The Post(1/15/2018)

It used to be that Steven Spielberg was pretty much exclusively “the blockbuster guy” and when he made a relatively small movie (emphasis on “relatively”) like The Color Purple or Empire of the Sun that was considered to be something of a novelty.  For the first thirty years of his career that was pretty much the case and he’s make one “movie for grownups” for every three crowd pleasing blockbusters.  But then something seemed to change about ten years ago.  He was still making blockbusters, or at least attempted blockbusters, but somewhere along the way the “small” movies started to become more successful than the big ones.  In fact it could be argued that, if you count Lincoln and Munich in with the “small” Spielberg movies, he actually hasn’t made a well-liked and fondly remembered blockbuster since 2005’s War of the Worlds.  That isn’t to say he’s fallen on his face when he has tried to work on a bigger canvas: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull certainly made money even if it was only through name recognition, The Adventures of Tintin has its fans even though there’s a good chance you forgot it existed until I just mentioned it, and War Horse was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar despite seemingly no one caring about it.  Then last year he made a truly dismal attempt at speaking to the youth of America with The BFG, an oddity which to me is plainly the worst movie he’s ever made and which was rightfully ignored at the box office.  Meanwhile his smaller movies like Bridge of Spies and the aforementioned Lincoln were quietly triumphant little movies than one could hardly level a single complaint towards despite not necessarily setting the world on fire.  His latest film, The Post certainly seems to be sitting in that category and sure enough it seems a lot more on target than his attempts at popcorn cinema.

The Post tells the story of the release of the Pentagon Papers from the very specific perspective of the Washington Post newsroom.  After a short prolog where we witness Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) becoming increasingly disillusioned with American progress in Vietnam before deciding to break into the RAND corporation’s locked files and making photocopies of Robert McNamara’s controversial secret study of the war. From there we cut to Washington where Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), the heir to the Washington Post Company, is planning to take the newspaper public in order to give it a more prominent place in American news culture.  That is of course informed by the way the Post is something of a second fiddle publication compared to The New York Times and their competitiveness with that esteemed “paper of record” increases when it’s learned that they’ve obtained Ellsberg’s leaked documents and are beginning to publish them.  Editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sends his people out to compete, including Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) who manages to track Ellsberg down and obtain a copy of the Pentagon Papers, but when the courts rule against the Times the prospect of publishing their own stories based on the papers launches a lot of existential questions for everyone at the paper about what duty the press has to stand up to government that’s attempting to cover up its own mistakes.

The main talking point about The Post is how topical it is.  The screenplay was most likely written with connections to Edward Snowden in mind but it was purchased by Sony in the October of 2016 and production didn’t start on it until late May of 2017 after some re-writes in the ten preceding weeks.  As such this is in many ways the first truly post-Trump film to be made by a major filmmaker and everyone involved clearly knew this and leaned into it while still keeping things pretty strictly allegorical.  Specifically the film seems to be a rebuke of Donald Trump’s insistence on discarding any criticism against him as “fake news” and his rather Nixonian interest in obstructing the investigations into his dealings through firing people.  These connections to today are real and they’re probably intentional, but given the anger that the Trump presidency has engendered I’m not sure that its stance is going to be strong enough to really impress #TheResistance.  The film also ties into the debates about gender that have been going on through the Meryl Streep character, who is a woman of a fairly pre-Feminist mentality at the film’s beginning who finds her voice and steps up over the course of the film.  Again, that’s a neat little message but compared to the current discourse it isn’t exactly a revolutionary observation.

