Week Ending 5/19/23
Can’t say it’s a surprise that Hulu will soon be folded into the Disney+ app. We all knew it was coming once Disney bought Fox and secured a stranglehold of ownership on a streaming platform that was pretty much a competitor to the streaming platform they just launched. With Comcast’s share expiring at the end of the year, nothing is holding the Mouse House back from finalizing said merge and it looks like the ripples begin soon. Talk is that “Hulu” will become a tile on Disney+ much like Marvel and Star Wars are now. To me that means it will probably only house Hulu original content, so whether FX and other Disney-controlled entities remain is yet to be disclosed. So too is live TV capabilities of the competition: namely NBC and CBS.
I wonder what that means for 20th Century Studios (the old 20th Century Fox). Most if not all their titles have gone directly to Hulu as “originals” with the 20th Century logo—confusing and overboard. Will they soon be heading back to theaters? Hybridizing like Searchlight where some go theatrical (CHEVALIER) and others don’t (FLAMIN’ HOT)? Or are they just wholly synonymous with Hulu moving forward? I guess none of it really matters. Disney will probably just do whatever they think will net the best profit on a case-by-case basis.
What I Watched:
(streaming on Prime and available on VOD/Digital HD)
You can’t change an industry by embracing the status quo. It’s something every upstart knows and every billionaire forgets. And it’s a truth that’s never been more prevalent than right now with an astronomical wealth disparity increased during a pandemic as everyone with means profited off the desperation of those left to die. That’s why my favorite part of Ben Affleck’s AIR is when Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon) basically tells Nike CEO Phil Knight (Affleck) that he never should have gone public. That the payday effectively castrated him as far as being able to roll the dice and take a risk due to Wall Street’s grip squeezing him into a sure-thing conservative mentality. A mentality that exemplifies everything that’s wrong with the world today. Art, beauty, and progress usurped by commerce and greed, homogenized into nondescript soylent that the masses begrudgingly consume while the one-percent crushes them for another meaningless percentage point.
It’s the lone moment in Alex Convery’s script where you wonder if this thing might be more subversive than the rubber-stamped mythologizing of a corporation the trailers correctly sell. That doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining, though. Nor that it’s not good. Affleck has created a bona fide crowd pleaser that has as much fun with the audience as it does the real-life people portrayed. That includes Knight too with jokes at his expense via a faux Buddhist, awkwardly self-conscious yet woefully egotistical persona Affleck knocks out of the park—an image that surely went down easier with the addition of an epilogue slide reductively glorifying him as a saint who donated two billion dollars to charity during his lifetime (only .04% of his current net worth let alone the billions spent along the way). But that’s the game you must play to get projects like this off the ground. And it’s worth it to give the Sonnys, Rob Strassers (Jason Bateman), Peter Moores (Matthew Maher), and Deloris Jordans (Viola Davis) of the world their due.
A majority of the film takes place over the weekend Nike is given to pitch Michael Jordan despite the company’s abysmal basketball shoe division (rumors of being dissolved travel around the office) and the player wanting nothing to do with them (Adidas is his first choice with Converse the only legitimate alternative). Only after Sonny stakes his reputation on a hope and prayer by going completely off-book to secure that meeting (much to Chris Messina’s David Falk’s chagrin as Jordan’s foul-mouthed agent) does Knight let him start planning an actual design and campaign. It’s then that Damon and Bateman inject some heart and soul into what had been a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants comic powerhouse of big personalities and bottomless sarcasm. I would have liked a bit more MAD MEN-esque inside baseball, but this isn’t a long-form drama. It’s a breezy adventure of blue-collar gumption that does well to forget it literally exists inside a white-collar package.
