Jurassic World Dominion(6/15/2022)

I wasn’t expecting much from Jurassic World Dominion: I had very little nice to say about the previous Jurassic World movies or for that matter the other two sequels made from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.  So why did I go to see it?  I dunno, I guess I’m just obsessed with being on time with the discourse these days.  So my expectations for this were about as low as possible and yet still this somehow managed to be even worse than I expected, easily a series low.  The last film ended with our “heroes” psychotically unleashing these genetically altered prehistoric monsters on the world, making them indirectly responsible for untold numbers of deaths.  Somehow we’re still supposed to like them now because the Chris Pratt character has some deranged bond with a raptor and because the Bryce Dallas Howard character… actually I’m not sure why you’re supposed to care about her.  Anyway there may have been an interesting way to address the new post-Dinosaur status quo of this world, but this film mostly just willfully ignores a lot of the challenges of such a situation and just kind of hopes you don’t question things like how large and presumably cold blooded reptiles are going to survive in cold climates (and no, the films don’t get conveniently pretend these things were actually warm blooded birds the whole time now, they chose to make them reptiles and they have to stick to that).  The world of the film seems oddly disinterested in wiping out this invasive species and instead suggests large portions of the population would view these things through the preservationist eye one would apply to native species… which they aren’t.

Perhaps knowing that no one gives a damn about the Pratt and Dallas Howard characters the film also brings back the cast of the original Jurassic Park, but truth be told those characters were always somewhat thin archetypes and whatever depth they ever had has been stripped from them here.  Ian Malcolm’s pseudo-philosophical points of view have basically gone in whatever direction the series has needed them to go throughout this series and this film doesn’t even try to put smart things in his mouth and just kind of assumes Goldblumian snark will suffice.  As for Alan Grant, the film basically ignores his character arc from the first film (in which he grew to become fond of children and domesticity over the course of his adventure), and is made to be a childless bachelor basically identical to his previous self all these years later.  And Ellie Sattler, while still smart and feisty, still lacks a terribly strong personality beyond that.

Both groups of protagonists in this film, which by the way has a truly unwieldy ensemble, ultimately find themselves in the same place: a “wildlife preserve” run by an evil tech bro who looks like Tim Cook who wants to use these dinosaurs for various evil ends.  One of those ends is the creation of mega locusts who will wipe out all crops not sold by their company… which I can maybe imagine being an interesting idea if given more care and focus, but it seems absolutely ludicrous and out of place here.  I should also mention that, while all the Jurassic Park films are rooted in pseudo-science, this one has two interconnected sub-plots rooted in the absolutely ludicrous notion that a living organism can have its DNA altered through an injection, a notion that defies the basic function of how genetics works and is eerily similar to some particularly unhinged conspiracy theories about the Covid vaccine.  I don’t doubt that that particular parallel was unintentional but I think it does speak to how little this movie cares about science far beyond any kind of reasonable artistic license when compared to the legitimate science fiction of the original film.

Anyway, this wildlife preserve concept (which is really closer to just being a villain lair with dinosaurs), is particularly disappointing in that it more or less abandons the “what if dinosaurs were in the real world” concept from the first half in place of the more familiar territory for this series of a dinosaur zoo that breaks down as “life finds a way.”  But maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the film would give up the challenge of doing something new like exploring dinosaurs in the real world given that it basically exists to pander to series fans.  This is the same reason Grant, Malcolm, and Sadler haven’t changed a bit in thirty years besides now having greying hair: they’re only here for a nostalgia hit.  The people at Universal clearly saw that bringing back legacy characters for a super team worked for the Fast and the Furious series and decided to do the same thing but without bothering to do it with the same kind of charm.  The film also feels the need to recreate all sorts of other moments from the first film like having Dilophosauruses kill off a villain and having Ian Malcom still focused on using signal flares as an anti-dinosaur tool and women being sent to reboot a facility’s power.  The film also continues the series’ very strange interest in anthropomorphizing the T-rex into some kind of “good guy” dinosaur we’re supposed to root for in fights with other dinosaurs that, despite supposedly being bigger, are never as interesting.

This is truly one of the laziest movies I’ve seen at this budget level.  There are some serviceable action scenes to be found here and there are occasional moments like a mid-film car chase with raptors that suggests a certain gonzo B-movie energy that could have been used here more extensively but they’re undercut by the film’s two and a half hour running time and frequent desire to try to recapture the John Williams scored awe that Spielberg captured with that first film.  You can’t pretend to be in the lineage of something like that when you have a script that’s this willfully stupid.  But on some level it maybe shouldn’t be surprising that director and co-writer Colin Trevorrow doesn’t seem to think he can be bothered to give us something better.  The other two Jurassic World movies also sucked but still managed to set box office records, so why try?  He knows people aren’t going to mind that he recycles ideas from the previous films, in fact he knows they’ll celebrate that.  He knows he doesn’t need to evolve and age his characters and will actually be rewarded for making them as much like what you’ve seen before.  And he knows that he doesn’t need to put even the slightest bit of effort in making the science sound plausible because he knows everyone who questions it will be treated like a killjoy.  This movie sucks, but it’s probably the movie the cinemagoers of this era deserve.  And I was stupid enough to pay to see it because the hype cycle told me to, so I’m probably part of the problem too.

