October 2019 Round-Up – Part 2

Marriage Story(10/19/2019)

I’m not really the world’s biggest Noah Baumbach fan.  More often than not his movies either leave me cold (Frances Ha) or just sort of end up not being that memorable to me (While We’re Young, The Meyerowitz Stories), but when he hits he hits and some of his films like The Squid and the Whale and Mistress America have impressed me, enough that I keep checking out his work but not enough that I really look forward to it.  Still, his latest movie Marriage Story promised to be one of his most probing and personal works and having seen it I can confirm that it is indeed shooting for something bigger and more memorable than a lot of his recent output and more often than not it succeeds.  The film concerns the marriage, or more specifically the divorce, of a New York theater director (Adam Driver) and his wife, an actress who stars in most of his plays (Scarlett Johansson).  The two have a young son and the wife has plans to move to Los Angeles with the son and could be staying there a while if the pilot she just shot becomes a series.  This bi-coastal setup will become a major point of contention but the bigger conflict here is deeper than that and is focused more on the differences that drew them apart in the first place.

The film is hardly the first movie to take a deep dive into the pain of the divorce process and it’s easy to make comparisons to the likes of Kramer Vs. Kramer, Scenes from a Marriage, and especially A Seperation but there is a particularly modern and Baumbachian spin to this one.  Like most of Baumbach’s films the focus here is on particular type of upper class urbanite and it’s hard not to imagine that he didn’t draw some inspiration from his own divorce with Jennifer Jason Lee, but the characters here do like distinct fictional creations rather than just thinly veiled versions of the writer and his ex.  The focus of the film is by and large on the Adam Driver character, who likely has the most screen time, but the film is definitely interested in the Johansson character’s perspective and sympathizes with her reasons for wanting the divorce.  If anything is vilified here it’s the legal system, or at least the way that the legal aspects of divorce (and high paid divorce attorneys) end up aggravating the separating couple and making things worse, but it also wisely points out here and there why the system works the way it does and isn’t naïve enough to believe there’s much of a way around it.

The film really does a great job of making you understand these two people and how they came apart without completely dumping exposition on you.  Occasionally the film indulges in having the characters monologue in a slightly theatrical way, but these moments largely fit in and the while the film is a bit more serious in tone than some of Baumbach’s other movies it’s not humorless at all and actually throws in some rather comical moments here and there.  Unfortunately I do think the movie stumbles a bit with its ending.  There’s a big heated argument between the main principles at something like the 100 minute mark which feels like something of a climax but then the movie just keeps on going after that and starts losing steam as it includes scenes and sequences that feel a bit indulgent and almost give it a bit of a Return of the King false endings problem.  This is what holds the movie back from greatness but it really is something special up to that point; an excellently written character study with keen insights into a common human experience today featuring two actors at close to the height of their careers.
**** out of Five

 

Pain and Glory(10/22/2019)

Pain and Glory has been heralded as a comeback film for the great Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, which is odd because he never really left.  His last film, Julieta, was quite strong so really this notion that he was going through a rough spot was only really derived from one poorly received film (I’m So Excited) in what is otherwise a pretty long streak of solid work.  This newest film is (to my knowledge) the first film in his career to be overtly autobiographical.  It stars frequent collaborator Antonio Banderas as a film director Salvador Mallo who is almost certainly a stand in for Almodóvar himself.  Like Almodóvar, Mallo is a successful filmmaker and he has had a roughly equivalent biography, but there are also definite differences between the two.  The character of Mallo is depicted as being rather lonely, unlike the real Almodóvar who has had a boyfriend since 2002 if Wikipedia is to be believed, and there doesn’t appear to be an equivalent character to his brother and business partner Agustín (unless that’s who his secretary in the film is supposed to be).  There’s also no mention of Almodóvar’s tangential involvement in the Panama Papers scandal and I certainly hope that all the health problems and drug addictions that Mallo is involved with are inventions as well.  Still I do think the film’s ruminations about the character’s childhood are legitimately drawn from his memories.

Almodóvar’s films have long rested on a certain brand of nuttiness and he’s at his best when he dilutes that nuttiness and mixes it with a bit of melodrama and some strong characters.  Occasionally he gets the formula a bit off and adds too much nuttiness but sometimes he doesn’t add enough nuttiness and plays things a little too straight and that is kind of what happened here.  Antonio Banderas certainly gives a strong performance and the spectacle of seeing Almodóvar creating an style alter-ego is interesting but I wish he had adopted a bit more of that movie’s energy and flair along the way.  In many ways I think Almodóvar’s heart was more in this movie’s flashbacks than it was in the modern scenes, but the modern scenes take up a lot more of the film’s runtime and are oddly episodic in nature leading up to a slightly abrupt ending.  Part of the problem may be that I’m not terribly familiar with Almodóvar’s personality outside of his films, he usually seems pretty down to earth in interviews despite his sometimes wild cinematic visions and seeing Banderas do an imitation of him only does so much.  But I don’t want to over-emphasize the negative here, there is plenty to like about the movie, I just don’t see it as this top-tier Almodóvar product that people are claiming it to be.
*** out of Five 

