Monday, March 1, 2021

Netflix new release roundup for February ‘21


I’ll have a major announcement on March 9 that you’re gonna want to be here for. I probably should spill the beans now, but I’ll wait. In the meantime, not a lot of new stuff on Netflix that I watched...

Malcolm & Marie. Up-and-coming filmmaker and his girlfriend come home from the premiere of his film only to hash out lingering issues pertaining to his worth as a director and her value to him as a muse. You probably know by now that writer-director Sam Levinson made this during the quarantine period last year, which is a story unto itself, and lately it became a lightning rod for other issues of the moment, but honestly, I didn’t think of or care about any of that when I saw it. It’s been called a Millennial Virginia Woolf: bickering couple, one long night, black and white. Some of it was excruciating to sit through, I admit: the language, the wandering narrative, but the acting from John David Washington and Zendaya was fine, especially given the difficult circumstances they must have gone through to make this film. Good not great.

BONUS! I had the opportunity to watch One Night in Miami on Amazon Prime last month. The feature film directing debut of Oscar-winning actress Regina King, it’s a fictionalized account of the night in 1964 when four legendary black men—Cassius Clay (before he became Muhammad Ali), Malcolm X, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown—hung out together, after Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become the heavyweight boxing champion. It’s based on a play. 

I remember King from her days as a child actress on television and it’s wonderful to see how much she’s progressed as a filmmaker. This film is basically just four guys in a room but, as you can imagine, they have some important things to say to each other, things that speak as loudly to us today as they did then. The only name among the stars I’m familiar with is Leslie Odom Jr. (the guy from Hamilton) as Cooke, but all the stars—Eli Goree (Clay), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm) and Aldis Hodge (Brown) are exquisite. A solid film debut from director King.

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The reopening here in NYC: on the local level, Cinemart in Forest Hills posted on their Facebook page that they thought they wouldn’t be ready to go until April 1. The Kew Gardens Cinema also said they’d need a little time to get ready.

Also, Jersey City mayor Stephen Fulop announced last month that more money is going into the Loews Jersey theater’s upgrade and a commercial operator for the redevelopment plan was conditionally named. They’ll have to close for eighteen months beginning next year, but when they reopen, look out. Booking national acts to play there is on the long-term agenda, but Friends of the Loews will still be the non-profit partner and movies will still have a place there.

Unrelated but worth checking out: the 50 most beautiful cinemas in the world.

More on the other side.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Fantastic Four (1994)

The 2021 So Bad It’s Good Blogathon is an event devoted to films commonly perceived as bad, yet enjoyable, hosted by Taking Up Room. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host site.

Fantastic Four (1994)

YouTube viewing

I don’t recall where I first learned there would be a movie based on Fantastic Four, my favorite childhood comic book—in one of Stan Lee’s editorial “Bullpen Bulletins,” perhaps. I specifically remember seeing a flyer at my local comic shop announcing the guy who played Reed Richards would appear for a signing. 

As time passed, and it became clearer the movie would not come soon to a theater near me, I was disappointed. This was before the renaissance of comic book movies that began with Blade and X-Men and Spider-Man and continued with Iron Man and the cinematic universes of Marvel and DC. Films like Batman and Robin and Superman IV taught me to lower my expectations.

Then the FF film went straight to video, and bootleg copies popped up at conventions. At one, a dealer played it on a small TV screen and I finally caught a snippet.

I believe it was the scene with the Human Torch flying. (I say “the scene” because it’s the only one in the movie!) I recognized it as the Torch; that was encouraging, no? Maybe it would’ve looked better on a big screen. Maybe it needed to be seen from the beginning for me to truly appreciate. It wasn’t fair to judge based on an out-of-context clip from a bootlegged copy shown at a noisy and crowded comic convention.

Besides, I had seen a few photos of the cast: they got the costumes right (except the “4” logo was so low it was practically on their stomachs), the Thing was massive and rocky like he was supposed to be (even if he kinda looked made out of papier-mâché), and they really overdid it with the grey in Reed’s hair, but the most important things were the acting and the story. As long as I could believe in the whole thing, the rest wouldn’t matter. One day I would see it and judge for myself.