The acting is top-notch across the board with Davis stealing the show despite her character only really driving two scenes (with Sonny at home at the beginning and on the phone at the end). Damon is the perfect straight man throughout, always outwaiting and provoking his more manic scene partners (Affleck, Bateman, and especially Messina). I could have done without all the needle drops—a couple lead into another music cue before the scene even changes—but I can’t deny the soundtrack isn’t phenomenal removed from that usage. And the attention to detail with wall-to-wall nostalgia bombs via product placement and pop culture really brings the entire production home. Because it’s not about Jordan (he’s always missing or cropped off-screen) or even Nike. No, it’s instead a period-specific workplace comedy about taking ownership in yourself and demanding your worth even if those things are mostly glossed over as concessions rather than victories.
ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA
(streaming on Disney+ and available on VOD/Digital HD)
What if STAR WARS … but Marvel? That’s what director Peyton Reed, screenwriter Jeff Loveness, and MCU head Kevin Feige seem to have asked themselves when brainstorming ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: QUANTUMANIA. Because it is literally just STAR WARS. Stormtroopers doing the bidding of a dark lord. Cantinas populated by alien creatures. There’s even a bit of “the Force” in how Kang The Conqueror (Jonathan Majors) fights courtesy of an exosuit light years beyond Earth’s own capabilities. Call Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) Obi Wan Kenobi as she dresses Hope (Evangeline Lilly) and Hank (Michael Douglas) in desert clothing and let her exposition dump the origin of a new enemy—an enemy that actually might be fighting against the actual enemy. Because this Kang isn’t the worst Kang. He’s an exile. He’s destroying worlds to destroy himself. So, killing him might end up guaranteeing extinction rather than staving it off.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. That’s for another chapter years from now. Scott Lang’s (Paul Rudd) latest adventure into cartoon land is simply our introduction to a new galaxy beneath the surface of our own, similar to the old galaxies traveled by the Guardians above. This is where we glean a bit more about what He Who Remains said to Loki and Sylvie at the end of LOKI season one. How the Kangs ravaging the multiverse have labeled this “Exiled One” a threat, banishing him to the Quantum Realm because it is a world outside of space and time. Unfortunately for humanity, however, it’s also a world Scott’s daughter Cassie (recast as Kathryn Newton) is keenly interested in discovering with the help of Hope and Hank. And since Janet still hasn’t shared the trauma of her thirty years trapped within it, they don’t realize the ramifications of trying to connect.
At the center of the journey lies the common theme of “Just because it’s not happening to you doesn’t mean it’s not happening.” Cassie says those words to her father because she believes his desire to live life basking in the glory of victories only shows he never actually cared about the meaning of those victories. That he fought to save himself and those close to him instead of fighting to save everything. That leads into story threads of rebellion (see STAR WARS again) and the duality of hero/villain when it comes to one man’s freedom fighter being another man’s terrorist. Does Reed and company delve into the psychology of that dynamic? No. It’s merely one superficial part of a fantasy film for kids with jokes about how many holes humans have in comparison to aliens. It’s a two-hour-long computer-generated video game that stays afloat because of two things: Rudd’s comic timing and Majors’ acting clinic.
It’s just too bad that an end stinger featuring Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Mobius (Owen Wilson) gazing upon a benign version of Kang with the latter quizzically wondering how he could be a monster has bled into real life with the soft-spoken and introspective Majors being revealed as a violent abuser himself. Will he be recast like Terrence Howard? Who knows? His team has already started damage control with stories of new love as potential payouts to old loves quiet the storm, so Disney might just hope it all blows over before a decision is necessary—much like DC has with Ezra Miller as Flash. It’s a sad state of affairs and one that admittedly is in its “allegations” faze, but you can’t pick and choose which victims you listen to because you like the alleged abuser’s art. So, Majors inclusion will taint the experience even as his craft lifts it up.
Because without him, it’s all a low stakes affair that occurs in a realm that Feige could choose to never visit again. Katy M. O'Brian and William Jackson Harper do well in small roles as Quantum natives, but who they are and their place in the grander scheme of the MCU is nonexistent beyond this chapter … at least for now. Maybe that will change. Maybe this whole exercise was for Scott and company to learn about Kang and pass along the information to the rest of the Avengers once other Kangs begin to descend upon Earth. This latest phase is still in its infancy, after all. It’s still opening doors to new pathways and tying off loose threads to close others. Our enjoyment is therefore solely reliant upon the characters in front of us and the ones surrounding Ant-Man are at least fun to follow regardless of how hollow the plot they’re in might prove.