 

Terminator: Dark Fate(10/31/2019)

Few major franchises have been as mismanaged as the Terminator series, which came out of the gate like gangbusters with two straight classics of the action and sci-fi genres, but since then we’ve gotten not one, not two, but three different attempts at more or less rebooting the series that have either underwhelmed or completely and humiliatingly failed.  I didn’t even bother seeing the last two reboot attempts, so why did I find myself giving this one a chance?  I don’t know, maybe it was that James Cameron was on board as a producer (which didn’t help the forgettable Terminator 3) or maybe it was that it had serious money behind it (which didn’t help Terminator: Salvation) or maybe it was because I thought that if they had the audacity to try again so soon after the widely hated Terminator Genisys that they must have had something interesting up their sleeve.  Well, I’m not really sure that they did, because even though this is easily the most respectable Terminator film since 1991 it never quite manages to be anything overly inspired either.

There are a key handful of reasons why no one has managed to bring that Terminator magic back.  For one, Terminator 2 tied itself up way more than the second installment of any action movie ever would.  Cameron almost seemed to have intentionally written the series into a corner in an attempt to keep anyone else from following him.  On that front this reboot seems to have done a better job than some of its predecessors in that its script does a reasonably good job of explaining why the machines still rose even though Judgement Day was averted, it has to contrive a little (well, a lot really) to do it, but it does the best it probably could.  The second reason no one was able to follow up the first two movies is that that T-1000 was a hell of a villain and it was hard to come up with another machine that would be an even bigger threat than a bullet-proof morphing liquid metal guy.  For Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines they had the idea of having the liquid metal surround a more traditional robot endo-skeleton, but it was never exactly clear why that was supposed to be more intimidating, if you could just be pure liquid metal why would you want a crushable endoskeleton?  For the new movie’s villain they do more or less recycle that idea but do at least do a little more to establish why that might be an advantage.  It kind of lets him be in two places at once and can act as a bit of a backup plan.  It’s still not quite the inspired upgrade that the T-800 to T-1000 transition was but it does at least mostly work for the movie.

However, the film does run right into the third obstacle that’s been holding these Terminator sequels back: the hiring of second-rate jobber directors.  The last three Terminator sequels were directed by Jonathan Mostow, McG, and Alan Taylor who were respectively: a nobody who had just made a bad submarine movie, an infamous hack, and a TV director who had just made what is widely believed to be the worst MCU movie.  The guy they got to direct this one is Tim Miller, who to his credit does have a hit on his resume with Deadpool, but his hiring here seems to suggest a slight misunderstanding of why that movie was a hit.  Deadpool was popular for its comedy and general attitude but it most certainly wasn’t popular for its actions sequences, which were quite weak.  It is not a coincidence that they dumped Miller and got one of the John Wick creators to make the sequel.  The set-pieces here are reasonably well conceived but I don’t Miller shoots them particularly well.  He zooms in too close and the editing isn’t quite right.  That undermines the movie quite a bit but the bigger problem here is just the absence of interesting new ideas.  James Cameron may have retroactively hurt the film’s long term prospects by making two straight chase movies that kind of followed the same formula.  He was able to get away with that for Terminator 2 because he got his hands on some revolutionary special effects but there hasn’t been a comparable leap since, or at least not one that a Terminator movie is going to effectively show off.  So we keep getting movies like this which try to do that same thing but with ever so slightly different characters taking the place of the people who were there before.  There are a couple of neat ideas thrown into this one (I like what they did with Schwarzenegger’s character for example), and there are certainly worse movies out there but overall this still just feels like an imitation of a master’s work by a plainly inferior disciple.
*** out of Five

September/October 2019 Round-Up – Part 1

Hustlers(9/16/2019)

I’m generally used to knowing months in advance what movies are worth looking forward to but every once in a while something will come out of nowhere and surprise you, and that’s more or less what happened with Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, which tells the true story of a group of exotic dancers who form a gang of sorts which starts drugging and robbing various customers in order to “get theirs.”  In some quarters the film was being sold as a sort of economic revenge romp with women nobly fighting back against their opressors, which is not necessarily something I would have gotten behind, but the actual movie exists in a more morally nuanced place than that.  In essence the film is another entry in the much imitated formula established by Goodfellas in which we sort of watch a criminal enterprise as it rises and then falls, and while this is familiar I do think this movie iterates on the format enough to avoid simply being derivative.  Where it loses points is in the aesthetics.  The movie’s never quite sure whether it wants to be straight-up gritty or whether it wants to go for more of a flashy style in keeping with the Scorsese films that inspired it.  Some of the reviews for this thing have been a bit over the top, I think it’s been the beneficiary of lowered expectations, but it is a quality film that will connect with certain audiences very strongly.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Monos(10/6/2019)

