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 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

Ford V. Ferrari(11/14/2019)

This is going to seem really off topic but bear with me.  There’s this video game called Mass Effect set in a science fiction universe and in that universe there’s this war-like alien species called the Krogan who were genetically altered after a war of make much of their population infertile.  Again, bear with me.  So there’s a conversation with one of these aliens in the game where he says that, in addition to the obvious reasons he thinks this is awful, he also worries that this genetic warfare is additionally making the species soft because every child that is born is treated as a miracle and gets more pampered than it normally would in their culture and this keeps them from gaining the toughness the species was known for.  I mention this because, in many ways, I think a similar thing happens whenever Hollywood puts some money behind a non-franchise film intended for adults.  We’re so accustomed to bitching about Hollywood only making franchise movies for teenagers that anytime they do give us what we supposedly want we get so damn grateful that we treat the movie with kid gloves even if it maybe doesn’t actually stack up.  Case in point, the new film Ford V. Ferrari has been welcomed with open arms seemingly less for its own qualities than for simply what it is: a $97 million dollar 20th Century Fox film with no sequel potential and with subject matter that no one under 25 will naturally gravitate toward.

Ford V. Ferrari focuses primarily on a man named Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who won the 24 Hours of Le Mans race (driving for Aston Martin) before being forced into retiring from professional racecar driving because of a heart issue and transitioning into behind the scenes roles in the automotive world.  As he’s getting his footing in that role things are shifting the industry.  At Ford they’re trying to break into the world of international motorsport out of a desire to give their cars a sexier sporty image and Shelby is the first person they go to for assistance.  Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) promises Shelby that he’ll be given unlimited resources and that Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is going to give him full autonomy.  Shelby hesitantly agrees and seeks out Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a skilled but down on his luck British racer who lives in American and often has trouble getting sponsors because of his “difficult” personality.  Together they begin work on the car that would become the Ford GT40 but whether or not it will be able to beat perennial winner Ferrari at this storied race remains unclear.

In various foreign markets this film is being released under the title Le Mans ’66, a title that implies that this is mostly just about racing, but its domestic title is telling.  Firstly it joins Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice in an odd trend of having movies follow the naming conventions of Supreme Court cases, but primarily it signals this as a movie about an American motor company going head to head with an elitist European rival.  And yet you won’t really see a whole lot of Ferrari in the movie, they largely exist as a specter on the periphery of the film and it’s not entirely clear how invested they really are in this little rivalry.  The film also doesn’t really do much to make a case for why Ford winning this fight would actually be a good thing outside of blind patriotism.  Really, the film seems to have a rather unusual understanding about who the Goliath is in this situation and who the David is.  It would seem to me that Enzo Ferrari is the one who put his blood sweat and tears into sport of auto racing and the craft of making quality vehicles while Ford is a giant corporation who get the notion to buy its way into victory against him on a marketing whim so that they could then sell exploding Pintos to unsuspecting consumers for the next decade.  Shouldn’t Ford be the bad guy here?

So this isn’t much of an underdog sports movie but is it a good sports movie generally?  Well, the racing certainly looks good.  There isn’t a ton of it really but the crash scenes certainly look impactful when they occur and the movie does a reasonably good job of showing the strategy involved in endurance racing.  I was not, however, all that enamored with the film’s characters, who seemed to skew a bit too close to cliché for my taste.  Matt Damon is essentially playing a long suffering coach, an even tempered guy who nonetheless quarrels with higher-ups and also needs to tame the wild passions of his star athlete, or driver in this case.  As for that driver, well, he’s a character who would make more sense if he were about twenty years younger.  As a college football player his aimless rebellion would makes sense but this is supposed to be a forty six year old man and my patience with his “difficult” behavior only went so far.  I also didn’t care about his family like one bit.

But the character who really drove me crazy here was a Ford executive Leo Beebe played by Josh Lucas.  This character is meant to sort of be a stand-in for all the dumbest ideas the team got from Ford executives who don’t know what they’re talking about.  He reminded me of something from Roger Ebert’s review of the movie Die Hard where he says that the police chief from that movie was “in the movie for only one purpose: to be consistently wrong at every step of the way and to provide a phony counterpoint to Willis’ progress.”  I do think Ebert slightly over-emphasized how much of a problem that side character was for that movie, but Josh Lucas is about as much of a lame screenplay contrivance.  Granted, some of my research suggests that a few of Beebe’s dumb decisions had some historical backing, but when you have an element like that in the story you’re adapting you really need to address it with some finesse and be careful not to exaggerate it and here they most certainly punch up the character’s idiocy rather than putting them in context and making them seem likely and plausible.

