December Round-Up 2022

The Menu(12/4/2022)

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of The Menu pre-release.  The trailers more or less made it look like a mainstream horror movie, albeit one with a tinge of a post-Get Out social commentary.  But I’m not sure “horror movie” is really the right term for this.  It’s not really trying to scare its audience or even really be much in the way of tense suspense.  I’d maybe call it more of a satire, but it’s also not really trying to be laugh out loud funny, though perhaps senses of humor vary.  And despite the difficulties in classifying it, this is hardly some kind of mold busting experimental work, on the contrary, it’s pretty straightforwardly understandable.  The film revolves around a dinner service at an extremely high end restaurant located on an island that the customers are ferried to, but this is no ordinary dinner, rather it’s a trap that the chef (played by Ralph Fiennes) has set in order to lure in and get revenge on his enemies over the course of a night.  So, it’s kind of like a riff on Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None” but without any pretense of being a mystery as the responsible party is apparent from the start.

Of course, all of this is rooted in a sort of extreme exaggeration of “foodie” culture, in ways that seem pretty authentic from where I sit but I’m quite the outsider to all of this.  I’ve never eaten at a restaurant anywhere near as fancy as the one in the movie and for that matter rarely go to overly nice restaurants at all so any recognition I have of all this stuff is basically third hand.  In addition to not loving food enough to be enticed by some of the food things that go on here I also kind of don’t really care enough to be angered by a number of the things this movie is raging against and very few of the things that the evil central chef is angry about really strike me as offenses worthy of violent retribution.  And if looked at more as a statement about capitalism writ large I still find the message here pretty muddled.  The rich customers here are dicks, but the chef raging against them strikes me as plainly a bigger dick so this could just as easily be seen as a vilification of anti-capitalism as capitalism.  So, as a social satire I find this muddled but I did enjoy myself just the same.  Ralph Fiennes and Anya Taylor-Joy are both very strong here as is much of the rest of the cast and the production design of the restaurant is quite effective.  The movie kept me interested the whole time, though I must say it maybe shows its hand pretty early and has trouble escalating the tension in its second half and doesn’t really deliver on any stunning revelation at the end.  As a neat little genre exercise you can do worse but the film itself never really elevated past that for me.
*** out of Five

Empire of Light(12/8/2022)

I will say, I went into Empire of Light not expecting much.  The phrase “Oscar bait” gets overused a lot but this certainly seemed to fit the bill and it’s been damned with faint praise by pretty much anyone who’s seen it since it debuted at Telluride.  The film is about the goings on at a beautiful old movie theater in coastal England during the early 1980s.  At its best that could give us a sort of British Cinema Paradiso and at worst it could lead to an overwrought rhapsody for “the magic of the cinema” that basically plays like a feature length version of Nicole Kidman’s “We Make Movies Better” AMC ad. The actual movie lies somewhere between those two things.  Director Sam Mendes has a palpable nostalgia for this era which can be contagious and intoxicating but he also feels compelled to acknowledge that this was in fact a very bad era for people who weren’t white men, which isn’t an inherently bad instinct but it means the movie tries to take on themes of racism, sexual harassment, and mental health that it really cannot sustain and sort of feels like a social realist square peg trying to be inserted into a gooey nostalgic round hole.

At the film’s center is a middle aged theater manager played by Olivia Colman who suffers form mental illness and is also having a not very consensual affair with the theater’s owner, played by Colin Firth, and finds solace in another theater employee in his early twenties played by Michael Ward.  The film frankly doesn’t sell this relationship very well.  The fact that she is in just as much of a power imbalance with him as she is with her boss is an irony that’s not very well explored and even without that issue the movie just does not really make it terribly clear what he sees in this older and seemingly not very well adjusted woman.  Frankly, if the genders were reversed this would feel like somewhat creepy wish fulfilment for some old sad sack writer.  It also doesn’t help that Sam Mendes does not seem to have the slightest clue how to write this black character and makes him into a rather awkward “model minority” rather than a three dimensional character and its interest in exploring the racism of the Thatcher era feels slight compared to something like “Small Axe” or even Blinded by the Light.  Having said all that, the film is not without its charms.  The film also has some really slick cinematography by Roger Deakins, a good score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and it’s generally pretty well acted by its cast as well and all of this generally makes the film a perfectly watchable experience but there isn’t really a lot of substance beneath the surface despite pretentions of import.
**1/2 out of Five

Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio(12/9/2022)

I must say, for whatever reason animation really hasn’t been doing it for me this year.  Not even when it comes from otherwise strong voices in the medium like Pixar (Turning Red), Cartoon Saloon (My Father’s Dragon), or Henry Selick (Wendell & Wild).  Not sure if that’s just a “me” problem or if it really has just been a weak year on that front, or maybe a combination of the two.  For a while the film that looks like the best bet to break this streak has been Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film, a stop motion adaptation of Pinocchio, but while I did indeed admire a lot about the film I’m not sure even it got me truly excited, possibly because I’ve never had much use for Pinocchio as a story in any of its forms.  Del Toro’s adaptation has most of the usual elements like a talking cricket, a blue fairy, and a whale sequence at the end but he moves the action of Carlo Collodi’s late 19th Century story and places the action in Italy during the fascist period and puts less of an emphasis on the title character becoming a flesh and blood human and more on questions of his mortality or lack thereof.

That’s not a bad idea for where to take this at all and it also fits within many of the director’s usual theme.  In fact he’s made a plausible case that this finishes a trilogy started by The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth (much to the chagrin of Criterion, who have been pretending that Cronos has anything to do with those other movies for some reason), but I must say I didn’t like this nearly as much as those other films.  Part of that is that I’m not sure I was entirely sold on the movie’s visual style.  On a technical level the stop motion animation is solid, but not quite as detailed and articulated as what Laika has been doing recently.  From a design perspective I think it’s more of a mixed bag.  There are certainly some creatures and sets in this that are straight out of Del Toro’s imagination and are quite cool looking, but Del Toro has been so effective in the past of bringing similar designs to life in his live action films that I maybe expected him to be even more next level when unmoored from even the limitations of modern visual effects here and I’m not sure that really happened.  I would also say that the design for Pinocchio himself never quite worked for me.  This is actually one of the least human designs for the character we’ve ever gotten, making him look less like a puppet that would actually be put on a stage and more like a misshapen wood creation that Geppetto threw together in a moment of grief induced drunkenness.  The resulting puppet looks a little odd to me, especially as he starts becoming a war asset they’re trying to exploit late in the film.

Oddly enough the movie is actually a full blown musical, but I’m not sure that was a smart move, firstly because the songs themselves are kind of mid and secondly because the movie sort of doesn’t commits to this and just quits bursting into song around the halfway point.  I also thought the side characters like the cricket and the film’s villain were kind of questionable and also that the film’s voice cast including the kid they got to voice Pinocchio wasn’t top notch.  In general the movie starts well and ends well but sags a bit in the middle, but I don’t want to come off too negative about it.  Truth be told this is probably the best version of this story to date unless you want to count Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.  It certainly blows Robert Zemeckis’ live action remake of the Disney version out of the water and for that matter it’s a clear improvement over the original Disney version, at least outside of that movie’s animation innovations, and let’s not even speak of Roberto Benigni’s misguided disaster of an adaptation.  But fairy tales are generally not my thing and this is still basically a fairy tale and while it’s a darker version of one than you’re going to get out of Disney it’s still nothing close to the cool fusion of wonder and grit that Del Toro achieved with Pan’s Labyrinth.
*** out of Five

The Eternal Daughter(12/11/2022)

In recent memory there aren’t many examples of a larger disconnect between me and critics more broadly than there was with Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II.  Granted these are relatively small movies so it’s not like this disconnect was to widely discussed, but the people who did like them were absolutely rapturous about them and I just didn’t get it.  I mean, I think I understood intellectually exactly what the movies were doing but I didn’t exactly understand why I should care.  But believe me, I tried, I even made a point of seeing Part II in theaters so I could watch it with perfect focus but it all never really clicked.  But there was at least something there, they weren’t movies I wanted to completely dismiss and with that in mind I did want to give Joanna Hogg another shot, this time outside of the “franchise” that made her “famous.”  Her new film The Eternal Daughter shares a similar deliberate slowness and tone to it, but it’s also noticeably more psychological and overtly weird than its predecessors.  If those movies were like memories, this is more like a chronical of someone while they’re in the process of remembering and are getting lost in those not always happy thoughts.

The film is set in a hotel somewhere in the English countryside that feels rather dark and sparsely populated when the film’s protagonist arrives.  This protagonist, played by Tilda Swinton appears to be something of an alter ego for the director and has planned to spend a week at this hotel with her aging mother (also played by Swinton) in hopes of bonding with her a bit more than before while also getting some material for a screenplay she’s working on that will in part be based on her mother and her relationship to her.  The mother, on the other hand, thinks the daughter is a bit of a “fussbucket” and tends to deflect a lot of this plan, preferring to just relax through the vacation.  Something seems “off” about this whole setup.  Obviously the fact that Swinton is doing a double role is part of this, and the timeline being laid out in the film doesn’t seem to entirely line up with the dates we’re being given from the mother’s life.  Additionally, this whole hotel seems oddly creepy.  I don’t want to give the impression that this is a horror movie, because it absolutely isn’t and the film would disappoint anyone coming to it expecting to be scared, but the mood at this hotel does make it seem like a place that literal ghosts might exist in.  The film is leading up to a reveal, one that isn’t terribly hard to guess, but it doesn’t really feel like a true “rug pull” twist ending despite technically being one.

