When does a “new wave” just become the “new normal?”  It’s a concept that’s pretty hard to define given that cinematic “new waves” are a pretty nebulous concept to begin with.  Most people agree that the movies made by people like Truffaut and Godard in the late 50s through much of the 60s were part of the “French New Wave” but almost all those directors continued to make movies for decades to come after that, when did those cease to be “new wave” films and just become films by directors formerly associated with the “new wave.”  That question is of course on my mind given the clearest example of a “new wave” that seemed to happen during my own lifetime, the “Romanian New Wave” which started somewhere in the mid-2000s and may or may not still be going on today depending on how you want to define it.  Then again maybe suggesting that this was ever some sort of fleeting trend might have been needlessly limiting as the style seems to have some real staying power.  Every time I think we can move on another wave of really solid Romanian films comes along that still feel well in tune with what came before and the New Wave seemingly lives on, though there have been some twists of late.  Most notably the Romanian filmmaker who has had the most import abroad, Cristian Mungiu, has been sort of out of commission since the release of his 2016 film Graduation, which itself was kind of considered a minor work.  He’s finally back now though with a new film called R.M.N., which feels like as much of a statement as anything he made back in the 2000s.

The film is set in an unnamed town in the Transylvania region of Romania near the Hungarian border and the town seems to be evenly divided between Romanian and Hungarian residents (IFC’s presentation of the film subtitles Romanian in white, Hungarian in yellow and other languages in pink).  At the film’s center though is a guy named Matthias (Marin Grigore) who is part of a smaller German ethnic cohort.  As the film starts Matthias had been working abroad at a German slaughterhouse when he learns that his son has been traumatized by something he saw in the woods near his home, leading Matthias to return home, possibly to the annoyance of his estranged wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu).  He also seems to have coincidentally arrived at a rather tense time for this hometown as the local industrial bakery has recently brought in a trio of Sri Lankan guest workers to keep up production, which has lit a fire of xenophobia amongst the locals who are starting up a petition to eject these foreign workers.  Matthias’ mistress Csilla (Judith State) is a manager at that bakery and is one of the leading voices championing for these men, but seems to be going up against a real tidal wave of hate that this situation has stirred up.

Cristian Mungiu’s films have had something of a temporal through line: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days was set during the Ceaușescu regime, Beyond the Hills is set in modern day but was about the legacy of the orphanages that opened as a consequence of that period’s policies, Graduation is set in the modern day but is about people who returned to Romania after the fall of Ceaușescu and their feelings about rebuilding the new country, but R.M.N. feels a lot more distinctly like a movie about modern hot button issues rather than the legacy of Ceaușescu.  This isn’t to say that the movie ignores the history that led to this moment, but it’s very much a movie taking on a very specific kind of xenophobia and white nationalism that’s occurring in modern Europe and around the world.  The central conflict is around the heated racist reaction to the legal employment of three immigrant workers of color, which certainly seems like some really over the top racism and it’s made all the more disturbing by the general shamelessness of what the know-nothing mob is putting forward.  I feel like in the United States even the most racist of mobs would at least try to employ some dog whistles when objecting to these people’s presence but the villagers here seem to make few excuses for their attitudes, which are made all the more ironic since many of them are themselves ethnic minorities within Romania and many of them have their own experiences acting as guest workers in other richer countries.  However, I feel like the dynamics of all this feel more familiar than they do foreign.  It has the same kind of lower class populists versus educated professional conflict that so often fuels these arguments around the world and the film does provide some nuances around why said educated professionals are not always in the best position to fight back in these situations.

This take on racial hatred in this town is plainly the main draw of the film and it hits a crescendo in this bravura static long take during a town hall meeting on the topic, but I think the movie is maybe a bit less successful at mixing the political with the personal via the Matthias point of view character.  He seems to have been added to act as a character who is sort of a neutral center in the debate around the guest workers: not dead set on kicking them out like some of the angry villagers but also not interested in defending them much to the annoyance of his mistress.  The toxic masculinity he brings to his relationship with his child and baby mama also emphasize that there are intersections at play here beyond the town’s racism.  However I’m not quite sure what metaphor it’s going for with its sub-plot about his kid seeing things in the woods and I don’t only the haziest of guesses as to what the film’s rather cryptic and abrupt ending is supposed to mean.  In a lot of ways I wish the movie had focused in more on that central debate than doing everything through this kind of bland character’s eyes, but all that said I think this whole movie is still another win for Mungiu.  It taps into the very real zeitgeist of contemporary debates in the same way his Romanian New Wave compatriot Radu Jude does but in a more serious and straightforward way and I was definitely interested while watching it.
**** out of Five