It couldn’t be that bad, right?

Monday, February 22, 2021

New York movie theaters set to reopen in March!


With New York City reopening, the studios will hopefully have more confidence to keep their release dates as planned, which is a huge step in the process of recovery for the entire exhibition industry...”

FINALLY.


I’m of two minds about this. 

I knew this day would come sooner or later, and of course I’m thrilled, but at the same time I’m trepidatious. How can I not be? Spending two hours inside an enclosed room, immobile, without outside exposure, with a large amount of strangers who may or may not keep their masks on, is less enticing now than it was last summer when I was so sure I’d go back right away and follow all the social distancing protocols and blah blah blah. 

Spending Thanksgiving and Christmas with small groups of friends prepared me for this moment, I suppose (Virginia and I also went to a museum last fall), but I honestly didn’t think it would come quite so soon. 

I’ll return, but I won’t run right out on the first weekend. 

The bigger takeaway from this, of course, is what this means to the movie industry in general. Local theaters—the chains, indies and revival houses—will stay in business after all. How they’ll compete with the streaming services is another question, but at least they’ll have gotten past the worst of it.

Thoughts?



Monday, February 1, 2021

Netflix new release roundup for January ‘21

...and that was just January.

What a month, huh? Our long national nightmare is finally over, though the mess DT left behind will take years, if not decades, to clean up, and a whole lot of people out there will try to impede the process... but now that adults are in charge of America again, we stand a good chance at making some progress. To ease us back to movie-related discussion, if you haven’t seen this video from Arnold Schwarzenegger—the former California governor, remember?—take a look at it.

The Midnight Sky. George Clooney and a little kid are stuck on an Arctic base but they’ve gotta send a message to a spaceship returning from a scouting trip to another planet, telling them not to come home because the earth is effed up. This was done well and all, but man, I’m tired of all these depressing space exploration movies: Interstellar, Gravity, First Man, Ad Astra. I realize SF can’t all be action-adventure shoot-em-ups, but space travel used to represent hope. What happened? Clooney also directs and produces; as an actor, he’s in full-on Grizzly Adams mode, and everyone’s grim and silent and sad. Just the kinda thing we all need right now, isn’t it?

Pretend It’s a City. Vija told me about this one (she read about it; she didn’t see it): a documentary mini-series, in half-hour installments, on writer Fran Leibowitz, her love-hate relationship with New York, and thoughts on life in general, directed by Martin Scorsese. This is actually their second collaboration; the first movie he made about her was in 2010. I had no prior experience with her; never read her work, never seen her speak, barely even knew who she was, but I can see why Marty put her on film. One part Woody Allen, one part Dorothy Parker, her observations on New York life are quite funny and very often on the nose, to those of us who have lived here long enough. This is someone I could easily see chatting with on a subway car, complaining over a variety of things that are wrong about the city, but mostly I’d be listening. I think there’s a lot to appreciate about this even if you’re not a New Yorker.

Outside the Wire. US-military-made cyborg teams up with disgraced drone pilot to hunt down European terrorist looking to acquire nukes—but said cyborg has agenda of his own. Anthony Mackie gets to channel his inner Van Damme in what some critics have called an SF Training Day. It was okay, but not emotionally involving. Doesn’t have the heart of Terminator 2 or the brain of Ex Machina. It’s basically an excuse for Mackie to kick ass—which, granted, he does really well! Newcomer Damson Idris is appealing as the human reluctantly paired with this cyborg, but otherwise, well, I probably would’ve passed on this if it were a theatrical release.

More on the other side.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Winchester

The Home Sweet Home Blogathon is an event devoted to themes of houses, homes and/or family, hosted by Taking Up Room and RealWeegieMidget Reviews. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the link at the host sites.

Netflix viewing 

In 1886, Sarah Winchester moved from her home in New Haven, CT into a two-story farmhouse in San Jose. The widow of William Wirt Winchester of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company—the manufacturer of firearms—she had inherited a fifty-percent ownership of the company and over $20.5 million, so she was wealthy, but she had also lost her infant daughter and only child to a children’s disease called marasmus.

