Home Video Round-Up 7/26/2020

Bad Boys for Life (6/24/2020)

Bad Boys for Life, the second sequel to Michael Bay’s 1995 debut Bad Boys was one of the last big hit movies to be released before the pandemic hit and as such it is still technically the number one highest grossing movie of 2020.  This is not really something to brag about, given that these same circumstances have left freakin’ Doolittle as the fourth highest grossing movie of the year but there is a certain grim irony to the fact that the highest grossing movie of this of all years is one that glamorizes a pair of police officers who “play by their own rules” and aren’t above roughing up and is named after the theme song to a TV show that has been deemed too problematic to still be on the air.  Regardless this is a kind of odd film to exist because the first two Bad Boys movies were less of a story than they were a look into Michael Bay’s crazy nihilistic Id.  They were these hatful movies about a pair of egotistical monsters causing mass destruction ostensibly in the name of locking up generic drug dealers but actually to look cool and stroke their own (and by extension their creator’s) ego… my enjoyment of those movies (particularly the second one) is complicated and borderline ironic.  A Bay directed third film definitely would have been something I’d be curious about, but this third movie wasn’t even directed by Bay… so why did it need to exist?

This was directed by the Belgian filmmaking duo of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, who do seem to understand that the style of these movies is the substance (insomuch as there is any substance to speak of) and they work really hard to replicate the visual style of what Michael Bay was doing with the previous films.  What they can’t quite replicate is the sheer nastiness that drives Bad Boys 2… which would theoretically be a good thing, but what you’re left with when non-sociopaths making one of these movies you’re kind of just left with a pretty shallow cop narrative, albeit with some fairly charismatic stars.  Some of the action scenes here are pretty decent, some of the comedy is amusing, and there is a plot twist leading into the third act which I genuinely didn’t expect and feels distinct from something that would have been in the other two movies.  But for the most part there isn’t a whole lot here that really stands out or will be all that memorable or noteworthy.

*** out of Five

Gretal and Hansel (7/6/2020)

When I saw the trailer for Gretal and Hansel I smelled a rat.  The movie certainly looked different from the average horror movie but that was in part because it looked suspiciously similar to A24’s brand of horror movie, especially The Witch, to the point where it kind of looked like a cheap imitator.  The Silverchair to The Witch’s Nirvana if you will.  Having finally seen it I think that was a little harsh… it’s more like the Stone Temple Pilots or the Bush to The Witch’s Nirvana, still kind of a poser but not without something to offer.  As the title would imply this is based on the familiar “Hansel and Gretal” story and is a sort of Guillermo del Toro space of making the link between fairy tales and horror very overt.  Here Gretal is a teenager and Hansel is a younger child and their encounter with the witch feels less like a momentary foolishness and more like a sort of psychological retreat.  Alice Krige is appropriately gnarly as the witch and her home is a very well-constructed and designed set and in general the film was visually interesting.  I would not, however, call it wildly “scary” and I ultimately just can’t help viewing it as something of a product of trend hopping.

*** out of Five

The Lovebirds (7/18/2020)

The Lovebirds was a comedy that was originally intended to be released into theaters by Paramount and I saw several theatrical trailers for it but when COVID hit it opted not to play the “delay it to next year game” and instead sold the rights directly to Netflix.  Frankly I think it’s pretty apparent that they took this move because they knew that this was not a movie that was worth paying for another ad buy over because it’s not that great.  The film was directed by Michael Showalter and stars Kumail Nanjiani, who teamed up to great effect with The Big Sick and they’ve brought on hip upcoming star Issa Rae so it seems like quite a recipe for success but here they’re making a much more traditional studio comedy of the “one wild night” variety and in many ways it feel like they were relying on improvisations that never really materialized.  Most of the best jokes in the movie were in its trailer (and they were never that great in the first place) and with the movie being a lean 87 minutes that trailer really feels like it reveals a whole lot of the film before it even begins.  Nanjiani and Rae probably have more romantic chemistry here than they do comedic chemistry and the film’s plot feels half-assed and has some pretty glaring holes.  A disappointing effort all around.

