The Whale(12/26/2022)

I must say, “Brendan Fraser comeback” is not something I had on my prediction card for the 2020s and it’s also frankly not something I particularly desired either.  Fraser’s careers in the late 90s and early 2000s was something that at least theoretically happened at a time that was right in the window for millennials like myself to have a lot of nostalgia for the guy but outside of The Mummy his movies were never really my thing.  He was essentially a comic actor, but he wasn’t really a “comedian” per se; he didn’t come from the worlds of stand-up or sketch comedy and I never got the idea that he wrote or improvised jokes.  Instead he seemed to just fall into that comedic milieu just because he had kind of a funny looking face and a bit of a childlike aura around him and that seemed to appeal to kids.  He also had a foot in the action movie genre through those Mummy movies, where he was kind of a precursor to what Dwayne Johnson does, but without the buff physique.  That might be why I don’t have the world’s most positive memories of the guy, I don’t think his influence on mainsteam film acting is entirely positive and his occasional dips into straight drama like his work in Crash is definitely not well remembered.  When he disappeared from movie stardom somewhere in the late aughts I can’t say I really missed him and I certainly didn’t see the groundswell of goodwill toward him as he re-emerges coming.  Some of it is nostalgia, some of it is public sympathy for some issues in his personal life, but people really want this comeback to happen and now it seems to be coming together through an unlikely project: a Darren Aronofsky movie that’s serious as cancer called The Whale.

The Whale is set somewhere in rural Idaho and looks at the life of a man named Charlie (Brendan Fraser), and we learn pretty much from the beginning that he probably only has a week to live.  Charlie is a man who has become morbidly obese: he weighs over six hundred pounds and can only barely stand up and walk with the assistance of a mobility walker and is largely confined to his small apartment where he works from home as an English professor for online colleges.  Over time we come to learn that he wasn’t always like this and meet various people from his past and present including his friend Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who was the sister of his former boyfriend, who had passed away several years earlier and we come to learn this loss is what pushed him into his current self-destructive cycle.  We also come to meet Ellie (Sadie Sink), his seventeen year old daughter from a marriage he had much earlier in his life which ended when he had an affair with the aforementioned boyfriend (it’s not clear if Charlie is bi or if his hetero marriage was the result of closeted denial).  As such his ex-wife hates him and he can only meet Ellie secretly and she’s not terribly interested in interacting with him herself for the same reasons but will humor him as she learns he has some money he’s willing to give to her if she visits.  During her visits he comes to learn that she’s extremely rebellious bordering on being a juvenile delinquent and is close to flunking out of high school, though he still enjoys her presence just the same but the end is approaching and it’s not clear if he’s going to get all his affairs in order in time.

The Whale is a movie I’ve been looking forward to seeing but kind of dreading talking about and reading about.  I’ve been looking forward to seeing it in large part because it’s the latest film from director Darren Aronofsky, a filmmaker who takes big swings and while I don’t love all of his movies he never fails to makes something memorable.  He is not, however, exactly a filmmaker who I’d call “sensitive.”  On the contrary, he tends to put his characters through the ringer in order to make larger, almost cosmic, statements about the world and about the extremes of the human experience, and though it’s less technically and stylistically audacious than some of his work The Whale is absolutely a Darren Aronofsky movie.  It’s about a recluse in an apartment like his very first movie Pi was, Charlie’s food urges could be viewed as a form of addiction like Requiem for a Dream depicted, religion is a theme in the film like it was in Noah and mother!, but the movie it most resembles is probably The Wrestler, which was another movie about a middle aged man who has hit something of a personal rock bottom and has kind of given up on his own health in the pursuit of other goals.  In fact you could probably put this, The Wrestler, and Black Swan into a trilogy of bodily self-destruction.

