Well, this all kinda fell apart last year, didn’t it?
As is obvious, I’ve been radio silent on this shiny “new” blog since March, with the exception of a couple of YouTube cross-posts in April & May. I don’t think I need to tell you it was a rough, miserable 2020, even for folks like me who still have a job and their health (more or less) — and a lot of the stressors of that year still linger into the new one. But here we are, with the invitingly stark, blank canvas of 2021 looming ahead, and I’m going to take this opportunity to try ever-so-hard to get back into the groove of things here and start Doing Stuff again, starting with finishing out this particular project, doing capsule reviews of everything I saw in 2019 (to be followed shortly thereafter by my round-up of 2020) — and boy, if my memories of some of these flicks were scattered this time last year, now it’s a whole ‘nother year later! This should be fun!
A Simple Favor (2018, Dir. Paul Feig)
Here’s one I went kinda back and forth on seeing in the theater back in ’18, and then spent a fair chunk of the next year not sure whether or not I wanted to part with cash for it on disc, even for ten bucks — and then it turned up on Amazon Prime Video for No Extra Money, so I finally took the plunge. And I liked it! I see it described as a mystery-slash-black comedy, and my recollection of it is more that it’s a mystery that just happens to have some great funny moments among its wild tonal shifts. Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie Smothers, a sweet single mom with an artsy-craftsy YouTube channel who befriends wealthy, curt, and eccentric Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), a fellow mom with a job in the fashion industry. Stephanie offers to look after her unlikely friend’s son when Emily is indisposed — and then as one such stay over unexpectedly extends into the evening, Emily becomes impossible to get a hold of. Stephanie is forced to turn detective to get to the bottom of what exactly happened to her friend, and that’s where a lot of the humor comes from — funny, mousy Kendrick, as this character, doing the investigating. Also, a lot of the laughs follow from how absurd the tale’s twist become — laughs of astonishment & disbelief as revelations get stranger and stranger. I’m glad I gave it a chance, and if there weren’t a hundred other things I wanna watch that I’ve not seen before, or that are far less fresh in the memory, I’d happily sit through this again.
The Old Man & the Gun (2018, Dir. David Lowery)
Robert Redford’s acting swan song, where he portrays real life bank robber & habitual prison escapee Forrest Tucker — the last in a long line of charming rogues Redford has played on film. This is another one I’d have liked to have seen in theaters, but in the end I borrowed the blu ray from my mom. It’s one of those movies an actor does late in his career (often his career, rarely hers) that feels like a possible late-in-life ending to so many of the characters he’s played before. Good flick, but mostly worth watching to see Redford do his thing one more time.
The Other Side of the Wind (2018, Dir. Orson Welles)
It’s always fascinating when a legendarily unfinished film finally sees the light of day. As I’ve been saying a lot lately due to all the hullaballoo around the “Snyder cut” of Justice League arriving on HBO Max later this year, a product like that or The Other Side of the Wind isn’t really the movie we’d have gotten were circumstances different when the film was originally being made — but in this case the seams only really show at each end, and even in the case of the conclusion it’s mostly just the credits. The Citizen Kane director’s final completed film chronicles the last day in the life of fictitious old Hollywood director, Jake Hannaford, played by prolific real-life film director John Huston. He’s holding a big shindig for his 70th at which he’s also screening his latest, unfinished, film — a strange, spare, violent & sexy flick that, in real life, is a clear parody of the edgy, experimental work coming out of Europe back when this was being filmed. The story is told in a quite modern, “found footage” style — the folks buzzing around are all either filmmakers or reporters, so it makes sense for there to be so many cameras around capturing the chaos that ensues — schmoozing, gossip, pointed conversations, accusations, and fights. It does wonderfully evoke the feeling of an all-night party that at once goes on too long but that you kind of wish didn’t have to stop; I do wonder if a small amount of that, for me, was knowing that when it ended that would be it — the gift of a “new” Orson Welles film, completed in my lifetime, would be over. Definitely worth sitting through for the spectacle of Welles once again being several steps ahead of his contemporaries. I also think it’d probably double-bill well with the following year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which mines similar territory albeit from decades removed.