** out of Five

The Assistant (7/20/2020)

The Assistant may well be the first scripted movie to have been made directly in response to the wave of #MeToo accusations that swept across Hollywood in late 2017 after Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment was revealed through reporting.  That is in part a function of this being a very small scale movie that could be shot very quickly; in fact much of it is set in a single location: a really unpleasant looking East Coast office of some sort of Hollywood production company.  The environment is a far cry from the kind of stylized movie industry we see in shows like “Entourage” or even in critical films like The Player and looks at the business side of the industry at the lowest and least glamorous level.  The title character is a woman played by Julia Garner who starts to notice little red flags that lead her to believe that her boss is a sexual predator using the casting couch but she isn’t really finding what would be considered a smoking gun.  We never really see this boss and for that matter we don’t get much of the perspective of his direct victims either, instead this is a movie about how “open secrets” can exist in work places and what it’s like to know about these things without being able to prove anything and how the sort of conspiracies of silence kind of quietly occur.  All of that is admirable and I respect what the movie is doing, but whether or not I actually “enjoyed” watching it is kind of another matter.  Sometimes when you set out to make your movie cold and drab you succeed and there’s a level of minimalism here that, while effective, does not exactly make the movie engaging at times.  Still, for what it’s trying to do the movie is pretty strong.

***1/2 out of Five

The Old Guard (7/26/2020)

Super hero movies are the new hotness, but the problem with them is that Disney and Warner Brothers basically have a monopoly over every hero anyone cares about because of their ownership of Marvel and DC, especially now that Fox and the X-Men have been bought up.  Sony still has access to Spider-Man (and clings to that license for dear life) but if the rest of the studios want in they need to try buying up any vaguely superhero like graphic novel that other minor league publishers put out like Bloodshot or The Kingsmen or Hellboy and their one hope that making these movies more “edgy” will help them stand out.  Streaming services are not immune to this either and that is why we end up with projects like Netflix’ The Old Guard, an adaptation of an Image Comics property which was hardly a household name even among dedicated comic book fans.  The film posits that there are a small group of immortals walking amongst us who are both eternally young and also almost immediately recover from wounds… so basically a bunch of Wolverines with no metal claws.  The film is told from the perspective of one of these people (played by KiKi Layne) who has just been discovered and who has until now been unaware of her powers and is sort of mentored by one of the oldest members of this little mercenary group played by Charlize Theron.  So basically a comic book origin story, but on a structural level it actually much more closely resembles The Matrix, to the point where once you notice it you have trouble not seeing it as a bit of a ripoff.  There are some decent action scenes to be found in the movie and it has a fairly decent cast but the movie is never really able to transcend the fact that it’s kind of a knockoff version of other more expensive movies that doesn’t really have enough creativity to make up for it.

**1/2 out of Five

 

Home Video Round-Up 6/2/2020

The Color Out of Space (5/18/2020)

 

I’ve long been fascinated by H.P. Lovecraft despite kind of not actually having read a ton of his work in its entirety.  I mostly know Lovecraft through the many pieces of pop culture he’s inspired both directly and indirectly.  I’m generally interested when someone makes a straight-up adaptation of one of his works (especially if it’s not going to be the umpteenth “Shadow Over Innsmouth” adaptation), so when I heard that there was going to be a new adaptation of “The Color Out of Space” and that it would be the return of Richard “the dude who was fired from Island of Dr. Moreau” Stanley I was excited.  However, there was a bit of a red flag in that it starred Nicholas Cage and that it went more or less direct to VOD.  It was looking more like a Mandy than like some of the nonsense that guy has been involved in for a paycheck, but I was still a little unsure.  As it turns out the final film is a bit of a mixed bag.  It moves the story into the modern era, which is understandable but probably a mistake.  That early 20th Century New England milieu usually lends a lot of atmosphere to Lovecraft’s stories and when you take that out of the equation you do kind of feel like something’s missing.  I’m also not sure Nicholas Cage was the right casting choice.  He’s clearly thinking of this as one of his “weird” movie and that likely inspired a certain audience to show up to this but that kind of detracts from some of the suspense and horror.  On the more positive side, the film has some really enjoyable practical effects including some images that look like they’re straight out of John Capenter’s The Thing.  I’m not sure the final film really works, but it is interesting and I don’t regret watching it.

