Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,

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Pre-Pandemic Panic

Time has no meaning, so I can pretend I posted the batch of movies I watched before time stopped having meaning.

Prince of Darkness: I've wanted to watch Prince of Darkness for years, being a big John Carpenter fan. I had no idea what it was about, but I presumed it was about Satan. And it is about Satan! Among...other things. Man, what a weird fucking movie that mashes up theoretical physics with religious doctrine and also Satan is a vat of glowing green liquid. This is very much a cheesy eighties horror movie, but when you've got a master like Carpenter at the helm, it's much more than a disappointing schlockfest. It's a slow, deliberate movie that takes nearly forty minutes to even explain to the audience—and a group of graduate students—what the hell is going on, and even when all hell finally breaks loose, it maintains that deliberate pace. That simultaneously kept me from feeling visceral tension and enhanced the uncanny and unsettling nature of the proceedings. The slow build actually works to deepen the final apocalyptic horror, and by the end, even though it felt like a bunch of "scary" things thrown together, I admired the ambition of the piece, the ideas Carpenter was playing with. The core premise of this film is both silly and fascinating, and the fact that the script leaves so much unexplained makes it scarier than anything we actually see onscreen. B+

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934): I like The Man Who Knew Too Much as much as the next Hitchcock fan, but I'd never seen the original 1934 version. Sadly, I'd have to agree with Hitchcock's own assessment that it was made by a "talented amateur" rather than a "professional" because that was the exact sense I got watching the movie. It's like a movie play-acting at being a Hitchcock movie, hitting the right beats but never the right notes. For a movie about a couple with a kidnapped child trying to foil an assassination that could start World War II, it's shockingly inert. Maybe they didn't have tension in the thirties, who knows. So much of it feels clumsy and poorly staged, like a climactic shoot-out that's incredibly hard to follow and is basically just the intermittent sounds of bullets. It has its highlights, like the very existence of Peter Lorre, a fun sequence in a dentist's office, a kind of ridiculous chair fight, the opera house scene, and a solid, satisfying ending that calls back to the opening scenes, but overall, it's...fine. B

Aladdin (2019): I've avoided all the Disney live-action remakes on principle, but, goddammit, Aladdin is my favorite, and it's cool that a movie with a (nearly) all-POC cast made a billion dollars, and I heard good things from people I trust, and also have you SEEN Naomi Scott, so I buckled down and watched live-action Aladdin. AND I REALLY LIKED IT?!?! Look, I can't view this film objectively and assess how well the characters and storytelling work to someone who has never seen the original movie, which, to be clear, is obviously superior, but this was never going to surpass the original, all it needed to be was wonderfully charming and thoroughly entertaining, and IT IS. Mena Massoud is a lovable scamp, Naomi Scott is a strong-willed princess, and Will Smith is a fast-talking genie, and it motherfucking works. Sure, Smith isn't the strongest singer, but he does pretty well, whereas Massoud and Scott have got the vocal chops that make "A Whole New World" fantastic in their own way without trying to sound like the original. Sure, Jafar kinda sucks and even the Sultan is kinda blah, but Nasim Pedrad as Jasmine's handmaiden and Genie's love interest because why not is delightful. This movie is colorful and fun and it's got some nice action sequences and the Genie magic is often so visually spectacular (during "A Friend Like Me" especially) that I wish I'd seen this in a theater. What it comes down is you could probably trash this movie for any number of reasons, but none of those reasons are enough to sink it because at its core, it's doing Aladdin and it's doing it right, and also here's Billy Magnussen because we're contractually obligated to have a white dude. It's kind of wild to imagine a reality where an original fantasy film like this got made today and made a billion dollars. This movie put a smile on my face when I needed it. B+

The Lunchbox: I liked Photograph, but, damn, The Lunchbox is even better. Ritesh Batra has a gift for taking quirky rom-com premises and turning them into warm, tender not-quite-romances that evoke a grounded, lived-in Mumbai more than most other cinematic representations of the city. Here, widower accountant Irrfan Khan accidentally starts getting the lunches made by disaffected housewife Nimrat Kaur for her husband, and they start passing notes back and forth and it's adorable. Each one also has a comic foil, like an unseen upstairs Auntie who gives Kaur cooking and relationship advice and an eager new accountant (played by Photograph's Nawazuddin Siddiqui!) who keeps bugging Khan. As in Photograph, Batra doesn't follow the expected path with this story; he's less interested in getting these two together as quickly as possible and more interested in examining how this quiet friendship/flirtation awakens them to changing things about their own lives. There's a wonderful line about halfway through the film that kind of serves as the thesis statement: "I think sometimes we forget things if we don't have anyone to tell them to." The story touches on marriage and aging, with both Auntie and Kaur's mother functioning as caregivers for their ailing husbands and Khan becoming increasingly self-conscious about his own advancing years. It's a lovely movie, and Khan and Kaur give such excellent performances, much of it non-verbal, that you want the best for both of them, individually and/or together. B+