According to published accounts, a medium, who had allegedly been channeling Sarah’s husband at the time, told her to make the move west for a specific reason: to build a residence not just for herself, but for the ghosts of those who died from Winchester rifles. Thus began the creation of one of the strangest houses ever built.



Today the mansion is known as the Winchester Mystery House. It takes up 24,000 square feet of space (puny in comparison with the William Hearst Castle further south along the California coast), with 160 rooms, at a price of $5 million. Here’s a live walkthrough of the house from last April.

Was the house haunted? Rooms were added to it, day and night, until Sarah’s death in 1922 because, the story goes, she believed in the presence of ghosts, and the rooms held them at bay. The truth is much more mundane, but that hasn’t stopped speculation over the house’s supernatural connection, and a few years ago, Hollywood took a stab at telling the story.

Winchester doesn’t tread new ground in horror cinema, but it’s classier than most, thanks largely to the presence of Helen Mirren as the titular widow. In an original screenplay written (with Tom Vaughan) and directed by the Spierig Brothers, Sarah’s competence is challenged by the WRAC, who send Jason Clarke,  playing a doctor, in to determine whether she’s sane enough to still be co-owner.


The film relies too much on jump-scares and only scratches the surface of the wider issues of profiting from weapons manufacture. It also has elements of other horror flicks: The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, The Omen, etc. 

I remember wanting to see this when it initially came out. The mediocre reviews kept me away, but it’s not terrible. Clarke, the guy from Zero Dark Thirty, holds his own opposite Mirren nicely, and Sarah Snook is good as Mirren’s niece.

If nothing else, Winchester got me interested in the real-life elements behind the story, which are fascinating in and of themselves.

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Related:

Other movies about houses:

Monday, January 18, 2021

Books: Days of Thrills and Adventure

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the old movie serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel. It was the first serial I had ever watched, and despite its questionable plot structure and two-dimensional characters, it had action to spare and was entertaining, in its way.

Serialized fiction has made a comeback in the 21st century, not just in movies, but in television and books. A single story, told in multiple installments—as opposed to multiple stories featuring the same characters, like Andy Hardy or Lassie—has become more enthralling than episodic stories to modern audiences. 

Why? Here’s one theory, which boils the explanation down to the natural evolution of the medium. The storytelling style of the Marvel or Star Wars movies has its roots in the serials of the Golden Age, from the silents through the post-war era.

In 1970, Alan G. Barbour wrote a coffee-table book about those serials called Days of Thrills and Adventure. This was another gift from my librarian pal Bibi, sent last Christmas. It’s an overview of the classic movie serials, great and small, packed with photos, written more as an appreciation than as a critical analysis.

Movie serial actor Buster Crabbe
Serials followed a basic formula—good guy/bad guy dynamic, cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, constant action—which audiences of the day adored, especially children. Cowboys, detectives, federal agents, pulp heroes, spacemen, jungle men and others engaged in outrageous adventures, nabbing villainous masterminds and their lackeys. 

Barbour charts them all, describing not only the stories and the actors (and actresses) who starred in them, but also the filmmakers and the studios who brought them to life. He devotes a chapter to the talented stunt men and gives shout-outs to key crew members in fields such as special effects and model making. Don’t expect deep criticism here; this is written from the fan perspective, and that’s okay.

Days has tons of photographs. To someone unfamiliar with serials, they provide a sense of the variety of action to be found, as well as the often exaggerated, larger-than-life scenarios, often done on the cheap, as quickly as possible. 

Serials almost never reached the heights of the average John Ford or Howard Hawks film in terms of art, but their aspirations were different. With them, entertainment came over and above everything else, and audiences of the 30s and 40s were more than satisfied.

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Two Popes

A Luso World Cinema Blogathon é um evento dedicado a filmes e cineastas em língua portuguesa de todo o mundo, organizado por Critica Retro e Spellbound by Movies. Para uma lista completa dos blogueiros participantes, visite os links nos sites de hospedagem.