There’s been some quality cinema coming out of Columbia as of late and their submission for this year’s iteration of the Best International Feature category at the Academy Awards suggest that Ciro Guerra is far from the country’s only filmmaking talent.  Monos is set in a remote region of the country and follows a group of teenagers who are enlisted in a paramilitary group called only “The Organization” who I assume are meant as a fictionalization of real life groups like FARC.  This band of The Organization is largely left to its own devices with only one adult commanding officer who only visits them every once in a while to deliver orders.  These kids carry around assault rifles and occasionally engage in drills but do not seem to be very involved in frontline combat, instead their main duty is to guard an American woman that The Organization has kidnapped and is holding hostage, presumably until a ransom is paid.  Much of the tension of the film is in seeing these young people reacting to this extreme situation while still very much being teenagers who are prone to the same kind of irresponsibility as teenagers who live less stressful lives.  The film sports some really nifty cinematography and has a lot of great scenery and environments and things do get rather exciting towards the end when tensions boil over and “Lord of the Flies” is directly invoked but the film meanders a bit in the middle.  The cast is generally quite good but the size of the film’s ensemble sometimes works against it as we never manage to really know any one of these kids all that well and the film never gets into how they found themselves in this situation or what keeps them there.  It’s an interesting piece of world cinema, but I wouldn’t call it a “must see.”

*** out of Five

 

Gemini Man(10/10/2019)

I was not expecting much from Gemini Man, which is an odd thing to say from a movie directed by Ang Lee and featuring a major star like Will Smith, but the trailer really looked awful and the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score is very low.  I had pegged Lee’s continued obsession with high frame rate presentation as the thing that was probably going to torpedo the movie, which was by all accounts the thing that killed his last film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.  My first (and until now only) experience with high frame rate presentation was from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in 60 fps back in 2012 which, ironically enough, was a film I saw on the very same day I saw Ang Lee’s Life of Pi which is likely the movie which convinced Ang Lee that he should be a technological innovator in the first place.  That viewing of that Hobbit movie was, in many ways, one of the worst theatrical experiences I can remember and I spent most of the movie wishing I’d just seen it in a regular theater (or not seen it at all, frankly).  If any movie was going to be a terrible showcase for the technology it was going to be that one since it invited an apples-to-apples comparison to the previous Lord of the Rings movies and because its medieval fantasy setting invited a certain traditionalist approach.  I could tell that the 3D was a little smoother than usual but that was a movie that probably shouldn’t have been in 3D at all and the drawbacks to the format like the fact that it makes everyone on screen look like they’re moving at something like 1.25x speed at times and that it gives the whole film a sort of sterile look like you’re watching a British soap opera or something.

So it was with some surprise that the thing I dreaded most about the film, the tech, was the thing I ended up being most interested by.  I don’t know if the difference between 60 and 120 frames was the difference or if the technology has just gotten better in the last seven years or if the movie was just significantly more suited to it, but the presentation was way more intriguing this time around.  I say “intriguing” and “interesting” rather than “good” because for me the jury is still very much out on this and there are only a limited number of movies I’d actually want it used for, but this time around I did finally kind of see why filmmakers like Lee, Jackson, and Cameron were chasing this technology.  The 3D in the movie seems a lot deeper than what you usually see from 3D movies and you really seem to see the characters and a lot of detail right down to every pore on their face.  It almost looked less like a movie and more like some kind of VR video game experience, which is both a good and a bad thing.  The movements of the characters is still unusual, you don’t notice it this the whole way through but every once in a while some of the onscreen movement will just seem unnaturally faster than what you expect in movies, but during certain action scenes this actually ramps things up.

Now I’ve talked almost exclusively about this film’s presentation technology to this point because it is frankly the most interesting aspect of what is otherwise a painfully mediocre Bourne Identity ripoff movie.  As I’m sure most are aware, the big high concept here is that it’s a movie where Will Smith is an assassin who has to face off against a younger version of himself who is presumably a clone.  That is of course its own technological challenge as they’re using de-aging technology to bring this younger Will Smith to life, and the do a reasonably acceptable job of doing it.  You do see the seams there and you certainly sense that you’re looking at a special effect while he’s on screen (Captain Marvel remains the gold standard for this technology, at least until I get a look at The Irishman), but technologically it’s acceptable.  What’s less acceptable is Will Smith’s performance in these scenes. As the older version of the character Smith is basically doing a variation on what he usually does when he’s in relatively somber movies and he’s fine at it, but he really doesn’t seem to know what to do when playing the younger version and never finds the right voice or find an interesting way to turn down his usual confidence.  The movie also doesn’t do anything wildly interesting thematically with this setup beyond what giving older Will Smith some really under-developed “regrets” and giving younger Will Smith some lame daddy issues with his creator.  Otherwise the whole thing is totally cookie cutter.  Some of the action scenes are impressive, in part because they’re being given a lot of extra punch by the 3D, but some of them are a lot less effective than others.

