegedly led to it does a pretty good job of looking at Slenderman the fictional character but it feels rather incomplete in its analysis of the actual attempted murder case.  This may simply be a textbook case of a documentary trying to weigh in on something that isn’t over yet and which we don’t have enough perspective on yet.  As of now the Slenderman case is still in the courts and as such the lawyers and parents involved are all being rather guarded in their statements.  The film might have been better served in taking a deeper dive into the murky morality of laws that force prosecutors to try children as adults in certain cases. Otherwise I feel like it maybe should have just held off a little longer.

*** out of Five

I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (4/2/2017)

I Don’t Feel At Home in This World is the directorial debut of a guy named Macon Blair, who was previously best known as the star of the movie Blue Ruin.  This film has become notable for the fact that it went straight to Netflix streaming mere weeks after it debuted to some decent buzz at Sundance this year.  As someone who’s generally seen “straight to video/VOD/Streaming” as a pretty big red flag I’m a little surprised that they were willing to take that approach with a movie that’s gotten some solid notices as no movie wants that kind of stigma.  Still in the case of this movie I think the approach kind of makes sense as this is one of those movies that screams “good enough to get a positive reception at Sundance but not really good enough to draw people out to real theaters in large numbers.”  The movie follows a lady whose home gets robbed and tries to track down the thieves on her own, largely just on the principle of the thing.  From there it becomes something like a Coen Brothers movie of the Blood Simple or Fargo variety with ordinary people awkwardly navigating a crime narrative where they’re in over their heads.  The movie has a certain amount of flavor but never feels particularly profound or engrossing and ultimately just feels a bit disposable.  I’d say “wait for it to show up on streaming” but…

*** out of Five

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Five Came Back (4/8/2017)

4-8-2017FiveCameBack In its unending quest to become every channel under the sun Netflix commissioned this documentary series to be their answer to what Ken Burns has done for PBS.  The film is an adaptation of a book by journalist/film historian Mark Harris’ book of the same name, which I read a couple years ago.  It’s a quality book, one of the better film books in a while.  It looks at five golden age Hollywood film directors and their involvement in World War II as makers of propaganda films and battlefield documentaries.  It’s been split into three episodes, which would normally make it something I wouldn’t review as a film, but I can pretty easily imagine it as a three hour feature (and they’re four walling it as such in hopes of Oscar qualification) so I’m going to allow it.  I was a little skeptical going into it as it started out mostly feeling like a Cliffs Notes version of the book but it proved to be a pretty easy sit over time and it won me over.  Unlike the book this has the obvious advantage of being able to include footage from the various movies being talked about and it also includes interviews with a pretty impressive roster of filmmakers including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, and Guillermo del Toro to talk about the influence and legacies of the various films being discussed.  Del Toro in particular proves to be surprisingly insightful, but there are strange gaps as well like the fact that Spielberg never comments on John Ford’s D-Day footage given his own work in re-introducing that battle to the public imagination.  If you’ve never read the book and have no intention to, definitely watch this, and if you have read the book this is a pretty decent supplement.  That said, if they were going to pass this off as episodic rather than as a feature it does seem a little odd that they couldn’t have added an extra episode in there to flesh things out a bit as it does feel a little rushed.

***1/2 out of Five

Split (6/21/2017)

M. Night Shyamalan had one of the more dramatic and bizarre falls from grace of any director in recent memory. He started out as they director of oddly restrained and intelligent thrillers and seemed to just sort of lose his mind as he made some astonishingly silly movies like Lady in the Water, The Happening, and The Last Airbender. His latest film Split was viewed as something of a comeback and certainly turned out to be a surprise hit at the box office but what really makes it different from Shyamalan’s other recent failures?  I’m not sure a whole lot does differentiate it as there are some truly odd moments in this thing and there are definitely elements of that Shyamalan stiltedness to be found.  Much has been made of the movie’s final stinger and its implications, and they are indeed curious, but that has perhaps clouded the fact that the film’s actual climax is fairly unsatisfying.  The one saving grace here is almost certainly James McAvoy’s showy performance as the villain, which is fun to watch and the whole movie is generally more watchable than some of this guy’s true bombs but that isn’t saying much.  I can only chalk up the movie’s blockbuster status to its release during a pretty barren place in the calendar and while I am curious about what sequels this thing will generate I certainly don’t think it’s the return to form that some people are making it out to be.

