Da 5 Bloods(6/21/2020)

I’ve maintained on this site that I’m only going to do full reviews of movies if they receive theatrical releases in my area and that I was going to stick with that even in the age of COVID, and so far even during quarantine I’ve only stretched that rule once and that was to review the film Bacurau.  I made an exception for that one firstly because it did play in some New York and Los Angeles theaters with plans to expand right before the shutdown pushed it out of theaters and secondly because they had a special program in place that would give some of their On Demand revenue to a local theater.  I’m bending my rules even further to give a full review to the new Spike Lee film Da 5 Bloods, a movie which to the best of my knowledge has never played in a single theater and debuted directly on Netflix.  So why am I willing to give this a full review and not something like The Lovebirds?  Well, for one this is a movie that I am fairly confident that Netflix would have at least given some kind of small theatrical run had there not been a pandemic.  But the bigger reason is that, frankly, it’s Spike Lee.  Spike Lee is a major auteur in a way that most direct-to-Netflix filmmakers are not and when he puts out a movie it’s a bit too much of an event to just take lightly.

The bulk of Da 5 Bloods is set in the present day and follows four African American men who met while serving in the Vietnam War.  They, along with a fellow soldier who never made it back, collectively formed a unit that dubbed itself “the five bloods.”  Today these men are middle aged and consist of Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).  These veterans have reunited to visit modern Vietnam and are hoping to locate the remains of their fallen comrade Norman (played in flashbacks by Chadwick Boseman), but it quickly becomes apparent that they have an ulterior motive.  At one point in the war they had apparently been tasked with delivering payment to a local American ally in the form of a chest of gold bars and after their helicopter went down they buried this treasure with the intention of coming back at a later date to keep the loot (which they styled as a form of reparations) but during the war the spot was napalmed and they lost track of it but think they may be able to find it now using modern satellite technology.  However, finding the gold and bringing it back are two different things and it becomes apparent that there are other forces at play.

One of the more unexpected revelations I’ve come to about movie watching during the pandemic is the realization that a lot of my understanding of what movies are out there and what to expect from them has kind of been informed by the fact that I used to steadily watch twenty minutes of trailers ever week before every theatrical viewing experience.  Without that I find myself seeing movies a bit more “blind” than usual and that was certainly the case for Da 5 Bloods, which I knew the most basic plot outline to but hadn’t seen a single trailer for and that maybe wasn’t for the best because the movie is pretty different than what I had thought it would be.  As the movie started I was expecting the film to be an African American version of something like Richard Linklater’s recent film Last Flag Flying, which was a fairly reverent film about modern Vietnam veterans coming to terms with their past experiences.  I was expecting that in part because I was thinking back to Spike Lee’s last movie about the African American military experience: 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna, a movie that was generally less “in your face” than the average Spike Lee movie and was seemingly more interested in simply adding a film about black protagonists to the pantheon of World War 2 epics.  That movie was from a span in the 2000s when Lee was a little more interested in “playing nice” with what audiences expected from studio movies (in some ways it was the end of that stage of his career) and I probably should have gathered from its title that Da 5 Bloods would be something of a different beast.

Da 5 Bloods proves to be something that’s a bit more raucous and in tune with what Lee was doing with Chiraq and Blackkklansman.  It makes a lot of intentionally bold decisions like shooting the Vietnam flashbacks in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio to match old news footage of the conflict and having the aged actors from the modern segments still playing their younger selves in these flashbacks.  Some of these things work, some of them don’t.  I certainly liked a lot of the basic ideas in the film: its exploration of the inherent tension of African Americans more or less forced to defend a country that hates them is strong and the film also creates a cadre of interesting characters and places them in interesting environments like modern Vietnam and those flashback scenes are really strong.  However, I think the film starts to go off the rails in its second half when it rather bafflingly turns into a full-on action movie that openly riffs on the 1948 classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  Pretty much from the moment that a certain thing happens involving a landmine the movie really started to lose me.