On some level I’m glad that Ang Lee is using this nothing of a film in order to act as a guinea pig for his technological experimentation rather than applying it to a movie with real potential for which it would largely be a distraction, but what I really want is for him to stop pretending he’s James Cameron and get back to making small movies about emotions.  That or maybe make an action movie with more of a human touch like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, because with or without technical wizardry Gemini Man is plainly beneath him.  Actually it’s beneath a lot of people; the screenplay has apparently been bouncing around Hollywood since the late 90s and it does feel kind of dated as a result.  It’s one of a lot of spy movies from the 2000s that used rogue fictional spy agencies as the villains because they couldn’t find an international enemy of interest at the time and also didn’t quite have the balls to suggest that the actual CIA might be evil.  In general its conception of how espionage works is idiosyncratic; too ridiculous to claim any sort of realism but not fantastical enough to be particularly fun.  It’s also got some really bad on-the-nose dialogue and boring characters.  I’d normally implore people to not waste their time on such a movie until it’s on HBO or something, but I can’t this time because the only real reason to see this thing at all is because of the visuals and how they play out in 120 FPS 3D and I suspect from the trailer that the movie’s going to kind of look like crap in any other format.  So if and only if you’re curious about the tech give the movie a look if you can do so cheaply, otherwise just skip it.

** out of Five

August 2019 Round-Up

Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark(8/11/2019)

“Scary Stories to Tell In the Dark” was a trilogy of books from the 80s and early 90s that had pretty long legs within the world of Children’s/YA publishing.  The books were essentially a compilation of old campfire stories and urban legends that were assembled and re-written by a guy named Alvin Schwartz and then made more chilling by these freaky ink and charcoal illustrations by Stephen Gammell.  They were fairly controversial at the time because they didn’t really pull their punches too much just because they were written for kids and a lot of busybody parents groups were not fans.  They were certainly still in circulation when I was a kid in the 90s and as a youngster with an interest in the macabre I definitely read them and have good memories of them but they weren’t, like, a cornerstone of my childhood or anything and it’s a little hard to hold them in too high of a regard given that they were more of an assemblage of old ghost stories than a literary accomplishment unto themselves.  So it seemed a bit odd to me that the books were being earmarked for cinematic treatment and by Guillermo del Toro no less, albeit as a producer rather than director, and given that del Toro has a bit of a spotty track record when it comes to putting his name on horror movies he doesn’t direct I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

Rather than adapt any one of the stories or going the anthology film route the film has opted to film a single narrative that incorporates several of the more famous Scary Stories via a magic book written by a ghost and a few story elements that are derivative of The Ring.  Set in 1968, the film follows a group of young teenagers in a small town who visit a house that is (correctly) believed to be haunted, steal a book from a shelf and look on in horror as they start to see the book filling itself in with new stories which prove to sync up with actual scary deaths that are happening to various people involved in the original intrusion.  The characters created for the film aren’t terrible compelling and largely conform to ten stereotypes but the young cast they assembled mostly makes them work better than then they probably do on page.  The film generally seems more interested in recreating the Gammell drawings than it is in the details of the original stories, but that’s probably understandable and the film’s overall look is quite nice but it uses some questionable CGI to bring its monsters to life.  Like the books this is trying to be a product that’s genuinely scary while not being too nasty to be viewed by tweens, and I’m not sure they really pull it off.  I don’t think the film is overly scary outside of a few isolated parts.  It’s not a terrible effort by any means, though I have no idea what people who aren’t familiar with the books would make of it and I don’t know that there’s enough there for it to stand out as something special unto itself in a vacuum.
**1/2 out of Five

 

Good Boys(8/16/2019)

More than a couple of times in the first half of the year I witnessed the strange phenomenon sitting in a theater and watching back to back red band trailers for Booksmart and Good Boys, two unrelated movies that nonetheless have some pretty striking similarities.  Both appear to be set over a short time and follow young innocents as they try to get into a party with conduct they aren’t sure they’re ready, both feature Will Forte as a slightly clueless father to one of the leads, hell both trailers even featured the same “Run the Jewels” song in the background.  Both are basically a riff on the formula and comedy made famous by Superbad but the difference of course is that Booksmart is about a pair of girls in their late teens while Good Boys is rather perversely about a trio of tweens just entering the sixth grade.  The film largely operates by having the kids at its center run into the kind of shenanigans that happen in Seth Rogen movies but react to them very differently than an adult or teen comedy protagonist would.  It’s not a million miles removed from the central joke of “South Park,” which also spends a lot of time having kids react to dirty things with cute obliviousness, but that show generally sought to suggest that kids are actually selfish bastards beneath the surface whereas this film has a bit more of an optimistic outlook.  The film works because its title is not ironic, these kids might curse and do “rebellious” things like taking small sips out of beer bottles but they’re fundamentally innocent and don’t seem interested in or capable of doing anything truly terrible and when they do run into something that could be genuinely scarring they are oblivious to it.  It’s a pretty tough balance to strike when you think about it and the fact that they dodge most of the potential dangers of this concept is pretty impressive.  On the other hand, a lot of what the film does to make the audience feel like the kids are going to be alright through all of this also has the effect of lowering the stakes of everything, which makes it easier not to get as involved in their issues as it might.  There is also the specter of this thing coming out the same year as the critical darling Booksmart, which is not the easiest act to follow.  Overall I might say that Good Boys is funnier than Booksmart in terms of pure laughs, but Booksmart is definitely the better made movie and it characters are better drawn and easier to get invested in.  But I think they’re both strong comedies overall and Good Boys holds its own surprisingly well.
***1/2 out of Five