The Favourite (2018, Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Here’s one I was surprised to see in the local theater — a dark comedy about two women jockeying for power in the court of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman, who won an Oscar for her work here) with far more lady-on-lady sex than I expect to see when I stroll into the mall cinema here in li’l ol’ Southeast Kansas. As our story opens, Rachel Weisz’s Sarah Churchill is Queen Anne’s most trusted advisor, but soon Sarah’s young, poor cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) enters their lives. She’s hired on as a scullery maid, but soon her knowledge of herbs proves beneficial to the ailing Queen’s health and she is given an official position in the court. This proves not to be enough for Abigail and as Sarah manages Britain’s war with France, Abigail goes to war with Sarah to attain the film’s title role. A very funny and lavishly realized tale of how politics and proximity to power eats away at a person’s soul, The Favourite is another flick I may well make the time to revisit later in 2021.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018, Dir. Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsay, & Rodney Rothman)
That said, here’s a movie I could well just put into the blu ray player tomorrow. I remember the reason I saw this in 2019 (for a third time in theaters) was that I and my two closest friends ’round here were headed to see Dragon Ball Super: Broly and, uh, two of us didn’t buy tickets ahead of time. I was not expecting that to be so huge that it would sell out in Joplin, Missouri. So one person got to see the Dragon Ball movie, and the other two of us saw Spider-Verse. What is there left to say about it here in 2021? One of the most visually striking 3D animated films made by a major studio ever, with a script that brings multiversial superhero crises back to down to a human scale in a way that the comics rarely do. I love how the original Spidey of Miles’s dimension (Chris Pine) is a glossy, almost Superman-level revered version of the character unlike what we usually see, giving Miles (Shameik Moore) some HUGE shoes to fill, while Jake Johnson’s Spidey is honestly far closer to the character that was running around in the ol’ 616 Marvel Universe when I was growing up than we see in most media adaptations. The focus on the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) and a very normal, human loss in his life that leads him to build his dimension-breaching supercollider is a smart switch from the focus of the Spider-Verse shenanigans in the comics (and I will be extremely disappointed in all involved if boringly-vampirey comics Spider-Verse villains Morlun and the Inheritors wind up the focal villains of the sequel). Anyway, yes, this is probably the best superhero flick of the 2010s and it’s a shame that to a certain extent its legacy is going to be further normalizing dozens of Spider-folks running around at a time in Spider-Man media rather than pushing the visual boundaries of computer animated films and superhero cinema.
Vice (2018, Dir. Adam McKay)
Funny, this was one of the other options during the Dragon Ball Super screw-up, but I shot that down because I wasn’t feeling like spending another two hours with Christian Bale’s Dick Cheney so soon (I’d seen it with my folks a month prior). Like McKay’s The Big Short, Vice is an amusingly narrated (here by Jesse Plemons) historical drama following the rise of Cheney from his arrival on the political stage as a White House intern under Nixon, through his years as the most powerful Vice President in history, and finally to the shambles of the late years of W.’s administration. It’s an effective dramatization that filled in some gaps in my understanding of how we wound up where we did in the first decade of the 21st century, and I feel like in 2018 we had just enough distance from the Bush years that it only slightly stung watching Cheney, Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell), and the rest of these creeps put into place policies to enrich their friends and further destabilize the Middle East. Bale’s transformation over the course of the film into the Cheney I know from the news is eerie, and Sam Rockwell’s performance as George W. Bush is probably my favorite take on my third least favorite U.S. President of my lifetime. Entertaining enough, and it strikes me as a good jumping off point for digging into the actual history that underpins so much of where politics are today.
Alita: Battle Angel (2019, Dir. Robert Rodriguez)
The long-in-development-hell Hollywood adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm, better known in the West as Battle Angel Alita, finally hit theaters early in 2019, though not with its original director at the helm; James Cameron had been attached to direct for most of the previous twenty years, but during the past decade his focus has been on his Avatar sequels, which led to him finally passing the baton to Rodriguez. Set in a ruined but still technologically advanced future, Alita opens as Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers a discarded, damaged female cyborg in a junk pile. He fixes and brings the girl (performed via motion capture by Rosa Salazar) back online and names her Alita. While she has no memory of her past, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that this is one of those stories where it it turns out her mysterious background ties into the history of why the world is so messed up. Until her mysteries are unlocked, however, we’re learning about the world as it is now through her eyes — hardscrabble lives doing grunt work for a powerful elite personified by Mahershala Ali’s Vector, who himself is just a front for the largely unseen Nova, who lives above all in the nigh-unreachable city of Zalem. Alita is an enthralling tour de force of magnificently designed hyper-violent cyborg-crushing eye candy centered by a love-it-or-unnerved-by-it bit of design — a lead character who looks like a slightly-too-real-for-comfort anime heroine. It’s a clever bit of visual storytelling that both keeps her Otherness at the forefront and also makes her radically on-model to the source material, which the film’s story adheres to remarkably. One of the high points of cinemagoing for me in 2019 was sitting in a theater at the film’s climax having flashbacks to watching the 1993 anime version of Battle Angel and laughing to myself that I knew exactly how the scene before me would play out. Reader, I was right, and Rodriguez’s film nailed the shock and horror of that scene. Here’s hoping they can get something worked out to let Rodriguez, Cameron, & Co. make that sequel they’re still itching to do — but even if they don’t, kudos to them for giving us the best Hollywood version of an anime or manga property to date.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019, Dir. Dean DeBlois)
I’ve seen all three How to Train Your Dragon movies, and yet probably more than any other series of films of the past decade, these just slide off my brain. Don’t get me wrong, the titular dragon Toothless is the world’s most adorable jet-black puppy dog dragon ever designed, and the high flying action and slick, brightly colored CG visuals look great on a big ol’ screen, but almost two years on I barely remember a thing about this movie other than that the premise of this installment is basically “Putting the Toys Back in The Box: The Movie.” The previous film saw the main characters’ Viking clan enter into a lovely utopian co-existence arrangement with the dragons; this is the movie that then brings that to an early and abrupt close thanks to a dragon hunter played by F. Murray Abraham going after all of the dragons just as chieftain Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has started looking for a legendary dragon homeland their friends can all return to. Nothin’ wrong with it, and I do recall some very funny bits courtesy of Kristen Wiig’s amusingly loud, obnoxious Ruffnut, but if I’m ever going back to any of these movies, it’s probably going to be the first one.