*1/2 out of Five


In the Heights(6/12/2021)

I was pretty late in taking in the musical “Hamilton,” to the point where I didn’t take it in in any form aside from the stray song or line until the filmed version showed up on Disney+ last year.  The reasons for this are pretty much the same reasons I don’t take in any Broadway musicals: I don’t live in New York, and even if I did I doubt that the theater is where I would choose to spend my money, and even if I was so inclined I definitely wouldn’t have gone through the motions of trying to get tickets to that blockbuster.  I also had no interest whatsoever in listening to the Original Cast Recording without the visual component as that just goes against my general philosophy for taking in art, which is basically that if you’re not going to do it right just don’t do it.  That said I was not so surprisingly impressed with the musical once it was finally made available to me through that streaming service.  After all, it’s a major work of popular entertainment that combines American history with hip hop… that’s kind of something that’s tailored to appeal to my nerdy interests.  The bigger question is why it proved so wildly compelling to millions upon millions of people who didn’t have a pre-existing interest in the finer points of the Federalist Papers, and I think the fairly obvious answer to that is that it just delivered some damn catchy tunes.  It’s the kind of success that generates a surge in interest in its creator’s previous work (call it the “Angels & Demons” phenomenon) and as such expectations are raised quite a bit for In the Heights, the new film version of one of Lin Manuel Miranda’s earlier stage efforts, which has been brought to the screen by director Jon Chu.

“The Heights” of the title refers to the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, which since the 60s and 70s has become something of a hub of Latin American culture in the city.  The film follows a handful of Washington Heights residents over the course of a few days but generally focuses on two parallel stories.  The first is about a bodega owner named Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic when he was eight but has dreams of returning there to buy back his dead father’s business there and has been hatching a plan to do this now that it’s up for sale.  He is, however, conflicted about this as it would leave behind his cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), the woman he called “Abuela” (Olga Merediz) despite no being related by blood, and also Vanessa Morales (Melissa Barrera), a woman currently planning to move downtown that he has a crush on.  Meanwhile, a neighbor of his named Nina Rosario (Leslie Grace) has returned from Stanford after having completed her first year there but is planning to drop out firstly because she feels alienated there and secondly because she doesn’t want her father Kevin (Jimmy Smits) to be further burdened by tuition payments.  She’s also dating Benny (Corey Hawkins), an employee of Kevin’s and a friend of Usnavi.  Over the course of about a week all of these stories will converge in ways that will be life altering for all of them.

Obviously this musical has similar musical stylings as Hamilton but on a story level it perhaps more closely resembles the last Broadway show before that to really cross over to the general public at that level: Rent.  Both shows center on the lives of young people in a vibrant New York neighborhood while trying to use their stories to look at the issues of their time.  This can be both a strength and weakness; there’s a reason why Manuel’s show about a nationally important historical figure has managed to travel further than this show about this neighborhood in New York that 98% of the population would never have heard of were it not for this production.  Unsurprisingly the musical is very pro-Washington Heights… like, really, really, really, really pro-Washington Heights.  It’s not exactly specific about what makes the neighborhood uniquely superior to any other Latin American community in the country, but the localized patriotism is certainly palpable.  Looked at from a certain angle there’s almost something oddly conservative about the film’s outlook in this regard: it’s completely resistant to any changes that the community may encounter and views the idea that someone would want to live as being something of a tragedy.  Were it a small town in the Midwest this attitude were being expressed toward rather than an urban Latin American neighborhood it would be almost indistinguishable from one of those Hallmark movies about people discovering that everything they ever wanted was there in their home town all along.

Really though the price the film pays for all this boosterism has less to do with thematic questions and more to do with simple story structure and character motivation.  Our main characters Usnavi, Vanessa, and to some extent Nina actually have leaving the neighborhood rather than arriving at it as their goals and the movie is… rather unconvincing in trying to sell this as their motivation what with the incredible awesomeness of Washington Heights being the central theme of nearly every scene of the film.  They barely even bother to explain why moving downtown is Vanessa’s big goal (apparently it’s because she wants to be involved in fashion… but, like, commuting is a thing) and Usnavi’s desire to return to the Dominican Republic is simply mentioned in the opening song and in one conversation but it’s rarely re-iterated or elaborated on and certainly doesn’t drown out the film’s aggressive celebration of the neighborhood he’s supposedly excited to get out of.  I don’t think the arcs on this subject really make a ton of sense, everyone just kind of has their outlook change on a dime at certain points and don’t even get me started on how out of nowhere and rushed the ending feels.