** out of Five

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Mommy Dead and Dearest (6/5/2017)

6-5-2017MommyDeadandDearest If there’s one thing in modern American life that I’ve come to find a bit distasteful it’s this idea of the lurid spectacle trial that gets covered extensively on Court TV and the like long before all the information has come out.  I’m not talking about cases that have actual social import like the Trayvon Martin shooting or something, I’m talking about court cases that people watch out of sheer salaciousness like the Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias that become objects of voyeurism unlike other trials for often unclear reasons.  I do however feel there is value in looking back at some cases like these after the fact to see where things went wrong and see what can be learned from them.  I don’t know how much media attention the Gypsy Rose Blancharde trial got but the new HBO documentary certainly suggests that it had all the makings of the “televised trial.”  The film concerns a teenage girl who experiences Munchausen syndrome by proxy in which she is manipulated into believing that she is the sufferer of numerous ailments by an abusive mother who liked the attention that having a “disabled” child would give her.  Upon realizing her ailment was psychosomatic she escapes this mother via murder.  The film itself doesn’t do anything terribly special but it does have access to Gypsy, who was allowed to give interviews from behind bars and her story and personality is quite disturbing.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 2/18/2017

Zero Days(2/8/2017)

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Much has been made about Alex Gibney’s insane workload and the sheer quantity of documentaries he seems to put out every given year.  His workload has been a bit lighter in 2016 than it has been in other years but the one major documentary he put out is a doozy.  What’s held back some of Gibney’s recent output is that he’s been focusing on subjects like Julian Assange, Steve Jobs, and the Church of Scientology which have already been getting a ton of press elsewhere, but that isn’t really the case with Zero Days which looks at an event that has been somewhat under-reported in part because it’s been over-classified.  Specifically the movie is about the Stuxnet computer virus, which was created by American and Israeli intelligence to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program.  I’d heard a little bit about this operation before this and it was mostly framed at the time as a clean, successful and relatively peaceful operation that got one over on the Iranians, but the film suggests that the operation actually wasn’t all that successful and that it posed a lot of dangerous side-effects in that it spread to some innocent computers and some of the code in it could be copied by nefarious actors.  The movie itself is certainly a talking heads kind of thing, but it makes its argument well and seems to have been researched pretty deeply and presented about as well as it could be.

**** out of Five

Under the Shadow (2/9/2017)

Under the Shadow is a film set in Iran and filmed in Persian but was made outside of the Iranian film industry and is technically a British film, and this allows it to tell a kind of story you wouldn’t normally see made in Iran proper.  This is not a wildly political film however and makes the points it wants to make within a genre context.  It takes the form of a psychological thriller with a supernatural element and can be pretty readily compared with The Babadook… and I mean really readily compared to it.  Both films feature supernatural threats that may or may not be manifestations of a mother’s frustrations more so than an actual demon, or Djinn in this case.   The difference is that this particular woman’s psychological hang-ups are rooted more directly in the ways that the society she lives in wants to oppress her and keep her cooped up in her home despite her bigger ambitions.  Where the film falters in comparison to The Babadook is in its horror imagery.  Nothing in Under the Shadow is as memorable or as chilling as the popup book in The Babadook or various other horror moments to be found in that film.  That’s not to say that the horror imagery in Under the Shadow is weak exactly, it just isn’t the best the genre has to offer.  Overall this is certainly an interesting movie but I do think director Babak Anvari might need another movie or two before he reaches his full potential.