Deathgasm: I was excited for Guns Akimbo already but after watching Jason Lei Howden's debut film, I am even MORE excited for Guns Akimbo because Deathgasm was right up my goddamn alley. A horror-comedy about metalheads who play a song that summons demons to their quiet New Zealand town and at one point they fight demons with dildos sounds like it could be terrible but it's the opposite of that. This movie is cheeky as fuck, with just the right amount of silly self-awareness without winking at the audience. It lovingly mocks metal music and culture in the same way I do (if you're a metal fan who can't accept that metal bands have fucking ridiculous names, well...sorry). Even though it takes almost half the movie for demon mayhem to begin, you don't care because it's so damn charming and you do care about these losers. And once the demon mayhem begins, there's blood and gore and dismemberments galore, all the stuff you came here for, plus some solid jokes and a good amount of heart. The metaphorical kind, not the kind you rip out of someone's chest and then also their intestines fall out. Howden manages to strike just the right balance of hyperactive excess, keeping it cool and kinetic without being incoherent, and at any given point, you can tell that if you think something is just TOO MUCH, MAN...he agrees, and you can roll your eyes with impunity. This movie is such a delight, the kind of movie where metal music can destroy OR save the world. B+

The Edge of Democracy: I am woefully ignorant of the politics and history of most countries outside of the United States, so The Edge of Democracy provided an illuminating look at Brazil through the eyes of Petra Costa, who grew up during the most recent democratic period of a country that apparently alternates between democracy and dictatorship. She chronicles the rise of fall of two presidents, Lula and Dilma Rousseff, both of whom are investigated for corruption but neither of which I left the film feeling were actually corrupt, and also brings in her own personal history, as her parents and grandparents are connected to these stories. This blending of personal and political should have drawn me in, but Costa's narrative wasn't quite engaging enough to penetrate my afternoon sleepiness. It was often hard to follow the events after a while, and this movie is a hair over two hours. So much of this movie is just, uh, politicians doing politics in public, and she doesn't do a lot to spice it up beyond the fact that these people are literally yelling their impeachment votes. Everyone in this movie is very passionate about politics! I appreciated the tragic overarching narrative, however, that presented Brazil—and perhaps the world—as a place where true democracy, if it even existed, was always temporary, and forces would always conspire to take power away from the people. B/B+

Klaus: I heard enough people saying good things about Klaus that the Oscar nomination pushed it over the top. Klaus, as its name implies, is a Santa Claus origin story, but it's a pretty damn clever one, focusing on a layabout postman—Jason Schwartzman channeling David Spade in The Emperor's New Groove—who is forced to a remote island in the North Pole-ish area and required to deliver six thousand letters in a year. Hm, how can he possibly get people to send a bunch of letters? You can see where this is going. I ate up the charming "Han...Solo" nature of the narrative, as different parts of the Santa Claus mythos slowly clicked into place. The rest of it's a pretty mixed bag though, from the story of feuding families that begins with promise but falls apart like the rest of the film in the third act to the almost insultingly undercooked love story with a female character who deserves better. The script's mostly entertaining and cute, though. The real star, however, is the hand-drawn animation that has so much fucking depth it's this perfect hybrid of traditional 2D and modern 3D. It looks so cool, and I hope that the Oscar nominations for Klaus and I Lost My Body inspire a hand-drawn animated feature renaissance since it feels like it's mostly fallen by the wayside outside of Japan. B/B+