This is where I think the critics of the film’s depiction of “fatness” are, frankly, not engaging with the work in the way it was intended.  This is not a film that’s trying to be an “issue movie” and isn’t looking at a case that is “representative,” it’s instead looking at a very extreme case of obesity and doing so to dramatic ends.  And I would argue that the film presents some pretty searing drama.  The film is an adaptation of a stage play and doesn’t try to hide it, taking place almost entirely in Charlie’s apartment and built largely around dialogue between him, his friend, his daughter, and a strange teenage missionary who has made it his mission to “save” Charlie.  Fraser has been getting a lot of the press for his performance in the movie but these co-stars more than hold their own in his presence and over the course of his interactions with all of them you get a pretty strong portrait of what kind of guy Charlie is and the portrait painted is largely positive; criticisms that Aronofsky somehow “hates” this man are plainly off base.  This isn’t to say the movie is perfect by any means, I think the ending is a touch histrionic and it’s not as cinematically adventurous as some of Aronofsky’s best movies and never really fully transcends its stage origins, but it caught my attention early and had me interested in all of these characters and their respective plights the whole way through and that’s not easy.
**** out of Five


Women Talking(10/28/2022)

Sarah Polly is one of those directors who seems to have a giant reputation despite having kind of a small body of work.  Prior to 2022 she had only directed three movies, one of them a documentary, and there was a long ten year gap in there as well leading into her new project.  Her first movie, Away From Her, was likely her strongest work up to this point, albeit not necessarily a movie that lingers in my memory.  I don’t know, it’s a movie I watched on a Netflix DVD in my sophomore dorm room, which is maybe not the best environment to empathize with an elderly woman’s battles with Alzheimer’s but I remember it having solid performances among other strong qualities.  I missed her follow-up Take this Waltz, whose reputation is of a movie that’s good but inessential.  Then there’s Stories We Tell, her documentary about her own parents and an affair one of them had.  People talk about that documentary in absolutely rapturous terms and I’ve got to say I really don’t get it.  The situation at its center does not strike me as being overly exceptional or interesting beyond the fact that a moderately famous actress/director is involved in it and its attempt to turn it all into some Rashomon-esque delve into the nature of subjectivity over the most minor of discrepancies in peoples stories did not connect with me at all.  So, I guess I’m a bit of a Polly skeptic, but that’s not to say I’d given up on her.  Away From Her alone was a well-crafted enough film that I felt like she had the potential to give us something special, and finally I think she just might have with her new film Women Talking.

The film is set in more or less modern day, but in a remote Mennonite community (seemingly) somewhere in North America, and given the Mennonite’s traditions this essentially makes the film look like a 19th Century period piece for much of its runtime.  The film begins when it’s revealed that a large number of the women in the community had been drugged and sexually assaulted by various men in the community and had been for several years with the women’s concerns being dismissed as the actions of ghosts or devils or “feeble-mindedness.”  This time though, the perpetrators were caught red handed and were arrested by the outside police force.  The most of the community’s men, however, seem to be standing by the perpetrators and have gone to town in order to bail them out under some religious conviction that anyone cast out of the community will be damned to hell.  With them gone, the town’s women convene to try to figure out what they’ll do: will they stay as if nothing happened, stay and “fight,” or will they leave and try to found some new colony elsewhere.  Much of the film then, aside from some flashbacks, consists of the deliberations certain representative women have when making this decision and leads to some pretty tense debates.

Sarah Polly has long been something of an “actor’s director” and that certainly carries over to the impressive ensemble here but with this movie she also takes a noticeable step up as a visual stylist.  She and cinematographer Luc Montpellier shoot the film in an ultrawide 2.76:1 aspect ratio, the same ratio that Quentin Tarantino used for The Hateful Eight and like that movie it’s a choice that is intriguing given that this is a movie that ostensibly takes place primarily in one large room.  In fact one could easily mistake this for having been an adaptation of a play, but it’s not, it’s based on a novel by Miriam Toews.  Toews is a woman who was herself raised in a Mennonite community but left the community when she was eighteen.  The novel, though fictionalized, is inspired by real events that transpired at a Mennonite community in Bolivia.  That community (which, like most Mennonite communities, is largely populated by European emigres who speak a form of German rather than the local tongue) experienced a very similar set of attacks which led to a similar reckoning.  However, it does not take a genius to realize very soon into Women Talking that Sarah Polly does not view it as truly a movie about Mennonites and instead views the conversations they’re having as being extremely relevant to women around the world, especially in the wake of #MeToo.  And as the title implies, it kind of exists as a medium by which its authors can write very direct conversations around the kind of conversations survivors could have when facing systemic abuse and trying to find solutions.