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3(5/5/2023)

In the May of 2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opened up to predictable acclaim and profits.  It was early in “phase three,” which in retrospect was probably a high point of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it was perhaps easy to take their victories for granted at the time.  I thought that sequel was fine but felt like it was kind of just more of the same from what James Gunn gave us in the first Guardians movie, but that movie was also solid so that was fine.  I fully expected a third volume to show up on schedule in the next three years and would close out the trilogy with even more of the same but that didn’t exactly happen.  Instead thanks to some behind the scenes drama I don’t have time to get into it took six years for this final sequel to show up, which doesn’t sound like that much more but a whole lot has happened since then in the real world and even more has happened with the MCU.  Consider for example that the first of the rebooted MCU Spider-Man movies came out two months after that second Guardians film and yet we’ve already finished out that trilogy well before the climactic Guardians film finally came out.  Additionally the characters of Guardians of the Galaxy were major parts of two Avengers movies which led to major changes for the entire team that James Gunn would need to address.  Beyond that though the whole momentum of the MCU has changed a lot, as have the careers of the entire cast and crew, including Gunn who I have to suspect is a little bitter about the aforementioned behind the scenes drama.  So with this new installment we’re given a Guardians of the Galaxy sequel that may in many ways feel like more of the same on the surface but has a noticeably different tone and feel at its core.

The film begins shortly after the “Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special” that released on Disney+ last year and sees our heroes set up on Knowhere.  Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is still in something of a depressed stupor following the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) in Avengers: Infinity War and the fact that a time displaced version of her came back in Avengers: Endgame only complicates those feelings.  That doppelganger is off doing her own thing but most of the rest of “the gang” is there on knowhere and need to go into action when they are unexpectedly attacked by a gold skinned flying villain named Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), who is a bit dim but clearly has major combat ability.  He eventually retreats after receiving an injury from Nebula (Karen Gillan), but not before grievously injuring Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and it becomes apparent to the crew that healing him will be impossible until they can deactivate a kill switch that has been implanted on the ring tailed mercenary’s heart.  To save him the aforementioned Guardians along with Drax (Dave Bautista), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Groot (Vin Diesel) decide to go on a mission that will eventually pit them against the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), a megalomaniacal eugenicist who may have been entwined with Rocket’s past.

When the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 dropped something stood out to me right away: it was accompanied by the song “In the Meantime” by Spacehog, a song that was recorded and released in 1996.  That’s probably still an “oldie” by the standards of a lot of people but it’s still a good twenty years more current than the songs that populated the first two movies in the franchise.  Sure enough that signals that the music in this movie features music from a wider range of time periods than the exclusively 60s and 70s stuff that set the tone for those first two movies.  This shift was of course something that was foreshadowed late in Volume 2 when Peter Quill was gifted a Zoom, but it still feels like a somewhat daring willingness to mess with the formula a bit in this third film and I think that attitude carries over to other aspects of this film.  I would not say that the film is radically different than the first two movies but there is subtle but noticeable change here that may throw some people.  The film kind of lives in the shadow of traumatic events that happened over the course of the Avengers films the characters participated in and between that and Rocket’s dark backstory that makes the film a bit darker and a bit less of a romp than the first two volumes.  This isn’t to say that there isn’t still humor in the movie, there certainly is, but at times it feels like these characters just joke to keep themselves from crying.

At the film’s center are a series of flashbacks to Rocket’s origins that appear to have been pretty well received but which I’m a bit cooler on.  There’s nothing “wrong” with them exactly but it’s pretty clear from the beginning where that story thread is going and I feel like we could have maybe stood to cut to it a little less often and there’s also a walrus creature in it that’s very poorly rendered in CGI.  The storyline also involves animals getting tinkered on by a sort of intergalactic Dr. Moreau, which I’ve heard some people describe as “disturbing,” which I can’t say I can relate to terribly well given how steeped in gory horror movies I am and how little affection I tend to have with animals.  I’d also say that the villain in question, while not bad as a character necessarily, is a bit stock.  His motives related to genetic tinkering are potentially interesting but he mostly just comes off as your standard megalomaniac and his tactics are just kind of flamboyantly eeeeeviiiilll.  But he looks cool, and that’s probably good enough for the purposes of this movie that has a lot of other things to deal with during its running time.  On the plus side, if you’re kind of sick of Marvel films being too devoted to setting up other Marvel films this is mostly a step back from that.  You certainly need to do the prerequisite viewing (including both recent Avengers films and the holiday special) and I do have some suspicions that Adam Warlock is mostly here to be used again at some point in the future but aside from that there isn’t much spinoff baiting here and even the post credit scenes mostly serve to further the story you’ve been watching rather than to tease another one.

