What I’ve Been Watching – March 16-27, 2019 – Extraterrestrial Movies Part 1 (plus Us, SHAZAM!)

Why only Part 1? Isn’t this post longer than usual already? Yes, but I didn’t watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

MAR. 17

THE ABYSS (1993 SPECIAL EDITION)
dir. James Cameron
★★★★ ½
DVD

I’m going to be thinking about this one for a long time. Even though The Abyss is a gigantic, spectacular James Cameron sci-fi epic, it wasn’t really on my radar until recently and I only watched it because I happened across a used DVD in a store. While I, a self-professed cinephile, probably should have watched this years ago, I only knew it as “the movie that did liquid CG effects before T2” and didn’t seek it out. However, in this case I am not completely to blame.

As far as I know, The Abyss is not legally available in HD in any format, physical media or digital. On top of that, the DVD from 2000 is non-anamorphic (not optimized for widescreen TVs) so even when compared to other DVDs, the quality is atrocious (and even more galling when blown up to a 100-inch screen like I did). Watching it, I was almost constantly stunned at the degree of ambition on display and marveled that this movie, at least until a Blu-ray is eventually released, has essentially been buried to the point where your average person watching movies at home will never stumble across it independently.

The Abyss is an underwater spectacular that I have a hard time believing will ever be topped in terms of the complexity of its practical effects. Close to half the movie takes place underwater, with the actual actors doing the diving, huge submerged sets and real submersibles, both full-sized and miniature. Even when out of their diving suits and performing on sets, the cast is still getting doused with thousands of gallons of water much of the time. Even with a terrible video source, the effort and craft on display is quite stunning.

This first-contact story has a structure that is recognizably Cameron, and follows pretty closely to the shape of Aliens with the cast of space marines swapped out for a crew undersea oil drill workers. Also like most Cameron fare, there’s a choice of cuts to watch that make for decidedly different experiences. After some research I chose the longer Special Edition, but even at close to three hours I was riveted the whole time.

MAR. 18

2010 – THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT (1984)
dir. Peter Hyams
★★★ ½
Blu-ray

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first – as a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a Stanley Kubrick masterpiece and one of the most important and influential films ever made in any genre, 2010 doesn’t measure up. It’s a fairly normal movie, and doesn’t even attempt to hit the heights of filmmaking craft from the Kubrick classic. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, because it’s not. but when I first saw 2010 as a kid shortly after having my world turned upside-down by 2001, it was a big letdown.

Roy Scheider picks up the role of Dr. Heywood Floyd from 2001 and is joined on his space voyage by John Lithgow, Bob Balaban and Helen Mirren doing her best Russian accent as a cosmonaut (which is sort of worth the price of admission itself). The special effects are very watchable for the most part (with some dodgy early CG at the end), and the story serves as an interesting companion to 2001 even if the mechanics ofthe film are operating on a completely different wavelength. By its very nature the 2010 is a less opaque film than 2001, and fits some answers the original couldn’t be bothered to explain into its recognizable three-act structure. If you have memories of 2001 but haven’t watched it in a while, it’s a good time to check out 2010.

MAR. 19

ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011)
dir. Joe Cornish
★★★★
Cable VOD

This was my first time watching Attack the Block, though I’ve known this film by its reputation for years. This street-level invasion movie follows a band of teenage hoodlums roving around a London housing project in the midst of an attack by vicious, animal-like alien creatures. This is a good example of a project stretching to look a lot bigger than its budget would imply; the creature effects in particular look quite good. It’s also interesting to see the screen debut of John Boyega (when his character said he was 15, I almost spat out my drink).

The abrasive, tough-talking (and occasionally violent) core cast of London thugs may not be the most likable group of characters, but their rapport has a ring of authenticity to it that wakes you up and reminds you you’re watching something different. I’m not going to pretend to be up on my British TV or movie knowledge, but these aren’t the types of voices I often come across in the media I consume (this is one of those where it’s okay to turn the subtitles on).

MAR. 20

ARRIVAL (2016)
dir. Denis Villeneuve
★★★★ ½

Blu-ray

What was perhaps my favorite movie of 2016 has lost none of its power since. Arrival is sort of a curious beast: a big-budget, PG-13 sci-fi epic that nonetheless stays fairly quiet, maintains a intimate scale without resorting to flashy spectacle and is aimed mostly at adults (and from a director who is not known for his all-ages fare). I sometimes wonder how movies like this actually get funded and completed.

The beauty of genre filmmaking, and the sci-fi genre in particular, is that it can present situations that dig into our humanity in a deep, relatable way that would not be possible without some sort of fantastical element. While Arrival spends most of its time focusing on a linguist played (superbly) by Amy Adams and her attempts to communicate with aliens that have arrived on Earth in huge spaceships, the real soul of Arrival lies in how it leverages its primary sci-fi conceit involving memory and the observance of time to present a question to Adam’s character and the viewer that doesn’t have an easy or happy answer. Profoundly sad and beautiful, especially on repeat viewings.

MAR. 21

US (2019)
dir. Jordan Peele
★★★★
Theatrical – DCP

If there was any doubt that each new Jordan Peele film would be a major event, Us has erased it definitively. I take very little pleasure in watching most horror movies, but setting aside the thorny semantic argument over whether “elevated horror” is a real thing or an amorphous Twitter theory, Peele is one of the few people active in the genre for whose work I will actually show up. While Us is a Blumhouse production and traffics in many well-established tropes of the genre, Peele is less concerned with cheap tricks and screechy jump scares than the primal psychological terror derived from the film’s underlying premise, meeting one’s “evil” doppelganger. This slightly less aggressive approach can definitely get a knock from some folks that the movie isn’t “scary” enough and indeed, I didn’t spend the entire runtime hunched in my seat, butt clenched, waiting for the next jump scare. I gratefully view that a feature, not a bug.

Comparisons to Get Out are more useful in regards to Peele’s filmmaking approach to the horror genre rather than the themes and goals of his two films. True to the title and despite the majority-Black main cast, Us is less explicitly about race and societal structures and more about the darkness within us all, and the lengths we can go to to preserve our way of life and ourselves at any cost. The third act is a little shaggy and the the final twist took a few minutes to really land with me, but I’m confident future viewings will reward me in a way this first viewing mostly hinted at.

MAR. 22

ANNIHILATION (2018)
dir. Alex Garland
★★★★
Blu-ray

I try not to get too hung up on changes made in adaptations. I don’t think fretting over changes between a book and screenplay is generally a worthwhile exercise, especially when the changes don’t waken the movie. Still, over a year later I can’t help but keep pondering my initial disappointment at my first viewing of Annihilation.

I happened upon the book (and its two sequels Authority and Acceptance, together comprising the Southern Reach Trilogy) pretty much by accident, and was completely transfixed. The first book, from which this film is loosely adapted, follows an expedition of a group of unnamed female explorers into the mysterious Area X, a section of backwoods Florida being slowly consumed by an unknown entity, from an unreliable first-person perspective. The other two novels mostly attempt to contextualize and expand upon the the first book’s events, slowly filling in backstory. As write/director attests, he read Annihilation once and never opened it again, and didn’t read the sequels. I was incredibly excited to see the movie, but spent the whole runtime being thrown by all the changes. Garland throws out huge chunks of the first book, none of the world-building from the other books applies, and the story ends much more definitively. The things that interested me about the source material didn’t interest Garland. I was thrown.

Nothing about this is remotely fair to the screen version of Annihilation, which is a great piece of spooky, smart sci-fi cinema for adults of the kind we don’t get nearly enough of anymore. The mostly-female cast shines, and I’m particularly partial to the eerie, removed performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh that I think some people misinterpreted at the time. There’s also some very effective body horror, and I dare anyone to find a scene from a movie last year that induced more dread than the screamy bear scene. I’ve mostly come around to the film, but I can’t quite shake how the books made me feel. I know, not a very worthwhile critical argument, but hey, I’m not a real critic.

MAR. 23

THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY (2005)
dir. Garth Jennings
★★★
Netflix

Speaking of loose adaptations, how about the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie? When this came out I might have gotten a little hung up on some specifics, but looking back with mostly a hazy memory of the book series in my head I’m not sure a straight adaptation would have made sense back in 2005. It’s not like Disney was going to adapt the other four books, and in my recollection Douglas Adams’s prose and wild tangents are more memorable than the plot. Still, I can’t help but feel that this adaptation is a little too far off to resonate if you like the books, but too weird for general audiences. It’s easy to forget that even a relatively pedestrian take on this source material still reads as extremely wacky to the uninitiated.

There are some inspired choices to be found, particularly in the casting. Martin Freeman is a perfect Arthur Dent, the choice of Sam Rockwell as Zaphod Beeblebrox is fairly inspired and I like the casting of Mos Def as Ford Prefect at least in theory. While I love Alan Rickman, I can’t get Freeman’s own performance of Marvin the depressed and hyperintelligent robot from the audiobooks out of my head and find the movie version disappointing. Mos Def pronounces “Vogons” wrong most of the time. “So Long and Thanks for All the Fish” is a very catchy song.  I’m mixed-to-positive. If this were to be adapted today it would probably be a Netflix series, not a Disney movie.

SHAZAM! (2019)
dir. David F. Sandberg
★★★★
Theatrical – 2D DCP

If I were to use a rubric and call it on points, I might have to say that SHAZAM! is the best DCEU movie. At a minimum, it has the lowest volume of elements that are actively, obviously bad. Watching DC movies evolve is turning into an interesting journey, as Warner Brothers is figuring out that what makes the Marvel formula so successful – broad consistency of tone and content from movie to movie – simply isn’t going to work given the DCEU’s Zack Snyder-laid foundation. The individual DC movies are becoming more their own distinct things – Wonder Woman was a broad, crowd-pleasing period piece that stumbled a little while working its way down the superhero movie checklist, Aquaman is pure, unhinged campy insanity and the new Joker movie is going be some sort of weird thing – and Shazam continues this trend by fashioning itself in the Amblin tradition of maintaining a mostly jokey and friendly-looking demeanor while also going into some surprisingly gnarly directions. It wants to be one of those early 80’s studio movies that pulled off all sorts of crazy shit and somehow still landed a PG rating.