(now in limited release)
The press notes for Paul Schrader’s MASTER GARDENER make it seem as though his process of writing the script was akin to Mad Libs. It talks about how everything started with the idea of gardening—a juicy metaphor he could wield in different ways later. And deciding to stick to his “man in a room” concept, said gardener would have to be a loner. A recluse. Why? Enter the idea of witness protection. Okay. Interesting. He’s living quietly in hiding, an informer trying to stay alive and perhaps redeem himself from the deeds of his past. Why? What horrible things did he do? The lightbulb snaps above Schrader’s head: white supremacist gun-for-hire. Of course! Why wouldn’t one’s mind gravitate there? No one ever accused Schrader of being non-confrontational or non-controversial.
It is a captivating premise. That’s not the problem—despite my obvious sarcasm. The problem lies in where he takes it. Because this isn’t actually a redemption story. We don’t care about Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) enough to let it be one. This is a story solely about race and how Schrader can use it to manipulate his characters into acting in the most outrageous ways possible under the guise of believing liberalism and political correctness is solely about blind forgiveness. He makes it so the estate where Narvel has reinvented himself as a gardener is a colonial plantation stewarded by a racist dowager (Sigourney Weaver’s Norma Haverhill) whose kink is gazing upon his swastika tattoos. And he introduces a much younger woman to drive a wedge into their idyllic if warped existence by way of Norma’s “mixed blood” great niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell).
You couldn’t render MASTER GARDENER riper for ill-conceived social commentary if you tried with the addition of drugs, abuse, and romance in ways Schrader intentionally wields to augment our “unease”. None of it made me feel anything other than tickled by just how silly it all played out, though. I honestly thought everything would rewind to show the final half of the film was a delusional fantasy of a bad man who thinks he can be saved only to discover the harsh reality that actions have consequences. And if you’ve seen the filmmaker’s last two works (FIRST REFORMED and THE CARD COUNTER), that assumption would be the odds-on favorite to come to fruition. The most controversial aspect of the whole is thus Schrader’s left-field decision to reject impulse and do the opposite: providing a finish that’s even sillier than the journey taken to experience it.
Because he doesn’t even try to approach the psychology of what he’s created. It’s literally all for kicks. The overwrought voiceover. The two-second wrestling matches over morality that end with “but I really want to take my clothes off” energy. There’s a missed opportunity here to have played it all intentionally as a comedy because it surely doesn’t work as a drama. Two dimensional pawns in an artist’s superficially drawn exercise of racial taboo can’t possess gravitas. So, do yourself a favor and lean into the cartoonish one-eighties and textbook “civility” of empowered bigots exploiting everyone and everything for their personal pleasure. Laugh at it all as a farcical satire of Schrader’s last two films even if the marketing push says it’s been made in earnest. Otherwise, you’ll be wondering what it was you just watched like me. Who knows? Maybe it’s all FIRST REFORMED and THE CARD COUNTER's fault for being too good.
(now in limited release)
In great DIY fashion over three-plus years with his daughter as the lead and one hundred thousand feet of expired 35mm film stock at his disposal, Ryan Stevens Harris’ MOON GARDEN was born. The dark fantasy unfolds through the imaginatively comatose mind of a young girl named Emma (Haven Lee Harris), desperate to escape the escalating turmoil at home courtesy of her parents’ fracturing marriage. Happy memories mix with sad inside her dreams as Mom (Augie Duke’s Sara) and Dad’s (Brionne Davis’ Alex) voices can be heard on a faltering transistor radio, reality placing the couple near their unconscious child’s hospital bed after a fall sparked by their latest quarrel. They plead for her to come back as Emma does everything possible to comply despite a monster born from bad feelings (Morgana Ignis’s Teeth) stalking behind, lapping up her fallen tears.