Mirai: Kun is a little boy who does NOT like his new baby sister, Mirai, who is taking all the attention away from HIM. Well, he's going to learn to love his sister, dammit, and the person who's going to help him is...his sister. From the future! That's what Mirai means, after all. I wish I were more into Mirai because a movie about a kid who has time-bendy adventures should be totally up my alley, but I could never quite get on this movie's wavelength. Kun is an incredibly realistic portrayal of a child, which is to say he's fucking irritating, and the repetitive structure of "boring real-life stuff" alternating with "random fantasy stuff" didn't keep me engaged because it felt so arbitrary. I couldn't find a throughline to care about, so I kind of stopped caring after a while. Which is a shame because the last half hour is pretty good, with some different and more interesting animation styles and an attempt to tie the movie together thematically in a way that made me realize I probably should have seen what it was doing all along. It's generally very cute and pleasant, and it's occasionally poignant. There's some good stuff in here even if I wasn't really into it most of the time. B/B+

Miss Americana: I jumped on the Taylor Swift train with 1989, listened to her entire discography, saw her on the Reputation tour, and have been listening to Lover, so I was the target audience for Miss Americana, which focuses largely on the Reputation/Lover years of Taylor Swift as a person. Lana Wilson has crafted an intimate portrait of the pop star that allows Swift many a vulnerable moment (usually in front of her mom). While the overarching narrative of the documentary tracks her journey to finding the strength and the drive to speak out on Important Topics, it's loosely structured but not meandering as it hops between mini episodes focused on various aspects of her life. And although Wilson ties the film together with a few recurring scenes of newly filmed Swift expressing herself, she frequently edits together montages that span her whole career—a decade of walking the red carpet or taking the stage or accepting an award. It's a present-day story that carries the weight of the past. And, gosh, it's always a treat to watch the songwriting sessions that show the extent of her collaboration with producer Jack Antonoff, bouncing lyrics and melodies and beats off each other as they work together to find what works best. If you're the kind of person who can't accept that celebrities are people with human emotions and find a level of fakery in everything they do or say, you probably still won't buy any of this as authentic, but I found myself connecting with Taylor Swift as a person as much as I did when I saw her live and she explained the contexts of some of her songs. The documentary doesn't go quite as deep on most things as it could, but what's there is pretty strong and compelling. Obviously, anyone looking for dirt or criticism will be disappointed, but it's a fun, fascinating, and deeply human look at one of the most powerful people in the world. B+

Little Women (1994): I loved Little Women (2019), so I knew Little Women (1994) would suffer by comparison, but I enjoyed it on its own terms while also gaining even more appreciation for Greta Gerwig's version. Director Gillian Armstrong and writer Robin Swicord produced a much more conventional adaptation, and while I continue to remain unfamiliar with the novel, I was struck by the fact that even this version feels like A Series of Events Happening One After the Other. You're just watching the March girls live their lives, and it's quite pleasant because these four young artists are such endearing characters...although holy shit, Kirsten Dunst as Amy is whiny and irritating as shit here, although her irregular verb conjugation is adorable (Samantha Mathis has an appropriately grown-up energy). I still have so many feelings about Jo March (Winona Ryder took a little getting used to early on, but she got better as the movie progressed), I might actually prefer Trini Alvarado as Meg, and Claire Danes kills her big Beth scene. Susan Sarandon should be everyone's Marmee; she's very wise. And, damn, Christian Bale is practically channeling future Timothée Chalamet here. On a structural level, the linear storytelling works fine, though after the time-jump it seems to ignore everyone but Jo for a long stretch. And Jo is clearly the main character, and this allows for a satisfying Bhaer story, but after a first half that really did give each girl some time to shine and develop and have goals and dreams, I would have liked a bit more balance. Overall, it's a solid period piece with charming performances, and the source material is strong enough that I can see why this movie struck a chord. It's just great to see sisters being sisters. Anyway, I'm just happy that the best line from the Gerwig movie is featured in this movie TWICE. B+

The Man Who Knew Infinity: I remember seeing the trailer for The Man Who Knew Infinity and being intrigued but then...never really hearing much about the movie after that. Dev Patel playing Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who was apparently a math pioneer? Sure, tell me more! This is a terribly conventional biopic, but I'm a fucking philistine who enjoys conventional films all the time. Unfortunately, as much goodwill as I was willing to extend the film initially, its stuffiness eventually tried my patience. But it does come alive occasionally, especially when it tries to make these arcane mathematics discoveries accessible to a layperson. I found the central conflict at play compelling but not explored sufficiently enough. While the obvious classism and racism are apparent in the attitudes of educated white men dismissing this uneducated Indian man, the real problem is that Ramanujan works off intuition and the entire discipline of mathematics is based on PROOFS. Enter Jeremy Irons, who attempts to work with him. Their relationship forms the heart of the story, and Irons gets most of the best material. Maybe the real infinity was the white man we affected along the way. Overall, the movie is...fine, which explains why I didn't hear much about it, but I'm glad I now know about this incredibly important figure in mathematics. B/B+

