Recent Moving Pictures

I’ve been battling a cold recently, which has allowed me to catch up on a whole slew of 2017 movies, and even check out a few in the theater:

  • Brawl in Cell Block 99 – S. Craig Zahler’s follow up to the gruesome Western/Horror mashup Bone Tomahawk, this one is perhaps not quite as great, but is still a very well done film. Vince Vaughn plays a surprisingly badass drug-runner with a sense of honor who gets caught, goes to jail, and gets caught up in a scheme to kill a prisoner. Like Bone Tomahawk, this one takes its time to get going, and you don’t even really get to the eponymous Cell Block 99 until late in the movie, but Zahler has a talent for making this sort of slow burn work. I mean, yeah, there’s a bout a half an hour of plot here that is drawn out to over two hours; something that rarely works for me, but Zahler pulls it off. Perhaps by punctuating the film’s beats with some severely gruesome action, he kept the pace moving just fast enough without overwhelming with gore (but keep in mind, I’m a little jaded on that front, so it’s worth calling out that this is not a film for the faint of heart). Vaughn plays the part well, a little disconnected but full of rage. It’s a physical performance such that we haven’t seen from him before, and the action is staged and choreographed well. This ain’t no martial arts movie though, the title’s “brawl” is a more apt descriptor here, with the fighting being a sort of sloppy mix of boxing and MMA brutality. It’s again very gory, especially towards the end of the movie, but it all works well enough in the end. Well worth checking out for those who can stomach this sort of thing. ***
  • The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – Noah Baumbach’s tale of a dysfunctional family, oops, well that describes a lot of his movies, um, this one is in New York and follows three children of a moderately talented sculptor and teacher who gather in New York. As these things go, it’s a well done story, perhaps because Baumbach isn’t as interested in just wallowing in the dysfunction as he is with letting some of the characters at least attempt to find a way out. It’s still not exactly my favorite thing to watch and these aren’t really characters I love spending time with, but it wasn’t as excruciating as some of Baumbach’s earlier efforts. Dustin Hoffman plays the smarmy, judgmental patriarch well, of course. Adam Sandler (one of the brothers) always manages to surprise whenever he shows up in a movie like this because he actually seems to be trying, something that’s not exactly true of his other Netflix efforts. Ben Stiller (the other brother) is his usual self, sort of reprising his role from Royal Tenenbaums only not as neurotic. Elizabeth Marvel is fantastic as the sister, and she’s not given nearly enough to do (though she does at least get a monologue, she is mostly dismissed throughout the movie, which might be the point). And the supporting cast is also pretty great (of particular note, Sigourney Weaver in a cameo as herself, and Adam Driver has a funny little cameo too). This sort of aimless day-in-the-life (or months-in-the-life) story isn’t really my thing, but this movie moves along at a reasonable pace and is leavened by enough humor and goodwill (amidst all the angst and ennui) that I found myself playing along well enough. I know Baumbach isn’t particularly happy with Netflix’s rollout of this movie (they are notoriously bad at theatrical releases), but I’d probably never have watched this if it wasn’t on Netflix (and if I didn’t get sick). **
  • Okja – Another Netflix release from a well respected arthouse director, this one comes from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, a filmmaker I’ve never managed to fully connect with. He’s certainly talented and puts out interesting movies, but something about the way he mashes tonal inconsistencies together never really flows right. I gather this is part of his appeal, but I also tend to find his messages delivered in a clumsy, ham-fisted way. This film about a little girl’s relationship with a “super-pig” owned by a corporation who hopes to use it to launch a revolution in food or somesuch. This touches on a lot of themes that Joon-ho has explored in Snowpiercer and The Host (environmentalism, class, etc…), and it’s pretty rote and didactic on those fronts, but the story is at least well executed and moves quickly enough that it didn’t feel overbearing. That tonal weirdness is certainly here in full force (especially in Jake Gyllenhaal’s manic performance) and some of the elements don’t feel like they fit, but this is par for the course here. I had a good enough time with the movie and it does have some entertaining set-pieces and the kid’s relationship with Okja (the super-pig) is endearing, so I’d say this is worth a watch if you’re looking for something rather odd to watch. **1/2
  • Justice League – DC’s struggles continue with this latest, but it’s also a much more enjoyable experience than most of their other offerings in the cinematic universe era and they appear to be improving, which is a good thing. It comports itself well enough as an action packed spectacle, actually, but it still can’t shake the feeling of being an inferior also-ran. It feels like a lot of these DC movies try to pull out a template from a previous success, without actually understanding why that previous success, um, succeeded. For instance, Man of Steel was very much patterned after Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Use the more ominous moniker, go darker and more brooding, and so on. But this doesn’t really fit with Superman, at least, not yet (it’s the sort of thing you do when you run out of ideas and people are sick of Supes). Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (the actual title they used, guys) doubled down on this darker, grimmer approach. This time around, they’re looking to emulate The Avengers. Villain with horns and an army of faceless flying monsters is seeking power cubes to take over planet earth. Sounds familiar, eh? Now, this isn’t exactly a new thing, nor is it unique to DC. As I understand it, comic books are rife with blatant copies of popular superheroes, and this sort of thing can be fine. But DC didn’t do the legwork that Marvel did, they just delved into the team-up without actually establishing a bunch of the characters (and no, Diana Prince watching trailers in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (the actual title they used, guys) doesn’t count), and the result feels a little weightless and half-baked. That being said, all the right elements are here, and the movie hits all the beats it needs to. It’s so close to a really good movie that it’s a little frustrating that it only manages to be an entertaining way to spend a few hours. The cast is great though, and the new folks are all good additions (if only we knew more about them before the movie started!) Credit where credit’s due, this is still a huge improvement over previous installments (Wonder Woman aside), but the troubling thing is that this movie isn’t doing so well, and DC always seems to cave to complaints about their films, so I’m just hoping they keep the tone here and maybe let the next few movies work as standalones so that the next teamup can feel justified. In the end, this was actually quite enjoyable and well worth checking out, even if it’s flawed and a little lacking. They’re trying, people. **1/2