There are some nits to pick, mostly involving the continuity between main character Billy Batson and the superhero form he transforms into, the titular Shazam!, as it can be hard to believe at times that the two actors are really playing the same character. For the most part though, this movie is a real romp that knows what it is, isn’t afraid to have fun, and has a third act that, instead of shitting the bed, actually shows off competent action that has stakes and meaningful payoffs. It’s a great movie for the 10-year-old in all of us.

MAR. 24

CONTACT (1997)
dir. Robert Zemeckis
★★★★
YouTube VOD

A main motivation for going with this “theme” for a grouping of movies was largely to get to this movie, one I’ve been aware of as an oft-referenced staple of this subgenre (along with Close Encounters) for as long as I can remember. Somehow though, I wasn’t aware of this film’s perhaps most important underlying theme: its religious subtext and meditation on faith. After the famous and climactic first-contact scene experienced by Jodie Foster’s character, I was surprised to find there was still 20 minutes left in the movie. This stretch of time, after which most movies would have ended, is the most interesting and presents an interesting idea that I haven’t seen explored in such depth elsewhere: how is belief in extraterrestrials really much different than a belief in God? We don’t have proof of either.

The preceding two hours make for solid Earth-based hard sci-fi, and spend a healthy amount of time dealing with processes and scientific problem-solving while juggling the bureaucracy. Jodie Foster keeps the affair firmly grounded with a determined performance that keeps the audience on her character’s track as larger forces conspire to derail her.

MAR. 25

CAPTIVE STATE (2019)
dir. Rupert Wyatt
★★ ½
Theatrical – DCP

The newest film from Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) is more interesting for what it tries to do than what it actually achieves. Set about a decade after scary aliens land and occupy human governments around the world, Captive State doesn’t worry much about the aliens themselves and instead follows the humans living in this new society, split into conflicting factions of rebel insurgents and “collaborators” who run the government and quell dissent. The insurgency is depicted as a group effort with a top-down storytelling approach that attempts to emphasize the contributions made by many different characters, but the resulting narrative doesn’t focus enough on any single character enough to make you care. By the end there’s so much going on in different places that the whole thing becomes near-impossible to fully track on a first viewing alone. The problem is, I don’t think I care enough to try again any time soon.

MAR. 26

DISTRICT 9 (2009)
dir. Neill Blomkamp
★★★★
Blu-ray

Every time I watch District 9, I have to remind myself not to watch Elysium or Chappie. The debut film from Neill Blomkamp remains tremendously effective, particularly in the first half before the bullets and energy beams start flying. When Chappie came out a few years ago, I experienced District 9 in the worst possible way: I watched Blomkamp’s later two films first. As most folks who have seen Elysium and Chappie can attest, the movies look beautiful but are just, like, powerfully dumb. In fact, Chappie made me so upset it drove me to write the first article on this blog. Having later features pale in comparison to a debut work is not the craziest thing to happen to a filmmaker’s career, but the degree to which the latter features resemble Blomkamp’s debut in terms of visual aesthetics and tone while failing so spectacularly from a storytelling standpoint can, quite frankly, make District 9 look bad.

Given some time and distance from that context, I was reminded why this film was considered so groundbreaking at the time. The first hour or so, before the story settles into a groove with gross body horror and splattery violence, is particularly effective at showing things that really feel unique and otherwise unexplored in the genre in this way. In many ways, its themes about refugees and the casual cruelty that is imposed on them even by seemingly well-meaning societies are much more relevant here in America today than they were a decade ago. Of all of Sharlto Copley’s showy performances, this one seems to seems to dovetail best with what the rest of the movie is trying to accomplish. I’m also a sucker for mainstream-leaning movies aimed at American audiences, especially genre movies, that don’t take place in America or Great Britain but don’t draw attention to that fact. The South African-born Blomkamp sets the story in Johannesburg, and the setting is treated as normally as if the film were set in a place like New York that the audience would be generally familiar with. Even as a promise for an exciting filmmaking career that hasn’t really been fulfilled, District 9 remains a fascinating little gem of a sci-fi banger.

MAR. 27

WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)
dir. Steven Spielberg
★★★★
Amazon VOD

Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is a curious mixed bag, alternatingly enthralling and frustrating. Some of the problems stem from the fact that this is a relatively faithful adaptation of the H. G. Wells novel, which has a resolution that isn’t really satisfying in a traditional way. The film follows a family (including Tom Cruise straining credulity as a normal, blue-collar dude and deadbeat dad) as they struggle to survive a horrifying alien invasion, but at the end of the day the human characters have basically no agency over the broader alien invasion plot. As such, the film’s back half struggles to find much of a reason to exist after some truly visceral and memorable disaster-horror sequences.

War of the Worlds bears some resemblance to the invasion/disaster movies you’d expect like Independence Day, but the scale and focus is different. Instead of blowing up Manhattan, Spielberg initially focuses the destruction on a neighborhood in New Jersey and keeps the action in relatively intimate rural settings. Unlike many PG-13 disaster smorgasbords, we witness the terrifying human violence at street level, seeing the faces of the folks getting vaporized and placing the focus on human terror rather than collapsing buildings. Some of the character work and performances are a little questionable and an extended sequence in a basement with a deranged survivalist Tim Robbins feels like an unnecessary detour, but when War of the Worlds is in high gear it’s A-grade stuff.

CLOVERFIELD (2008)
dir. Matt Reeves
★★★★
YouTube VOD

What with the strange directions the series has gone down since, it’s easy to forget that ate first entry in the tenuous Cloverfield “franchise” is actually a pretty formally daring work of mainstream filmmaking. Sure, found-footage movies have been made before and since, but never at this scale and aiming for this broad an audience (i.e. it was not marketed as a straight horror movie) while still staying strictly disciplined in its adherence to its format. It’s a very intense watch, both unrelenting in its pacing and overwhelming in its audiovisual presentation.

I guess it’s worth noting that Cloverfield has its priorities in order, and the characters and story are near the bottom of the list. The party scene that makes up the opening 15 or so minutes contains necessary character information and sets up the stakes before everything explodes into chaos, but that material is downright painful to watch (and T.J. Miller running around with a camera and using it as a way to come on to a disinterested Lizzy Caplan is as gross as it sounds). Sort of like War of the Worlds, the characters are kept well at arms length from the story of the alien monster, their only recourse is to react to it. Despite some rough work that goes into the setup, the overall impression I’m still left with is the raw, visceral experience of being enveloped in the terror and chaos. Maybe a one-trick movie, but a successful one that’s never really been contested since.

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What I’ve Been Watching – March 5 – 16, 2019 – Roland Emmerich (plus Captain Marvel)

Of all the directors to focus on first this year, why in the world would I choose Roland Emmerich? I don’t have a good reason. By the end of the sequence, I wanted to give watching movie a rest for a bit, in fear that all films are like Roland Emmerich films and I would never be able to escape. I’ll note that I didn’t watch some of his more normal-sauce projects like Anonymous, and I watched Godzilla earlier this year (I didn’t like it very much).

MAR. 5

UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992)
★★ ½
Amazon Prime

Universal Soldier is a movie I’ve been sort of curious about for a long time, mostly when a new direct-to-video would drop every few years. What I watched didn’t end up being that mysterious: it’s pretty much a mashup of Terminator and Robocop with Jean-Claude Van Damme as the good android guy struggling with his missing past and Dolph Lundgren as the bad android guy. It’s competent if undistinguished 90’s beefcake sci-fi action, and as someone who’s never followed JCVD or those other muscly action types that aren’t Arnold, it didn’t leave a huge impression.

MAR. 6

INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)
★★★★
Blu-ray

Usually, one of my first steps when thinking about a movie I just watched is asking myself, “was there a lot of really dumb/bad stuff going on in this movie?” In the case of Independence day, the answer would of course be yes, there’s a lot of dumb shit and a bunch of groaners, and it peaks at the 45-minute mark but soldiers on for another hour and a half. And there have been bigger and more technically impressive destruction scenes in other movies. But there’s also something about Independence Day that I can’t help but like, a sort of giddiness that stems from its tone of cheerful 90’s cheese and special effects whose impact at the time can’t really be forgotten if you saw it in the theater or as one of the early DVDs to really impress me.

This movie also builds the template that the Emmerich disaster pics will pretty much follow going forward: big cast with a one or two men at the center, a big destruction sequence marking the transition from the first to second acts, too long, and enough cliches to give you a hernia. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum were hired to sort of do their thing. Still, I can’t help but get excited as the big ships hover into place, and while it would be a stretch to call the destruction sequences convincing they are still visceral and confident in a way many modern movies (see below) can’t approach. And I like Bill Pullman’s corny speech. Maybe you had to be there, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Independence Day.

MAR. 7

INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (2016)
★ ½
Blu-ray

None of my goodwill from the original Independence Day has been passed to its sequel, and make no mistake: this movie is a turd. There is some worldbuilding that I found at least mildly interesting, but it’s squandered on a terrible script that gives a decent cast nothing to do, pines desperately for a sequel that should never be made, and doesn’t even attempt to make sense. While the world-ending stakes are supposedly even bigger, it doesn’t feel like it with muddy CG that does nothing to capture the scale to miniature work from two decades previous. Will Smith wisely sat this one out, and Goldblum powers his way through to his paycheck. Some interesting things like a gay subplot and mildly interesting sub-plot in Africa hint at the potential for a real movie, but almost every scene has some element that’s so distractingly bad that the act of watching the movie amounts mostly to an exercise in frustration.

CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019)
★★★ ½
Theatrical – 2D IMAX Digital

I’m not counting repeat viewings towards my movie tally for the year, but I’m noting both times I saw Captain Marvel because after my first viewing, I did not have a good handle on my opinion (star rating reflects my impression after two viewings). I was a fan of the last few Captain Marvel comics runs written by Kelly Sue DeConnick as they were coming out, so I very much wanted to like the movie even before the trolling campaign began. Walking out of the theater, however, my feelings were lukewarm at best.

I’m not sure if it was my mood, my built-up expectations, or what, but my reaction to a first viewing was mostly lukewarm. There’s plenty of stuff that I liked, in particular the rapport between Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson and everything involving the cat. The digital de-aging done on Jackson is a stunning effect. Like any decent Marvel film, it moves along enough that I never thought about looking at my watch. However, I found myself struggling to piece together much of the shaggy first hour in my head afterward, and couldn’t think of a stirring moment of rah-rah female empowerment that hit me like the No Man’s Land scene in Wonder Woman (as a fairly self-obsessed and often oblivious white dude, I was using that as my easy feminism benchmark). I felt like I was missing something.

On the technical side, I’m always excited to see an IMAX release with a different version, and Captain Marvel is presented in a variable aspect ratio switching between scope and 1.9:1. The switching is a bit more on the haphazard side of the scale, expanding for most action but also for a lot of effects shots, even if the shots are part of scenes mostly in scope. It’s nothing like watching a Michael Bay movie which can often switch between multiple ratios in a single scene for no apparent artistic reason, but it’s not the most refined large-format presentation I’ve seen recently.

MAR. 8

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004)
★★★
Amazon VOD

Sometimes, movies give you little gifts that make the watching worth it. Overall, The Day After Tomorrow is not a tremendously movie and after the obligatory destruction happens less than an hour into its (mercifully short two-hour) runtime, the stakes sort of evaporate and we it turns into a survival story about characters we really don’t care about. While I sort of admire the movie’s bleak outlook and lack of resolution, I wasn’t invested on the movie’s own terms at all. That being said, there’s one particular subplot that I didn’t remember from my initial viewing that had me cackling.

The Day After Tomorrow depicts a huge winter storm that quickly wipes out most of North America, leaving a stream of survivors with nowhere to go but south. You know where this is going. A few scenes at the Mexican border depict hordes of desperate American refugees desperately wading rivers and trying to climb over the border fence, only to be rebuffed by the Mexican government which doesn’t want them. By the movie’s end, Mexico agrees to admit the desperate Americans, but only after the U.S. forgives all Mexican debt (hah!). The political undertones and message about climate change, while not making this a good movie per se, have made it age remarkably well for what it is.

MAR. 9

CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019)
Theatrical – 2D DCP – rewatch

I had to go see Captain Marvel again, it was bothering me too much. Fortunately, I found a repeat viewing to be much more rewarding. I had a much better grip on the plot, and was more aware of the deeply baked-in themes of gaslighting, female oppression and an unapologetic fuck-you brand of feminism that is less in-your-face but more specific than anything in Wonder Woman. Unlike something like Green Book, which is more closely mirrors the assumed perspective of its (white, male) mainstream audience, Captain Marvel (both the character and the movie) does not exist to make white men happy or comfortable with themselves. Carol Danvers does not need men to tell her she has value, and that is subversive and interesting. She’s a brat, but she can also plow through massive spaceships with her bare hands. How is a guy supposed to handle that, where does that leave room for him?

I maintain that the construction is a little sloppy and like most Marvel fare the action sequences reveal the previs team to be their true auter, but this movie, even if it’s not totally successful, is getting at some really interesting stuff.

MAR. 10

2012 (2009)
★★★ ½
Blu-ray

I almost didn’t watch this one. While I am extremely happy with the home theater I’ve slowly been adding to over the last year, and feel like my home viewing experience surpasses the the theater in technical quality 80% of the time, there are still some experiences you can only in the theater and my experience watching 2012 is one of my fondest moviegoing memories. A bunch of college friends and I went to a screening as a back-up plan after a concert we were very excited about got cancelled, and shoved into the front row of the flats we found the movie to be an absolutely devastating comedy riot. By the third takeoff from a collapsing runway, I could barely breathe. I have not laughed as hard in a theater since, and probably never will.

Looking back at it today 2012 isn’t really that funny, and in fact it gets almost overpoweringly grim after the absurdly cartoonish destruction sequences, but it worked at the time and owes me nothing. My rating may reflect my goodwill more than the actual quality of the movie, but this is my blog.

MAR. 12

10,000 BC (2008)
★★
Blu-ray

Out of the Emmerich epics, 10,000 BC may not be the most aggressively bad, but it is perhaps the least engaging. The characters have no presence or personality, the barely-there plot is cookie-cutter at best and the visual effects are plentiful without being very impressive. At its best moments, 10,000 BC reads like a bad remake of the final act of Stargate, complete with grungy, oppressed natives and pyramids. The casting is probably the most interesting single element, with the faces onscreen largely made up of unknown and non-white actors. That’s not to say the cast shows up with any kind of personality.

In the end, I’m not sure what audience this movie is for. Was anybody actually clamoring for a caveman epic? And is there anything in this movie distinctive or memorable enough for anybody to connect to it? I sure didn’t.

MAR. 13

THE PATRIOT (2000)
★★★
Amazon VOD

As I powered my way through my self-imposed Emmerich week, The Patriot was the film I was most curious about. It’s a one-off genre attempt, in this case Emmerich takes his stab at the ultraviolent war movie. A big Hollywood movie about the Revolutionary War is sort of an inherently interesting thing, as there aren’t that many of them and Emmerich makes big-looking movies. The battlefield sequences are the most striking in the film, and images of soldiers getting stabbed and decapitated by bouncing cannonballs are striking. Though The Patriot masquerades as a period piece, it’s really most concerned with being a badass action movie that happens to have a period setting. This sprawling movie takes a while to get where it’s going, but where it ultimately ends up (and seems to care most about) is the eventual ultra-macho slow-motion battlefield brawl between Mel Gibson and Jason Isaacs.

Gibson makes for a suitably flinty lead, though for some reason seeing the dude mauling people on-screen can’t help but make me feel a little queasy. A scene in which he takes his preteen sons to go slaughter a few dozen British soldiers is particularly disturbing, and I’m not sure how much of that was intentional.

MAR. 14

WHITE HOUSE DOWN (2013)
★★★
Blu-ray

This thoroughly pedestrian action thriller has one very important thing going for it that makes it more than just watchable: Channing Tatum. In many ways, while this movie doesn’t involve destroying entire cities it does closely hew to the Emmerich disaster model in more ways than it doesn’t. There’s action, destruction, plenty of subplots, a wide cast of characters all broadly sketched from a mess of cliches, and it’s 20 minutes too long. Jamie Foxx is agreeable as a president whose name is not actually Barack Obama, Jason Clarke is a muscle heavy and James Woods shows up as terroristic villain who doesn’t play far removed from his current Twitter presence. Action and peril abound, and the shootouts and chases are competent enough without being revelatory.

In short, like much Emmerich fare this movie is almost painfully generic. This is a basic, functional action movie and not much more. Fortunately, it’s almost always a good time when Channing Tatum is around and indeed he makes for one of Emmerich’s best leading men, providing enough levity to keep the movie from collapsing in on itself.

MAR. 16

STARGATE (1999 EXTENDED EDITION)
★★★ ½
Blu-ray

Like the rest of Emmerich’s fare, Stargate was never going to win any awards for originality. However, there’s enough here that I think this counts as one of the better movies of this group. Perhaps the most obvious standout elements are Kurt Russell, who is Kurt Russell and commands a kind of screen presence rarely seen from anybody, whether he’s strongly engaged with the material or not, and a particularly good score from David Arnold. The Egyptian-tinged setting and production design and kooky sci-fi elements are far more interesting than the actual script of Stargate courtesy of frequent collaborator Dean Devlin, which is as cliche-ridden and by-the-numbers as any of Emmerich’s later films. Also, why is Djimon Hounsou in every other movie I’ve watched lately?

What I’ve Been Watching – February 26 – March 4, 2019

I’m over it now, but I’ll admit I spent the next few days after the Oscars being mad about Green Book’s win. I have already talked about why I didn’t like Green Book, but if I had any doubts they were erased as soon as a gaggle white guys took to the stage at the Dolby Theater to celebrate their Best Picture win for a film they made about solving racism. I’m not saying the filmmakers approached the project from a malicious perspective, because I’m sure they didn’t, but the end result is still just as toxic. For a story about racism to not seriously explore the marginalized character’s point of view now of all times, and to be so handsomely rewarded for it, is disturbing and speaks to a lot of what’s currently going on in this country.

This may sound obvious to a lot of folks out there, but it only really occurred to me that what I always considered the standard, normative voice in most of the books and movies I consumed is a white voice, and usually a white male voice. How many of the auteurs I studied in film school were female or non-white? Did I really start to think about the imbalance of representation of gender and sexuality in most movies I watched before #MeToo and #TimesUp tipped me off? And from what perspective am I qualified to talk about racism and sexism, anyway?

This imbalance extends to my Blu-ray collection too, where upon examination I struggle to find many films from non-white or female voices either in front or behind the camera. I often like to blame myself, and will in this case to an extent, but there are only so many of these films that show up in stores and are affordable. As someone with boyish taste who gravitates mostly towards accessible American films, I have to make a conscious effort to diversify the sort of movies I buy and watch. (This should be substantially easier once Criterion is back to streaming next month.)

For my movie watching this week I intended to watch films almost exclusively from African-American voices, but life got in the way and instead I’ll say everything I watched this week had marginalized groups as a major theme. I’m going to make more of an active effort to not exclusively watch films with that “straight white” voice, or at least be aware of it when I do.