*** out of Five

Spaceship Earth (5/22/2020)

This documentary looks at the famous “Earth 2” project in which several people locked themselves into a giant building that was meant to replicate Earth’s ecosystem.  This project would later be lampooned in the 1996 Pauly Shore movie Bio-Dome and as far as the general public is concerned that has been the project’s lasting legacy, but when you step back and think about it the idea of doing something like that is wildly ambitious and it’s crazy that anyone ever tried to do it and succeed as long as they did.  The documentary manages to assemble a good number of people involved in the initial experiment as interview subjects and is able to pull from a good amount of archive footage to put together a pretty comprehensive look at what the project was about and why it came to have a slightly contentious relationship with the media.  If you know more about this project going in than I did your mileage with the documentary may vary.  I was a small child when these events were going on so I didn’t see the initial media coverage and a lot of this was pretty new to me.  I would also caution people that the film does generally seem to be a bit slanted in favor of the project and it would have been nice if it had given a bit more screen time to its critics at the time and today.

***1/2 out of Five

The Way Back (5/26/2020)

I think I may always have a soft spot in my heart for the handful of movies that were in theaters right before COVID swept the world, not in the sense that I’d cut them any slack (most of them were uninspired shlock that were being dumped before the summer competition swept in) but they lingered as the last “real” releases for so long that I find myself seeking out movies from that span that I might have just skipped otherwise like this Ben Affleck starring basketball/alcoholism movie.  When I watched the trailers for the movie it seemed downright laughable given that it had the same basic clichéd premise as The Mighty Ducks and several other sports films (a drunk coaches youth sports and finds that the kids are saving him rather than the reverse) but it seemed to take itself very seriously.  It was directed by a guy named Gavin O’Connor, who is a guy who seems to do to sports movies what Zach Snyder does to superhero movies: take material that usually gets a Disney-like sheen but shoot it in dark tones and with a very straight face.  I don’t mean that to entirely be pejorative by the way, Zack Snyder works for me sometimes and I don’t hate what O’Connor is doing here exactly.  Sure it seems like an odd commercial prospect to make an average movie about a drunk guy coaching basketball in an R-rated way, but it’s not like I want my movies to have less swearing or anything, and it’s not like I don’t want movies to have slick prestige cinematography or to end on downcast bittersweet notes, but… it just seems weird to see someone give such a presentation to something that so unoriginal.  The film doesn’t have that much to say about alcoholism beyond “it screws up your life and is hard to overcome” and it doesn’t have much to say about youth basketball beyond displaying certain dynamics of coaching that we’ve seen elsewhere. Parts of it make me want to give it a pass but ultimately the film just doesn’t have enough going for it to make it really stand out as something to recommend.

**1/2 out of Five

AKA Jane Roe (5/31/2020)

AKA Jane Roe is a documentary produced by FX and Hulu which looks at the life of Norma McCorvey the “Roe” from the Roe V. Wade case.  The documentary crew was given access to her during the last days of her life and looks back at her rough life prior to the case, her early advocacy in favor of abortion rights, and then it looks at the strange turn that her life took when she appeared to convert to evangelical Christianity and become and opponent of abortion rights.  I don’t think I’m spoiling a twist here as this has been covered by the media, but the big revelation in the documentary is that in it McCorvey reveals to the filmmakers that that conversion was actually fake and that her anti-choice advocacy during that period was done because certain anti-abortion groups were paying her to do so.  This revelation is confirmed by another talking head that was working with that organization and has had regrets about how they operated.  This “deathbed confession” as its termed is pretty believable in part because you can clearly see in the film that McCorvey is a prickly and sardonic person at the end of her life and this seems to be much more in keeping with the footage we saw before her “conversion” than during her charade.  This is a pretty short documentary and aside from the “revelation” I’m not sure how much it would offer someone who was a bit more familiar with McCorvey’s story than I was, but it is always interesting when a doc can actually break some news like this one does and it does a pretty good job of contextualizing their “break” as well.