Think a sinister ALICE IN WONDERLAND by way of A MONSTER CALLS where grief and frustration are weighing young Emma down to the point where her body realizes that waking up may be too dangerous a proposition. Odd characters arrive for nightmarish dinner parties (Timothy Lee DePriest’s Groom) and blood-drenched nursery rhymes (told by Emily Meister), their weaknesses born from the good times of years past when Mom and Dad weren’t constantly blaming each other for their own unhappiness. It becomes a war of attrition in some regards as Emma learns to recognize that there was enough good to cancel out the bad even if none of it has ever been hers to shoulder. Not that blame has ever stopped a child from believing he/she was the problem nor parents from thinking a child could be the answer to theirs.
I’d love to see a different version this film delving deeper into that truth. As it is now, MOON GARDEN (despite its sometimes-terrifying visuals) is a kid’s movie that wears its earnest desire for happily ever after on its sleeve. By putting Emma in the lead, it takes the onus off Sara and Alex by positing a tragedy such as losing their only child could magically fix everything that’s wrong with their relationship. All those months where they refused to truly listen to each other erased because of a shared love even though those good memories (pre-beard for Alex) reveal that adoring Emma failed to prove enough once already. Perhaps this says more about me than the film, but I found a lot of it to be as hollow as the main villain (a nicely conceived metaphor by Harris) since nothing Emma does within her mind can truly fix anything. We’re instead watching a little girl torture herself at the hands of two self-involved adults in woeful need of therapy.
This is why I think A MONSTER CALLS is such a fantastic film. The horrors its lead must endure are outside of his control too, but he’s augmented them by denial. He’s the reason they’ve become so insurmountably potent. That’s not the case here since Emma is too young to even fully grasp what’s happening beyond the purely emotional intuition that something is very, very wrong. Her adventure is thus less about catharsis than it is about acceptance. Rather than running away from or fighting back against her monsters, the lesson here is to admit that they can’t actually hurt her. Translating that to the real world is wonky since it says that her parents (the monsters causing her so much strife now) can’t either. That only tells me they already have. They’ve caused her so much pain that she’s become numb to their chaos. So, while visually gorgeous in its commendable, if incomplete, message about the power of “healing”, the smiles at the end feel more like resignation to me.
THE NIGHT OF THE 12TH [La nuit du 12]
(now in limited release)
Director Dominik Moll and co-writer Gilles Marchand lay it out right at the beginning of their seven-time César-winning film THE NIGHT OF THE 12TH. The text on-screen explains that out of approximately eight hundred murder cases opened by French police a year, nearly twenty percent remain unsolved. And rather than simply provide a dire statistic, they quickly contextualize it by saying this film, (based on a story within Pauline Guéna’s novel 18.3 - A Year With the Crime Squad), is one of that twenty percent. So, we instantly know that newly minted captain Yohan Vivès (Bastien Bouillon) is never going to capture his man. The figure in a ski mask who says Clara’s (Lula Cotton-Frapier) name before dousing her with accelerant and lighting her on fire will never be identified. This police procedural isn’t therefore about justice or heroism or even violence. At least not any of them isolated from the others. It’s a look at the human condition and its tragic flirtation with futility.
All the potential suspects become provocations as a result. Fate laughing in the faces of Yohan, Marceau (Bouli Lanners), and the other officers in their precinct. They want to crack this case so badly that they’ll float the notion of false alibis to put away known abusers for the crime. They’ll even go so far as to lose sight of their purpose by projecting blame upon the victim due to having no perpetrator to carry the load. It leads to many introspective and important conversations wherein vulnerability is laid bare. Sometimes they are wholly relevant to the case (Clara’s best friend, Pauline Serieys’ Nanie, calling out the destructiveness of Yohan’s line of questioning despite his intentions being pure) and sometimes completely removed from it (Marceau pouring out his soul about love and loss). Every new lead becomes a trigger flipping emotional and psychological switches alike that push these detectives into the dark corners of their own inadequacies.