Part of the problem may just be that the film has a few too many characters.  At its heart the film is supposed to be about the journeys of Usnavi and Nina but the film can’t help but also focus on a whole bunch of other side characters that don’t have a lot to do with anything.  For instance we spend an inordinate amount of time with Nina’s hairdresser and her other employees.  They have some effect on the plot, but should by all accounts be side characters but instead they have multiple musical numbers including one late in the film which drags a lot.  But those characters seem very important compared to the time the film spends focusing on a snow cone salesman and his rivalry with an ice cream truck driver, which is shamelessly ripped off from a scene in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and seems to only exist to give a cameo to Lin-Manuel Miranda if not for the fact that this was also in the stage musical.  The time spent with these characters kind of detracts from the amount of time the film was able to focus on other characters.  Like, there’s a scene late in the movie between Nina and her boyfriend Benny where they’re fancifully dancing on the side of a building and it’s really beautiful but it doesn’t have nearly the impact it should because we’ve barely had any time to get to know Benny and this relationship hasn’t really been developed at all and it’s not really the catharsis that it should be.  I suspect the intent here was to make a movie about a larger community rather than just individuals and if they were going to do that I almost wish they had gone all in on that idea and made a true ensemble film with no lead because as is it kind of fits awkward between being a story about a couple people and being a story about everyone.

Now, I’ve been focusing a lot on the negative so far, in part because I’m trying to work through why my response to this has been a bit muted compared to other people’s but I don’t at all want to give the impression that I didn’t like the movie at all or that people shouldn’t see it, because whatever shortcomings it has in terms of substance it probably makes up for a lot of it through sheer style and energy.  Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical style is meant to be a fusion between typical Broadway exuberance with modern “urban” music and in the case of this musical traditional Latin music.   For the film Jon Chu seems to be trying to do a similar thing except with very old school film musicals of the Busby Berkeley variety.  It’s not the kind of musical that tries to contextualize its songs through diegesis or to imply that the musical numbers are fantasies in someone’s head and instead goes all in on having people sing to each other and doesn’t hesitate to have sequences where dozens of extras join in to choreographed dances in the street when the main characters feel so inclined to sing to each other.  The fusion of modern culture with old Hollywood is probably most palpable in a song midway through the film called “$96,000,” which is one of the most overtly hip-hop influenced songs in the film (right down to a blatant Boogie Down Productions interpolation) but is performed at an outdoor public pool as people line-dance around the place and culminates in a recreation of Kaleidoscopic synchronized swimming sequence from The Footlight Parade.

The film’s cast is also quite good though I would say that there’s a certain plateau many of them reach without going above and beyond.  The film has opted not to cast big names in favor of people who have the musical chops.  The biggest names here are probably Jimmy Smits (who has a non-singing role) and Corey Hawkins, and beyond that most of the actors here either come from Miranda’s Broadway work (Anthony Ramos/Olga Merediz) or some other musical background (like Leslie Grace, who is a recording star in the world of Latin music).  The music itself in the film is… good.  It gets the blend of styles down right and it seems to mostly be well performed, but… there’s a reason “Hamilton” is the musical that made Lin-Manuel Miranda famous nationwide and this isn’t because the music here is a bit of a step down from that.  The music here works quite well while you’re listening to it but there isn’t really a standout track that will be stuck in your head when the movie’s over and it also lacks the dense wordplay that made “Hamilton” stand out.  In fact “not as good as Hamilton” it true of a lot about the movie outside of, well, it’s a real movie.  As of now “Hamilton” is still a stage play, albeit one that’s been officially filmed for streaming whereas this is a fully produced motion picture with some really slick visual ideas from Jon Chu.  I have some issues with the some of the core storytelling and mixed messages and feel like it has some structural issues… but it remains something pretty unique compared to most of what we’re going to get from Hollywood this year and whatever quibbles I may have with it I still think it’s definitely a movie worth seeing.

***1/2 out of Five

Judas and the Black Messiah(2/27/2021)

I pretty distinctly remember when the trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah dropped; it was August and we’d just spent the last four months worried enough about when the movies we already knew about would come out and there was something pretty exciting about the promise of something brand new coming down the line.  What’s more, the protests and riots had just happened a month earlier and a movie about Fred Hampton stood the chance of being particularly topical in light of current events.  But of course as with every movie released in this window there was always the question of if we would actually see the damn thing, and if so how?  The trailer ended with that “Only in Theaters” tag that this year has made a mockery of over and over, but unlike other movies that ended up on streaming eventually this trailer came out when the studio knew things were uncertain.  As it turns out, the movie would find its way to streaming, it got caught up in Warner’s larger plan to put their slate on HBO Max, which is how I saw it since I’m not going back to theaters until I’ve had the vaccine.