Captain Marvel (2019, Dir. Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)
Marvel’s first female-led hero flick, Captain Marvel, hits that frustrating “sweet spot” where its feminist qualities ticked off a whole bunch of misogynistic jerks across the internet but its actual qualities as a film are a smidge frustrating. Like, it’d be nice if the film you’re having to defend against the slings and arrows of the worst nerds on the internet were, like, actually great, y’know? That said, kudos to all involved taking the narrative of a comic character like super powered Air Force pilot Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) — who has, in mainstream Marvel continuity, dealt with every weird indignity that a mainstream super heroine can suffer — and kind of succeeded in adapting a version of that for into a two-hour movie for a general audience. She overcomes the condescension of her peers and superiors (Jude Law starts of smarmy and ultimately hits a perfect level of “what a goddamn dick” in his performance as Kree commander Yon-Rogg) and an identity crisis that feels like a heavy nod in the direction of how, as the 70s turned into the ’80s, the young mutant Rogue — prior to joining the X-Men — stole Carol’s powers & memories. In a world where Marvel still couldn’t use X-Men stuff in their movies, instead Carol starts off the movie in space, believing herself a loyal soldier of the Kree Starforce fighting the good fight against the evil shape-changing Skrulls; her amnesia is eventually shown to be part of her greatly streamlined origin story at the end. The action moves to Earth when it turns out the Skrulls are after something there, something that ties into her forgotten past.
Alas, the super-powered action set pieces in Captain Marvel fine at best and clumsy at worst, and the gags — much like the not-terribly-well-handled big fight scene set to a contemporary song to the setting — are lifted from the superior Cosmic Marvel Guardians of the Galaxy flicks. I do dig that the ’90s setting gives us an origin of sorts for Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury, whose presence is welcome and rapport with Larson’s Carol is a highlight, but otherwise retconning Carol in as a hero in 1995 seems like more a product of trying to build out the big picture of the MCU than a necessary move for her own story. I will praise, though, the handling of the Skrulls — Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos is delightful, and the twist to the Kree-Skrull conflict about halfway-or-so through the movie was a minor shock in the theater. Honestly, I like Captain Marvel well enough, but it pales by comparison to the spectacle of the Avengers movies around it, the scale of Black Panther, and the wit and whimsy of the Guardians flicks and Thor Ragnarok. Carol and her actress deserve better. I hope they get it in next year’s planned sequel.
Us (2019, Dir. Jordan Peele)
Jordan Peele’s twisted follow-up to his breakout hit Get Out, Us is hard to get a handle on, and I wonder if you’re even supposed to be able to; I kinda feel like Peele’s intent here was just throwing a bunch of stuff that he thought was creepy together without really caring if it completely made sense — after all, what’s more unnerving than the chaos of something that doesn’t quite make sense?
In the ’80s, a young girl wanders away from her parents has a traumatic experience in a funhouse on a seaside boardwalk; decades later, against her objections the same woman (now Lupita Nyong’o) visits the same area with her husband (the delightful Winston Duke) and kids for a vacation with their rich asshole friends (a magnificently shitty Tim Heidecker & Elisabeth Moss). That very first night, all involved are visited by strange, animalistic doppelgängers — the “Us” of the title — who wish to do violence to them. Funny, unsettling, and unnervingly violent at times, Us has stuck with me, largely for a really great voice control assistant gag about halfway through and an ending that raises a whole lot of those pesky questions I was alluding to at the outset. I appreciate that Peele took his Get Out clout and decided “now I’m just gonna do something weird.” As far as I’m concerned, there’s no point in getting a hold of the creative power afforded by a huge Hollywood success if you’re not going to immediately cash it in to do something mystifying like Us — and more power to ya if it also manages to make All The Money. I know he’s got that Candyman remake he wrote coming up (directed by Nia DaCosta — who, hey, is also directing the Captain Marvel sequel), but I’d really like to see if dude’s got any other very specific, offbeat nightmares he’d like to share with us.
Next time: More superhero franchises, more American takes on Japanese entertainment properties, and more boozing around Hollywood.