The decision at the film’s center is whether to stay and maintain the status-quo (the anti-feminist solution), stay and “fight” (the feminist solution), or leave the compound entirely (the radical solution, at least within the logic of this society).  The basic practicalities of these solutions, while not entirely ignored, are not necessarily the emphasis.  The film is a touch vague about what “stay and fight” means.  It isn’t clear if that just means trying to change the society through some sort of peaceful resistance or if they intend to literally take up arms.  If it’s the former then they don’t really get into the exact methods and if it’s the latter they aren’t exactly stockpiling weapons or anything.  The film also doesn’t necessarily go into every logistical challenge of leaving; these women are depicted as illiterate and are said to have not even seen a map of the (unspecified) area they’re in and needless to say they don’t appear to have money saved up for some sort of real estate purchase that would allow them to set up a new compound.  But this is not emphasized in large part because these aren’t really conversations about logistics; they’re conversations about philosophy and about feelings around this situation, especially given that many of the people talking are traumatized victims of violence and abuse.  That trauma is central, some of the women here are very angry and vengeful, some are just mournful about the whole situation and some kind of go back and forth between different attitudes in a sort of complex stew of emotions.

On the periphery is Ben Wishaw’s character, the one man in the film with a speaking role and someone that the women in question basically seem to view as being apart from the other men that they’re essentially in opposition to.  He’s the town’s school teacher and apparently does have some university education and he’s been invited to take minutes for this deliberation as the one literate character present.  As such he’s kind of a point of view character and observer but occasionally speaks up in the deliberations, in ways that are sometimes welcome and sometimes not by the various women.  You can tell he’s rather conflicted about his place there, as are the women and to some extent so is the movie.  That is likely appropriate given that society in general is kind of not sure what role male allies are supposed to have in the wake of #MeToo.  This probably isn’t the only thing the film is willingly conflicted about as it’s kind of a movie that’s asking a lot of questions that society hasn’t really answered and is about characters who are left with a similarly uncertain future.

This is in many ways a film that feels like it could be in dialogue with another of the year’s high profile releases, Todd Field’s Tár, which also sort of comments on #MeToo if not by name though from the perspective of a perpetrator rather than from victims.  The women here are in many ways more conflicted and thoughtful that the title character of that film, in part because they care about people besides themselves.  Though Tár is perhaps a bit more directly about #MeToo as it existed between 2017 and 2022, I think that movie is going to be a little more universally recognizable as long as powerful abusers continue to exist.  Women Talking, by contrast, feels to me much more directly reflective of this very moment of widespread reckoning and all the messy feelings and conflicting arguments that it conjures up.  But as it does this it never loses track of the fact that this is a movie about specific people in a specific circumstance whose situation is not always going to be one hundred percent applicable to the wider conversation.  It tells a very human story above all else and it does it in a milieu that’s pretty unique and while I would exactly call the movie a one-of-a-kind revolution or anything it is a movie that doesn’t follow an overly familiar template and makes for a lean and intense drama that’s staged in a strong and appealing fashion.  In short it’s the major work that I’ve been waiting for Sarah Polley to make and really live up to all the praise she’s been lavished with.
****1/2 out of Five

The Worst Person in the World(2/11/2022)

Joachim Trier is kind of a tricky filmmaker to talk about.  I’ve seen pretty much all of the guy’s movies up to now and certainly acknowledge him as an important voice in world cinema but I’ve generally come away respecting his movies more than I loved them.  My favorite of his for the longest time may have actually been his least known: his debut film Reprise, a really energetic take on the lives of elder millennials in Norway’s literary scene.  From there his movies got to be a bit slower and sadder.  His sophomore effort Oslo, August 31st was more widely praised than his debut but was more of a mood piece steeped in regret and melancholy.  His English language effort Louder Than Bombs was by most accounts a setback.  I think I liked it but it was really a movie that I barely remember and I don’t think I’m alone in that.  Things looked better with his last film Thelma, which was his take on something of a horror film, or at least a film with a supernatural element.  That movie might have done better if A24 had gotten their hands on it, but it never really found an audience.  I wasn’t sure where Trier would go next but was pleasantly surprised to see that his new movie The Worst Person in the World was something of a return to where he started: by taking a slightly satiric look at the lives of upper-middle class Oslo millennials.