The “Judas” of the film’s title is Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), a real historical figure who joined the Black Panthers and became a confidant of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) in the years leading up to his death in late 1969 who was later discovered to have been an FBI informant the whole time and who likely acted as an agent provocateur and likely set Hampton up during that infamous raid.  We meet Bill when he’s a two bit hustler trying to steal cars by impersonating a federal agent, but when he’s arrested for this he’s flipped to an undercover role for the FBI by an agent named Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) and joins the Chicago Black Panthers to provide him with information to undermine their operations.  From there we get an on the ground look at Hampton and his work as an activist and what being part of his organization was like and also O’Neal’s highly conflicted feelings about what he’s doing.

The title and setup of this movie almost immediately reminded me of the 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which also looked at a legendary figure through the eyes of a hanger on who ends up betraying him.  Of course the key difference is that Jesse James is not really a political figure, or at least isn’t one that anyone today would consider admirable, which certainly isn’t the case with Fred Hampton, who is one of the great “what ifs” in American history.  Regardless of the “Judas” plotline there is a lot of value in just having a movie that looks at Hampton and the behind the scenes of the Black Panthers when they were at their height.  Daniel Kaluuya gives you a good idea of how charismatic, if prickly, Hampton could be as a leader and we get a good idea of the work they did to endear themselves to the community and form alliances with other groups.  The film does not, however, present the most hopeful picture of this activism since its premise is inherently fatalistic: they’re presented as a group that was sort of destined to be undermined and sabotaged at every turn by the powers that be and there’s an aura of dread over the whole movie and in a lot of ways it kind of makes being a Black Panther look kind of miserable, I think it could have maybe benefited from a better look at “the good times” and the promise of this movement before everything started to fall apart.

In some ways the movie struggles to divide itself between its two halfs; it’s essentially told from O’Neal’s point of view and begins with his involvement but it also wants to include a lot of Hampton material and as such O’Neal’s character is never quite as drawn out as he could have been.  You don’t see much of his personal life and while it suggests there’s something motivating him beyond the mere threat of imprisonment you’re not really sure what; his FBI contact seems uniquely unlikable and it’s never particularly clear what his true feelings about Hampton are.  The lack of historical record around O’Neal is part of the problem; there’s quite a bit of evidence that he was an informant but not much of a record as to why or what he was like when his “mask” was off, and the film didn’t seem to be particularly interested in inventing a potentially sympathetic or relatable persona for him.  In a lot of ways it’s a movie that’s less interested in exploring either Judas or the Black Messiah fully and is more of an bitter lament about the government’s complicity in destroying the later and disposing of the former, and that is quite the downer.

In some ways I almost wish the move could have been something a bit more akin to a straight biopic about Hampton like Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which was also a movie that was well aware of the many forces arrayed against its protagonist but doesn’t let them overwhelm the central figure, and if it doesn’t want to do that it could be a movie that really focuses in on O’Neal and his inner struggle, but it instead kind of tries to do both in a somewhat halfhearted fashion.  In many ways it kind of reminds me of that movie Detroit, which tried to address American racism by just finding the most extreme injustice it could find and then dramatize them with a sort of primal scream that said “this happened here, be outraged.”  That movie never really landed right; it basically just terrorized black audiences while presenting white audiences with an example of racism extreme enough that they probably weren’t going to see a lot of themselves in it.  Judas and the Black Messiah is better than that, in part because it has a more direct target in the form of the FBI to go after and deals with historical figures and a movement that are worth seeing dramatized and it has some excellent performances from Kaluuya and Stanfield, but I’m not sure I was really left with much to chew on aside from how disturbing this whole span of history was.

*** out of Five

I’m Thinking of Ending Things(9/28/2020)

            You would think that major movies premiering on platforms like Netflix would encourage me to see movies even quicker than I do when they’re in theaters but in a lot fo ways it’s had the opposite effect.  Partly that’s an absence of FOMO.  I know it’s always just going to be sitting there waiting for me to hit play at will so I don’t feel any kind of pressure to rush things or even to plan ahead as to what day I’m going to watch something.  But even more than that it’s just a matter of making sure I have an evening available when I’m going to be as free of distractions as possible.  That went double for the new Charlie Kaufman movie that premiered on Netflix almost a month ago, I’m Thinking of Ending Things.  I knew from how challenging Kaufman’s previous films were that they were not works to be taken on lightly, what’s more… the damn thing was called “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which pretty clearly marks that this wasn’t exactly going to be a cheery piece of work and that it would need to be something I would need to watch with a certain clear mindset that the year 2020 has not necessarily been providing all the time.  Still, I knew this would be an interesting and challenging movie I should see and assess so I finally found the right evening and gave the film a watch.