Let’s go back to the aforementioned The Miracle at St. Anna.  At the time I felt like the heart of what didn’t work about that movie is that Lee seemed to have been so interested in making a movie about the black experience in World War II that he wasn’t overly discerning about which movie about the black experience in World War II he made and as a result he seemed to have just picked a random and frankly kind of corny spec script about the Italian campaign and added a lot of material about the African American experience (that was legitimately interesting) without corrected everything wrong with that original script.  At least that’s the impression I got, looking into the history of that project I don’t think that’s actually true and that was intended from the beginning to be a movie about Buffalo Soldiers, but the flaws were there nonetheless.  Funny thing is, it seems that with Da 5 Bloods Spike Lee really did take a script that was about a white (or perhaps mixed) group of soldiers and re-wrote it to be about the black experience.  It’s certainly less stuffy than Miracle at St. Anna but it doesn’t gel together as well.  I suspect that that original script was meant to deal with a generally less sympathetic cadre of soldiers whose interest in that lost gold felt more like straightforward greed than anything resembling reparations and that the Delroy Lindo character in particular was meant to be more of a straightforward villain and that the violent conflict would have felt more like a people getting punished for their lust for gold in keeping with John Huston’s film.

This is a movie that I really wanted to love.  We’ve been starved for a decently budgeted movie from a great auteur and Spike Lee in particular seems like an important voice to be hearing from at this time, but the movie he’s given us is not the triumph I was hoping for so much as an interesting mess.  It’s certainly not the first time that Lee has made a movie that’s a bit messy but it’s rare for him to do so with this kind of scale and budget.  He can be more of a perfectionist when he wants to be, like he was when he made movies like Malcolm X, but that’s not really where he is right now but that isn’t entirely a bad thing… it just means his movies aren’t going to be perfect.  In its own wild way this was a fun movie to watch and there is a lot in it to appreciate in its own way.

*** out of Five

Bacurau(4/4/2020)

I’m generally very strict about what I write full reviews of and the main rule above all is that they are generally supposed to be exclusively reserved for movies that I see in theaters.  I hold this standard for a lot of reasons: partly because it ensures I judge a movie based on an ideal viewing experience, partly to reward distributors that are keeping theatrical alive, partly to keep myself from lazily waiting until things are on home video, and partly just because the things that are worth reviewing are generally just going to be the ones that earn theatrical releases.  I’m pretty dogmatic about this and as much as possible I’m planning to stick to this rule even during the era of the Coronavirus and sheltering at home even if it means focusing the blog more on older movies or special articles than full reviews during the crisis.  That having been said I did ultimately decide to make an exception for Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Bacurau for a couple of reasons. Firstly it’s a movie from a director who interests me and which I’ve been keen to see since its Cannes release, secondly because it was a movie that Kino International had planned to give a full (if platformed) theatrical release to and had put out in New York and Los Angeles before theaters were shut down nationwide, and thirdly (and most importantly) they were employing a special distribution method called KinoMarquee where you can support a local theater with each stream.  With all that in mind I decided I would break tradition and cover this like a theatrical film, but make no mistake I am not happy about this compromise.  The price of the stream was higher than it would usually be to see a matinee in this area, the options to make it play on my TV were not ideal (arthouse streamers need to get their act together and provide apps to Xbox, PS4, and/or LG smart TVs, looking at you Criterion), and I’m not entirely sure I got optimal picture quality, but in a crisis it will do.

The film is set in a near future in a fictional remote village in northern Brazil called Bacurau.  It doesn’t necessarily follow any one character but instead kind of establishes the town as an entity early on and the various eccentric people who live there.  We learn that there is quite a bit of tension with the town’s mayor Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima), but aside from that it feels like business as usual in the town until the villagers suddenly notice that the town is no longer showing up on Google maps, and then a water truck comes in with bullet holes in its tank, and then they lose phone signals altogether.  Eventually they come to realize that what’s going on is that there’s a party of wealthy largely American hunters lead by one experienced mercenary (Udo Kier) camped out on the outskirts of town who are planning to hunt the town’s inhabitants for sport and the inhabitants need to rally themselves less they find themselves picked off one by one.

Bacurau is a bit of a departure for Kleber Mendonça Filho, who didn’t seem to show much in the way of genre sensibility in his previous films Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius.  What I think links the film to those earlier works is a focus on community and on protecting them from wealthy outsiders be it from overbearing private security forces, land developers, or human hunters.  He shows some flashes of unique style here, namely the employment of Kurosawa/Lucas wipe cuts and a couple of moments that definitely revel in the gore of it all, but the movie never quite starts playing out like either an action movie or a horror movie and it maintains that Filho leisurely pace and tone.  Where it doesn’t hold up as well is in the acting, especially in the American villains.  Now, if you watch enough foreign films you will encounter examples like this where directors clearly kind of half-ass their direction of English speaking characters and I’m sure the same problem widely exists in English language films with non-American characters, but regardless it’s pretty hard to ignore that the dialogue and line readings by these characters are pretty weak.  Not completely incompetent but certainly weak.

