December 2019 Round-Up

Queen & Slim(12/8/2019)

It feels like yesterday but apparently it was almost a decade ago when the name “Melina Matsoukas” first caught my attention when the music video for Rihanna’s “We Found Love” captured my attention and I felt compelled to look up who directed it and she has gone on to even bigger heights in that medium by directing some of Beyonce’s more viral music videos.  Now she’s finally made her feature film debut in the form of a sort of Thelma and Louise for the Black Lives Matter movement called Queen & Slim, which is about a couple who find themselves on the run after their first date is cut short by a police stop which ends with one of them having to shoot and kill said cop in self-defense.  On some level it’s easy to be impressed that this kind of movie even exists.  Selling a movie that sympathizes with cop killers probably isn’t easy regardless of how clearly they’re actions are justified but on another level I might have liked the movie to focus on the complexity of character who have to do that in a less clear-cut case of self-defense like in the aforementioned Thelma and Louise.  Beyond that I think the movie just has some tonal problems.  Aspects of it like the costumes the characters end up in and the car they end up driving harken back to the exploitation movies of the 70s but it isn’t really fun like those movies are and doesn’t have that sense of danger that they had.  It’s trying to be a more serious Black Lives Matter issue movie in its tone but I’m not sure it really makes a lot of terribly original or unique points about police violence in that regard.  I guess I wanted the movie to either be trashier or more realistic, but it instead takes a sort of middle route that doesn’t entirely work.  Still, I do think there’s going to be an audience for it that’s going to find catharsis in there simply being a movie that brings this sort of thing to the screen.
**1/2 out of Five

 

Richard Jewell(12/13/2019)

Richard Jewell tells the true story of a security guard who was working at a satellite event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when he found a bomb that had been planted and seemingly saved a lot of people by starting an evacuation but who then sort of had his life derailed when the FBI started to suspect that he planted the bomb himself in order to be a hero.  This project has been floating around Hollywood for a while now and at one point even had Jonah Hill and Leonardo Di Caprio attached to star and people like Paul Greengrass and David O. Russell being considered to direct.  It’s now being brought to screen in a slightly more scaled back form with the character actor Paul Walter Hauser starring and Clint Eastwood directing.  But having seen the film I really don’t get why so many people have thought that a movie about this story would be such a winner because I’ve got to say it’s really not that interesting of a story.  In the annals of people oppressed by the FBI Richard Jewell really isn’t very high on the list.  He was never put in jail, never arrested, and it seems like he never even had his career affected.  The full extent of his “oppression” was that he found himself in the center of a news cycle in which he was being reported as a suspect in the bombing (which he was) which no one remembers or cares about anymore.

Before the movie started there was a trailer for the movie Just Mercy which is about a guy who spent six years on death row based on a wildly unfair trial, compared to that this really doesn’t strike me as all that notable of an injustice.  This matters because the film really doesn’t have that much dramatic interest outside of its righteous anger about the Richard Jewell case.  The performances are generally quite good but I kind of hate what they did with Olivia Wilde’s character, who is depicted as a vapid bimbo motivated entirely by greed.  The criticism this film has received for depicting this real life journalist exchanging sex for a lead is entirely valid and even if (big “if”) this sort of thing could be forgiven as dramatic license in other movies it is an unworkable hypocrisy here given that this is supposed to be a movie about the evils of character assassination and of misrepresenting people and yet it’s doing exactly that with this woman.  Beyond that I guess there’s not a whole lot to say.  The movie certainly isn’t unwatchable, the dialogue is mostly good and the acting is fine, I guess I just fundamentally don’t see why this needed to be a feature film with this level of talent behind it.
**1/2 out of Five

 

Bombshell(12/21/2019)

