August 2019 Round-Up

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

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

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

 

Good Boys(8/16/2019)

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

 

Luce(8/18/2019)

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

 

Ready or Not(8/21/2019)

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

 

Blinded by the Light(8/25/2019)

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

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

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July 2019 Round-Up

Maiden(7/13/2019)

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

 

Crawl(7/17/2019)

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

 

The Farewell(7/21/2019)

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

June 2019 Round-Up – Part 2

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

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

**1/2 out of Five

 

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

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

**** out of Five

 

Late Night(6/30/2019)

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

** out of Five

June 2019 Round-Up – Part 1

Non-Fiction(6/5/2019)

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

*** out of Five

 

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

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

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

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

**1/2 out of Five

 

The Dead Don’t Die(6/13/2019)

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

** out of Five

May 2019 Round-Up

Long Shot(5/5/2019)

Putting out any movie the week after Avengers: Endgame was bound to be a rather fraught choice and it would seem that the producers of the new Seth Rogen/Charlize Theron comedy were hoping they could pull it off as a counter-programming move and it doesn’t look like the gamble paid off for them at all.  The movie was basically marketed as a romantic comedy, which it basically is in terms of basic formula, but it also has a lot more R-rated Seth Rogan comedy than its advertising would have you think.  The film focuses on an unlikely romance between a youngish female Secretary of State and an out of work journalist who makes a habit of walking around in windbreakers but nonetheless has a certain charm to him and strong political convictions.  The basic premise of the film is of course reminiscent of Rogan’s breakthrough film Knocked Up, which was another hybrid of crude and romantic comedy about how Rogan is not exactly the most likely physical specimen to be the partner of a beautiful and successful career woman.  That basic premise did grate on people with the earlier film with the view being that it was a sort of wish fulfilment fantasy that forgave male mediocrity.   I get why people would see it that way, but if you think about it a lot of traditional romantic comedies also focus around career women falling for salt of the earth losers, the only difference is that in Rogan’s films they aren’t being played by hunky Matthew McConaughey and the screenplay actually acknowledges and makes funny jokes about how unlikely such a pairing would be.

For their part I think Rogan and Theron do have some genuine chemistry and the movie does a fairly good job of making the audience understand how Theron would at least be intrigued by Rogan.  Where the movie really stumbles for me is less in its romantic comedy than in its political comedy.  The plot is based around a strange contrivance where the current president is a dumbass played by Bob Odenkirk who is planning to step down after his first term in order to pursue a career in Hollywood acting… which feels like a bit of absurdity out of a different movie.  The movie never makes mention of what party Odenkirk is in, but given that he’s being heavily supported by a news channel that is clearly meant to be a stand-in for Fox News one would assume that he is a Republican and yet absolutely everything about policies that Theron is advancing screams Democrat so it’s unclear why she is in the same administration.  The movie seems to want to walk some kind of line where it never called the parties by name (except in one scene late in the movie where it rather jarringly does) but that approach simply does not make sense to me in the hyper-partisan world we live in.  Like a lot of political movies it wants to exist in a sort of fictional world where everything didn’t go crazy after 9/11 and the dream of the 90s lived on.  I just don’t think you can get away with that anymore.  Still, if you’re able to set that aside and you’re able to get behind the Rogan and Theron relationship there is a lot of funny stuff in Long Shot and I would recommend it over most of the weak-ass comedies that have been in theaters lately.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Shadow(5/18/2019)

Zhang Yimou is a director who was once quite the critical darling and while he’s never exactly gone out of favor he has lost some of his edge as he’s become increasingly commercial since the international success of his 2003 film Hero, which is I believe the only foreign produced subtitled movie to debut at number one at the American box office.  He never quite had the same success despite some of his follow-ups like House of Flying Daggers being quite solid but he does still have the clout to make movies on a pretty large budget and while many of them are not profound works of art they usually are quite beautiful.  His latest film, Shadow is a return to his work making period epics and like a lot of his work it is quite pretty.  The film is sharply shot and would be very worthy nominee for best costumes if given the chance by the Academy.  However the movie has a bit of a darker streak than a lot of his other movies.  The story concerns a man who is being used as a decoy/double for a powerful general who is waylaid by illness and in the midst of a power struggle with the local king.  That business with doubles brings to mind Kurosawa’s Kagemusha but the film also brings to mind Ran in that it seems to be trying to invoke a sort of Shakespearian tragedy in the way everyone is kind of messed up and acting at cross purposes and aren’t necessarily going to have things go well for them by the end.  It is however, a bit too silly to live up to all of that.  This is the movie’s ultimate Achilles heel: it’s not really a martial arts movie and isn’t able to be carried by its action scenes but the drama doesn’t necessarily stand on its own either and the action scenes that are in it involve these sword umbrellas that look kind of ridiculous.  There’s enough here to be worth a look and some of the visuals are indeed quite strong but I wouldn’t call it a must-see.