Ultimately The Post probably works best if you set the modern politics aside and just look at it as a sort of morality thriller.  Throughout the movie the characters are scrambling to both get their hands on the Pentagon Papers and determine what to do with them once they have them.  Spielberg does a pretty solid job of presenting all the parties involved through his all-star cast and explaining their relevance.  And when the characters do start debating the ethics of using the papers and the risks it poses to the paper it does become pretty thrilling and Spielberg does a good job of juggling these weighty discussions with the excitement of the journalists sorting through the papers and putting a story together.  Occasionally these discussions dip into being a bit on the nose, but not too far as to be a huge problem.  Really it’s a pretty hard movie to have many major complaints about but it’s also not necessarily something that knocks your socks off. That’s especially true within the high standard set by Steven Spielberg’s body of work.  Even when compared to his recent dramas I certainly wasn’t as impressed by it as I was with Lincoln and I’m not sure I’d even say I liked it as much as Bridge of Spies, which increasingly stands out as a pretty strong piece of work despite having the same “good but not novel” problem that The Post suffers from… but then again maybe this is only unexciting because Spielberg makes it look too easy.  I wouldn’t dissuade anyone who’s interested in this movie from seeing it, it delivers what it promises quite well, but I will say that there are other movies out right now that aim higher.


Home Video Round-Up: 1/14/2018

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (1/1/2018)

Rumble was a surprisingly high profile documentary which sought to examine the contributions of Native Americans in the development of rock and roll.  If the film’s aim was to prove that the Indian influence was central to the genre I can’t say it was overly convincing.  It’s best argument comes fairly early on when it looks at the Indian populations that were in the south which intermixed with the African American population and may have helped influence early roots music and blues.  There’s something to that argument, but most of the rest of the documentary consists of highlighting the careers of a couple of important artists like Link Wray who were indeed important rock artists but whose heritage doesn’t strike me as being overly central to their music and the mere fact that just about every major Native American in rock can seemingly be chronicled in one movie kind of works against the movie’s thesis.  In theory you could probably make a compelling argument that just about any ethnic group has a claim to rock and roll if you cherry pick people from the history of the form and the fact that a certain percentage of its most famous participants have happened to be Indians shouldn’t be that much of a shocker.  That having been said, if you view this less as an argumentative essay and more as simply a collection of interesting little Behind the Musics it works a lot better.  It’s got a very strong collection of talking heads and some of these stories are pretty genuinely interesting in and of themselves.

*** out of Five

Logan Lucky(1/6/2018)

I’ve never really been the world’s biggest Steven Soderbergh fan.  The dude has made some great movies but I don’t really get why he still manages to draw as much praise as he does when he makes mediocrities like Side Effects and Haywire.  Similarly I was pretty surprised that the movie that caused him to come out of his (admittedly probably doomed) retirement was this rather fluffy riff on his “Oceans” movies.  Those Oceans movies were successful firstly because they were well staged elaborate heist movies and secondly because they reveled in this extreme Rat Pack style Hollywood glitz.  Logan Lucky promised to be the opposite of that: an elaborate heist movie about poor West Virginia “rednecks” and it does more or less deliver on what it promises… but why would you want that?  Let’s face it, Channing Tatum and Adam Driver are no George Clooney and Brad Pitt as far as star power and given that that Oceans formula was already running out of steam I don’t know that this was enough to jump start it.  There’s enough entertainment here to make this worth streaming or something on a lazy Saturday but let’s hold Soderbergh to a slightly stronger standard than this.

*** out of Five

LA 92 (1/7/2018)

This is the second L.A. riots documentary I’ve seen this year, although I think it actually came out first and I think most people would have seen it before Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982–1992, which is the more straightforward of the two and the one more interested in providing standard context.  This documentary has no talking heads, no narration, and minimal title cards; it’s instead edited together entirely out of news reports and home video footage from the era.  Together this footage does put together a pretty clear narrative and gives a pretty good portrait of how the riot occurred and how it affected various people.  There really isn’t a whole lot to say about it, if that description sounds interesting to you you’ll mostly get what you’re promised.  I’m not sure I would have been as interested in it if I had been old enough to have watched all this stuff on the news back in 1992 but with a lot of it being relatively new to me it certainly felt like a unique look at what was actually a pretty extreme moment in recent American history.  Certainly a more daring and visceral movie than Let it Fall, but maybe brings a little less new information to the table, both will work depending on what you’re looking for.