So I don’t exactly think this is anything special as a sports movie but I will say that if there’s anything that does make it potentially interesting it’s the fact that it could potentially be read as a metaphor for the process of Hollywood filmmaking.  In this reading Ford is a stand-in for major studios of the 20th Century Fox variety who ultimately care more about the bottom line than craftsmanship but will occasionally indulge the creation of something a bit finer as a goodwill gesture.  This would then make Shelby a stand-in for a high profile director that needs to wrangle everything together and stay in the good graces of the studio while pushing back on the meddling of all their executives.  And then that would make Ken Miles a stand-in for a “difficult” actor that a director needs to find, fight to get cast, and then direct into using their talent correctly for the project at hand.  It’s an interesting meta-level, and I do think this is an intentional element rather than something I’m generously reading into the film, but it’s also perhaps a bit of a double edged sword because there’s a certain ego involved in making your main character that much of a self-insert.  James Mangold clearly views himself as the Carroll Shelby in all this, but from where I sit the movie he’s made is less of a Ford GT40 and more of a Ford Fusion: a perfectly functional product but not something you should be bragging about as if it were some exemplar of what automaking can be at the highest levels.

*** out of Five

It: Chapter 2(9/5/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Light Spoilers

I try not to get too wrapped up with box office numbers, but sometimes when the right movie becomes a hit it can feel really good.  The success of the movie It in 2017 was one of those cases.  While not exactly what you’d call high art it was in many the kind of product that you hope for from large studio filmmaking: a solidly made adaptation of a respectable property which didn’t compromise more than it had to.  Seeing that R-rated horror adaptation make $123 million dollars in its opening weekend and later end up among the top ten highest grossing of that year right between two MCU movies was really satisfying.  This success had a lot to do with timing; Stephen King has always been relevant but the popularity of “Stranger Things” had really primed the audience for his brand of horror storytelling and the fact that this was focusing on the suburban childhood aspects of the book and that its milieu was moved from the 50s to the 80s really strengthened that connection.  That’s not to say the movie entirely has the TV show to thank for the money it made but both properties were certainly tapping in to the same nostalgia vein that people really wanted tapped in 2017.  Now, as happy as I was by the film’s success I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was one of my favorite films that year.  In fact in my original review of the film I felt a little hesitant to pass judgement at all simply because I knew this second half was coming and wanted to see if some of the elements I thought were lumpy would pay off and to know for sure if it was going to stick the landing.

Set twenty seven years after the events of the first movie, It: Chapter 2 opens with an attack by Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) which Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa) gets word of and realizes that this evil entity has returned on schedule.  As Mike is the only member of “The Loser’s Club” who has remained in Derry all these years he takes it upon himself to call his old friends and reunite them in order to kill the monster once and for all.  The “club” members lives have gone in different directions: Bill Denbrough (James McAvoy) is a horror novelist, Beverly Marsh (Jessica Chastain) is in an abusive marriage, Richie Tozier (Bill Hader) is a standup comedian, Ben Hanscom (Jay Ryan) has lost a lot of weight and is a wealthy architect, and Eddie Kaspbrak (James Ransone) has a desk job.  They all reunite out of a sort of obligation but when they arrive many of them have forgotten about their fight with Pennywise as a function of how that entity’s magic works.  Once they arrive and their memory is jogged many of them are reluctant to stay, especially after some scary encounters, but when they learn about the suicide of Stanley Uris (Andy Bean) who the one member who didn’t show up, they become resolved to finish the fight.

The big conversation leading up to the release of this film largely had to do with its running time.  The movie is about 2 hours and 50 minutes long, which is not something I inherently have any problems with because to me that isn’t very unusual; it’s about ten minutes longer than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which I loved, and ten minutes shorter than Avengers: Endgame, which the masses flocked to.  Given that the movie was half of an adaptation of a thousand page book it seemed largely reasonable and I was looking forward to seeing the film and telling all the haters that they were being silly for freaking out about that.  Then I saw the movie and… yeah, it’s too long.  Well, it’s not so much that it’s literally too long, I wouldn’t exactly say I lost interest in it over time or anything, but it has a bizarre structure and becomes repetitive in ways that eventually undermine it.

Take the opening scene, which is a disturbing depiction of a hate crime perpetuated against a gay couple which ends with one of them being thrown off a bridge and then murdered by Pennywise.  It’s a strongly rendered scene, but what is it doing in this movie?  We never see the attack’s survivor again or the human attackers and while it does serve to announce Pennywise’s return that could have been achieved just as easily by moving a later attack against a kid at a baseball game (which is shorter, fits Pennywise’s MO better, and has less baggage) to the beginning.  Then there’s the character of Henry Bowers; in my review of the first film I said “there are elements of it like the Henry Bowers sub-plot which I would criticize as being superfluous and in need of cutting if not for the fact that I suspect it will come up again in the sequel,” and while he does indeed come back his presence in the sequel ends up being as much of a time waste as he was in the first.  His three or so scenes are well made, I can see why a director would be attached to them and want to leave them in, but he ultimately has no effect at all on the plot beyond being one more obstacle and has only the slightest effect on theme, so his presence here only lengthens the movie and does very little to justify is presence in the last movie either.