The Worst Person in the World is divided into twelve short titled chapters along with a prologue and an epilogue.  The prologue sets up our protagonist, a slightly aimless woman in Oslo named Julie (Renate Reinsve) who shortly after college falls for an underground cartoonist named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) who is about fifteen years older than her.  In “chapter one” we then skip forward about four years to when Julie is thirty and Aksel is about forty five and the two are unmarried but in a committed relationship and living together.   From there a lot of the usual questions of modern thirtysomething-dom start entering her life: Does she want children?  Does she want them with Aksel? What does she want in gernal?  Things become even more complicated when she meets a guy named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) who she has some affinity for but both of them are in relationships and don’t really know each other that well in the first place.

It has been suggested that this is the third in an “Oslo Trilogy” along with Reprise and Oslo, August 31 but I don’t really see it.  Or at least I don’t really see how Oslo, August 31, fits into it aside from the fact that it happens to be set in the same major city as the other two.  I remember that movie being a rather melancholic film more in keeping with the tones of Louder Than Bombs or Thelma while this new film in many ways feels like a return to the witty tone and somewhat youthful energy of Reprise.  The film is not exactly a comedy or even a satire but there is certainly an undercurrent of dry humor to it, much of it poking fun at the particular moment of “discourse” we’re currently in.  Like, one of the chapters in the film is called “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo,” which comes from an essay the main character writes and gets published at one point and if you find that chapter title amusing this is probably the film for you.  There are also some filmmaking devices the film employs like a much discussed scene where the character metaphorically makes time stop and a weird hallucination scene in the second act after some characters partake in magic mushroom consumption.  All of this is in service to the film’s overall interest in chronicling this character’s 1/3 live crises in which she still isn’t quite sure what she wants in life and what it means to be in your thirties.

At the center of all this is an actress named Renate Reinsve, who had a small part in Oslo, August 31 but has otherwise mostly worked in films that are not well known outside of Norway.  Here she has quite the challenge because Julie is kind of a prickly character; a self-confessed flake who’s often irritatingly lacking in self-direction and who engages in borderline infidelity at certain points.  Despite all this Reinsve and the screenplay do keep us on this character’s side for much of the movie, not just on her side, we really come to like her and care about her mission of self-discovery.  It’s a movie that oddly compliments another of this year’s high profile films, Licorice Pizza, which also involved an age-gap romance as a means of exploring a woman’s youthful self-discovery.  Of course that movie was about a woman in her twenties rather than thirties, but more importantly there’s a pretty big difference in voice between Paul Thomas Anderson and Joachim Trier.  Anderson’s take on this kind of story is warm and nostalgic while Trier’s take, even if it’s lighter than some of his other recent works, is still kind of dry and formalist and his movie goes to some sadder places, which is perhaps appropriate given that things tend to get a bit “realer” for people as they enter this stage of their lives.  At the end of the day I think I prefer Anderson’s voice, but this movie gives it a run for its money and I could actually see this working better for people looking for something with a little more weight and a bit more serious.

****1/2 out of Five

West Side Story(12/9/2021)

If ever there’s a filmmaker that deserves some benefit of the doubt it’s probably Steven Spielberg.  The guy hasn’t necessarily had the greatest stretch in the last ten years or so but the man made Jaws dammit.  Even the movies he makes that aren’t terribly inspiring like The Post or Ready Player One tend to be well made enough to be a good watch and even when he does strike out like with War Horse and The BFG the final movies end up at least being… kind of interesting just because you’re watching one of the most successful filmmakers of all time dedicating himself to a very bad idea.  Despite this, I don’t think I’ve ever been more skeptical about the guy than when it was announced he would be making a remake of the 1961 Academy Award winning musical West Side Story.  I’m not even the world’s biggest fan of the original West Side Story for a variety but I do recognize its status as a classic and doing a more or less straightforward remake of an acknowledged classic is kind of a losing game.  Even if you knock it out of the park you’re probably you’re still kind of just going to be viewed as a usurper to the throne and everyone’s just going to spend all their time comparing whatever you did to the original.  I could kind of give it some leeway since the original is itself a stage adaptation but the trailer sure made it look like a pretty direct take on what Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins had already done.  What’s more, given that it was set to come out the same year as In the Heights this kind of looked primed to feel like the stodgy old version of western Manhattan next to the fresh new vision, but now that the movie has come out Spielberg seems to be having the last laugh because the film is being very well received.