If I have a particular complaint about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 it’s just that it’s maybe lacking in any real surprises.  In the lead-up to the film there was a lot of speculation about it doing something really wild and climactic to bring closure to this branch of the MCU but it really doesn’t, there’s not much to spoil even if I wanted to and while the central team is left in a different state than how it started the movie definitely does leave a lot of room for further sequels.  Aside from that I think what feels a bit “off” about it is just timing.  A lot of momentum seems to have been lost in the six years it took to make it both behind the scenes and in terms of what the public is looking for and the sub-franchise that so perfectly hit the zeitgeist in 2014 might be a bit behind the times in 2023.  But I don’t want to come off as too negative hear because I think the sum of this movie’s parts are actually very strong.  It’s probably the MCU’s best movie since Avengers: Endgame give or take a Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.  In fact it’s because so much of it objectively executes so well that I’m left to theorize why the movie didn’t give me that joyful feeling I’m usually left with when the MCU is operating at the top of its game.  Maybe it’s just a “me” problem?
***1/2 out of Five

Beau is Afraid(4/22/2023)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

What does a director do when they’ve been tagged as a “horror filmmaker” but then want to start doing something else?  That’s kind of the predicament that a whole generation of indie auteurs seem to be running into after many of them found themselves making “elevated horror” and then had to decide if they want to keep doing that or move on to something else that maybe isn’t going to be as commercial.  Robert Eggers probably pulled this off the best by focusing in on the historical rather than suspense elements of his debut film The Witch, transitioned into the hothouse suspense effort The Lighthouse, and then into a borderline action film with The Northman.  Then there’s Jennifer Kent, who went from making The Babadook to making The Nightingale, which wasn’t really a horror movie but was a violent revenge movie that would provide some interest to the genre crowd.  On the other end of the spectrum though there’s David Robert Mitchell, who followed up his “elevated horror” film It Follows by taking whatever clout that gave him and using it to make an outlandishly weird go-for-broke follow-up devoid of horror called Under the Silver Lake.  Some people love it, personally I’m not much of a fan but I admire the effort.  It would seem that Ari Aster has gone the same route by, following up his twin A24 horror triumphs, Hereditary and Midsommar, by having that buzzy studio give him $35 million dollars to make a wild three hour surreal tragicomedy called Beau is Afraid which is… quite the gamble.

Beau is Afraid starts off feeling like a movie that takes its title very literally.  The film’s first section we’re introduced to our subject, Beau Wassermann (Joaquin Phoenix), a highly neurotic middle aged man who’s on psychiatric medication and lives in an incredibly dumpy bordering on dangerous apartment in New York.  Or does he?  As the movie started we see Beau encounter threatening person after threatening person in New York, learn from a new report about a knife wielding nude man who’s been murdering people, and even hear that there’s a venomous spider loose in Beau’s building.  Is Beau really living in a world that’s this comically dangerous, or is much of this not actually happening and what we’re actually seeing on screen are manifestations of his delusional paranoia about the world and its many dangers.   Anyway, we learn that he soon plans to visit his mother Mona (Patti LuPone) only to have that trip derailed by a series of misadventures.  He then gets a phone call telling him that Mona may have been killed in a freak accident, leading him to spiral a bit, and much of the rest of the film is his often interrupted journey to reach his hometown to attend her funeral, which leads to a sort of picaresque story along the way that will also dig into his psychology and paranoia.

If the first quarter of the film is about everything that leaves Beau unsettled and frightened in the city, the second quarter is about how the suburban life hardly leaves him any more comfortable.  In this section he’s being nursed to health following an accident by a rather strange couple played by Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane despite feeling immense pressure to leave and attend his mother’s funeral as quickly as possible.  The couple are seemingly as polite as they can be at all times, and yet there does seem to be something threatening about them just the same and you empathize with Beau’s paranoia about possible secondary motives they may have to hold him there.  Meanwhile their home also features a traumatized soldier who served with their dead son and appears to be about as dangerous as the nude stabber back in New York, and also a teenage daughter who seems to represent everything that scares people Beau’s age about the next generation (teenage apathy, rebellion, phone addiction, suicidal tendencies, and also the fear that a man his age could be accused of predatory feelings towards them).  So clearly Beau’s paranoia is not contained to New York, it seems all encompassing.