  • A Cure for Wellness – Gore Verbinski’s trippy tale of an ambitious young executive sent to retrieve his company’s CEO from a mysterious wellness center in the Swiss Alps. As per usual, the remote wellness center is more menacing than expected. Dane DeHaan plays the lead here, and is much more suited than he was as the Han Solo type in Valerian. His gaunt, sleepy face is perfect for his creepy descent into possible insanity. The rest of the cast does an admirable job selling a rather overwrought story and the movie is visually beautiful. It’s about an hour too long though and it hits a lot of standard tropes along the way. It does so well enough to recommend it though, so there is that. It’s all a bit much, but fun enough in the end. **1/2
  • Wheelman – Another Netflix original, this one stars Frank Grillo as the wheelman and the movie is mostly presented as an in-car view of him driving around and talking on the phone, trying to resolve a job that went awry. It’s sort of like that movie Locke, but with a crime and action component. It’s perhaps less ambitious than the previous few films in this post, but it hits its mark better than they do as well. It’s not going to win any awards or anything, but I greatly enjoyed it. ***
  • Murder on the Orient Express – Kenneth Branagh’s take on the fetted Agatha Christie mystery manages to carve out an identity of its own while leaving the core of the mystery intact (I think; I’ve never actually read the book, but this matches up well enough with what I already knew from cultural seepage). His performance as Hercule Poirot is memorable and the character is well established with the opening mini-mystery. Once the film settles in on the train, with all its flashy opulence, things pick up well enough. The solution to the mystery is well presented, and I gather that Branagh added a little moral conundrum to the ending that adds a little weight to the proceedings. Very well done, if a tad staid. ***
  • King Arthur: Legend of the Sword – Guy Ritchie’s take on King Arthur is certainly interesting, if not as successful as the previous movie on this list. Ritchie puts an epic fantasy spin on the proceedings that is welcome, and adds in a sorta crime component (early Ritchie style) that is perhaps less successful, but still functional. You already know the King Arthur story, and this does an admirable job hitting the basic beats while adding plenty of complications and tweaks along the way. Jude Law is great as the villain, and Charlie Hunnam manages well enough as Arthur, and it’s all very well and good. This movie got savaged by critics and audiences alike, but I rather enjoyed it and find it underrated (even if it isn’t exactly my favorite movie of the year). **1/2
  • Too Funny to Fail: The Life & Death of The Dana Carvey Show – It’s all right there in the subtitle. I do remember the Dana Carvey show’s short run from when I was a kid, though I clearly didn’t watch all of it because I don’t remember a lot of the bits referenced in this documentary. I had no idea about the talent involved though (Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell both started there, amongst others) and the film gets all the appropriate talking heads (except Luis CK, for some reason). The show was perhaps not as great as everyone is saying (all the episodes are on Hulu now if you want to check it out), but the show was singular and unique, clearly ahead of its time in some respects. The bit where they show the commercial of a very special episode of Home Improvement followed by the ad for the Dana Carvey show is priceless. Otherwise, this is pretty standard Oral History of a TV Show type documentary territory. Enjoyable enough. **1/2
  • The Belko Experiment – Eighty Americans are trapped in a high rise in Bogata, Columbia and ordered by an unknown voice on the intercom to participate in an escalating series of murders. A hoaky premise, to be sure, and somewhat derivative, but reasonably well executed for what it is. There’s not really much to say about this, but it’s an enjoyable enough diversion for horror fans. **1/2
  • Thor: Ragnarok – I’ve always enjoyed the Thor movies, much more than I gather most people do (I even liked the second one!), and this third entry in the series is indeed very good. Thor discover’s Loki’s trick from the previous film and the set off in search of their exiled father, who it turns out is ready to pass away. Once he does so, Thor and Loki’s sister, Hela the goddess of death, is freed from her bonds and seeks to, I don’t know, take over the universe (or the 9 realms or whatever). Along the way, Thor gets captured and has to fight in a gladiator battle on a trash planet. The extent to which the movie works is the extent to which Taika Waititi’s goofy sense of humor goes on display, which mostly happens in the second act. The first and third acts feel mostly like franchise-service (both Thor and larger MCU) and are a little disconnected and perfunctory. The action is a bit weightless and while Cate Blanchett is clearly relishing her role, the character simply isn’t given enough meat to fully work (but I attribute the entire extent to which it does to Blanchett’s performance). The humor is much more successful, especially in the second act, which feels like the part where they let Waititi do whatever he wanted. Jeff Goldblum brings a lot to another thin villain, and is hugely entertaining, and some of the new side characters work well too (especially Korg, voiced by Waititi himself). Mark Ruffalo returns as Hulk, who is always great, and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie is a welcome addition (and has a fun little relationship with Hulk). It’s not quite top tier Marvel, but it’s maybe top of the second tier? Very entertaining and funny. ***

Lots of movies to watch before the year is out, so stay tuned…

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