*** out of Five

 

Booksmart(5/23/2019)

Set Rogan’s Long Shot opened as counter-programing to Avengers: Endgame and was not particularly well rewarded at the box office, now two weeks later the Rogan-inspired comedy Booksmart is opening opposite the Aladdin remake and is not expected to do much better.  When Blockers failed to gain any real traction last year I was pretty much resigned to the fact that this wave of post-Apatow R-rated comedies were kind of dead at the box office, but I still like them and will keep going to them as long as they’re being made and Booksmart is a pretty good one.  Focusing on two high achieving teenage girls who, upon discovering that the slackers they’ve been sticking their noses up at have also gotten into Ivy League universities, decide they’re going to use the last day of high school to let loose and party for the first time but must go on something of an odyssey in order to figure out the address of the cool kids’ party.  I can definitely relate to that same frustration at seeing people who do dumb stuff coasting to success, so this was in some ways a movie that was made for me and while I liked the film a lot I will say there were a couple of things keeping it from being as funny as it could have been.

I think one of those was that Beanie Feldstein’s character is painted a bit too broadly as a stuck up bully a bit too quickly and you sort of see her character arc and eventual conflict with Kaitlyn Dever coming from a mile away.  A version of the film where you really come to like the character before realizing her dark side might have been a bit more effective especially since Dever’s character is rather adorable throughout, making the contrast in likability between the two really stand out.  Aside from that I just felt like the jokes just weren’t quite as consistent as they could have been.  Parts of it are extremely funny but other stretches are a bit short on laughs, and not necessarily intentionally so.  In some ways first time director Olivia Wilde seems a bit more adept at the coming of age character-based material than with the comedy and I would be curious to see what a version of this which isn’t trying so hard to be the Gen Z Superbad would have been like.  Ultimately though the film’s strengths are much more prominent than its occasional shortcomings and it proves to be one of the better made if not necessarily funniest films of its kind.

***1/2 out of Five

 

Brightburn(5/26/2019)

The James Gunn produced horror/superhero movie Brightburn certainly had an intriguing premise: copy the famous Superman origin story, almost to the point of copyright infringement, but posit as a “what if” that instead of being a kid predisposed to truth, justice, and the American way he ended up being more like a creepy Columbine kid who ended up using his powers for evil.  I’ve heard people describe this as a refutation of Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel, but if anything the movie would seem to be vindication of the strict disciplinarian tendencies of the father from that movie because the loosey goosey millennial parenting on display here is plainly the wrong approach to raising a kid who’s faster than a locomotive.  Granted, the movie basically lets the parents here off the hook by making it so they weren’t aware of the kid’s powers (despite knowing he was an alien) and it also basically sidesteps the psychology of how the kid is driven mad by power by essentially making that the result of his communicating with his alien pod.  As it played out it became pretty clear that the movie was less interested in the idea of how these powers would corrupt the mind of this kid than it was in coming up with the gory ways in which the powers would be used for evil.  That focus isn’t entirely without its rewards, the scenes where the kid goes full supervillain are creatively gory and entertaining, but the movie isn’t really “scary” per se and I feel like the movie could have done a lot more with this premise than it does and that makes it pretty disappointing.