Of course it’s hard to talk about this movie without acknowledging the coincidence of it getting a U.S. release not long after the release of Hollywood’s own political “Most Dangerous Game” riff, The Hunt.  I hated that movie and while Bacurau is certainly done a lot better it still falls into some of the same traps.  Before I should get into this I should humble myself a little and admit that I know very little about Brazilian politics and may be missing quite a bit in here, but there does seem something more than a bit simplistic about casting greedy heartless foreigners as the ruthless villains to be fought off.  I get that there’s more of a punching up aspect about a Latin American country doing this to Americans than the reverse but at a certain point xenophobia is still xenophobia and the movie doesn’t really do a whole lot to connect these villains to any real act of international exploitation outside of just making them these kind of one note violent people, and frankly in the era Jair Bolsonaro the Brazilian countryside might have enough internal threats without worrying about evil foreigners.

Between this and The Hunt I’ve really come to question the usefulness of “The Most Dangerous Game” as any kind of political allegory.  Richard Connell’s original short story was never really supposed to be about class; the villain was an aristocrat but his villainy was primarily a product of him just being crazy and evil and his victim was a rich person as well.  The intended theme of that story was simply the ethics of hunting; the victim was a hunter of big game animals and over the course of the story he came to learn what it was like when the tables were turned.  But trying to sum up an entire class, or ideology, or nationality based on something as dehumanizing as hunting man is just too blunt and casts too big of a net and the notion that you’d find large group of such sociopaths and that they’d expect to be able to do it without detection just doesn’t scan as plausible.  There’s an “us against them” element to it all that just doesn’t sit well during these times.  Bacurau is less flippant and less charged than The Hunt, and it’s mostly better made and has more interesting elements that redeem it, but there’s still something about it that does not really sit entirely well with me.  It’s worth a look, and I’m willing to give it some benefit of the doubt that there are some local references that are lost on me.

*** out of Five

The Hunt(3/13/2020)

The Blumhouse produced horror film The Hunt was originally intended to come out on September 27th 2019 but this was derailed, ostensibly out of sensitivity to the mass shootings that occurred in Dayton and El Paso that occurred a month before the release but what’s really thought to have been behind it was the fact that some right-wing outlets heard vague descriptions of it, interpreted it as an assault on them, and saw it as an opportunity to create an “us against them” narrative about “Hollywood elites.”  Trump himself even made vague comments about it at a rally.  At the time I viewed this delay as something of an outrage.  A cowardly attempt to stifle what looked at least from the trailers to be an attempt to combine social commentary with genre elements.  Mind you I barely knew anything about the movie I was defending, and in many ways that was beside the point, I didn’t want the incident to have a chilling effect on future movies that would try to do things along those lines.  Beyond that, the fact that this was now forbidden fruit made me a whole lot more interested in seeing it than I was before, partly out of the long long history of the best movies becoming “controversial” powder kegs that spark debates and outlast their critics in the long run.  Also, frankly, there’s a certain kneejerk instinct to support anything that Donald Trump seems to hate.  But now the film is back, this time with an advertising campaign that leans into the controversy by claiming to be the most talked about movie of the year (which it objectively is not), but despite feeling a lot less dangerous and interesting than it did in the fall, I still felt some compulsion to seek it out if only to make sense of that whole tempest in a teapot from a few months ago.

The film is a bit of a riff on the short story “The Most Dangerous Game” as it is about a cadre of wealthy elites who take it upon themselves to kidnap a bunch of people, transport them to some sort of secret compound in the Balkans, and then hunt them for sport.  The film doesn’t beat around the bush about this reveal and pretty much lets you know what’s up from the beginning.  The victims of this hunt are various low income people, mostly from the south, who have at some point or another expressed some sort of right wing sentiment.  They are “deplorables” as one of the hunters describes them in a text chat that displays onscreen at the beginning.  I don’t think the name “Donald Trump” is spoken in the film but you do get the impression that the two sides of this are basically two sides of the culture war at their most extreme.