In the Mouth of Madness: After watching The Thing for the second time and Prince of Darkness for the first time—not to mention seeing Color Out of Space—I seized the opportunity to revisit In the Mouth of Madness, which I had the faintest memories of watching as a kid. Sam Neill begins the film in an insane asylum. How did he get there? Well he was trying to find Sutter Cane, an H.P. Lovecraft-esque horror writer with a rabid fanbase. The first step in going mad is to travel to...the fictional town in the book (whose amazing tagline is "If this book doesn't scare you to death, you're already dead"). Nah, it's all a hoax, he sniffs out fraud for a living. Or is it? SURPRISE TENTACLES!! Once this motherfucker gets going, it's pretty fucking great, deliciously creepy with fucked-up creature effects that had me curled up on the couch. This is not nearly as slow as the previous two installments of the Apocalypse Trilogy, and it's having a hell of a lot more fun. I love the blurring of the line between reality and fiction that makes it unclear which informs which, and the base premise of this film is cosmic horror at its best. Early on, a character notes that reality is based on your point of view, but if suddenly the majority becomes insane, then the sane person is the one who's crazy, and that thought is terrifying. John Carpenter is a master of the uncanny, and although there's some nineties schlockiness here, it really got under my skin more and more. It all leads to a delirious, balls-out third act and a glorious mindfuck of an ending. B+/A-

The Ice Storm: I had no interest in The Ice Storm as a teenager because it looked like a boring drama I wouldn't like, but since I started to explore more of Ang Lee's filmography, I thought perhaps I might appreciate it as an adult. But no, it's a boring drama I didn't like. White People Literary Fiction: The Movie! It's got a pretty incredible cast to see all in one place, from veterans like Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, and Henry Czerny to up-and-comers like Christina Ricci, Tobey Maguire, Elijah Wood, and Katie Holmes, plus appearances by David Krumholtz and Allison Janney. It's the 1970s and they're repressed sexually, and I'm supposed to care. I kept trying to find a way into this movie, seize any engaging narrative thread, find a theme that resonated with me, marvel at some cinematography, but the whole movie just left me, well, cold. As ice, you see. The ice is a metaphor. And also a recurring visual motif. The acting is good! The music is nice? I was sleepy. This was not a movie made for me, except for the Fantastic Four references, which made me wish I was watching a movie about the Fantastic Four. B

Russian Ark: I love movies that are shot to look like one long take, but it's even more impressive when the movie actually IS shot in one long take, like Victoria! Or Russian Ark, which...I did not love like I loved Victoria. Russian Ark has an interesting conceit, as it follows a man who's died or become unstuck in time or whatever, it doesn't matter because the point is we see the whole film through this narrator's POV as he goes back and forth through Russian history. The man encounters another such "time traveler," a European, and there's a potentially fascinating dynamic here as they discuss European culture vs. Russian culture, and the European in general is pretty kooky and mildly entertaining. But since I know fuck-all about Russian history, very little of this resonated. It's basically just a tour of an art museum, and occasionally there are a lot of people in period costumes acting out scenes from history. The effect of going back and forth in time as we move from room to room is neat, but I tried to find some meaning in all of this for like an hour before my patience ran out and I couldn't keep giving it my full attention. And of course the last half hour has the most elaborate, visually and aurally engaging scenes in the film, but goddammit, I'm tired of movies burning through all of my goodwill before they give me the good stuff. This is a neat experiment, and it's cool that they pulled it off, but it had even less to offer me beyond that than 1917. B