*** out of Five

The Vast of Night (6/2/2020)

The Vast of Night is a very small movie that has received a rather large amount of attention as of late as it’s one of the few movies to be released to “theaters” since the onset of COVID-19 pandemic.  The movie played a handful of drive-in theaters, particularly in Southern California, and is now streaming on Amazon.  Drive-ins were perhaps a smart location to play the film as it is a film set in a suburban 1950s milieu of the kind drive-ins would fit into.  The film is not, however, the fun genre romp that this setting would suggest, often to its detriment.  The film is actually a pretty slow movie set over the course of a single night involving a teenage radio DJ who finds himself a strange and possibly alien sound coming through the radiowaves.  This does not strike me as a movie whose release was harmed by coronavirus, in fact I’m pretty sure it was destined for VOD regardless.  The movie was clearly made on a shoestring; it has a cast of unknown actors and lacks a certain polish.  Beyond that, frankly, I found the movie a bit slow and boring.  I kept waiting for it to really “kick in” and it never really did.  The movie is now on Amazon Prime, so if you have that service this might be worth giving a play to see if it floats your boat, but I didn’t get much out of it.

** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 5/7/2020

Miss Americana (2/15/2020)

I’m a bit of a connoisseur of “rock docs,” a label applied to backstage documentaries that follow famous musicians around in their lives as they deal with fame.  Good rock docs all have one thing in common: they make their subjects look like insufferable pretentious pricks who you wouldn’t want to be around in real life.  Don’t Look Back made Bob Dylan look wildly arrogant, Rattle and Hum made Bono look completely full of himself, Truth or Dare made Madonna look like an immature provocateur, Meeting People is Easy made Radiohead look like ungrateful killjoys.  When the central artist truly has the star power to be worthy of a rock doc they’ll usually transcend whatever image damage such a film will have and it will ultimately just end up building their legacies rather than tear it down.  The one way a rock doc can truly fail is if they fail to make the star at their center look like a jerk, when that happens you know what you’re watching is more of an advertisement than a genuine look at a celebrity, and in its own way this also reflects badly on the celebrity in question.  And the new Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana comes kind of close to being in that latter category.  The film looks at Swift during the recording of her latest album and shows her reflecting a bit on some of her previous escapades.  The portrait painted isn’t too different than what her PR team has been spinning for a while; she still endlessly plays the victim despite being a multi-millionaire with no real problems and still hasn’t gotten over the fact that a dude interrupted her at a bullshit award show over a decade ago.  We also spend time watching her as she puts endless thought and focus testing into making the kind of political statement about a Tennessee senate race, a statement that would have seemed routine to most other artists, but which see wants to paint as some kind of act of incredible bravery.  That’s not to say that there aren’t some legitimately interesting aspects of 21st Century popstardom that get displayed here, but by the end I still kind of feel like I was being sold an image rather than getting the candid documentary that this claims to be.

** out of Five

Bad Education (4/28/2020)

First of all, it’s bullshit that this movie is titled “Bad Education,” as far as I’m concerned Pedro Almodóvar owns that title.  I should also point out my reluctance to treat an HBO film as I would a theatrical release coming to home video, but given that this was picked up at a festival rather than produced with cable in mind I’m willing to give it a pass.  This is a film based on a real life scandal that occurred in Long Island involving embezzlement that occurred in the school system in one of the more affluent districts there.  I won’t give away too much about the details but it is an odd and interesting story, but maybe not odd and interesting to the point where it needed a feature length dramatization.  I feel like the details of this would have made a decent documentary or perhaps a good episode of “This American Life” but I’m not sure the dimensions were quite there to really support this kind of treatment and when it occasionally reaches to sort of turn this into some sort of epic tragedy of hubris it feels overwrought and reaching.  In many ways HBO actually feels like a smart landing place for the movie as they seem to really love doing movies about real life scandals, but they’re usually bigger scandals than this, but it’s made in a similarly straightforward way and in many ways feels like a step backwards for its director from his previous film Thoroughbreds.