In this sense the movie could almost be a good double bill partner with another A24 distributed British movie with a female director focusing on a parent-child relationship over the course of a vacation: Aftersun.  And I say that both for better or worse, because another thing the two films share is that they could feel a bit like movies where nothing really happens for much of their runtime leading up to an emotional revelation that reframes much of what came before.  And patience with that will vary in both cases.  I think the details of the vacation in Aftersun has more to offer in terms of nostalgic detail and has characters that I generally found more relatable.  But I’d say The Eternal Daughter does a better job of foreshadowing where it’s going and builds more in the way of offbeat tension through the mood of the hotel.  I don’t think either of these movies are quite my cup of tea, but I will say that I think I got more out of this one than I did out of either The Souvenir films, possibly just because I found the feel of the location more interesting and found its psychological trickery to be a bit more interesting overall.  That said this is all relative and I would only recommend the film to a very certain kind of person and warn them a lot that this is not going to be a movie that’s what you’d call “conventionally entertaining.”
*** out of Five

White Noise(12/18/2022)

I’m not usually one to root for Netflix given that they seem hell bent on destroying movie theaters among other potentially malignant effects they have on cinema culture, but still I do feel kind of sorry for them this year.  They put a lot of big investments in certain auteurs to deliver award season triumphs for them and basically all the horses they bet on seemed to trip before even leaving the gates with both critics and audiences.  Blonde seemingly enraged more people than it entertained, Bardo (False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths) was declared “pretentious” and dismissed right from its festival premiere, and even Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio hasn’t really lit the world on fire.  Damn near the only thing that seems to be working out for them is Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which being a sequel filled with stars is almost certainly the least ambitious of the projects I named.  On some level I should be happy that these filmmakers somehow conned the deep pocketed streamer into funding their weird-ass visions, but the truth is that if Netflix doesn’t get rewarded for these investments even with award season soft power they’re going to stop making investments like this at all, which is kind of dire since they’re some of the only ones left funding these things.  And perhaps the least lucrative of all these investments is the one they saved for last: Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel “White Noise,” which reportedly cost $80 million to make and will likely annoy and befuddle the majority of their customers who stumble upon it.

I actually did read the Don DeLillo book this is based on about ten years ago when I was exploring some of the canonical 20th Century novelists like Phillip Roth and John Updike and I must say I didn’t really “get it” at the time and revisiting the subject matter via this film (which is pretty faithful in both tone and text) I’m not much more impressed.  That novel is a highly postmodernist and is meant to be a social satire about various broad cultural trends in the mid-eighties more so than a straightforward story or character study.  It follows a college professor who’s the head of the Hitler Studies department at a fictional university who has a strained relationship with his wife and the plot so much as it exists looks at the fallout (literal and otherwise) of what happens to the family after a nearby chemical spill leads to a “toxic airborne event that forces them to evacuate their home rather abruptly and the aftermath of this.  The film maintains the 1980s setting of the original and that novel has aged… interestingly.  Certain ideas in it, like the supermarket as a symbol of everything wrong with modern consumerism, feel dated and passé.  Meanwhile other aspects of the novel like the frenzied and misinformation fueled response to a big emergency in the second act, feels like they could at least theoretically take on a new life in a modern post-Covid context but I’m not sure Baumbach really had the time to make that connection fully.

Honestly I’m not sure Baumbach was the best fit for this material to begin with.  Upper class ennui and academic pretentions have certainly been themes in his work before, but he usually handles this through lightly comic but ultimately pretty naturalistic film styling.  By contrast this movie is heightened to the nth degree.  Basically no one hear speaks or acts like normal real world people, rather, pretty much everything that happens here is meant to make some satirical point.  The main character is comically stubborn and inept in the real world while engaging in an inherently ridiculous field of study and much of his wife’s arc is based around an absurd literalization of the intellectual and spiritual decay of the intellectual classs, a situation that frankly looks like quite the first world problem from where I sit.  The movie (and novel) kind of wants to make a point about every issue under the sun and ends up not making many of them very well and as a simple movie-going experience the whole thing is just rather alienating and disconnected from reality more than it’s plugged into it.  These kinds of outlandish and over-ambitious statements about “everything” do work sometimes when you get someone like Charlie Kaufman making something like Synecdoche, New York, but more often you end up with something like White Noise where you have no idea why anyone thought this was a good idea.
** out of Five

Emancipation(12/25/2022)

Emancipation is probably a movie that’s forever going to be known as the first Will Smith film to be released after the publicity hit he took in the wake of “the slap,” which maybe speaks to the fact that it’s not really a movie that’s good enough to transcend that situation despite certainly being a movie that aspires to be.  The film is set during the civil war and follows a slave named Peter who is requisitioned by the confederate army to help build a base five miles away from the plantation he had been stuck in, separating him from his family.  There he mounts an escape and must move across five miles of swamp while being pursued by a brutal slave hunter played by Ben Foster.  From there the film feels almost more like an adventure movie than it does a more somber slavery drama like 12 Years a Slave, in fact it rather strongly resembles Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto more than anything.  The morality of making such a wilderness survival film out of what is a pretty sensitive historical subject matter is… kind of dubious, and on some level I think director Antoine Fuqua knows this because he and cinematographer Robert Richardson saturate the colors in the film down almost to the point of being black and white.  That’s an interesting decision but one that ultimately feels kind of gimmicky and frankly it’s not fooling anyone into making this feel more serious than it really is at its core.  Fuqua has always primarily been someone who makes action movies and is usually at his best when he’s elevating B-movie hokum, and here he probably would have been better off just letting the carnage here look good on screen instead of trying to fool us into thinking this was a prestige project.
**1/2 out of Five

Strange World(12/27/2022)

Though it isn’t quite the nexus of discussion that Babylon and Amsterdam were, the box office failures of Strange World are perhaps among the most ominous for the future of cinema out of any of this year’s “bombs.”  This is in large part because there’s basically nothing wrong with the movie and its failure basically suggests that no big budget animated movie that doesn’t star a Minion is ever going to be viable in theaters again.  That isn’t to say that the movie is great exactly, but it’s a solid adventure movie with a lot of neat visuals.  The film looks at three generations of a family as they meet in a “Journey to the Center of the Earth”-esque pulpy adventure into the core of the film’s fantasy world.  The world building both on the world’s surface and in the core look really cool and while the characters and their conflict is a bit stock, they work well enough.  It’s also possibly the most progressive movie Disney has ever made in terms of representation and has a simplistic but strongly stated environmental message, and with Disney having gotten zero credit or profit from this decision it may well lead to them being a lot more cautious and conservative about such themes, which is unfortunate.   I do worry I’m over-defending this thing a little because of its box office woes, but there was clearly some love put into this particularly in the animation and it kind of feels weird that this is the one that was fully and unambiguously rejected by audiences.  But for what it is I think this is pretty solid Disney, so, I guess this is the Treasure Planet of the 2020s.
***1/2 out of Five 

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November 2022 Round-Up – Part 2

She Said(11/17/2022)

The investigation into Harvey Weinstein’s conduct at Miramax, The Weinstein Company, and in his personal life is probably one of the most public downfalls I can remember.  There was article after article outlining his conduct both as it was first being revealed, as his business fell apart, and as he proceeded to finally face prosecution and incarceration for his conduct.  It was certainly an important chapter that has influenced a lot of recent events, but with all there’s been said about this turn of events one wonders what more can be learned from a feature film about the initial investigation into this story and the answer is… not a whole lot.  The film follows New York Times journalists Megan Twohey (Carey Mulligan) and Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan) as they track down leads on this scandal and try to get people on the record about what Weinstein has been doing all these years.  This investigative journalism into sexual abuse premise will of course instantly remind many audiences of the Academy Award winning film Spotlight and the film also serves as something of an unofficial spiritual sequel to the 2019 film Bombshell, which looked at the investigation into sexual harassment at Fox News.  So while the journalism and investigative elements in the film seem authentic and are interesting at times, they don’t really feel particularly fresh and interesting cinematically and the story they’re investigating is also being to be very familiar to anyone who wasn’t living under a rock in 2017 so while there’s stuff here to interest you there isn’t necessarily a lot to excite you.