***1/2 out of Five

Lady Macbeth (1/13/2018)

Despite its title the new film Lady Macbeth is not a retelling of Shakespeare’s play so much as it’s a new story with the “Lady Macbeth” archetype at its center and with a similar fatalism to the famous play. Set in 19th Century England the film depicts a woman who’s forced into a pretty bad situation at the hand of her psycho husband and his doubly psychotic father and responds with a touch of psychopathy of her own.  It’s a pretty dark little piece of work, like if Neil LaBute trying to make Downton Abbey.  The film is also notable for placing a number of black actors into its period England setting.  This isn’t race blind casting, these are characters of color and I’m not sure how anachronistic this is or isn’t but it does bring something to the table that we don’t normally see in movies like this.  I’m not sure if all of this ultimately amounts to a whole lot more than a sort of “Black Mirror” style nihilism minus the technology but the performances are quite good and it’s an interesting exercise just the same

***1/2 out of Five

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (1/14/2018)

The title “Small Enough to Jail” is a reference to the phrase “Too Big to Fail,” which is invoked because the documentary covers the prosecution of the one and only baking institution which faced charges in relation to the 2008 financial crisis: a tiny consumer bank operating out of New York’s Chinatown called the Abacus Federal Savings Bank.  The film is clearly on this bank’s side and views them as a folksy “American Dream” operation beset by a government investigation that is unfair at best and a discriminatory witch-hunt at worst. To its credit the film does feature interviews with the people from the District Attorney’s office, which is kind of rare in these kind of documentaries, though I do have my suspicions as to how much of those interviews are lost in the edit.  By the end of the film I’m not entirely convinced of the bank’s innocence, in part because I know that in the mortgage industry it’s very easy to do some bad stuff without really thinking about it that way, but I do have reason to believe that they weren’t trying to run some kind of mass scam.  Of course technical guilt and innocence probably isn’t what director Steve James is most interested in here so much as the question of whether it’s fair that this is the institution that’s being gone after.

***1/2 out of Five

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia – The Goonies (1985)

I’m a millennial, a “90s kid” if you will.  I was born very late in the 80s but came of age in the 90s and experienced all the “90s kid” stuff like Nickelodeon cartoons and N64 games that the Buzzfeeds of the world have made into hallmarks of that generation.  Right now the world exists to serve 90s kids and their nostalgic whims, but that hasn’t always been the case.  When I was first coming of age as a pop culture enthusiast in the mid to late 2000s the online discourse and the podcasts were being run by the Gen X 80s kids and that meant that I had to put up with a bunch of delusional 20 somethings who had a habit of saying with a straight face that all sorts of lame sounding kids movies from their Reagan-era childhoods were these legitimately great films, which I was always skeptical about.  To be clear, there are plenty of things from my own childhood that I have nostalgia for but which I don’t sit around claiming that I still think the likes of Jumanji, The Sandlot, and Three Ninjas are cinematic classics just because I liked them when I was 7.  However, there were a lot of movies that these Gen Xers wouldn’t shut up about which I never really saw and which I wasn’t really in much of a position to push back against.  My new skeptical series will seek to change that.

My plan is to do one of these analyses every calendar month in 2018 and treat each one of these like it’s a round in a boxing match.  If the movie doesn’t hold up and indeed was not worthy of all this retrospective praise I’ll score the round for myself but if the movie ends up surprising me and really does seem like something worth remembering I’ll score the round to the gen Xers and if I feel really strongly one way or another I’ll give out an 8/10 round if need be.  Then at the end of the year I’ll take a look at the final score to prove “scientifically” if the soul of the 80s and early 90s is worth saving.  Now, to do this fairly I’m sticking exclusively to movies that people of this era actually hold up as good movies still rather than movies like Red Dawn or The Wizard which these people actually keep in perspective or like ironically.  Additionally, I’m only looking at movies I haven’t watched before so there are plenty of movies like The Never Ending Story and The Karate Kid which would sort of fit in with the spirit of this series but which won’t be present simply because they aren’t new movies for me.  Also I want to be clear that, light hearted boxing metaphor notwithstanding, I am hoping to be pleasantly surprised by what I see with these movies and I’m not trying to just hate them for comedic effect.