It is perhaps curious that Donald Trump came out against this movie because if he had actually seen it he might have found that the movie kind of seems to in many ways push the worldview that Trump espouses.  In it liberals are viewed not as people of diverse backgrounds looking to advance social causes but instead as virtue signaling millionaire fatcats who operate entirely out of hatred for red states while their victims are seen as misguided but ultimately sympathetic victims, and people of color don’t seem to factor into any of this much at all.  Why the film’s producers, who as far as I can tell are not Trump supporting conservatives, wanted to advance this narrative with their movie is difficult to perceive.  The most charitable reading I can perceive is that the movie is meant less to be a reflection of contemporary America than it’s meant to be a movie about stereotypes and the way we perceive one another, but I must say this interpretation requires a lot of bullshit false equivilencey that’s inherently unbalanced by the fact that liberal elites do not actually hunt people while there are actual real world examples of the kinds of “deplorability” that the hunted people represent.  Outside of that I think there’s a sort of extreme version of the sort of self-criticism that made Get Out such a hit, but done much more clumsily.  The upper class liberals in that movie at least sort of resembled people you might meet in real life, but the ones here seem to exist solely in Alex Jones’ imagination.

The film is not completely without wit.  In my summery of the film’s plot I avoided giving character names or listing cast members, in part because it does a fairly clever thing at the beginning where it fools the audience into thinking a variety of people will be will be the film’s protagonist before finally settling on one.  Some of the film’s kills are also reasonably well staged in a way that the gorehounds will appreciate and there are jokes here and there and there’s a fairly good performance from the lead that eventually emerges.  But all of that is kind of wasted on a movie that seems to be peddling a profoundly unproductive message that will not please (or particularly challenge) anyone on any side of the political divide.  It does nothing to probe more deeply into what makes the “deplorables” tick and its interest in the richest of limousine liberals seems particularly out of touch coming out of a hard fought primary in which decidedly non-elite Democrats were deciding the future of the party.  Maybe twenty years from now this thing will appear to be an interesting document of the political divide in the Tump years the way we now look back at movies like Punishment Park seem to give insight into the culture wars of the past, but right now this is decidedly not the movie the country needs.

* out of Five

Onward(3/10/2020)

What to make of the post-Toy Story 3 Pixar?  This animation studio was considered to be something of a pinnacle of studio filmmaking during the 2000s when they put out movies like Ratatouille and Wall-E the critics used to routinely insist that they deserved Best Picture Oscar nominations but in the following decade they’ve been viewed as something more akin to the MCU: a cog in the Disney machine putting out product that isn’t to be respected too much even when it’s pretty good.  The main thing that’s often blamed on this decline is their increased interest in putting out sequels to their earlier films, and indeed, six of the ten movies they put out during that period were sequels of varying degrees of quality.  But critics haven’t been terribly jazzed about most of the original movies they put out either.  Brave was probably the first of several Pixar movies this decade that was met with a sort of respectful but not overly impressed response despite probably being better than most of what their competitors were putting out.  Coco was better received, but it still wasn’t like it was in the old days, and The Good Dinosaur was pretty much dismissed outright.  Inside Out was the exception, people did view that one as something of a classic but even then there was a bit of a ceiling.  But are these movies really so much worse than the other movies?  I would argue they aren’t, rather I feel like the hype levels are closer to what they should have been all along, but there is something a little odd about the way Pixar seems to get held to a higher standard than most other Hollywood animation studios and the mild reception that their new original film Onward is emblematic of this.

The world of Onward is based on a question I’ve long contemplated: what will it be like when the a high fantasy world of the kind in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones discovers gunpowder, steam engines, and electricity and ends up being something more akin to the modern world but still filled with elves and dragons and the like.  It’s an idea that was explored (by all accounts poorly) in the David Ayer film Bright but here we get a better realized version of such a place.  The film is set in an unnamed country that used to be filled with knights and mages but the idea of “magic” was abandoned during a sort of industrial revolution and the place now looks like a modern American suburbia but populated entirely by various mythological creatures like centaurs, ogres, and pixies and with buildings that kind of reflect the world’s cultural origins.   Our focus is on Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a nightelf who has just turned sixteen and has the normal teenage problems of trying to fit in at school and being anxious about learning to drive.  On the morning of his birthday his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) informs Ian and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) that their long dead father had left the two of them a gift to be opened when both of them are sixteen.  This gift is a mage staff, which greatly excites Barley as he is an avid player of a historically based role playing game (essentially Dungeons and Dragons) and is a big believer in magic, much to everyone else’s disdain.  The staff has apparently been set up to bring the father back to life for twenty four hours, but something goes wrong when they try to use it and all that’s brought back are the father’s legs, which walk around aimlessly.  To complete the spell they’re going to have to find another rare crystal, and finding that will require them to go on a quest that will test their bond.