This is not to say the film isn’t well made, because it definitely is.  Mulligan and Kazan are both quite strong in their respective roles and do a pretty good job of making these journalists believable as everyday people and there are some strong supporting performances as well like Andre Braugher as New York Times editor Dean Baquet.  What you will not see in the film are people pretending to be the various movie stars who Weinstein abused; some of them show up as voices on the other end of phones and Ashley Judd shows up in the film portraying herself, but the film avoids having people do imitative performances.  The same goes for Weinstein himself, very briefly shows up in the movie portrayed by a body double from behind but otherwise only shows up as a voice.  Another figure who’s a no show in all of this is Ronan Farrow, who’s role in Weinstein’s downfall is acknowledged in one line and is otherwise ignored.  Maybe this is because the film wanted to focus primarily on the efforts of these two female journalists who have been overshadowed by Farrow, or maybe it’s just a matter of Farrow having sold the rights to his side of the story elsewhere, but it does feel like a missing piece.

These are all probably the most dignified choices they could have made but there is a certain point where it feels like they’re leaving a lot on the table given that the whole point of this is supposed to be to dramatize this story we all already know about.  Now, having said all of that, I do worry that I may be coming off as far more negative towards this movie than I am.  As I said before, it’s a well-made and crafted movie, one that mostly accomplishes what it sets out to do.  The thing is, this is approaching the end of the year and standards are pretty high right now and just being “good” is a little shy of what really needs to be done to stand out in the crowd.  This year we’ve already gotten Tár and shortly we’ll be seeing the release of Women Talking.  Both of those movies are very much about #MeToo, but they’re both able to look at this phenomenon in less direct and more creative ways and those seem like much bigger accomplishments.  But that’s not to say this movie doesn’t have value;  I was certainly engaged with it the whole time while watching it and I suspect its value may increase over time as the details of this investigation become a bit more hazy in people’s memories and this all starts to seem a bit more fresh in retrospect. 
*** out of Five

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story(11/19/2022)

Alright, before I get into this I should say that the only way to watch this movie right now is on the Roku streaming channel, which is extremely annoying.  Firstly there’s no way to watch that channel on a television unless you own a Roku Box, which is a completely obsolete invention that’s only useful to people who somehow still don’t have a smart TV or a game console in 2022.  What’s worse the only way to watch anything on this streaming service is with commercial breaks, which is something I normally avoid at all costs.  Consequently I had to watch this movie on a laptop screen, which is less than ideal and may have resulted in me going into it pretty grumpy.  So was it worth all the trouble?  Eh.  It was alright.  The film is a dramatized biopic of famous song parodist “Weird” Al Yankovic, played here by Daniel Radcliffe… except it actually isn’t.  Rather this biopic of a parodist is itself an over the top parody of other musical biopics.  It uses a couple of real facts about Yankovic’s life like the basic era he became famous and the fact that he was discovered by the radio DJ Dr. Demento, but otherwise add a bunch of absurd embellishments in order to dramatize his life story into the most over-the-top version of something like Bohemian Rhapsody imaginable.  So, in this telling Yankovic’s parents have an outlandish hatred of accordion music that the film’s protagonist needs to overcome, Dr. Demento is not just a radio DJ but a sort of svengali manager in his career, has a whirlwind romance with Madonna… and at one point finds himself having to take down Pablo Escobar and the entire Medellín Cartel.  Sounds like a clever idea but the albatross around the movie’s neck is that it’s not the first one to do this.  The 2007 movie Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story did all of this first and to my eyes did it better and that’s a hard thing to overcome.  That having been said, the movie does have its highlights and clever moments (a pool party scene filled with comedians doing cameos playing various cult figures from the 80s is quite the highlight).  It started to wear out its welcome towards the end but ultimately I was entertained enough by the movie that I’m willing to give it a light recommendation.  It’s no UHF though.
*** out of Five

My Father’s Dragon(11/25/2022)

Apparently tired of getting pushed out of the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars by the distributor Gkids, Netflix has recently found itself becoming a platform for animation that’s still basically for kids but which is kind of an artier alternative to what Disney and Dreamworks are putting out.  About a month ago they released the new Henry Selick film Wendell & Wild and now they’re releasing the newest film from the Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon: My Father’s Dragon.  Unfortunately this movie I think suffers from similar problems as that aforementioned Selick film: it has a great look that’s in keeping with the style that made its creator a leader in animation but it suffers from some really wonky world building.  The film is set on some sort of magical island filled with talking animals that a kid finds himself on and he frees a dragon, which causes some other magical problem on the island or something… I don’t know it’s some picture book shit.  I’d say the movie almost makes up for this with its 2D animated visuals except that it’s most important visual element, the dragon, looks absolutely goofy.  This is intentional I guess, they’re trying to make it look like a goofy dragon that the smallest of children will be into the way that they’re into, like, Barney.  This wasn’t for me, and it wasn’t for me in a way I found kind of annoying because it has clear talent behind it.  Cartoon Saloon doesn’t do a half assed job on this just because it’s a silly movie for babies, but they’ve done much better work in the past that cuts across differently aged audiences better.
**1/2 out of Five

Bones and All(11/28/2022)

I must say, when I watched I Am Love, A Bigger Splash, and Call Me By Your Name I can’t say that “spends the next five years making a pair of gory horror-ish movies” seemed like the most likely next step for their director Luca Guadagnino, but here we are.  His new movie Bones and All is basically a riff on the vampire movie except rather than just drinking blood its characters are basically doomed to eat human flesh.  Beyond that they don’t really have any of the powers or the weaknesses of vampires except for the ability to “smell” other “eaters” like themselves, but like vampires they have the same “eat others or die” predicament.  Our main character is a teenager played by Taylor Russell whose father has been moving her around and evading authorities after some “incidents” she caused but early in the film the father basically has to abandon her to fend for herself.  She then embarks on a road trip across America to find her mother (who also appears to have been an “eater”) and along the way meats some other “eaters” including one played by Timothée Chalamet. 

So, we’ve got a movie from the director of Call Me By Your Name in which we see a sub-culture of people who are born inclined to do something society views as deviant which they don’t discover until their teen years but may have known about earlier and which often results in them being drifters shunned by their parents and which much of society is kind of oblivious to but which they can sense and intuit in others when they see them… maybe I’m reading too much into this but I’m thinking there might be some queer subtext here.  If there is, it’s perhaps of a rather regressive nature as this is less a queerness of empowered pride and more of a queerness of self-loathing and perpetual outsider status, and as with a lot of horror allegories for queerness the message gets a bit unsavory given that literal cannibals are actually hurting people in a way that the average gay person does not.  Also, all of that is subtext, in terms of the film’s literal story it is essentially a Badlands style “lovers on the run” story with the Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet characters, albeit one that feels a bit more complicated and doomed from the start mixed in with this fictional sub-culture that reminded me a bit of the “cult of psychics” sub-plot of the Stephen King adaptation Doctor Sleep

The film is also something of a road trip movie, one that has that “America through the eyes of a foreign director” feel to it, a bit reminiscent of American Honey given that and the fact that this is focusing on teenagers/young adults going on a road trip.  So, there’s a lot going on here and a lot to recommend, but I can’t say that I love everything about it.  For one, I’m just not sure that the central cannibalism concept is entirely a winner.  If you’re going to essentially invent a new form of vampire-esque monster I feel like you could come up with something that has a bit more going on with them.  I’d also say that while Taylor Russell does have something of a screen presence to her I’m not sure her acting is entirely what it needs to be here and she struggles at certain points in the film.  Beyond that, I don’t know, at its heart I think this is a bit more formulaic than the transgressive concept and stylish flourishes would have you believe, but those flourishes do go a long way.  I’m not exactly sure who this movie is for.  It’s too gory for many audiences but despite that it’s not really a horror movie at all and basically makes no attempt to really scare the viewer, so this is going to have a tough time finding an audience, but it’s an interesting stew of genre concepts and sensibilities that’s certainly worth a look.
***1/2 out of Five

November 2022 Round-Up – Part 1

Argentina, 1985(11/7/2022)

From 1976 to 1983 Argentina was taken over by a brutal military junta which engaged in a “dirty war” characterized by state terrorism, repression, and “disappearances.”  Eventually democracy was restored and that is where this new Amazon produced prestige film Argentina, 1985 picks up and follows Chief Prosecutor Julio César Strassera as he is tasked with prosecuting these former dictators for war crimes in civilian court.  This is no easy task as these people still have strong ties to the military and the police and still have their supporters in the public.  It’s such a “hot” case that most experienced lawyers don’t want to touch it, forcing Strassera to assemble a team of young law students to act as his assistants.  Much of the film is focused on the toll all of this takes on Strassera, who is constantly being threatened by anonymous callers and the like and who also needs to prevent his witnesses from being intimidated.  The film’s courtroom scenes are at times wrenching, with witnesses giving detailed accounts of the horrors these dictators put them through, though I would have perhaps liked a bit of a better understanding of some of the details of how Strassera managed to tie all of this to the generals.  My understanding is that their main defense was to claim that these actions were undertaken by rogue elements in the military and the crux of the prosecution was in proving that the crimes were too widespread and too coordinated for that to be plausible and I would have liked more about that.  The bigger issue here for me is just that it kind of lives in the shadow of another recent film about the end of a Patagonian dictatorship: Pablo Larraín’s No, which looked at the plebiscite which ended Augusto Pinochet’s reign in Chile from the perspective of the campaign’s advertising agency.  That movie had the more creative angle to take on a story like this and it was also a bit bolder formally with its integration of stock footage and also had a really strong performance by Gael García Bernal at its center.  By contrast this movie feels like a more conventional prestige courtroom drama, but that isn’t to diminish its strengths as a decent historical film about an interesting moment in the history of the titular country.
***1/2 out of Five