The Cave: The Cave, though an actual companion piece to Feras Fayyad's previous documentary about the Syrian Civil War, Last Men in Aleppo, works as a spiritual companion piece to For Sama, which also focuses on a woman and a doctor in a hospital, except this time the woman IS the doctor in a hospital! A secret underground hospital called The Cave. This documentary has no real structure that I could discern, which frustrated me, as it's mostly scene after scene of doctors frantically trying to save children's lives. He searched for any sort of connective tissue, and about halfway through, Dr. Amina Ballour laments that she'd rather be hungry and have no food than feel the guilt of eating food when she knows others are going hungry, and it just clicked. She and her team are such incredible human beings to stay and help, to do what they can, to play classical music to soothe wounded souls since they have no anesthetic to soothe wounded bodies. The narration taken from her diaries is poignant and powerful, and I wish the film had used more of it throughout. While there's no real narrative throughline here, there are a lot of strong moments, some devastating and some beautiful. So while it didn't hold my attention the whole time, I appreciate the window into this world and the opportunity to reflect. There's that Mr. Rogers quote that goes around occasionally, "Look for the helpers." This is a tribute to the helpers. B/B+

To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You: I really liked To All the Boys I Loved Before, so I was in for a sequel. To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You is not nearly as good as the first movie, but it still retains much of its charm, even with a new director and frequent Mike Flanagan cinematographer Michael Fimognari, who cinematographed the first movie and also handles the cinematography here and thankfully keeps the film as visually stylish as its predecessor, at times making it look worthy of a larger screen. Romantic comedies don't usually get sequels because the fun is in watching the couple get together, but this film finds compelling and relatable material in the fact that Lara Jean has never been in a relationship before and is supremely insecure about screwing it up. It doesn't help that one of her crushes pops back into her life, but luckily, that guy is just kinda...blah? He's just too perfect and he never seems like a legitimate threat because there's no real chemistry between them even though, on paper, there should be. Surprisingly, the scene that touched me the most was actually one between Lara Jean and...Gen?? What the hell, movie. Anyway, this is a very pleasant rom-com with extra bonus pairings, and even though it doesn't have the hook and spark of the original, it explores the characters in interesting ways and does make me wonder what the conclusion of the trilogy holds. B+

Death on the Nile: I know that Murder on the Orient Express is the more beloved and acclaimed classic Agatha Christie film, but holy crap, Death on the Nile is great! I vastly prefer Peter Ustinov to Albert Finney—not to mention Kenneth Branagh and John Malkovich—as Ustinov, though he doesn't have the fit, well-kept physicality I imagine Hercules Porridge to have, absolutely nails Hercule Poirot's genial and cerebral personality. Director John Guillermin and screenwriter Anthony Shaffer put together a thoroughly enjoyable film that beautifully streamlines a lot of the character stories into comical scenes that exist solely to indicate that everyone on this Egyptian steamer has reason to kill the inevitable murder victim. And of course it's another all-star cast, with friggin' Bette Davis, Mia Farrow, Maggie Smith, Olivia Hussey, and Angela Lansbury among the suspects. It's an utterly charming film, bolstered by I. S. Johar as a boat captain who exclaims things like "Oh, cripes!" and "Goody goody gum drops!" And once the murder occurs, it really takes off, as we get to see Poirot's hypotheses play out onscreen, which fucks with the audience because we know ALL of them can't be true but ONE of them must be true. When he eventually puts all the pieces together, it's very clearly outlined. While its storytelling mechanics are on point, it doesn't quite have the depth of character the book is able to pull off—and the deep humanity that the Orient Express film ends up nailing—so I understand why this isn't held as high in regard, but overall, this is a wonderful classic murder mystery. B+

The Piano: I had high hopes for surprisingly liking The Piano after surprisingly liking Portrait of a Lady on Fire, with which it's been paired on The Next Picture Show, but...the whole time watching The Piano I felt like I'd rather just be watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire again. I didn't know much about it besides "Holly Hunter plays a mute woman who plays the piano, and also baby Anna Paquin is in it," and also I thought it was British. Turns out it's set in 19th century New Zealand! Which means a significant Māori presence, neat. Hunter marries Sam Neill but starts giving Harvey Keitel piano lessons that turn...sexy. But all this piano-related eroticism left me cold since I couldn't really understand why they were into each other at all. I was much more interested in the dynamic between Hunter and her daughter, who also serves as her interpreter, and the relationship Hunter has with her piano, the way she can truly express herself. And, sure, probably all of everything is sublimated into sexual desire, but mostly I was bored. The story is...fine. The performances are good. But I didn't think this was a movie I'd be interested in as a kid, and it's not one I'm interested in now. B