The film opens with the sight of a wrecking ball tearing down tenements in the rapidly changing Lincoln Square neighborhood (then frequently called San Juan Hill) to make way for the Lincoln Center complex, a project they broke ground on about two years after the musical premiered and two years before the original film came out.  This sets up a section of New York that is in flux and we are then introduced to the two gangs set to fight over what remains: the gang of second or third generation white immigrants The Jets, and the gang of newer Puerto Rican arrivals The Sharks.  Currently leading The Jets is Riff (Mike Faist), a hot head who is extremely resentful that the neighborhood has been “taken over” by Puerto Ricans and that has led to clashes with Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez).  These tensions escalate at a school dance when a former Jet named Tony (Ansel Elgort) spots Bernardo’s younger sister Maria (Rachel Zegler) and is immediately struck by her beauty.  It feels like love at first sight on her end as well, but the second Bernardo sees the two of them dancing he splits them up and storms out with Maria.  Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Ariana DeBose) warns that the two of them could start “World War III” between the two gangs and the gang leaders start plotting to have a “rumble” that could well end in bloodshed.

So I should probably lay my cards on the table about the original West Side Story, which is a movie I have my problems with.  My first exposure to it was in middle school when my Spanish teacher decided to take it easy for a few days and felt the musical was sufficiently close to the subject matter to work.  At the time I thought it was “totally lame” because gang members singing and dancing in the street was a ridiculous concept to me at the time.  Revisiting it as an adult with a more mature sense of musical conventions I was able to get over that but I still think there are legitimate problems with the movie.  There’s the brownface aspect of course, that’s been an acknowledged blemish for a while, but beyond that I’ve never been the biggest fan of stars Richard Beymer or Natalie Wood as Tony and Maria and the slower ballad type songs between them never did much for me.  Beyond that, while I can be more of an adult about the musical numbers some of the dance scenes in that first movie seem to go on endlessly and do tax my patience a little.  Ultimately though personal preference only goes so far with something that’s this iconic, the film has certainly earned its place in pop culture regardless of my quibbles with it.

This remake follows the same basic story of the original film and includes most if not all of the same songs but the screenplay has been re-written by Tony Kushner in a number of ways.  The dialogue has been re-worked, mostly for the better, and there a more knowing and 21st Century perspective on some of the underlying socio-political context of all this.  It is not a coincidence that Spielberg and Kushner decided to start making this film about conflict between working class whites and Latino immigrants right in the middle of the Trump years and that particular dynamic definitely informs much of how this remake is written.  Early in the film the Jets are established as a rather humiliated community of poor whites who still live in a ghetto that’s been increasingly populated by new arrivals and lash out at said new arrivals instead of their own conditions, while the Sharks are depicted as people defending themselves from this while also personalizing this conflict in ways that aren’t terribly productive either.  I would also say that the movie fleshes out the romance between Tony and Maria in some useful ways; it makes Tony’s differences from his Jet comrades a bit more palpable and Maria’s own differences with her family a bit clearer and I would also generally say that Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler are both generally more charismatic and authentic than their 1961 counterparts and have more chemistry generally.  In the old movie I never cared for the slow songs between them, but I liked them a lot more here in large part because I was just more sold on the genuine infatuation between the two.