Director Jay Roach has had a strange little career where he began as a maker of commercial star vehicle comedies like the Austin Powers movies and the Meet the Parents movies and then transitioned into making serviceable but not overly inspired political docudramas like Recount and Game Change for HBO but he’s had less luck bringing that side of his career to the big screen.  His most high profile political film for theaters is his latest film Bombshell, which details the sexual harassment scandal at Fox News and how it came to be national prominence before the advent of #MeToo.  Roach’s political movies have always been pretty effective at making famous people look and sound like political figures from the recent past and this is not really an exception.  Charlize Theron certainly looks a lot like Megyn Kelly (though I’m not sure she sounds quite right) and Nicole Kidman looks a lot like Gretchen Carlson and the film is generally populated by a strong cast of supporting players portraying other side personalities.  The film also seems to recreate the Fox Newsroom plausibly and the script is generally written with a requisite degree of wit and clarity.  People looking for another of Jay Roach’s HBO productions should be satisfied on that level, but this is a theatrical film and it never quite achieves that cinematic quality which would elevate it beyond that.

However, I think the bigger problem with this is that it’s a movie that requires its viewer to sympathize with Fox News anchors on some level and view them as remotely admirable people, and that is something that I don’t think I’m entirely capable of.  Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson are in fact terrible people.  They knowingly worked for and helped advance a propaganda outlet that has coarsened out political discourse and has spread untold chaos and suffering across the country.  Now let me be entirely clear, I am not in any way saying that this means they deserved to be sexually harassed, but there is something galling about people who spend their days advocating for hatred against people of color, immigrants, the LGBT community, and women who don’t work for Fox News suddenly deciding to care about this toxicity when it hurts them personally.  There are ways a movie about this topic could have reckoned with that that and found ways to explore this conflict, but this movie never really finds a way to do that and can’t really find a way to make these people feel like anything other than heroic whistleblowers.  If that doesn’t bother you, then this is a passable movie with reasonably good production values, but it does bother me.
**1/2 out of Five

 

The Cave(12/29/2019)

The Cave is one of two major documentaries from this year about the conflict in Syria, the other one being For Sama and having now seen both of them it’s difficult not to compare and contrast.  This one was directed by Feras Fayyad, who had previously directed Last Man in Aleppo, which focused on the “White Helmets” and this one looks at another group of humanitarians trying to do the best they can, namely a group of doctors working at the last remaining hospital in the city which is a makeshift operation in underground tunnels that can’t be as easily bombed.  The focus is on the hospital’s manager Amani Ballor who seems like a fairly impressive person.  It takes a while to get going but toward the second half it really starts to get dramatic and features some sad if exciting moments like when the hospital staff has to treat a bunch of people caught in a chemical weapon attack.  It’s generally more professionally made than For Sama but can get a little pretentious in its construction in the way that the personal For Sama does not.  On the other hand while both films have their rough moments For Sama has more graphic imagery in it so people sensitive about that sort of thing might be better served by The Cave.  Looking past the comparison though this is still a strong look at life during a modern war and it makes you really really mad at Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.
*** out of Five

November 2019 Round-Up

Knives Out(11/22/2019)

I’m going to keep this one pretty short because talking about this movie at any length without spoilers would probably be a pain in the ass, though I’m not sure I have much to add by spoiling it either.  This is not really a movie that was made to be analyzed so much as experienced.  The film is a modern take on the drawing room mystery from writer/director Rian Johnson, who has become a rather polarizing figure after the release of his Star Wars film The Last Jedi.  I wasn’t one of that film’s fans and had never really been won over by his previous films either; the guy is certainly a skilled technical filmmaker but he has a certain attitude and sense of humor that irks me.  He’s part of a post Joss Whedon generation of filmmakers who embrace a certain brand of snark and cynicism and who seem to make movies that riff on cinematic conventions like they’re above it all.  To some extent that’s still the problem here, but before we get into that let’s focus on the positive: the mystery at the center of this movie is very well constructed.  I won’t get into too many details on this but the movie does a fairly clever thing where it reveals things about the central murder earlier than you expect and sort of adjusts what you view as the film’s central question.  So there’s a sturdy skeleton holding the movie together but I’m a bit more mixed about how Johnson chooses to flesh things out from there.  Much of the film is over the top, and to some extent it should be as a slightly heightened tone is necessary in order to make audiences go along with some of the film’s more outlandish plot twists but some of these quirks annoyed me more than they charmed me.  In particular I really did not like Daniel Craig’s character or the ludicrous Southern accent he adopts.  I also thought that a character trait involving honestly through regurgitation was pretty stupid and other elements like the décor of the murder victim’s wacky house didn’t really work for me.  That said, some of Johnson’s jokes do land better than that and I don’t want to suggest that any of this was enough to completely wreck the movie for me as I did ultimately enjoy it quite a bit for what it does right and I suspect I’ll be in the minority about the bits I didn’t.