The Two Popes

Netflix viewing 

One of the brightest lights in recent Brazilian cinema has been director Fernando Meirelles. The São Paulo native discovered film through his father, who made 8mm parodies with his family and friends. In college he studied architecture, but also sustained his interest in filmmaking. He entered indie TV and experimental film after graduation, which led to advertising. He co-founded the ad firm O2 Films.

In 2002, he co-directed, with Katia Lund, the movie City of God, a crime picture based in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro, based on a novel inspired by actual events. O2 Films was one of the production companies. The film was an international sensation, and was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

In subsequent years, Meirelles made the Oscar-winner The Constant Gardener, as well as the films Blindness and 360 and the HBO series Joint Venture. When the Summer Olympics came to Rio in 2016, he directed the opening ceremonies. In 2019, Meirelles adapted the play The Two Popes for Netflix.

Popes loosely tells the story of the relationship between Pope Benedict XVI and the future Pope Francis, back when he was still Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in the wake of the 2012 scandal over corruption within the Vatican. Anthony Hopkins plays the former and Jonathan Pryce plays the latter.

Meirelles recreated the Sistine Chapel in the famous Cinecitta studio in Rome. This podcast explains how he did it. St. Peter’s Square was computer-generated. Additional filming was shot in and around Rome as well as Argentina.

Pryce and Hopkins were both Oscar-nominated, for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. Pryce spoke some Spanish and Hopkins spoke some Italian and a little Latin. They both came across very convincingly.

I can’t say the story moved me that much, not being Catholic, but the contrast between the two holy men and their differing visions for the future of the faith was presented well. The reality behind the popes and their connection to each other is different, but this is, after all, a dramatization. The adapted screenplay by Anthony McCarten was also Oscar-nominated.

Popes is an ambitious production depicting a crucial turning point in religious history, told on a small, almost intimate scale.

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Previously:

Manoel de Oliveira 

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Netflix new release roundup for December ‘20


The Vaccine is out in the world now, and it’ll take some time before its impact on the future of the film industry can be measured. One likes to believe 2021 couldn’t possibly be any worse than 2020, but getting past that nightmare of a year with not only a new president on deck but a legitimate defense against the Virus does give one reason to be hopeful. Zod knows we could all use that.

Mank. The making of Citizen Kane through the eyes of co-writer Herman Mankiewicz. I was kinda drowsy when I watched this, plus it was really talky (what a surprise, a movie about a writer was packed with dialogue). It was cool to see historical figures like Orson Welles, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg and William Randolph Hearst depicted, but ultimately this didn’t thrill me as much as I had hoped it would. David Fincher directs from a screenplay by his late father Jack. Gary Oldman acts drunk most of the time as Mankiewicz and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies was good, but overall I thought it was kinda meh.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Early 20th-century blues pioneer Ma Rainey comes to Chicago with her band to record her songs, but her ambitious trumpet player has ideas of his own about how her music should be played. Co-produced by Denzel Washington, based on the play by August Wilson, Viola Davis is damn near unrecognizable in the title role but is also a force of nature, taking the contempt she holds for the white men controlling her career, the suspicion she has over Chadwick Boseman (in his final role) subverting her position as bandleader, and her general world-weariness and putting it into the blues. Boseman stands a strong chance at winning a posthumous Oscar with his performance; how very sad it is that he’s no longer with us.

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By now you’ve heard about Warner Brothers’ deal to release all its 2021 films on HBO Max at the same time as they’re released theatrically. It’s a plan that has rubbed some people the wrong way, among them Christopher Nolan

It’s awful hard to look at this and not think the genie is out of the bottle. It’s not likely to return, either. The theatrical distribution model was struggling before the Virus and if it’s a matter of financial survival on the studios’ part, even with a Vaccine now available, I’m unconvinced they’ll go to bat for the theaters without a strong motivation. Maybe one will come. 

That said, the recent stimulus deal signed last month offers some hope, and this piece offers more reasons to be cheerful for the long-term future of theaters (though watching movies at home has its merits too).

More on the other side.