Wendell and Wild(11/9/2022)

Animation is often a difficult field to truly make a name in.  Most animated films’ identities tend to be defined by the studios and production companies that make them rather than the names of their directors and one of the victims of this is probably Henry Selick, who’s recently discussed being kind of bitter that the most famous movie he directed (The Nightmare Before Christmas) has Tim Burton’s name all over it making people assume he was its director.  His next most famous film, Coraline, also tends to be associated with the Laika brand too so it’s really not easy out there for him.  It probably would have been easy (and from a marketing perspective, savvy) for his latest film Wendell and Wild to have been marketed as being more the work of his co-writer Jordan Peele but Selick himself seems to have gotten top billing.  Unfortunately I’m not sure that this is the movie he’s going to want to be the most associated with because it’s kind of messy.  On the positive side, the film has some cool character designs and an impressive voice cast but I find the world building here to be rather deficient; the whole thing is some kind of romp back and forth between the afterlife and the real world but it never really makes this conception of such things interesting.  Worse than that, I can’t even really say I was entirely wowed by the stop motion animation here, which feels noticeably cruder than what Laika has gotten us used to nor would I say does it have the detail of something like Wes Anderson’s stop motion efforts.  In many ways it might be a good indication of how much Selick maybe needs a visionary behind him like a Tim Burton or a Neil Gaiman in order to really have that complete vision.  Jordan Peele by contrast, is a sharp filmmaker but one who mostly seems rooted in the real world rather than abstract fantasy land and I’m not sure he was the right person to partner up with Selick.  I’m perhaps being a touch picky about this and am maybe underrating the film through expectations and that if it had caught me a bit more off guard I’d be more impressed. 
**1/2 out of Five

My Policeman(11/12/2022)

The new film My Policeman has been almost entirely talked about in terms of its star, Harry Styles, and the fact that it features him playing a character in a gay romance.  That logline is probably enough to get quite a few AO3 writers into the theater door, but there hasn’t been much else said about the film’s story and production.  The film is directed by a guy named Michael Grandage, who’s had a pretty long and successful career in theater direction but has only made one film before and that debut did not make much of a splash.  His work here is pretty close to what you’d expect from a period piece directed by a stage director: dignified and actor centric.  The film follows a policeman in 1950s England who marries a woman despite being a closeted homosexual and ends up starting an affair with a local artist, leading to something of a love triangle with the wife.  In broad strokes that’s not dissimilar from Brokeback Mountain: dude in a typically masculine job has a secret bond forbidden bond which leaves the woman he was in a sham marriage with in the dark.  That’s not necessarily dissimilar from how a lot of gay romances played out in the times before homosexuality was accepted by society, so it may be unfair to compare every such scenario to Ang Lee’s modern classic but the comparison doesn’t really help this one.  The film has a somewhat awkward framing story as well which turns the whole thing into a sort of flashback narrative with two different casts and I’m not sure that ever quite paid of satisfactorily either.  Still there are some good performances here as well as some decent period detail, so if the cast and plot interests you it’s probably worth a look.
*** out of Five

All the Beauty and the Bloodshed(11/13/2022)

What do you do when people you hate make great art?  “Hate” might be a strong word but I think director Laura Poitras has not been a good influence on the world.  The outlet she founded, The Intercept, along with her co-founder and sometimes subject Glen Greenwald have pioneered a very poisonous brand of paranoid and grievance-based politics whose reflexive contrarianism is completely counter-productive and frankly ignorant of the real stakes of electoral politics.  They have at best been useful idiots in helping the rise of the global right and at worst… well, they seem awfully willing to advance lines of argument that are rather helpful to Vladimir Putin.  However, this is not to say that Poitras is a bad filmmaker, and when her attitude is directed at the right topic there is a use for it and she probably has found an appropriate target in the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma “fame,” who are almost singlehandedly responsible for the opioid epidemic out of sheer greed.  The Sacklers are not necessarily the sole subject of her new documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, but they’re certainly in the mix.  Rather, the film follows an acclaimed photographer named Nan Goldin, who has recently become known for her work for an organization called P.A.I.N, which has been instrumental in the movement to remove the Sackler name from the wings of various museums where they had been donating over the years. 

The film cuts back and forth between these recent protest activities but is also uses Goldin’s photographs to tell her life story.  Goldin lived a life that began with a traumatic childhood in which her sister committed suicide and her narcissistic parents essentially abused both of them.  She then moved to New York and lived within that bohemian arts community during the 80s and began presenting slideshows themed around feminist themes and also went on to curate gallery shows.  In the latter role she came to be involved with the NEA fights of the 90s and was also part of the ACT UP movement, all while dealing with her own struggles with domestic abuse and addiction.  Needless to say, she’s someone who has a lot of “cred” for hanging out with the right people at the right time within her generation and championing the right causes and her recent advocacy around the opioid epidemic and the Sackler family will also age pretty well.  The movie does not feel like a hagiography though, or at least not a shameless one.  Much of Goldin’s story is simply told in her own words and with her own photos and it doesn’t feel a need to include a bunch of talking heads to back up and worship her history.  On some level this actually does resemble the “profile documentaries” that I usually decry in which it intercuts a few weeks in the life of some famous old person with biographical background, but even the most overdone formulas can still work when done correctly like this one is.  Goldin’s modern exploits aren’t just being documented to prove that said senior citizen being profiled is still “vital and relevant” and the biographical background elements catch the audience up with the somewhat prickly story of someone who isn’t already a household name and her life intersects with a lot of interesting developments in recent American cultural history.

The film is not really meant to be a primer on the larger story of the opioid epidemic, at least not in any detail.  If you’re looking for that you will probably be better served by Hulu’s “Dopesick” miniseries.  This film is more narrowly focused on the actions of Goldin’s activist group, which entered into the story once the Sacklers’ wrongdoing had already been uncovered and they were trying to eke out some justice that “the system” likely wasn’t going to be able to deliver.  At first it feels like this modern story is kind of disconnected from the narrative of Goldin’s earlier life but by the end of the film it all does connect together kind of beautifully.  We see the anti-Sackler advocacy as a result of her earlier ACT UP experience, which by extension was a something she was involved in because of her life in the New York art world, which was itself the result of how she became isolated from her family early on.  There is thematic linkage as well, with many of the themes of Goldin’s early life (stigmatization, the tyranny of politeness, art world gatekeeping) coming very much into play during the opioid epidemic and the challenges Goldin eventually faces as an activist.  One can also certainly see the connections to Poitras’ own politics and philosophy in all of this, specifically its militant anti-establishment attitude, very personally directed anger, and fears of surveillance, which as I’ve established are all things that can become very unproductive if misdirected but which work well for this story and make the whole project feel like a much more personalized expression than it might otherwise.  Without using any gaudy gimmicks the movie manages to be both a strong character study, a strong political statement, and a story about trends in humanity all at once and I think it’s a pretty big achievement within the modern documentary form.
****1/2 out of Five

October 2022 Round-Up – Part 2: Non-Horror Edition

Bros(10/1/2022)

There’s been a lot of talk about the release of Bros being a landmark of sorts for LGBT representation as the first studio comedy to receive a wide release.  Personally I was just happy to see a comedy, any comedy really, getting a wide release.  The genre has seemed absolutely dead for several years now for seemingly no good reason.  In this marked a return for the Judd Apatow produced comedy style that has really slowed to a trickle and was never really replaced by something else.  This time he’s working with the comedian Billy Eichner, who is probably best known for his “Billy on the street” sketches where he harangues people on the streets of New York.  He’s a lot more grounded here than he is when doing those bits and is instead playing a slightly embittered historian of LGBT history in his forties who has resigned himself to engage in meaningless hookups rather than begin a real relationship with someone.  That is until a guy played by Luke Macfarlane comes into his life who’s a bit more down to earth but also superficial and the two seem to have some chemistry. 

I will say that if there’s a big problem with the film it’s probably the Macfarlane character.  He’s an actor I was not familiar with at all prior to this film (he apparently makes Hallmark movies) and he’s clearly not really a comedian.  Back at the height of Apatow’s powers he was often criticized for pairing schluby men played by comedians with women who are too hot for them and don’t really add to the comedy, and Macfarlane would seem to be the male equivalent to something like that.  Additionally, while the film tries to distance itself from romantic comedy tropes (to the point of having a speech at the beginning about how a gay romantic comedy would be fundamentally different from a straight one) the film does still ultimately dive into some of the clichés like the “meet cute,” the third act misunderstanding, and the grand gesture at the end.  They find decent twists on those first two tropes but the grand gesture one is absolutely cringe-worthy.  But beyond that I think there’s a lot to like here.  The scenes at the Eichner character’s workplace are pretty stinging satire of the infighting that you can expect to find in most progressive spaces and the relationship sequences do seem to highlight some real differences from how these stories would play out for gay men in a way they don’t for straight couples.  And in typical Apatow fashion the ribaldry does at certain points settle down for things to “get real” and emotions are discussed, and these moments do seem more direct and probing than they were in a lot of those earlier films. 