Once that section of the film ends we’ve been pretty well introduced to everything driving Beau mad and we spend the second half of the film trying to get to the bottom of why he’s such a basket case.  Short answer: his mother fucked him up, and continues to fuck him up… or does she?  We get a number of flashbacks to Beau’s teen years which tell a story of a young man whose father allegedly died before he was born from a heart murmur that killed him on his wedding night right as he conceived this son, leaving him to be raised by his high achieving but over-bearing mother who may well have latched onto him a bit too strongly to the point where there may have been some sort of incestuous feelings or abuse going on.  But this is hard to really determine definitively because Beau is about as unreliable a narrator as you can get: he’s a guy who seems to view the entire world as a surreal hellscape filled with people who want to kill him for no particular reason and we have no real way of knowing if he’s viewing his own past and his mother any more or less objectively in these various flashbacks.  And of course with one exception nothing scares Beau more than sex, something he thinks will literally kill him like it allegedly killed his father, though it’s hard to know if that story isn’t just another manifestation of his paranoia and flashbacks to his time on a cruise ship where he makes a fleeting connection to a girl his own age seem to mark some sort of turning point where he definitively set himself in his ways.

In the film’s third quarter we get something of a highlight in which Beau stumbles into this elaborate outdoor theater where  a troupe is putting on some sort of makeshift play that Beau seems to connect with and start envision as his own story.  At this point the set decoration of the stage becomes cinematic and combines with animation to become this story within a story that’s meant to really probe into the hopes and dreams of this guy who can only dream of having something resembling a normal life in a sort biblical parable about a man who goes through nearly Job like trials.  That digression is eventually rather violently interrupted and from there things just become increasingly bleak as the film’s final fourth focuses on the real or imagined logical endpoint of all Beau’s worries and tries to find definitive answers to what made him the way he is.  I said before that nothing scares Beau more than sex, but that maybe isn’t quite true, the thing that really scares him above all is the disapproval of his mother and the film’s final episode is meant to represent the logical endpoint of this.  Where there may be some grain of logic in being afraid of urban crime or traumatized soldiers there isn’t really any mortal danger to be found in maternal disapproval is there?  After all, what is Mona Wasserman going to do if she’s angry at him?  Fake her death in order to entrap him failing to appear at her funeral in time as revenge for missing a visit and then publicly reveal him as a bad son in front of a kangaroo court before drowning him under a capsized boat?  Seems like a pretty far-fetched dander to be in fear of but is it any more or less likely to happen than getting bitten by a brown recluse spider in a New York apartment?

Alright, so that covers much of the film’s runtime but maybe it’s time to take a step back and talk about what this movie even is.  The film feels almost entirely different from the pair of horror movies that Ari Aster built his career on.  I guess there are similar “mother issues” at the center of Hereditary and some of Patti LuPone’s line deliveries did remind me a bit of Toni Collette’s performance in that, but otherwise they’re pretty different.  This isn’t a horror movie and it doesn’t have the tone of something like Midsommer at all.  Instead this actually reminded me a lot more of the work of Charlie Kaufman, particularly his more “out there” directorial efforts like Synecdoche, New York and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, not just in the film’s batshit audacity but also in that it is very interested in getting in the head of a lonely and kind of schlubby middle aged protagonist who maybe has a bit of a screw loose.  That is perhaps a bit of a surprise coming from the 36 year old Aster, who’s at least a decade younger than his protagonist.  How personal any of this is is going to be a bit of a mystery as Beau doesn’t really seem like that much of a self-insert given what we know about Aster personally.  He’s plainly more successful than Beau, he didn’t have a single mother, and his parents were by all accounts artsy types rather than successful business people… but all of this has to be coming from somewhere right?

One thing that Beau does seem to have in common with Aster is Jewish identity, which is something the film doesn’t make too big of a deal out of but given the name I’m pretty sure that the Wassermanns are supposed to be Jewish and there is a pretty key reference to Jewish burial ritual.  That would by extension make Mona Wassermann a Jewish mother, which is of course something of a loaded stock figure and stereotype, which can make this a bit of a touchy subject for a goyim like me to talk about but it’s definitely something that’s embedded in the film.  The Wikipedia page on “Jewish stenotypes” describes this archetype as “a woman intensely loving but controlling to the point of smothering and attempting to engender enormous guilt in her children via the endless suffering which she professes to have experienced on their behalf.”  Think of the nagging woman at the center of Woody Allen’s New York Stories short “Oedipus Wrecks” in which the protagonist’s mother is such a nag that she continues to criticize him as a supernatural apparition after she disappears in a magic trick accident.  But where Allen and other Jewish entertainers have harnessed this stereotype as a source of humor over the years Aster seems to be painting this tendency as a more serious bordering on abusive tendencies that have left Beau with genuine scars, especially given his other paranoid tendencies.