            The film begins with a woman of about thirty (Jessie Buckley) in a car with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) driving in a snowy rural area somewhere in the Northeast or Midwest.  The two apparently haven’t been a couple for too long and seem to some from some kind of academic background as the woman seems to have some kind of grad school class to get back to and the two are prone to trade literary references and the like.  They are apparently going on an outing to visit Jake’s parents at their farm home, which we learn from a voiceover the woman is conflicted about because she’s come to be rather disillusioned by this relationship and as the title says she’s thinking of ending things with him.  Eventually they get to the farm and meet his mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis), who are somewhat awkward and embarrassing in their own parental sort of way.  But as the visit goes on people start behaving increasingly strange and what’s real in this situation becomes increasingly unclear.

            All of Charlie Kaufman’s films are a bit strange but they’ve only become more challenging over time.  Being John Malkovich and Adaptation were all sorts of weird but they were weird in ways that announced themselves pretty quickly and audiences were generally in on the game from the beginning and any other flights of fancy just felt like odd gravy on top.  Once Kaufman started directing his own film with 2008’s Synecdoche, New York his films started to grow more symbolic and harder to really grasp and that’s particularly true about this film, which abandon’s a lot of the comedy of Kaufman’s earlier films in favor of a certain sense of dread and confusion.  I’ve seen people describe it as a straight-up horror movie, which I don’t think is accurate but it is playing with certain film language that wouldn’t be completely out of place in one.  In fact the film in many ways reminded me a lot of the work of David Lynch in its willingness to be a sort of dive into the subconscious with no interest in explaining itself while being set against a modern American landscape. 

            This is not a movie that I can say I fully understand so this review is going to be less of an in depth analysis and more of just a reaction to what I watched and what I think about it.  Visually I certainly found a lot to like about the film.  That scene in the car at the beginning is like a masterclass in gloomy atmosphere and pretty accurately captures that feeling of driving through a light snowfall and uses the occasional swoosh of the wipers as a sort of slow metronome in the background.  Plemons and Buckley are well chosen as a rather non-glamourous couple to put at the center of this thing and putting them in heavy jackets for this car ride conversation is a good way to subtly suggest the distance between the two of them.  It’s a scene reminiscent of similar “car conversations” at the opening of Before Midnight and Certified Copy and it kind of suggests that this will primarily be a deep dive into this relationship but that is a bit of a fake out.  As the movie goes on it starts to seem like a movie about them and more like a movie specifically about her… until it stops being a movie about her and starts to be something else entirely. 

            In the third act things start to get really weird in a way that a lot of people are not going to have even a little bit of patience for and I must say it really weirded me out in a bad way at first but looking back on it I do think I know what was basically going on with most of that and with the movie in general though I won’t be going through it in spoilerific detail.  Put it all together and the movie is impressive though I must say that that doesn’t automatically make it a completely compelling viewing experience in retrospect and not every part completely works for me even if I sort of see how it fits.  Though there’s a lot I like about this I do wish that Charlie Kaufman could lighten up a bit because his last couple movies have been awfully depressive and cryptic and his movies as a director have felt less like brainy fun and more like difficult therapy sessions.  But difficult therapy is sometimes what you need and when it’s conducted with this much skill I think it’s worth it if you’re in the right mood.
***1/2 out of Five

The Lodge(2/20/2020)/The Invisible Man(2/27/2020)

Horror has almost always run in trends whether it’s the slasher movies of the 80s, the post-modern slashers of the 90s, or the torture porn of the 2000s.  Mini-trends would exist alongside these larger macro-trends and there would of course always be one-offs that exist outside the bigger waves, but generally speaking it wasn’t too hard to spot what’s been in vogue with the genre.  For much of the time I’ve been reviewing films the most dominant trend was haunted house movies with lots of jump scares, not a trend I welcomed, and while I’m sure some of those movies are still being made things do seem to finally be moving on but what are they moving on to?  Well there seem to be two tends that may be contenders for the title of “next big thing.”  Within my personal viewing patterns the most noteworthy trend is almost certainly the emergence of indie horror films like The Witch and Midsommar from studios like A24, which perhaps represent a sensibility more than a specific sub-genre of film.  None of these have been bona fide blockbusters but amongst those who know they loom large and I can only assume that they continue to penetrate the culture after release and that they may well become bigger with time.  The next trend, the one that is likely in the lead if we’re going to view this as a race, is to make horror movies in the mold of Get Out that tackle social issues in a very direct way that more or less make subtext text.  So if these two trends are going to the shape of horror to come it makes sense to take a look at the first two movies of the  year that are seeking to represent each trend: the indie horror film The Lodge and the social issue tackling The Invisible Man.