*** out of Five

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (3/25/2020)

When I saw the title “Crip Camp” floating around festival coverage I kind of assumed it was talking about the L.A. street gang, but “crip” here is apparently short for “cripple” and the film is firstly about a camp for the disabled in the 60s and then later about the wider movement for disability rights.  The connection between the two is a little tenuous; some of the advocates in the movement went to the camp, a majority did not, and the sections dealing with the camp mostly just show that the disabled are just as susceptible to boomer nostalgia as anyone.  That part is, however, a bit more unique than the second half which is essentially the kind of history of a protest moment movies we see from time to time but for a different movement.  Still, for what the movie’s trying to do it’s really effective.  It’s a good illustration of what grassroots campaigning can accomplish and also a good overview of how disability law evolved over the course of a decade or two.  It’s a bit conventional in general and doesn’t re-invent the wheel but it does ultimately deliver and is worth seeing for people interested in the topic.

*** out of Five

Extraction (5/4/2020)

Extraction is this fairly high budget Netflix original action film that seems to have just dropped in out of nowhere in the midst of a major world crisis to provide us with some much needed violence to whittle away our time.  The film stars Chris Hemsworth, was produced by the Russo brothers, and a guy named Sam Hargrove, who was the stunt coordinator on a number of the MCU films.  In many ways I think what they were trying to do here was capture the magic of the John Wick movies by having a stunt guy make an unpretentious action flick, but the movie lacks a certain… insanity… that gives those movies flavor that this lacks.  In many ways this is an argument that trusting stunt people to make you movies is not such a surefire idea.  This movie certainly has a lot of well executed action scenes and moment for moment it could certainly be said to be good at what it does but something about the whole enterprise just feels kind of soulless.  The film’s plot is essentially a ripoff of the 2004 film Man on Fire as well as a handful of other “tough guy is tasked with saving a kid from bad guys” movies.  Hemsworth is reasonably good in his role but his performance is hardly a revelation and his character is bland enough that there’s not much to say about his work in it.  There are worse ways to pass the time and there are moments here that probably make it worth a watch if this is the kind of thing you have an itch for (and it’s not like it has much competition at the moment) but don’t mistake it for some sort of genre revelation.

**1/2 out of Five

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (5/7/2020)

I wasn’t exactly sure why HBO decided the world was itching for a documentary about Natalie Wood and shortly into watching the film it became apparent that Wood’s family (the people who remain behind, if you will) are very much in the driver’s seat on this thing.  This leads to film to have this rather strange structure where it starts by doing a deep dive into Wood’s family history and domestic life, then going back and looking at her Hollywood career, and then finally doing a deep-ish dive into the circumstances of her mysterious death.  Wood’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner did not direct the film but is all over it both as an interview subject and as the person interviewing a number of the talking heads on screen including her stepfather and “person of interest” in Wood’s death Robert Wagner.  This visibly slanted focus is a problem with the movie on several levels; firstly it gives the film far too much of a focus on Wood’s domestic life at the expense of analyzing her actual work, secondly when it is looking at the domestic side it’s trying too hard to make it look like everyone was in a big happy family in a “they doth protest too much” kind of way, and finally it makes the movie look like a particularly unreliable source when it comes to deconstructing Wood’s eventual drowning.  Mind you, I have no reason to think they actually are covering anything up but their approach kind of makes it look like they are.  I’m not sure that a more detached and/or sensationalistic look at this life would have been preferable, but that would have at least been entertaining or interesting which this isn’t.

*1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 1/28/2020

Cold Case Hammarskjöld (1/5/2020)

The documentary Cold Case Hammarskjöld, which investigates the 1961 plane crash that killed UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, opens with its director saying something along the lines “this could either be the world’s biggest murder mystery or the world’s most idiotic conspiracy theory.”  I would say I do quite like that touch of modesty because the end result of this film is that they fine a great deal of smoke but ultimately fail to prove the presence of a fire.  Presented in a more straightforward manner I would probably not be on board with that given that I’ve come to be increasingly wary about the spread of unproven conspiracy theories and the damage they can do, but here the film’s director places himself front and center in the film for the explicit purpose of showing you that he is just as frustrated about how thin the evidence around this case is.  The film even goes so far as to incorporate a device in which the director explains the whole story of his investigation to a skeptical third party to sort of get their confused reaction to all of it.  That having been said, some of the things that this guy does seem to uncover around the periphery of this case are pretty major if they’re true.  Ultimately, I’m not sure if this was ready for the presses, but I wouldn’t necessarily discourage the director from digging deeper into all of this and if he manages to make a sequel doc with more concrete evidence about all of this I’d be interested in seeing it.