FEB. 26

BLACKkKLANSMAN (2018)
★★★★ ½
Blu-ray

One of the most memorable moments I’ve had in a theater in the past few years was seeing the end of BlacKkKlansman with a room full of people. Even in a weird retrofitted recliner theater that only had like 40 seats, *spoilers for BlacKkKlansman* as the imagery switched from a burning cross to footage from white nationalist Charlottesville rally and Donald Trump’s face appeared blaming “both sides” for the violence, the my audience collectively lost it; almost everyone in the theater appeared to be either yelling or crying. Making such a clear and direct jump is a ballsy move, but it’s hard to blame Spike Lee for being mad enough to forgo subtlety.

This story about a Black cop who infiltrates a Klan chapter in the 1970’s operates on a lot of levels, both as an unflinching, incisive reflection of our fraught racial politics and as an entertaining ride that straddles the line between dark comedy and potboiling thriller without one element subsuming the other. There are also some fantastic performances here from John David Washington and Adam Driver as the phone and in-person versions of Ron Stallworth, their cover, and Topher Grace unfortunately show up in the role he seems like he was born to play, real-life KKK Grand Wizard David Duke.

Films don’t get much more timely than BlacKkKlansman, as the real-life threat of white nationalism continues to metastasize both here in America and around the world (with the implicit encouragement of the sitting President of the United States) and the spread of hate informs our lives daily. This film pulls no punches when it comes to its reflection of our current times, and while the commentary is sometimes pointed enough to remind you that this is 70’s-set film that was released in 2018, it’s not really supposed to be escapism. BlacKkKlansman is a slap in the face.

FEB. 27

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)
★★★★ ½
Blu-ray

My ulterior motive for watching Blade Runner 2049 was that I had the house to myself and wanted to watch something worth cranking up the volume, but the film surprised me with how comfortably it fit into my self-imposed theme for the week (at least on its own textual level). I’ll say upfront that if we’re talking about race and Blade Runner there are two very different tracks we can go down: we can go with the notion that the film’s depiction of the tension between humans and replicants is a commentary about race through a stylized lens consistent with the original 1982 film, but we also have to confront some icky realities about the film’s representation of women and minorities.

In short, the Blade Runner sequel, like the original, is still mostly by, about and for white guys. Women and POC have little agency in the story, and to put it charitably, Los Angeles in the year 2049 doesn’t look as diverse as you would expect.

With that in mind, Blade Runner 2049 succeeds resoundingly on its own terms as a sequel that compares favorably to its vaunted original, and is second-to-none as a technical presentation. You could pause the film at almost any point and the still would look good enough to put in a frame and hang up, and the sound mix is monstrous. Harrison Ford gives a genuinely great performance. I think the arc of Ryan Gosling’s character is genuinely interesting. I’m justifying myself because this sort of movie is the reason I shied away from star ratings, and knocking off half a star for its problematic elements might seem trite at best but I can’t bring myself to knock it down further.

FEB. 28

BLACK PANTHER (2018)
★★★★
Blu-ray 3D

Yeah, Black Panther is still pretty great. It’s both a Marvel movie and something more than a Marvel movie in a way that is unique in the MCU, and will likely remain that way for the foreseeable future. The Marvel staples of a not-quite-a-comedy tone and action sequences that look like they were directed mostly by the previs department are certainly here, but almost all of the component parts are operating on such a high level that it’s hard not to be taken in by the audacity, spectacle and unique purpose of its identity.

Content of the film aside, I need to take this opportunity to get on my soapbox about a topic I’m passionate about: 3D BLU-RAYS. The 3D presentation of Black Panther is quite striking, and though I don’t watch my movies on a 4K display, I have a hard time believing the UHD version would be any more immersive. The stereoscopic presentation is good enough to justify itself over the trade-offs of at-home 3D, and as is Disney’s habit the 3D Blu-ray is the only home release version of the film to be presented in a variable aspect ratio to preserve the 1.90:1 IMAX footage. Wakanda sits better in a bigger frame, and if you have a projector or a PSVR, it’s an obvious choice. Here’s the rub: Disney no longer releases 3D Blu-rays in the US.

You could argue this isn’t the end of the world, since (while not cheap) the UK 3D Blu-ray is available on Amazon and is region-free, but it’s a troubling step backwards for the struggling format from one of the few studios that still supports it.

MAR. 1

SORRY TO BOTHER YOU (2018)
★★★★
Blu-ray

I’ll admit I didn’t totally connect with it on a first viewing, but I’ve come around to Sorry to Bother You in a big way and I’ve been happy to come back to it a few times since it hit Blu-ray. Boots Riley’s directorial debut is, quite frankly, overwhelming at first and it’s easy to say that the pieces don’t fit together as snugly as they could, but at a certain point the scrappiness gives Sorry to Bother You a lot of its charm.

Lakeith Stanfield anchors the film as a budding telemarketer who climbs the ranks while potentially selling out both himself and his friends, and proves why he’s one of the most fascinating actors working today. Unfortunately, while Tessa Thompson is electric on-screen, she is working with very limited material. Armie Hammer (my fave) slithers into the role of a scummy tech CEO with ease, and does his best to sell the movie’s absolutely crazy third-act swing for the fences. By the end of its runtime Sorry to Bother You has almost completely fallen apart in its descent into absurdism, but it has made its point.

MAR. 2

CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018)
★★★★
Blu-ray

I can’t speak to how well this film represents Asian culture or the Asian-American experience, but I can say that it’s always refreshing to see a big studio movie that defines itself through a culture that isn’t mine (Black Panther and Coco immediately spring to mind). I can’t confirm the authenticity of what I saw or heard based on experience, but when a culture is so important to a movie’s DNA like this one, the small details add up to a whole that feels real, lived-in and credible even if a lot of it goes over my head. It helps that Crazy Rich Asians is also a very good romantic comedy, a genre which seems to be better represented by Netflix originals lately than on the big screen.

This confluence of elements is best demonstrated in an early scene (the film’s best) when an overheard conversation in a coffee shop ping-pongs around the world in seconds via cell phones and social media. The sequence is zippy, stylish and uproarious in context, and while it played perfectly fine for me I’m sure others got even more out of it (I had to Google what “lah” meant). This is one of those movies that turned into a moment because of the role its existence played into our cultural conversation (for a very good reason, I might add), but it will stick around because it’s a good movie regardless.

MAR. 3

KIN (2018)
★★ ½
Blu-ray

Kin is the sort of movie that MoviePass was for, back when it was a thing. The past few years and advances in technology have seen the rise of more small- genre films getting theatrical runs instead of going straight to DVD, and occasionally they can make for wonderful little surprises (see Midnight Special, Upgrade). Sometimes though, like with our current example, I feel like I paid for something that I could have scrolled by on Netflix instead.

Kin is ostensibly about a young black boy adopted by a white family who happens upon a scary alien gun and finds reasons to use it to kill people. While this premise is both interesting and  highly questionable, I was surprised that Kin bears a closer resemblance to scumbro crime flicks like Good Time, as the action is mostly driven by the boy’s toxic older brother who pulls ruins the lives of everybody he knows because he can’t pay a gangster (James Franco, in a performance that reminded me of other, better movies). This isn’t inherently bad, but it wasn’t the sci-fi-tinged exploration of race and family I was perhaps naively hoping for this week.

I was mostly attracted to the film because of the score by Mogwai which does, in fact, sound like Mogwai, so my most basic expectation was met. That’s about it, though.

DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY (2006)

Amazon VOD

I have a few low-key favorite films from when I was growing up that I saw at what must have been at the right time, because they never left me. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is one of those films. Michel Gondry’s pseudo-concert-documentary chronicles a one-time block party that Dave Chappelle organized in 2004 (at the height of the Chappelle Show’s popularity) which took place in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood in Brooklyn. Even for someone like me who is not the most versed in hip-hop, the lineup is pretty fascinating and features some talent that is still very recognizable including Mos Def, Erykah Badu and Kanye West (circa The College Dropout). Just as fascinating, John Legend and Common occasionally step in for back-up vocals and The Roots, in what now looks like an audition for their current gig with on the Tonight Show, serve as the house band.

The music is a blast but in many ways it’s not really the point: Gondry almost never lets a song play out fully but instead focuses more on the spirit of the event itself, crafting a celebratory document that flits effortlessly from the stage, to the green room, to the nearby rooftops and a local Y, to Chappelle’s childhood home of Yellow Springs, MD and back to the crows as it weaves together portraits of Chappelle, the artists, a college marching band and some small-town folks that Chappelle invites to the concert off the street. It’s hard to watch this movie and not be happy.

Unfortunately, I have to note that Dave Chappelle’s Block Party has never been released on Blu-ray! I’ve never seen it on a streaming service either, so rental/VOD or the DVD is the only way to see it.

MAR. 4

MULAN (1998)
★★★★
Blu-ray

This film may be a little bit of a stretch to include with the others, but if my dad says he wants to watch Mulan, what kind of a son would I be to say no? I’m a little more weary of Disney’s appropriation of Chinese culture (though fortunately the cast is not totally whitewashed), but Mulan’s exploration of gender dynamics within the bounds of a Disney princess movie still stands as unique, worthwhile and meaningful. I can’t fully say what has kept Mulan solidly in Disney’s B-tier, but unlike, say Pocahontas, I doubt it has anything to do with quality. I don’t think Disney ever quite knew what to do with their princess whose femininity wasn’t her primary virtue. That being said, while you may not find a Mushu plush at the Disney Store at your local mall (if it still exists), I can attest that Mulan had a major impact on kids around my age who saw it during its initial release and on VHS, and only has room to grow in stature as the years pass.