Like a lot of elevated horror movies, The Lodge opens with a major moment of trauma as a woman leaves her kids with their father, who tells her the time has come to formalize her divorce.  She then goes home and shoots herself.  We pick up shortly thereafter as the father (Richard Armitage) is trying to blend his new girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough) in with his teenage son Aiden (Jaeden Martell) and tween daughter Mia (Lia McHugh) and decides that the best way to do this is to have the whole blended family go to a lodge for Christmas, which Aiden and Mia are strongly resistant to partly because they blame Grace for the death of their mother and partly because they know that when she was a child the lone survivor of a fundamentalist cult that went Jonestown.  His ultimate plan is to leave her alone at the lodge with the two children for a couple of days while he takes care of some business, but this proves to be a very bad idea.  Meanwhile The Invisible Man deals with a very different kind of trauma from its onset, namely the extensive trauma that its main character Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) experienced prior to the film’s beginning when she was apparently the victim of extensive domestic abuse at the hands of her boyfriend Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen).  Griffin is someone who has earned millions in the “optics” business, but is by all accounts a controlling sociopath and Cecilia needs to literally break out of his home at night in the first scene.  Two weeks later she’s in hiding and receives news that Griffin has killed himself, but she starts to wonder about this when strange things start to happen around her.

The thing about the “elevated horror” movement is that it’s definitionally an alternative movement, which is a dynamic we’re perhaps more used to seeing in music than in movies, and when alternative things become popular there’s always the looming threat that they’ll be coopted by the mainstream.  That’s something I worried about when I saw the advertisements for that Gretel & Hansel movie, which kind of looked like the Silverchair to The Witch’s Nirvana.  Granted I didn’t end up seeing it and that impression could be wrong, but it’s a distinct vibe I got from it.  I had a little more hope for The Lodge but that was misplaced as it is very much the Bush to Hereditary’s Pearl Jam.  In fact it’s kind of remarkable just how specifically the film is trying to be Hereditary what with its focus on a grieving family and its tendency to cut to a symbolic model house.  That said it’s not trying to be a satanic cult thing and instead focuses on the tension of whether this woman is crazy and will go after the kids or whether the kids are the crazy ones who are going to go after her.  There’s some interest to be found in that dynamic but it’s kind of lessoned by the fact that this whole setup is patently ridiculous.  Blending families is never easy but trying to go about it through the trial by fire of leaving traumatized and clearly resentful children alone in an isolated building with an also traumatized woman is about the stupidest and most contrived thing imaginable.

The Invisible Man was released by Universal Pictures and is ostensibly meant to be the remake of the 1933 James Whale movie which was in turn based on the H.G. Welles novel of the same name, but the more telling logo in front of it is the Blumhouse Productions logo.  Blumhouse does a lot of things and I wouldn’t go so far as to say he has a house style, but one of the things he tends to do is give his horror films a certain social edge that goes beyond the more subtle allegories that have existed in the genre in the past.  Sometimes that comes in the form of silliness like their The Purge series, sometimes it just kind of feels like desperate pandering like their recent take on Black Christmas, but in general they’re really interested in getting the people who fight about stuff on Twitter into watching their scary movies and when they strike a chord like they did with Get Out there are high rewards.  The Invisible Man’s strategy to do this is to make no bones about the fact that its protagonist is a victim of an abusive relationship and to make her plight through the movie to be an extreme manifestation of the kind of controlling behavior that exist in these relationships and also to show the bad guy’s scheme as essentially a form of gas lighting where he’s trying to make her look and feel crazy when he is in fact being supernaturally awful.

It’s still a little staggering that they were able to make the invisibility effects work as well as they did for the 1933 film using a variety of camera tricks.  I’ve come to understand how they did them through a photochemical tick where things are shot in front of black screens but their challenge is still palpable.  Even when Paul Verhoeven was making Hollow Man in the year 2000 and had a variety of CGI effects it still felt like a showcase of cutting edge ideas.  The effects in this new invisible man movie are probably going to be less mind-blowing to anyone who knows anything about visual effects (I’m pretty sure it was a dude in green spandex on set who was digitally removed) but the scenes are shot with conviction just the same and director Leigh Whannell does seem to understand that he isn’t going to get away with just stringing together a bunch of invisibility gags.  Where the production falters a bit more is in the acting, specifically the supporting performances.  Elizabeth Moss is obviously great in the film and is well cast in her role, but a lot of the other actors here kind of seem like they got their job because the filmmakers were trying to keep their budget under control.  None of the performances are terrible necessarily but a lot of them felt a bit “syndacated television” to me.  I got the same feeling from Whannell’s last movie Upgrade, which didn’t even have a great lead performance at its center, so maybe something in his direction is to blame for that.

The acting is actually one of the stronger aspects of The Lodge.  There isn’t anything in it as noteworthy as Elizabeth Moss’ performance but the cast in it is able to make the material work better than it might have otherwise.  Riley Keough does a reasonably good job of keeping the audience in suspense about whether or not her character is the crazy one and the kids aren’t bad either.  However a lot of the psychology the script gives them really does not pan out.  The movie is trying to create a mix of trauma, mental illness, religion, and isolation to turn the titular lodge into a sort of pressure cooker for its characters but a lot of it just kind of feels like bullshit.  Granted, a lot of “psychological thrillers” probably don’t hold up perfectly but those movies are entertaining and this one is not, in fact it’s quite boring at times.  The movie is trying to do a sort of slow burn sort of thing, which can be thrilling when done right but I don’t think it’s done particularly well here and it’s all leading up to a twist that’s kind of predictable and also completely preposterous in the number of things that would have had to go exactly right and the logistics don’t go together at all.