The Goonies (1985)

When I first came up with this series I knew the movie I wanted to start with was The Goonies as it’s a movie that would seem to exemplify exactly the kind of misplaced 80s nostalgia I’m trying to take aim at.  It’s a movie that some people absolutely swear by.  A poll of actors once placed it in the top 100 movies of all time and it was recently actually selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.  It’s also a movie that gets quoted a lot and I seem to see all kinds of merchandise with catch phrases like “hey you guys” and “goonies never say die” written all over them.  And yet it’s also a movie that tends to leave adults watching it for the first time fairly cold.  It’s a movie that generally gets lumped in with the cannon of actual good Spielbergian movies of the 80s like Back to the Future and Poltergeist and yet of all the well like Spielberg productions of the time I was pretty oblivious to it when I was growing up.  I could never avoid movies like E.T. or Raiders of the Lost Ark even if I wanted to, but The Goonies fandom always seemed a little less mainstream, at least until years later when the nostalgia set in.  For a while I assumed it was more of a cult film no one picked up on until later, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case, it was a box office hit in 1985 but for whatever reason there was never a sequel and it never got turned into a merchandising bonanza until later.

Obviously this is another one of those 80s movies about groups of children who ride around towns on bikes, which is a dynamic we’ve seen called back to a lot in a number or recent projects like Super 8, It, and “Stranger Things.”  Unlike those copies, this original seems less interested in tapping into nostalgic memories about what childhood summers were like and more interested in giving its young audience the group of wacky friends they wish they had but which most adults would find to be a bit of a chore to be around.  This group calls themselves “the goonies” and they apparently have a bunch of rules and traditions that seem a bit unlikely for a group like this to have unless most of their dealings before this were a lot more interesting than I suspect they were.  This group is also a bit too large for its own good.  There are no fewer than seven kids going on this adventure and they don’t really have a lot of time to develop beyond irritating stereotypes.  The villains are also awful.  The Fratellis have sort of a White Heat thing going on where the ringleader is their mother (who sort of looks like Sam Kinison) and two of the most incompetent gangsters this side of Home Alone.

I think the idea behind this movie is that it’s sort of meant to be a visualization of the kind of pretend “adventures” that kids imagine themselves going on when they’re playing.  The movie operates on a kind of “kid logic” where this group of children is a lot more courageous and resourceful than real kids would be and the challenges they face just so happen to align with their exact skillsets.  Certain elements are plainly ridiculous like the odd and impractical inventions that Short Round carries around and uses in the highly specific situations they seem to be designed for.  Then they meet a cuddly dude in a prosthetic suit that saves them and becomes their friend, which is pretty damn weird.  Viewing this as a sort of meta take on childhood imagination is certainly a generous way of viewing this film’s stranger aspects, one that I don’t exactly buy even though I’m positing it.  I might be more willing to run with this if the film had found a way to tip its hand a little more, but either way the fact remains that this is kind of an irritating thing to watch if you’re older than twelve.  I think what makes the movie feel so weird is that it actually as decent production values.  These are certainly expensive looking sets and Richard Donnor certainly makes the movie look good, but all these high production values kind of set you up to expect something a little more from the movie itself.

To the Scorecard:

I don’t think this movie really works, but it’s not painful.  If this wasn’t one of the more popular and talked about of these 80s movies it might have been a semi-pleasant surprise just because it looks good and clearly inspired a lot of other things (Barb from “Stranger Things” is clearly inspired by Stef), but the movie certainly doesn’t live up to its popularity.  More than anything it’s just a very strange movie for something that’s trying to be as mainstream as it is.  So, in the first round Gen X nostalgia puts up a slight better fight than expected but not enough to win the round.