*** out of Five

 

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood(11/25/2019)

You know those magazine articles that are meant to be profiles of famous people but instead of just printing the Q and A from whatever interview was conducted for it the writer instead decides to pad the thing out by describing every detail of their meeting with said actual interesting person along with some other naval gazing nonsense about how said famous person’s work fits into the writer’s own life?  I hate that format.  The new movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is about the creation of one of those articles and in many ways it also plays out like one of them.  The film is being advertised as a movie about the famed children’s TV personality Fred Rogers as portrayed by Tom Hanks and I suspect many audiences are going to go into it expecting something along the line of a biopic but that’s not exactly what this movie is.  Rather than being a movie that was truly about Rogers the film is about an Esquire journalist with daddy issues who met with Rogers in 1998, skeptical about how interested he’d be in the man, only to find himself won over by Rogers as the TV host Mary Poppinsed his way into the reporters life to solve all his personal problems.

I do understand the instinct to go against a more traditional biopic format for this.  A movie that’s closer to a traditional biopic format would have probably fallen into cliché and the movie also probably would have fallen short of last year’s documentary about the same subject matter  Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which already provided a pretty ideal primer for Rogers’ life and philosophy for those who want it.  So I certainly didn’t want them to do that but the approach they did go with didn’t work for me either.  The reporter in question, played by Matthew Rhys, just did not interest me and I’m not sure that the scenes with Rogers work all that well either.  Tom Hanks would seem to be the natural choice to play Rogers given that he is himself a nationally beloved figure but he’s a bit young to be playing Rogers (who would have been 70 years old in 1998 and about four years away from death) and something about the way he imitates Rogers’ voice is… unsettling.  The audience is clearly supposed to be won over by Rogers’ pleasant ways but much of the film had a slightly opposite effect on me.  It sort of makes Rogers seem like a very strange person who would have been a real pain in the ass to actually try to speak with as an adult.  I’m sure some of that is intentional and meant to reflect the protagonist’s frustrations, but I’m not exactly sure where there’s supposed a switch where his demeanor is supposed to flip from being weird to being charming because it never really happened for me. Ultimately I’m not sure there was much of anything this movie could have done to work for me, last year’s documentary kind of hit the limit of my interest in this guy and a scripted movie on top of that just doesn’t seem necessary.

** out of Five

October 2019 Round-Up – Part 2

Marriage Story(10/19/2019)

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

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

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

 

Pain and Glory(10/22/2019)

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

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

 

Terminator: Dark Fate(10/31/2019)

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

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

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

September/October 2019 Round-Up – Part 1

Hustlers(9/16/2019)

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

***1/2 out of Five

 

Monos(10/6/2019)

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

*** out of Five

 

Gemini Man(10/10/2019)

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

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

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

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

** out of Five

August 2019 Round-Up

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

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

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

 

Good Boys(8/16/2019)

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

 

Luce(8/18/2019)

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

 

Ready or Not(8/21/2019)

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

 

Blinded by the Light(8/25/2019)

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

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

July 2019 Round-Up

Maiden(7/13/2019)

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

 

Crawl(7/17/2019)

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

 

The Farewell(7/21/2019)

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