Where the film is less successful is in it rendition of some of the more iconic musical numbers from the first movie.  The staging of “America,” probably the most widely remembered song from the first movie, seems to have the hardest time living up to its predecessor.  Where the scene was a pretty straightforward Broadway style number in the first movie with two sets of Purto Ricans debating each other on a roof at night, this time it’s staged in broad daylight in the style of a golden age film musical as extras join in while people dance on the street.  This is the one part of the movie that kind of does draw some unflattering comparisons to In the Heights which pulled this kind of thing off better and in general it feels a bit overblown and out of keeping with the style of the rest of the film.  The film also kind of botches its handling of the song “cool,” which is moved to an earlier moment before the rumble and lacks a lot of the jazzy aura that the first movie was able to achieve with the number.  Other songs are shuffled around and re-imagined a bit more successfully.  Setting “Gee, Officer Krupke” in a police station instead of the city streets is a nice switch up (kind of ridiculous that they still end with “Krup you!” at the end) and putting “I Feel Pretty” in a department store also makes sense.

This new adaptation does not entirely leave behind the theatricality inherent to this property; the film’s sets remain somewhat heightened, more like exceptionally large stages than truly naturalistic environments and I do think that’s at least partly by design.  Across the board I’d say that the cast here works quite well, though some are a forced to live more in the shadow of their predecessors.  In the case of Rachel Zegler this is beneficial as it’s not that hard to rise above Natalie Wood in brownface (though I will say Wood probably handles the film’s climactic scene a little better), though this works less well for Ariana DeBose, who needs to live up to Rita Moreno’s Academy Award winning turn as Anita and all involved might have been better served by departing a bit more from that version of the character.  Mike Faist stands out quite a bit for his take on the character of Rif and I quite liked Josh Andrés Rivera’s new take on Chino.  Ultimately though, no matter how much the film succeeds in so many ways, at the end of the day it still needs to overcome the “why did we need this” question, and while it does make a much more convincing case for itself than I expected I’m not sure it ever quite got entirely over that hill and to some extent I’m not sure who this is for.  The people Spielberg’s age are never going to abandon that original film and I don’t necessarily see this thing being hip with “the kids” either.  Personally I was interested to see Spielberg work at such a high level and was fascinated seeing how they handled the material but can’t help but think that they’ve put all this effort into something that will inevitably still feel like it lives in the shadow of that first movie.  This is definitely worth seeing if you’re even a little bit interested but I don’t know what kind of legacy this will leave behind ultimately.

**** out of Five


In 2015 a woman named Aziah “Zola” Wells King started what would become a 148 tweet thread by saying “y’all want to hear a story about why me & this here bitch fell out????????,” a sentence that would become the “Call me Ishmael” of long form social media storytelling.  The ensuing story, a gonzo account of a wacky road trip a pair of strippers took to Tampa, went viral and quickly became a fixture of internet lore.  Personally, I wasn’t in the loop on this alleged phenomenon and first heard about when news broke that someone was making a movie about it, and yeah, it’s pretty compelling.  The way the story sort of escalates from moment to moment made it especially suited to the unconventional medium of a tweet storm and Zola’s writing style and unapologetic use of slang and stripper lingo is funny and keeps you reading and kind of makes you feel like you’re getting a window into a world of ratchet-ness that one would often want to avoid.  Would it make a good movie?  Wasn’t sure but I wanted to check it out.

The film begins with Zola (Taylour Paige) meeting Stefani (Riley Keough), the aforementioned “bitch” she would eventually have a falling out with, while waitressing at a Hooters-like restaurant and as they two begin talking they come to realize that both have experience working as exotic dancers.  A day or two later Stefani invites Zola along on a road trip she’s taking to dance at Tampa clubs known for high tipping and the next thing you know the two are taking a “ho trip” down to Florida along with Stefani’s dimwitted boyfriend Derek (Nicholas Braun) and also the guy who “takes care of her,” which is to say he’s her pimp, who is described as “Z” in the tweet storm but is credited as “X” (Colman Domingo) here.  Things more or less go as planned at first, but it becomes increasingly apparent that Stefani and “X” are into some deeper illegality than Zola is expecting and things on this trip start to spiral out of control.