Phantom Thread(1/13/2018)

Paul Thomas Anderson is in an elite group of directors right now, the league of directors whose every movie seems like it will be a potential classic long before we’ve so much as seen a trailer for it.  The qualifications for this tier of excellence are nebulous, almost based more on mystique than anything.  It isn’t necessarily a matter of having a perfect track record, Anderson himself is actually coming off of something of a failure given that his last movie Inherent Vice proved to be more of a curiosity than a classic.  It also doesn’t necessarily have to do with the quantity of great movies you have to your name.  The Coen Brothers, for instance, have made more than enough amazing cinema to seemingly be in this club and yet I doubt even the most optimistic of Coen brothers fans to have been expecting Hail Caesar to have been any sort of classic for the ages.  Really being in this tier is mostly a matter of seeming like the kind of filmmaker who does not mess around, someone who seems like he is swinging for the fences every time and who also has the stats to back up such cockiness.  Mike Leigh, for example, has hardly made a single bad movie and yet I wouldn’t necessarily put him in this company for the simple fact that his movies are sneaky in their quality and aren’t necessarily the kinds of things you anticipate months ahead of time despite his track record.  Scorsese is probably in this club, so is Tarantino, Malick was in the club before his quality control went out the window with his last couple of projects, Christopher Nolan is probably in this club despite sort of operating in more of a populist lane than some of these guys, Alfonso Cuaron probably would be in the club if he worked a bit more often.  Of course being in this club has its downsides as it can create some very specific expectations that not every movie is designed to live up to and there are certainly high expectations for the newest Paul Thomas Anderson film Phantom Thread.

The film focuses in on Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a world renowned dressmaker in London’s haute couture scene during the 1950s.  The House of Woodcock is already at the height of its success as the film begins but Woodcock is aimless in his personal life and has just let an assistant go and is soon on the prowl for a new muse.  Eventually he finds himself in a country diner and spots a waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) and seems immediately smitten, but it’s not exactly clear what he wants from her.  Soon she’s in his employ as a personal assistant and as a model for his dresses, but she’s also living in his house and is soon acting as his lover and muse.  From here the movie largely becomes a mystery of sorts as to what exactly this mysterious man wants from Alma.  This guy is a fashion designer and at one point uses the phrase “confirmed bachelor,” so the possibility that he may be a closeted homosexual is certainly going to be in the back of most audience members’ minds but the truth of what makes this guy tick is a lot more complicated than that.

The filmic reference point for Phantom Thread seems to be, of all things, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca.  That movie is generally not considered one of Hitchcock’s major efforts, in part because the Daphne du Maurier novel it’s based on is a bit higher brow than his usual fare and that sometimes overpowers his interest in suspense.  At its heart Rebecca is something of a mystery, but it’s not a mystery about “whodunit” but more of a mystery as to what the intentions of its male lead’s intentions are.  Like Rebecca this is a movie about a young woman of modest origins who suddenly finds herself courted by a much older and richer man who is sort of mysterious and aloof and it’s not clear if this is a true romance or if this is merely an older man trying to control and possess a younger woman.  There are also shades of Mrs. Danvers in Leslie Manville’s role of Woodcock’s sister Cyril, who acts as something of a business partner and at times seems to have a bit more of an objective eye on Alma.  There are, however clear differences between the two movies and the comparison between the two only really goes so far.  Unlike the narrator in Rebecca Alma is never really seems to be living as much in the shadow of a former lover.  There’s an element of mourning in Woodcock’s life but it isn’t as pervasive.  The big twist from Rebecca also isn’t really here at all and the second half of the movie isn’t really all that analogous to Rebecca at all, so this is less an adaptation and more of a jumping off point that Anderson seems to have used to conceive of the movie.

That this movie stars Daniel Day-Lewis is of course itself an event, like Anderson he is someone who does not mess around.  Day-Lewis’ work here is a bit more subdued than what we’ve come to expect from him recently as he is not doing a major physical transformation like he is in a movie like Lincoln and he isn’t going into the kind of grand theatrics we saw him doing in There Will Be Blood and Gangs of New York.  Instead here he’s characterized by a generally gentle demeanor that often belies his more ruthless actions and his generally controlling personality.  In some ways it almost feels like he’s holding himself back to leave some room for his co-stars, especially Vicky Krieps who is something of a revelation here.  Krieps has been seen in small roles in movies like Hanna and A Most Wanted Man and has apparently starred in a variety of not overly notable European films but this is clearly her most prominent performance to date and she manages to be effectively mysterious throughout.