What I’ve Been Watching – February 19-25, 2019

In preparation for this year’s Academy Awards, I decided to begin what will probably be the first of many Theme Weeks on this page. This week, I watched a selection of Best Picture winners, trending towards the questionable end of the spectrum. I figured getting beat down with some “Oscar bait” would better numb me to Green Book’s eventual win, and in some ways it did. Green Book is uniquely clueless even among this crop of films, and I just couldn’t bring myself to watch Crash again, but this selection of films when put together paints a pretty clear picture of the tastes of what we will hopefully soon consider the “old” Academy of the past.

I’m also trying something new this week, and adding star ratings (out of 5). I’ve resisted this for a long time as ratings seem so definitive and I am intensely wishy-washy, but I figure it might be more helpful to you than just my plot-free blurbs.

FEB. 19

THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996)
★★★ ½

Blu-ray

This is sort of the proto-Oscar Bait movie, right? WWII setting, sweeping romance, Colin Firth, very long, Harvey Weinstein producing credit. The thing about The English Patient, and several of the other films I watched this week, is that I am only watching this film many years after its release because it won Best Picture. It’s easy to write off the award during bum years like this one, but the Best Picture winner list is a real thing that grants a film a certain degree of permanent notoriety. A little over two decades later, does The English Patient still defend this privilege, and is it worth it to hold your hold and watch something covered in Harvey Weinstein’s stinky pawprints? Not for me personally, but I can’t go so far to say that this is a bad film.

In fact, The English Patient is a perfectly decent movie, and is anchored by a predictably strong suite of performances from Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Colin Firth, Willem Dafoe and Kristin Scott Thomas in the only performance of hers I’ve ever seen. The story unfolds over two timelines, focusing on Ralph Fiennes’s mysterious character both before and after a plane crash that leaves him burned to the point of being unrecognizable and seemingly unable to remember even his own name. Of course, even in his barbecued state Fiennes is irresistible to women, and the flashbacks recount a sweeping epic romance full of angst, deception, gravitas and ultimately tragedy while framed by the charred Fiennes’s rapport with the beleaguered battlefield nurse (Binoche) who makes it her mission to ease his suffering. The whole thing is competent, straightforward, and not really my bag.

FEB. 20

CHICAGO (2002)
★★★ ½

Blu-ray

If there’s one thing I can say for the screen version of Chicago, it’s this: the film definitely makes a choice when it comes to adapting the stage musical to the screen. Instead of making some attempt to integrate the musical numbers into the story (or even really justify them in terms of the rest of the movie), they simply happen, cutting away to another plane, usually a stage, where the music and choreography reflect what is happening in the story while the action takes place independently. Simply put, while the musical numbers aren’t actually “happening” they are never explained as dreams or fantasies, or really explained at all. They just are, and make no attempt to exist for anything other than the sake of the audience. I can’t make up my mind as to whether the gambit is brilliant or just kind of dumb.

I also was not expecting a Best Picture winner to remind me so much of Sucker Punch (a movie that I do not think is good) in terms of feel and structure. Between the creepy women-in-a-dirty-prison vibe, a heightened plane of reality featuring glammed-up fantasy versions of the cast and some weird thematic similarities about the objectification and commodification of women, it was all I was thinking about.

FEB. 21

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
★★★★ ½

Netflix

I had to throw myself a bone and watch something that wasn’t a stuffy period piece, so I took advantage of this title’s availability on Netflix. Unlike many of the other Best Picture winners I watched this week, it was pretty obvious to me that The Silence of the Lambs is a legitimately great movie regardless of whether it won awards or not (even if the trans stuff is a bit awkward). This is a spare, deliberate film that doesn’t need to resort to cheap tricks to create its horror and features two career-defining performances from Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster. Hopkins in particular is impossible to look away from (though the camera placement often doesn’t give you much choice) as monster that is recognizably human, but mentally operating on a plane separate from normal human experience. While Hopkins chews up the scenery (among other things) Foster has the possibly more difficult job of portraying a young woman who displays both vulnerability and resourcefulness in a highly volatile (and heavily male-dominated) environment.

FEB. 23

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)
★★★ ½

Blu-ray

I had never seen Shakespeare in Love prior to this week, and only knew of it as the sort of Oscar movie people complain about. The movie I saw was okay enough, and was light and breezy enough to be a relaxing watch, but this would not be the sort of thing I rank very high on my lists nowadays. With the Weinstein credit in the back of my mind the whole time, I was sort of thinking that Shakespeare in Love felt like a much-less-terrible version of Tulip Fever. And while I’ll cop to only having a passing familiarity with Shakespeare that doesn’t go far beyond what I learned in school, I still have a hard time believing there’s even a whiff of historical accuracy to this fantasy about the creation of Romeo and Juliet.

As much as I found this film to be pleasant enough (and I was genuinely surprised when Ben Affleck first bursts into a scene), I’ve always had a hard time connecting with these sort of white-bread crowd-pleaser movies that are, sorry to say, squarely aimed at an older white audience. There is of course room for this kind of movie to exist, but I’m not sure what makes a sweeping period romance more valid than any other genre.

FEB. 24

THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)
★★★★
Blu-ray

Of all the films in this lineup, The King’s Speech is the only one I saw during its theatrical run. I remember thinking at the time that it was perfectly fine, and I never felt compelled to go back to it. Watching it in the context of other potentially questionable (or at least boring) Best Picture winners, it shoots right down the middle: impeccable period production design and costumes, Colin Firth, an agreeable tone with a crowd-pleasing ending, and of course Oscar’s favorite, WWII.

I have a hard time dumping on The King’s Speech too much, because I actually do like it. I tend to like movies where people become friends (but not Green Book, ew), and Colin First and Geoffrey Rush make for a delightful pairing as the stuttering future King of England and his speech therapist, who happens to be a normal person. I’m also a sucker at the moment for movies about competent world leaders at the moment, couldn’t tell you why.

FEB. 25

A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001)
★★ ½

Amazon Prime

I’m leaning towards saying I did not like this movie. A Beautiful Mind is, like so many other Oscar winners, a period drama, but one more focused on one man’s mental struggle than the churn of history. Loosely based on the life of John Nash, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist with a history of mental illness including schizophrenia, A Beautiful Mind takes the form of a twisty psychological thriller that works fairly well until it throws in a huge, complicating twist whose cinematic effectiveness is undeniable, but is a little too fantastical when it comes to the portrayal of mental illness for me to really get behind it.

There are some very good performances here including Russell Crowe, bringing more to the leading role himself than the script does, and a flashy, scene-dominating turn from Paul Bettany. Crowe does the best he can portraying a character that, especially before the big plot reveal, isn’t the easiest to connect with. Even by the end, Nash’s character has been fleshed out somewhat but the film’s frankly nutty portrayal of schizophrenia far outweighs its focus on Nash’s positive accomplishments. Doing a cursory amount of research also reveals just how big the liberties the film took with the truth were, and how much Nash’s condition was exaggerated for drama. This sort of movie wouldn’t fly today.

What I’ve Been Watching – February 12-18, 2019

My movie watching was all over the place this week, including a pair of Robert Rodriguez 3D spectaculars, an icy Norwegian comedy-thriller and its American remake, and Disney animated films in which little girls get abducted.

FEB. 12

OLIVER & COMPANY (1988)
Blu-ray

As I sat in my chair watching Oliver & Company, it slowly dawned on me that I’d actually seen it before. The remember the VHS in the big clamshell case sitting on a shelf for as long as I can remember, but I forgot that I’d actually watched it. By the end, it sort of made sense as even at a sprightly 76 minutes (including credits) I was losing interest. This “hip” and “modern” take on Oliver Twist starring a cast of New York City street animals (including a mutt voiced by Billy Joel, who sings a catchy song but is otherwise miscast) starts out strong with a heartbreaking opening sequence, but once the dogs and cats start talking it loses gradually loses steam. By the time the little girl with absent parents is kidnapped with 10 minutes left in the movie almost as an afterthought, I didn’t find myself ready to call it an underrated classic or anything. Still, there are a few decent songs and interesting early use of computer graphics.

FEB. 13

THE RESCUERS (1977)
Blu-ray

Spurred by Oliver & Company I decided to watch the other Disney Blu-ray in my collection that I knew featured kidnapping a little girl with no parents. Might as well, right? In this completely arbitrary comparison of two films that have little to do with each other, I much prefer The Rescuers. Bob Newhart and Eva Gabor play a pair of mice (who make a thoroughly charming couple) entrusted by a kind of United Nations of mice to rescue a kidnapped orphan from the clutches of the most terrifying Disney villain you never hear about, Madame Medusa, from a the-twist-from-Snowpiercer type of situation. Sort of chilling, if you think about it, but the effect is softened by the earnest chemistry of the leads and the dreamy, floating 70’s soundtrack. Interestingly, the female characters have almost complete authority in this story as the men mostly stammer and get dragged along.

FEB. 14

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019)
Theatrical – 3D DCP

I really don’t even know where to begin with this one, but I need to settle something, maybe the most important thing, right away. Unfortunately, Alita: Battle Angel is not the next Jupiter Ascending. There are a lot of similarities, especially on paper, but as much as my head was spinning I wasn’t ready to call this the next camp classic I have to force on my friends. I guess in the end I couldn’t forget that this was a Robert Rodriguez film and while on a visual level this is infinitely more accomplished than his other green-screen projects, it also brings with it the expected clunky Rodriguez dialogue (sounds like it, anyway) and a weird air of masculine “awesomeness” that I find personally off-putting. Also off-putting: the part where here breasts grow in front of your very eyes and oh, you know the poster where the title character has smeared blood under her eyes? Yeah, that’s *spoiler* PUPPY BLOOD. WHAT? Also, Keean Johnson is throwing off major Brenton Thwaites in Gods of Egypt vibes as a soft boy you desperately want to slap.