On the other hand, given how much of an unreliable narrator Beau is it’s entirely possible that his mother isn’t really anything close to the manipulative and conniving bitch she’s depicted as being in Beau’s head.  In fact I think it’s entirely plausible that nothing we see of this woman beyond the initial phone call to her “actually” happened outside of Beau’s head.  In fact the movie is so aggressively surreal that most of what happens in it can be said to be in Beau’s head and it’s unclear how much if anything on screen is “real,” and that could likely be a source of frustration for many.  Three hours is a very long time to expect people to live in the head of a paranoid weirdo so the movie is kind of asking a lot of its viewers and some of its abstractions are a little hard to swallow.  The animatronic killer cock monster, for example, was probably a bit much.  But the bigger issue is that the movie somehow manages to be both cinematically cryptic while also being kind of blatantly obvious and unsubtle at the same time.  It asks you to dig through this guy’s psyche and what you find at the center are in many ways just Freudian clichés about mommy issues and sexual hang-ups.

So is the movie even any good?  I don’t know, this kind of feels like a ridiculous movie to boil down to a simple “thumbs up or thumbs down” and even as I write the final paragraph of this I don’t really know what star rating I’m going to give the damn thing.  It’s certainly not a movie I’d casually recommend to the average moviegoer, and even among the more dedicated cinephilles I’m pretty sure this one is going to be divisive, including among fans of Aster’s previous work.  Personally, I don’t know, it’s hard for me not to at least be intrigued by something that’s this ambitious and adventurous being put up on the screen and there were definitely moments of cinematic invention in it like that “play within a film” scene that had me riveted.  On the other hand I do think the running time is legitimately out of control and I’m not sure the psychology underpinning all of this really holds up.  Insomuch as it does hold up I think there’s something interesting being said about what a state of perpetual fear does to people.  As I’m writing this we’re going through a wave of high profile news stories about people getting shot at for ringing the wrong doorbell or driving into the wrong driveway, and the Fox Newses of the world are going out of their way to cause a state of maximum paranoia in this country and in that context something like this could be useful, but in this movie the paranoia is so directly personalized to this one dude’s baggage that I’m not sure it really says much about fear within the wider society like that.  But I’ve been talking about this movie for well over 2000 words at this point so clearly it provoked thoughts and I do think this is a movie that should be seen even if only for everyone to compare notes.
***1/2 out of Five

April Round-Up 2023 – Part 2


Outside of Studio Ghibli there doesn’t tend to be a whole lot of overlap between the world of anime and the world of “normal” cinema.  There are some exceptions here and there however and among the bigger names in cinematic anime these days     Makoto Shinkai, who scored a major international hit with the 2016 film Your Name but who hasn’t quite managed to turn himself into a real brand and his follow-up film Weathering With You never really managed to catch fire in quite the same way despite have plenty of strong qualities in its own right.  His latest film Suzume seems have also had trouble breaking out, possibly because it has kind of a boring title, which is unfortunate because like Weathering With You it’s really not that big of a drop from Shinkai’s hit and probably deserves to have more eyes on it.  I suppose another issue it has is that it’s kind of a hard movie to describe in a logline.  It’s basically about a girl who encounters a mysterious door in an abandoned building that reveals a portal to another world and after seeing it she starts having visions of monsters escaping from similar portals and has to travel around Japan shutting them down, accompanied by this other guy who knows more about all this but has been turned into a chair by a magical cat… yeah, trust me, it makes more sense when you’re actually watching it.  Like Shinkai’s last two films this has some really amazing animation that captures the real world in meticulous detail and also manages to have fantastical elements interact with it in seamless ways.  Also like those last films however the whole thing as a very teenage adolescent attitude and sensibility that some will have more patience for than others.  I guess my one over-riding complaint is that it feels like Shinkai has now made three very similar movies in a row, and while all three are good there is a sense of a magic trick losing some of its luster after a certain number of repetitions.  I hope that in his future work Shinkai expands himself a bit and maybe tries making something that doesn’t have a moody teenager at its center.
***1/2 out of Five