So while I don’t necessarily think Bros is the greatest triumph one is likely to find on the cinema screen this year, it is a solid comedy well worth your time and it also has a certain quality that makes you want to root for it.  Built into the movie is a certain self-awareness of its own potential importance, it’s plainly trying to break down the doors of Hollywood and shatter glass ceilings and you can tell from Eichner’s interviews that he was hoping for this to be a sort of Bridesmaids or Crazy Rich Asians for LGBT audiences, but as I write this on the Monday after the film opened we know that that was not to be.  The film frankly flopped in its opening weekend, coming in number four at the box office, and a lot of ways that does kind of take the winds out of the movie’s sails.  Almost like seeing a diver confidently climb onto a diving board only to then belly flop, at least in terms of the film’s attempt to infiltrate the wider popular culture.  Why did this happen?  Well, obviously there are a lot of considerations about how the film was marketed and rolled out, but I think more fundamentally it might have been rather mistimed.  Firstly, it’s trying to be an Apatow-esque comedy a good half dozen years after that brand of comedy (and comedies in general for that matter) kind of went out of style.  But perhaps more profoundly a lot of elements of the film (or at least the version of the film seen in the trailers) seem to be trying to ride a certain post-Obergefell wave of triumphalism that maybe seems out of place and naive in a post-Dobbs world where a lot of that success could easily be rolled back and new attacks on the LGBT community are being launched on a daily basis by the Ron DeSantises and Greg Abbotts of the world.  Overall I do think the actual movie is a bit more thoughtful than that, but it does kind of linger over the movie and maybe make it feel like a more hollow victory than it might have had it come out a bit earlier.
***1/2 out of Five

Aftersun(10/22/2022)

Aftersun was one of the biggest surprises to emerge out of Cannes, where it played outside the main competition and didn’t have a lot of buzz going in given that it was a directorial debut, but the reviews were rapturous and it got picked up by A24.  I must say I was pretty excited for this one but I’d avoided most detailed reviews and wasn’t really sure what to expect from it and the resulting movie was not really something I entirely vibed with.  The film is clearly meant to represent a memory about a divorced father taking his twelve year old daughter on a summer vacation to a touristy resort in Turkey during the late 90s.  And that’s pretty much the whole plot description.  For much of the movie you just kind of hang out with these two people at this resort and observe the minutia of this summer down to almost day to day detail.  Watching it you’re interested because it’s well observed and there are a pair of very good performances by Paul Mescal and Frankie Corio as the daughter, but a traditional conflict never really kicks in and you do find yourself asking “Why these people?  Why this trip?  What’s the point of this?”  Then very late in the film something is revealed which isn’t a “twist” exactly but does sort of re-contextualize what you’ve been watching in a way that is interesting, but it comes so late that the movie was already kind of losing me at that point.  The movie reminds me a bit of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, which is admittedly a movie I’ve been meaning to give another shot because I’m not sure I even finished it when I first tried to watch it.  Clearly father/daughter hangout movies are not really my jam and in particular I don’t think I connected that much with these people; I wasn’t the child of divorce, I don’t have particularly conflicted feelings about my parents, and I also never vacationed at this sort of resort type place as a child.  But that’s probably just me.  I do however see some clear skill on the screen here and I would be very interested in seeing future works by director Charlotte Wells.
*** out of Five

[One Day Later]

Okay, I normally don’t do this but I’ve slept on this take I think additional thoughts have formed about this movie and it’s started to grow on me.  The film is perhaps one of the more realized cinematic examples of what Ernest Hemingway called his “iceberg principle,” in which the actions that happen in a work are minimalistic but with a great deal being done thematically and emotionally just beneath the surface.  I basically recognized that this was going on as I exited the movie but it’s a bit more impressive once you take a step away from the film and consider the work as a whole than when you’re actually watching the film for a first time and are frankly waiting and waiting for there to be a bit more action on the surface.  Generally speaking, when I review a movie I feel like I’m experiencing the experience of watching it: the journey it takes you on, the excitement it brings, the laughs it evokes, and most importantly the thoughts that it evokes along the way.  That’s kind of what I was getting at with that first capsule review and I’m going to preserve that because an experiential review like that matters, but as I consider the movie more holistically I worry that I didn’t quite give this the credit it needs for just how well it manages to make a point about itself using just a couple of kind of unconventional techniques late in its runtime.  Having said that, I do think a decent amount of that trepidation I felt yesterday is still valid.  It’s not too unusual for a movie to grow on me over time only to then revert to my previous thoughts when I try to rewatch it and am reminded why I had reservations in the first place, so there’s only so far I’m willing to go in talking myself into this one, but I do want to give the movie its due for getting into my head after the fact just the same.
***1/2 out of Five

Close(10/23/2022)

Lukas Dhont’s debut did not go as planned.  The young Belgian filmmaker’s 2018 film Girl, a drama about a transgender teenager, was probably the highest profile film to play in Un Certain Regard at Cannes.  There it won the Caméra d’Or and the Queer Palm and perhaps most importantly it was acquired by Netflix for North American distribution, which raised its profile quite a bit.  However, there was a substantial backlash to the film once trans critics saw it and were highly critical of its depiction.  The choice to cast a cis-gender male actor in the lead was viewed as problematic on its face and the film’s focus on physical transformation and body dysmorphia was viewed as wrongheaded and triggering.  It had its defenders but the controversy clouded the film throughout its run.  Cannes seems to have stood by Dhont however as his follow-up film, Close, played in the official competition and then even won the Grand Prix (in a tie with Claire Denis’ Stars at Noon).  I saw at least one critic’s poll that had this placed as the best film to play at the entire festival and it certainly hasn’t been the subject of controversy like Girl was, so it seems to be a comeback for Dhont.

I, however, am a little less enthusiastic.  The film is about a pair of boys, aged about twelve or thirteen, who have been best friends since they were extremely young and are described at one point as being “almost like brothers.”  As they begin middle school however, some of their peers find this closeness odd, going so far as to ask if the two of them are gay lovers.  The two boys react very differently to this, with one brushing it off, but the other seemingly being a bit more distressed by this and starting to subtly distance himself from his friend.  He certainly doesn’t formally abandon him, but he does start to take an interest in sports and starts taking part in activities the other boy isn’t involved in and finding other friends and generally building more of a separate identity.  If this and Girl have any major link it’s that both films are basically about the way small micro-aggressions can fester in the mind, especially of adolescents and lead to some fairly extreme reactions.  Here it’s basically just some idle and seemingly momentary talk about the possibility of these kids being gay, talk which doesn’t even seem terribly hostile or homophobic, that kind of sets off all the trouble. 

That setup is what I most admired in the film and I was pretty intrigued by the first half but things took a turn pretty much right at the midpoint that pushed the second half in a less interesting direction.  I won’t say it the movie nosedived at that point by any means but I was kind of hoping for the tensions in the first half to play out in more detail.  Instead the film kind of just stops and spends the second half just endlessly watching characters reacting to what happened in the twist, and there’s nothing particularly wrong about its depiction to this reaction exactly except that it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect.  In this section the film also takes “show don’t tell” to a bit of a literal extreme and really just spends a lot of time watching people internalize their reactions while refusing to simply talk about what they’re feeling.  Yeah, normally I’d rather not have a movie spoonfeed what’s going through the character’s minds but the way it plays out we pretty much just get the obvious responses rather than the complex one right up until the very ending, which pretty much just reveals something that the audience plainly already knows.  The movie might have benefited perhaps from a scene in a psychologist’s office or something where we get to the bottom of what’s going on instead of dancing around it.  Having said all that, there is plenty to admire here, particularly the way that Dhont directs these two child actors into some pretty strong performances and also a couple smart visual ideas he has like setting parts of the film at a flower farm.  But I think this could have been so much more.
*** out of Five

All Quiet on the Western Front(10/29/2022)

World War I seems to be having something of a moment cinematically as of late.  The conflict is often over-shadowed by its younger brother World War II, to the point where most of the best movies about “The Great War” were either made before 1939 or were about remote side conflicts like Lawrence of Arabia or Gallipoli.  However, possibly inspired by the war’s hundredth anniversary the war showed up in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and then Wonder Woman of all things, but it really started coming up in earnest with Peter Jackson’s 2018 documentary They Shall Not Grow Old and then there was finally a really high profile serious epic with Sam Mendes’ 1917.  So now that this is officially a trend it was probably a matter of time before someone decided to bring back the granddaddy of World War I stories: Erich Maria Remarque’s novel “All Quiet on the Western Front,” which was previously adapted in the Oscar winning 1931 Lewis Milestone film and a pretty well-known 1979 TV movie.  That 1931 movie is a strong piece of work but I wouldn’t necessarily call it “timeless” as it does suffer from some of the shortcomings of early sound films in terms of performances and production values, and on top of that the decision was made to have this story about German soldiers be casted entirely by American actors who do not attempt to take on Teutonic accents at all and instead talk like kids right off of Midwestern farms.  That, I think, was a decision made in order to increase audience empathy and suggest that these idealistic kids headed for the trenches are not so different from us.  That having been said, today it seems kind of corny.

