I’m still keeping track of movies I’m watching. This year I’ve gotten involved into some annual film challenges. One is to watch 52 particular Criterion movies, and the other is to watch four movies each from multiple movements. For this entry, I went with 21st Century blockbusters, which I recognize one of four major movements at the moment in American/ anglosphere cinema and the post-code Golden Age of Hollywood. The first blockbuster is not a good one.
Movie #51/ New Movie #35: Morbius (Movie Theater)
It’s not that bad, but it’s also not recommended either. Matt Smith is the highlight, even if there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense if you think about it for a millisecond (like how exactly does Michael Morbius get his money?)
Movie #52/ New Movie #36: Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Movie Theater))
I was a big Sonic fan growing up, so it was important that this film captures the dynamic between Sonic, Tails and Knuckles. And it succeeds on that level. It’s not great, but it brings them together and has some fun with their friendship, while also showing sequences that do seem to be straight out of the video games. The CGI seems worse this time around. In the first film, there was one CGI creature interacting with humans. This time, there are multiple CGI characters, and giant robots, and obvious scenes of ordinary people interacting with green screens. Jim Carrey’s okay as Eggman/ Dr Robotnick, but the robots are kinda dull. It’s just drones. The Genesis-style credits were great, and gets this back to a “B” grade.
Movie #53/ New Movie #37: Everything Everywhere All At Once (Movie Theater)
This was fun. Weird but fun. And by weird, it is one of the strangest semi-mainstream films I’ve seen, although it remains accessible despite the mishmash of immigrant family drama, and sci-fi action comedy. It’s not going to happen, but I would love to see Michelle Yeoh, Jamie Lee Curtis, Stephanie Hsu, James Hong and Ke Huy Quan all get Oscar nominations for playing interdimensional versions of their characters (and for making the Earth versions more layered and complex than is immediately apparent.) This film conveyed an emotional truth quite well, and in between the butt-plug jokes and wacky action set pieces, it can have you thinking about how your life could have gone.
Movie #54/ New Movie #38: Fantastic Beasts- The Secrets of Dumbledore (Movie Theater)
This is an odd sequel. It’s the third film in the Newt Scamander saga, although it’s promoted like a Justice League/ Avengers with wizard Ash Ketchum teaming up with Dumbledore, a top Hogwarts professor and an elite auror. The actual film comes across more like an X-Men, but if Magneto and Professor X had dated. It’s fine. It’s the third of five, but it does tie up things okay. Jude Law’s Dumbledore works well as a tragic hero. I’m not sure how excited viewers are about all the plot points involving an election at the ministry of magic, or a metaphor for how Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. The question of extralegal moves against Grindelwald raises some icky questions in the modern political climate that aren’t addressed. Who should get to decide if someone who isn’t convicted of a crime belongs the ballot?
Movie #55- Captain America: The First Avenger (Disney Plus)
The Captain America saga might just have the best batting average of any solo Avengers films. It’s a fun homage to 1940s action adventure movies (as well as retro projects like Indiana Jones) which sets up the hero quite well, and gets into some interesting conflicts (What happens when a guy who just wants to contribute to the war effort becomes a celebrity capable of selling lots of war bonds but kept on the sidelines?) Over a decade later, it is clear that Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell are really well cast.
Movie #56/ New Movie #39: Cluny Brown (Criterion DVD)
I am quite unfamiliar with Jennifer Jones despite her immense popularity in the mid ’40s, which included four consecutive Academy Award nominations (and one win.) This wasn’t one of them, but it shows her efforts as a comedienne in a collaboration with Lubitsch and Charles Boyer (the bad guy in Gaslight.) The film is perfectly fine, but overshadowed by Lubitsch’s other productions, even if Boyer is a perfect match for his approach, and Jones is fine, even if she is kinda playing Katherine Hepburn’s little sister. There is a sense of a lack of stakes here, and much of the film is about conflicts that likely seemed old-fashioned at the time (The staff in a stuffy mansion don’t know their place!)