This movie doesn’t have much of a coherent story, and though I haven’t read the manga I imagine it must be adapted from a group of separate arcs. Several plots come and go that don’t have much to do with each other (do we ever find out what’s going on with that serial killer?), and it ends with maybe the most shameless sequel-baiting I’ve ever seen in a movie that wasn’t shot back-to-back with something else or a sequel itself. There are also enough exposition dumps to fill several other movies. That being said, this is a big-screen spectacle that I was happy to see in 3D and in some ways is slightly less embarrassing than Ready Player One.

FEB. 15

THE ADVENTURES OF SHARKBOY & LAVAGIRL 3D (2005)
Blu-ray 3D

I wanted to confirm my misgivings about Alita, and found everything I needed in this ostensibly home-spun Rodriguez 3D thingamabob. Made with what appears to be the same toolkit Rodriguez used for the near-unwatchable Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, The Adventure of Sharkboy & Lavagirl reads as pure indulgence that should have had no business being released theatrically as a movie. It’s cute to think the idea for the film was birthed by the director’s then-seven-year-old, but the ensuing movie also feels like it was written and directed by a seven year old. It doesn’t work. The 3D separation is often eye-popping, but the visual effects work is so atrocious that it’s hard to appreciate. This movie and Spy Kids 3-D may have the worst widespread use of CG in any mainstream film, ever. Watching this movie may have been unfair to Alita: Battle Angel, but I’m happy it makes it easier to mentally file away.

FEB. 16

COLD PURSUIT (2019)
Theatrical – DCP

Cold Pursuit is a curious film. The marketing may give you the impression that this is a Liam Neeson revenge thriller, and in some ways it is, but it’s weirder and has a little more on its mind than you’d expect. Neeson plays a rural snow plow driver who loses his son, and during his bloody quest for revenge accidentally sparks a criminal turf war. As an action thriller, Cold Pursuit isn’t much to write home about; the air of bleak cynicism blunts much of the suspense and the shootouts are less the point than a necessity. The tone is quirky enough that it’s clear everyone is in on the joke.

This is a shaggy film, as evidenced most obviously by the fact that Neeson disappears for large swaths of the second half as the narrative goes in different directions. The most interesting performance comes from Tom Bateman, as a sociopathic drug lord whose ghastliness makes for an interesting satirical portrait of toxic American white male privilege.

THE INTERN (2015)
Blu-ray

I really liked The Intern when I first saw it in theaters. It doesn’t get much more breezy and lightweight than this, a fluffy little confection about the adorable friendship that blossoms between a harried young CEO of an online company (Anne Hathaway)and her new intern, who happens to be an elderly, widowed retiree played by Robert DeNiro. It’s refreshing to watch a movie where almost the entire plot revolves around people being nice to each other, although there’s some questionable stuff (the arguably unsatisfying ending, the bizarre sexual objectification of Robert Deniro) to keep this out of my Nice Movie pantheon (which is mostly just Chef and the two Paddington movies).

FEB. 17

IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (2014)
Amazon VOD

The source material for Cold Pursuit is this icy Nordic thriller from Hans Petter Moland, who also directed both films. Looking at the two in tandem, they are so similar that the American version almost plays more like an extended and improved director’s cut than a completely different movie. At least to me, Cold Pursuit is slightly better than In Order of Disappearance in almost every regard, but only by a little. It was interesting to watch the story again with slightly different narrative choices and some tonal adjustments.

Women have much more to do in the American version, and outshine their male counterparts in scenes that play out differently or not at all in the Nordic version. Serbian gangsters are swapped out for Native Americans, and their cultural stake to the bloody turf war adds a layer of depth that wasn’t possible in the original (at least to my American eyes). Stellan Skarsgård is the lead this time around, and shows up with his own brand of steely gravitas. Both films are worth watching, but you’re safe sticking with the American version if you only want to choose one.

WHAT IF (2013)
Amazon Prime

This is one of those movies I’m always happy to play if it pops up on cable or a streaming service. The premise – a sad-sack guy meets a delightful woman at a party, and the only hitch is that she has a boyfriend; brooding and shenanigans ensue – is nothing new, and the narrative doesn’t bring a ton to the table. You could also argue that it’s twee in a way that’s not very hip anymore. However, the reason to watch What If is to see the ridiculous cast which includes an enjoyably crabby Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Rafe Spall, Mackenzie Davis and a dangerously charismatic Adam Driver, bounce off each other for 90 minutes. Radcliffe, in particular, gives as comforatble and lived-in a performance as I’ve seen from him.This film shouldn’t work as well as it does, but I can’t help but find it compellingly watchable every time.

FEB. 18

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2014)
Blu-ray

When I saw the first Kingsman during its theatrical run, I wasn’t much of a fan. Despite a lot to like, I found the underlying tone and its casualness when it came to mass violence a little too off-putting to endorse. The lackluster sequel did little to disabuse me of that notion, but I like to keep an open mind and I figured it could be time for a rewatch.

My reaction this time? Meh, it’s fine. Last time I saw Kingsman: The Secret Service was well before I watched all the 007 movies last year, so it was fun to watch the film play with some tropes I’m now more familiar with. I also can’t help but like Taron Egerton’s whole chav routine. The butt thing doesn’t bother me, either. My biggest problems stem from the action and the violence, which seems to be a consistent theme when I watch Matthew Vaughn’s R-rated films like Kingsman and Kick-Ass. These movies have loads of violence, sometimes visited on innocent people, that is deliberately presented in a fairly flippant manner, while also looking like they were made for 12-year-olds. The film tries to have it both ways and doesn’t fully convince in either mode, while at the same time I don’t think the violence is actually absurd enough to sell the joke. The swishy way in which the action is shot and edited, loaded with speedramping, comes off as distracting rather than cool.

What I’ve Been Watching – February 5-11, 2019

In addition to catching up on some new releases (spoiler: I sort of liked GLASS), I had Paul Verhoeven on the brain this week. After watching the thoroughly sub-par remakes of Total Recall and Robocop, I had to revisit the originals (along with Starship Troopers, the obvious next step) and as always, I was completely delighted.

FEB. 5

TOTAL RECALL (2012)
Blu-ray

Okay, I know I talk about SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY all the time but I’m going there again! Occasionally when watching SOLO, I remember that the material is based material from the original Star Wars trilogy, and I think, “oh right, that’s Han Solo.” At a few points during Len Wiseman’s limp remake, I remembered how much I like the original Total Recall a something on-screen vaguely reminded me of it. There have certainly been remakes that have improved on their forebears by reinterpreting material that had a lot of room for improvement (Ocean’s Eleven, Pete’s Dragon) or going in a very different direction (Suspiria). Total Recall, unfortunately, does neither and instead shies away from almost everything that made the Schwarzenegger vehicle the crazy, hyped-up and thoroughly unforgettable experience it is.

I try really hard not to dump on movie franchises that take an R to PG-13 ratings bump, but in the (good) Verhoeven sci-fi flicks, the absurd violence is kind of the point, as opposed to a means to an end. By trading blood squibs for a more pedestrian mode of swoopy, hyperkinetic (and MPAA-friendly) action and taking out all the weird stuff like Mars and mutants, there’s nothing interesting let to hold on to as a viewer.

I should note that I watched the theatrical cut and supposedly the extended director’s cut is a little better, but I don’t care enough to give it another chance right now.

ROBOCOP (2014)
Blu-ray

Compared to the original, the remake of Robocop is pretty useless. The first Robocop is a perfect movie. The remake is predictably forgettable and messes up some things that didn’t need fiddling with, but at least compared to the Total Recall remake by at least attempting to have some ideas. It doesn’t really work and some of the ideas are fairly undercooked, but some kind of effort is visibly being made.

In the end, the problem with both the Robocop and Total remakes is that they are conventional remakes of films that only appear to be conventional on the surface. This newer film may have a take on drone warfare to fill in for the first Robocop’s “urban politics” and the material with Samuel L. Jackson’s “shock jock” is clumsy but holds up in 2019 relatively well (though it can’t hold a candle to classic Verhoeven news footage).

FEB. 6

SPLIT (2017)
YouTube VOD

*SPOILERS FOR SPLIT I GUESS?*

I missed this film during its initial run, but if I had the big reveal that it’s a quasi-sequel to Unbreakable would have been lost on me in the theater. Since my occasion to watch Split comes upon the release of Glass, my reading of the film relied on it being part of a larger unit, and not its own thing. I don’t think that’s inherently bad, even on a first reading, but it’s my only reading. It was fun looking for all the little hints, but the mystery was gone.

Split is a movie that may not be a complete home-run but, there are some very strong moments that make the whole thing worthwhile (the abduction scene in the car is particularly compelling in its use of film language to reveal information at the same pace as the characters on-screen figure it out) and James McAvoy’s suite of performances is undoubtedly showy but still thoroughly compelling. I was expecting something like a bottle movie in the vein of 10 Cloverfield Lane, but Split is a little more expansive than that with subplots that take place outside the subterranean lair and tone down the film’s potentially gimmicky nature.

Would I have bothered with Split at this point if it was not part of a trilogy? Probably not. But M. Night Shyamalan is nothing if not a shrewd marketer and showman, and his ploy worked on me.

FEB. 8

THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART (2019)
Theatrical – 2D IMAX Digital

This movie is really good, right? Am I crazy? Why is nobody talking about this movie? The first Lego Movie was such a revelation that there’s little the sequel could do to make a similar cultural impact, but this still feels like more of a non-event than it should be. Why do I always have to stick up for the family movies? The Lego Movie 2 is really good!

The Second Part picks up directly after the first movie, and continues with the “twist” of having the LEGO narrative stand in for a family relationship. This time the focus is on the relationship between the brother and sister (played by Brooklynn Prince of The Florida Project!), takes a different tack from The Lego Movie’s bracing anti-corporatist bent and instead focuses on a message of kindness and acceptance that feels a little more in-step with current times. If possible, the form of pop music is weaponized even more this time around as The Second Part is almost a full-on pop musical with pointedly catchy songs and surprisingly funny lyrics.