**1/2 out of Five

April 2019 Round-Up

Pet Sematary(4/5/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

After the wild success of the It movie two years ago it seemed logical that Hollywood would take another wack at some other Stephen King films that had gotten lesser adaptations over the years, but I was surprised to see that the first one out the gate was one whose first adaptation is actually fairly well remembered.  There are certainly aspects of Mary Lambert’s 1989 take on the novel “Pet Sematary” that haven’t aged perfectly but it works in the parts that matter and it follows the original novel quite effectively.  Nonetheless there are certainly things about this update that do feel like an improvement, specifically the casting of the central couple and also the decision to bring John Lithgow in as their neighbor (Fred Gwynne’s performance in the original film is certainly memorable as camp but… yeah, Lithgow is plainly better) and seeing the film play out with modern visual effects and cinematography is not unwelcome.  What was surprising about the movie (or at least would have been surprising if it hadn’t been spoiled by the film’s absolutely wretched final trailer) is that it actually does make some changes to the book and original film and I don’t think they’re entirely for the better.  The increased emphasis on the evil draw of the “sematary” helps explain some of the character motivations, but it also reduces the primal power of someone being driven to madness through grief and all too often is simply used to make the film feel more like a run of the mill haunting movie than the intense tribute to the tale of the monkey’s paw that it was intended as.  Honestly I kind of wish they had just stuck to basics, a more straightforward remake done with this extra craftsmanship probably would have made this the definitive version, instead it’s a flawed effort unto itself.

*** out of Five

The Wild Pear Tree(4/20/2019)

Back in 2014 I came out pretty strongly in favor of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, which would seem to be a fairly uncontroversial opinion given that film’s Palm d’Or win, but that movie wasn’t very widely watched even among people who are inclined towards weighty foreign cinema.  I guess the 196 minute runtime scared people off, and of those who did see it there was certainly a contingent who liked it but weren’t as into it as they were into some of Ceylan’s previous films like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but from where I sat the movie was a clear triumph.  Then at last year’s Cannes his newest film, The Wild Pear Tree, premiered and mostly got good reviews but didn’t win any awards and I’m not sure it’s even going to get a proper theatrical release (I saw it at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Film Festival).  That’s unfortunate because it is a movie that deserves to be seen but I must admit I get why it’s gotten a bit of a cooler reception as I have fairly mixed feelings about it myself.

The film follows a young man named Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) who has just come home from college and is going through something of a quarter-life crisis.  He wants to be a writer but doesn’t have the funds to get his first book published (it’s unclear to the audience if this book is supposed to be any good, I’m guessing “no”) and is ambivalent about following any other path in life.  Sinan is not a likable character and the movie knows it.  He’s whiny and self-centered in a way that many twenty year olds are and the film is in some ways meant to be his coming to terms with the fact that he may not get everything he wants out of life.  In this sense the film is not unlike Winter Sleep, which was about an older man coming to realize that he’s a bit of an asshole, but that guy came to his shortcomings in ways there were more unique and you could better understand why he might be blind to them, this kid by contrast is just kind of grating.  I would say that the film is also a lot less visually striking than Winter Sleep, which was set in a more scenic location and did more with it.  That’s not to suggest that The Wild Pear Tree is a complete failure by any means.  There are individual scenes and extended conversations within the film that are really compelling, a scene between Sinan and a local author that goes on for almost a half hour is a clear highlight, but I’m not sure they all congeal into a full movie that serves as a worthy follow-up to Winter Sleep.

*** out of Five

Peterloo(4/28/2019)

The new film from Mike Leigh is probably the largest scale project he’s ever attempted to mount and this has been greeted with much less excitement than you might expect.  It was rejected by Cannes and ignored by the BAFTAs and it’s critical reception has been mixed at best, which is strange coming from a filmmaker who has almost never made an outright failure.  I’m not sure I’d call this one an outright failure either and I’m generally more enthusiastic than a lot of critics but I can see why this thing might not be for everyone.  The film is a chronicle of the titular Peterloo massacre, an 1819 event where local aristocrats ordered the army to perform a cavalry charge on a group of reformers who were peacefully assembling in a town square in Manchester.  That is the last half hour or so, the rest of the film chronicles the events leading up to this rally and the movement that was trying to increase representation in parliament and repeal the Corn Laws.  This is probably where the movie lost some people given that, well, not everyone is going to find extended conversations about 200 year old British politics to be as entertaining as others.   I also wonder if the film’s reception in the UK was a bit more muted simply because they’ve already heard a lot about this event and the film caused flashbacks to some of the more tedious days of their high school history classes.  However, a lot of this was new to me and I found a lot of the details of how this was organized at the grassroots level to be kind of interesting and I was also interested in the scenes with the aristocrats positively freaking out about what seem like fairly mundane reforms and the way their sheer out-of-touchness led to some very bad decision making.  Of course the film is not even remotely “even-handed” and in some ways it feels more like the kind of thing Leigh’s more outspoken pier Ken Loach would have made.  I also would have liked more of a focus on the aftermath of the massacre what why it did or didn’t inspire change.

***1/2 out of Five