 

Luce(8/18/2019)

The new drama Luce is in some ways a movie that feels out of place in time.  On one hand it’s a movie that deals with very modern concerns about race and identity but it in many ways takes the form that I generally associate with theater and film from the 80s and 90s.  Specifically it reminds me of early David Mamet, not the fun David Mamet mind you, the provocative one who made Oleanna and Homicide and there’s also a touch of Neil LaBute in there as well, but this time the provocation is coming from a Nigerian-American director rather than… those two guys.  The film’s title refers to the name of its central character Luce Edgar, who was born in Africa and may have been forced to be a child soldier in a civil war before he was extracted from the situation and adopted by a wealthy white couple in America.  He’s now a teenager and a model student who is almost a walking advertisement for the triumph of human possibility, or so he seems. The film picks up when one of Luce’s teachers, an African American woman, calls his mother in concerned that one of Luce’s papers seems to be advocating for political violence and that she found fireworks in his locker.  From there the film becomes this sort of four person battle of wills with the audience never quite sure who to trust: is this teacher out to get Luce or is Luce out to get the teacher.  The film’s ultimate solution to all this seems a bit logistically improbable and not quite thematically satisfying but it’s a pretty good ride up to then.
***1/2 out of Five  

 

Ready or Not(8/21/2019)

When I first saw the trailer for Ready or Not one thought entered my head: “man, this looks like a total ripoff of You’re Next.”  That 2011 film is a bit of an odd movie to try to replicate given that it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire and isn’t that widely remembered, but both movies were about killers stalking a woman in a mansion and getting the tides turned against them by her.  Seeing the actual movie there are a bit more in the way of differences than I had initially granted but it’s still a bit odd.  The film is a bit of a horror satire about class struggle with a woman marrying into a family of one percenters only to learn that they have literally made a pact with the devil which forces them to force everyone who maries into the family to pick a card at random and if it’s the wrong card they are then hunted down in the house and killed by the rest of the family.  Surprise surprise she picks the wrong card and finds herself fighting for her life the rest of the night.  The movie had a bit of an uphill battle when it came to impressing me as I generally like my horror to be pretty serious.  I’m not completely opposed to moments of levity in the genre but when you mix horror and comedy too much I generally find it kind of kills that sense of dread and evil you look for from these movies and if they’re going to do that I’d almost rather they go all the way and make a full on comedy out of it which is what this movie comes close to doing.  It certainly isn’t scary, in part because it views its villains as incompetent spoiled assholes rather than real threats, but it also doesn’t really go for full on laughs as much as I’d maybe like.  The movie does entertain in the moment however and certain scenes are well staged and given that it ends well there’s enough there to recommend but I don’t see it as being anything terribly memorable for long.
*** out of Five

 

Blinded by the Light(8/25/2019)

Sometimes giving a movie a negative review just seems mean.  That’s certainly the case with Blinded by the Light, which is certainly a spirited and well intentioned movie that’s designed to be a crowd pleaser, but intellectual rigor is not always polite.  Blinded By the Light is a coming of age movie about a second generation British Pakistani teenager growing up in a blue collar town in late 80s England who finds new direction in his life after discovering and improbably connecting with the music of Bruce Springsteen.  Now, I don’t dislike Bruce Springsteen I’m not a huge fan either; he’s a pretty good songwriter but I’m not sure that the E Street Band’s maximalist style has aged wonderfully and, well, a lot of his music kind of exists to glorify exactly the kind of “working class whites” who as of late are behaving more like NF thugs than immigrant dreamers.  Regardless, I’m not sure I could have quite related to this kid and his fandom even if he was into a band that jived with me a bit more. Truth be told I’m not sure there is a single band or artist I like as much as this dude likes Bruce.  There was a ton of music I discovered when I was that age but I can’t say that lightening literally or metaphorically struck the first time I listened to any of them and the way this guy becomes singularly obsessed with Springsteen and brings him up at every opportunity kind of just made me want to say “dude, maybe diversify your music tastes a little, you’re missing out on a lot of good stuff.”