This new version doesn’t have that problem, however, as it is actually a German production made with a large Netflix funded budget and is likely a frontrunner for the Best International Feature Academy Award this year, which feels odd because it didn’t debut at a European film festival and doesn’t come from a well-known auteur.  So this is probably more something to analyze as a prestige Hollywood war movie like 1917 that so happens to be in German than as a piece of world cinema for arthouses and on that level I think it has a lot to offer.  This was actually directed by a guy named Edward Berger, who has had a long but not very widely known career in German television and was likely unknown to most people outside (or inside) of that country.  He does, however, display a solid grasp of cinematic language here as he films some really intense large scale battle scenes here and he does so while avoiding the notes of individual heroism that I though Sam Mendes got a bit mired in.  This is a movie about living through the hellish meat grinder that was that war, its dehumanizing effects, and the callus way those in power were willing to let this killing go on.

That last point may prove contentious for purists.  Despite its trappings of authenticity this film does appear to depart from the novel it’s based on, which I understand to have been more of a personal narrative that didn’t depict any events its protagonist wouldn’t have been privy to.  This film on the other hand does occasionally cut to certain politicians and generals as they make decisions about whether or not to end the war.  I’m not really sure how necessary this was, it mostly seemed to serve one other change the film makes towards the end, which itself didn’t seem entirely necessary but I wouldn’t call it a major blow problem.  I was even more surprised that they actually made changes to a pair of fairly iconic moments from the book and original film, namely some severe trims to the propagandistic teacher that got the protagonist hyped up to fight in the first place, a furlough where he returns home and tells off that same teacher, and also a change to the ending which I suppose is made a touch less symbolic but every bit as wrenching in the new film. At the end of the day, I haven’t read the book and don’t care that much about how faithful this is, but the liberties they took are odd just the same.  Ultimately the film will be more remembered for its depiction of daily life in the trenches and for the large scale battle scenes than for those specifics and on that level I think the film does acquit itself fairly well.  Ultimately I don’t know that it’s showing or saying anything that hasn’t been done or said before but it does it with conviction and provides the viewer with a pretty solid experience.
**** out of Five

The Good Nurse(10/30/2022)

The very first review I ever wrote for my blog was for the David Fincher movie Zodiac and I remember that at one point in the review I commented that the Zodiac killer was notable for having not actually killed that many people and for essentially building an outsized reputation among serial killers through media manipulation.  Kind of a morbid point that seems a little tasteless in retrospect, but what’s interesting is that to make that point I wrote the following: “Charles Cullen killed eight times as many people, yet Zodiac has had five times as many movies made about him.”  This Charles Cullen I was referring to was a male nurse working in the New Jersey area who was convicted of coldly killing dozens of patients by administering intentional insulin overdoses that often did not register as homicides for unclear reasons.  At the time I’m pretty sure I only found the name “Charles Cullen” from a google search moments before writing that and technically speaking the point I made isn’t even true… at the time there had actually been zero movies about Cullen and by many accounts he actually killed far more than eight times as many as the Zodiac Killer.  Cullen has made up some ground in race for having films made about him since then however.  The year after I wrote that someone made a direct-to-video movie called Killer Nurse that was based on him and now, fifteen years later, this monster finally has his own Hollywood produced procedural about his eventual capture.

Despite the serial killer subject matter, The Good Nurse is not really a thriller and is instead a sort of procedural drama about the investigation that would eventually reveal what Charles Cullen (played here by Eddie Redmayne) was doing.  Early on the focus here seems to be on the various difficulties that the detectives on the case (played by Nnamdi Asomugha and Noah Emmerich) have in trying to investigate it given the extent to which the hospitals in question hinder their investigation to cover their assess.  In fact the extent to which systemic failures and bad incentives contributed to the length of Cullen’s covert killing spree is probably the most interesting aspects of the film but that’s kind of dropped in the second half when it really focuses in on Cullen himself and the fellow nurse (played by Jessica Chastain) who detectives enlist to aid in the investigation.  That, to me, is a missed opportunity.  At the end of the day Cullen himself is not particularly interesting.  He’s basically never explained why he did what he did and we don’t get much in the way of further insight here and the way he was captured was, at the end of the day, fairly by the book detective work.  If anything I would have rather seen a movie about the lawsuits that were eventually filed against the hospitals in question, that’s an evil that feels a little more worth interrogating.  Beyond that, eh, this is alright.  It’s got a rather over-qualified cast and moves along well enough but I feel like it could have been a lot more.
*** out of Five

October 2022 Round-Up – Part 1: Horror Edition

I saw enough in October to warrant splitting this into two posts, decided to start with all the new horror movies I saw then do the non-horror stuff in the next one rather than going strictly chronological.

Smile(10/5/2022)

The new horror film Smile is, if nothing else, the beneficiary of some pretty canny marketing.  I first learned about it when I went to see Top Gun: Maverick and was greeted with a cryptic 40 second teaser trailer (which was never officially released online) that mostly just featured a creepy dude smiling and the movie’s title.  More recently they’ve pulled a stunt of putting creepy smiling people behind home plate at MLB games, so Paramount is certainly putting some work into this release, but I was kind of skeptical just the same.  The movie has all the hallmarks of being one of these jump scare dependent mainstream-ass ghost/haunting movies that I thought we were getting past… and it is that, but it’s one of the good ones.  The film’s plot concerns a demonic curse in which people suddenly have their minds taken over and then kill themselves with an unmoving Cheshire grin across their faces, and this passes the curse on to whoever witnesses this and they are tormented with visions for a week before they then die similarly passing it on to the next person, and so on.  So, it’s basically Ringu except with facial gestures instead of evil videotapes, not the most original idea and the basic plot progression probably won’t surprise viewers who’ve seen enough of these movies but the smiling gimmick is just enough to make the film feel kind of fresh.  Additionally, the film also takes mental illness as a theme a bit more seriously than the average horror film as the protagonist is a hospital psychiatrist and past traumas do become a theme in the film.  Beyond that the movie mostly just works because director Parker Finn uses this familiar bag of tricks pretty darn effectively and even when he uses shameless jump scares he tends to employ them in less predictable ways.  Put it this way, when someone finally writes the book on “early 21st Century ghost movies for normies” this one will be sitting next to the better examples of the genre like Sinister and Oculus rather than the trash Conjuring spinoffs.
***1/2 out of Five

Hellraiser(10/12/2022)

The 1987 film Hellraiser is a really interesting and innovative horror film… on paper.  Based on a story by Clive Barker, the film is steeped in a lot of sexual undertones that could fuel volumes of academic interpretations and the cenobite monsters that it spawned are truly iconic.  The thing is, those cenobites are only in the movie for something like ten minutes and the rest of the movie is some forgettable nonsense about a pervert emerging from a mattress as a skinless corpse, which certainly isn’t completely uninteresting but the film just isn’t really famous for what much of its running time consists of.  But if the first Hellraiser has issues, the rest of the franchise is kind of a disaster.  I’ve seen the first sequel, which is flawed but mostly solid, but I haven’t been inclined to seek out the rest.  The third Hellraiser is said to be “so bad it’s good” at best, the fourth movie was an “Alan Smithee” production, and after that it was a procession of increasingly embarrassing direct-to-video productions.  Where normally it would seem lame to see a slasher movie from the 80s get the remake treatment, this franchise feels like it would have been much better off if it had gone down that road at least a decade ago.  And now that’s finally happened; a full on reboot simply titled Hellraiser made by Spyglass films and given a fairly high profile distribution by Hulu.

This remake more or less discards the Uncle Frank story from the first movie but keeps the cenobite mythology and is most famous elements like the puzzle box.  This time we follow a woman who’s a recovering drug addict who comes into contact with said puzzle box and finds herself investigating it after it seemingly makes her brother disappear.  This leads her to be haunted by the cenobites, to many of the people she runs into becoming their victims, and eventually to learn about the last person who tried to mess with these forces.  If there’s a problem with this movie it’s that the main character’s motivation is a little wonky.  She’s ostensibly on a mission to save her brother, which is noble enough but it isn’t really clear why she thinks what she’s doing will help and at a certain point it becomes starkly obvious she’s getting other people killed just on the hope of saving one person and that doesn’t make her terribly likable.  Additionally, the film generally feels a little less adventurous in exploring its themes of sadomasochistic danger-seeking.  The first movie was clearly made by someone with some knowledge of mixing sex with danger and understanding the appeal of that, but this one feels straighter and less adventurous in that territory and people interested in that aspect of the franchise might find this a little shallower by comparison.