Throughout awards season I’ve been a little confused as to why Phantom Thread seems to get so many awards despite receiving such positive reviews.  Now that I’ve seen it I kind of get what was going on.  Phantom Thread is a movie that demands respect but repels simple acceptance.  It’s a movie about the lives of two really messed up people and it’s not always easy to relate to either of them or really get a grip on their behavior.  This is very much a film for the arthouse crowd and for people willing to take a deep dive into the weird dynamics of this strange relationship.  There is certainly some interest in the procedural elements of watching this fashion house work but outside of that I don’t think this will have much appeal for the mainstream viewer.  Even for the arthouse crowd the film may seem elusive.  It’s a movie that intrigues you and leaves you looking for answers to questions the movie never really even asks.   Honestly, I think I’m going to need to see this thing a few more times before I’m really going to be in a position to talk about it intelligently, but I certainly liked what I saw.

I, Tonya(1/7/2018)

I am old enough that I remember the O.J. Simpson controversy.  I don’t remember it very well as I was only about seven when the verdict was handed down and was mostly oblivious to its details and its social context, but it was something I knew was going on at the time.  I am not, however, old enough to remember the other scandal du jour of the early 90s: the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan kneecap clubbing affair.  In fact I first heard about the whole incident from a Weird Al Yankovic song called “Headline News” which was a parody of The Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” that described other tabloidy 90s news stories like that kid who got his butt caned in Singapore and that lady who cut off her husband’s wiener.   You’ll note that there was not a word about O.J. in that song, in part because that story involved a double-murder, but also because that delved into some pretty serious aspects of American society which wouldn’t make it terribly suitable for a song parody (dancing Itos notwithstanding).  The Tonya Harding case on the other hand was basically a joke from the beginning and was viewed by the public as little more than a cat fight writ large.  However, like the O.J. story this is being revisited recently in a number of documentaries and articles to see if there was actually something to be mined from it now that the dust has settled and we have some perspective and the latest manifestation of that is the new feature film I, Tonya.

I, Tonya begins with a title card saying that it’s based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” from it subjects.  The main subject is of course Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), who the film follows basically from her first professional skating lesson at the age of four up through the duration of the scandal that would define her.  Throughout her youth she is being driven to succeed by her mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), who paid for Harding’s lessons out of her modest waitress salary and supports her as she rose to the top of her sport.  That would be an incredibly inspiring story if not for the fact that LaVona is otherwise a horrible mother who constantly abuses Tonya verbally and sometimes physically.  As a teenager Harding is frustrated both by her mother’s craziness and the snobbery that’s preventing her from getting good scores at tournaments and this drives her into the arms of Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who provides something of an escape for her despite also being physically abusive and just generally a loser.  She ends up coming in fourth place at the 1992 Olympics and thinks her career is over until she learns that because of a re-allignment the next winter Olympics will be held just two years later.  She believes she’s primed for a comeback… one that will soon be sabotaged by her scheming husband and his nutty friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).

I, Tonya takes the form of a dark comedy and is structured by a series of faux “to the camera” interviews with the various characters which often become voice-over and the on-screen characters also occasionally break the fourth wall and talk to the screen.  A lot of this structure is reminiscent of The Big Short or perhaps even 24 Hour Party People, especially when we get to scenes the characters stop, look at the camera, and says something like “it didn’t happen like this” during scenes where the testimonies of the various principals contradict each other.  But the movie that this most clearly wants to be like is David O. Russell’s American Hustle.  That movie, and other recent movies from Russell, deal with lower class families like Harding’s and have a similar pace and patter to them.  The film certainly paints the “incident” at the center of the film as a hustle gone wrong more than anything and there’s a largeness to all the performances here that certainly matches what we saw from Bradley Cooper, Christian Bale, and Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle.  In fact I’d say it’s trying so hard to be like that movie and Goodfellas that it has an extensive soundtrack which mostly features music from the 70s even though the film is mostly set in the 90s, including certain songs that have become clichés of “70s soundtracks” like “Spirit in the Sky” and “The Chain,” which were both prominently featured in Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