After the “Dark Universe” fell apart Universal decided they were going to take a less… cynical… approach to monetizing their “monsters” asset and would make individual disconnected movies aimed at adults and relevant to the modern world out of these characters.  Sounds like the right approach and their first effort in this venture, the Blumhouse co-produced 2020 version of The Invisible Man, was a pretty good example of how this could work.  That movie was pretty serious minded but for their next attempt they seem to have gone in the other direction and made a rather splattery comedy from the perspective of a deep-cut character from Dracula named Renfield.  Pretty much the second I saw the movie’s trailer I was pretty sure it would divide people: mass audiences would be alienated and stay away but that the movie was also likely to find something of a cult following that would dig it.  On some level that seems to have happened and yet I also suspect that the advertising might have been a little too honest and what would have been an unexpected surprise has turned out to be a rather expected one.  The film follows Renfield (Nicholas Hoult), a familiar for Dracula (Nicholas Cage) who’s been tasked with finding victims for his master in modern day New Orleans and is beginning to have a crisis of conscience about this.  There’s definitely some clever stuff to be found here like a prologue that re-enacts some of the famous sequences from the 1931 Dracula and I quite enjoyed Akwafina as a city police officer trying to take down a brutal gang that eventually becomes involved in Dracula’s plan for world conquest.  However there are other elements of the film that kind of feel like they were a bit out of date.  Some of the film’s gory but comical violence might have come as more of a shock five to then years ago but such imagery is starting to feel commonplace in movies like this.  I also think we’re getting a little done with Nicholas Cage’s shtick at this point, especially in movies like this which seem to be tailored around his over the top wackiness.  Cage is better when it feels like his wilder instincts are kind of invading an otherwise unsuspecting movie, but movies like this where everything else seems to be just as over the top as him kind of just feel desperate.  But I don’t want to be too negative here as I do think this has more going for it than the average Hollywood release and there is fun to be had with it, but it doesn’t live up to its full potential either.

*** out of Five

Evil Dead Rise(4/27/2023)

The Evil Dead franchise is unique in a lot of ways.  For one, it’s very much a cult success that has seemingly risen to mainstream popularity only much later than its original (and best) installments were made independently.  Even more odd is that it’s one of the few horror series that’s more defined by its hero than its villain.  Even beloved “final girl” horror protagonists like Laurie Strode and Ellen Ripley aren’t really as iconic as the image of the murderers they faced in their films but I do think Ash as a character kind of eclipses the “deadites” and that has been a complication as they try to make the series survive even as Bruce Campbell has ceased to really be viable as the star of a major studio motion picture.  Recasting is not really an option but putting a potentially “corny” sixty year old at the center of your movie probably isn’t going to work with “the kids” either.  They tried doing a the “big budget remake” approach with 2013’s Evil Dead and that movie was, okay.  I kind of dug it and its aggressive bloodletting and thought they did a decent job of replicating that first movie with a bigger budget.  The new movie has a title and trailer that suggest that it’s going in a different direction this time but in a lot of ways it’s kind of just doing the same thing that 2013 movie is: making a more serious horror remake of that first movie but with a bigger budget.  This difference of course is that this one is set in a run down apartment rather than a cabin in the woods but that’s not really as substantial a difference as you might think, they’re both still contained locations for a claustrophobic fight with the forces of evil.

The other big difference here is that rather than a group of college students the people at the center of this movie are a family, which is an interesting idea but also kind of a double edged sword.  On one hand the movie does a really good job of establishing this family and getting you invested in them and their various foibles and quirks but on the other hand maybe it does too good of a job at this?  Like, to the point where it becomes kind of a bummer when the bloodletting starts since you don’t particularly want these people to become victims of a zombification curse.  There’s a reason that the teenagers in the Friday the 13th movies are made to be these shallow and vapid creatures played by actors who are obviously pushing thirty, it makes it a lot more fun to root for Jason to murder them.  The teenagers here look like actual children and they seem like good people as well so there isn’t a lot of fun to be had with watching them get possessed, which could be very effective in some other contexts but the Evil Dead movies are not really supposed to disturb you they’re kind of supposed to be the “fun” kind of horror to varying degrees even when they’re not going full horror comedy like they did with some of the later Bruce Campbell ones.  But that concern aside this is a well-made flick with some quality gore and neat little set-pieces and I think most horror fans are going to want to give it a look but it wasn’t really the full revitalization I was hoping for.
*** out of Five

April Round-Up 2023 – Part 1

A Thousand and One(4/2/2023)

A Thousand and One is a movie that made a bit of a splash at Sundance and Focus Features seems to be skipping the platforming stage and giving it a rather aggressive wide release out the gate, which I think maybe sets it up a bit for failure as it’s not really the kind of movie that can bear that, especially without any real advertising.  Honestly I didn’t even know much of anything about it when I went to see it beyond the fact that it got some critical plaudits.  The film starts out seeming a bit like a Sean Baker slice of life sort of thing about a single mother trying to make it through a weekend after technically kidnapping her son from foster care in New York circa 1994.  At that stage of the film I can’t say I was overly impressed by it, but then the film takes a bit of an unexpected flash forward and reveals itself to be something that’s structurally more akin to Moonlight as it’s basically a movie depicting a black child as he ages through three stages of his life.  But, this isn’t told in the language of international arthouse cinema like Jenkins’ film was, it’s more of a gritty little indie film despite it’s recent period setting and somewhat ambitious sweep, which seeks to match the kid’s growth with the changes that New York went through during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations.  In this sense it’s kind of a movie that sneaks up on you, it starts out feeling rather modest but ultimately proves itself to be something of a modern day epic in its outlook at least though not it’s production values or runtime.  In fact I maybe wish that first time director A.V. Rockwell had held on to this one until she had a bit more experience and clout to turn this into something a bit bigger and more refined than it is, because it feels like with some amped up casting and filmmaking finesse this really could have been something special, but as it is it’s no slouch either.
***1/2 out of Five