This time around, the subversion is aimed a little more carefully, and finds its most potent target in the form of Chris Pratt, who is a much bigger star now than his last LEGO appearance. In addition to the main character of Emmett, he also plays a twisted amalgamation of his most popular film roles as a denial-plagued, raptor-wrangling space rogue to devastating effect. Is there precedent for a major film meta-dunking on its star this hard?

FEB. 9

TOTAL RECALL (1990)
Blu-ray

After sitting through the Verhoeven remakes, I wasn’t going to sleep well until I watched the originals again. They are all brilliant in their own ways, but if we lump RoboCop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers together as a loose unit we see a ton of recurring themes that reflect Paul Verhoeven’s uniquely outside-in perspective on the American blockbuster, and why they continue to be as entertaining and relevant as ever. Verhoeven’s sci-fi films may appear to be stupid on first glance, but what seem to be bizarre choices are often very deliberate and crucial to the spirit of the movie.

Take Total Recall, for example. Why would Arnold Schwarzenegger, in all of his can’t-miss-it Shwarzenegger-iness, be cast as a schlubby blue-collar construction worker named Douglas Quaid? And why would this rando guy be married to Sharon Stone circa-1990? And why is he able to brutally kill everyone in the bloodiest fashion imaginable? The true nature of Arnold’s character, and the nagging question of whether he is dreaming or not, are an integral part of the story’s structure and and add subtle shades to the film which grow more rewarding on each repeat viewing. The actual answers are not important, but they do invite parallel readings that are equally convincing.

As with any Verhoeven joint, there is plenty of material here that many will consider of questionable taste and your mileage may vary but there’s so much good stuff here. The production design and special effects are still mostly spectacular, and it’s always great to see Michael Ironside.

ROBOCOP (1987)
Blu-ray

What makes a perfect movie? Is there such a thing? In all seriousness, the only movie I can immediately think of that I would consider “perfect” while not being too much of a hipster would be Paddington 2. Why? Point to any individual element in the film in any narrative or technical aspect and you can find excellence, and it is delightful and engaging from scene to scene and minute to minute. I love everything about Paddington 2.

So the crucial question: is RoboCop really as good as Paddington 2? Does it spark as much joy? Fuck yes it does, RoboCop is incredible.

Total Recall has a grander visual scope and Starship Troopers has bigger ideas, but in RoboCop seemingly everything from the cast to the nutty, heightened tone to the offhandedly brilliant script converges in every single scene to make a film that never stops being a joy to watch. It works as a dumb popcorn movie, but it’s actually an extremely smart popcorn movie with a lot to say about class, crime and consumerism, a biting satire that still hits all the right notes. RoboCop is also ironically the most human of Verhoeven’s sci-fi fare, and the plight of the protagonist is actually taken seriously and isn’t subsumed by the film’s overall message. On top of that, it features one of the most iconic moments of extreme, graphic violence ever in mainstream American cinema in the ED-209 scene, and it’s just as hilariously insane today.

STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997)
Blu-ray

There are a handful of movie-watching experiences from my youth that I consider truly formative, and seeing Starship Troopers late at night on cable at too young an age was definitely one of them. At the time I didn’t really get the whole fascist angle, but I did know that it was weird that a movie that looked so good and so expensive got away with being so insanely violent. That’s the key to Verhoeven’s brilliance: this dumb-looking movie keeps being rewarding in different ways over time, and is complementary to audiences at multiple cinematic reading levels. Looking back today, it’s perhaps even more shocking than ever that such a baldly subversive movie got made at such a high technical level; it’s a hundred-million-dollar faux-propaganda film about American space Nazis.

If RoboCop was Verhoeven’s most human work, Starship Troopers is pointedly the opposite. The characters, narrative and visual storytelling all work in service of the fascist satire, not just for the sake of being cool (it’s been well documented that the cast was hired more for their, ahem, Aryan looks than their talent). Pulling visual inspiration from Nazi propaganda like Triumph of the Will and framed as a classic WWII-style propaganda feature, Starship Troopers appears to advocate for a future society that is prototypically American-looking and nakedly, horrifyingly fascist. Plenty of heightened Verhoeven choices clue us in: why does all of the Earth-bound material look like, to use a modern reference, a CW show? Why are all the people so eerily perfect-looking? Why is everyone in Buenos Aires white and apparently American? Why does Neil Patrick Harris show back up in the third act looking dead-eyed and wearing what looks like an SS officer uniform?

Even putting the message aside, Starship Troopers is also one of the best-looking special effects movies ever made and will likely never be topped in terms of its combination of CG and large-scale practical model work, especially for a film that is so unabashedly hard-R in terms of violence. It looked pretty convincing in 1997, and it still does today. High art masquerading as dumb schlock, a classic.

FEB. 10

GLASS (2019)
Theatrical – DCP

I’ll admit up-front that I don’t feel fully qualified to say much about M. Night Shyamalan’s epic conclusion to his oblique superhero trilogy, though after seeing it I feel sort of thankful I didn’t spend almost two decades waiting for it. Whatever anybody’s expectations of the ultimate conflict between Mr. Glass, The Horde and whatever you call Bruce Willis (Mr. Unbreakable?), Shyamalan makes sure to snuff them out as coldly as possible.

The first act plays out in a fairly logical way, as Mr. Unbreakable searches for and eventually confront McAvoy’s Horde. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know all three characters are placed together at a mysterious psychiatric facility under the care of a shifty Sarah Paulson and at this point the movie politely sits down at a table, pushes its chair in, places a napkin in its lap and proceeds to systematically eat the established rulebook for the superhero genre. This isn’t inherently good or bad, but there’s no denying that the shift in setting knocks the wind out of the movie and it never comes back. The climax of the film isn’t a superhero brawl, but a group therapy session. Bruce Willis has very little to do. The script talks about comic books like it’s from another dimension.

There are plenty of nits to pick and there’s a good chance some of it went over my head, but I have to give Shyamalan credit for putting up the money and making this nutty movie that seems to exist mostly for its own sake.

THE RUNNING MAN (1987)
Amazon VOD

I was looking to watch something that matched at least vaguely in tone with my week’s Verhoeven-ing, and I decided on this forgetting that Demolition Man was also sitting on my shelf. In theory, this hokey, gaudy satire about a deadly game show of the future should be pushing similar buttons to something like Robocop, but it’s simply not close to as interesting or complex. AH-nuld stars as a man framed for murder and placed in a game show where death row inmates fight against crazy assassins for a national audience. There’s some seriously potent 80’s cheese to be had which is its own kind of fun, but there’s no reason to take The Running Man very seriously.

FEB. 11

PAPRIKA (2006)
Blu-ray

With Total Recall still on the brain, I went back to Satoshi Kon’s anime mind-bender for another movie about dreams. The story revolves around a stolen device that can hack into people’s dreams without their knowledge, and the film pushes an “are they dreaming or not” conceit to the max. Basically, after the first act almost any character could be in a dream space at any time, which allows for any scene to fly off the rails almost instantly. The result is a film that constantly keeps the audience guessing and invested, even as the plot begins to lose the thread by the end.

AKIRA (1988)
Blu-ray

Akira is one of those classics I can appreciate, even if I don’t completely “get it.” A sprawling, sci-fi anime epic whose plot is too nuts to handily describe, Akira also remains a formidable technical presentation. Every time I get new speakers, this is one of my first test discs. Hearing Akira on my new 5.2 surround system for the first time was just as terrifying as I was hoping for, and the final half-hour remains just as disturbing and bewildering.

What I’ve Been Watching – January 29-February 4, 2019

This week, I caught up with a Best Picture nominee I was not looking forward to, experienced Netflix’s anime Godzilla trilogy, celebrated the imminent return of Criterion to streaming and caught an advanced showing of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.

JAN. 29

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)
Theatrical – DCP

I will admit up front that I am naturally predisposed to dislike Bohemian Rhapsody for a few reasons, but maybe the most pertinent are that I tend to resist pedestrian Oscar-bait biopics like this one, and I never really liked Queen. Out of all their songs, the one that gives this film its title is perhaps my least favorite. It’s too much. With that noted, I still feel comfortable saying I didn’t like this movie at all.

You remember that part in SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY when that Imperial officer gave Han Solo his last name and you were like OH SHIT THAT’S WHY HE’S NAMED HAN SOLO?! Bohemian Rhapsody is a lot like that, but with Queen. See re-enactments of your favorite performances! Learn the secret origins of some of your favorite songs!! This is a basic-ass movie aiming for the back row, like they feared if Rami Malek’s teeth were a little smaller people wouldn’t notice they were there.

I also can’t let it skate by that if you consider any of the news stories surrounding this film, from the Bryan Singer factor to how certain story elements fail to align with reality in concerning ways, I don’t feel any compelling reason to question my feelings about this one, awards or not.

WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY (2007)
Amazon VOD

I needed to get Bohemian Rhapsody off of me, and based on some discussion lately Walk Hard seemed like the obvious choice. It was uncanny, watching a relatively lowbrow comedy from over a decade ago systematically rip apart the “prestige” Best Picture nominee I just watched in a theater. I liked the songs better, too!

I’m a sucker for films that are primarily about other films, they get the film-school neurons firing. Walk Hard may appear on the surface to be a dumb comedy, but it uses the form to slice open the musical biopic genre with surgical precision and lay bare many of its silliest and most overused conventions. If anyone creatively involved in Bohemian Rhapsody remembered watched this movie, they kept it to themselves because Walk Hard lays down a minefield the Rhapsody gallops over with total abandon. Framing device of career-defining performance? Check. Distant relationship with parents who want to hold the singer back? Check. Band members struggling as frontman grows more distant? Check. Cutaways to random people watching along in a bar somewhere during a big song? Check. It was 90 minutes of ferocious slam dunks. What I’m trying to say here is Bohemian Rhapsody sucks.