Another hurdle to my enjoyment here is that I’m generally skeptical about coming of age movies, which are often nostalgia drenched and can be oddly clichéd despite ostensibly being very personal and the immigrant coming of age movie has also become something of a filmmaking formula over the years going all the way back at least as far as The Jazz Singer.  Like, get this, did you know that immigrant fathers can often put a lot of pressure on their kids to succeed academically?  And that they become weary of how westernized their kids have become and to try to quash their hobbies?  I know, shocking.  Could this family in conflict possibly find itself running into conflict and then resolution as the father finally comes to understand their child’s hobby?  Who knows?  Beyond the clichés though I just don’t really think this main protagonist is all that well drawn, a lot of the dialogue is really on the nose and Viveik Kalra’s performance always seemed a bit off to me.  On the more positive side, the movie does render it’s time and place in a way that was convincing and interesting and I liked some of the supporting cast.  I can see this movie working better for people who like their movies to be really uplifting and don’t mind a cliché or two, but from my jaded perspective the movie never really worked.
**1/2 out of Five

July 2019 Round-Up

Maiden(7/13/2019)

About midway through the year it’s come to my attention that I’ve really fallen behind on this year’s documentary offerings so I thought I’d rectify it by being quick to see what it shaping up to be one of the summer’s first big populist docs Maiden.  The film looks at the world of the Whitbread Round the World Race, a yaght race in which fully crewed sailing vessels attempt to circumnavigate the globe across various legs, and focuses in on the first one of these ships to be fully crewed by females during the 1989-1990 race.  The story is then told through retrospective interviews from the women in the crew, news reports of the time, and large quantities of video that were shot on board during the voyage.  I’m not entirely clear who was filming that footage or why, which is one omission from the film I would have liked more clarity on, and of course given the time period a lot of this video does not look great but it is dramatic just the same.  Director Alex Holmes cuts together this footage (which I can only assume was rather fragmentary) in a way that very effectively tells the story at hand and the various interview subjects are lucid and frank in their recollections.  There are perhaps some limits to how impressive of a sporting accomplishment this ends up being; these are certainly the first women to accomplish it but they aren’t the first people and they didn’t accomplish it with extraordinary skill, but this also isn’t exactly a sport that we’re overly accustomed to getting a front seat to so there are a decent number of interesting details to be found along the way.
*** out of Five

 

Crawl(7/17/2019)

While I generally try to keep up with all the people and trends in the world of horror cinema I have somehow managed to go this long without seeing a film directed by Alexandre Aja.  Aja emerged during the mid-2000s “torture porn” boom but he’s stuck around and seems to have branched out into different kinds of horror during this decade.  His latest film is Crawl, a thriller in which a father (Barry Pepper) and college aged daughter (Kaya Scodelario) must escape from the flooded basement of an old dark house during a hurricane while contending with a bunch of killer alligators who it turns out are nesting there.  This is not a movie to go into expecting greatness from, it’s an unapologetic B-movie that runs a lean 87 minutes and provides just enough character development and story to give you some reason to care if these people live or die and nothing more.  The one thing you can demand of it is that it be well crafted and for the most part I’d say it is.  Oddly enough I eventually found myself being just as interested if not more interested in the various ways the characters respond the hurricane than to their dealings with the alligators.  Aja manages to totally flood this building with real water and there is definitely a thrill to seeing these people get whipped around as the water gets higher and higher.  Not a whole lot to say about it ultimately, if you’re in the mood for this sort of creature feature it largely delivers.
*** out of Five

 

The Farewell(7/21/2019)

It’s getting to the point where most of the 2019 Sundance lineup is finally being released and we’ve been waiting for one of them to finally break out or become something particularly memorable and with The Farewell it looks like we’ve finally got one.  The Farewell was written and directed by a woman named Lulu Wang and is heavily based on an actual experience from her life in which her grandmother, who lives in China, has been diagnosed with cancer but has not been told about this (a practice some cinephiles may recognize from Kurosawa’s Ikiru) and her family visits her on the pretense of attending a wedding to make their unspoken goodbyes while navigating the inherent deception of all this.  This film is actually not the first time I’d heard this story as Wang had told a version of her experiences on NPR’s “This American Life” a couple of years ago, so a lot of the dynamics of the situation were familiar to me but there is something to seeing all this actually play out on screen and Wang does a very good job of introducing each family member in a short period of time and giving them all different reactions to all of this.  Awkwafina (who should maybe rethink her stage name at this point) stars in what is to my knowledge her first dramatic performance and acquits herself quite well but the whole cast here is pretty strong.  If there’s anything holding it back it’s just that I’m not sure there’s a whole lot left beneath the surface, it’s a movie that’s kind of just about what it’s about and additional themes are scratched here and there but sort of just left there.  It technically isn’t a debut film for Lulu Wang, but it will likely function as one in the public’s eye and I’m definitely interested in seeing where she goes from here.
**** out of Five

June 2019 Round-Up – Part 2

The Last Black Man in San Francisco(6/15/2019)