Moll’s film is thus composed of unanswerable questions. It’s populated by short vignettes of men and women finding themselves thrust into awkward situations wherein artifice and conditioning disappear. Marceau knows he can’t jeopardize the case with his own unchecked violence, but he does so anyway. Jules Leroy (Jules Porier) knows he’s a suspect in the investigation and yet he cannot stop himself from bursting out laughing during his interrogation. You have Yohan constantly trying to burn off his anxieties and frustrations by biking on a velodrome—a literal loop without an exit. Rookies talk about marriage while the grizzled veterans relay cynical outlooks about the fallacy of romance. And it’s always the women (Nanie at the beginning and Mouna Soualem’s Nadia and Anouk Grinberg’s judge at the end) reminding the men that their newfound confusion about the breakdown between men and women isn’t new to them since they’re generally the ones left dead.
While proving to be a downer in many respects due to its characters spinning their wheels without getting anywhere, THE NIGHT OF THE 12TH is not without its subtle inspirations. Because eliminating suspects is just as important as finding them. Not letting oneself buckle under the pressure of such nightmarish realities only to become a part of their horror also can’t be undervalued—especially when you consider how meaningless a Venn diagram of policemen and criminals is in America (Nadia’s question about it being “weird that most crimes are committed by men yet society sends mostly men to solve them” hits home considering that dynamic is a function here rather than a flaw so US cops can get themselves out of trouble). There’s a reason Yohan is both a Boy Scout and alone. Some lose their compass to uphold the law. Others lose the ability to shut it off and live. All are fallible. All are haunted by the mistakes they don’t even know they’re making. It’s unavoidable since the alternative’s indifference is unacceptable.
THE THIEF COLLECTOR
(now in limited release and on VOD)
Of all the revelations made in Allison Otto’s documentary THE THIEF COLLECTOR—from the obvious (southern philistines in cowboy hats saying they wouldn’t pay five dollars for a de Kooning painting) to the sinister (potential bodies buried beneath the Alters’ property) to the insane (a speech pathologist and music teacher stealing famous artwork for decades without anyone knowing)—the wildest thing to me is just how lazy and/or indifferent institutions like Sotheby’s and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are to donation/sale inquiries by unknown private citizens. That’s not to say they should spend exorbitant resources to research every worthless piece of ephemera from every estate sale in the world. But to just swipe left on the photos Ron Roseman sent without asking for more information is astounding once you discover exactly what was ignored.
It’s all about presentation, though. Ron couldn’t know he had anything special because his aunt and uncle never told anyone they owned anything special. So, if he’s just sending random photos without any background for legitimacy’s sake, it suddenly becomes easy to believe an overworked associate fielding hundreds of inquiries by people hoping for a miracle every day/week/etc. would barely give Ron’s a glance. That’s where coincidence and fate come in. Where strangers just passing by see something odd and spark a more specific line of questioning as far as authenticity and value are concerned. A seeming joke leads to internet searches. Uncertain phone calls lead to FBI investigators. And a poorly written collection of short stories becomes a potential series of confessions about an increasingly plausible pattern of escalating crimes.
Because Jerry and Rita Alter (performed in comedic re-enactments by Glenn Howerton and Sarah Minnich respectively) shouldn’t have been able to hang Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” on their bedroom wall. They probably shouldn’t have been able to travel to exotic locales three times a year annually either, but we’re trained to not question such things. Maybe they came from money (because their salaries surely weren’t enough). Maybe they just knew where to find great deals. No one automatically thinks larceny. Not when peering at these two smiling lovebirds sharing their slideshows and souvenirs. People aspired to have what they had. Jerry and Rita were a nice wholesome couple to all but a handful of those with a bit more intimate knowledge about those trips. And if they’re willing to not be flashy about their crimes, why look any deeper?