I went into the movie expecting it to be this wild propulsive ride through the Florida underworld along the lines of Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, but the final movie is perhaps a bit more relaxed than that, possibly to its detriment.  The film is not particularly shy about the fact that it’s based on a tweet storm; it announces it with a title card at the beginning and more annoyingly it frequently makes Twitter bird noises after quotes from the original tweet storm come up and other social media sound effects.  Could have done without that and I generally wasn’t a huge fan of the sound design here in general, particularly Mica Levi’s minimalist score.  I’ve liked Levi’s work in other movies but this movie really needed an energy injection more than anything and Levi’s bloopy music didn’t really do it.  I did quite like the cast though.  Taylour Paige delivers Zola’s vocal patter with aplomb and while Riley Keough doesn’t quite manage to adopt to her characters vocal patterns as effectively she does eventually settle into her character.  Colman Domingo is effectively scary as the violent pimp who causes the bulk of the film’s problem and Nicholas Braun gives a nicely comedic performance even if he is essentially recycling his naïve dope routine from the show “Succession.”

So as a stylistic exercise Zola didn’t really give me what I was hoping for but does it make up for this with substance?  Almost, or at the very least it gave me a bit to chew on.  The events of the original Tweet Storm are in many ways still somewhat mired in mystery.  Zola’s account was the most popular but in its wake the Stefani and Derrek equivalents both put out their own accounts on different social media platforms.  Stefani’s account is acknowledged by the movie and is mostly notable for how transparently untruthful it is.  Derrek’s account isn’t mentioned in the film specifically but the film does draw from it in certain spots where Zola is not a point of view character.  That account is mostly notable for how poorly written it is and there’s a reason it never went viral.  I don’t know that I find Zola to be an inherently more trustworthy person than either of the others but there were definitely parts of her account that are contradicted by police reports of the situation (and I don’t necessarily see a specific motivation for them to lie about this particular situation, but who knows).  Interestingly the film, while clearly siding with Zola on the events, does divert from all three accounts in certain places, especially in the last twenty minutes.  Buried in this project there’s a bit of a Rashomon-like lesson to be learned about how one’s ability to tell a story affects who gets believed about what and how the platform you use (twitter, reddit, facebook, or independent film) affects what people think… but I kind of feel like I’m pulling that out myself rather than having it really surfaced by the film.  If you’re not looking for that this mostly just feels like a cheeky re-enactment of an internet meme that is a bit past its expiration date, and if that’s what this is going to be I feel like the aforementioned lack of energy becomes a problem.  I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of potential in this concept that just got left on the table and the final movie mostly disappointed me.

**1/2 out of Five

Wonder Woman 1984(12/25/2020)

HBO Max actually is one of the better streaming services out there.  The HBO TV network has a great back catalog of programing to build off of, having all the DC stuff in one place is nice, and the TCM connection makes it one of the few streaming services with a somewhat impressive collection of films made before 1985.  Things may change rapidly but as of right now it’s certainly a better deal than Apple Plus and depending on your taste it’s also probably better than Disney Plus, and it also has a nicer app than Amazon Prime.  As one of the few people who was still getting HBO through traditional cable service I was able to get HBO Max at no additional charge, so having it was something of a no brainer for me but there are enough good things about it that I would probably still get it if I ever found myself cutting the cord of my cable service.  Unfortunately, the general public doesn’t seem to agree with me about this, so Warner Brothers has decided that they will do anything and everything to prop up this service even if it means sacrificing the wellbeing of movie theaters to do it.  The first sign of this was when they announced that they would be bringing their $200 million dollar sequel to 2017’s Wonder Woman to the service, a move that could potentially cost them at least four hundred million in box office revenue.  I was happy with that announcement, because having a free movie is generally a good thing, but that support was predicated on the fact that this sounded like a one-time pandemic driven choice but soon afterward Warner announced that their whole 2021 slate would be coming to HBO Max and that announcement was chilling. It could well kill theatrical presentation as we know it, so this Christmas time release of a free blockbuster suddenly seems less like a windfall and more like the death of a major part of my lifestyle.  Of course, boycotting the release would have done nothing for me so… here’s my Wonder Woman 1984 review.