Indie comedies of the Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach variety are often described as being “unbearably white,” an insult that seems to have less to do with the number of Caucasians in the cast (they aren’t any less diverse than any number of movies) and more to do with how their quirky sensibilities display a sort of privileged point of view that is generally associated with whiteness.  Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco in some ways feels like an attempt to apply a similar sort of indie quirkiness to a movie that is decidedly “black” and about people who are rather specifically not privileged.  It tells the story of Jimmie Fails, which is the name of both the character and the actor that potrays him, who is obsessed with this large San Francisco house that his father once owned and which is now in the possession of two old white people.  From the film’s provocative title (which is not literal) I had expected it to be something of a Spike Lee style polemic about gentrification but the actual movie is a bit more relaxed than that. The movie take great pains not to blame those new white owners (who seem like perfectly nice and reasonable people) or really any other individuals for the sense of loss that Fails is feeling.  That’s a nicely mature and nuanced take on the subject, which I certainly like in theory but there is a fine line between making a nuanced argument and just sort of not bothering to make an argument at all.  In some ways I think the film’s avoidance of standard exposition (another trait I should like in theory) undermines it a little.  It took a while to fully get what Fails’ story really comes down to and I think some flashbacks to “the good times” might have given a better idea of why he’s so angry about the present because as someone who’s never been to San Francisco and who’s generally indifferent to it I’m not very connected to what he’s mourning.  This is ultimately a movie I respect more than I like.  I can kind of see what it’s going for and can admire aspects of its execution, but I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it.

**1/2 out of Five

 

The Fall of the American Empire(6/16/2019)

Titling Denys Arcand’s latest film The Fall of the American Empire, thus implying that it is another sequel to The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions, was probably a savy commercial move as it got my attention and got me to go out to see one of Arcand’s movies for the first time since 2003.  However, this movie actually has no direct connection to those earlier movies and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing because what it actually is is kind of neat.  The film concerns an underemployed intellectual who finds himself witnessing a robbery through sheer coincidence and after the burglars all kill each other he realizes he can pick up the loot himself and run off with it.  From there he finds himself sitting on millions of dollars in cash with no idea how to launder it.  From there it becomes a story that somewhat represents “Breaking Bad” in that it’s about a nerdy intellectual taking part in the minutia of the criminal underworld, but it never gets as dark as that show.  The protagonist is in legitimate danger and there is some violenct in the movie, but the slightly contrived situation allows him to be engaging in a more or less victimless crime and he remains likable throughout.  Arcand is not much of a visual stylist, which is a bit more of a problem here given the genre elements.  There are also elements of the film that don’t ring particularly true like the love interest that emerges midway through the movie but the core of the movie, which is a deeply cynical look at the inner workings of capitalism, does come through and the film’s comedic elements make it a rather enjoyable watch throughout.

**** out of Five

 

Late Night(6/30/2019)

As streaming has emerged as a major force in cinema I’ve been very supportive of streaming services like Amazon that respect the theatrical window and let their films play on the big screen before coming to the internet.  I feel this way because I sternly believe the theater is the ideal place for most movies to be enjoyed regardless of budget and that at times even the smallest of movie are the ones that most benefit from a distraction free environment or from a larger format.  That having been said, Amazon probably could have sent Late Night straight to streaming and it would have been fine.  In fact Late Night seems like a pretty textbook example of a movie that seems impressive at Sundance but proves to be a lot less interesting to the general public.  The film, a story about a struggling late night comedy show fronted by a middle aged lady played by Emma Thompson which gets a needed boost after adding a lady played by Mindy Kaling to its all white and male writing staff.  I can definitely see why a group of people who spend a lot of time talking about representation in comedy on Twitter, but to general audiences the whole thing might be a bit inside baseball.   What it certainly isn’t is particularly funny.  This is a movie that’s literally set in a comedy show’s writers room, which should be an environment filled with ribald banter, but instead it feels like little more than the most mildly of amusing workplace comedies.  This is a problem considering that this is a movie that spends a lot of time chastising its own characters for settling for mediocrity rather than really stretching the boundaries of their form and that feels kind of hypocritical given that this is a movie that feels pretty comfortable being mediocre.

** out of Five

June 2019 Round-Up – Part 1

Non-Fiction(6/5/2019)

I’ve never quite been able to pin down Olivier Assayas’ style as a filmmaker.  He isn’t a commercial filmmaker and he takes his craft very seriously like an auteur, and yet he seems to move on very quickly between different ideas and any one of his films is likely to seem quite different from the last.  His last two movies were both fairly serious English language films starring Kristen Stewart so it had seemed like he had found a lane he was going to stick to, but instead he’s completely switched things up with his latest film which is a essentially a modern French take on a Woody Allen movie.  The movie concerns an author who is currently having an affair with his publisher’s wife while he’s having an affair with the lady who’s helping convert his publishing house to digital.  Very French.  But the affairs are more of a plot structure to hang the movie on than the real focus, which is a series of witty discussions about the digital future and its effect on publishing, which is more than likely meant to be a stand in on its effect on the world of cinema.  Lest you wonder where Assayas himself comes down on all of this, note that the film was shot on 16mm despite it being a very talky movie that isn’t going for much in the way of visual style.  It’s very much a movie of the moment, one that might seem a bit odd a few decades from now, or it might seem interestingly prescient.  As a comedy I don’t know that I found the movie overly funny but as a fun witty look at the discussions of the modern intellectual class it was fun to watch.  Did I mention that it feels a whole lot like a Woody Allen movie?