Early on it seemed like the main theme of Onward was going to be tradition versus technology and that “magic” would act as a sort of stand-in for any number of debates that go around about new ways of doing things: film vs. digital, physical media vs. streaming, or perhaps most pertinently computer animation vs. hand drawn.  There is enough there to kind of make that work as a through line.  Barley’s fanatical devotion to the ways of old is certainly shown to have its limits but there are legitimately some things magic can do which “the new ways” can’t and it shouldn’t be dismissed.  Maybe a few too many things.  Given everything they’re able to do on this journey with rudimentary wizardly it does somewhat beggar belief that this society would abandon it entirely and it might have made sense to show a few more of the downsides of the magic arts.  But really this becomes something of a secondary theme as the film goes on as it ultimately becomes a lot more interested in the relationship between the two brothers and their feelings about having lost a father at a very young age, which I think is a bit of a mistake as that whole relationship is not quite as interesting as the movie seems to think it is.

Despite that I still found the sheer world-building here to be really charming.  Like I said before, this idea of fantasy worlds getting modern technology has been on my mind for a while and it was really fun seeing that very notion get fleshed out in a movie like this.  Like, the movie has a character who’s a straight-up manticore, but she runs a family restaurant for a living and uses her past exploits as a theme for it.  I certainly find that amusing, and there’s a lot of stuff like that in the movie, to the point where I’d probably welcome a sequel to this just to explore the place even more.  There was also fun to be had with the basic adventure that the characters go on here.  I do normally frown at the way Pixar seems to turn almost all of their movies into adventure narratives, but given the motif here it does fit.  That’s not to say every part of the narrative is completely novel and interesting as there are passages that feel more bland than others, but I mostly had fun with it and it really seems weird to me that the movie has not really seemed to catch on with critics and audiences.  It hasn’t been the best marketed film and its title is not the best, but this reception generally seems to be indicative of the double standard that Pixar gets held to at times.

***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

Little Women(12/31/2019)

If there’s any movie I’ve been kind of dreading this award season it was probably Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women.  Not because I thought it would be “bad” by any means, it’s been critically acclaimed, has a stellar cast, and is the follow-up from the director of the movie Lady Bird which I liked quite a bit.  So I had little doubt it would be well crafted, but what really had me dreading it is that I worried it would be a movie that I wouldn’t really be in a position to analyze or talk about all that intelligently.  I’ve never read Louisa May Alcott’s novel of “Little Women.”  It wasn’t assigned to me in school and have never been enough of a “classics” buff to read it of my own volition.  I have seen a handful of its various film adaptations in passing and they’ve never done much for me and I even rewatched a couple of them in the last month in an attempt to get a better grasp of the story and the different ways to interpret them and they still didn’t really connect with me all that much.  It just seems like one of those public domain books that gets kind of mindlessly remade over and over again on the big and small screen without much alteration every single generation like the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.  But I certainly wasn’t going to skip something this big and talked about out of reviewer cowardice.

The film’s plot is largely unchanged from the story we’ve heard before.  The film is set in Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War and a few years after and looks at a household where a mother (Laura Dern) is looking after her four daughters while her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is serving in the Union army.  Those daughters are the traditionalist Meg (Emma Watson), the tomboyish Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and the troublemaker Amy (Florence Pugh).  The family isn’t poor exactly but it’s hardly rich and they do have more well off relatives like their snobby Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) and also live across the way from the estate of a wealthy man named Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), who is the guardian for his grandson Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) who comes to befriend the girls.  Love triangles ensue and the girls eventually grow up and grow apart but certain bonds can only be broken so far.