The Invisible Man is less pretentious but I do think it has some ending problems as well.  The movie is a little too quick to confirm that Cecilia’s suspicions rather than playing out that ambiguity and is far too quick to explain Griffin’s means of becoming invisible and they look kind of silly.  The movie also takes a bit of a turn towards being more of an action piece in the vein of Upgrade, which is kind of fun in its own way but it lacks some of the primal terror that the first half was gesturing toward and I found the film’s final climax to be rather oddly staged and anti-climactic.  None of this is a deal breaker, but it does hold the movie back a bit and keeps it more in the realm of the elevated B-movie rather than any sort of true horror classic.  The Lodge by contrast is a movie that’s trying to be a serious horror classic but is just a complete non-starter for a variety of reasons.  If these movies represent the shape of horror to come I’m not sure either makes a perfect case for their respective approaches.  The Lodge shows that good ideas are not above being misused by wannabes and The Invisible Man kind of shows the limitations of what Blumhouse is going to be able to do at times, but as a movie unto itself The Invisible Man is plainly the stronger of the two and the one I’d much more quickly recommend.

The Lodge: *1/2 out of Five

The Invisible Man: *** out of Five

The Irishman(11/23/2019)


Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Though it has seemingly everything going for it, The Irishman oddly hasn’t really been one of the movies I’ve really been anticipating this year.  The mere fact that it’s a Martin Scorsese film should have been enough to make me excited for it, the guy is as good as he’s ever been these days and is probably the world’s best living filmmaker.  The fact that this film has him re-uniting with Robert De Niro for the first time since 1995 alone should have made it the film event of the year.  Add to that the fact that Scorsese is also working with Al Pacino for the first time ever and that Joe Pesci basically came out of retirement for the movie should have moved it into the stratosphere of excitement.  So why haven’t I been outlandishly excited for this thing?  Well, part of it is that on paper it just seemed too good to be true.  All too often when the pedigree of something sounds that great on paper the final film doesn’t quite pan out and it’s best to keep your expectations in check.  Also something about Scorsese going back to the gangster movie well had me worried this could be a very commercial play intended to make up for the failure of Silence at the box office.  Then of course there’s the Netflix of it all.  But the film is finally here now and it’s a pretty heavy piece of work to wade into.

The film is an adaptation of a confessional memoir called “I Heard You Paint Houses” that was published shortly after the death of Frank Sheeran, a former Teamster official with likely ties to organized crime.  In the book Sheeran takes credit for having perpetrated a number of high profile murders for the mafia including having played a role in the death of Jimmy Hoffa.  The veracity of this book has been widely questioned and it’s likely because of this that the film doesn’t have much in the way of “based on a true story” title cards and much of the film is framed by shots of Sheeran (Robert De Niro) late in life recounting his story to some unnamed person off screen.  From there there’s a sort of “frame story within a frame story” of he and his associate Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) are going on a road trip in 1975 with their wives to Detroit ostensibly to attend a wedding but actually to use that wedding as cover to take care of some illegal business.  We come back to that road trip from time to time in the film and it seems oddly somber and ominous.  From there we flash back even further to the 50s and follow the chronology of what brought Sheeran to that point, namely his exploits as a hitman for the mob and the Teamster ties that would make him a close confidant of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

As I mentioned before, it’s not overly clear whether there’s any truth to Sheeran’s account of things.  From what I’ve read he was indeed a teamster official and friend of Jimmy Hoffa with mob ties, but there almost no evidence outside of his own accounts that he was ever the triggerman for any murders and his accounts contradict the conventional wisdom about a number of the murders he was involved with.  There’s also a bit of a conspiracy theory aspect to his recollection of 20th century history which puts the mafia at the center of certain events including the Bay of Pigs Invasion and possibly even the Kennedy assassination and that makes me increasingly suspicious that all of this is just the rambling of an old man, but parsing the reality of it all is probably besides the point.  Martin Scorsese isn’t Oliver Stone and I’m pretty sure that he was primarily attracted to this material for its dramatic potential rather than as a history text and it’s probably best just to look at it as a work of fiction.

If you’ve heard anything about this film in the press you’ve probably heard that it has become a rather expensive production because it employs some high tech de-aging technology to allow the film’s senior citizen cast to portray their characters at various different ages in this film that’s set over the course of this decades spanning tale.  I was skeptical about this but I think the technology works pretty damn well.  Granted the film never really needs to make them look much younger than middle age, which really would have been a challenge given that De Niro kind of gained some weight in the 80s and it probably wouldn’t have worked to try to make him look like he did when he was really young, but for what’s needed here the technology mostly delivers to the point where you don’t really think about it much.  Of course this would seem to be a rather extravagant expense but I mostly think it’s necessary.  This movie is all about following characters over the course of years and years and seeing their decisions build on them over the course of time.  To simply cast various actors of various ages would have made for a painful disconnect between the various time periods being covered.