Superfluous as those scenes were, they can be set aside as merely misjudged extravagances on the part of director Andy Muschietti, who seems to be going into this sequel with a lot more confidence and money than he did before after the massive success of the first film.  The bigger structural problem with the film is that it’s basically a movie with six protagonists and feels obligated to give each of them equal screen time. For instance the film has to begin by Mike making six different phone calls to each of his former friends one after another, forcing the movie to stop and give us six different vignettes about where these people are in their lives.  That might be a necessary expository tool (aside from the weird domestic violence vignette in Beverly’s introduction which is kind of left dangling), but what’s less forgivable is how the film then spends a lot of its first half sending each of the six characters out to find “artifacts from their past.”  In practice that means six episodic segments in a row of a character going somewhere in the town, having a flashback to some moment of their past too inconsequential to have been in the first movie, and then having Pennywise fuck with them in some ineffective way.

Pennywise’s habit of appearing before our main characters to creep them out rather than actually kill them was actually a problem I had with the first movie.  In my review of that movie I said “every other time we see him he seems to have taken the form of the clown specifically for the purposes of scaring the crap out of the kids he’s elected to target for unknown reasons and he spends a whole lot of time playing largely ineffective mind games with them” but I sort of let it go because you could sort of explain it away as Pennywise underestimating The Losers Club, but it’s harder to forgive here as we see six episodes in a row of him jumping out and going “boo” at our heroes and them getting away from it unscathed.  And beyond simply making the first chunk of this movie kind of tedious it also kind of hurts the rest of the film because it makes Pennywise a bit of a paper tiger who can’t actually hurt anyone, which is kind of a suspense killer.  At its heart I think the problem here is that in the original novel this half of the story with the characters as adults were meant to act as something of a framing story to the scenes with the kids rather than a standalone narrative unto itself.  That makes the film kind of awkward because instead of flashing back to the actual important parts of their childhood (which were all in the first movie) they just flash back to some random crap that belongs on the cutting room floor.

Despite these structural problems there is a lot here to like.  For one thing the casting here is really strong.  These certainly won’t go down as the best performances of James McAvoy or Jessica Chastain, not even close, but they are definitely believable as older versions of those characters from the first film and the same can be said of most of the less famous actors in the film.  Then there’s Bill Hader, who like his fellow cast mates makes perfect sense as an older version of that character and he’s been widely considered to be a standout element of the film because of the comic relief he provides.  This praise is largely deserved, he is quite funny in the film and commands the screen when he’s in it, but his role in the film is a bit of a double edged sword.  There is definitely a place for levity even in the most hardcore of horror cinema but here Hader is doing so much comedy that it does sort of hurt the tension a little, or at least it contributes to the other problems the film has with Pennywise’s general ineffectiveness.  Really the whole movie has a much different tone from the first movie in no small part because of this.  In fact it almost feels more like a summer blockbuster than a true horror film, especially considering that a lot of the film’s scares involve CGI imagery, some of which is more effective than others.

What I’d really like, is to see a supercut of the first and second film put together into an epic five hour movie that cuts between the two timelines.  Maybe in that context the characters artifact hunts would seem less like repetitive time wasting and maybe that long runtime would make Bill Hader’s comedy seem less omnipresent and more like a true relief from the rest of the horror.  As an individual movie though It: Chapter 2 is kind of a weird movie that’s hard to really call “good” or “bad.”  I can rattle off a whole checklist of ways that it’s misshapen and indulgent but it would be hard to really say I disliked it or that I didn’t appreciate having seen it.  The things that do work in it work quite well and frankly I’d rather a movie fail through over-reach than through mundanity.  So if you liked the first movie, by all means see the second but go in with the expectation that it’s meant to give a fairly different experience than you got from the first one and that it’s going to be a bit of a bumpy ride at times.

*** out of Five

Godzilla: King of the Monsters(5/30/2019)

Me and Godzilla go way back.  When I was a kid, I’m not sure what age range but probably before I was even ten, I would take every opportunity to watch the original Toho Godzilla movies when what was known at the time as The Sci-Fi Channel.  I didn’t even really watch the 1954 original that much, it was mainly the many sequels from the 60s and 70s that I was watching (what I would later learn was called the Shōwa Era of the series).  However, unlike other childhood obsessions like the Universal Monsters of the James Bond series I never really stuck to the Godzilla movies.  Part of that is that the world was not still supplying me with new ones (it wasn’t until much later that I learned that they were still pretty regularly making these things in Japan without exporting them) and partly because, well… those movies are kind of hard to defend objectively.  I watch old clips from some of them and I can pretty easily see why someone not nostalgically inclined towards them would just laugh at them, hell I do myself even if I still have some warmth for them.  On some level my blinders towards the flaws in these movies even extend towards the questionable American remakes.  As dumb as Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla movie is and as dull as elements of the 2014 reboot was it’s hard to complain about them with too much of a straight face once you’ve established affection for, say, a movie where Godzilla fights a robotic version of himself built by space gorillas alongside another monster brought to life by a lady singing a very long j-pop song.  And it was with all this baggage that I arrived at the opening day of the sequel to that 2014 American Godzilla film: Godzilla: King of the Monsters.