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford: I wonder if all movies should match the length of their titles to the length of their running times like the 160-minute intimately epic Western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This movie, as you may guess, is about the assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford. The titular assassination does not occur for quite a while, however, and writer-director Andrew Dominik takes the time to build up to the crucial moment with many teases. Brad Pitt cuts a suitably mythic figure, and Casey Affleck fanboys his way into his circle, and there's an inherent tension in their every interaction because the audience knows the future they don't. When, exactly, does Ford become the person who will kill James? The narration by Hugh Ross—who I thought was Patton Oswalt the entire time—sounds like excerpts from the audiobook, but it enhances the elegiac tone of the film. I liked the score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis (not that Warren Ellis), and obvs the cinematography by Roger Deakins is a highlight (especially in the train robbery, holy shit), but how much melancholy can one man take, please get to the assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford already. There's a lot of business with the rest of the James gang, and I had trouble keeping track of everyone who wasn't James or Ford, who were the two people whose relationship I wanted more focus on, digging in more, more fiery dialogue, some confrontations, anything to help propel them to the inevitable. I found the post-assassination story very interesting, which in its own way felt like it was supposed to be the meat of the tale. The film certainly addresses the double-edged sword of fame and the creation and destruction of mythic figures, the latter of which is one of my favorite themes to see explored in Westerns. There's definitely a version of this film I would have liked more, but I liked this version too. B/B+

Christine: I love John Carpenter and Stephen King, so you'd think a John Carpenter adaptation of a Stephen King novel would be great, right? Too bad, it's only...decent with some highlights. Bill Phillips's script is a bit of a mess, leaning too far into high school drama without balancing it with enough evil car antics to keep the audience stoked and lacking in believable characters or character development. Keith Gordon goes from sympathetic nerd to unlikable shithead in the span of, like, one scene. That's the power of Christine, baby! There were ways for this story to have a healthy amount of subtext and thematic resonance, perhaps a comment on toxic masculinity as it relates to the red-blood American man's obsession with cars, but it doesn't hit the mark. What does work, however, is Christine herself, especially because unlike in the book (which I haven't read), where the car is possessed by the evil spirit of its former owner, she's simply born b-b-b-b-bad to the bone. And that taps into the type of unfathomable horror that Carpenter excels at portraying, where this sentient hunk of metal that you cannot communicate with just wants to kill people who do it wrong. There's an inherent terror there, and it's pretty remarkable how well the film sells the illusion that this car is driving around on its own and attacking people. Especially with the wonderful special effects of Christine's regenerations, which Carpenter almost didn't put in the movie!! Overall, it's cheesy fun, if not the master in top form. B/B+

Christine: I do not know why Rebecca Hall is not drowning in awards after her tour-de-force performance in Christine. Director Antonio Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich dramatize the final weeks in the life of Sarasota reporter Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself on live television in 1974. Unlike The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, this film does not explicitly tell you what will happen, but it assumes you know and that's why you're watching, to find out what drove her to such drastic measures. And this is Rebecca Hall's movie, through and through, as she gives a deeply nuanced, incredibly compelling performance as a woman struggling with depression—though the word is never mentioned—on top of a whole host of personal and professional issues, from her crush on co-worker Michael C. Hall to her boss's dissatisfaction with her too-positive human interest stories. Hall avoids the usual clichéd portrayals of characters with mental illness, which makes her incredibly relatable, as we see the moments where she's successful as well as the moments where she could use some more support from her family and friends. This is such a well done character study with a few small plot threads that offer the semblance of narrative without feeling artificial, but it's also a criticism of the sensationalism-hungry media that adheres to credos like "If it bleeds, it leads." You could have a hell of a triple feature with this movie, Network, and Nightcrawler. The film builds to the moment you're waiting for, the moment you're dreading, and you realize there's no big Aha, there's no big secret, it's simply the accumulation of everything that's all barreling down until she puts that barrel to her head and—I was basically frozen and numb until the credits rolled. Christine is a powerful film about a tragic figure, and it's sensational without being...sensational. B+/A-

My Life as a Zucchini: I assumed for the longest time that Best Animated Feature Oscar nominee My Life as a Zucchini was the whimsical tale of a boy who gets turned into a zucchini, but it turns out to be the heartwarming tale of a boy NAMED Zucchini who finds love and acceptance at an orphanage after he accidentally kills his alcoholic mother. Fun for the whole family! I loved the distinctive stop-motion animation style, especially the character designs with exceptionally round eyes; there should really be more stop-motion animation, and Claude Barras directs the film in such a way that it could easily have been made as a live-action film but it just...works better this way. The story is a bit slow at first, and I wasn't totally into it beyond "this is cute," but once a new girl arrives for Zucchini to crush on, the plot really kicks off. Except this is hardly a simple childhood romance—the screenplay credited to four writers including Portrait of a Lady on Fire's Céline Sciamma weaves together the stories of an insecure bully and an affectionate policeman in ways that pay off so many little elements set up early on. By the end my eyes were moist at the creation of this found family. B+