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves(4/4/2023)

Despite the many avenues of geekery I’ve driven down over the years, Dungeons and Dragons is one piece of that culture that I’ve generally avoided.  Not out of any principal or desire, just because I never had quite the right friend group for it, but I do feel like I still know a lot about it through cultural osmosis.  Turning that property into a movie (or a video game or anything else) has always been kind of hard because it’s not really a “story” so much as it’s a rules set and a sort of collective lore, much of it so generic or so widely appropriated that it just sits as a sort of a “generic fantasy setting.”  Additionally, the very name “Dungeons and Dragons” is so widely associated with “nerd shit” that selling it to the normies would be challenging, so it’s pretty clear that in their quest to make this palatable they looked to other examples of how other studios have sold this sort of property and the model they clearly landed on was The Guardians of the Galaxy.  You’ve got a roguish dude at the center played by a Chris, leading a band of ragtag criminals on various heists across a fantasy world while quipping all along the way.  The film had enough self control not to also fill itself with nostalgic pop music, but otherwise it’s kind of a borderline ripoff.  It’s not a poorly executed ripoff however and mostly succeeds at achieving its largely unambitious goals.  The film assembles a decently likable cast of characters and mostly gives them fun adventures to go on and the film invested in some pretty decent special effects that are used in some reasonably clever ways.  The film’s directors,     Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, feel like pretty mercenary talents though and at the end of the day this movie just feels pretty empty so while I mostly enjoyed it I can’t say it’s a movie I respect much or suspect I’ll remember too well in a month’s time.
*** out of Five

How to Blow Up a Pipeline(4/13/2023)

The new film, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is labeled as an adaptation of the book of the same name by a Swedish professor named Andreas Malm, which is not a novel and is rather (as I’ve been told) a sort of nonfiction essay making the argument for sabotage and destruction of property as an acceptable tactic in climate activism.  That’s not the kind of thing that would normally be adapted into a scripted narrative feature but, perhaps taking cues from Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation adaptation, director and co-writer Daniel Goldhaber has opted to sort of take the argument of that book and create a fictional story that sort of illustrates it by making a film about people who put those ideas into action.  The resulting film as a heist movie of sorts that follows a group of activists who, for disparate reasons are plotting to blow up sections of oil pipelines in Texas in order to spike the price of gas and make fossil fuels less viable as an energy source.  Along the way we get flashbacks to what led each of the activists in the group to this point; what radicalized each of them and how they became involved in the central group.  The film’s cast is mostly populated by young actors who aren’t particularly recognizable outside of television and indie film and it’s shot on kind of cheap looking 16mm film stock in a way that’s kind of workmanlike.

I would not necessarily call the film a complete apologia for eco-terrorism, as there are some arguments against what they’re doing presented and one sympathetic character who’s sort of meant to be the voice of non-violence in the room, but the film also isn’t condemning of the central action and is probably more sympathetic than unsympathetic on balance.  Cards on the table, I’m not entirely comfortable with that.  Attacking oil infrastructure while America and the world is still largely dependent on it is mostly a recipe for backlash and this particular attack would ultimately lead to an increased carbon footprint through increased transport by tanker truck rather than pipeline.  Real change on this issue is going to involve a whole lot of electricity infrastructure, increased electric car production, and other boring reforms of the kind we’re getting out of the Build Back Better initiative and Inflation Reduction Act.  That transition is in fact happening, so in a lot of ways the outlook expressed by these activists feels kind of like a dated relic of an earlier time when it really did seem like fossil fuels could still be the future, which at this point they’re pretty clearly not.  As for the movie itself?  Well, the “heist” proceadural aspects of it are not without interest but if that’s all you’re looking for this is no Ocean’s Eleven and the individual stories of all the activists are a bit of a mixed bag with some of them working better than others.  There’s also kind of a lot of people the film has to cover in a pretty short amount of time so some of this feels rather abbreviated.  I almost think this may have been better served as a TV show in which each person’s flashback could have been an episode sub-plot.  There’s also a sub-plot involving FBI machinations that I don’t think really adds up.  Ultimately this is an interesting enough production to be worth a look, but it could have been pulled off better and I don’t think I’m on board with its overall message.
*** out of Five