That having said, this is plainly the best made Hellraiser movie to date and I don’t think it’s even particularly close.  The film was helmed by David Bruckner, the filmmaker behind last year’s The Night House, and while this doesn’t resemble that movie too closely there is a similar professionalism behind both.  Odessa A’zion works pretty well in the lead and the cenobites look pretty great for the most part, including the new Pinhead (Jamie Clayton) who has been feminized, which is probably a smart move to avoid potentially unflattering comparisons to Doug Bradley.  Those simply looking for that signature Hellraiser gore will likely also be satisfied with this remake.  I wouldn’t say there’s anything unprecedented here but it doesn’t skimp on the plasma shedding and some of the scenarios here look creatively painful.  All in all it’s certainly nothing revolutionary but it’s the efficient and audience-pleasing Hellraiser that strangely hadn’t really been made until now and I think most audiences that are down for this sort of thing will come away happy with the results.
***1/2 out of Five

Halloween Ends(10/14/2022)

Following the success of David Gordon Green’s blockbuster 2018 Halloween reboot Blumhouse issued a press release that announced that there would be two sequels made, one called Halloween Kills and another that would boldly be called Halloween Ends, which would act as a definitive ending.  I personally wasn’t the biggest fan of that initial Halloween reboot to begin with but this “back to back” sequel announcement intrigued me, it made it seem like they had some kind of master plan.  Then Halloween Kills kind of came and went, I kind of liked it out of a mixture of low expectations and just appreciation for the filmmaking, but critics mostly saw it as a shallow exercise and I don’t necessarily disagree with that.  One year later and now we get the final movie of this trilogy and it… is not what I think anyone was expecting.  You won’t see much of anything about this in the film’s kind of misleading trailers, but the movie actually revolves in large part around a character (who had not been introduced in either of the previous films) named Corey Cunningham played by Rohan Campbell; a guy in his twenties who has become a town pariah after he’s involved in an accident that leaves a child dead.  Corey has a chance encounter with Michael Myers (who is hiding in the sewers and seems a shell of his former self) and the two form some kind of psychic bond and Myers’ murderousness seems to transfer into Corey.

Needless to say this is not what most people are expecting from this movie, and I think some people are going to be downright angry about it.  If David Gordon Green had a master plan for this trilogy at all I highly doubt that this one stuck to that script because it doesn’t feel like it’s part and parcel with the previous movies at all and actively contradicts them in some ways, almost like they originally wanted things to end with Kills but got some studio mandate to make a third film and scrabbled to come up with this idea.  In a lot of ways this is sort of a subversion of how these kinds of trilogies usually function.  Usually it’s the second film where people try to test out new ideas and the third movie where they go back to what they know works in order to cruise to an audience pleasing finale but this seemed to do the opposite.  I don’t want to be the guy who lashes out at a franchise for trying something different instead of just making a cookie cutter sequel but… they just don’t pull this off.  This character comes out of nowhere, the actor doesn’t do much with him and his connection with Myers seems rooted in some weird mysticism that’s unclear and doesn’t fit with much of how Myers has functioned in this series.  The film also probably isn’t going to appeal that much to people who just want their scares and their gore; there are some kills here but it’s kind of tame compared to the last two films.  Jamie Lee Curtis is back and the film tries to give her character some closure, but it doesn’t really do so in a way that’s all that novel or interesting really.  That’s not to say that the movie is completely unenjoyable, I was mostly sticking with it, but I don’t understand what they were going for and they certainly didn’t make it work.
** out of Five

Dark Glasses(10/15/2022)

There is debate to be had as to when Dario Argento started to suck, but pretty much everyone agrees that he more or less stopped making good movies somewhere in the 90s or 2000s.  Personally I don’t have much of a take on this as my Argento viewing has largely been confined to the films he made during his 1970s and 1980s heyday and haven’t ventured into the rough stuff.  However, the movie Dark Glasses suddenly showed up on Shudder (a streaming service I’m temporary subscribing to during October) and after a quick google search I learned that this is Dario Argento’s newest film, the first in ten years for the octogenarian horror maestro, and that it’s mostly gotten polite reviews.  I was intrigued, though suspicious that the buzz has apparently been so muted that I was only just then learning about it.  After a very brief consideration I decided to go ahead and give the movie a shot.  The film would, I suppose, qualify as a giallo but doesn’t really have the feel of that particular form of violent Italian mystery film as the killer in it lacks a certain flair for the dramatic.  The movie concerns a prostitute who is attacked by a serial killer which ultimately results in a car crash that leaves her blinded and a couple in another car dead, leaving behind an orphan child.  The woman then starts to come to terms with her blindness and also tries to reach out to the orphan child, but just as she begins putting her life back together that killer comes back into it.

Argento is, finally, no longer working in that archaic Italian style in which an international cast speaks their respective native languages on set under the assumption the film would be dubbed everywhere.  This is an Italian movie, plain and simple, and is presented in a subtitled format.  So that is one improvement over what Argento was doing in the old days, but most of the other changes are not necessarily for the better.  The film generally feels cheaper and more pared back than his older films: there are death scenes here, some of them bloody, but they feel more routine and restrained than what you’d get in his signature films.  Additionally, the film is noticeably shot on digital rather than film and that makes the film look drab compared to what he used to do, there’s none of that wild experimentation with color or point of view to be found here.  The film also isn’t operating on nightmare logic like a lot of his best work (outside of one weird scene with “water snakes”) and that might theoretically be a good thing if you want your Argento to be more streamlined and logical, but this along with other compromises here kind of just make the film feel more like a rather run-of-the-mill thriller than a cutting edge work of horror.  So, what you’re left with is a fairly competent if not particularly creative little movie, which might technically be improvement on the some of the more flamboyantly horrible movies he made in recent decades but I suspect that those movies for all their flaws are at least more interesting than this.  In fact I kind of doubt this thing would even be distributed outside of Italy if it didn’t have that Argento name on the poster, because that’s kind of its only distinctive element.
** out of Five

Mr. Harrigan’s Phone(10/17/2022)

It’s pretty much become a tradition at this point that Netflix or some other service will offer a new direct-to-streaming adaptation of a minor Stephen King work every October and this year that comes in the form of this adaptation of a relatively recent novella by the prolific author called Mr. Harrigan’s Phone.  This one, directed by Hollywood journeyman John Lee Hancock, is not really a horror movie although there is a dark supernatural element to it.  The film concerns a teenager who has spent a great deal of time working for an old man who lives in his town and needs someone to read books to him.  Eventually he buys the old man a cell phone, a decision that eventually leads to mild creepiness.  I won’t give too much more away but I definitely think people should know going in that this is more of an earnest coming of age story than it is any kind of work of real horror.  It’s almost kind of King riffing on the idea of the cell phone, an invention he rather famously isn’t the biggest fan of but which he sort of seems to be coming to some kind of uneasy peace with here.  However, I must say I’m not sure why John Lee Hancock chose this as a story to adapt because its arc just isn’t terribly cinematic.  It feels like a very long introduction for a payoff that kind of just feels, I’m not sure if slight it the right word, but certainly something that feels disproportionate to what the buildup primes us for.  In a way I kind of respect that this is just a restrained little morality tale rather than feeling obligated to kick into third gear half way through but… I don’t know, I still wanted a little more for this to really justify itself.  I think this might have been better as part of some kind of anthology series or something, it’s just not big enough of a story for its format.
**1/2 out of Five

September 2022 Round-Up

Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul(9/3/2022)

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the trailers for the new film Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul, which kind of looked like a satire of megachurch culture but not necessarily a super cutting one and the trailers didn’t exactly seem hilarious to me.  I wasn’t really sold on the movie when it would have meant driving out to a theater to see it, but when I learned it would also be streaming for free on Peacock (a service I keep forgetting I have) I was just interested enough to give it a try.  Watching it I’m actually still kind of confused as to what tone this was going for.  The film is about a married couple (played by Sterling K. Brown and Regina Hall) who are in charge of a megachurch in Atlanta which has had to close because of a sex scandal involving the Sterling K Brown character, the details of which are left somewhat vague.  The movie is seemingly very critical of these characters and basically views them as charlatans who have let the desire for wealth and status overcloud any real concern they have for their parishioners, but it also seems to be bending over backwards to make it super clear that they’re only angry at some of the excesses of the megachurches rather than an attack on religion and in a lot of ways that kind of makes it feel a bit weak and compromised.  I should note that I have no personal experiences with the black church, megachurches, any other forms of protestant Christianity, and my experiences with any other form of organized religion ended when I was about thirteen.  I suspect that if I had more familiarity with these kinds of communities I would recognize more of the quirks this is referencing, but I’m not, and it’s not entirely clear to me how much of what I’m seeing in this is to be considered a “normal” example of megachurch behavior and how much is supposed to be comedically exaggerated, it’s just kind of an absurdly garish world to me.  The film is based on a novel by Adamma Ebo, who also wrote and directed this film adaptation, which perhaps suggests to me that this was not originally envisioned as a comedy and during large portions of this it doesn’t play out like one… so I’m not exactly sure how intentional it was that I didn’t find the movie to be very funny at all.  Truthfully I’m not sure this movie knows what it wanted to be, or at least the studio didn’t seem to know what it was supposed to be, and if this what it wanted to be… maybe it should have wanted to be something with a stronger point of view and more of an interest in entertaining its audience.  I don’t want to go too hard on it, there are some decent moments here and it’s at least a fairly dignified project but there was really nothing there for me.
** out of Five