Additionally, I think the film gains a lot by having this dream team of mob actors in its cast even if they aren’t 100% age appropriate for their roles for much of the film’s running time.  Much the way Unforgiven stands as a sort of requiem for the film western this seems to be a sort of definitive end to the gangster picture, or at least the generation of gangster picture that Scorsese and Coppola ushered in back in the 70s.  Comparisons will of course be made to Goodfellas and Casino and not without reason.  This is obvious yet another movie where a 20th Century mobster recounts his life of crime through voiceover, but there are some pretty key differences as well.  For one thing, those movies are a lot more interested in what their characters find seductive about “the life” before their eventual downfall.  There isn’t a lot of that here; Sheeran is obviously being paid for his work but he isn’t living a life of immense wealth like Ace Rothstein and he isn’t getting into the Copacabana through the back like Henry Hill.  Sheeran also doesn’t seem terribly interested in his family as a reason to be living like this.  There’s maybe a little bit of that early on but mostly he just ends up pushing them away though his general cold bloodedness.

Instead Sheeran seems to be doing what he’s doing out of sheer blind loyalty for the most part.  There’s a flashback early on (technically a flashback, within a flashback, within a flashback) to Sheeran executing German soldiers during the war when given vague orders to do so and that kind of mirrors what he ends up doing in organized crime as well: blindly following orders without second-guessing whether what he’s doing is a war crime/mortal sin.  When he does get hired to “paint houses” he carries out his assignments with a sort of military efficiency and lacks any sort of remorse or hesitation.  The dude is a psycho.  I suppose the characters in Scorsese’s other mob movies are also psychos in their own ways but they at least weren’t hitmen so much as people who occasionally needed to have people wacked in order to keep their own hustles going and you get the impression that they’d generally rather not have to do that.  But this guy?  You get the impression that if Russell Bufalino told him to kill his own mother he’d do it.  In this sense the movie is almost less like Goodfellas or Casino and more like Raging Bull in that it’s a portrait of a really complicated and hard to relate to character who ends up really losing everything that ostensibly mattered to him out of his life but for opposite reasons: La Motta was too impulsive and wild while Sheeran was too cold and methodical.

There are other key differences between this and Scorsese’s earlier work.  For one thing, Joe Pesci is a lot different here than he has been in the past.  In Goodfellas and Casino he was practically playing the same character: a violent wildcard who kind of screws everything up.  Here he’s playing a much more rational and in control figure and he isn’t leaning on his usual persona in the film.  Al Pacino on the other hand kind of is leaning on the kind of acting we’re pretty used to from him, and that does fit the character to some extent but I would say that if there’s a weakness to be found in the film it might be Hoffa.  The infamous Teamster leader is a guy who they easily could been the center of his own film, and has, and the challenges of doing his story justice after he enters the film an hour in are probably a big part of why the film has such a long running time.  Hoffa’s eventual death is clearly viewed by the film as a sort of Greek tragedy in which a hero is brought down by his own hubris but if we’re supposed to have any particular sympathy for Hoffa I wasn’t really feeling it.  If anything the film lays out a pretty good case that Hoffa kind of had it coming both within the morality of the underworld (dude was not respectful) and within the morality of society (he was legitimately corrupt and needed a “house painter” on the payroll) and the guy seemed to have been given every warning and chance to make things right which he flushed out of sheer pigheadedness.

The larger role of Hoffa’s demise within the film is to act as a sort of wakeup call for Sheeran, the moment that finally breaks through this hitman’s sociopathic resolve and leaves him riddled with regrets later in life, and it’s effective at doing that but there is something rather odd about a movie whose protagonist’s great revelation is simply the achievement of having gained some fraction of the empathy that normal people have without trying.  But then maybe that’s the point, that these gangsters that we’ve been glamourizing for decades are pathetic and cold hearted people who are doomed to either early deaths, long prison sentences, or to die alone and friendless.  It’s almost like a return to the message from the message from the 1930s gangster movies that started the whole genre, but obviously a bit more artfully conveyed than it was in those movies (which were code-mandated to end with the gangster protagonists being gunned down or executed at the end), and it was obviously on some level the message of The Godfather films on some level.  I do wonder if Scorsese feels that this movie contradicts the tone of his own earlier gangster movies, which also certainly didn’t support the gangster lifestyle but were a bit more subtle in their messaging and were more interested in showing the push and pull of this lifestyle being intoxicating and being horrifying.  I think I might prefer that approach more overall, but I can also understand the instinct of an artist late in life to stop and make one hundred percent sure people knows what he really thinks.

****1/2 out of Five