***1/2 out of Five

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Tower (2/14/2017)

2-14-2017Tower Tower is a documentary of sorts which focuses on the 1966 tragedy in which a deranged person went to the top of the University of Texas tower and started indiscriminately murdering people with a sniper rifle.  It was essentially a school shooting before school shootings were a sadly normalized part of the American landscape.  The film spends no time discussing the shooter or his motivations and instead focuses entirely on the victims and the occasional heroism of some of the police and bystanders.  There was limited footage of the actual incident so the film uses a mixture of the footage that exists as well as animation reenactments of the incident as well as interview audio from eye-witnesses.  I’m not always the biggest fan of animation being used in documentaries and I don’t think the art style here was ideal, but I do think the decision to recreate things in this way does ultimately work for the film.  The incident was often cited as an example of how things were going to hell in a handbasket in the post-Kennedy malaise of the 60s, but the documentary suggests there was some hope to be found in the way the non-crazy majority of people that day managed to react to the situation and how it would continue to affect those people as the years went on.

***1/2 out of Five

Deepwater Horizon (2/12/2017)

Peter Berg has had a weird career in general and his latest string of “ripped from the headlines movies starring Mark Whalberg” movies is particularly strange.  Deepwater Horizon, which dramatizes the offshore oil rig disaster which resulted in that huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico about eight years ago.  Like Sully it’s in the difficult position of making a feature film out of an incident that was kind of brief in real life.  They try to pull this off by dramatizing the mistakes that led to the disaster, but it feels like the problem is diagnosed almost immediately when we see the cement testers leaving the rig as our heroes enter and we’re left kind of waiting for the inevitable as we’re given various heavy handed metaphors about simple checks paying off in the long run.  Also John Malkovich is horrendous in these early scenes and feels like he comes from a different movie with his over the top accent.  The movie does become a fairly well crafted disaster movies once things on the rig start blowing up but frankly it had kind of lost me by that point.  Peter Berg, I don’t know what movie you plan to do next but for the love of god can it please be something that isn’t going to end with a maudlin montage of photographs of the real life victims of whatever?

**1/2 out of Five

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I Am Not Your Negro (2/18/2017)

2-18-2017IAmNotYourNegro When I first heard about the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro I was kind of expecting it to be a standard PBSish biographical documentary but it actually seems to be something more ambitious than that.  The film doesn’t use any talking heads or narration and basically consists only of Baldwin’s own words and appearances.  Ostensibly the film is an adaptation of Baldwin’s final manuscript “Remember This House” which is read through voice-over by Samuel L. Jackson, but that manuscript (which was a retrospective comparison between Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X) is really only about a third of the movie and it goes off in other directions like talking about the depiction of African Americans in popular culture and other various musings about race in America.  This is where the movie starts to lose me a little as I found it to be kind of disorganized.  James Baldwin was clearly an awesome figure and any movie that collects some of his thoughts and writings is going to be interesting of course but some of his statements probably work better when written than spoken; you really need to stop and think about some of his statements, which can make them imperfect for a movie that has to move on rather than rest with an idea.  The movie also incorporates a lot of modern images of racial strife to suggest that the struggle that Baldwin is discussing is not safely in the past which, I mean point taken but there’s still something kind of jarring about the movie putting a historical figures words to images he was not alive to see (and don’t get me started on the decision to end the movie with an aggressive Kendrick Lamar song).  The movie is probably worth seeing for anyone who wants a Baldwin 101 primer but it was a little bit disappointing to me in the end, you frankly might be better off searching for old videos of Baldwin speaking on Youtube.

*** out of five

Lights Out (2/13/2017)

I’ve been pretty outspoken in my belief that the current crop of “haunted house/things jumping out and yelling boo” horror movies are a kind of lame trend that got old a while ago.  Lights Out is neither the best nor the worst of this silly little trend but it does come on (what I hope is) the tail end of the trend and that makes it seem all the more superfluous because of it.  The story itself isn’t quite as formulaic as some entries of the haunting subgenre but its scares certainly are.  Now to be fair, like a lot of these movies there are moments that are effective, I mean jump scares usually do work even if they’re cheap.  The bigger problem I guess is that this one seems pretty thin.  The thing is only a little over eighty minutes and you can tell they were kind of struggling to fill that run time and it all leads up to an ending that’s really anti-climactic and not terribly well earned.

*** out of Five

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