Kate Plays Christine: I loved Christine, so naturally I had to watch the other 2016 film about Christine Chubbuck, Kate Plays Christine, a documentary in which Robert Greene follows Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play Chubbuck for a film. A film that does not actually exist. As such, it's kind of a mindfuck in the way it blurs reality and fiction, with many scenes coming off as deliberately staged but others feeling like genuine interviews with real people. I found it utterly fascinating, though, especially the level of research Sheil does in order to understand this woman and the dearth of information she's able to find, as people in Sarasota have mostly forgotten her. It works as both a film about people struggling to understand why this woman killed herself as well as a film about people questioning whether her life—which was only notable because of how it ended—should be dramatized at all. In the second half, the reenactments we see are...pretty bad, especially compared to Christine, so it's a good thing they're not supposed to be a real movie, but I still think Christine is a great movie, perhaps because it takes more dramatic license in order to tell its story. While Sheil is no Rebecca Hall, she's a compelling presence to watch, and her obsession with trying to get into her character both physically and mentally leads to a humdinger of a final scene. Kate Plays Christine is a provocative film where insightful documentary and metafictional commentary collide to leave the viewer with much to think about afterward. B+

Official Secrets: The existence of the movie Official Secrets should not be an unofficial secret. Official Secrets tells the story of whistleblower Katharine Gun, a British intelligence agent who leaked a memo exposing collusion between the U.S. and England to manipulate a United Nations vote to go to war with Iraq. If you like movies about ordinary people standing up to corrupt, unjust governments that make you angry about the actions of corrupt, unjust governments, this is the movie for you. The screenplay by Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein, and director Gavin Hood wastes no time in getting to the leak itself, but this means that a large portion of the first act actually ends up focusing on journalist Matt Smith's investigative reporting in order to publish the story. Lest you think the film attempts to make him out to be the real hero, it definitively shifts back to Keira Knightley's POV afterward, and her attempts to evade capture and then to defend her actions lead to powerhouse scene after powerhouse scene. You want intensity of emotion due to moral conviction? She's got you covered. This woman tried to stop a motherfucking war to save thousands of lives, and she's a goddamn hero. Ralph Fiennes joins the proceedings as her lawyer, so we see this story from many sides. Hood juggles a murderers' row of recognizable British actors and mostly maintains an effective balance, but Knightley really holds it all together. This is a solid political thriller that also includes a reminder of the importance of good copy editing. B+

Sweetheart: I enjoyed J.D. Dillard's indie sci-fi debut, Sleight, but wanted more from it, which is also how I feel about his survival horror follow-up, Sweetheart. Kiersey Clemmons washes up on a deserted island but soon realizes there's a fucking monster around. The first half of this movie has almost no dialogue, and it's just Clemmons try to survive on the island, punctuated by the occasional monster attack. It's handled pretty well, but it doesn't really sustain tension or terror, and it's hard to see what the hell is going on in the dark half the time. The second half finally begins to give us any idea of who she is and attempts to add subtext and thematic resonance to this horror story, but it doesn't really add up. Still, it's nice to see a black woman anchor a horror movie by a black director, and the creature work is pretty solid, visually and aurally (though, admittedly, the monster is a lot scarier when you don't see it fully and clearly). Sweetheart is certainly more respectable than another Blumhouse pic set on a dangerous island, but I wish I found it as satisfying an experience. B/B+