Derivative as the film may be it would be something of a lie to suggest that these techniques that the movie rips off don’t still more or less work.  As a comedy the movie does more or less function effectively with all the film’s colorful characters saying a lot of rather ridiculous things to one another and the film frequently cutting to them in interview form contradicting each other and commenting on certain things and occasionally even breaking the fourth wall.  That the film functions as well as it does as a comedy is surprising given that it covers some rather dark material, namely the domestic violence that occurred between Gillooly and Harding, which could easily come across as rather flippant.  The film has also been criticized for not being overly concerned with what Nancy Kerrigan went through in all of this, which seems a bit unfair as the movie is simply focusing on the more entertaining figures in all of this.  What’s more I’m not sure that the movie is as sympathetic towards Harding as people are making it out to be.  The movie certainly isn’t on Harding’s side when she makes goofy excuses or says wildly un-self-aware things like when she accuses Kerrigan of being the real bad sport in all of this.

There are a lot of movies that I respect more than I like.  They’re movies that I can clearly see doing new and interesting things but which I just don’t really enjoy watching.  This is the opposite of that, it’s a movie I like but don’t really respect.  Its director Craig Gillespie is a guy who can deliver professionally made movies like the Fright Night remake, but he’s clearly not an auteur with a vision and here you can tell that he’s just borrowing from other contemporaries and applying those techniques to a movie that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.  I don’t think it has a terribly clear message to deliver about wealth inequality, domestic violence, or tabloid culture but it sure wants you to think it does.  It does hit those funny notes when it needs to, it does move along at an impressive pace, it’s greatly elevated by its cast, and even when you’re cringing at how un-clever “Barracuda” is as a song choice you still sort of jam to it.  Winter is a time when movies like this get held to a slightly higher standard as we try to parse out which movies are deserve to have their legacies built immediately by awards, and with that in mind I feel the need to knock this thing down a couple of pegs, but it’s also a movie I suspect most moviegoers looking for a good time at a theater shouldn’t be dissuaded from.

Home Video Round-Up: 12/30/2017

Girls Trip (12/13/2017)

Looking back on my old review it appears that I did like The Hangover back in 2009 but I don’t really have overly positive memories of it.  Part of that might simply be because of all the imitators that came in its wake included among them its own sequels and the decent but not great Bridesmaids.  Now almost ten years later we’ve got another one, this time with black women called Girls Trip.  I’ll give Girls Trip this: 2017 has been a horrendous year for mainstream comedy and with competition like Baywatch and Rough Night to go against this probably does look like something special and I don’t think I would call it “bad” but I don’t quite get what all the fuss was about either.  One thing that I found divergent from the usual formula is that in these movies are usually populated by losers, schlubs, or at the very least profoundly average people, which usually helps explain why they act like morons over the course of the movie.  This movie on the other hand is populated by highly successful aspirational symbols including a wealthy publisher and someone who’s on the cusp of being a lifestyle guru along the lines of an Oprah, so their behavior on the trip seems a bit odd.  The film’s ultimate moral about the importance of friendship is also a bit on the nose and sort of kills a lot of the comedy in the last quarter of the movie.  That said the characters are overall enjoyable and there are some amusing points along the way.

*** out of Five

Let it Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992 (12/15/2017)

2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the post-Rodney King L.A. riots and between that and the fact that anger about police violence was very much a big issue again in the last couple of years there was a sort of race to make documentaries about that event.  As such there are two major docs about that event: there’s LA92, which I think is more of a visceral collection of archive footage from the riot, and then there’s this film from director John Ridley which is more interested in delving into the context  of the time and the tensions that led up to the riot.  In fact I was a little surprised there wasn’t more of that given the title.  The 1982-1990 portion is pretty brief and the movie does get to Rodney King and some of the other events that immediately proceeded the riots faster than I expected.  There’s certainly archival footage to be found, but also some pretty good talking head interviews from people who were around at the time including some of the people involved in the Reginald Denny attack, who have become reflective with age.  The film certainly establishes its ties with the present day and is obviously opposed to the injustice that was going on at the time, but it isn’t a fire spitting polemic and is clearly willing to listen to talking heads who occasionally defend some of what the police were doing at the time.  It doesn’t exactly break the mold and isn’t quite the definitive take on this event, but it’s a good overview for those who are interested.