It’s a shame no one did—both for the sake of the law and the film. This is an utterly transfixing story told with an infectious tone, but it’s about 80% speculation. And while that speculation is fun, the whole can feel like spinning wheels for long passages with Ron, his son, the antique dealers who found the de Kooning, and multiple law enforcement agents all just saying the same things: “Could they have? I guess they could!” Every revelation is therefore hearsay. Every new road forward is a dead end towards a smirk and a shrug by people who believe the hypotheses and yet can do nothing about them. That too is interesting; that the Alters were good enough to remain “innocent” now since no one knows how anything got into their possession (maybe the thieves duped them). But the film comes from a premise of “gotcha” without being able to actually say it (despite constantly pretending it can). It’s entertaining yet incomplete.
This week saw MY BLUEBERRY NIGHTS (2008), THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (2006), RESURRECTING THE CHAMP (2007), SCARY MOVIE 4 (2006), and SKYFALL (2012) added to the archive. Who knew James Bond films were so wholesome? I didn’t realize until now that M. saying the f-word in SKYFALL was the first clearly audible instance in the series. Supposedly there are a couple implied/covered uses prior, but no full-blown f-bomb. cinematicfbombs.com
New Releases This Week:
(Review links where applicable)
Opening Buffalo-area theaters 5/19/23 -
ANNI MANCHI SAKUNAMULE at Regal Elmwood
BICHAGADU 2 (Telagu) / PICHAIKKARAN 2 (Tamil) at Regal Transit
FAST X at Dipson Amherst, McKinley, Flix & Capitol; AMC Maple Ridge & Market Arcade; Regal Elmwood, Transit, Galleria & Quaker
Streaming from 5/19/23 -
ASTÉRIX & OBÉLIX: THE MIDDLE KINGDOM - Netflix on 5/19
CONSECRATION - Shudder on 5/19
“It's the age-old conundrum: are evil deeds truly sinful if they are performed in the name of God? Who's to say [Catholics] haven't been fooled by the Devil since the first words of the Bible were written down?” – Full thoughts at HHYS.
KATHAL - A JACKFRUIT MYSTERY - Netflix on 5/19
WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP - Hulu on 5/19
AFGHAN DREAMERS - Paramount+ on 5/23
BAMA RUSH - Max on 5/23
THE FIRE THAT TOOK HER - Paramount+ on 5/23
“While it would be easy to dismiss the package in which these interviews and recordings arrive as conventional, the subject matter can't help but elevate the material beyond our objectivity too.” – Full thoughts at The Film Stage.
VICTIM/SUSPECT - Netflix on 5/23
HARD FEELINGS - Netflix on 5/24
MOTHER’S DAY - Netflix on 5/24
100 YEARS OF WARNER BROS. - Max on 5/25
FREE CHOL SOO LEE - MUBI on 5/25
Now on VOD/Digital HD -
BIG GEORGE FOREMAN (5/16)
EVERYTHING WENT FINE (5/16)
GIVING BIRTH TO A BUTTERFLY (5/16)
“Giving Birth to a Butterfly becomes a road trip poem of its own reminding us that it's okay to stop, recalibrate, and change evolutionary course.” – Full thoughts at The Film Stage.
LA CIVIL (5/16)
THE MAGIC FLUTE (5/16)
A NEW OLD PLAY (5/16)
POLITE SOCIETY (5/16)
“Add the authentic love shared by Kansara and Arya and it's tough not to come aboard for a madcap adventure that cements Manzoor's talent as someone worth following.” – Full thoughts at HHYS.
“It's a tense affair that ultimately puts Matthias in the middle to finally pick a side, culminating in an unforgettable night-time conclusion that brings everything full circle to reveal the thing we truly fear is us.” – Full thoughts at HHYS.
SPINNING GOLD (5/16)
THE SUPER MARIO BROS. MOVIE (5/16)
TO CATCH A KILLER (5/16)
“The juxtaposition [of the filmmakers' ideas with police procedural plotting] isn't perfect, but their ability to let their characters be flawed and complex does allow our normal preconceptions born from Hollywood copaganda to get pushed aside.” – Full thoughts at HHYS.
A GOOD PERSON (5/17)
DOTTY & SOUL (5/19)
MOTION DETECTED (5/19)
THE THIEF COLLECTOR (5/19)
Thoughts are above.
From the press kit archive:
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