*** out of Five

 

X-Men: Dark Phoenix(6/6/2019)

I think I was the only person holding out hope for X-Men: Dark Phoenix.  That might partially be because I generally liked the last movie in the series, X-Men: Apocalypse, more than most.  It wasn’t great but it had some good X-Men fun in it and introduced a promising roster of young actors to play young versions of the second generation of X-Men at Xavier’s mutant academy.  I also feel like a lot of the critics went into the movie a bit too wrapped up in their inside baseball knowledge about Disney buying 20th Century Fox and planning to reboot the franchise.  It may well have been true that this franchise was doomed by business concerns, but the filmmakers probably didn’t know that when this went into production and were presumably trying to make a quality film that would get the franchise back on track.  On some level I was really hoping they would prove the doubters wrong by knocking this out of the park and forcing them to keep the X-Men series I grew up on going.  That wasn’t such a crazy thing to hope for, the franchise has bounced back from the brink in the past.  Unfortunately the movie they produced was decidedly not a home run that would prove anyone wrong, but I also don’t think it’s a movie that’s as much of a disaster as people are making it out to be.

If there’s anything to complain about with X-Men: Dark Phoenix it’s that it’s a movie which tries nothing new and does nothing unexpected.  It’s set about ten years after X-Men: Apolcalypse in 1992 but does pretty much nothing with that setting and it’s also still done basically nothing to make its chracters look like they’ve aged a decade (supposed Holocaust survivor Magneto still appears to be forty and isn’t starting to resemble Ian McKellen even a little).  Once again the franchise is taking on the Dark Phoenix Saga and this time has Jean Gray becoming “the phoenix” by coming in contact with a sort of force while on a rescue mission in space (despite the previous movie and the still-kinda-canon X2 both suggesting that it’s actually something latent in her powers).  So clearly there’s some sloppiness on display here but the movie generally isn’t, like, aggressively stupid and its tone is largely in line with what we’ve been seeing from the other movies in the “First Class” timeline of X-Men movies.  I did enjoy getting another look at what these characters are up to and there is something of an underdeveloped but interesting conflict between Xavier and various other mutants who sort of view him as a conformist “respectability politics” sellout to the cause.

Reports indicate that the film’s final sequence was re-shot because what they had done turned out to be too similar to the finale of Captain Marvel, which was probably money well spent because the closing action scenes are some of the best parts of the movie even if they don’t exactly blow what other superhero movies have been doing out of the water. What’s odd though is that the film’s villains are also a bit too similar to some of the bad guys from that film and its opening scene is pretty similar to the opening scene from Shazam, and in general it doesn’t introduce any characters or concepts that we didn’t see in other better X-Men movies.  In general this movie is kind of a victim of the general over-saturation of superhero flicks these days.  If this had been X-Men 3 back in 2006 instead of the offensively botched X-Men: The Last Stand it would have been able to hold its own pretty well, but in 2019 specifically the standards are a lot higher.  Still, my experience watching this movie was not a terrible one.  It mostly passed the time effectively and in general I think its 23% Rotten Tomatoes score and will probably provide some thrills to fans of the series.  Walking out of the movie I was about ready to give it a pass but then I remembered the critically reviled film from the last week which I also defended: Godzilla: King of the Monsters.  That movie was all kinds of stupid, but the lower lows came with higher highs and the kind of thrills it offered were in much shorter supply than what we get from this movie, and I ultimately think that was a movie I’d be more inclined to go to bat for.  This one? It’s not the hill I’m willing to die on.

**1/2 out of Five

 

The Dead Don’t Die(6/13/2019)

I generally like Jim Jarmusch movies but I don’t think I’ve ever really loved any of them.  The guy in many ways feels like a product of a very specific time in which independent movies were rather novel and simply embodying a certain bohemian coolness was enough to get by, but he did usually have at least some additional ideas behind what he was doing.  His latest movie has a staggering number of famous people in it and plays in genre, so it’s getting a somewhat wide release, but god help anyone who stumbles into this movie not knowing its indie lineage because they will definitely find it to be a strange and off-putting experience.  The film is meant as a highly post-modern take on the conventions of the zombie film via a zombie attack on a small town in Pennsylvania.  There are a whole lot of characters, probably too many, but the most important are probably the sheriff and his deputy, played by Bill Murray and Adam Driver, which would seem like a smart comic pairing but Jarmusch has all his characters here speak in the most intentionally stilted of dialogue.  The film takes the most broad of comic material but treats it with the dryest deadpan possible, which is maybe an interesting idea but I don’t think it really translates into compelling viewing.  Beyond that a lot of other things the movie tries to do just sort of flame out.  It teases at political relevance here and there, mainly through maga-hat wearing farmer played by Steve Buscemi, but that goes nowhere and there’s also a fourth wall breaking element that ultimately feels pretty empty.  In many ways it feels like Jarmusch was just throwing a whole lot of ideas at the wall to see what sticks and I wish he had instead focused in on a couple of them and actually made them work because the movie he delivered is downright dull at times.

** out of Five