Of all the adaptations there have been of this novel the one with the longest legacy up to this point was probably George Cukor’s Academy Award nominated 1933 version.  That was not the first adaptation of the film (they’ve been remaking this since the silent era) but it was a major hit  even if it’s probably less famous for its Alcott reworking than for how it fit into a sort of culture war that was brewing in Hollywood at the time.  This was during the “pre-code” era and there was a lot of controversy at the time about the gangster movies and sex comedies coming out of the major studios at the time and this version of Little Women was being celebrated in certain circles as a conservative alternative that celebrated family values.  Elements like Jo’s tomboyishness were still there (she was being played by Katherine Hepburn after all) but at its heart it is still very much a family movie with an emphasis on wholesome sentimentality and to some degree that’s also the case with the 1949 version (which is pretty much only notable for being in color) and the 1994 version which is shockingly sincere and straightforward for something starring Winona Ryder in the mid-90s.  And that is more or less why I’ve never cared for these movies, they all kind of feel like they’ve all kind of felt like they exist to be played in middle school English classes and even when they depict tragedy they just feel kind of cloying.

Enter Greta Gerwig, who hasn’t made Little Women any less PG rated than her predecessors but has in many ways made the first adaptation of this thing that seems to be directed toward adult sensibilities.  The clearest alteration that Gerwig has made is that she took the chronological narrative from the book and adjusted it into something closer to a flashback structure.  The first scene is of Jo as an adult in New York working as a tutor while trying to get stories published and we also catch up with Amy in Paris, Meg dealing with her marital woes, and Beth having health problems.  It then flashes back to their youth and the movie cuts between the two timelines through the rest of the movie.  I’ve heard some reports of people finding this format confusing, and I may have benefited somewhat from seeing previous adaptations, but I thought it was pretty clear and also that the way this benefits the story more than outweigh any drawbacks.  For one, it really helps to define the personalities of these four sisters right up front by showing them when they’re more developed.  Previous adaptations struggled in this regard; they were able to make Jo’s differences clear enough with her tomboyish qualities but the other three sisters kind of blended together when they were just a bunch of children playing without extensive dialogue or internal monologue.  Additionally, knowing from the beginning where these characters end up kind of ups the stakes on the childhood sections, which could often feel a bit episodic and aimless in the other adaptations where you don’t have a clearer end goal.  And finally this allows those childhood flashbacks to feel more like pleasant memories than sappiness played straight and that somewhat plays into why I consider this adaptation to be more adult in its outlook than previous versions.

Needless to say there’s plenty that goes right here that has little to do with radical reinvention and everything to do with just getting certain things right.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that Gerwig has assembled an all-star cast of actors young and old.  Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, and Florence Pugh are a pretty unimpeachable trio to play the main sisters and Timothée Chalamet in many ways seems to have been born to one day play Laurie.  I will say that Laura Dern and Bob Odenkirk seem to struggle a little bit here, in part because they’re playing overly virtuous and altruistic characters who don’t fit as well in this slightly more cynical interpretation of the source material, but other actors playing adults here like Meryl Streep and Tracy Letts do work well here and add fun little diversions to the film.  Gerwig has also done a great job of making adjustments to the period detail that make things feel less stuffy without feeling overly anachronistic and Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty score really helps to make things flow well.  I also must say that even though the film is only fifteen to twenty minutes longer than any of the previous adaptations of the novel it sure feels like it has more breathing room which goes a long way toward making the story flow more naturally.

Now, I mentioned before that the 1933 Little Women was received as a conservative vision insomuch as it was family friendly so it is perhaps a bit of an irony that this latest version re-interprets the novel as something that was actually rather subversive, particularly in terms of how it viewed the role of women in its society.  Some extra lines are written into the film to underscore this which do kind of stand out and feel a touch on the nose but I don’t exactly begrudge the movie for.  I am a bit more on the fence about what the film does with its final moments in which (spoiler I guess) Jo is re-written to have become the author of a novel based on the lives of her sisters that is basically the novel “Little Women” (an idea the 1994 film also had) and a metatexual element takes over where a cigar comping publisher demands that this book be given the happy romantic ending that the real Louisa May Alcott was pressured into having, which then effects the final ending of the movie.  This feels a bit like an out of place attempt on Gerwig’s part to have her cake and eat it too given that nothing else in the movie up to this point is trying to be particularly meta.  On the other hand, that other ending legitimately does kind of suck and letting it play out sincerely like the other films do would not have been a satisfying end.  So, at the end of the day I think my worries about not being able to engage with an analyze this movie were for naught and in many ways it’s actually a lot better than I had even hoped.

****1/2 out of Five