This sequel is set at least five years after the evens of the 2014 Godzilla and eschews most of the cast from that movie.  Here we follow the Russells, a family that was in San Francisco when Godzilla fought the two MUTOs and lost a son during that attack.  Years later they’re split up.  Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) is now focused on his career as an animal behavioral expert while his ex-wife Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) has begun working for an organization called Monarch, which studies other giant creatures called titans which have been discovered in the time since the first movie.  As the film starts Russell is studying a giant larva which has just hatched and is using a device she has invented called the ORCA which is meant to communicate with these titans through subsonic frequencies.  Right as she’s taming mothra her operation is attacked by a group of Eco-terrorists led by a guy named Alan Jonah (Charles Dance) who steal the ORCA and kidnap both Emma and her daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown).  With the device lose and potentially able to wake up the wrong titans, Mark is brought in to help track the terrorists down and avert disaster.

Let’s get this out right away: this movie has a terrible script.  More specifically it has terrible characters.  The guy Kyle Chandler plays is just the worst kind of Hollywood “hero.”  He has a murky background, his brashness is constantly rewarded by the script, and he seems to continually be allowed to be in the middle of things by authority figures despite not really having any qualifications besides the fact that he’s trying to save his daughter.  His wife isn’t much better.  There’s a shred of a good idea in making the villains environmentalist extremists who believe the titans should reign but the movie doesn’t develop the idea properly at all and their motivations ultimately just seem completely stupid.  The dialogue isn’t much better; it mostly consists of rote exposition and while there aren’t many attempts at humor the ones they do try either fall flat or maybe elicit a small chuckle at best.

So, terrible movie, right?  Well, not exactly.  If there’s anything redeeming about this script it’s that the things that are bad about it are bad in a way that’s kind of generic and unobtrusive.  You look at them, you know they’re bad, but they aren’t so groan-worthy that they completely distract from the rest of the action.   In a way they almost in keeping with the lackluster human stories that were always there in those early Toho films and they also don’t take up nearly as much screen time as the only moderately superior human stuff from the 2014 movie.  And that “rest of the action” in the movie was for the most part very strong.  The main thing being added to the movie are additional kaiju including three of the most famous monsters from the franchise: Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah and each time one of them comes into the movie it’s an event to behold.  Mothra is beautiful and has a pretty good theme behind it, while Rodan is ferocious and immediately leads the airforce on a thrilling chase sequence.  Then of course there’s Ghidorah, who is a major fan favorite.  Whenever this dude would show up in one of those old movies you knew you were in for a treat.  He didn’t have much of a personality, but he was a really good design, you always knew when he was on screen that there were three Japanese dudes just off frame holding fishing poles to control the three heads in unison.  Seeing that creature rendered on screen in 2019 with top of the line Hollywood effects is just kind of amazing and the movie makes the character properly intimidating.

So what we have with this movie is some of what I would consider very good action filmmaking that’s propping up a lousy script.  I don’t think that’s an entirely bad thing; cinema isn’t literature, movies don’t entirely live and die by their writing.  Of course that’s true about a lot of bad action movies, so why am I using these old “leave your brain at the door”/“They made it for the fans!” type of excuses for this one?  Well, the joke response is that those other movies don’t have Ghidorah in them, but in some ways that is how I feel.  I don’t think this is pure fanboyism either, I think the majesty of these kaiju and this history behind them does transcend some of the film’s more pedestrian shortcomings.  Beyond that though I’d say part of it is an expectation game brought on by the early reviews.  I get why those other critics were not impressed: the larger ambitions of the 2014 film combined with those trailers set to “Clair de Lune” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” promised something a lot more sophisticated than this and if I hadn’t been primed for lowered expectations by the film’s 39% Rotten Tomatoes score I would probably have been less inclined to focus on the positives as well.  Also, I think critics today really demand silly movies like this kind of signal their intentions by telling a lot of jokes and sort of winking at the audience in ways that this movie doesn’t.  I, however, am not always on board with that approach (see also my against the grain enjoyment of Man of Steel) and at this point generally find it refreshing when stupid movies take themselves very seriously.  So really I get why this thing isn’t getting the strongest of reviews, it kind of deserves it, but if you’re the right kind of person there is plenty of fun to be had with it.

*** out of Five