The Fog: I prefer to watch horror movies in the dark, but trying to watch as many movies as humanly possible means I will sometimes watch horror movies on a sunny Saturday morning. So I know The Fog is a great horror movie when the third act of this goddamn thing still left me clutching myself on the couch, terrified out of my gourd. Evil Fog That Brings the Ghosts of Vengeful 19th Century Sailors should be cheesy and stupid as fuck, but they don't call John Carpenter the Master of Horror for nothing. Carpenter and Debra Hill's script wastes no time, opening with a campfire story that sets the mood with necessary exposition and turns the movie into a real American ghost story, and then carefully weaving together the stories of several characters in Antonio Bay, a small town about to pay for its cursed history. The creep factor is high here, and Carpenter mines many low-budget thrills from the ol' Things Moving on Their Own trope. But kudos to the visual effects team for making that fucking glowing fog an unstoppable force of (un)nature and to the lighting team for keeping those sailor ghosts barely visible, a true testament to the less-is-more school of horror. Adrienne Barbeau anchors the whole film with her strong, affecting performance as a radio station owner broadcasting from a lighthouse, protective of the sailors, the town, and her son, and it's really her terror that fed my own terror. Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis don't really make sense as characters, but they're quite endearing; while I felt the film was initially suffering from following too many characters, it paid off when they all converged at the end. That's always such a narrative thrill! John Carpenter may not think much of this one, but he's wrong. You did good, man. B+/A-

3 Women: I finally watched Persona after having seen several Persona riffs, so of course I wanted to watch yet another Persona riff, Robert Altman's 3 Women. Which mostly focuses on 2 women: Sissy Spacek, meek as hell, and Shelley Duvall, who won't shut up. They meet at work and then become roommates because for some goddamn reason, Spacek thinks Duvall is the bee's knees after knowing her for, like, an hour. What follows is the expected tale of obsessive identity transference, which I enjoy on a base level, but oh boy, it was often tough to remain engaged with all this naturalistic, mundane dialogue (though it sometimes made me chuckle) and constant shots of a mural that clearly had some sort of metaphorical significance that escaped me. That mural is painted by low-key Woman #3, who gets very little focus, so her importance in the climax and ending kind of threw me since I mostly cared about the relationship between Spacek and Duvall. Or maybe the real third woman was the identities we assumed along the way. Luckily that ominous clarinet score does a lot of work in creating an unsettling atmosphere. I liked the general narrative throughline, slow as it was, and Spacek is especially good—bizarre that Duvall received more accolades, and as Actress when I thought Spacek was clearly the main character and Duvall would be Supporting Actress—but oh boy, this eventually got really weird. B/B+

Love: I sought out more William Eubank films after digging Underwater, and I liked what little I'd heard of Angels & Airwaves, so I was intrigued by Eubank's debut, Love, produced and scored by the band. But this is far from a series of music videos loosely tied together to promote an album. It's arthouse sci-fi that attempts to fuse a Civil War-era discovery of a mysterious object, the story of a failed Patrick Wilson clone going mad from space station isolation, and random testimonials from strangers about the POWER OF LOVE AND HUMAN CONNECTION. Look, stories about the power of love and human connection are my jam, but this movie is pretentious garbage. There's no denying the film LOOKS great, and there are some striking images and edits, and, yeah, the music is moody and uplifting, but Christ, this thing is simultaneously incoherent and blunt as fuck. It's trying so damn hard to emulate far better and more effective films like 2001 and Moon, but it's the cinematic equivalent of listening to your philosophy major college roommate get high and be like, "There are no seasons, man...only TIME. B-

The Signal: I wanted to check out William Eubank's previous films after digging Underwater, and while Love was a bust, The Signal was much more what I wanted to see: a suspenseful sci-fi thriller. Three MIT students (including Olivia Cooke!) chase down a mysterious SIGNAL to an abandoned cabin in Nevada...and end up in some sort of government facility because...aliens?? The script by William and Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio keeps the audience as in the dark as protagonist Brenton Thwaites, but it's okay since Laurence Fishburne is in Morpheus mode, delivering cryptic pieces of exposition. After a first act that feels like a typical indie road trip drama and a second act that feels like a claustrophobic mindgame, the third act pulls out all the stops and turns into yet another kind of movie that's so far away from where we started it's kinda glorious. Yet Eubank maintains the same grounded tone throughout no matter how preposterous the proceedings, purportedly telling a story about the importance of human emotion that could have used a little more of the bluntness of Love to penetrate the various sci-fi plot twists. The final minutes of this movie, holy shit. I was just mouthing WHAT THE FUCK to greet those ending credits. The Signal is well made, with a great score and strong performances (though Cooke is sadly underused), and it's certainly worth a look if you're a fan of sci-fi movies that swing big even if they don't quite hit. B/B+

Next up: sheltering in place means I can watch a shitload more movies, oh boy.
Tags: making the grade, movies

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