*** out of Five

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love (1/8/2020)

This documentary seeks to look at the relationship between Leonard Cohen and his onetime girlfriend Marianne Ihlen, who is believed to have been the inspiration for a handful of his famous songs.  Both Cohen and Ihlen are dead and neither were interviewed for this so we mostly get the story through mutual friends of the two as well as some archival interviews and stock footage.  I like Cohen’s music but I’m not a superfan and don’t know a whole lot of biographical information about him.  In fact I don’t know that his life story is as widely known as a lot of musicians and as such I’m not sure this documentary necessarily needed to search for a novel entry point into his life like this one relationship.  In fact the film does end up needed to do a lot of straightforward biopic stuff with him so trying to sell this as two people’s story seemed a touch misguided.  That said their time on the Greek island of Hydra during the height of the sixties does sound interestingly idyllic and the film shows a much different side of the guy than I would have expected.  Probably best left for the hardcore fans.

**1/2 out of Five

Judy (1/10/2020)

This film about the last days of Judy Garland’s life has largely been viewed as Oscar bait in the discourse and there’s probably some truth to that.  The film looks at Garland when she’s at her lowest point, drug addicted and out of her mind forced to focus almost exclusively on doing live performances of songs from her old movies in order to maintain her lifestyle.  Specifically the movie looks at a residency she did in London where she delivered some rather inconsistent concerts about six months before her death.  This period is then intercut with flashbacks to her time as a child star where she was more or less psychologically abused by Louis B. Mayer in order to become the perfect star.  Front and center of all discussions of the film has been Renée Zellweger’s work as Garland.  I’m not necessarily in the best position to judge how close she is to replicating Garland’s look and mannerisms as I’m not terribly familiar with what Garland was like in this stage of her life, but Zellweger certainly does a good job of portraying a character who’s drug addicted and constantly fighting back demons.  Outside of that I’d say the movie is a solid C+ piece of work.  Director Rupert Goold appears to primarily be a theater director and while he is not without visual ideas here he doesn’t exactly execute on them perfectly and the script is generally pretty straightforward.

*** out of Five

The Peanut Butter Falcon (1/11/2020)

I really want to have stronger feelings about this film but for me it was just kind of the personification of an average indie movie.  The film is a Southern picaresque in the vein of Mud or Undertow in which a guy with Down syndrome escapes from the institution he’s living in and connects with a drifter played by Shia LaBeouf while a nurse played by Dakota Johnson also pursues them.  I would say that the film’s cast is pretty good; LaBeouf is in good form and it’s cool that they found an actual Down syndrome person to play that role.  That said I found a lot of the characters here to be pretty broadly drawn.  The staff at the home the Down syndrome guys was living in felt more like the kind of staff he would have had to deal with in a different era than what a modern disability home would be like and the LaBeouf character’s effortless homespun wisdom did not ring particularly true to me and the way they drag the nurse into the adventure leading to a romance between her and the LaBeouf character felt contrived in a very clichéd movie way.  Beyond that the whole movie kind of seemed to get its point (that people with mental disabilities should be treated more like regular people) across really quickly and doesn’t really have much else to do from there and it reaches its finale in a way that didn’t strike me as overly satisfying.

**1/2 out of Five

I Lost My Body (1/20/2020)

I’ve come to really appreciate the animation branch of the Academy as they really seem to do their research and have shown a willingness to nominate unexpected choices. This year their big discovery is I Lost My Body, an R-rated animation from a largely unknown French animation studio that appears to primarily make television rather than film and which is currently being distributed by Netflix.  The film is about a severed hand which, through some unexplained magic, has come alive and become sentient as it tries to find the body it was severed from and that is intercut with flashbacks to how said hand came to be severed.  That’s a neat Gogol-esque concept and the movie finds interesting ways to capture this hand crawling around the city like Thing from “The Addams Family” and that part in and of itself would have been a pretty good forty minute short-subject but the movie feels like it’s been expanded to feature length with mixed results.  The flashback sections here certainly aren’t “bad,” in fact some of them are kind of touching and relatable but if given a choice between watching them and the adventures of a sentient severed hand I’m going to have to side with the severed hand and in many ways the flashbacks just gets in the way of that.  Still a pretty cool and daring little project to be sure, just kind of think it’s in the wrong format.