Set about 66 years after the first Wonder Woman in the titular year of 1984, the film finds the still immortal Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) working at the Smithsonian while occasionally moonlighting covertly as Wonder Woman in a way that somehow remains off the public’s radar.  One of these adventures leads to the capture of a stash of antiquities that find their way back to the museum and among this stash is an odd Roman crystal with markings that imply that it can grant people wishes but her assistant Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig) believes this to be a fake and sets it aside.  But soon a benefactor of the museum, a crass businessman named Maxwell Lorenzano (Pedro Pascal), shows up and takes a keen interest in this artifact.  Then seemingly out of nowhere Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who seemingly died at the end of the first movie, shows up in the body of some other person with no memory of what’s happened to him since his plane blew up back in 1918.  Meanwhile, Barbara seems to suddenly be going through a shift in personality and abilities and then Maxwell gets his hands on the crystal and some really crazy things start happening from there.

I enjoyed the original Wonder Woman fine, but was somewhat taken aback by how much some people seemed to love it.  Honestly I kind of suspect some of its fans had a bit of buyer’s remorse because I haven’t really heard all that many people talking about it or referencing it in the years to follow.  It was the first female superhero movie made on that scale, it filled a void, but now that the void is filled I’m not sure how much anyone cared about the actual movie.  But there was definitely a foundation there that could be built upon for a pretty cool sequel.  The film certainly seems to be trying to invoke some of the more grandiose elements of that first movie in its opening scene, a flashback set on Themyscira where a young Diana competes in a sort of race.  But that opening ends up not having much relevance to the film’s overall plot and the first 1984 action sequence seems a bit more representative of the film that’s going to come… in that it’s kind of silly and cartoony to the point where it literally has Diana winking at the camera.  There was always probably going to be a slight change in tone when moving a story from World War I to 1984, but the film’s conception of the 1980s here feels particularly frivolous and is largely defined by wildly outdated clothing.  There are ways to make the 1980s feel serious while still having fun, Atomic Blonde and “The Americans” being good examples of this, but this movie rather deliberately runs in the opposite direction from that.

The film’s central conflict is, at the very least, kind of original.  Maxwell Lorenzano is not a traditional supervillain in that he’s neither a superpowered physical threat nor a criminal mastermind but instead a (presumably) coked out conman who gets a hold of an unconventional power and is seemingly making up his plan as he goes.  Pedro Pascal positively devours the scenery when playing this guy as a sort of symbol of 80s greed who makes Gordon Gekko look positively dignified by comparison.  His method of chaos is that he gets the ability to grant wishes to people and get anything he wants in return, which is a plot mechanic which does lead to some enjoyable chaos in the second half but which kind of doesn’t make a lot of sense when you stop to think about it for a couple of minutes.  For one thing, a lot of these devil’s bargains he’s offering aren’t true bargains in that the people making them don’t know what they’re giving up when they do.  Secondly a lot of these wishes almost certainly contradict one another in a way that’s never quite explained.  And this also opens any number of potential plot holes like “why doesn’t the bad guy just manipulate someone into wishing that Wonder Woman was dead?”  Also if you want to fit all of this into DCEU continuity, in which Wonder Woman was supposed to be completely unknown to the public until her emergence in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice the film’s events don’t make even the slightest bit of sense.

Ultimately the movie is just kind of a mess, but it’s not a completely unenjoyable mess.  I’d probably compare it most readily to something like Iron Man 2: an over-stuffed high on its own supply superhero sequel with no idea what direction to go after the origin story but which nonetheless remains watchable largely off the momentum from the previous installment.  There are some decent action scenes here and there even if it increasingly becomes unclear just what Diana’s powers are and there are also some fun performances here from Gadot (who still owns this part), Chris Pine (whose return here makes more sense than I expected), and from Pedro Pascal (who’s been having a great run lately).  Also it’s hard to ignore the fact that we haven’t had a big superhero movie like this since… I guess since Spider-Man: Far from Home give or take a Birds of Prey or a New Mutants.  We’re used to having out superhero fix more frequently and at this point even weak and diluted product is going to do something to quench the thirst.  But that having been said, this is going to seem like a particular inessential DC movie after not very long and I don’t think it’s going to be one that many are going to want to revisit.  Also if you aren’t a current HBO Max subscriber… this probably isn’t the best reason to start.

**1/2 out of Five