I don’t care about shoes.  I hear about people who own dozens of pairs of them and talking about “limited editions” of them and the like and they just seem kind of crazy to me.  These are basically the least visible clothing accessory there is unless you go around staring at people’s feet like a weirdo.  I for one own exactly one pair of shoes (outside of my snow boots) and those are a pair of black New Balance walking shoes that look good enough to wear to work settings but are comfortable enough to wear in casual situations and my choice of brand is almost entirely a function of that being one of the few major companies that make wide sizes that fit my sasquatch feet.  Needless to say, this means I don’t have any particularly warm feelings about the Nike Corporation, makers of average athleticwear that has become wildly overvalued through hype marketing and related bullshit.  Additionally, I’m not much of a basketball fan and was a little too young to have really appreciated Michael Jordan’s dominance in that sport.  So, needless to say I’m not the natural target audience for a movie about Nike’s decision to sign Michael Jordan as a paid endorser of their shoes, but that doesn’t mean this was necessarily doomed to failure as a project for me.  I’ve also never so much as signed up for Facebook, but that didn’t preclude me from loving David Fincher’s The Social Network and I’ve also never been a fan of Apple Computer but that didn’t stop me from being interested in the movie Jobs, so I went into Air a bit skeptical but still curious.

The film begins in 1984 in a meeting at Nike attended by staff basketball scout Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) where the division is trying to decide which of the year’s draft picks they’re going to sign.  They know they can’t afford the top three picks: Hakeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie, and Michael Jordan.  Vaccaro is interested in Jordan but they only have $250,000 to work with and marketing executive Rob Strasser (Jason Bateman) believes the obvious safe course is to spend that on three lesser players to spread the risk rather than blowing it on one of them who could flame out and he knows that CEO Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) agrees with that approach, especially given that Nike’s basketball division is on shaky ground at that point.  Once Vaccaro takes another look at some of the tapes from Jordan’s college career he becomes even more convinced that he’ll be the a generational talent and goes on a mission to woo him over to Nike and away from Converse and Addidas and convince Knight and the board to go along with the plan.  In order to do this he even goes so far as to go around Jordan’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) and fly out to North Carolina to personally meet with Jordan’s parents Deloris (Viola Davis) and James (Julius Tennon), who are skeptical but will set up a meeting.  At this point it becomes increasingly clear that Nike needs to close this deal if it wants to stay in the basketball shoe business.

Air was directed by Ben Affleck, in his return to the director chair after a seven year absence following flop status of his 2016 film Live by Night and some chaotic experiences acting in the DCEU.  In many ways this feels like something of a safe project to return with given that he’s once again working with his buddy Matt Damon, isn’t working with huge special effects or elaborate sets, and is tackling a subject matter that most would agree is not wildly high stakes.  What he has instead constructed is a fairly breezy business procedural anchored by an almost comedic screenplay by Alex Convery that gives most of the characters a certain witty rapport.  One could go as far as to accuse the film of being downright overwritten and it does kind of indulge in a lot of slightly clunky jokes hinting at future events, like scene where the possibility of signing Charles Barkley to an endorsement deal is dismissed on the grounds that they don’t think anyone is going to want to see him talk on TV.  But on balance the film’s script and dialogue is its biggest asset and including some genuinely funny moments like these profane rants on the part of Jordan’s agent.

All of this, combined with a pretty solid cast make the film a pretty enjoyable viewing experience that I can’t argue with too much, but I also can’t help but question the point of all this.  On its face “tell the Michael Jordan story from the perspective of the dopey white people who want to pay to leech off of his fame” just seems kind of out of touch as a pitch and watchable as it may be I’m not sure it ever quite made the case for itself that it needed to make.  That’s not to say that the movie is entirely uncritical of the craven ad men at the movie’s center and the film does ultimately try to make a case for this athlete signing as having allowed for more lucrative future deals for athletes, but I don’t know, that still kind of feels like a first world problem that’s being solved.  I’m also not sure that it entirely brought to life the characters here; sure, they’re given fun personalities but these certainly aren’t probing character studies and some of the film’s other decisions like it’s wall to wall 80s music soundtrack and its sometimes distracting ways of avoiding having to cast someone as Michael Jordan.  It’s no The Social Network is what I’m saying, and for that matter it’s no The Big Short, but there are worse things it could be.  If you once thought Ben Affleck had the chops to become the next Clint Eastwood behind the camera this won’t necessarily advance that cause, but hey, at least it’s not another superhero movie… or is it?
*** out of Five