*** out of Five

Klaus (1/20/2019)

Sergio Pablos is a Spanish animator who worked for Disney during the late 90s when they were making computer assisted 2D animated films like Tarzan and then he left them and took more of a leadership role Illumination where he became one of the co-creators of the Despicable Me franchise.  For his latest film he is bringing 2D animation back and claims to be trying to run an experiment to see what western 2D animation would have evolved into if people were still making it through the last twenty years, which certainly a cool idea from a visual perspective.  The film is hardly hand-drawn and uses a lot of computer assistance but it does mostly have a cool look.  I would also say its base storytelling idea is interesting in that it’s a sort of origin story of Santa Klaus that re-imagines the legend as a non-supernatural woodcutter who lives on a weird island where everyone fights like Hatfields and Mccoys and starts delivering toys to kids as part of a sort of joint-venture with a desperate mailman.  I’m a little queasy about the film’s basic message, which basically boils down to “materialism brings world peace” but the real problem here is really the film’s sense of humor and writing in general.  When Pablos said he wanted to see what 2D animated movies would evolve into the modern era he apparently also meant that it would take on a sort of sub-Dreamworks/Illumination sensibility where people talk in this bad anachronistic patter and the film is filled with some pretty bad slapstick and leads to a dumb sentimental moral for children.

** out of Five

Harriet (1/28/2020)

In the last ten years or so there have been more movies about the black experience in America than ever before but I’ve been a little disappointed that so many of the movies that get made about black history seem to be more interested in inspiring children than in getting into the complexities of the black experience and you can pretty safely place Harriet alongside the likes of 42 and Red Tails in that regard.  The film generally falls into a lot of the usual traps that mediocre biopics tend to fall into; I wouldn’t accuse it of being a hagiography exactly since Harriet Tubman is enough of a legendary figure that there aren’t many “warts” that need pointing out, but the movie in in such a rush to point out her righteousness that it doesn’t really make her feel like a fully human character and a lot of the period trappings felt undetailed and bland and the movie also struggles mightily to fit even a fraction of the character’s life into a two hour film.  That’s not to say that the movie is horrible or anything, Tubman and her Underground Railroad rescues were interesting enough that you would have to work pretty hard to make a movie about the subject that wasn’t at least watchable, which this mostly is.  It will probably be shown in a lot of middle schools in the years to come and if that’s what Kasi Lemmons set out to accomplish then she accomplished it, but I want a little more out of my historical movies than that.

** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up 12/22/2019

Men in Black: International (12/18/2019)

There’s been a lot of talk of Disney’s dominance of the box office this year, and that’s certainly a real thing, but what they don’t talk about is the fact that this wasn’t just the result of Disney doing great but also the other studios shitting the bed with a lot of their own tentpoles.  Exhibit A in the underperformance of these other studios was probably Men in Black: International that didn’t so much bomb as much as it “came and went” in the most brutal fashion possible.  Honestly I was kind of surprised it didn’t work.  On paper it seemed like it was a reboot that was being done at the right time and in a good way so had assumed that it must have been a total stinker to fail like it did but having now seen it I’m not sure that’s really the case.  This movie isn’t awful at all… it’s just painfully mediocre, and painfully mediocre is usually good enough for the general public.  The leads have decent chemistry and there’s nothing wrong with the effects and while the story is predictable as hell (seriously, I predicted a major plot twist from the trailer), it’s not terrible.  But it’s not particularly good either.  I don’t think its jokes are very funny and the action scenes never rise above or sink below the level of competent.  Maybe the real cause of Disney’s dominance isn’t so much that it’s dominating the market so much as they’ve kind of risen the bar for the level of spectacle that people expect for their money and movies like this just can’t compete.