Movie #57- To Be Or Not To Be (Criterion DVD)
This might just be my favorite Lubitsch movie, with the perfect balance of adulterous romp and high stakes, as a Polish acting troupe gets involved in the resistance against Hitler. It has some astounding sequences and recurring gags.
Movie #58/ New Movie #40: Lone Wolf and Cub- Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (Criterion Blu-Ray)
This entry in the film series features some great sequences. It is a bit haphazard, combining several notable chapters from the manga but at least the results are decent. This does expand quite well on the uncompromising world of the manga.
Movie #59/ New Movie #41: The Northman (Movie Theater)
There’s a lot of talk about how it’s pre-modern and seems like it’s outside of current understandings of the world, and that may be a bit of stretch, but it can feel like how someone at the time would have imagined a campfire story. That person would need a violent sensibility, but that is one of several contexts in which the film works. It feels like a ripoff of Hamlet, but the source material inspired Shakespeare. It’s violent and intense, but it can be quite enjoyable. I saw it with some people who called it the most metal movie ever, which is apt.
Movie #60/ New Movie #42: The 50 Year Argument (DVD)
This documentary about the New York Review of Books functions as a companion to Best Enemies, I Am Not Your Negro and Town Bloody Hall, covering those and other disputes. It’s an enjoyable defense of intellectual inquiry, although it focuses on controversies the magazine got right (the Central Park Five, opposition to the Iraq war) when there had to be some stuff they got wrong, which would have been interesting and honest to cover. I’m curious about the reaction to it now that many on the left have gone more illiberal.
Movie #61/ New Movie #43: The Front (DVD)
It’s compelling to see Woody Allen at his height in a film directed by someone else. This take on the Hollywood blacklist is a mixed bag. Zero Mostel is a highlight as a hack entertainer caught in a Kafkaesque trap. One complication is the difficulty of taking him and Allen seriously when they’re responding to legitimate injustice.
Movie #62- The Mouse That Roared (DVD)
This is a comedy about the threat of nuclear annihilation over a silly international misunderstanding in which Peter Sellers plays multiple roles and it’s not Doctor Strangelove. It has a different sensibility, although it is obviously a creature of the Golden Age of Hollywood rather than the film brats. It is a lot of fun, with a decent hook (small nation invades America hoping to lose and get aid; they accidentally steal an experimental nuke) and excellent sequences.
Movie #63- Moana (Disney Plus)
It’s quite decent. It fits some tropes that Disney has been exploring recently, and is a good example of their incorporation of underseen but visually interesting cultures. It’s an enjoyable reluctant partners story, with some good twists and fantastic songs.
Movie #64/ New Movie #44: The Adam Project (Netflix)
I like time travel stories and this was okay. Ryan Reynolds and his younger counterpart are sometimes over the top annoying, although the story does have something to say about loss and trauma, along with some decent but not exceptional sci fi action set pieces.
Movie #65/ New Movie #45: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (Movie Theater)
It’s obviously quite meta, but very fun: a parody and celebration of an unusual actor/ star that serves as a commentary and example of the types of movies he does. But at least it’s a good example.
Short Movie #6: Sword of the Samurai (Criterion Blu-Ray)
This silent documentary was an extra in Criterion’s Lone Wolf and Cub collection. It really gets across the difficulty of making samurai swords, and why they’re so honored, showing the process step by step. Quite relaxing, actually.
Movie #66/ New Movie #46: Pillow Talk (Blu-Ray)
This was a fun movie from the tail end of the golden age of Hollywood when they’re hinting at some stuff but keeping it vague enough. It is at a very specific time, when men and women could work in creative endeavors but people living in different apartments would still sometimes need to share a phone line. It has excellent leads in Rock Hudson and Doris Day, and all-star supporting performances in Tony Randall’s cad best friend and Thelma Ritter’s drunkard housekeeper, who has a great sequence with Hudson later in the film .