JAN. 30

MIKEY & NICKY (1976)
Criterion Channel

All hail the return of Criterion to streaming! I will admit to being a long-time subscriber to FilmStruck who didn’t actually use the service that much due to my format preferences, but having been taught over and over again not to take things like this for granted, I figured I should get started right away with their first movie of the week, a feature that will run until the full service launches April 8.

Mikey & Nicky, a 1976 gangster drama by Elaine May, immediately reminded a lot of the Safdie Bros.’ Good Time, a film which has been stuck in my craw since I saw it in 2017. Both films can be described as nocturnal odysseys that follow doomed, hopelessly toxic men into the deepest depths of their own wretchedness. Nicky, played by John Cassavetes, is the cursed soul who stole too much from the boss and has a price on his head, and in his naked desperation he harms anyone that gets too close. Nicky is exactly the sort of man our society is learning to stop romanticizing, and the film knows it: scenes involving Nicky’s fraught and manipulative relationships with women have both a rawness and sensitivity that can manifest best from a female perspective. This only makes me feel worse about dozing off during a screening of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie in film school. I’m really sorry.

JAN. 31

GODZILLA: PLANET OF THE MONSTERS (2018)
Netflix Original

When I first selected this blindly off my Netflix home screen a year ago, I did not know Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters was the beginning of a tightly interconnected trilogy so when I got to the abrupt cliffhanger ending, I was very confused. Now, the trilogy is complete. I often wonder about what exactly a Netflix film is, and more to the point if I count them as films for purposes of accounting. Even Netflix is unsure how to brand this Godzilla trilogy and uses the terms “A Netflix Film” and “A Netflix Series” interchangeably, but seeing as how each part got a theatrical release in Japan and is movie-length, I’m counting them.

While Shin Godzilla was Toho’s return to live-action following the American film in 2014, Planet of the Monsters is the studio’s first attempt at animation. While I don’t gravitate towards anime, one thing I like about it is that of any film form, it seems the most limitless in terms of scale. Just about anything can happen in anime, so for Godzilla’s first entry into the medium the setting is suitably fantastical. This trilogy is set in a future where kaiju have overrun Earth, and humanity has abandoned the planet with the help of some humanoid extraterrastrials who were previously displaced by kaiju on their planets. When the survivors decide to return to Earth and defeat Godzilla, they find the planet has violently mutated to accommodate a new dominant species.

As in many a Godzilla picture, while there is time to fight the monster there is much more time for lots of discussion. Planet of the Monsters juggles a lot of themes and its meditation on humanity not being at the top of the food chain are interesting, but there’s also a lot of crazy gobbledygook science too, of which your mileage may vary. The cast of characters is largely indistinguishable from one another. The high-concept premise is compelling, even if the prevailing mood can get cold. This being the first of an interconnected series, the movie doesn’t attempt to function as a standalone feature.

FEB. 1

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 (2014)
Blu-ray 3D

The second How to Train Your Dragon is a textbook sequel for this sort of movie, in that it does almost everything right: it allows us to spend more time with characters we like, maintains the first film’s pleasant atmosphere while considerably upping the dramatic stakes, and tells a story that feels essential instead of extraneous. While the first film was largely about the vikings overcoming their prejudices and internal conflicts and learning, well, how to train their dragons, the sequel introduces a real human villain. Having the antagonist be an external force doesn’t allow for as much character growth and can cause the film to feel occasionally overstuffed, but the upside is that the danger and emotional stakes are ramped up considerably. There is some real drama here, moreso than the other installments.

The Dragon series falls well with the Dreamworks house style and looks good enough without being showy, but the character animation, especially of Toothless, may be the single most crucial component that all the movies get right. The mind-control sequence (which feels surprisingly risky) only works because Toothless’s physical characterization is so distinctive.

GODZILLA: CITY ON THE EDGE OF BATTLE (2018)
Netflix Original

The anime Godzilla trilogy lumbers on in a very similar vein to the first installment. The story picks up immediately with nary a refresher, and follows the remaining survivors as they encounter an Avatar-esque native tribe, spend a lot of time discussing in pretty specific detail how to defeat Godzilla, and fight amongst themselves before taking another shot at the monster. BUT – is Godzilla the real monster here?

There is a lot going on in these Godzilla films, and it’s easy to detach a bit as the exposition flies around willy-nilly. The crazy plot is contained in a movie that might be a little too earnest for its own good, and attempting to detail what happens feels like a silly exercise if you’re not at least somewhat familiar with Godzilla lore. Mechagodzilla City, anyone? Godzilla spends even more time sitting dormant than he did in Plane tof the Monsters, and while his presence is still felt because almost every conversation is about Godzilla, it’s a stretch. I’m very glad I’m approaching this series with all of the installments now available, as I can’t imagine City on the Edge of Battle is very useful as a stand-alone piece.

FEB. 2

GODZILLA: THE PLANET EATER (2019)
Netflix Original

I don’t know if the final chapter of Netflix’s Godzilla epic is the best of the three, but it at least bears the closest resemblance to a more typical Godzilla movie. Godzilla is awake for more than 5 minutes this time, and the stakes shift from the humans fighting Godzilla to Godzilla fighting another monster. Some religious themes which served as undercurrents in the previous installments are brought much more to the fore, and the macro stakes really outweigh the personal ones as the series ostensible lead character, Haruo, is largely sidelined in favor of a conflict that grows larger than human concerns. The Planet Eater goes out there and gets metaphysical, and I can’t accuse the trilogy of not ending on a crazy enough note. Is it enough to get you on board if the first two parts didn’t do it for you? Maybe not.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD (2019)
Theatrical – DCP

The How to Train Your Dragon series has held up for a while now as sort of the Planet of the Apes of animated franchises: you may not think about them every day, but these sneaky-good films show up and consistently over-perform installment after installment. Unsurprisingly, The Hidden World continues the streak and ends the series on a moving high note that cements this series’ status as one of the great film trilogies.

It’s one thing to develop a well-rounded cast of human characters, but the way Toothless is not only characterized but given a meaningful arc as a character that is, well, an animal that can’t talk. The dragons are never strongly anthropomorphized, they always behave like animals, but Toothless isn’t marginalized and his story, whether he is on-screen or not, is the crucial thematic core of the film. There’s also human conflict which pushes the story along to the titular hidden world and an enjoyably snakey dragon-hunter villain played by F. Murray Abraham, but the vikings, the dragons and how both they and their relationship evolve is where the good stuff is.

If you’ve seen the How to Train Your Dragon 1 & 2, making the trip to see The Hidden World should be a no-brainer but if you haven’t, this is the perfect chance to catch up on one of the best mainstream film series you might have missed. Each entry enriches the others in an essential way, and taken as a unit the accomplishment of this trilogy is kind of staggering.

BULLITT (1968)
Blu-ray

Bullitt is a movie I’ve been aware of for a long time, and I knew two things about it: it’s got Steve McQueen in it, and there’s a car chase. Now having watched it, I can say that it’s got Steve McQueen in it, and there’s a really good car chase. Unfortunately, this masterful sequence (which is no less visceral today) happens in the middle of the second act and the rest of the film runs out of steam. McQueen has a flinty, Daniel Craig Bond kind of vibe and is fun to watch, but it’s difficult to recommend that you watch the parts of Bullitt that are not the car chase.

FEB. 3

ASSASSIN’S CREED (2016)
Blu-ray 3D

Movies like Assassin’s Creed are one of the biggest reasons I miss the glory days of MoviePass. I went to see this one afternoon as a random toss-off that I had no expectations for, and I ended up feeling down to clown with its weirdness. I’ve never played any of the games myself so I have no personal insights into its fidelity to the source material, but I took note of lots of jumping and slashing, which seem like things you would do in those games. The cast is bizarrely overstuffed with the likes of Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Michael K. Williams, Brendan Gleason, Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling (!), and I can’t help but enjoy it even as I sometimes stumble through the hazy plot (and strain to see through the literally hazy visual effects). I continue to be intrigued by the dreamlike flying shots that begin each “flashback” sequence, as they sport a unique multiplane look that comes close to replicating an old-fashioned animated tracking shot with several planes of depth.

Assassin’s Creed joins the club with the Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla of movies that have 3D Blu-rays that are more available than most, but aren’t a great technical showcase for the platform. Godzilla is overwhelmingly dark to the point that adding 3D glasses can severely compromise perception of detail, and Assassin’s Creed’s showcase sequences are bathed in a thick layer of fog that does no favors for depth perception and invites ghosting. Sort of a shame.

FEB. 4

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018)
Netflix Original

Is this the sort of movie that only Netflix money can buy? It’s rare to see an anthology film approach the mainstream, and even rarer to see an anthology helmed by one (set of) filmmaker(s). The six segments vary plenty in terms of tone and story, but they are uniformly well-cast and gorgeous to look at. The Coens’ particular brand of comedy is as black as ever, and you can be assured that not everybody makes it intact to the end of their story.

The opening segment that gives the film its title is the most immediately arresting and distinct in terms of tone, and I’m relieved it wasn’t spoiled for me. The fifth segment starring Zoe Kazan is the most substantial and rewarding and does the best job grounding the comedy enough to actually get invested. In a rarity for the anthology format, each segment truly feels like it has the production value of a feature uncompromised by a restrictive budget. I didn’t watch all six segments in one sitting and watched on a few different devices, and I can attest that the material really benefits from a large screen. Some of the wide shots could pass for expanded IMAX frames in terms of their scope, and it’s a shame that the cinematography will be largely relegated to phones and TVs. This is a Netflix film I would have watched in a theater.