**1/2 out of Five

The Biggest Little Farm (12/21/2019)

This documentary about a young couple who leave their urban lives to start a farm in Southern California became something of a sleeper hit early in the year and is among the highest grossing documentaries of the year but I’ve resisted seeing it for a while.  Frankly a couple of hippies finding purpose in growing organic lettuce or whatever is about the last thing I was inclined to be interested in, but I’ll admit that I was eventually won over by the movie.  For one thing, if I understood correctly one of the subjects was a professional camera operator before he decided to take up agriculture and you can sort of tell because this has a bit more of an eye for cinematic composition than you might expect and it’s been edited together and told more artfully than it could have been.  Also this farm they built really does seem different from your average farm given the sheer quantity of things they appear to be doing with it and it’s interesting seeing that come together.  The whole thing is a bit more self-congratulatory than it probably needed to be but considering how low my expectations were I’d say this was a pretty big win.

***1/2 out of Five

The Two Popes (12/21/2019)

Fernando Meirelles’ City of God blew my mind when I saw it in high school.  Seeing that movie made me feel like I was seeing a major talent emerge in front of my eyes.  He followed that up with a pretty good movie in The Constant Gardener but after that his career completely fizzled and he kind of disappeared.  I feel like I should be a lot more excited that he’s finally made another relevant movie in The Two Popes but I kind of wasn’t.  What can I say; I just don’t find popes to be a huge source of interest.  There are kind of three movies going on here: there’s a lighthearted look at life in the upper echelons of the Catholic Church with a bunch of “pontiffs, they’re just like us” moments, then there’s a fairly serious biopic about the life of Pope Frances told through flashbacks, and then there’s a dialogue heavy movie about a sort of battle of respectful debate between two popes on different sides of certain theological debates.  Each of these three movies has some potential but I’m not sure they blend together all that perfectly.  They don’t completely cancel each other out but they don’t really build on each other either.  The performances are certainly great, both Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce were well cast and Pryce in particular really goes that extra mile to make himself look like the pope and pick up on his mannerisms and the film also seems to replicate the various Vatican locations faithfully.  The final movie is ultimately interesting and well made but it lacks a real vision and purpose.

*** out of Five

David Crosby: Remember My Name (12/22/2019)

I’ve talked all year about how cookie cutter I tend to find biographical portrait documentaries, but there are ways to do it right and David Crosby: Remember My Name is one of the good ones.  The usual downfall of movies that follow old people around to celebrate their careers is how kiss-ass they tend to be, they’re usually hagiographies that exist to make their subjects smile when they see the final result.  That’s not a problem with this examination of the hippie singer-songwriter David Crosby in part because Crosby proves to be very open about his many faults and regrets.  It’s not a movie that ignores the high points in Crosby’s career and isn’t relentlessly negative but the highlights are almost certainly the portions where the singer talks about the depths of his drug addictions and about the ego driven conflicts that have resulted in Stills, Nash, and Young shunning him and refusing to so much as talk to him to this day.  It’s not the most artfully composed documentary but the whole thing could be described as rather confessional and it kept me interested even though I have very limited knowledge of the specific music that precipitated it.   If nothing else it blows that awful Echo in the Canyon documentary which also featured Crosby and seemingly had no interest whatsoever in interrogating the legacy of the milieu that he existed in.

***1/2 out of Five

Wild Rose (12/22/2019)

This summer there were two competing British movies about unlikely music aficionados battling it out to be the “little movie that could” in the marketplace and neither of them really ended up taking off.  The first was the Bruce Springsteen love letter Blinded By the Light, which was a bit too loaded with coming of age clichés, and then there was this movie about a young Scottish girl with a troubled background who had unlikely dreams of becoming a country singer.  Jessie Buckley is quite strong in the lead role and while the movie isn’t trying for Ken Loach levels of social realism here they do manage to do a pretty good job of conveying the various issues in this woman’s life.  It’s the aspiring singer side of the movie that didn’t work as well for me.  I don’t know, I just don’t think the world needed a British country music 8 Mile right now.  Movies about breaking into the music industry are not that uncommon and the fact that this Scottish lass is trying to sing country music (and a form of country music that is not popular in Nashville right now to boot) did not really seem to be the right novelty to get me into this one and I’m not sure the movie ever really found the right ending either.

*** out of Five

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