Barbarian(9/8/2022)

Barbarian is a weird-ass title to give to a horror movie, and no it’s never specifically explained in the movie either.  I’ve heard some people point out that it’s a an anagram of “AirBnb, ” but it’s not, there are three extra letters left over.  There are also elements of the film that are certainly “barbaric” but otherwise I don’t really get it.  That said, there is a strength to that title in that it basically doesn’t tell you much of what the film is about or where it’s going, which is good because this movie seeks to surprise its audience.  The prevailing advice around it is to go in with as little advanced knowledge as possible (don’t even look up cast lists) and I’ll be keeping my review short for exactly that reason.  The film was written and directed by a guy named Zach Cregger, who comes more from the world of comedy than horror and that skill does not go unused here, but that should not be mistaken to think this is a watered down horror movie.  Quite the opposite it’s pretty hardcore and goes to some extreme places that may catch some more casual fans of “scary movies” off guard.  In that sense it kind of feels like this year’s Malignant in that it’s a movie that’s been advertised like a standard chiller from a major studio but which was really made for the deeper horror community and goes to some outlandish places. That’s not to say there are twists in this quite as outlandish as the eventual reveal in that movie, but some taboo material is there to be found.  The film also takes some basic structural risks that kind of deflate some of the tension but not entirely for bad reasons.  It does kind of keep you guessing.  I don’t know that the movie entirely works, but I dug it, it’s a good genre flick which has some real guts.
***1/2 out of Five

Moonage Daydream(9/15/2022)

The death of David Bowie was announced on January 10th 2016, the first of many celebrity deaths and other events that would lead to 2016 seeming like the worst year ever (how foolish we were).  Still his passing felt like an unexpected end of an era and there is some weird poetry to be found that right as we’re starting to emerge from the darkness that was seemingly set off that year we get the first film about Bowie authorized by his estate; a documentary from Brett Morgan called Moonage Daydream.  The film does basically span the musician’s entire career from his professional debut to his passing, but that’s about the only thing about the doc that can really be called particularly “conventional.”  There’s no narrator here and no talking head interviews aside from archival interviews with Bowie himself, and even they are usually presented in very short fragments and in typical Bowie fashion they don’t involve the most straightforward of answers.  Instead this is an experimental documentary that presents his life through a sort of kaleidoscope montage featuring concert footage, home movies, the aforementioned interview snippets, clips from his movies, Brakhage-esque color patterns on screen, clips from German Expressionist films, and a whole bunch of other stuff.  This will likely confuse boomers who show up at the film expecting a more traditional doc about the dude they hear singing “Heroes” on classic radio, but there’s some method to the madness and the film seems to be trying to get at the essence of Bowie’s shifting persona.  That said this approach does seem to be very much intended for viewers who were already pretty familiar with the major beats of the singer’s life and work, I would be interested to hear the reaction of someone who really knew nothing about it, I suspect they’d be confused and frustrated.  I’d also say that the approach likely would have worked better at a shorter runtime.  The movie runs 140 minutes, which is pretty long for a doc, especially one that takes such an experimental approach, and there were stretches when it did start to get a little old for me.
*** out of Five

Pearl(9/21/2022)

When Ti West’s film X came out I can’t say that I had pegged it as a film terribly likely to be a franchise starter, little did I know that a prequel had already been shot and it was going to be released less than a year after the original film.  On top of that this prequel is actually pretty radically different from the first film and more or less stands on its own.  The film follows the early life of the elderly villainous from X all the way back to 1918 when she was living at a farm with her parents and was waiting for her husband to return from the First World War.  Of course everything that made Pearl a villain in X is still going on here so there’s some mayhem to be found.  Stylistically and in terms of story structure this is completely removed from X.  That was a grimy southern fired slasher movie inspired by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre whereas this movie seems to be drawing from a lot from early Hollywood melodramas.  Mia Goth reprises the role of Pearl, this time without the old age makeup, and her performance is clearly a pastiche of Judy Garland and specifically her work in The Wizard of Oz.  Where X was trying to look like a grainy exploitation movie, Pearl is shot in widescreen and in a color palate that seeks to evoke the technicolor look of the forties and fifties.  Linking the film to X like it does can be a bit awkward. Everything about the iconography of this movie seems to scream “midwest” and yet because it’s a prequel to X it technically needs to be set in the Texas gulf coast and every time Pearl’s alligator shows up it’s a touch jarring.  Overall I’d say this is a clear improvement over X, a movie that had some things going for it and provided some gory thrills but which also went in some misguided directions and ultimately wasn’t giving us that much we hadn’t seen before.  Pearl is much more creative and I really liked Mia Goth’s rather unhinged performance that finds a certain mania underneath those Judy Garland mannerisms.  There is however a tradeoff to be paid for using this approach and that’s that the film isn’t really that scary.  Movies where the killer is the protagonist generally aren’t able to engage in suspense in the way that movies where victims are the point of view character you empathize with and this one is no exception.  Still, it’s a pretty invigorating genre exercise, one that serious horror fans are going to be interested in.
***1/2 out of Five

Don’t Worry Darling(9/27/2022)

In the run up to its release the Olivia Wilde directed thriller Don’t Worry Darling has been mired in tabloid gossip to the point where it’s really overshadowed what sure looked like a really promising movie when the trailers first came out.  I hate it when stuff like that happens so going into this I was really kind of rooting for this movie to really transcend all the bullshit that surrounds it, though I was losing some hope as some of the early reviews also came in less than positive.  The truth of the matter is that the movie is somewhere in-between: it has enough going for it that I think it’s better than its current 38% Rotten Tomatoes score would indicate but it’s certainly not strong enough to be some kind of undeniable success that can only blame stupid rumors for its troubles.  The film is set in a sort of experimental post-war suburban enclave in the desert called Project Victory that sits on the outskirts of a secret facility where all the men in this company town work while the women act as housekeepers.  Obviously there’s something fishy and Stepford Wivesy about the whole setup and the film’s protagonist starts to have suspicions.

On a superficial level I think there’s a lot about this movie that works quite well.  The set decoration is gorgeous and the film does a pretty good job of realizing this world and filling it with all the most alluring aspects of early 60s culture.  It’s also got a pretty strong cast that acquits itself quite well; it’s a good vehicle for Florence Pugh, Harry Styles has his moments in it, and a lot of actors in smaller roles like Gemma Chan and Timothy Simons also leave their impact on it.  The problem is that Katie Silberman’s screenplay for the film is just not as clever as it thinks it is.  It’s got a twist ending that is not terribly hard to predict even if it takes a form that’s different than you maybe expect (though not in a good way) and the social message at its center (that being a 50s housewife is not fulfilling and can be a trap to make women dependent) is not exactly a new revelation.  Additionally there are signs of post-production messiness to be found here.  We know from news reports that KiKi Layne had a much bigger part in the film that got left on the cutting room floor, and while I didn’t necessarily need more of that character I do see other places where this seems to have been cut down.  Certain setups don’t have payoffs and certain payoffs don’t seem to have setups (I’m thinking here of the fate of a certain villain) and there are other developments to the film that I don’t think really hold up to scrutiny.  That said, I think the overall film still mostly works, at least well enough to slouch its way over the finish line.
*** out of Five

The Greatest Beer Run Ever(9/30/2022)

It’s been almost four years now, but that Green Book victory at the 91st Annual Academy Awards still burns.  It just bristles that something so obviously retrograde was declared that year’s best film by an organization that’s supposed to be at least a little more in touch with what’s going on in society.  I don’t necessarily want to hold that against director Peter Farrelly in his future endeavors, and yet his follow-up movie is almost impossible not to compare with that previous “triumph.”  After all he’s managed to follow-up his movie about a dumb white guy coming to learn that the Jim Crow South was bad actually on a wacky road trip with a movie about an even dumber white guy who finds out that the Vietnam War was bad actually on an even wackier road trip.  I wonder if his next movie will be about a mentally ill white person finding out that Richard Nixon isn’t an entirely honest politician to close out his trilogy of idiots in the 60s learning lessons that are now banally uncontroversial.  Let me back up, so The Greatest Beer Run Ever is a movie based on the true story about a guy from a blue collar neighborhood in New York who took an improbably trip to Vietnam at the height of the war there in order to deliver beer to his friends from the neighborhood who are over there as a gesture of goodwill to counter all the negative news coverage about the war.  Lessons are learned along the way.  I’ll give the movie this, I probably did generally find the road trip elements here a bit more entertaining than I did in Green Book just because a war zone is an inherently more active background than Georgia.  Additionally I can envision a world in which this came out about fifteen years ago and it would have had at least some allegorical power when paired with the “support the troops” frenzy that kept us in Iraq and Afghanistan as long as long as we were.  Of course it’s too late for that kind or relevancy but it is at least better than being fifty years out of date like Green Book was.  So yeah, I wasn’t impressed by this on any kind of substantive level, but it doesn’t exude incompetence or anything, I’m sure there are some people out there who would enjoy it but not me.
** out of Five