***1/2 out of Five

Patti Cake$ (12/17/2017)

This Sundance hit about an aspiring white female rapper was seemingly set to be the next indie crowd pleaser but then it never really took off.  Seeing the movie I think I get why.  For one thing I think the movie is kind of dated in its understanding of hip-hop.  The kind of lyricism that Patti is bartering is falling out of favor in the trap era and she also seems to have some rather old fashioned ideas of how to break into the industry.  Has this girl never heard of Soundcloud?  Ignoring that there just isn’t a whole lot here that isn’t done better in 8 Mile and Hustle and Flow aside from the fact that Patti Cake$ herself is fairly interesting screen presence.  The basic filmmaking here also doesn’t really come together in a way that makes it stand out.  It’s a little too ugly to feel slick but a little too pretty to feel “raw,” and to some extent that could be said about the whole movie; it’s not a bad movie exactly but it doesn’t have that special quality it needs and frankly it feels like a pretty textbook example of a movie that Sundance made feel more noteworthy than it was.

**1/2 out of Five

Kedi (12/18/2017)

Kedi could be called a sleeper hit and is the fourth highest grossing documentary of the year behind the Inconvenient Truth sequel, I Am Not Your Negro and a Disney documentary about pandas called Born in China.  It probably has the most in common with that last title as Kedi concerns itself with the population of stray cats in Istanbul but it’s also way more pretentious in its presentation.  The movie mostly consists of footage of said cats as well as interviews with various people who have made it their hobby to look after or interact with these cats.  The interviews are mostly a bunch of anthropomorphizing nonsense, I wanted Werner Herzog to show up and knock some sense into these people.  The footage of cats didn’t necessarily strike me unprecedentedly brilliant either though there was some interest in the way it showed what Istanbul was like and there were a few interesting tidbits about how the number of different cat species were brought in by the various ships that docked in the city.  Not a fan of this, or at the very least it’s not for me.  Frankly it felt like little more than the slightest intellectual veneer to justify watching a bunch of cat videos.

** out of Five

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets(12/30/2017)

I clearly remember seeing the trailer for Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and thinking “that’s going to bomb even harder than Jupiter Ascending and John Carter.”  Sure enough that did prove to be the case (although it did do better internationally than Jupiter Ascending).  You’d think that with the Star Wars franchise being the behemoth that it is that it would be easier to get a space opera series off the ground but they seem to just fail spectacularly every single time.  I think the problem is that when these things get made in the era of CGI directors just can’t help themselves and end up making overly busy and frankly kind of gawdy worlds that just become eyesores.  Star Wars and Star Trek were immune from this because they were made during a time when technological limitations forced them to show a little restraint.  The other problem also seems to be that these filmmakers over-think the worlds they’re creating so much that they lose track of just how off-putting they can be to audiences who haven’t been living in them for years and don’t really properly introduce them.  The other other problem is that they’re often being based on these old pulp sources that audiences care a lot less about than the people making the movies, which is part of the problem with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.

Valerian is based on a Franco-Belgian comic book series, the kind of thing Mœbius would have been involved in.  I’ve never read these comic books but the two minutes of googling I did about them suggests to me that the Valerian in them was something of a take on the traditional 50s/60s masculine hero and here they’ve replaced that with Dane DeHaan, who has a much more millennial take on what a hero is supposed to look like.  That’s certainly an idea, but they don’t actually seem to adjust his behavior enough to make it work.  His partner Laureline as played by Cara Delevingne fares a bit better but she doesn’t really have the time to establish herself either and both ultimately end up playing second fiddle to the film’s many other concerns.  The film is filled with interesting visuals, but it’s so jam-packed by these ideas that it feels like overload.  If they wanted to make this they should have started with a much simpler story that would introduce people to this world and these characters.  All that said, I don’t exactly think the movie is terrible and probably wouldn’t even call it bad, at the very least it’s never even a little bit boring.

*** out of Five