Movie #67/ New Movie #47: Downfall- the Case Against Boeing (Netflix)
In ninety minutes, Rory Kennedy and co. do a decent job of setting up the initial response to a major news story (two Boeing plane crashes a few months apart) before looking at the safety shortcuts that contributed to it. Well-made and infuriating.
Short Movie #7: Hendrix at Montrey Pop (Criterion Blu-Ray)
Monterey Pop might be my favorite concert film, and this expansion of the Jimi Hendrix material gets to a big reason why. It’s not polished, keeping the rawness of the concert with feedback and imperfect acoustics. This feature highlights Hendrix’s skill, and you can believe that his contemporaries were looking at him trying to figure out how he’s doing this.
Movie #68: Casino Royale (Blu-Ray)
I don’t think I’ve seen this film since it was in theaters. I liked it then, but I appreciate it even more now. Daniel Craig isn’t just good as Bond. I can’t think of anyone who has been better in the first movie of any series taking over such an iconic role. He is obviously newer at the job, but he comes to his own very quickly, and then things get worse, so he’s pushed in ways the other iterations of Bond haven’t been. At least not so soon. Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd is an exceptional Bond girl, with a strong character arc. Judi Dench is great as the boss. This is Mads Mikkelsen’s first A-list villain, and he’s got the balancing act of being vicious and desperate. The film takes the Bond franchise to the 21st Century, with exceptional action sequences and drama, while keeping the fun. When it isn’t time for torture.
Short Movie #8: The Long Goodbye (Youtube)
Riz Ahemd’s Oscar-winning short serves as a companion to a concept album, but works in its own context as a stream of consciousness nightmare, when the normal chaos of a family gathering goes to hell.
Movie #69: The Evil Dead 2 (Blu-Ray)
A horror movie so insane it makes the original into a proof of concept, and remakes it in the first seven minutes. It’s a lot of fun. Ash is one of the strongest horror movie protagonists, with iconic visuals and an appropriately unhinged reaction to all the craziness. Putting together several groups of people who don’t know one another works well here, in contrast to the usual trope (seen in the first) of a group of friends to a cabin. Raimi’s personality as a director is also a joy. This is a movie where anything can happen, and does.
Movie #70/ New Movie #48: Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (Movie Theater)
This has more of a directorial stamp than any MCU film; there are scenes where it is very obvious Sam Raimi is in charge. It’s a solid film, which builds on earlier continuity and is clearly about something interesting. The distinction between being glad and happy is a decent addition to pop culture discourse. It’s probably the first MCU film to really piss off some people because of the actions an existing character commits, but it makes sense in the context. It does set up the two main characters pretty well, and it’s fun to see Dr Strange on the other side of the situation where someone has to be sacrificed for the greater good.
Short Movie #9: An Occurrence at Owl Creek (DVD)
I saw this the way most viewers have, as an episode of the Twilight Zone. It is a decent adaptation of the Ambrose Bierce short story, with impressive cinematography and a good example of the will to live in desperate circumstances. There’s a great twist constructed generations any episode of any TV show aired.
Movie #71/ New Movie #49: The Man Who Wasn’t There (DVD)
This is a well-made military procedural about one of the most interesting stories in World War 2. Gloria Grahame is a standout as a young woman who accidentally gets involved in the conspiracy, and targeted by a spy. It has a suitably mature understanding of espionage for a 1950s film, but it’s not Le Carre dark.
Movie #72/ New Movie #50: Summer of Soul (Disney Plus)
This is an excellent addition to the canon of 1960s concert films (Woodstock, Monterey Pop, Festival) with performances of the same quality, and the explanation of as very specific context (a series of concerts in Harlem for largely black audiences with mainly black singers in the summer of 1969.) It’s so great to see the interviews with the singers, and their reactions to seeing the footage of what had to be among the best professional experiences of their lives.
Short Movie #10: Otis at Montrey Pop (Criterion Blu-Ray)
This is a great extra on the Criterion Monterey Pop blu-ray, which shows Otis Redding at his most intense. The way he gloriously rushes through almost everything is a contrast with Hendrix. It is also an astounding top five set.